The young woman looks directly at the three men sitting across from her. “You’re not policemen of my life,” she tells them.
“That’s not what we’re doing,” one of the men answers. And yet, in Apostasy, a haunting film by director Daniel Kokotajlo, the three men have told Luisa Whitling and her mother that they must not socialize with each other; to regain her position as a Jehovah’s Witness (and for her mother to keep her good standing with the organization), they must abstain from anything but “necessary” contact.
The reason? Luisa is pregnant – with the child of a “worldly” man, and out of wedlock. In the highly restrictive world of Jehovah’s Witnesses, this is a “disfellowshipping” offense – those who love her must pretend that she is not there. Continuing normal, “unnecessary” contact is also a disfellowshipping offense.
And so, Luisa is left alone. She is frightened, she is lonely, and she just wants her mother. But these elders, while insisting that they are not policing her, still use their influence, as the supposed guardians of their salvation, to keep mother and daughter apart.
The tragedy is palpable: Ivanna, the devout mother, loves both her daughters deeply, and yet she cannot bring herself to go against the religion which has become the center of her life. She readily believes that she and her daughters are only worthy of divine acceptance insofar as they can please Jehovah: “you need to earn His love; it’s conditional,” she tells her daughter Luisa in a tense scene. Her younger daughter, Alex, has also learned to think that she will never be good enough in the Creator’s eyes. In the girl’s prayers, she is constantly apologizing to Jehovah and comparing herself unfavorably to others – her low self-esteem earning her praise from the elders. Her self-esteem has been destroyed.
Director Kokotajlo highlights the Orwellian nature of the Watchtower in one particularly striking scene where the mother Ivanna, reeling from the enforced separation from her daughter, flees to the Kingdom Hall restroom, but finds no sanctuary there, as the built-in speaker broadcasts the continuing harangue from the platform: “If God was to say that this book is green, when it’s actually red,” the elder proclaims, “then maybe it is green. What do I really know? Such is His guidance.” Ivanna, trapped in her belief that these men speak for God, must believe that red is green – and that she must shun the daughter she loves, withdrawing all emotional support when both women need each other the most.
Hailed by many former Jehovah’s Witnesses as a frighteningly accurate picture of the control wielded by the Watchtower over their flock, Apostasy is also a brilliant demonstration of cinematic skill: shot in an ultra-realistic, “slice of life” style, with no musical soundtrack, the film nonetheless attains a dreamlike quality, with the actors often speaking their characters’ inner monologue in scene, without any voiceover – a stunning directorial choice which only deepens the sense of immersion in the story. The muted colors and somber scenery provide a fitting backdrop for this tragic story of love and loss.
Ultimately, however, it is the subject matter – and the heart-rending accuracy of the plot – that marks it as a “must-watch” for anyone who has ever known someone in a high-control group. I wholeheartedly recommend this film, but I also advise American viewers to turn on the subtitles if you are not used to British accents: you won’t want to miss a single word of this densely-packed, profound drama as it unfolds.
What do you think about this review? Do you agree? Have you watched Apostasy? Do you have a movie that you’d like to see us review? We’d love to hear from you!
Child sexual abuse is absolutely terrible, and the institutional coverup of abuse makes it even worse. From churches to sports organizations, we have seen so many institutions silence abuse scandals to protect the group’s reputation. However, when the group concerned is a high-control, destructive cult, there are extra layers of coercion and lies involved – layers which most lawmakers and justice professionals neither understand nor recognize.
Many people do not even realize that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a high-control group: most members of the public – judges and lawmakers included – think of them only as those “nice people” who go door-to-door offering “Bible studies”; pro-cult sociologists call them a “new religious movement”. When confronted with the covering up of sexual abuse by the Jehovah’s Witnesses (and other high-control organizations), these legal experts often make the mistake of treating the cases as they would one involving the Boy Scouts, the Methodist Church, or a sports club, when in fact, the organization they are dealing with is far less likely to cooperate with law enforcement. Mainstream religious groups have been reluctant to admit to abuse, but once that abuse has been exposed, many have done all that they can to expose the abusers. On his recent visit to Ireland, Pope Francis aligned himself with the victims of abuse, and has promised to do all that he can to root out this evil from the Catholic Church. This is not the attitude of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
We must not minimize cases of abuse in groups that are not destructive cults, but there are many reasons why child sexual abuse coverups are different – and should be treated differently – when involving high-demand groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have a doctrine of ostracism or “shunning”, whereby contact and communication can be limited or even completely prohibited. Former members are often shunned by the entire congregation. Although the Watchtower’s lawyer recently managed to convince the Canadian Supreme court that “normal family relations” continue for those who are disfellowshipped, this is a base lie – the Watchtower’s internal propaganda films explicitly direct the faithful to engage in shunning. Anyone who speaks out about abuse risks isolation from their whole social group. They may well be cut off from their families, their friends, and their entire support system. In many cases, simply reporting the abuse to the proper authorities has become a disfellowshipping offence, meaning that parents have the Hobson’s choice of losing their community, or turning their backs on the needs of their children.
The “two witness” rule imposed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses – where a report of abuse is ignored if there is only one accuser – is the best-known, but abusive groups all employ a web of policies designed to keep the leadership and the followers in control – and to deny justice to those victimized by the wolves in the fold. The Mormons have come under fire for the battery of highly sexually charged questions asked of teenagers in closeted one-on-one sessions with bishops, and other groups use similar forms of interrogation designed to shame and confuse youth. Most high-demand groups have policies which explicitly forbid taking legal action of any kind against their fellow believers or the group, making it impossible to seek justice for any wrong done in the community.
Isolation from Society
High-control groups use a variety of methods to isolate their members: in the Jehovah’s Witnesses (as well as other destructive cults), members are conditioned to believe that those outside the group – especially law enforcement and social services – are controlled by Satan. This ensures that faithful members dare not think of reporting abuse to the authorities– or even realize that they have the right to do so. Additionally, those who leave the organization are viewed as apostates, not to be believed, and so past cases are dismissed as lies, even by those currently experiencing the same abuse.
Already Traumatized Children
Like many groups twisting Christian theology to wield control, the Jehovah’s Witnesses focus heavily on Armageddon or the “The Great Tribulation”, the final battle before Jesus returns to earth. Their literature is chock-full of violent images of destruction; children are taught that their schoolfriends, teachers, and even relatives not in good standing with the Watchtower will die in an excruciating holocaust of global chaos and destruction. Children suffering sexual abuse in such groups will have not only the trauma of the abuse, but an array of other phobias and emotional trauma to contend with.
When you’re a member of an abusive group, everything is your fault. It is not uncommon to hear from survivors of sexual abuse in the confines of a high-control group that they were made to feel as if they were the ones who had initiated the sexual contact, or that it happened because they were inherently sinful, or simply not a devout enough believer. Combined with the “usual” amount of shame experienced in such situations, this contributes to victims’ unwillingness to come forward.
Obedience as a Way of Life
Children raised in high-control groups are taught to obey without question or thought. In groups practicing “male headship”, a girl must obey the men of the group – no matter what is requested of her. Even without gender inequality, members of a destructive religious cult believe that their leaders are the ordained representatives of God, and to disobey them is to go against God’s will. Parents of abused children will be reluctant to act “against God”, and those who do go to the authorities will be wracked by guilt and paralyzed by fear, as they are now acting against everything they have been taught to believe and revere.
A predator never apologizes, and a destructive cult will never admit wrongdoing. While dozens of mainstream churches and other organizations are now admitting their guilt, apologizing to the victims, firing those responsible, and working to re-educate their officials, the leaders of abusive groups will never openly accept responsibility for the abuse or the cover-ups. They might pay millions in court costs, but, when talking to their members, they will still maintain that any reports of abuse are “apostate-driven lies,” and that the legal actions against them are the work of Satan.
Lack of Transparency
High-demand groups are notorious for their lack of transparency – recruits are not told what they will be expected to do, to sacrifice, or to believe until they work their way into the “inner circle” of believers. Many abusive groups, such as the Moonies, will claim that those just entering their group are not ready to receive the hidden “knowledge”, and compare telling new members the truth about the group’s more esoteric beliefs (such as Reverend Moon being the new Messiah) to feeding a baby a piece of steak, so they practice “heavenly deception”. Similarly, most destructive cults have a policy of lying to outsiders – particularly judicial and legal authorities – about the realities of group life. Because the “outside world” is controlled by Satan – or a conspiracy bent on destroying them – the leaders of groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses have no problem lying in court – even under oath. They justify this by referring to the Biblical story of Rahab, who lied to protect Israelite spies.
In conclusion, the covering up of child sexual abuse in any setting is despicable. However, in the context of an abusive group, the depth and breadth of the coverup is magnified, with more complex layers of lies, phobia, guilt, and coercion covering any truth. It is imperative that judges, police, lawmakers, and others working to reveal the institutional coverups of sexual abuse understand that they will hear nothing resembling the truth from the representatives of a high-control, destructive cult.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about covering up child abuse in a high-control group that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
Why would someone not report allegations of child sexual abuse to the authorities or the police? Unfortunately, it’s all about undue influence*.
Child sexual abuse is a global societal problem, but did you know that many individuals and institutions use undue influence to manipulate and discourage victims or their care-givers from reporting these crimes to the proper authorities? Or, they delay reporting because they’re influenced to report abuse to clergymen first, who then consult with attorneys instead of civil authorities?
California is no exception to the widespread problem of undue influence, and I am no stranger to this problem. Most of my life was spent in a high-control group, subjected to what I’ve learned is undue influence.
I now realize that undue influence is at the root of how institutions handle child sexual abuse cases. I have personally experienced how natural love and common sense can be overwritten by high-control groups. This puts me in a good position to help answer the question, “Why would anyone intentionally fail to report an allegation of pedophilia?”
In addition, my life experiences help me see how anyone can become a member of a high-control group. This is why I am an advocate for practical and beneficial laws, which recognize the negative consequences of undue influence, and specifically, this is why Robert Atkinson, Barbara Anderson, my wife Karin and I started SCAARS.CA**: Stop Child Abuse: Advocates for Reform and Safety.
SCAARS is a metaphor for the healing process. Our scars define us. This is the principal challenge for those of us who have left manipulative, insular groups. Perhaps the most difficult thing we’ll have to address in our life outside these highly-controlling groups.
A significant goal for SCAARS is to promote the process of moving from victim-to-survivor-to-thriver, after a person has been victimized by child abuse. And now teamed with the Open Minds Foundation, we hope to achieve the following objectives:
- Changing laws in the State of California by introducing Fact Sheets, which correspond with statutes that need revision. Using California as a template, we hope to spark reform in other states and countries.
- Educating legislators about the effect of undue influence by clergymen and mandated reporters, who either fail to report, or defer to a parent organization for reporting purposes.
- Strengthening mandatory reporting requirements in California along with enforcing penalties for failure to report.
- Educating the public on how current mandatory reporting laws are insufficient and endanger children everywhere. Victims should not be harmed by predators and weak legislation.
- Creating a special edition of Barbara Anderson Uncensored with an Introduction to Undue Influence by Jon Atack. The target market will be legislators, attorneys and politicians around the world, and potential volunteers for SCAARS and ambassadors for Open Minds Foundation.
I also want to congratulate Romy Maple, Janja Lalich and Barbara Anderson for their contributions to the Elizabeth Vargas A&E Special on May 29. Raising awareness of negligent child abuse reporting policies will lead to changes in the law to better protect children.
You can access the special here. If your local cable provider subscribes to A&E, you can sign in online using your local access account and watch this episode.
Join us now, and help us change and create laws that better protect children from child sexual abuse!
* One definition of undue influence: “Excessive psychological persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming the person’s free will, and results in inequity/lack of justice.”
** SCAARS.CA currently has a Facebook page, with plans for a corresponding website to be launched this summer.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Barbara’s book? Do you have a story about unreported abuse due to undue influence that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
Barbara Anderson is an outspoken critic of groups that attempt to silence victims or parents of victims from reporting child sexual abuse to the authorities.
But she was an unlikely candidate for that role for most of her life, having invested her time in a pseudo-religious group, which had unduly influenced her to believe that their policies were Bible-based and inspired by God: that father knows best.
However, after working ten years at world headquarters for Jehovah’s Witnesses, she discovered the group was not governed by an all-wise God, as she’d been led to believe. While working in the Writing Department, something terrible happened and she experienced a crisis of conscience, which would change her life forever.
Her inspirational story makes Barbara Anderson Uncensored a must-read. But, the book is much more than that. While she compellingly narrates her life story, author Jon Atack and Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed., psychotherapist, take us behind the scenes to give us their insights and unprecedented commentary on the mind manipulation techniques Barbara was subjected to while still a Jehovah’s Witness.
Barbara’s ultimate valor in the face of an epic David vs Goliath battle to protect children against the policies of an international organization demonstrates how the efforts of one person, who stands up for right, truly can affect change. Detroit artist Carl Wilson’s colorful imagery of Barbara says it all:
This book was made possible due to a grant/gift from the Open Minds Foundation. All royalties from the book will be used to safeguard young people, ages 5 to 35, from undue/predatory influence.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Barbara Anderson Uncensored ? Do you have a story about standing up for the right thing that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
When a predatory pseudo-religious group demands that their members give you the silent treatment after you’ve abandoned their beliefs, it can really hurt. I should know, as I’ve experienced the distress of mandated shunning from my parents and siblings. Please see exhibit “A”, the essence of the message my mama sent me.
When the shunning started, I felt like I’d just been sucker punched in the pit of my stomach and the nagging ache would come and go at the most inopportune times.
Going back in time to 1964, at age 20, I walked away from my family’s utopian beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses, with their many rules and restrictions. I made my escape after spending 2 years at the world headquarters for JWs in Brooklyn, NY.
After leaving, my parents, siblings and JWs that I knew treated me with tolerable respect for the next 17 years. But in 1981, shunning was mandated for the first time from headquarters toward people like me. It was a manifestation of Watchtower’s undue influence and framed <gag> as an act of love for me and their god Jehovah.
Had I known in advance how the-pretending-you-don’t-exist experience would affect me, I would have learned more about emotional blackmail. For some people, the debilitating pain from shunning can last a lifetime, when not wisely addressed.
If only we had been able to read Bonnie Zieman’s new book, Shunned: A Survival Guide. In this superbly written easy-to-understand exposé, she elucidates on how our nervous system can and will react to this inhumane experience with the fight, flight or freeze response. While it didn’t happen to me, some victims are catapulted into a state of chronic alarm, even contemplating and committing suicide.
In her ground-breaking book, Bonnie meticulously explains how a person can manage the isolation, loneliness and grief caused by shunning. Not only how to cope with this cruel punishment, but how, if necessary, to rebuild a meaningful life after mandated desertion and repudiation by all of one’s family and close friends.
If you are being shunned, are terrified about the thought of being ostracized, know someone who is being disconnected, or are curious about this method of blackmail, you will be rewarded by reading this book. For me, the highlights of the read were:
– What not to do when being shunned
– How to deal with people who shun you
– How to manage the worst effects of shunning
– How to bounce back from cult dehumanization
– The need for finding a friend like Bonnie’s Mary
– The magic and menace of our brain’s mirror neurons
– How a brain can rewire itself after a traumatic experience
– Strategies and brilliant research on how to activate the ventral vagus nerve
Bonnie’s book is much more than an outstanding recovery guidebook. She makes a strong case for why we need to enforce and change laws about mandated shunning from predatory groups. This form of undue influence must be stopped now!
PS – I prepared the title and opening remarks for this blog to grab your attention. My only concern about using the words the silent treatment is that shunning is much more than that. For someone being shunned, they may well think: “I’m going through much more than the silent treatment. I have been erased, demonized, considered dead, abandoned, deserted, etc. etc.” If you’re that person, I want to apologize, because you’re absolutely right.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read any of Bonnie’s books? Have you read Dick’s Mama’s Club trilogy? Do you have a story about shunning that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
According to a recent article in The Guardian, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which is examining the problem of institutions in England and Wales failing to protect children from sexual abuse, is considering opening a separate investigation into the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The UK panel has heard reports from a “considerable number” of concerned citizens and members of Parliament about the organization.
The issue which sets the Jehovah’s Witnesses apart from the other institutions the Panel is currently examining is not the number of reports, but the clear picture the reports present: the Jehovah’s Witness organization, despite its protestations of “robust child protection policies,” uses threats of disfellowshipping and shunning to keep victims from reporting abuse.
We hope that the panel, if it does decide to investigate, will shed valuable light on the policies and practices of the organization, and further the protection of children from sexual predators in the Kingdom Halls of Great Britain and worldwide.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about child sexual abuse that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
Shunning, one of the most abusive practice of high-pressure groups, is often the most obvious sign that a group is abusive. It tears families and communities apart, forcing many to choose between their faith and their loved ones. Whether it is called Shunning, Disconnection, Ostracism, or De-FOOing, the harsh reality of alienation ensures that those who leave the group are cut off absolutely, often losing their entire community – friends, relatives, and their complete support system.
For one woman in Michigan who had left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the strain of losing her community was too much, and, struggling under the weight of the shame her abusers had taught her to assume, she drowned the family dog and shot her husband and two adult children, before turning the gun on herself. According to family friends, Lauren Stuart and her husband had left the organization because their children wished to attend college – something the Jehovah’s Witnesses strongly discourage – and she wished to pursue a modeling career. Because she could no longer be a member of the group in good standing, former friends ignored her, looking the other way when seeing her in town, refusing to speak with her or acknowledge her presence. In a small community, such treatment can make life intolerable, and although the Jehovah’s Witnesses have claimed in court that shunning is a “personal choice” and never absolute, their own internal convention videos show a harsh reality, where parents are coached to ignore their own children if they are disfellowshipped.
Although details in this case are still forthcoming, it is clear that such tragedies will continue to happen whenever people are shunned: this is not the first incident of a Jehovah’s Witnesses committing a murder-suicide in reaction to shunning: in 2001, Christian Longo murdered his wife and three young children in response to his expulsion from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and in 2014, another Jehovah’s Witness father in South Carolina murdered his wife and children before committing suicide. Sadly, the Watchtower is not the only organization that practices this most cruel form of undue influence.
Our friends Robin and Mike of What’s Up Watchtower, themselves ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, have produced an excellent video discussing the case in depth; it is a deeply personal subject for them, as they have lost their own families to the evil practice of shunning. Also, our friends JT and Lady Cee of Ex-JW Critical Thinker have interviewed Joyce Taylor, a close personal friend of the Stuart family, herself a former member of the group. Both videos are thoughtfully done and provide compelling listening.
At Open Minds, we believe that all people should be able to practice the faith of their choice, or not practice, as their own conscience and beliefs dictate – without the threat of losing their friends, their family, and their community.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about shunning that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
Canada’s Supreme Court is hearing only half the truth on Watchtower’s policy of shunning, receiving a highly sanitized and deliberately inaccurate representation of this coercive practice from the Watchtower’s lawyer. As Clement Mabunda, the Thinking Witness, reports in a recent article, Jehovah’s Witness Elder and lawyer David Gnam, is well aware that the actual practice of shunning is much different from the relatively benign experience that he is painting for the judges.
Gnam’s assertion before the court is that the practice of disfellowshipping is not all-encompassing, but merely a spiritual practice. He even purports that “normal family relations continue.”
Everyone who has seen the Watchtower’s internal policies and propaganda films on shunning are well aware that family members are urged to cease all communication with those who are disfellowshipped. This is further compounded with the threat of being disfellowshipped – and thus shunned – if the member does not comply.
Gnam’s duplicity, while falling short of actual perjury, is a sad illustration of an oft-used tool of coercive control. Lying to external authorities in order to benefit the interests of a manipulative organization is called “theocratic warfare” by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yes, when JWs are called upon to defend the indefensible – such as tearing a family apart – they will only speak half-truths.
Here is Clement Mabunda’s article in full.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about “theocratic warfare” that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
Reclaimed Voices, a new foundation in the Netherlands, is giving an ear to the survivors of childhood sexual abuse by Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) in Holland.
Frank Huiting, a former victim of abuse, reports that many people feel afraid to come forward. When he was abused at age seven, his parents decided not to go to the authorities, because they were warned by a JW elder that it would create unfavorable publicity for the organization.
Because of the high level of undue influence present, Jehovah’s Witnesses are led to believe that the organization, as the only “true” religion, must be protected – even at the cost of its most vulnerable members.
Many religious groups have been struggling with pedophiles in their midst, and some, such as the Catholic Church, have actively covered up such crimes. But in high-control groups like JWs, this crisis is compounded by their shunning policy. Those who report the crime to the police, rather than to the elders, are most often shunned. This leaves the parents of a child who has been victimized with a terrible choice: go to the authorities and lose their religious community and extended family, or remain silent and risk the abuse happening again, and again.
Another complication to the issue is Watchtower’s “two witness” rule: very often the only witnesses to sexual abuse are the victims themselves. This means that many victims who go to the elders are not believed, and the matter is summarily dropped, because it is viewed as one person’s word against another.
Another factor which protects the perpetrators is the way such reports are handled: a victim of sexual abuse must tell their story to three elders in a private meeting, where they are asked questions which can be almost as traumatizing as the abuse itself. These elders are not given professional training in how to deal with cases of sexual abuse, and, in an isolated community, might be friends of the abuser.
The heavy web of undue influence in such insular high-control groups creates a perfect “hunting ground” for pedophiles: behavior which would ultimately come to light and be punished in a mainstream church, can go undetected for years and even decades in a group like Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Reclaimed Voices hopes to address this damage, by encouraging victims to speak out, get help, and share their stories. Their goal is to get as many cases as they can out in the open, bringing attention to this for both the board of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands and the government: “We want to get the government to investigate these abuses. And not to start a fight, but really to focus on the victim.”
For more on this new organization, read the Netherlands Times Article.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about childhood sexual abuse that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!