Bethel, the Truth, and Pleasing Your Parents

by Michael McDougal

updated 2/2/05


Man, I feel beaten up. I’ve never e-mailed you before but I’ve been reading and re-reading everything on your site for a couple weeks now, and man, I am having the worst time ever. As you are probably aware, it’s tough coming out of the JWs because there is little that anyone can say that will help you to just let go, you know? Anyway, I feel like I just need to write out what’s going on and whatever…maybe it will help.

I’m 23 now and haven’t been an active JW for about 3 years or so. I was basically raised a Witness since I was maybe 4 or 5. Here’s a little background (as quick as I can…there’s a lot): my mom and dad were divorced when I was about 3, dad eventually met a lady in his apartment who happened to be a Witness but she wouldn’t talk to him unless he took Watchtower literature. Eventually, he’s baptized and marries her. Mom freaks out and wins full custody of me and my little brother. She starts to study with the Witnesses to "prove it wrong". Eventually she gets baptized and goes inactive. She meets a guy in her apartment (not a JW) and gets married. She starts to go to meetings again and eventually her new husband is baptized. The really weird part is this whole gang has always gone to the same congregation and even live in houses down the street from each other. That’s kind of beside the point, but it just kind of hit me how odd the whole deal is…anyway…

I was always a shy kid that desperately wanted to make my parents proud. Actually, come to think of it, it didn’t even have to be my parents. I just wanted people to be proud of me…low self-esteem, I guess. Conversely, in all my years growing up, I was always the kid that never needed a spanking; a stern look was about all I could bear. It sounds pathetic to write it like that, but what can I say, I was a little kid that just wanted to make my parents happy and not upset them.

I was raised extremely strict in the religion. I remember when I was maybe 13 or 14 and just starting to discover myself, sideburns were all the rage. I did my best to grow some (although come to think of it, at the time they were at best just kind of fuzzy), which my father did not approve of. I remember a watchtower brochure that had a picture of a young man with sideburns just starting to study with the JW’s and then later in the brochure the same man was pictured getting baptized and guess what?…no sideburns! Well, this was all the authority my dad needed to tell me to shave them off. He was of the philosophy that "if the Society were able to pass a law, it would be…" (fill in the blank: sideburns, clothing choices, CDs, even words that he deemed "substitutes for swearing" such as ‘shoot’ or ‘man’). This viewpoint led to a very restrictive, perfectionist way of looking at the world. At about this same time I started to hang out with some guys that my dad didn’t particularly approve of. We played in a little band and hung out. Nothing too serious. I loved the new found feeling of freedom that this association brought me. the music I was listening to also focused on the importance of freedom and social/political awareness. Suddenly, my parents’ "laws" were simply not relevant to me. It’s funny, this perspective isn’t just my parents’, it’s the watchtower society’s as a whole. I guess I’ve always pictured my parents as the organization. when I picture Jehovah, it’s funny how much he resembles my father.

Anyway, one weekend me and one of my friends ended up at his parents’ house. His parents were out of town and his older brother was having a huge party. Needless to say, I enjoy a refreshing alcoholic beverage or two that night. Eventually, it "came out" to the elders that there was underage drinking at this party. Anyone that was baptized was subsequently disfellowshipped/reproved. When I was caught by my parents (for the drinking as well as a few other things involving girls and stuff all in the same time period), I felt so guilty that I started to do everything my parents or the congregation could possibly want from a young man, feeling that if I "did well enough" I could somehow repay everyone for the terrible sins that I had committed. This continued for 5 or 6 nauseating years. I was baptized, appointed a ministerial servant, pioneer, and eventually bethel. It never occurred to me that just possibly I was doing all of this for the wrong reasons. I wonder how my life would have turned out had I stopped at any point between ages 14 and 19 and asked myself who exactly I was doing all this for. I was the picture perfect Witness. I knew it and everyone else knew it. my friends mentioned earlier were the same as they were before and kind of stopped hanging out with me…with good reason too. They were always polite to me, but heck, I was one of those "plastic Witnesses" (insincere, proud, judgmental…I don’t think I really am, deep down, that guy, but I played the role very well), whose father was the presiding overseer. They’ll come up again later.

As soon as I turned 19, I was accepted to bethel. My family and congregation couldn’t have been prouder and that made me happy. I liked that a lot more than being in trouble. I think deep down, I was (and to some extent, still am) that shy little kid that just wants approval. Bethel changed my life forever and it was the greatest experience of my life. But man did I hate it at first. I was out at the Farms for about a year and a half, but at about the 8 month mark things changed. Finally out from under my parents’ umbrella of protection and authority my true self was naturally exposed and I found people that felt the same way that I did; Rebellious…just a little. Me and 2 other guys realized that as crappy as 6 day work weeks and a totalitarian authority structure was, this was a sweet deal. No bills, unlimited sick time, and some cool people (if you knew what to look for). Besides, what’s the worst that could happen, they’d kick us out? Fine by me. I didn’t like the place that much anyway. Finally I was hitting my rebellious teenage years…a couple years late, but hey…we had fun.

That summer, 2001 I guess, me and one of the guys took our tax returns and planned a trip to Cancun. My parents still thought I was a fine, upstanding young "brother". They had no idea that I hadn’t gone out in the ministry and had only made it to a handful of meeting in the last couple of months. Again, this was simple rebellion. I was finally free to do, or not do, whatever I wanted. Bethel creates the aura of a restrictive atmosphere, probably because there is no enforcement. They depend almost entirely on self-policing. The elders in my congregation just assumed that my work at bethel was keeping me from the meetings. No questions were ever asked. Anyway, my parents had little problem with my trip to Cancun, which was surprising, but I guess they didn’t know what Cancun was actually like (I didn’t really either…definitely a non-stop party to say the least). Of course, you can probably guess what happened next. I met a wonderful non-JW girl named Jessica from Texas and we spent most of the week together. Love at first sight sounds so stupid, but that’s the best way I can describe it. she had such an open mind and that was so refreshing after all the Witness girls that I knew. We exchanged numbers but I really didn’t expect to hear from her again.

Well, upon my return to bethel there was a message waiting on my answering machine. Me and Jessica remained in touch during my remaining time at bethel. about this same time the guy that I had gone to Cancun with left bethel. he hated it out there so he moved back home to Tennessee I said if I ever wanted to try another state out, give him a call. I left bethel a short time after and moved in with him (I’m trying to skip ahead to the important stuff). My parents were absolutely distraught about my leaving bethel and moving across the country with some dude they hadn’t met/approved of (man, it was like I was getting married). they had decided that I was not "doing so good" upon my return from Cancun. Mostly because my older step-brother had recently been kicked out of my father’s house for girl related issues. He had never been baptized but was being treated with absolute contempt by my family. My eyes started to open. I talked to my dad many times on the phone trying to explain to him that what my brother did or didn’t do was of little consequence to my dad. It was his life, let him live it. this of course, didn’t go over so well. loyalty to the organization was of the utmost importance, and my step-brother "knew better".

Grudgingly, they "let" me go to Tennessee but from then on, my status had been greatly diminished in there eyes. I had been dropped at least 2 or 3 pegs. I was in "spiritual trouble". Well, anyway, I had kept in touch with Jessica and eventually I went to Texas to visit her and meet her friends. before I spent a year in Tennessee I decided I wanted to move to Texas and pursue this relationship further. I prepared a letter so as to express myself as clearly as possible to my parents. I mailed it out the day I left Tennessee and waited for the fireworks. within a couple of days the calls started. Rather than be happy and supportive of my decision, you’d think I had just announced a terminal illness. My dad would try to talk me into saying something incriminating so as to give grounds for disfellowshipping. Truth be told, I had done nothing warranting such action, but that was the only way they could justify their disapproval for my not unscriptural choice. I was of the opinion that, if it is the only true religion, so be it…I refuse to do it. if God sees it fit to kill me, than I will gladly accept his judgment. I would simply rather live happily and freely a few years than a lifetime in slavery (I remember telling my mom something like this back when I was a young teen and she burst into tears. Without the threat of no eternal life, the JWs have no leverage on the rank and file). Anyway, my parents sent elders from the local congregation down here to talk to me. I knew it was them trying to wake me up far earlier than I had intended with their knocking on those Saturdays so I just ignored them. Eventually they got smart…they came to talk to me at work! I work in a governmental position and thus my office is not exactly open to just any old visitor. But sure enough, one day they poked their heads in my door. To be fair, the elder was very kind and simply gave me his number and encouraged me to call him. I never did. This was about 2 years ago. I haven’t spoken to my mother or father since that time. It sucks because when I was in Tennessee I talked to my mom just about everyday and we were closer than ever before. My younger brother would still keep contact with me from time to time, but it was always weird by the end of the conversation. That’s it though, no one else from my past even attempted contact. Up until last September.

Last fall I got a call from one of my buddies from the beginning of this story. Turns out, pretty much all of them had been disfellowshipped (some numerous times) and they wanted to buy me a plane ticket to come up and visit. I gladly accepted their offer and had a fantastic weekend drinking with them and just hanging out. It was great to see them again. The only thing that kind of bothered me though, was that they were all desperately trying to get back into good standing with the organization. I wanted no part of this and I said basically as much. No problem…to each their own, they said. Well, that was great, I thought. That’s exactly what this world needs…tolerance. That’s all. Not duplicated opinions as handed down through an organization but just tolerance of those that see things differently than you. I loved my friends for this attitude and we have remained in touch.

A few months ago, I started to look into things a little deeper though your website as well as Crisis of Conscience and some other publications. My eyes were wide open and I was ripe to hear such things. The world looked different to me and I couldn’t have been more excited. However, I knew I had to do something. I couldn’t in good conscience remain a member of an organization that I see as nothing more than at best misguided and at worst deceitful, destructive and evil. The only problem was that I had plane tickets to again go up to Madison, Wisconsin (my home town) this time with Jessica, to hang out with my friends and step-brother. I knew how much publicity my letter of disassociation would get up there (not to sound haughty, but more than a few people in the area knew me and my family…this would be huge) and I didn’t know exactly how my disfellowshipped but still enslaved friends might take it. I decided that that was a chance I had to take. I couldn’t in good conscience just wait and mail the letter when I got back. I no longer desire to be a slave of men. So I mailed it. a copy to the elder body, a copy to the governing body and a copy to each set of parents. I spent hours and hours perfecting every word so as to express myself as clearly as possible without coming across as judgmental at all of their beliefs. More and more, I feel a deep respect for allowing others to believe what they like. Tolerance goes both ways. There’s a song that says about a religious guy, "his hopes may be false, but his happiness is real." Who am I to take that from them. Just please respect my decision. Well, I got a call from my little brother…furious. I remained calm and spoke only after he asked what doctrines/practices/events concerning the Watchtower I took issue with. I spoke with the same tone of my letter and this just infuriated him more. My goal was just to not do anything that I would someday regret. I accomplished that. Neither of my parents would speak to me even though I heard them in the background. I wasn’t even given the opportunity to express my sincere opinions. This was not surprising but no less hurtful.

A few days later, I wrote my mom an email just letting her know that I meant NO disrespect for her or the beliefs she holds dear, but I encouraged her to just THINK about considering things more objectively. I didn’t tell her what to read or what to look for, just that contrasting opinions ("dissent") is actually a productive thing. she responded that she "would not have any further contact with me; DO NOT email me anymore." Technically, nothing had changed…I hadn’t spoken to her in years, but this still hurt. I brushed it off and just thought, well, I did what I could and I’m ashamed of nothing…she has made her choice as I have mine.

A few days later (last Thursday) I get a call from my disfellowshipped friend in Madison. He says, "Yeah, I heard about your little letter. That obviously puts me in an awkward position…" So, me and Jessica were supposed to fly up there tomorrow…turns out none of my "friends" or my non-JW step-brother will be picking us up at the airport. My friend had called to say goodbye. This was just a kick in the teeth. Even my non-JW brother refuses to speak to me because of my viewpoint towards the religion he was never really a member of.

Man, I’m just torn up. It wouldn’t be such a big deal, but I’m still having a rough time getting over the indoctrination stuff (I really only started the whole "destruction of my faith" thing a few months ago, even after being out for years) and I am pretty much completely alienated from the world with the exception of my wonderful girlfriend, Jessica. It’s rough man. I’m sorry this was so long, I guess it just has been building up and I don’t really know what to do with all of it.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to do anything you like with this material. I don’t mind.

UPDATE 2/2/05 from Michael

As of today, I still have no contact with most of my family. My non-JW step-brother and I get along fine again and me and Jessica will be visiting him within the next month or two (yeah, fingers crossed on that one…apparently, I don’t have the best of luck when it comes to visiting Madison…). So, on the surface, not much has changed. The main difference though (and this is huge) is I no longer desire the acceptance or attention of my family anymore. I have a new family. It’s upsetting to have to put it like that, but I think I have a certain amount of detachment from the whole situation now and can see it for what it truly is. I no longer excuse my family’s bad behavior. If one of my coworkers disowned their daughter because she dropped out of college, I don’t think I could look at that coworker the same way again ("How cold. Maybe there were extenuating circumstances.", I would think). Especially if the daughter time and time again begged to rebuild their relationship. A situation like that would’ve always struck a nerve with me, but for some reason I would always explain to myself how my family’s and friends’ actions towards me were somehow different. I think the sooner you realize that it’s not different, the sooner you stop being a victim and you can get on with your healing. I went though the anger and resentment stuff and now I’m at peace.

I send my family little gifts and letters every now and then (just because they feel the need to be uncaring doesn’t mean that I have to). I never receive a reply but I never expect to. The sending is my reward in itself. I care for them like I care for all people that have been misled. My hope for them is the same as it is for all people, JWs or not; to find happiness. If that is within the WTS, then so be it (personally, I don’t see how that’s possible, but whatever…). I guess it kind of hit me that shunning is a mean practice, not loving…simple as that…and I try to surround myself with as few mean people as possible. The way that they have treated (or maybe more accurately, "not treated") my girlfriend of almost 4 years (they’ve not once spoken to her) is uncalled for and my love for her is much stronger than my love for the bonds I used to share with my family.

In time, who knows what may change, and if they do, I’ll roll with it. But for now, I couldn’t be happier with the way things are. Like the song says, "No matter how cold the winter, there’s a springtime ahead."

I still receive very supportive letters from individuals and I just feel like I should let them know that I’ve made almost a 180 degree turn so that they don’t worry about me (although the fact that individuals I will never meet from halfway across the world truly care about my silly life is proof to me that an organized religion is not even necessary). Maybe it could also help someone to know that these things truly do pass.

Thanks again Randy. Your site has been such a help.



Michael McDougal

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