'I Couldn't Continue On': A Former Jehovah's Witness On Leaving The Faith

Jun 24, 2019
Originally published on June 26, 2019 7:25 am

As she grew up as a third-generation Jehovah's Witness, there were certain things Amber Scorah did not question.

When, as a teenager, the community shunned her and prevented her from participating in her father's funeral, she accepted it as appropriate punishment for having sex with her boyfriend. Rather than pulling away at that time, Scorah doubled down.

"When my father died, it just gave me more impetus to want to go back to the faith," Scorah says, "because I knew that the only way I would see him again was if I were a Jehovah's Witness who survived Armageddon, because after Armageddon, the faithful would be resurrected to Earth, in our beliefs."

Scorah went on to marry an elder in the church, and she and her husband traveled to China as missionaries. But gradually, doubt set in.

"The more I got to know and learn about Chinese culture ... the more I realized their culture had thousands of years of rich wisdom and cultural tradition and history," she says. "And here I was, across the table, coming here, this person from the West telling them to throw all that away in favor of this a-hundred-or-so-year-old new American religion."

In her new memoir, Leaving the Witness, Scorah reflects on her decision to leave her faith and her marriage. She eventually moved to New York and had children with a new partner, but the transition wasn't easy.

"It was very disorienting," she says. "I felt like everything that had mattered to me was gone. And the weirdest part of it all was that it was my own doing. Nobody did it to me. I chose it, because I couldn't continue on in something I didn't believe in anymore."


Interview highlights

On being "disfellowshipped" as a teenager for having sex with her boyfriend

Disfellowshipping is a means of excommunication, and what happens effectively is that when the elders determined that you were not repentant enough ... they would make an announcement at the congregation meeting. They would go to the platform, stand at the podium and just say, "Amber Scorah has been disfellowshipped." They wouldn't say why, but it was an announcement to let everyone know that they had to stop associating with you. ...

Disfellowshipping was just a complete shunning of the sinner. So what that effectively meant was that you lost your contact with your entire community, including your own family. ... If you wanted to get back, they left the door open, but ... you had to show your repentance by attending all the meetings and being very regular in showing up at the Kingdom Hall. However, no one was allowed to talk to you, and you sat in the back row while the meeting was on and left ... as soon as it was over, so that no one would have to talk to you.

On why she began to question her faith while she was doing missionary work in China

The people that I was talking to didn't have any frame of reference for Christianity or for the Bible. It was all for the most part quite new to them. So this Jehovah's Witness doctrine I was teaching them was basically their first introduction. And for a while it was great, because as a Jehovah's Witness, to have this kind of fresh blood where nobody had any prejudice against anything that I was saying was really encouraging and satisfying.

But what started to happen the longer I was there — I was studying with them in their language. ... I was sort of hearing what I was teaching almost for the first time through their ears. And while Chinese people on the whole are so hospitable and respectful — especially to a teacher, because culturally ... a student does not question a teacher — so while they were really great students (they would answer the questions; they would look up the Scriptures), over time I did start to notice a shift in their expression [that] would tell me that some of the things I was saying sounded kind of crazy to them.

On deciding to end her marriage and leave the faith

When you're raised in a really highly controlled group like this, a fundamentalist group, it takes a lot to unravel and unpick all of the beliefs, because so much of your identity is wrapped up in it. Your entire worldview is wrapped up in it. A lot of people think it's just like one day you wake up and you're like, "Oh my goodness! I had this epiphany." ... It didn't really happen like that. But there were things along the way that started to bother me and that started to feel wrong, things that I hadn't seen before. ...

When you're in a group that the ultimate ending is apocalypse, Armageddon, I think in some ways that's the only kind of ending you know — that you have to just blow everything up in order to start over again — and it worked. - Amber Scorah, on leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses

This is not the kind of religion that you can sort of just slink out of unnoticed. It's very tightknit, and I was also in quite a prominent position. ... Not everyone goes to China to be a missionary and is married to an elder. So if I were just to leave, it would not be easy. Also, I realized a lot more after leaving that there were things in this group that were cultlike. But at the time I wasn't ready to admit that, but I knew that it was wrong and I knew I had to get out of it. If I were not to make some kind of clean break, it would be so easy for me to just get sucked back in. It's hard to explain how much of a hold the beliefs have on you, because even if I had a couple of doubts, I still believed the rest of it. So it was almost like I think I felt propelled towards creating some kind of ending, and when you're in a group that the ultimate ending is apocalypse, Armageddon, I think in some ways that's the only kind of ending you know — that you have to just blow everything up in order to start over again — and it worked.

On grieving the loss of her nearly 4-month-old son, Karl, who died suddenly on his first day of day care

It's so awful that sometimes I can't believe it's real. ... When my dad died, it was sad, but it was temporary, because all of us die and basically the way the religion explained it is ... that God will resurrect those who are faithful and can bring them back to life in the paradise. So death was always a temporary thing to me when I was a Jehovah's Witness, and now when my son died ... I had nothing to fall back on. It was impossible for me to believe anything anymore about the afterlife. ...

Before in my life, I had so many answers. I had such clear answers to all these questions. When I realized that they had no basis in reality, I went to the other side, where I just learned to accept that there was mystery, that there were things in this life that we couldn't understand. And also I was forced, maybe more than anyone else, to find a way to feel comfortable in that, and I kind of have.

And it's sort of related to this spiritual feeling I think I've had my whole life, which I used to chalk up to being a religious experience, but I think more now of as a spiritual experience — just that there's the numinous, or the magical, all around us. And life is made up of these moments where if you choose to notice them, they're around you. Because those things like, say, the love I saw in my son's eyes for me when he was a baby are so inexplicable and transcendent, I think that they do feel magical. And if you think about them that way, you can just in some ways appreciate the magic of it.

On having her daughter a year after she lost her son, and living in fear

Scorah, who grew up a third-generation Jehovah's Witness, says leaving the faith was "very disorienting."
Courtesy of Amber Scorah / Viking

I think being raised with this Armageddon concept from a very young child, I was kind of an anxious person who worried all the time. Even with Karl, I was really worried about everything. I was so careful. That's why I was blindsided when he died that way that he died. I just couldn't have seen it coming. ... Yes, at the beginning, I felt terrified of something happening to [my daughter], and I did have PTSD. I would be out just walking down the street imagining, like, that a truck is going to, like, plow over us for no reason. But I think it was almost like the sheer unexpectedness and the horror of that child could die the way that Karl died that almost made me realize that all of these things are beyond our control. And I had to let go at some point and just trust that things will be OK, and that was all I could do, because ultimately being that close to death makes you really appreciate life. And I didn't want to not let my daughter live. I wanted her to have her life. ... So I just find ways to keep my fear at bay. That's all I can do.

On what she thinks when she sees Jehovah's Witnesses now

When I see a Witness in the subway now, there's a part of me [that] wants to hand them my book, because I want them to be free, to read the experience of someone who got through to the other side and has a happy life. ... I mostly ... feel sorry for them. I feel sad that the life that they will live will be lived for this myth, and maybe they'll never know, and maybe that's fine. But I can't help, now that I've seen both sides, feeling badly that that's the life that they are going to have.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I want to read you the headline of an op-ed in The New York Times that recently caught my attention. It read "Surviving The Death Of My Son After Surviving The Death Of My Faith" (ph). That essay, by my guest, Amber Scorah, is about the shocking loss of her 4-month-old baby boy and then grieving without the reassurances and answers that her former faith would have provided. The essay was adapted from Scorah's new memoir, "Leaving The Witness," about her life as a third-generation Jehovah's Witness.

She used to be a faithful believer. In her hometown, Vancouver, Canada, she knocked on doors missionizing, armed with copies of the Witness' publication, "The Watchtower," trying to warn people that Armageddon was imminent, and they would soon die and leave no trace behind unless they converted. Then she went to China, where the religion is outlawed, and tried to missionize there.

While in China, she started questioning the dogma she was taught, that she was now trying to teach others. She started challenging the lower position of women in the faith. And she broke some of the rules. As a result, elders shut her out of the religion. She was shunned, officially considered an apostate, which meant family and friends within the faith were obligated to stop communicating with her. She now lives in New York.

Amber Scorah, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think the only familiarity most Americans have with Jehovah's Witnesses - what they've been told when witnesses go door to door, trying to convert people. And you used to do that back when you lived in your hometown, Vancouver. What did you tell people when you did it in Vancouver, when you knocked on their door and tried to convince them they should become a Jehovah's Witness?

AMBER SCORAH: That's a great question, and it's hard to answer because I often didn't get much of a chance to tell people what I wanted to tell them because when you're a Jehovah's Witness in much of the Western world, most people don't answer their doors, or if they do, before you can get a word in, they usually tell you they're not interested.

But what I wanted to tell them was, essentially - our message was that the end of the world was coming, but that there was a way to be saved, and the reason - the purpose for our visit was to save them. And it wasn't just about the end of the world; the reason why we felt like we had a really positive message was that if they converted to become one of Jehovah's Witnesses, they could live forever in paradise on Earth.

GROSS: So is that one of the differences between certain evangelicals who believe in the rapture, that we know when the end times come and they're coming soon, that believing Christians will be raptured up to heaven, whereas Jehovah's Witnesses believe that after Armageddon, that believers, Jehovah's Witnesses, that they're not going to heaven, they're having paradise on earth?

SCORAH: Exactly, the vast majority. They do believe that a certain number that they've picked out of a bible book, Revelation, will go to heaven to be with Jesus. But the vast majority of people that are, you know, God's true people will live on Earth. And how they get to this conclusion is they have a very literal interpretation of the Bible. So if you open up the book of Revelation, you can find - to sort of pick out from there, you know, different passages about an apocalypse, about a great crowd of people who will go on to live forever under God's kingdom.

And then they have a few other scriptures they use from different places in the bible that talk about people living forever on earth. They sort of piece these things together to take - create this theology that says, you know, Adam and Eve were created onto the Earth in a paradise, and that God's true purpose is one day to restore that paradise with his people there living on their earth.

GROSS: OK, so when Armageddon happens, believers - Jehovah's Witnesses - will be in this earthly paradise. What happens to everybody else?

SCORAH: Essentially, Armageddon is God's war to end wickedness. So that means that anyone who isn't following the true faith - which in Jehovah's Witness' mind is themselves - will be cut off, destroyed, leaving over in this paradise only the people who are abiding by God's laws, aka the Jehovah's Witness doctrine.

GROSS: Is there a hell that everybody else goes to?

SCORAH: No, they don't believe in hell; they just believe that those who are killed in Armageddon will just - they just die, and they have no chance of coming back.

GROSS: So what were some of the strict rules you had to live by that were different from strict rules in - that people follow in - who are orthodox or who are fundamentalist?

SCORAH: Well, it's interesting. Yeah. Jehovah's Witnesses, over the years, they sort of came up with different things that started to differentiate them from mainstream Christianity. A few of the more notable ones that people are aware of are that they don't celebrate birthdays. They don't celebrate Christmas. Really, almost any holidays, they don't celebrate. And the reason for this is because a lot of those holidays and traditions have pagan roots.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that they're the one true pure Christianity. And so they take it upon themselves to, like, look for things, almost, to make sure that their worship is the most pure. So those were definitely some of them. Preaching was another thing. Because it's an apocalyptic religion, the thrust of almost everything you do when you're part of a religion like this has to do with the fact that the world is ending.

So because the world is ending, why would you go to college? They strongly discouraged you from going - anyone from going to college. Why would you get a career? A career would just be a distraction. You only needed enough money to survive because when Armageddon was going to come tomorrow or the next day or the next week, you didn't need to focus on a retirement plan or anything like that. So it really affected the way you lived your life in that you were living for some future that was about to come any minute, and you weren't really participating in this world in the way that other people did because this world wasn't the real life.

GROSS: So did you see the imminent arrival of the end of the world as good news because, like, you were going be in eternal paradise afterwards, or did it frighten you?

SCORAH: Well, I mean, I was excited. I really wanted to live forever. I really loved the idea. And as a child, it was presented to us, you know, this - we had children's books that showed illustrations of the coming paradise where children could play with panda bears and this type of thing. And so on the one hand, it was this beautiful, exciting thing that I couldn't wait for.

But on the other hand, in those same children's books, there were illustrations of Armageddon. And on those pages, there would be these centerfold illustrations of fire raining down from heaven on children and their parents - you know, the worldly people dying, falling into a crevice. So mixed with that sort of wonderful hope, there was always this dark side of the fear. The two were sort of married together. You couldn't have one without the other. But the way that you knew how to stay safe from that fear and from that terror was by sticking close to the organization.

GROSS: So when you were in your teens, you had a boyfriend, and you kissed, and you touched. It wasn't sex, per se (laughter). It wasn't intercourse; you're just kissing and touching. But he decided at some point that you had to confess to the elders. So tell us a little bit about why he decided, like, you had to confess to what you'd done and what that process of confessing was like.

SCORAH: Well, in our religion, there's kind of an obsession with chastity and morality and bodily pureness. And so while there were some lines you could walk if you were, say, dating someone with a view to marriage (ph), it had to be. But if you crossed certain lines, it was viewed as immorality and it didn't have to be. It could be, just as you say, too intimate. So after that had happened - I was so naive, I didn't even really know what had happened. But he was a bit older and more experienced. And he knew that that would cross the line.

A lot of people say, why would you confess? You could've just not told anyone. But we were so - we had been taught, for our whole lives, that God could see everything we did and that if we crossed a line into immorality and we hid it, it was much worse than even the immorality itself and that, when Armageddon came, we'd be killed for that, for hiding those acts that we had done - performed and made ourselves unclean.

So the way to overcome this sin you had committed was to tell the elders in the congregation. The elders were older men who were appointed to basically shepherd the flock. So they looked after giving talks and sort of, like, administrative matters in the congregation. But also, one of their main roles was to basically form a committee anytime any sin was committed, hear what the sinner had done and then decide - basically, judge the sinner - as to whether they were - they could stay in the congregation or whether the sin was severe enough or the person unrepentant enough that they had to be kicked out or disfellowshipped from the congregation.

GROSS: So that first time you went before the elders, I guess you were repentant enough. But the second time, after you had actually had sex with your boyfriend, you were apparently not repentant enough and you were disfellowshipped. You're around 18 years old at the time. What did it mean to be disfellowshipped?

SCORAH: So disfellowshipping is a means of excommunication. And what happens, effectively, is that, when the elders determined that you were not repentant enough - this type of thing - they would make an announcement at the congregation meeting. They would go to the platform, stand at the podium and just say, Amber Scorah has been disfellowshipped. They wouldn't say why. But it was an announcement to let everyone know that they had to stop associating with you, even saying a greeting to you. Disfellowshipping was just a complete shunning of the sinner. So what that effectively meant was that you lost your contact with your entire community - including your own family. They had to also abide by the disfellowshipping.

And the way to get back - of course, if you wanted to get back, they left the door open. But the means of doing that was that, while you were disfellowshipped, you had to show your repentance by attending all the meetings, being very regular in showing up at the kingdom hall. However, no one was allowed to talk to you. And you sat in the back row while the meeting was on and left right - as soon as it was over so that no one would have to talk to you.

GROSS: Your father died while you were being shunned by everyone in your faith. You went to the funeral, but you had to sit in the back row. Now, your father had strayed himself. He had become an alcoholic, which I'm sure is not smiled on by Jehovah's Witnesses. So considering that he had strayed himself and that you were sitting in the back row, because you weren't allowed to be an active participant in the funeral or in the mourning process, what was it like for you to be shunned like that at your own father's funeral?

SCORAH: It was obviously very difficult. But one thing you have to understand is that when you are a true believer in a organization in a highly controlled environment like this, everything that happens to you you agree with. You think that it's deserved. So when I sat there in the back row, I knew that I - it was of my own doing. I was the one that had put myself into this position because I had been immoral.

It was strange, though. My dad's best friend gave the prayer. And after that day, after the funeral when my father died, it just gave me more impetus to want to go back to the faith because I knew that the only way I would see him again was if I were a Jehovah's Witness who survived Armageddon because after Armageddon, the faithful would be resurrected to Earth, in our beliefs.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Amber Scorah. She's the author of the new book "Leaving The Witness: Exiting A Religion And Finding A Life." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Amber Scorah, author of the new book "Leaving The Witness: Exiting A Religion And Finding A Life." and it's about growing up as a third-generation Jehovah's Witness, becoming a missionary within the religion, then leaving the religion.

So after having a boyfriend and having sex with him, you ended up being shunned by your religion. You got back into the faith. And then you got married to somebody who you did not feel passionate about, but you married. And within the faith, the man has a kind of higher position in the marriage than the woman does. So what powers are given to a man in the marriage that the woman does not have?

SCORAH: Well, essentially, the man is the head of the woman. So there's sort of a hierarchy that the Jehovah's Witnesses draw from the Bible, where God is in first place. Jesus is in second place. The husband is in third place. And then the wife comes last. So what that meant in my own marriage was not that much. It was - my husband was kind of a passive guy. He wasn't someone who wielded his authority in a harsh way.

But what it meant was that in the congregation, he was the one that sort of had privileges. All the men were the ones who did the teaching. They were sort of - the men were the ones who - they called it, like, the captain of the ship of the family. So if a man decided that, you know, you were going to do something, the family was going to do something. The woman - it wasn't her place to argue with it. It was her place to support him.

GROSS: Were you good at that, at being the No. 2 and the supportive woman?

SCORAH: Not really.

(LAUGHTER)

SCORAH: Yeah. I think, by nature, I have kind of a strong personality. So I come from a line of women with strong personalities. And in fact, my grandmother was the one who became the first Jehovah's Witness in our family. And the only reason she converted was because her husband wanted to. And she agreed to the - study with the Witnesses on the condition that she was only doing it to prove them wrong. Of course, they ended up being the one to convince her. But yeah. I was definitely not the most submissive of Jehovah's Witness women.

GROSS: You wanted to, like, travel and live in other places because you're not allowed to divorce if you're a Witness. And the marriage wasn't going well. But you figured, at least if you'd, like, change scenes and go to a different place, your life would be more interesting. So you lived in Taiwan for a while, then moved to China - did missionary work there. And you write about how you felt more freedom in China - even though China was a repressive society, you felt more freedom there than you did in Canada. And that was, in part, because the religion was banned, and therefore, you had to operate underground. So how did being a missionary for a banned religion in China and having to work underground make you feel more free?

SCORAH: As a Jehovah's Witness in Canada or the United States, practically speaking, we went to five meetings a week. We studied our Bibles all the time. We went to preaching multiple times a week. And all of our free time - if we did have some, you know, association with anyone - it would be with others Jehovah's Witnesses for congregational activities.

Moving to China, to my surprise - I knew things would be different there because our religion was illegal, therefore done underground. But in China - when I got there, it was kind of amazing to discover that there was only one meeting a week, held in a secret location. And other than that, you were kind of on your own. You were left to your own devices to arrange how you were going to do your preaching work. You didn't really see other Jehovah's Witnesses that much because the city was huge and there were very few Jehovah's Witnesses there.

So effectively, what that meant for our preaching was that - whereas in Canada, we would go to a preaching group, and a brother would assign us who we were working with. And he'd give us a territory map, and we'd go and knock on the doors. Well, in China, you just woke up in the morning and had to figure out how you were going to find people to talk to. Now, given that you're in a country where your activities were illegal, it didn't mean that you could just go out and start preaching to people. You had to first make friends with people and get to know them before you ever brought up your purpose in talking to them.

So what that would entail is, like, multiple meetings with people - maybe over the course of a couple months - getting to know them in order to know whether they were safe. And by safe, I mean they didn't have any affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party. Or they didn't have family members who worked for the government. Or if they didn't seem like people who were kind of going to be anti-religion or sort of wonder what you were doing there. And why that felt very free for me was that, for the first time in my life, I didn't have a really structured schedule. And I had the freedom to develop relationships with people outside the parameters I was used to.

GROSS: So when you did bring up, like, your faith with somebody you'd befriended in China and you started talking to them about it, what did they find most unusual, most baffling about what you were telling them?

SCORAH: Well, first of all, the people that I was talking to didn't have any frame of reference for, you know, Christianity or for the Bible. It was all, for the most part, quite new to them. So this Jehovah's Witness doctrine that I was teaching them was, basically, their first introduction. And for a while, it was great because to have this kind of, like - as a Jehovah's Witness, to have this kind of fresh blood, where nobody had any prejudice against anything that I was saying, was really encouraging and satisfying.

But what had started to happen the longer I was there, you know, I was studying with them in their language. It wasn't the language of my own and, you know, how I had learned, how I had been indoctrinated. It wasn't my own language. I was sort of hearing what I was teaching, almost for the first time, through their ears. And while Chinese people on the whole are so hospitable and respectful - especially to a teacher because, culturally, you know, a student does not question a teacher.

So while they were really, like, great students - they would answer the questions, they would look up the Scriptures - over time, I did start to notice that - just, like, a shift in their expression would tell me that some of the things I was saying sounded kind of crazy to them. And then over time even longer, that feeling that I got from experiencing their experience of my religion started to morph for me, too, to a point where I started to almost feel embarrassed as I sat across from them because the more I got to know and learn about Chinese culture from them and from the other friends that I met in China, the more I realized, like, their culture had thousands of years of rich wisdom and cultural tradition and history.

And here I was across the table, coming here, this person from the West, telling them to, you know, throw all that away in favor of this, you know, hundred-or-so-year-old, new American religion. And it started to put - sort of skew my perspective. And it was one of the factors that initially started to, I think, create fertile ground for me to start to question what I had been taught myself in the first place.

GROSS: My guest is Amber Scorah. Her new memoir is called "Leaving The Witness." After we take a short break, we'll talk about why she left the Jehovah's Witnesses and what it was like to deal with the death of her baby son without the comfort and answers that her former religion would have provided. And John Powers will review the dystopian series "Years And Years," starring Emma Thompson as a populist politician who owns a TV network. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Amber Scorah, author of the new memoir "Leaving The Witness," about her life as a third-generation Jehovah's Witness. In her hometown, Vancouver, Canada, she knocked on doors trying to convert people, warning them that Armageddon was imminent. Then she became a missionary in China, where the religion is outlawed. There she began to question her faith. She's since left the Witnesses and started a new life in New York.

Was there a turning point for you where you decided you were done with your religion?

SCORAH: It took a long time. When you're raised in a really, highly controlled group like this, a fundamentalist group, it takes a lot to unravel and unpick all of the beliefs and - because so much of your identity is wrapped up in it. Your entire worldview is wrapped up in it. A lot of people think it's just like, one day you wake up, and you're like, oh, my goodness, I had this epiphany. It's not the truth. It didn't really happen like that. But there were things along the way that started to, like, bother me and that started to feel wrong - things that I hadn't seen before.

GROSS: Before you fully left the faith, you left your husband. Now, leaving your husband basically meant that you were leaving the faith because you're not allowed to divorce. So was leaving your husband a way of leaving the faith without officially saying, I'm leaving the faith?

SCORAH: Yeah. This is not the kind of religion that you can sort of just slink out of unnoticed. It's very tightknit. And I was also in quite a prominent position. Not that I had a position that was, like, high up in the church, but when - not everyone goes to China to be a missionary and, you know, is married to an elder. So if I were just to leave, it would not be easy. Also, I realized a lot more after leaving that there were things in this group that were cult-like. But at the time, I wasn't ready to admit that. But I knew that it was wrong, and I knew I had to get out of it.

If I were not to make some kind of clean break, it would be so easy for me to just get sucked back in. It's hard to explain how much of a hold the beliefs have on you because even if I had a couple of doubts, I still believed the rest of it. So it was almost like - I think I felt propelled towards creating some kind of ending. And when you're in a group that the ultimate ending is apocalypse, Armageddon, I think in some ways that's the only kind of ending you know, that you have to just blow everything up in order to start over again. And it worked.

GROSS: So when you ended the marriage, were you immediately shunned from the faith?

SCORAH: So events happened very kind of quickly. But I wouldn't have been ultimately shunned from the faith just for ending my marriage; I probably would have gotten disfellowshipped, but I could have clawed my way back in as I had before. But what ultimately led to the complete ostracization was the fact that people became aware that I was having doubts about the faith.

And what that is considered as in Jehovah's Witnesses is apostasy, which is essentially believing and then not believing and is the actual worst sin a person can commit. It's worse than being a murderer or a child abuser because that's the one sin that God will not forgive.

GROSS: So when your religion told you this is the end, and everybody who was your family and friends within the religion knew that they could no longer communicate with you, what were you left with? You were now a single woman living in an authoritarian country, China. You were there to preach your faith you were no longer a part of. So you basically lost everything.

SCORAH: Yes, I did. It was very disorienting. I felt like everything that had mattered to me was gone. And the weirdest part of it all was that it was my own doing. Nobody did it to me. Like, I chose it because I couldn't continue on in something I didn't believe in anymore. But that didn't lessen how awful it was to be that alone.

GROSS: So you lost friends. You lost family. You lost your job, which was being a missionary. It was part - you had other jobs, too. But what you gained was free will. Did you know how to use it?

SCORAH: Yeah. So when I first realized I didn't have to do this religion anymore because it was not the truth that I had thought it was, I remember very clearly that the first emotion I felt was relief that I didn't have to do this. And quickly followed by fear because I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. So yes, I felt excited about the idea that I had so much in front of me. Like, I could finally be who I was or find who I was, participate in the world. But all the same, I was faced with trying to figure out how I would live in this world. And it was scary.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. And when we come back, we'll talk about what you did after leaving the faith. If you're just joining us, my guest is Amber Scorah. She's the author of the new book "Leaving The Witness," about being a Jehovah's Witness, being a missionary for the faith, moving to China to try to convert people, then leaving the religion and creating a new life. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Amber Scorah. She was a third-generation Jehovah's Witness until she left the religion. Her new memoir "Leaving The Witness" is about becoming a missionary for her faith, moving to China to preach her faith, entertaining many serious doubts, leaving the religion and then creating a new life.

After you kind of succumb to your doubts, and you were shut out of your religion, you moved to New York from China. You got an apartment in the East Village. You couldn't get a job. You finally got one. You finally got a boyfriend. And you wanted to have a baby. Why was having a baby just especially important to you after having lost your faith and, therefore, having lost your family who shunned you?

SCORAH: After I had moved to New York and been there for a few years, I was getting to be later in my 30s, and I couldn't help but think about this big decision - whether I wanted to have a child or not. And of course, having a child was one of those things I had just always punted off as something I would do in the paradise.

But when - you know, by this point, I've come fully to grips with my own mortality. And I also - I wanted to have family again. Most of my family was shunning me. I had this sort of divide between my old life and my new life. And I wanted to fully live. I wanted to fully experience what it meant to be a person in this world. And ultimately, that - thinking about it, I decided that part of that would be that I wanted to have a child.

GROSS: And so you had a boyfriend. You weren't married. But you had a son with him. And then you had a three-month maternity leave from your job. After that, you returned to work. And on, I think, the first day, you left your son Karl, your baby son Karl, at the day care center. You returned back to the day care center to nurse him at lunchtime. Would it be too painful to ask you to describe what happened when you got back to the day care center?

SCORAH: Yeah. I left work. It was the first time I ever left him. And I ran back to the day care center. It was just a couple blocks away from my job. And when I got there, I didn't know anything was wrong because everything had happened so fast no one had notified me. But when I walked in the door, I saw one of the day care assistants waving me - all the children were in the sort of kitchen area, and she was waving me to go beyond to the main play area. And when I turned the corner, I saw my son laying on a change table, and the day care owner was doing CPR on him, and his lips were blue.

So I mean, you can imagine the shock because I didn't even know that anything was wrong. So what had happened was, well, no one knows. She had put him down for a nap, she said, and then went to wake him up because she knew I was coming back to breastfeed him at my lunch hour, and he was already dead.

GROSS: I just can't imagine what that was like for you.

SCORAH: Honestly, sometimes I can't imagine. Like, it's so awful that sometimes I can't believe it's real.

GROSS: And you didn't have faith to fall back on at that point; you had abandoned your faith. If you were still a Witness at that time, how would the religion have explained your loss? Because you say the religion had an answer for everything, including, you know, the toughest question.

SCORAH: Yeah, death - the experience of death, when I was religious, was still difficult. When my dad died, it was sad, but it was temporary because all of us die. And basically, the way the religion explained it is that time and unforeseen occurrence, the Bible says that happens to everyone. But what really matters is that God will resurrect those who are faithful and can bring them back to life in the paradise. So death was always a temporary thing to me when I was a Jehovah's Witness.

And now, when my son died, which was obviously even more difficult than a father dying, yeah, I didn't - I wasn't - I had nothing to fall back on. I didn't believe - it was impossible for me to believe anything anymore about the afterlife.

GROSS: So a few years earlier, you would have had answers to explain what happened, and you would have had the confidence of knowing that you'd be reunited with your son in Armageddon on the earthly paradise. But now your son died, and you were living without answers; you had no faith to fall back on. What is it like for you now to live with the uncertainty of not knowing how or why your son died, not knowing why anybody dies, not knowing what happens to somebody after they die?

SCORAH: I think because before, in my life, I had such clear answers to all these questions, when I realized that they had no basis in reality, I went to the other side where I just learned to accept that there was mystery, that there were things in this life that we couldn't understand. And also, I was forced maybe more than anyone else to find a way to feel comfortable in that. And I kind of have.

And it's sort of related to this kind of a spiritual feeling I think I've had my whole life, which I used to chalk up to being a religious experience, but I think more now of as a spiritual experience. Just that there's the numinous or the magical all around us, and life is made up of these moments where, if you choose to notice them, they're around you. And because those things like, say, the love I saw in my son's eyes for me when he was a baby, are so inexplicable and transcendent, I think that they do feel magical. And if you think about them that way, you can just in some way appreciate the magic of it.

GROSS: You got pregnant again within a year of your son's death, and you have a daughter now. Have you had to stop yourself from being overprotective or overly paranoid about what could happen to her?

SCORAH: Yeah. The funny thing is that I was always that kind of person (laughter). I think being raised with this Armageddon concept from a very young child, I was kind of an anxious person who worried all the time. And even with Karl, I was really worried about everything. I was so careful. That's why I was blindsided when he died the way that he died. I just couldn't have seen it coming. So I think for me, yes, at the beginning, I felt terrified of something happening to her, and I did have PTSD. I would be, you know, out in the streets and just walking down the street, imagining, like, that a truck is going to, like, plow over us for no reason.

But I think it was almost like the sheer unexpectedness and the horror of that a child could die the way that Karl died that almost made me realize that all of these things are beyond our control. And I had to let go at some point and just trust that things will be OK. And that was all I could do because, ultimately, being that close to death makes you really appreciate life, and I didn't want to not let my daughter live. I wanted her to have her life. I want her to have her life. So I just find ways to keep my fear at bay. That's all I can do.

GROSS: Are you and your partner still together?

SCORAH: Yeah.

GROSS: Are you married?

SCORAH: No.

GROSS: I'm asking that because marriage sounds like it was not a good experience for you when you were a Jehovah's Witness. And marriage was predicated on the fact that, you know, God is No. 1, Jesus - No. 2.

SCORAH: Yes.

GROSS: Then the husband No. 3, the wife No. 4. Is that part of the reason why you're not married, if you don't mind my asking?

SCORAH: Yeah, you're exactly right. I don't even know why anyone gets married now that I'm not religious. There's so many things that, now that I'm not religious, that I question, like all of these structures and societal frameworks that everyone abides by. I don't really - I question everything now, and I think, why do we do what we do? So when it comes to marriage, yeah. I think marriage, to me, represents something oppressive and something that is controlled by someone else or something else. And I just - I feel better being with someone because I choose to, not because anyone tells me I have to be or a paper tells me I have to be, yeah.

GROSS: In your own way, I think you just described some people's feelings about why we need religion because some people fear, without religion, people won't be good. All the norms of society will fade away. People won't get married. People won't follow certain conventions anymore. And you're saying, like, yeah. Why should I follow those? But it sounds also like you're just testing them to see whether they're real and if you really need them and if society really needs them.

SCORAH: Yeah, because I do think of myself as a moral person, and I really do want to be a person of good character. I think about those things more so now that I'm not religious because the framework isn't laid out for what that is when you're not religious. So yeah, there's something wrong with taking one's own morality and handing it over to a group. And I think that we've seen this happen throughout history, where individuals who wouldn't think they would ever do something horrible or immoral, when part of a group, will go along and do it. So to me, there's almost something more moral about not just handing over your thinking powers or your ability to reason to do what someone else tells you is right or wrong. In fact, I think it's a dangerous thing to do.

GROSS: So you've taken personal responsibility for making sure you're a moral, decent, good person.

SCORAH: I try (laughter).

GROSS: Do you ever run into Jehovah's Witnesses, like, you know, in the street or on the train? And if so, do you talk with them? Like, what are those interactions like, since you're basically considered an apostate and have been shut out of the faith?

SCORAH: I do. I live in New York City, so I see them every day because they're in the subways and on the streets doing their preaching. And in fact, for a while, I lived in Brooklyn Heights, which was, up until recently, the world headquarters of the Jehovah's Witnesses, where 3,000 Jehovah's Witnesses worked as volunteers. So I would see them every time I left my apartment. But when I see a Witness in the subway now, there's a part of me - like, one impulse wants to hand them my book because I want them to be free, to read the experience of someone who got through to the other side and has a happy life. But mostly, when I see them, I don't confront them. I see that they're really nice people. In fact, I have many friends that I love that are Jehovah's Witnesses, even though they don't talk to me. But they're good people. They just - they sincerely believe in what they've been taught, and their motives are good. I mostly just feel a sense of sort of - I feel sorry for them. I feel sad that they - the life that they will live will be lived for this myth. And maybe they'll never know, and maybe that's fine. But I can't help, now that I've seen both sides, feeling badly that that's the life that they are going to have.

GROSS: Well, while you're feeling sad for them, they're probably feeling very sad for you.

SCORAH: Oh, for sure. They're definitely (laughter). And, sometimes, I think, like - I mean, obviously, it's very anonymous in New York City. No one knows I'm an apostate. But, sometimes, when I walk by, they'll make eye contact with me, and I'll be like, can they see it in me? That I know?

GROSS: Amber Scorah, thank you so much for talking with us.

SCORAH: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: And I'm so sorry about the loss of your son.

SCORAH: Thank you.

GROSS: Amber Scorah is the author of the new memoir "Leaving The Witness." After we take a short break, John Powers will review HBO's new political dystopian series "Years And Years," which begins when Donald Trump is re-elected. This is FRESH AIR.

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