Losing Her Religion: A Former Jehovah’s Witness on Leaving the Faith

Book review: Leaving the Witness, by Amber Scorah (Amazon / Book Depository)

A Witness cannot just fade away without anyone trying to intervene, and it was hard to find enough mental space to gain any perspective. It’s not the kind of religion that lets you walk away, because the people in it think that by walking away, you have lost your mind and interventions will bring you to your senses. Who would give up on everlasting life, on the Truth? … Here I was, married to an elder, a pioneer missionary. All my friends were Witnesses. Almost all of my family were Witnesses. And I myself was still on the books as a pioneer missionary, too. When someone like me no longer believed, they were considered a traitor — God’s enemy, an apostate.

Amber Scorah was a Jehovah’s Witness, a sect cult-like in its practices and control of members, and disturbingly Armageddon-focused. Married young, she and her husband traveled to China, “one of the last frontiers” for Witness missionaries. There’s an element of intrigue and danger since the Chinese state expressly forbid religious proselytizing, leading Amber to devise methods to surreptitiously approach potential converts.

Though now three official Christian ‘churches’ were recognized by the government, they operated under strict regulation, and any other Christian sect had to conduct their activities secretly, underground. Becoming a Christian had become a modern, reactionary move for many young people.

But the marriage was falling apart, and Scorah went through the motions in Shanghai while becoming aware of possibilities she’d long been conditioned not to consider. She got a job with a Chinese language learning podcast, where she met a customer, Jonathan, in the US. They started chatting, discussing her life as a Witness, and he became a foil for her unquestioned beliefs, pushing her to confront uncomfortable ideas about mission work, ideology, and why she felt bound to Witness doctrine.

This section around the relationship feels weak, as the cracks in Scorah’s faith are emphasized by pages of online messaging. It illustrates their debate, but since her writing is so insightful and polished elsewhere, it’s not as compelling or revealing. It’s her analysis of how her thinking changed that makes a greater impact.

I somehow had the effrontery to try to alter the course of their history, to urge these people to make over their lives into the shape of mine, when I had never even considered how my own life had come to look as it did.

There have been a number of books written by women about abandoning various religions, and I find them irresistible. But I’m unfamiliar with Witnesses, with only a general idea of their wilder beliefs, like about blood and no birthdays. Satisfyingly, Scorah includes details and inner workings, something often lacking in similar narratives. She was drawn in by her grandmother slightly later, after a more secular early childhood, and uses some recollection of this time to frame her relationship to the group.

I was the imitation-Jehovah’s Witnesses who didn’t know that Smurfs were Satanic things that jumped out of wallpaper in bedrooms (a common belief among Witnesses at the time), or that I shouldn’t say “bless you” when someone sneezed, eat “Lucky Charms” cereal, or play Pac-Man on our Atari, because of the ghosts.

She’s a gifted, candid writer, with wonderfully evocative storytelling ability. The atmosphere she describes of China is vivid and sensory. She has an eye for detail that enhances what could’ve been a straightforward, navel-gazing story but avoids every potential pitfall to become something more meaningful, and unsettling. As she becomes rattled, the reader feels it.

I wanted so badly to save people. It was necessary for me that all of this be true. I was so desperate for it to be true that I left my home and learned this language and found these people, ignoring any risk that might mean for them or for me, dismissing the cues that told me I was wrong to be here, that they didn’t need me.

After she manages so much, including getting out of China, which proved even more difficult than going there in the first place, she faces a further tragedy in her new life in New York City. Scorah made headlines in 2015 when her baby son Karl died suddenly at daycare on her first day back to work. It’s a brutally heartbreaking story, and she’s become an advocate for paid parental leave. I’d known this already and wondered how it would figure in, which ultimately surprised me.

But no understanding comes, any more than it did to any other human who walked this hard land, feeling entitled to explanations where there are none.

Her honesty and bravery thoroughly impressed me. Not only in what she did, but in how she writes about it and what she chooses to say. It’s not easy to share all this, neither is it easy to state unequivocally that she’s unwilling to buy into further promises of religion despite unimaginable tragedy. I cringed reading the end, not because I was uncomfortable with her opinions — I applaud her — but because I’m afraid she’ll catch undeserved flak for it.

People tend to be more okay with someone having a different religion or spirituality than whatever they subscribe to, but caveat: you’ve gotta have one. If your personal beliefs don’t include a higher power or belief in the afterlife, there’s a tendency for people to get testy, aggressive, condescending, etc. So I was somewhat astonished but impressed at Scorah’s bravery, not only in resetting her life, but in stating her beliefs, or lack thereof, so candidly.

I … flew to the other side of the world, and spent all my time preaching because I could not live with the idea that there were no answers. That everything was not going to be okay… I could not tolerate the idea that one day, I would die, like everyone else.

A bittersweet story, quietly triumphant in its convictions despite no amount of painful obstacles along the way. The writing frustrates just a bit – it’s eloquent and lush for the most part so some stutters stand out, but overall this is a deeply felt, intelligent and insightful look into why leaving was so difficult, and how she forged ahead anyway. 4.5/5

Somehow, in one of the most restrictive places in the world, I had found freedom.

Leaving the Witness:
Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life

by Amber Scorah
published June 4, 2019 by Viking

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

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24 thoughts on “Losing Her Religion: A Former Jehovah’s Witness on Leaving the Faith

  1. This book sounds so fascinating. I have always been interested in the intricacies of religions and cults. I am not religious meself but the histories and ideology changes as viewed through history are why I read about them. I don’t know much about this sect besides seeing (and turning away) the nice ladies that come to preach at me door. So I will certainly add this one to the list. Thanks matey!
    x The Captain

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was fascinating, and just a very good memoir in general. I think you’d like it since you’re interested in the ideology, although there’s not too much history covered.

      You’re lucky you get nice Witnesses, I get creepy ones! The one that stands out were these two women who came relatively late one evening and didn’t turn on the hallway light, they just stood in the dark knocking and wouldn’t answer when I asked what it was about. Why I opened the door anyway, I’m really not sure, except that my now-husband was away at his parents’ and I thought there could’ve been an accident. As soon as I opened it, they held up a Watchtower magazine with a big tombstone on the cover right in front of my face and started intoning something about the afterlife. I was so annoyed since they’d scared me, I think I had some colorful language for them and slammed the door. Like why stand in the dark and be weird about it?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Well we are currently staying the house that used to belong to the first mate’s grandmother. She would often invite the Witnesses in to talk even though she was a very religious Catholic. Who knows why. So because of that we are on a list and a fairly regular rotation. Once they have a toehold, hope springs eternal I guess. Even if the past occupant is no longer there. But seriously if creepy ones out of a horror movie came to me door, I am pretty sure me saltiest sailor language would get the better of me too!
        x The Captain

        Liked by 1 person

      2. lol @ hope springs eternal!! Well they do believe in everlasting life for anyone who learns “the Truth”, so I guess they’re willing to be pretty persistent. That’s such a grandmother thing, mine didn’t invite them in but would chat with them for awhile, always took their “literature” so her house was on the list for ages too.

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  2. I have never read anything about cult type religious groups, so what should I read first? I think you mentioned Going Clear in another review. We occasionally get young Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on our door. I feel sorry that they have to go round doing this. I am now reading Places I Stopped on the Way Home by Meg Fee, did you read that? It’s about a twenty something’s experience of living in New York and having her heart broken by various men. Have stalled on Killers of the Flower Moon. Tried the Favourite Murder podcast, found it tasteless, funny, addictive, annoying, all at the same time! So will listen to more.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Going Clear is completely amazing! Scientology is so nutty, it’s kind of hard to even believe. There’s a documentary of the same name too, if you want to be doubly horrified!

      I haven’t read Places I Stopped, is it good? I think it might hit a little too close to home since I also was in NYC through my twenties, I wonder if it might just be uncomfortably similar. Killers of the Flower Moon was good but I thought it had some dry spots and the general disorganization threw me off a bit, or made it harder to always follow.

      My Favorite Murder can definitely be all those things! It didn’t start getting annoying for me until recent-ish episodes when some of their verbal tics and a sort of playing for audience favorites (like trying to say outlandish things as new catchphrases) too much started bugging me. They seem to be kinda back on track at the moment but they can rub some the wrong way. I think it’s best to listen from the beginning and get used to them!

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      1. Places I Stopped good- feared it might be self-indulgent but it’s well written and reminded me of my single in the city days. Have now got into Flower Moon- fascinating.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I want this book!!! This fascinates me because I have an aunt that is Jehovah’s Witness. She has never tried to push it on any of her family and is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. I never judge anyone for their belief’s, what ever it is, but I do like to try and learn about it. I would never ask her because I didn’t want her to try and convert me to her religion. This is a great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You must read it!! I had something similar, with a former client who was a Witness. I was always DYING to ask her for details about it but didn’t want to get a conversion spiel. I was also surprised because she never pushed it at all or looked for reasons to bring it up or ask me about my beliefs, and I’d thought they had to since they do the door-to-door proselytizing so much. Definitely get this one!

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  4. Fascinating review! I just watched the author’s interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show before seeing your post. He just barely covered the surface of her story but enough for me to be astonished that she would tell it. We’ve quite a few Witnesses in my hometown, one a neighbor across the street who doesn’t push her beliefs (she’s smart to know they’d just try to convert her!). I actually engaged with a couple of them two weeks ago when I was at my parents’ home (thought they were church friends). It was a nice chat but I let them know I was in a great place😏

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh I haven’t watched her interview yet but will have to! I was also surprised at how much she told, and really impressed. I’ve found they’re generally quite nice to outsiders, or at least my impression from working with a client who was one, but they’re pretty awful with each other whenever one tries to leave and in some of their treatment of members who aren’t toeing the line. Just awful.

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  5. My mom was raised a Witness. The area in which she grew up seemed to have a certain type of Witness church: find people who are struggling deeply with poverty — too many children, can’t get a job, lower education or opportunities to become educated — or people who can’t seem to catch a break of any kind and bring them into the fold. My grandma is still a Witness (the rest of the family is not) and she will not come to anything labeled a birthday or Christmas party, for example. She’ll come to a “holiday gathering” or a “potluck with presents” or something like that. We’re always changing the names of get togethers so she’ll show up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow. That’s so upsetting since people in those positions are so vulnerable already and of course what the group’s offering sounds really promising, especially from those perspectives. I guess not that different from other religious groups in a lot of ways.

      That’s so funny that you have to phrase the types of get togethers so carefully!! But that’s great you’ve found the way to make sure she still participates. I’m glad that this group is better than so many others that completely cut off any family members who aren’t also in it, at least there doesn’t have to be that total divide.

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      1. I’m not sure how my grandma’s Kingdom Hall would compare to other Witness’s places of worship. Perhaps her group is more laid back in some ways, or maybe she herself is fairly lax. I mean, she has to know that our “holiday get together” is a Christmas party, even if it is the secular kind of Christmas party.

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