‘I’ve decided to speak my truth.’: Woman opens up about leaving family’s damaging religion

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Disclaimer: This story contains mentions of sexual abuse which may be upsetting for some. 

Losing My Religion

“The nature vs nurture question is always an interesting debate. I have odd traits and habits that are inexplicable other than my blood relation to my family. We share a sharp and sarcastic sense of humor; have an inability to sit at the dinner table without shaking our left knee (it feels like an earthquake if you are new to the family and aren’t warned); are naturally born stubborn, opinionated people with a semi-dormant mean streak; feel apologies are unnatural and dishonest; and the ties that bind us: a soft spot for Jennifer Aniston and vanilla (not French vanilla or vanilla bean, just plain vanilla) as the best flavor of ice cream.

jehovah's witness family portrait
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

Then there is the pathology and behavior we learn via nurture which become like loud glaring sirens when you are raised in any sort of extremism – religion, culture stemming from your DNA and the block you’re raised on, sports, poverty, political views. I’m an oddball. I’ve always stuck out, rubbing people the wrong way or charming them with my quirks. At the very least, no one who knows me would debate that I leave an impression. This might be because my father is a musician and a lothario; my mother is an artist, sensitive and eccentric; my Nana’s love of the spotlight with no delineation between the value of positive or negative attention. Those inherited traits might have some impact, but none more than being born into a very religious family, a fundamentalist extremist sect to be precise.

jehovah's witness teen smiling softly
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

I won’t debate you on whether it’s a cult or just a more extreme version of Christianity, nor will I share all the ways my beliefs conflict with how I was raised. After the overturning of Roe v. Wade and an upsetting exchange with my sister, I decided to speak my truth and allow my voice to be heard. I left the religion mentally much earlier in life, but officially departed the day I turned 18. For the last 22 years I’ve chosen to silence myself instead of upsetting my family. There have been countless demonstrations of the altered relationship and a wall that exists between us.

Honestly, I’ve always believed if I allowed myself to speak uncensored, something inside me would turn on like a faucet and I’d never be able to shut it off. Obliterating any sense of closeness still lingering, I vividly imagine the stunned expressions, mouths agape, a temperature drop in the room as I’m pushed that much further away until I fall off the ship completely and bob around the ocean with no life jacket and no rescue coming.

Dedication to the Religion

Being raised as I was impacted my formation as a confident, developed, aware young woman, particularly in romantic relationships, gender roles, and having – let alone sharing – an opinion. I have to give you a quick abstract on the religious beliefs for you to fully understand. 

Whether you are born into the religion or converted by one knocking on your door or accosting you on the sidewalk, your goal is to progress through various stages, similar to Scientology levels, to baptism. It’s a public dunk in a pool in front of thousands attending one of their several conventions throughout the year. Baptism is the point where you become fully accountable to the organization. From this point on you can, if misbehaving and ‘unrepentant,’ be disfellowshipped and deprived of all social contact. Since you are not allowed to associate with anyone outside of the ‘truth,’ the punishment by public announcement and then shunning, sometimes for years, is quite effective.

group of young jehovah's witnesses
Courtesy of Melody Gambino
group of jehovah's witness children together
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

You’ll see a trend emerge here – baptism must be performed by a man. There are examples of females performing baptisms that eventually came to be considered invalid, and the individuals concerned were baptized again by a male. Being baptized is the highest achievement for a woman, other than marrying a dutiful man, where men have a detailed and layered progressive path to keep them motivated and competitive. Women can become ‘pioneers,’ who are glorified sales people, while every position of power and influence in the congregation, the districts, their headquarters, and the organization as a whole are all held by men.

Their literature and throngs of devoted servants will tell you the only rules are that which are articulated in the Bible, which is hilarious. There are A LOT of very strict rules. The penalty for breaking the rules is being disfellowshipped and losing all your family and friends. These are strictly adhered to and you are in constant fear of being ostracized or shamed. This ensures complete isolation which enables dependence on the religion for all community, education, support, and complete obedience to their very many rules.  

group of friends who are jehovah's witnesses out together
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

Family Background

My mother’s family was Irish Catholic; she was converted when she met my father in college. She, a rebellious hippy, was married to a man and studying the bible with my father, on their way to convert. Her husband suffered from bipolar disorder and the stigma around mental health, as well as their hippy sensibilities, caused them to ignore it. They ignored it after he drank a full glass of ammonia in front of my mother, crying that he’d never find peace in this world. They continued to pretend his mental health wasn’t a crisis when he drank the second glass, when he started seizing and she called friends and not the paramedics, and when he died in her arms in their apartment. I can’t imagine the pain they both must have felt. I definitely don’t get my father, who’s reaction was to feel responsible for her. Despite being uninterested and unattracted to her, which he liked to tell everyone often and loudly, he married her. 

jehovah's witness mom with daughter
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

My father was born into the religion. He was the oldest and his mother was a former beauty queen, circus performer, and alcoholic. His father was a Brooklyn detective killed in the line of duty weeks before she was to give birth. She met and married the man I knew to be my grandpa, had 2 more children, chose to not tell any of the kids the different baby-daddy situation, and they converted. Later, during a drunk and violent fight playing out on the front lawn, the family secret was revealed and something broke inside my father. He certainly didn’t grow up in a calm and safe home. Terrible parents but wonderful grandparents. I felt so loved when I was with them until… cliffhanger alert!

jehovah's witness grandparents holding baby grandchild
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

My stepfather was born Catholic and French-Canadian, oldest of 6, and had the least maternal/paternal home dynamic I’ve ever seen. He and his siblings all were altar boys and all were molested by their priest. When he married my mom, we moved into a house he had already bought that was 3 blocks from his family home. He wasn’t a particularly religious adult, but played one on TV in his courting of my mother.

jehovah's witness father with children
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

Sexual Abuse & Toxic Relationships

Women are seen as second to men – our role is to learn how to be the best wife we can, complimenting the husband, the head of the household. Never question him, strive for modesty. They get DETAILED in the expectations of a good wife. You don’t work unless he doesn’t make enough to provide completely, you never say no, you support his decisions, you don’t burden him with frivolous expenses. The extent of your education as a developing girl is that you behave until you begin dating (chaperoned at all times) and are blessed to become a wife. 

Abstinence is the only sex education you receive. You can read countless studies that prove how much that has failed communities in terms of STDs, unwanted pregnancies, domestic violence, child abuse, and rape. Before the age of 14, I had been molested by 2 men in my congregation, my stepfather being the first, starting at 5. I was also sexually assaulted at 5 by the kindergarten playground aid, and at 12 by a painter in a crew of workers at my father’s house. As I grew up, molestation evolved into rape as well as severe emotional, mental, financial and physical abuse in the home. I ended up breaking when my sister turned 5, the age I was when he started on me, and told my mother. He was kicked out for one night.

A few weeks later we went to the elders as a family, where he admitted to all I accused him of. He also admitted to the accusations by other kids in the congregation who said he’d violated them as well. I was told he was in pain, sick just like someone with a cold, and I must help nurse him to health, pray for him, dedicate myself to him getting better. I was 13. While I had already had doubts over their stance on a woman’s value, higher education, the queer community – this was the moment I knew I was going to leave the religion the moment I turned 18. I could not leave earlier unless I moved out which was not feasible.

siblings who are in family of jehovah's witnesses
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

Seeing my mother helpless to defend me, the elders making it clear she wasn’t to leave him, and her dependence on him to take care of us financially made the needed impact to bring out an independent strength that defines me. In the aftermath, I watched him get a slap on the wrist; the punishment was not being allowed to carry the microphones during the meetings. I watched my family, including my father’s family, welcome him with open arms at family dinners, trust him to be alone with their kids, and scold me for my growing hostile attitude. I was expected to be respectful and obedient and act like everything was just fine.

three jehovah's witness women together
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

My abuse certainly hadn’t been treated seriously enough for the abuse to stop, and now sadistic laughter with comments about my helplessness were an added bonus. I was now 14 and SPIRALING. I lost my virginity as quickly as I could with the first boy who looked my way, started drinking and doing any drug I could find, shoplifting, living an intricate double life in an effort to find acceptance. I fell in love, deep and passionate and irrational, with a classmate who openly cheated on me, berated me, crushing the shreds of dignity still lingering.

As every study will tell you, abstinence-only teaching doesn’t prepare you for the risks physically, and you are also not taught about healthy relationships and standards or boundaries. The submission expected and lesser-than way women are treated made my sick little hell of a toxic and humiliating romance seem to be what was acceptable and certainly what I deserved.

It finally dawned on me that my body was impacted as much as my psyche was from the 9 years of abuse. I told a fellow girl who I knew hated the religion as much as I did. She happened to go to my school and encouraged me to go to the school social worker or to the therapist I saw weekly. I’d been in therapy for almost a decade already!

teenage jehovah's witness rebelling and drinking alcohol
Courtesy of Melody Gambino
jehovah's witness teen dressed up
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

My father left my mom when I was 6 months old for our married neighbor. Her husband broke into my dad’s apartment and my earliest life memory was being woken by a screaming man with a shotgun who was not expecting a 2-year-old to be in bed with her father. I hid under his bed while my father pleaded for his life. My mother suffered from pretty cruel treatment by my father, then her adoptive father committed suicide after learning he had terminal cancer, and the demon who had been unrelenting in getting my mother to go on a date wore her down.

Within a year he was my stepfather. I saw my mother abused by my new ‘dad.’ I started kindergarten where I learned I was to be the class weirdo for the next 12 years as I was escorted to the library for every classmate’s birthday party or holiday. Also, to my surprise, both my teachers and my classmates did not actually want me to ask them if they had a close relationship with God and how to live a happier, more spiritual life every opportunity I saw.

portrait of jehovah's witness mother and child
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

Back to the year of the ‘reveal’ – I finally reported the abuse to my therapist, who did report it to the authorities. Not because it’s the right thing or the policy of the religious leadership, but because he’d lose his license if he didn’t. I lost respect for my mother, unable to or unwilling to care for us, and I knew I’d never allow myself to depend on a man financially. At 15 I got three jobs, two at the mall and one at a pizzeria down the street. I came home from working a double and a cop sat with us while my mother asked me if I wanted my stepfather to go to jail or if I wanted him to get a restraining order. If he went to jail, we would lose the house, my sister wouldn’t grow up with a swing set or her own bedroom, but if I chose door B, I’d limit the disruption in everyone’s life. At 14, it was clear which decision I was to make, even though I never should have been burdened with that to begin with.

jehovah's witness sisters together
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

Unplanned Pregnancies

Growing up in that environment and a lack of education about the reproductive system caused my first unplanned pregnancy at 17. My first love had already packed and moved halfway across the country for college and I hadn’t heard from him in 6 weeks. I knew two things: I was going to end the pregnancy and I was going to have to do it alone. It was 2000 so the internet was very new, but that was how I discovered Planned Parenthood. I walked there myself and another girl in our religion who also wanted to leave came and picked me up, but I had to walk down the block because she was scared to be seen in the parking lot. 

It was terrifying and painful, physically and emotionally, but strengthened me as I was also in the process of moving out to go to college and leaving the religion, which meant complete shunning. I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to have friends outside the church so leaving it meant I had no one; my family and everyone I ever knew would be cutting me off. My mom and dad have come around, but I’m still the only one who’s left and I’m held at a distance. It’s hard. I’m the oldest of 6 (half) siblings and was very close to my cousins. I’m invited to weddings but not able to be a MOH or bridesmaid. I’m rarely included in family vacations. There is always a wall.

ex jehovah's witness wearing "wicked jezebel feminist" shirt
Courtesy of Melody Gambino
ex jehovah's witness at a party
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

Anyways, while in college I was in a relationship with a decent human but terrible partner. We cheated on each other; it was manipulative and dramatic and toxic. As we were breaking up and I was about to graduate, I again discovered I was pregnant. My birth control had failed due to another medication I was on and I knew I didn’t want to be tied to this man forever. I had to focus on my future and building a career I was excited about after working so hard to get through college and get perfect grades. My college roommates helped me, taking me to PP and driving me home, as I did for them. We never skipped a beat in caring for each other during those times.

ex jehovah's witness with a friend smiling
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

Healing Journey

The years after college were dark, culminating in a shutdown and complete dissociation at 25. My sister was turning 18 and my stepfather told my mother he was divorcing her since her alimony would be greatly reduced and no child support mandate. She came to my apartment distraught. I remember staring at her as she cried about her situation and I broke. I had wanted her so badly to protect me, show justifiable rage on my behalf, and instead she was the one being left and had the gall to be upset.

Within weeks I was in a facility and eventually outpatient full-time therapy. It was a turning point for me, immersing myself in healing and stopping a pattern of destructive behavior and self-sabotage. Learning to love myself and want more. During that time the therapy allowed me to love myself enough to own my choices and think back to the various traumas I’d survived. I revealed to my mother the abortions I had. I told her firmly that there wasn’t a cell in my body that regretted those decisions. I saw her heart break as my own healed.

Ex jehovah's witness with friends while out
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

I know our parents do their best to raise us to have more than they did, but that’s not the hand I was dealt. My mother was raised with a beautiful family and parents that kept her safe and loved her. My father was in a dysfunctional home, but a home nonetheless. Beyond the religious principles ranging from bizarre to harmful, he was raised in a passionate, loud, and present group of siblings, parents, and friends. I still have a deep longing for family, although it doesn’t ever pervade the idea of the offspring that could have been. I am not sure where I got the guts it took to launch into self-preservation action at such a young age, but I’m grateful for it.”

ex jehovah's witness at the pool on a float
Courtesy of Melody Gambino

This article was written exclusively for Love What Matters by Melody Gambino. You can follow her journey on Facebook, Twitter, and YoutubeSubmit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos. 

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