I was motivated to read Awakening of a Jehovah’s Witness – Escape from the Watchtower Society after meeting some Jehovah’s Witnesses in a predictable situation; they came to my door. My conversations with them aroused my curiosity to find out more from a knowledgeable but (now) external source.
The author, Diane Wilson was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for 25 years and her book describes her experience as a Witness, her personal struggle to escape and the discoveries she made along the way. She describes specific incidents which demonstrate the invasive controlling influence of the society. For example, at one time she was forced to redecorate a piece of her own furniture after some other Witnesses visited her house to discover apparently paganistic heart symbols on it. The fact that the rules for behaviour and dress are so strict and members are encouraged to inform on one another makes for a deeply unpleasant environment. The punishment for violation of these rules is either humiliation in front of the other Witnesses or in the worst cases disfellowshipping. In effect this means cutting the person off from the only social group they have – Witnesses are strongly discouraged from having friends outside of the society.
The book is highly readable and gripping, although the subject is obviously quite disturbing. Individuality is squashed and truth is spelt with a capital ‘T’ – always a bad sign in my opinion. Most notably she describes the reaction of the Witnesses who were members during the failed 1975 apocalypse prediction.
For the reader who has never been part of a cult-like religion, it’s hard not to hop up and down yelling, “Just leave them! Get out! You don’t need them! They’re crazy!”. At first it’s frustrating and difficult to understand, but the author does a fairly good job of explaining how she’s feeling and why – despite being desperately unhappy – she feels unable to leave. Lacking in confidence from the outset, she blames herself for not “Getting it” and continues to put up with the emotionally abusive Watchtower Society. The parallels with a person trying to leave an abusive partner are apparent, if not explicit.
Diane includes accounts of conversations with her therapist, whom she had to visit in secret, as external counselling is strongly disapproved of. This adds much insight and clarity both to her thoughts and the reader’s understanding.
The latter part of the book shows some of the research the author did in the process of examining her beliefs. There are some very interesting comparisons of Watchtower publications and their flip-flopping doctrines. Particularly eye-opening were the apparent changes relating to medical practices such as accepting organ transplants or vaccinations.
Reading this book I got the impression that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ branch of Christianity is like many other religions, only concentrated. Many religions encourage their members to behave in an insular way, socialising mostly within the group, not questioning the religious leaders or conforming to group behavioural norms. Few take it to the extremes of the Watchtower Society.
Overall the book should be essential reading for any Jehovah’s Witnesses – perhaps it should be published in a mock-bible binding to aid with secrecy. For everyone else it provides a valuable insight into both cult-psychology and the running of the Society. She mentions that other Kingdom Halls (JW equivalent of a church) were less strict in some respects. However, judging by the numerous positive reviews from former Witnesses, her experience seems likely to be typical.