Esther Gebhard

Esther Gebhard: Mandated Shunning at an Early Age


I was five when my parents joined a faith-based group that practised and enforced mandated shunning. At seven, my mother’s good friend was disfellowshipped and everyone in our group was informed that we had to shun this person to be loyal to God. If we didn’t, we’d be shunned.

A few months later, I was walking with my mom when we saw this marked person. Instead of pretending she didn’t exist, my mom stopped and talked with her. I became very agitated and started looking around us. I was afraid that someone would see and report my mom. I had been indoctrinated for two years to believe that if I did not follow the group’s rules, I’d be destroyed at Armageddon. I thought if Mom got caught talking to her friend, she would be killed instantly. Like in the pictures I saw in books and magazines that we, Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs), used at our meetings. Fortunately, no one saw us. But I hoped Mom would never do this again.

Throughout my childhood, I was haunted by nightmares. There were way too many JW rules that were much too easy to break. And I did my fair share of breaking rules, which flew under the JW radar.

My life took a definite turn for the worse when my mom was disfellowshipped. I could talk to her because I lived at home, but all other JW members were not allowed to speak with her. Several members told me personally that my mother was lost, that I needed to keep my distance from her, that she was one of Satan’s helpers, and that I was living in the same house as a so-called follower of the Devil.

What I did not expect was how this event would affect my relationship with then-JW-childhood friends. Suddenly, they began doing their best to avoid me and reduce spending time with me. Their parents were telling them I was “bad association”, just because of my mom.

I became very depressed and learned quickly how to lead two different lives. I acted out the life my father and other JWs wanted me to be when I was around them, but when I was with school and neighborhood friends, I easily did things forbidden by JW rules. Unfortunately, I had not yet thoroughly investigated JW dogma, policies and their man-made rules. So at a subliminal level, I believed for much of my adult life that it was still “the truth”.

I was disfellowshipped at age 20 and not prepared to be the victim of mandated shunning, in particular from my father and aunt. Coming from them, it really hurt. Somehow, I had expected at least my father’s JW sister to speak to me. I tried several times and was always rebuffed.

My father has faithfully shunned me for over thirty years, even though I am his only child. My children, now 32 and 26, do not know their grandfather. My aunt has since passed without her ever speaking or acknowledging me.

Because of a very conflicted childhood, I have struggled with mental health issues for most of my adult life—such things as depression, panic attacks, PTSD and anxiety disorders. Thanks to an excellent therapist, good friendships based on unconditional love and a supportive family, I have gone from a damaged victim to a survivor, to a thriver—at least most of the time.

Knowing what I do, I want to share my story and inform government officials and world leaders about religious groups that coercively control children and minors. Religious organizations should not be allowed to hurt their members, especially the children of its members. Human rights should always take precedence over organizational rights. A good place to start would be to stop mandated shunning by all faith-based groups!