I experienced quite a normal, blissful childhood until the age of nine when my mother was visited one day by two Jehovah’s Witnesses. At first, I thought it was fun to get some attention from “the friends,” as they called themselves. Since I had grown up on a very isolated farm in rural Pennsylvania, anything new coming our way was welcomed, and they seemed so benign, so polite, so well dressed.
After a while, I realized how much destruction the Watchtower organization could levy. My mom, a Methodist Sunday school teacher at the time, sat me down very soon after beginning a home “Bible” study with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and in one giant swoop she told me I would have to give up all my holidays, all my friends, my birthday, and all our relatives. My life up until then revolved around play-time with my cousins from literally sunrise to sunset; so this was quite a devastating change in my young life! Having no choice to do otherwise, I obliged. For the next 9 years, I grew up without a single girlfriend and lived a solitary life. I call it my “nine-year grounding”—despite good behavior.
From the onset, I questioned their beliefs, but I still decided to baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness because mom told me, “If you don’t get baptized with us, you’ll have to do it all by yourself later.” That was an intimidating, persuasive statement to make to a ten-year-old child! I didn’t realize it at the time that getting baptized would cost me my family later.
For the next nine years, I zoned out (day-dreamed) during the five weekly meetings so I could survive the long indoctrination sessions. Sometimes, I literally felt like I was pinned to an ant hill—going out of my mind. To cope with the tedium, I gnawed on my nails until they bled and did some other “interesting” things that are pretty shocking and funny. I witnessed my nephews being abused for not sitting still—a common outcome for restless Jehovah’s Witness children. I too was physically and emotionally abused.
Journaling provided some relief until my sister showed it to my mother. As soon as I realized my thoughts were being censored, I wrapped my diary in plastic and hid it in an old log in the forest. Every time I felt the need to keep my identity intact, I went into the forest to write. I still have that journal today which holds many of my baby teeth and turbulent childhood memories. Those years truly felt like a prison sentence to me.
As a twelve-year-old, I wrote a gruesome and disturbing story for school called, “All Alone in the World,” which thirty years later has become Chapter 1 of my book, Out of the Cocoon. Fortunately, I never intended to go through with my horrific fantasy, but purging my negatives feelings did ease my pain of entrapment. My own common sense and perhaps the lifelines I cast kept the situation in my life from becoming dangerously volatile.
Independent thought wasn’t permitted. We were all cookie-cutter clones and expected to march like soldiers in perfect alignment. To say that the oppression that I experienced was “stifling” would be a monumental understatement. The only way I can describe what I went through is to imagine someone holding a pillow over your face for nine years as you fought to breathe. Imagine them letting in only enough air to keep you barely alive.
Every year became a countdown for me—7 years until I’m out, 5 years until I’m out, etc. As a teen, I threw a lifeline out to a relative by creating an underground network with my aunt in Colorado. Mother forbade me to communicate with her own sister, but I knew if I could gain a sympathetic ear, my aunt might possibly help me someday. So, for several years my aunt and I secretly corresponded through a schoolmate. My aunt would send her letter to my schoolmate’s house. My schoolmate would bring the letter to school so I could reply. Then, my schoolmate would mail my letter back to my aunt. None of my aunt’s letters ever went home with me, lest our secret be discovered. My aunt became my only real link to the outside world and my only adult voice of reason.
Meanwhile, I did everything the Watchtower asked of me, including preaching door to door up to 100 hours per month. In many respects, I felt like the Barbie dolls I had played with—molded, manipulated and fake. I was the perfect “plastic” Jehovah’s Witness teen, but this was my strategy. I knew I had to quietly put in my time, while scheming and plotting my escape. Outside, I looked like one person, but inside, I tried to hold onto the real person—the real me—who was eroding away. Like a butterfly, I understood metamorphosis and used that to my advantage.
Shortly after graduation, I rented a one-bedroom duplex with two other classmates and it was then that my mother’s black and white perception of people in “the world” became transparent. She told me that I’d become “a prostitute and thief” because Satan had taken hold of me. I was determined to prove her wrong.
Unfortunately, the stability of my fast-food job faltered and as a consequence, I began to starve. However, I had a lot of tenacity and determination to make it. Desperate, I began eating other people’s garbage when the money ran out. My mother, a self-proclaimed “Christian” (in the Jehovah’s Witnesses eyes) would make callous comments like, “We’re going to your sister’s house and I’ve baked some stew and homemade apple pies. Too bad you can’t come along.” To my credit, I never stole anything, nor did I sell my body to gain financial advantage.
Three months later I knew I had to make a dramatic change in my life. I saved enough money to move to Colorado with a one-way plane ticket. I took out a student loan, worked several jobs simultaneously, and put myself through college in Denver—graduating with honors at the top of my class. I was very proud to be the only one in my family to have completed a higher education.
Like a butterfly whose wing has been torn, I was ill equipped to fly. Young adulthood continued to be a perilous time for me. I lost my spirituality, was angry at “God” and what he had allowed me to endure, and fell into a co-dependent relationship with an alcoholic/drug addict. I needed someone, anyone to love me for me! After 10 years, I realized that I was in a dysfunctional relationship similar to the one I had survived as a child, and I made the hard decision to divorce my husband. Above all else, I wanted to break the cycle of dysfunction for our son so that he could live a happy and healthy life.
A few years later, a remarkable spiritual experience saved my life, my son’s life and many others. This changed me from an agnostic to a believer in God. (I outlined my experience in a chapter of my book called, “Guardian Angels.”)
So, where is my relationship with my family today? Well, not only has my mother, brother, sister, 4 nephews and niece not spoken to me for 25 years, most have never met my son, now 16 years old. This religion has divided our family and wrecked havoc on three generations. My family believes that they must “shun” me for the rest of my life in order to receive God’s favor. The truth is, they are shunning me because the Watchtower organization requires it and if they don’t do this, they could lose the organization’s favor and be shunned by the only “family” they know. I find their belief system incredibly twisted. But then again, this is what cults are!
Looking back, I realize that it would have been so easy for me to fall into drugs/alcohol and throw my arms up in the air. Instead, I have chosen to become proactive and educate others about cults. I do this today through my quarterly cult newsletter and through my “Understanding Cults” seminar at Colorado Free University in Denver, Colorado. I also speak at churches to teach people about cult mind control. Additionally, I’ve been interviewed on radio programs all over the world. (You can listen to these on my website – www.outofthecocoon.net ). My mission is to help people understand the dynamics of a cult, learn how to help a family member involved in one, and most importantly, to help heal.
My life has come full circle and is once again bliss, just as it was as a nine-year-old. This is a stark contrast to those years as a Jehovah’s Witness. My son is my “new light.” I look at him and realize how fortunate he is that his mother escaped. If I hadn’t, he wouldn’t be here because I most definitely would have killed myself.
People sometimes ask me that if I had it to do over, would I have stopped that Watchtower elder from coming to my door. No, I wouldn’t! Because of that experience, I’ve become a more loving, giving and spiritual person. I’m someone who has learned how important family is. I’m someone who isn’t afraid anymore. I’m someone who is no longer bitter. It’s been a remarkable journey for me since anger, fear and resentment once ruled my life. My only regret is that I lost my family to this very divisive, so-called “loving” religion. However, I take solace in knowing that I’m not all alone in the world. There are millions of people out there, just like me—survivors. I hope someday everyone will learn THE TRUTH about the Watchtower and other cults. This is my ministry.
You can learn more about Brenda Lee and her story by reading her book, Out of the Cocoon: A Young Woman’s Courageous Flight from the Grip of a Religious Cult. Although Brenda does not write from what our ministry would call an “evangelical Christian perspective” nor does it address many of the doctrinal concerns that accompany the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she does provide a candid view of what life inside the religious “cult” of Jehovah’s Witnesses is truly like. You can order her book through your local bookstore or obtain an autographed copy by ordering it through her website at: www.outofthecocoon.net.
This post is also available in: Spanish