The Pain of Being Disowned

The Pain of Being Disowned May 9, 2013

Emily Dietle has a guest post on her blog from Steph Le Gardener about being disowned by her Jehovah’s Witness family. I know many such stories, some of which are being written up in a book by Bridget Gaudette. Steph’s story is quite heartbreaking:

Twenty-two years ago a registered letter changed the course of my life. The letter stated that I had been judged guilty of “conduct unbecoming a Christian” and had been disfellowshipped from the Christian congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. What did that mean? What it meant was that unless I repented of my perceived sins in an acceptable way before a tribunal of church elders, I would forevermore be subjected to a life of shunning and ostracism by all of my church friends and four generations of family…

The last, very brief, conversation I had with my father (who’s now in his 70’s) went something like this, “Dad, I’m flying back for my class reunion, and I’d really like to stop in for a couple of days and check on you and make sure you’re o.k.” He replied, “Well, are you coming back to ‘The Truth?’” “No, Dad, you know I’m not,” I sighed. “Well, then we have nothing left to discuss.” Click. That was two years ago. It had been several years before that, when last we’d spoken–not for lack of trying.

I find this almost inconceivable and unimaginable. My stepmother is Pentecostal and I’m an atheist activist, but the idea that she would ever disown me is completely unthinkable. She loves me and is even proud of what I’ve accomplished, even if she disagrees with me. I can’t imagine anything I could do short of being a serial killer that would make my parents and family be anything but supportive and caring. Which is why I’m so saddened when I see this happen to other people. I wish they had that kind of support. And it’s made all the worse because it happens so often to really good people that their families should be proud of.

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  • Ed,

    I am getting a 404 error on the link.

  • Tyrant al-Kalām

    Or imagine the opposite – I’m a dyed in the wool atheist – if I had kids who would want join some cult or become catholic, I wouldn’t for a second consider disowning them, it would probably lead to some interesting dinner conversation, and if they were members of some money-grabbing cult, I would try to limit what they throw at it of my limited fortune. I would be convinced that they are far from the truth, but what does that have to do with anything. What an insane and destructive thing to do, what a loss for both sides.

  • raven

    The JW’s are an abusive mind control cult. One that causes huge problems for most of them.

    The probability that someone born into the cult will leave it is 50%. It’s about the same for converts.

    One of the characters used in determining whether a cult is abusive is, “how easy is it to leave it”. If they make it difficult it’s abusive. The Mormons fail this test also.

    When I left my natal mainstream sect, no one noticed or cared. AFAIK, I’m still listed as a member. If they even have a list, not that I ever heard of them even having one.

  • Abdul Alhazred

    Stuff like this is why JWs are considered a cult.

  • otrame

    It only happens when people don’t really love their children. It is hard to accept, I know, but for many parents children are there to build up the parent’s ego and nothing else. Do something that embarrasses them and you are no longer important.

    If you are unwilling to undergo disfavor within your group because your kids are doing something your group disapproves of, so much so that you will disown them in order to regain favor in that group, then you do not love your kids. This is true even when you genuinely disapprove of whatever it is your kid is doing, even if EVERYONE disapproves of what your kid is doing . I told my son once that if I ever found out he was a serial rapist/murderer, I would turn his ass in in a split second and testify against him at the trial and I would also visit him in prison every week. He’s my son. I could never say he isn’t.

  • raven

    if I had kids who would want join some cult or become catholic, I wouldn’t for a second consider disowning them,

    A lot of parent’s nightmares.

    What would you do if your kids joined a xian cult? Or married a xian cultist? Or turned into a creationist?

    It isn’t common but it happens. Fortunately, it was something I never had to cope with. You just deal with it the best you can and hope for the best.

  • thumper1990

    As I understand it, Jehova’s Witnesses are particularly bad for this kind of thing. They are very much of the “behave or be disowned, cast out and shunned forever” brand of Christianity.

  • Alverant

    It’s not just JWs. Think about all those kids kicked out of their homes and disowned by their families for being homosexual. When something makes you disown your own flesh and blood you really have to examine how important that thing is to you and how unimportant your family is in comparison.

  • thumper1990

    Also getting a 404 error, btw.

  • Abdul Alhazred

    As I understand it, if the parents act decent about it, they too will be expelled from the cult.

  • The story about this particular Jehovah’s Witness is heartbreaking. But there is one “religion” far worse in its policy of shunning former members: Scientology takes this practice to an unprecedented, brutal scale, devoting significant resources to policing the ever-dwindling number of current members and ensuring that they have nothing to do with former members, some of whom have been shunned simply for not wanting to be affiliated with this vicious cult any longer. As an example, here is an article written today by Tony Ortega, former editor-in-chief of The Village Voice and the reporter with more experience covering Scientology than any other in the world: There are countless other credible testimonies of this abusive practice of Scientology.

    Incidentally, it is common for atheists to consider Scientology no worse than other belief systems on the theory that anything not solidly grounded in testable science is superstition. But if you look beyond the beliefs and look instead at the practices that they live by every day, it quickly appears that this organization is far more evil than others who do similar things.

  • Being a serial killer is probably the only thing that I would permanently disown a child for.

    That, and being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. /playofftalk

    (I could see some sort of provisional semi-disownment if, say, a child of mine decided to be a neo-Nazi. Maybe.)

  • asonge

    The insane part of this disownment? It’s so legalistic. I know plenty of people who are disowned and not disowned former JW’s. The difference is this: once you are baptized, you cannot go back. Apostasy at this level *is* being cut off and disowned. If you were always a black sheep and never got baptized, your family can maintain the relationship with you just fine. I know so many families where one sibling can speak to the parents and the other cannot, though both are not JW’s.

  • justsomeguy


    In situations like that, disowning is the worst, least helpful thing a person could do. Granted, cults tend to operate in a way where the new members/converts/whatever are the ones expected to do the disowning of everyone from their previous life, but that’s all the more reason to make sure they know full well you’ll be there to help out if they need you.

  • Tyrant al-Kalām

    @John P. C.

    “Incidentally, it is common for atheists to consider Scientology no worse than other belief systems on the theory that anything not solidly grounded in testable science is superstition”

    I don’t think it is common, but I think it is a line of thinking the libertarian skeptics tend to produce.

    The only atheist I remember coming close to saying that was Brian Dunning on his Scientology Skeptoid.


    Ironically, my parents told me they were afraid that I might some day join a cult and that they would lose me because of that, and are pretty happy that as a passionate atheist, I’m innoculated against that kind of stuff.

  • Mr Ed

    judged guilty of “conduct unbecoming a Christian”

    I can’t remember who said it but, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Bet who ever said it wasn’t a true Christian.

  • Anthony K

    Man, I can’t tell you how many times my grandparents disowned my parents, my parents disowned one or more of my siblings or me, my grandparents disowned one or more of my siblings or me, or one or more of my siblings or I disowned one or more of my parents or grandparents, or each other. Never for religious reasons, though. (The score right now is all siblings getting along with each other, and grandma on special occasions, but Mom won’t talk to us. In other words, Thursday. It’s been Thursday for almost two years now, since my father died estranged from all of us. Eh, whaddayagonnado?)

    I’m too used to it to care much, but I do feel for other people in these sorts of situations.

  • Compuholic

    He replied, “Well, are you coming back to ‘The Truth?’” “No, Dad, you know I’m not,” I sighed. “Well, then we have nothing left to discuss.”

    Maybe I am a heartless bastard. But at this point I would not even care anymore. There is absolutely no person in my life (including my parents) from whom I would take this kind of abuse. I would not care anymore about anything that happens to this person or even try to contact him/her. To me this person would effectively be dead.

  • machintelligence

    Abdul Alhazred @ 10

    Groups that invoke second order punishment (punish not only the perpetrator, but also those who refuse to punish) can enforce all manner of vile behavior.

  • Tyrant al-Kalām

    Well, that may be true, Compuholic, but you do understand that going from having parents to “my parents are dead to me now” might involve a bit of emotional turmoil and suffering and stuff?

  • @John P:

    Scientology certainly is often horrific, but it is mercifully a small organization. Global membership is ~100,000 and has been falling steeply in recent years. There are something like 100 times as many Jehovah’s Witnesses.


    I don’t see many people claiming Scientology is no worse than other belief systems – quite the reverse actually, since those of us who know a certain amount of physics, astronomy, geology, and/or biology find their claims to be particularly outrageous (perhaps even more so than some of the young-Earth creationists). What is claimed is that Scientology oppresses a relatively small number of people, which does not diminish the severity of each victim’s oppression.

  • @michaelbusch: I spend a lot of time studying Scientology as an activist against the cult. Fortunately, membership in Scientology appears to be more like 25,000 to 30,000 worldwide, far below the 100,000 you cite. However, as membership declines, in a desperate ploy to keep income flowing in and to keep up the appearance of success (which is critical to keeping rich donors and celebrities in the fold), the viciousness of the cult’s behavior to keep people in line and to hide abuses seems to grow exponentially worse as time goes on.

    One of my favorite Scientology anti-science howlers is a 1952 lecture by founder L. Ron Hubbard saying that biology is a dead science, basically discovering nothing worth noting and only categorizing and updating taxonomies. Of course, Hubbard, the Smartest. Guy. Ever., who was supposed to have the wisdom inculcated by trillions of years of past lives (more years claimed by far than the age of the universe as known at that time), failed to foresee the discovery of the structure of DNA the following year and the subsequent explosion of biological knowledge.

  • We have a son who just in the last six months told us he wasn’t a believer. I wasn’t really surprised (I saw it coming), but it was hard for us to hear it stated explicitly. Of course, we do not treat him any differently. And we don’t badger him. He knows the bible and the theology–there is nothing I could tell him that he doesn’t know. He’ll either come back to the faith (and then it will be his own) or he won’t (duh). This is fairly common for people of my age, with children coming into adulthood. There are (at least) two other families in our church in the same situation. An interesting difference among us: the other two couples (unlike our case) both say that the one who walked away was the child for which they least expected to see it happen.

  • raven

    Maybe I am a heartless bastard. But at this point I would not even care anymore.

    In general, no one bleeds forever.

    I’ve seen parents and children estranged a lot. Mostly not having anything to do with religion. One guy’s mother was highly abusive due to severe mental illness and so on.

    After a decade or three, most people don’t care any more. They move on and build their own lives as best they can.

    This is not true for some people who get trapped reliving the past over and over. But maybe it should be.

  • @John P.:

    I was pulling the most recent membership estimates from Wikipedia, which quoted ~100,000 worldwide and ~25,000 in the US but noted problems with getting good estimates (especially with all of the schismatic Scientologist groups). I hope your numbers are closer to the true values, but you’re of course correct that the remaining leadership of the cult will tend to become more and more oppressive and intolerant of dissent as the membership decreases – Jenna Miscavige Hill’s story illustrates that, and I’m sure you know of more similar cases than I do.


    Re. Hubbard’s howlers: that’s a good example of why Scientology fails biology so badly. In terms of physics and astronomy, Hubbard’s claims about the age of the universe are particularly outrageous. In terms of geology, the volcano thing in the OT-3 document is equally bad.


    But, again, the Jehovah’s Witnesses should not be ignored just because Scientology is as bad as it often is.

  • busterggi

    Its just like that old saying, “hate the sin, love the sinner but don’t forget to treat him/her like shit.”

  • Sastra

    Didn’t Michael Behe have a son who became an atheist? As I recall he wasn’t shunned — but he was told to stay away from his younger brothers. I’m not sure if this meant he could not talk to them about why he was no longer Christian or if he wasn’t allowed near them, period. There was also some sort of scuffle, I think. But nothing too dramatic. Behe’s an academic. It’s hard to keep a black/white or isolationist mindset.

    While families can of course shun each other for all sorts of reasons (whoa, Anthony K!), the systematic shunning for believing the wrong things about God is pretty much confined to religion (though to be fair Mad O’Hare’s family seemed pretty disfunctional on the religion issue as well.) There is nothing more arbitrary than faith. If, push comes to shove, your religious views come down to a choice to ‘have faith,’ then once someone has thought about it and drawn a different conclusion you’re stuck. Atheists don’t lose faith; they lose their faith in faith. You can’t go back because it’s reason from there on. You changed your mind. Nothing was lost; you learned. Even if you’re wrong you can’t look at it the same way.

    Which is why shunning is such a powerful tool and used to deter nonbelief in a sectarian cult. You have to keep control at the beginning — at the level of faith. Once your doubts no longer feel as if they’re coming from Satan, spiritual weakness, or human wickedness but start to feel as if they’re coming from your conscience — it’s usually a fast ride out the door. They need hostages to slow the process down.

  • Anthony K

    Well, that may be true, Compuholic, but you do understand that going from having parents to “my parents are dead to me now” might involve a bit of emotional turmoil and suffering and stuff?

    I hope my comment did not come across as minimising the emotional trauma of estrangement. If it did, I apologise. It was not intended.

    (whoa, Anthony K!)

    It’s not so bad. I learned to develop extensive social networks, and I tend to gravitate towards others with like scenarios, and they me.

    For years I hosted an “Orphans’ Christmas” (my apologies to actual orphans), inviting those of my friends who weren’t on speaking terms with their families to spend the evening at my place, drinking wine, watching movies, and eating popcorn and snacks.

  • grumpyoldfart

    That’s how it goes in ga-ga land.

    Whoever is not with me is against me (Matthew 12:30)

    Just as well her father hasn’t read Matthew 18:6, or she’d be in real trouble.

  • bornagainatheist

    One of the verses used for disfellowshipping and shunning is Matthew 18:15-17.

    “But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, in order that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation. If he does not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.”

    The Watchtower Society points out that tax collectors were shunned and you wouldn’t even eat with such a man. I like to point out to my spouse, however, who is still one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, that they don’t really speak to the congregation. Three elders decide what happens to you and no one else gets to know or judge if they were right. You can appeal, but that goes to another group of elders. Everything is secret from the congregation, except the actual disfellowshipping.

    It is possible to love your child, but think that not talking to them is good for them. The reasoning is that if they are shut off from all contact with family they might come to their senses and come back to Jehovah, which is their only way to salvation. As Steven Weinberg said, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

    I was a Witness for over 20 years and I wasn’t even raised in it. I stupidly was taken in when I was 24. Disfellowshipping is discussed when you are just starting out, but they make it sound like it’s only for those who are doing evil things, not just disagreeing with the “Faithful and Discreet Slave.” And you can’t imagine a time when all your family and acquaintances are only Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that everyone in your whole life can turn against you. Once you are in the organization, you are strongly cautioned about making friends outside. Jehovah’s Witnesses love to quote the line where Jesus says, “Are you going away too?” and Peter says, “Lord, where would we go? You have sayings of everlasting life.” And of course, they are Jesus in this scenario.

    If you are disfellowshipped and want to go back, you have to crawl back. Meaning, you have to go to ALL the meetings for months, where everyone ignores you and only then would the elders even consider allowing yoou back in the congregation. It never happened to me, but I saw it happen all the time and of course I never spoke to a disfellowshipped person either. It’s hard to believe I could ever be so deluded.

  • Raised a fundamentalist

    I dated a woman who had not only left the JWs. but divorced her deacon husband at the same time. Somehow, she avoided being disfellowshipped. It must have been that the elders didn’t decide against her.

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden


    It only happens when people don’t really love their children. It is hard to accept, I know, but for many parents children are there to build up the parent’s ego and nothing else. Do something that embarrasses them and you are no longer important.

    This isn’t how it happened in my family. In my family it wasn’t over religion, but me being trans. My dad made a sort of progressive decision to disown me by default. I think at first, b/c our family had had conflict, that I was deluded, then thought that I was trolling… and he kept waiting for me to stop trolling him. I think he really thought I was trying to hurt him or provoke a reaction from him and he wasn’t going to respond – at all.

    And by the time that it became clear to him that coming out was part of a process in which I was dropping past defenses and trying to be honest with myself and my family, he had clearly established through practice (no explicit message was ever sent) that we don’t interact.

    Yet, I don’t consider this less hurtful. When you have the JW experience above, there’s a specific rationale and though you don’t feel good that a parent’s religion is more important than you, you’ve been introduced to the religion & understand that the parent believes in it and know what is supposed to happen if you don’t believe. If you buy into the hell-if-you-don’t-believe paradigm (and I don’t know anything about JWs, so I’m not talking about them specifically), you are treating your child badly for years on end, but at least there’s a rationale of hoping for eons of bliss together. The infinite rewards and infinite punishments of the next life easily outweigh any horribleness in this one. You can still believe that your parent loves you AND that they are disowning you.

    So you know what’s going on, and can understand, even if you don’t believe. With my dad, there was never any clear message, just a lot of silence and not answering phone calls, until it became obvious I was disowned. With my case, I had to wonder if my dad hated me? believed I was a horrible human being? What? That I would infect my youngest sib with cooties? I had no idea, and instead of infinite consequences justifying this, he justifies disowning me by some finite logic – keeping his youngest child away from spending time with an out trans person, avoiding painful introspection, being right; these are the kinds of things that outweigh the possibility of a relationship with a loving child.

    I have no idea how great or trivial a weight he put on our loving relationship, because to this day I have no idea what he considered to be more important than that. But I am pretty sure that it had nothing to do with his public reputation.

    And that doesn’t help.

  • The disowning becomes worse when the ultrafundamentalist QF/CP types do it. Besides shunning, they refuse to educate girls enough so that even if they leave and face shunning, they can’t support themselves on the outside.

  • Raised a fundamentalist

    Luckily, my girlfriend was a very talented secretary. She had no problem getting or holding a job.

    The JWs were, apparently, in favor of the women working, so they could keep getting their tithe.

  • Owlmirror

    We have a son who just in the last six months told us he wasn’t a believer. I wasn’t really surprised (I saw it coming), but it was hard for us to hear it stated explicitly.

    I recall you saying that you were an atheist when younger (around the same age as your son? Older?), but I don’t recall if you mentioned what denomination your own parents were, or how they took it.

    Did you have theological conversations with your parents, at that time?

    Did your son have theological conversations with you?

  • Raised a fundamentalist

    That wasn’t me that wrote that.

    I was raised as a son of fundamentalist missionaries. I considered myself an agnostic since at least 30 years ago, and in the last 10 have declared myself an atheist. That doesn’t describe any of my sons.

  • Owlmirror #35,

    I was not raised in a religious household. When I became a Christian I was essentially treated, benignly, in a teasing way, as the family Jesus freak. It did not affect any relationships. No theological discussion with my parents, but certainly with my son.