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If you are an ex-Jehovah’s Witness, no doubt you have been subjected to some form of shunning.  If you have never been a JW you will know little or nothing about their practice of shunning former members.

It sounds like something out of the Puritan era, like The Scarlett Letter, and yeah, there are a lot of Hester Prynnes around.

If you leave the JWs voluntarily or if you are expelled for “wrongdoing” you will be subjected to shunning.  This means that every JW you know will not talk to you, yea, will not even acknowledge your existence.  If you have family who are JWs, depending on how staunch they are, they will follow the same procedure with the possible exception of a life-or-death situation or in business situations.

If you have “faded” from the congregation, simply stopped participating, it is likely you will receive the same treatment from most in the congregation, since you are now “bad association.”

Here’s how it works in practice.  The JW-in-good-standing (we’ll call him “Paul”) is perusing the selection of cantaloupes in his local supermarket, and whilst thumping a melon he spies a no-longer-a-JW (we’ll call him “Jim”) approaching.  Paul will either become extremely absorbed in melon selection, pretending not to see Jim, or he will drop the unlucky melon and beat a hasty retreat to the dairy case, depending on whether or not he considers Jim to be an apostate (very scary people, indeed).

Once he reaches the safety of the yogurt display, Paul will whip out his cell phone, call some other JW-in-good-standing and breathlessly relate the chilling tale of his narrow escape from eye contact with Jim.  “He was right there by the organic zucchini!  I barely got away!”

However, if Paul is a braver soul than previously indicated, he may relish the encounter in order to show his disdain for his former friend, dramatically turning his back, placing his melon in his cart, and walking away.  In this way, Paul imagines that Jim will feel the pain of the lost friendship and long to return to the JW fold.

Paul will view his actions as evidence of his Christian brotherly love and will likely experience a moment of smug satisfaction, having done his duty although, due to distraction, having selected an overly ripe melon in the process.

In my case, I left of my own accord, delivering a letter of disassociation to the local body of elders.  That act placed me among the worst of the worst, as though I had spit upon Jesus Christ himself.

“She left voluntarily?  Inconceivable!  She is in league with the Devil.”

I moved about 50 miles away and, on my first day at a new job, found myself in a small office with no fewer than three JWs, one of whom I knew a little, and one of whom was an elder.

After a couple of days the elder came to my desk and asked me basically what my deal was, and I told him I had disassociated myself.  He offered to help me return to the flock, which I politely refused.  After that, he and I didn’t interact much.  The other two JWs were women who restricted our interaction to business matters only.  Until Christmas.

The company paid for everyone in the office to go to a restaurant for a dinner that would serve as our Christmas party.  We all knew it was a Christmas party, and the dinner occurred mere days before Christmas.  Therefore, since JWs do not participate in the celebration of Christmas, the three JWs should not have attended.

Throw into the mix that I was going to be there and that the Bible clearly says that the faithful should not eat with one who has left the faith.  No way should any of them have been there.  But they all were, even the elder, with their spouses.  I can only imagine the mental gymnastics they had to perform to quiet their consciences.

About 6 weeks later I moved 1000 miles away, so I am now comfortably incognito.

My family members who are JWs (Mom and brother) live 5000 miles away, so seeing them has never been an issue.  Of course, I am no longer welcome in their home, and I receive no communication from them.  I write a couple of times a year because I love them and I want them to know I’m still alive.

Three years into my exile, my mother, in a wild act of rebellion, answered one of my letters.  Alas, in the five years since that communication I have not heard from her.  More than likely my brother found out about the letter and had a severe chat with Mom.  He is very staunch, and Mom is dependent upon him for a home.

Sadly, the emotional blackmail that is shunning has a fairly decent success rate, especially among those expelled for “wrongdoing.”  Among those who leave of their own accord, perhaps on principle, usually shunning does not work.

One way of leaving the cult is called “the fade” where you gradually stop attending meetings until you disappear.  At first, you are likely to get a few “shepherding calls” during which two elders will read to you a predictable list of scriptures to induce you to return.

You will also be subjected to “encouragement” from fellow congregation members when they run into you in public.

This painful stage can last a year or more.  However, once you have faded completely, and the elders have stopped harassing you, basically you’re out.

Now, this method has varying degrees of success as far as shunning is concerned.   It is likely that most of your former friends will avoid you, but your family is under no obligation to shun you.  However, it is quite possible that they will do so in order to make your nonassociation as painful as possible and effect your reactivation.

Leaving the cult is never easy, sometimes humiliating, and always painful.


21 responses »

  1. I commend your courage in sharing this. Your post is painfully honest.

  2. So very sad. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I can only say I hope the pain has subsided for you.

  4. I was born into this Religion,Infact my family have been members since before they were even known as Jehovah’s witnesses.As far as i know my Nan was born into it in 1918.How long my great Nan was into it before then i honestly don’t know.I left 16 years ago when i was 16 and i still have a lot of anger for the brainwashing and fear mongering that this “religion” inflicted.Even now there are things about this “faith” that stick with me and i despise the fact that i can’t fully shake it off.I had an accident around 10 years ago where i fell through a glass coffee table.A shard of glass penetrated my right buttock and slashed straight through an artery.Even though i had been out of the cult for 6 years by then i was all ready to refuse a blood transfusion and die.Thankfully i was out for the count before i had a chance to say anything so they gave me a transfusion anyway.If i had refused i might not have been here today my 3 daughters would never have been born.I want to say thank you for this blog as it has provided me with much comfort.Keep up the good work,people need to know what actually happens behind the nice suits and fake smiles.

    • Native – Wow, thank you for your comment! The programming is so difficult to overcome. I’m glad you got the transfusion you needed, and I’m glad my writing has provided some comfort. Thank you for reading!

  5. Spot on. I also disassociated. My family shuns me totally. I ran into my brother at the store and he took off like he was on fire.

  6. What a loving religion.
    Unfortunately, JW’s don’t have a lock on hypocracy.
    What pretends as “God’s work” on this planet can be frightening.
    Sept. 11th for starters.
    Thanks for your blog, Sally, and for peeling back the layers of your experience.
    You have quite a story to tell.

  7. Oh, Sally, this all just breaks my heart. You know you have aunts and uncles and cousins who are here for you. You are so very brave!

  8. I’m so sorry you had to endure this pain especially from your family (my family). It’s inconceivable that this happened to you. My mom was wondering if your mother was still alive and if you would know otherwise? So sensitive a thought but there nonetheless. I’m glad to know you again and will plan to visit when I go see Abby in NC this month. Be well and be strong!

    • Wendy and Miriam – Thank you so much for your replies. I really do want to reconnect with my extended family. Miriam, I don’t actually know if my mother is still alive. I hope my brother will tell me if something happens, but he’s very staunch and very angry with me. Thing is, I do understand their mentality, so it’s not as painful as it might be otherwise. Big hugs to both of you!

  9. Ah Yes the Shunning…I confess I am a fader for I still want to have contact and hope of a possible thought process for some that inquire why I do not attend the meetings anymore. The elder and CO came when I first stopped attending, after I had explained to my Book Study Conductor that I did not believe everyone but a JW would die if Armageddon came that day. CO (Circuit Overseer) said that the Brother & Sisters missed me at the meetings. I told him if that was true then why did Brother Big whip his neck to find facination with Lean Cusine in freezer section as I came down the isle? So I stopped turned around and went to the other isle so that I could come at him from another direction, yep he saw me and again whipped his neck to inspect the ice forming on the glass, I walked up to his cart took the end and shaked it saying, ” Hi how are you” with a big smile on my face. Of course tried to look so surprised and said, ” Oh Hi” Now mind you I had only been absent a few month,s but when I encounter the question why, I told them. It has been several years now, some say hi, some act as if I dont exist and some turn in disgust feeling that Jehovah must be so proud of them.

  10. It can be difficult for people who have never had any dealings with the JWs to understand that we are not exaggerating the extent of this awful form of “righteousness.”
    When my mother died, my son was 18. He had never met her.

  11. I am also a “fader” and have experienced the cold-shoulder from certain JW women when I am in a store. It gives me a certain sense of satisfaction and I get the sense they are more curious about me than I ever could be about them.

    I just go about my business with a pleasant expression on my face. I laugh to myself because these women weren’t my friends 25 years ago so why would I miss them now? Let them shun away.

    • Thats my point of view also. I am filled with satisfaction and I am telling that I have shun them. I don´t speak to anyone of them.

  12. I’m a born in, served as an elder for 15yrs never really shunned anyone. Never believed in that. Even at the KH I would always make eye contact with the person and smile,nod or touch not obvious. Outside I would talk to the person as if nothing happened. its an inhumane practice, dont care who started it, dont care i’m not doing it. Would Jesus walk by a person as if not to see him? Yes I been on judicial commitees and such, never wanted to dissfellowship anyone. Always was the last to sign. When you look at it from the outside its silly and not right. Their mixed up people. I steped down as an elder 6yrs ago and some shun me for that. Best thing I ever did.

  13. I want to let you know how much I enjoy reading your blog each week. Interestingly, I was a JW for the same period of time as you – albeit I was a born in – born in 1972, baptized at 13, and disfellowshipped in 2004.

    This weeks posting really hit home as it seems that as of late I have been seeing old friends left and right when out and about. Most give the look of disdain/smirk and then avert their eyes. The grocery store example was so spot on. Most of these weren’t just acquaintances I saw at the kingdom hall, but very close friends that were like family. I must say after 8 years it still makes me feel sad. I don’t feel anger, just sadness and a sense of loss. One thing that you didn’t mention was the fear that our former friends/relatives have of speaking or associating with us – because this can lead to them to be counseled, lose privileges, and/or kicked out themselves.

    The result of being disfellowshipped is a total culture shock and a sudden plunge into isolation. It is no wonder so many do return, even if they don’t agree with the teachings. At 32 I basically had to start from scratch. With outside association strongly advised against and all my relatives being JW’s, I had absolutely no social world outside the organization. On top of that, I was homeschooled as a child, and for the last several years had worked for myself so I could pioneer. This meant there were no old school friends or workmates to fall back on. That is the world most (especially those born in) face when disfellowshipped.

    My husband, who grew up catholic, can’t understand how I have family – aunts, uncles, cousins who live minutes away who have nothing to do with me. My own grandmother who lives a few miles away won’t speak to me and refuses to meet my children (her great grandchildren) because “they are going to die at Armageddon anyway”. My father has limited association with me, but has told me it is only because of my kids and his hope that he can “save them”. He has no contact with my brothers as they do not have children. One of these brothers was never baptized, yet my father still avoids him because he chose not to become a Witness and adheres to a Buddhist type lifestyle. My older brother was baptized as a teenager, left at 17, and is now an Atheist. My father views him pretty much as dead. I had another little brother, he tried to contact my father about a year and a half ago, calling my father collect. My father refused the phone call. Unfortunately, that brother died about a month later at the age of 28. He also had never been baptized but because he chose not to be a JW and made some unhealthy choices in life, my father chose to shun him.


    Recently one of my cousins was disfellowshipped after leaving her abusive husband. In addition to living with an abusive husband, her life has been hellish over the last few years, including losing an infant son. She sought solace in a childhood friend who was brought up as a witness but was never baptized. Her continued relationship with him was the reason for disfellowshipping.

    She has reached out to me for support, which I willingly am giving despite the fact that she is seeking to be reinstated (let back into the JW organization) and has stated she will have to cut off association with me at that time. Her friends and family have cut her off to such an extent that when she moved to a new apartment my husband, who had never met her at that point, was the only one who offered to help. Her own parents and brother would not help.

    My cousin isn’t some flighty irresponsible teenager. She is a single parent struggling to care for a severely disabled 2 yr old (the twin of the son she lost) and a 1 year old.

    Initially her parents told her that she could live with them, however their terms were that she would have to live in the basement with the children and they would give her a hot plate to cook on because the bible says that they couldn’t even eat with her. She would also have to cut off association with her only friend – and her parents would only speak to her regarding basic needs and her children. Aside from work she would be completely cut off from any type of social interaction.They truly believe that this is what Jehovah would want and they are acting out of love.

    My husband, despite knowing my history, is totally in shock regarding her situation. He can’t understand how christian love enters anywhere into this kind of behavior. I must say, now as an outsider looking in, the ridiculousness of it all seems so obvious.

    Thank you again Sally for sharing your blog and giving those who have never been JW’s a glimpse of the world we once lived in, and how it can continue to follow us years after leaving.

  14. JD – It really is totally twisted. Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope you belong to one of the online JW communities. Thank goodness for them, although I didn’t discover them until I’d been out for several years.

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  16. So proud of you, Sally. What courage, what a gifted writer, what wonderful knowledge and humor you bring to such a sensitive topic! Clearly this is your calling.

  17. It seems we are all birds of a feather! Sally, you and I are sisters from another mister! 😉 Before joining the forum and subsequently reading your blog, I had never really met anyone who could relate to my story as much. I have been shunned by my family for over 25 years now. My contact with my family is limited to the occasional phone call like:” I just wanted to let you know your Great Aunt passed away last week..” There is no love, no emotion in the fam’s voices, I am nothing to them. Yet my little sister has found ways in the past to keep tabs on me without actually speaking to me. There was twitter. I promptly deleted my account when her tweets were “I feel so good knowing that Jehovah is such a loving and forgiving God, and all we have to do is to return to him and ask for his forgiveness.” Her most recent attempt to keep an eye on me was to follow me on pinterest. I posted a quote about unconditional love of a family and included my own sarcastic comment about how nice that would be to have. She commented back to tell me that “we love you very much and as soon as you turn yourself around and come back to Jehovah we will show you just how much.” I pointed out that she clearly didn’t understand the word UNCONDITIONAL, and now I expect I won’t hear from her again for quite some time. It is such a shame that they actually applaud their own actions as Christian love.

  18. I am sorry to hear of all the years wasted and stolen memories that can never be given back…This is worse than the amrageddon threat. When it comes down to families turning away from you the pain is the greatest..My sister went back to the LIe baptized and all and for years i would try time to time to get her to talk to me..She made it clear her conscience wouldnt allow her any contact with me and of course she had all her spiritual family so she was ok with me not being in her life..Guess what she was disfellowshipped now back living in our home in sin lol ..But for years i didnt want anything to do with her because when she was all high and mighty and good with GOD She wanted nothing to do with me and it broke my heart…then the turn around pissed me off so bad she made me sick,, This went on for awhile things are better now.A religion that talks all love and godliness only tears families apart causes harm..Oh and yes i know that smerky look that a JW gives you…ugg dont get me started


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