Plus & Alphabetus

Quitting the cult of Jehovah

by Pauline Sprang

Barbara Kohout is without doubt an expert on defection. She lived through life altering transitions already twice: the first time when she became a member of Jehovah's Witness as a young girl. From the age of 10 years she got raised according to JW believes. Her own three children also grew up within the cult.

When she realised sixty years later, the world JW presented her is constructed of deceptions rather than what she thought to be the truth she decided to change once more and step out.

This recognition seemed destructive to her at first but soon became the right step into self­determination. These days Mrs. Kohout is an outspoken educator against the Jehova's Witness cult and has an organisation in which she provides help to cult drop­outs.

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Ms Kohout, you have been a Jehovah’s Witness for 60 years. How did this come about?
Barbara Kohout: We were refugees from Yugoslavia when we arrived in Germany, in May 1947. We were uprooted, penniless, and disoriented. I was seven years old at that time and having settled in Bavaria where most schools were Catholic, I had to attend one of those. As I was also an Evangelic, my faith made me an outsider in the school. Every morning, our teacher would make the whole class say a prayer for me, referring to me as “the poor heathen child”.

Apart from that, I carried a haversack my father made out of wood for me, instead of carrying a school bag, like the other children did. That attracted a lot of attention!

My father, traumatized by the war, had since said that he could never again believe in a God who permitted such cruelties. On the other hand, my mother’s faith was strengthened.

It was in this desperate search for stability that one of Jehovah‘s Witnesses knocked on our door.

My father told the humble man that he was through with having a religion, and this man said to my father in return, “Well, you know, God never wanted this war. It was false religion that caused it. Jehovah‘s Witnesses [JW] were incarcerated in concentration camps because they refused to serve in the army.”

And from that point on, my father was convinced. From the moment they were convinced that other religions were false ones, my parents were even more keen to know “the truth” ­ according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. That’s eventually how they started, bit by bit, to give up their former lives, their former convictions, and their former beliefs, and started to internalize their new religion.

Jehovah‘s Witnesses approach you in the moment of disorientation.
Are most members affiliated in situations of need?

As far as I can tell, there always seems to be a life crisis preceding a conversion. And I do think that JWs deliberately exploit such crises. People are often approached right after a divorce, a bereavement, or during problems in the workplace, and who are, hence, in need of guidance. It does not, however, depend on one‘s social status or education. The recruitment is based on a purely emotional appeal, and very few look for theological explanations.

Having found yourself at the threshold to a new ‘truth’, how did you define the world you had lived in till then?
The indoctrination does not allow for you to think in any way that there was anything positive about your past. Within totalitarian sects, there‘s only two possibilities: us, the good ones; and the others, who are deemed to be the evil ones. These religious groups claim that anyone within the World Empire of false religion is under the command of the Devil.
So they want to reprogram you.

Today, I call this a “sect­clone” character which is imposed on an individual.

Their “truth” needs to be naturalized, hence at least two to three years of studying – or in other words, reprogramming – are necessary in order to acquire this particular personality.

What does this new personality look like?
A distinctive feature is, among others, the group­specific vocabulary. There are many instances how the organization changes the meaning of words to suit their fancy. It is a way to dissociate the JWs from the rest of the world, and to become a distinct organisation.

One example is the word “slave”. Usually, it is what defines a person on the lowest social position, one who receives commands and has to act. Anything the ‘slave’ says I have to believe, any law he passes I have to obey. To disagree with him is considered a breach of loyalty towards God. Whatever the slave promulgates is the absolute truth and I have to acknowledge and accept it.

What are the consequences if one questions this truth?
That is the worst sin. Someone who does not accept the teachings as the truth is considered an apostate and is shunned. The chances to be reassimilated back into the community are close to zero. He or she is considered eternally lost and destined for the Lake of Fire.

‘Shunning’ means the denial of any contact with other members. Does this include even close family members?
Definitely. Shunning means social death.

So you did exactly that ­you questioned the truthfulness of the teachings. How did you come to finally defecting?
My daughter-­in-­law pestered me with the assumption that her husband, my son, was in contact with defectors and was criticising teachings on the internet. She knew that it was my duty to inform the elders about that matter. But I didn‘t want to act upon some accusations made by my daughter­-in-­law. Instead, I wanted to see if I could bring him back to ‘reason'. So I started looking for him in forums on the internet.

After some time, I came across a user called ‘Plus’.
I thought that in the way he wrote, that it could be my son.
I adopted a pseudonym as well – I was ‘Alphabetus’.

There was one post, in which he criticised false quotations within the Watchtower literature (JW publication). So I replied, saying one should be careful with such accusations, as it could have been the author of the text who made a mistake in research or some such thing. But of course, my son had not been lazy in his own background research. He sent me plenty of documents, full of deliberate and traceable false quotations written by JW.

What was striking, however, were copies of Jehova's Witness' publications from 1915 in which the Watchtower Society appealed to its members to support the German Emperor in the first world war.

There, I realized: If my father had known about that, he would never have joined JW. So I read the book ‘Crisis of Conscience’ by Raymond Franz. He used to be a member of the governing body of JW for fifteen years before his removal in 1980. In his book, he enlists numerous scandals within the organisation. That is when I realised that everything I had believed in might not be the truth.

How did that feel?
Like the total, absolute breakdown of all the values I used to hold dear. I thought now I could throw my whole life away. That I had lost everything. I just felt so stupid. Really stupid. After I realized that I was fooled, I was paralyzed for about a year. I didn‘t know anything about the world outside the community, because for a JW it is evil. Friendship with the world meant having a feud with God according to the Watchtower doctrine. I was out of one world but barely inside the other.

Did you ever consider just letting this pass through your mind, when you realised how uncomfortable it might get?
My husband asked me to. He begged me, saying: “Drop it! We will lose everything.” But for me, that was never an option, not even for a second. I always wanted the truth. How could I possibly go on defending something which I definitely knew to be untrue? It was just unacceptable. It was no longer possible for me to go on in that way.

How long did it take you to gather courage after this mental defection?
It took me about two years to realize that I could make something very positive out of it. I was tired of sitting in a corner and whining. I was really lucky to get to know a woman called Maria de Lourdes Stiegeler (Logotherapist and Existence­analyst) who said to me: “Humans do not possess freedom in the sense that it can be taken away. Humans are freedom. But that means everyone is responsible for how he or she deals with what life puts under his or her feet.”

With these words, Maria opened a world of possibilities to me. First, however, her words made me go through hell, because I had to face the consequences of my actions in the big picture.

I had to acknowledge that I supported the system very conscientiously. That was very hard. It was quite close to hell.

Despite all the difficulties, the defection means something very positive for you: it was a liberation. JW on the other hand, perceive it as a negative thing; they see it as a breach of fidelity. (What is the general discourse about defectors like you within the religious community?)
That’s true. Apostates are referred to as Satan‘s assistant chefs; sitting at the table with demons and helping to prepare noxious meals in order to poison a believer‘s mind. We are labelled as mentally ill. Members are reminded to avoid us. In England there is already a charge against the Watchtower society for incitement of the people.

It’s part of a defection that there are two different, incompatible belief systems involved. Do you think there is one truth?
This I cannot tell for sure. I had to believe in the matrix and so on. I am not that deeply immersed yet.

Modern science nevertheless is grounded quite firmly on the belief that there exists a reality that is independent of us, which is about to be discovered. Do you think that we should try to recede from this position?
Yes definitely. The scientific tendency to discover what defines the truth is extremely restrictive. Scientists try to find a universal truth on this planet. But look at the universe. How could you ever bring a universal truth down on our tiny planet?

Having had the experience that everything you held as true turned out to be false, do you still dare to believe? What do you hold as true now?
I refrain from posing the question this way, as it would, again, limit myself. By saying I hold something as true I feel constricted to this momentaneous cognition. But I want to be open­ minded. I want to have a look at many different truths and see whether I like them or not. This one single truth – I haven‘t found it. And I don‘t search it. I don‘t want to reduce myself to such a small denominator.

What is the meaning of life for you?
That‘s the wrong question. There is no such thing as the meaning of life. The question has to be: What gives meaning to your life? This question must be answered individually.

May I ask what it is that gives meaning to your life?
[laughs] At the moment I am happy that I found meaning in helping others.