Family estrangement is the norm in Jehovah’s Witness families. But for Lara, who has left the religion, the practice of shunning has destroyed her family and had lasting impacts.
Preview above: Insight finds out what it's like to be estranged from your family. Full ep. on SBS On Demand.
It’s somewhat ironic that my family name is Kaput. Because that’s exactly what we are: a broken family.
I haven’t seen my older Jehovah’s Witness sister for years and the last time we had a conversation she asked me to never contact her again. My younger sister I hadn’t seen for nine years until we appeared together on Insight’s Family Estrangement episode. My dad I only see about once a year and I haven’t seen my mum for a number of years either. Sometimes one of us will try but it just been so bad for so long, it’s just too hard.
My parents both immigrated to Australia with their families when they were very young. Their families had experienced loss and trauma during World War II so converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses which promised them hope for the future. Mum and Dad met in Flemington at a Jehovah’s Witness convention and were married within six months. Soon my siblings and I came along and the three of us girls were all given Russian names. Early family life was fun. We played board games, went to frequent events, cycled, rode horses, went bush-walking and had pets to cuddle. We seemed to have it all.
But there was an ever present strict religious presence. Our family were uber-zealous. It was all pervasive: we prayed at every meal, attended three meetings a week, preached from door-to-door on weekends and worked on “Quick build” construction sites. We weren’t allowed to vote, enjoy birthday parties or celebrate Christmas. We were supposed to have only Jehovah’s Witness friends. I was allocated a Jehovah’s Witness pen pal. We sent postcards with a picture of the Jehovah’s Witness head office. My primary school friend remembers not being allowed to play with me after school. She wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness and we were all fully indoctrinated. It was awkward. My partner recently saw a photo of us together and said “look at you cute little kids in your cult outfits”.
My little sister described our lives as “perfect until the divorce”. I just couldn’t believe Mum had left; I burst into tears when I told my friend. Jehovah’s Witness families were supposed to live through Armageddon and live on a paradise earth. Forever. But Mum was kicked out. Disfellowshipped. We were told to shun disfellowshipped people. Our sheltered little world shattered into pieces.
Mum was suddenly on the periphery. Everyone looked down on her. They’d been trained to stop talking to her. They literally all abandoned Mum. My older sister and I stayed with Dad. My little sister went with Mum. Our home was sold. Everything we knew collapsed. Looking back now, I’ll never forget how an entire community, literally her entire social network, was coerced into stopping their natural affection for her. I don’t know how she survived that.
Every Jehovah’s Witness suffers from shunning - either you’re being shunned, or you have to shun. We learned to shun each other and that broke us.
I didn’t want to disappoint Dad, so I got baptised because I was dating an Elder’s son. Getting baptised as a Jehovah’s Witness is nothing like a Catholic baptism; it’s an eternal contract. You can’t just leave once you’re baptised. I didn’t like their high control. I actually wanted to leave. I was learning about science and I didn’t want to live forever without equality and with a bunch of hypocrites. Eventually, my escape path materialised when my boyfriend dobbed us in for ‘petting’. I got kicked out. I’ve never had a phone call, letter or email from any of my Jehovah’s Witness uncles, aunts, or cousins since the day I left, nearly 30 years ago. It was a high price to pay. It traumatised us all.
I was ill-prepared for ultimate freedom. I went nightclubbing every week and danced until 2 or 4am. The next day I’d be hungover well into the evening. I was completely lost. Finally, I had a breakdown and hardly left the house for two years. Eventually I got help from my GP by being referred to a psychologist. I read self-help books and learned how to breathe deeply again. I embraced cognitive behavioural therapy. I acknowledged my body dysmorphia. I rediscovered the outdoors. I finally felt in control of my own life. Other family members were treated similarly when they left.
The Human Rights Commission should speak out against the practice of shunning. Family estrangement is the norm in Jehovah’s Witness families. Every Jehovah’s Witness suffers from shunning - either you’re being shunned, or you have to shun. We learned to shun each other and that broke us.
Lara is the co-founder of SaySorry.org, an organisation that helps Jehovah’s Witness child sexual abuse survivors.