Amber Scorah says her decision to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses was both freeing and terrifying.
The author’s story took a tragic turn when, years after she left the Christian denomination, her infant son died the first day she took him to daycare. Scorah found herself with no faith to comfort her amid the heartbreak.
“I had been duped. We all had been. Probably even the leaders had been. Our religious ancestors had come up with a mythology because it felt better to live that way, and because the world could be a scary place,” Scorah, now a writer and editorial consultant for Scholastic, alleges about her life as a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness in her new memoir, Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life. “By the time any of us could have figured out we were in a cult, our whole lives were already committed to serving the community and upholding our faith. My entire life had revolved around it.”
When asked for comment about Scorah’s description of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “cult,” a spokesperson from the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses suggested readers visit their website for “accurate information about Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
“Far from being a dangerous cult, Jehovah’s Witnesses practice a religion that benefits its members and others in the community,” reads an article on the Jehovah’s Witnesses website. “For example, our ministry has helped many people to overcome harmful addictions, such as the abuse of drugs and alcohol. In addition, we conduct literacy classes around the world, helping thousands learn to read and write. And we are actively involved in disaster relief. We work hard to have a positive impact on others, just as Jesus commanded his followers to do. —Matthew 5:13-16.”
Raised believing that Armageddon was imminent, Scorah married when she was 22 and later emigrated from Canada to China with her husband to preach and convert others. Since preaching was illegal in China, they had to conduct their teachings secretly, according to the book. Scorah says that her missionary work thrilled her at first.
Scorah was “as confident as a suicide bomber,” she writes. But she began to have doubts about her religion after she started chatting online with Jonathan, an American man based in Los Angeles, whom she connected with while working on her popular podcast, Dear Amber — The Insider’s Guide to Everything China, according to the book. They later had an affair during her visit to the U.S.
“[Jonathan] had spent days and hours, over a year, even, patiently deprogramming me, learning about my religion so that he could show me what it was,” writes Scorah, who was at first saddened and confused when their relationship ended, but still looks back on their connection fondly. “He had made it his personal mission to show me that there was more of me than I knew. All so that I could take my self back. And I had it back. What was that, if not love?”
Their relationship didn’t last, but their conversations and intercontinental affair were the impetus behind Scorah’s decision to leave her husband and the Jehovah’s Witnesses — a move that she claims ended her relationship with all of her friends and family in the faith. (She says that she was declared an apostate.)
In the book, Scorah shares the email her sister sent imploring her to return to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The rest of her family closed her out completely, she writes.
“Everyone else I knew just vanished,” she writes. “It took surprisingly little time to lose a life’s worth of people.”
Scorah isn’t the first ex-believer to speak negatively about the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In an op-ed for The Guardian, an anonymous woman recounted that members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses discouraged higher education and contact with non-believers when she was growing up. (She left the religious group when she was 18.) In 2017, former Jehovah’s Witnesses told the BBC that their family members cut them off after they left the faith, which left them isolated and sometimes suicidal.
While Leaving the Witness is mostly a candid exploration of Scorah’s life as a Jehovah’s Witness and her transformation in China, the author leaves the last two chapters to detail her move to New York City. With only a high school education and unusual work experience, Scorah still managed to establish a career for herself. She also fell in love and had a baby, Karl. Scorah was “in heaven,” she writes. Then hell descended.
On the first day Scorah left her 3-month-old son at daycare, Karl died. To this day, Scorah doesn’t know the cause and has been wracked with guilt, according to the book.
“I don’t know how to describe the anguish,” Scorah told NPR of her son’s death in July 2015. “The devastation was complete on every level. But as far as just finding meaning — it’s interesting, because when I was a Jehovah’s Witness, we had the answers to all life’s disturbing questions, including: What happens when someone dies? Why would an innocent child die? Why would God allow that to happen? But the reality is … if you have answers to all of life’s questions, yes, it feels very meaningful, but if those answers aren’t true, then that’s also meaningless.”
“There’s a way through these kinds of things without religion,” Scorah continued. She and her partner Lee Towndrow, a visual effects artist, would go on to have a daughter. “And I think mostly, I think it has to do with other people, and with love. That’s what’s brought meaning to life again for me.”
Leaving the Witness is on sale now.