DECEMBER 15, 2019
ANYONE WHO HAS LEFT a religion will know that — amid the terror and the thrill, once the process is underway, but before you’ve settled into a new life — there is a moment of freefall. With arms stretched wide and hair flapping in the wind, you surrender the weight of your body to gravity and hope, despite not having any real evidence, that something, or someone, will cushion your landing.
In Amber Scorah’s Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life, that moment arrives when she is on a plane heading toward Shanghai, where she lives, having just spent a few days in Los Angeles with Jonathan, her lover. Scorah is returning to China where, together with her husband, she is an undercover Jehovah’s Witness missionary. As the plane soars from West to East, from a sex-saturated bungalow to a cold marital home, Scorah enters freefall. She doesn’t know how she will end her marriage or how she will extract herself from her religious community, but she is certain that the life that awaits her back in China is over. Doubt has withered her once-fervent beliefs so that now, in the aftermath of her affair, she feels compelled, by a force greater than herself, to leave.
Following on the heels of other books about exiting a religion (Educated and Pure being the most obvious), Leaving the Witness offers an intimate — at times painful, at times humorous — exploration of what it means to leave not only a religion, but an entire life.
Scorah’s account begins on the first day she arrives in Shanghai. Although she introduces various flashbacks of her life in Canada — how her grandmother first brought her along to Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings as a child, how as a teenager she was “disfellowshipped” for sleeping with her boyfriend, and how she eventually met and married her husband — the thrust of the book is set in Asia. China not only serves as a backdrop, it’s almost a character in its own right: Scorah draws parallels between China and her own narrative throughout the book by focusing on the tensions between restriction and freedom, secrecy and openness.
In the most convincing of these parallels, Scorah describes the rupture that China underwent in the late 1970s as the country transitioned to a market economy. And she compares China’s break from the brutal Cultural Revolution period with her own departure from a tightly controlled religious system. And like the dramatic shift China experienced, Scorah’s own shift was borne of myriad factors: meeting Jonathan online and having to answer his critical questions about her faith, feeling dislocated in a foreign country, hosting a popular podcast on life in China, and the long-developing antipathy she developed for her husband.
Both transitions were gradual, both happened in stages; Scorah describes her shift from devout Witness to apostate in detail, enumerating the questions and events that led her to slough off one life and slip into another. Although religious disaffiliation has been explored before, Scorah adds humanity and texture to the experience. Perhaps one of the most important of these details is the feeling of disorientation, which flooded her as she navigated a foreign country, causing her to question her own way of being in the world and creating little fissures of doubt. In one particularly vivid vignette, Scorah describes having an argument with a middle-aged Shanghainese woman after parking her bike close to the woman’s doorway. A crowd of onlookers gets involved, as do the police, until the woman finally pushes Scorah’s bike over defiantly. Scorah sulks away, reminded that she is and always will be the foreigner here.
The scholar Lynn Davidman, in her semi-autobiographical account of leaving Orthodox Judaism, describes the angst that accompanies de-conversion. She depicts the bodily transformations that apostates undergo, such as eating and dressing differently, to underscore just how dramatic the process can be. Davidman also explains that the boundedness of a religious group directly affects the level of devastation wrought by leaving: the longer you’ve spent inside the enclave, the more dizzying the world outside appears once you step outside.
In Leaving the Witness, Scorah demonstrates this principle by explaining just how demanding life as a Jehovah’s Witness was, and how that affected her ability to start over after leaving. As a Witness, you are not to accept blood transfusions (even when refusal means death), pursue higher education, celebrate Christmas, or have any sexual contact outside of marriage. You must attend weekly “meetings,” and spend time socializing with other Witnesses. You must proselytize (witness) to unbelievers and, once you’ve recruited converts, you must set up regular Bible study sessions with them. You must prepare for the apocalypse, which Witnesses believe will come imminently. “I had been duped,” she states simply, as she reflects on these demands.
Because of her highly sheltered way of life, once she starts her transition out of the religion, Scorah faces many unexpected challenges. For one thing, she has no college degree, and finding a job, in any country, will prove difficult. And then there are always other, countless obstacles: how to make friends with unbelievers, how to have phone sex, or how to feel comfortable without clothes on in the women’s sauna. With a child-like innocence, Scorah learns to navigate life outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She catalogs the things she lost and those she still had, dividing her social connections and physical belongings into two neat categories, determined to start over.
As a result of this hard-won determination, Scorah refuses to let Jehovah’s Witnesses — or any religion, for that matter — off the hook. After leaving, she reads books on cults, ordered online clandestinely from behind a firewall in China, concluding that she had been part of one. This is one of the few weaknesses of the book: in her urgency to denounce her own religious system, she comes to condemn any religion, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. What this means, on one level, is that the devout Scorah becomes a more remote, less relatable character. Her interior life becomes inaccessible, and the benefits she received, that anyone receives, from membership to a close-knit religious group are unacknowledged. On another level, Scorah’s haste to discredit Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “cult,” means that she glides past the loss of the religion itself a little too easily, dulling the emotional edges of what is for many a deeply conflicted decision, even when it’s one that must be made nonetheless.
Ultimately, Leaving the Witness is a story about loss — about losing a religion, a marriage, a set of beliefs, a worldview, a community. It’s a story of losing oneself. It’s also, as we learn at the end of the book, the story of losing a child. In her new life in New York City, Scorah finds love again and gives birth to a boy named Karl. Tragically, three-month-old Karl dies his first day at a daycare center, leaving Scorah unmoored. The 10 pages detailing her son’s death are the most impassioned, deeply felt, and alive pages in Leaving the Witness. Narrated in unadorned language, the prose nevertheless carries pathos. It’s as if Scorah has been holding us at arms’ length up until that point, and in the final 10 pages she pulls us close, demanding that we feel the force of the young boy’s death. This change in proximity is profoundly affecting; by the time we arrive at mourning, we are sutured to Scorah as our narrator and our protagonist, having traveled with her through so many different emotional phases: confinement, disorientation, ecstasy, freefall.
We also come to regard all the other losses that came before Karl’s death in a new light; we see how his arrival was both the reward for starting over, and the starting over itself. We appreciate Scorah’s losses as interlinked and accumulative: the two losses (of her religion and of her son) amplify each other. When there is no God to believe in, no afterlife to hope for, death stings all the more deeply, causing her to almost wish she could just believe again.
But this isn’t a story that elicits pity — if anything, it refuses it. “I am a person who survives things,” Scorah says of herself. For Leaving the Witness offers us an account of renewal, regeneration, and survival. It shows what is possible on the other side of loss, even a palimpsest of losses: new life.