I suspect many people (myself included) have little concept of the religious tenets of the Jehovah's Witnesses. You know, those well-dressed folk who come to the door at the exact wrong moment, to push "The Watchtower" magazine in your face, who placidly accept "No thank you" or even "Go Away!!!" wearing an air of superiority as they preach at you.
Annoyance is one of the mildest reactions. Members of the sect were killed by the Nazis, and suffered persecution in many countries, including the United States. They are not simply faux Mormon who drink and don't celebrate Christmas. Yet Linda A. Curtis's Shunned: How I Lost My Religion and Found Myself opened my eyes.
Curtis, born into The Truth, as Witnesses call their faith, was fully indoctrinated in her early life. She willingly, even happily, accepts her place as a second-class citizen (all women are), attends lengthy services, and yes, rings doorbells with alacrity. Until the day she finds herself face to face with a co-worker, a man she knows as a nice, decent man, even admirable. Hardly missing a beat, she responds to his polite curiosity by informing him that he, and all unbelievers, will be destroyed by God as all authority on earth is replaced with Witnesses. "Destroyed" is the word that ultimately trips Curtis up.
Gradually, she asks herself the kind of questions that no true believers of any stripe can tolerate: "Who am I to predict the destruction of this man? How can I set myself apart and above from my neighbors, even from strangers? Why am I right, and all these other people wrong?"
She struggles with the answers, deciding to become "inactive" and divorce her husband. This is a big—but not devastating—step for a Witness. The sect does not recognize divorce: until one party admits to adultery (or dies) neither spouse can remarry in the eyes of the faithful. Curtis is still considered both married and a Witness. Witnesses can still socialize and communicate with her. The next step is being "disfellowshipped," after which Witnesses are expected to shun her. Taken to extremes, this means that Curtis's own parents and siblings might have nothing to do with her. Her brother doesn't wait for the formal rite: he refuses to speak to her, even over the telephone.
Simply telling the elders that she does not want to be a member is not enough to warrant disfellowship. Curtis submits to a face-to-face hearing before three elders, in which she admits adultery. After that, the elders expel her from the sect. Only then, can her husband be "free" and the divorce recognized. It is a brave move, which Curtis could have avoided by simply sending a letter, but she wanted the catharsis, the clean break. A less self-aware woman may have claimed to have acted for the benefit of her ex-husband, but she does not. She revels in her sense of closure.
Fortunately, her parents do not completely shun her, although their relationship is severely strained.
In telling her story, Curtis does not paint herself as a person of high moral virtue or profound courage. In fact, when her husband asks if there is anyone else, she truthfully says "No." She doesn't leave the Witnesses because she has accepted another version of The Truth, or even atheism. There is no other man, nothing earth-shattering that pulls her from the life she has always known. She explores other belief systems and religions, methodically. She rises in her career, remarries, and enjoys the "Death Exemption"—an informal lifting of the shunning during illnesses and funerals.
The story is compelling in its simplicity. There is a lack of artifice, and perhaps, drama as Curtis shares her experience. A few moments strike an off-chord—Curtis's dialogue reads too perfectly, everyone using impeccable grammar, and Curtis herself always upright, sure of herself, and unrepentant. Her choice of words can be wooden—she uses "riant" to mean "cheerful." ("We couldn't recapture our riant mode") and speaks of her boyfriends' "adoration"—which makes some of the book seem a trifle too self-satisfied.
Still, it is an enjoyable read about an interesting woman, and well worth the effort.
Linda A. Curtis is an author, teacher, and keynote speaker whose life experience has unwittingly granted her expertise on the subject of endings, large and small. As a champion of Honorable Closure—a learned process that honors endings, exits and good-byes as a natural and dynamic part of our human experience—she mentors individuals and teams in transition, supporting them from unfinished business to dignified completion. She is a Master Mindfulness Teacher at the Google-born Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute and an accredited ICF coach. Learn more about her work on her website. Linda lives in Marin County, California.
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