Monica Rodriguez

Monica Rodriguez: Can You Help Me Stop Mandated Shunning?

Stories

I was 39 years old when I first realized I was going to die. Before that, I had been led to believe and cherished God’s promise to me that I would live forever on a Paradise Earth. However, I had just begun to doubt this was possible. I was mortal!  But even worse was the betrayal I was beginning to feel about my religious leaders, parents, and older members of the Jehovah’s Witness community that had misguided me. Years of bullying, double standards, and contradictions with history and science had finally dismantled what I had been raised to believe.

I had been conditioned to be terrified of researching JW teachings. I also knew this would make my JW husband uncomfortable, so I listened to podcasts while driving alone to work. Meanwhile, a former JW missionary explained via Watch Tower literature that there is no Biblical basis for a Paradise Earth. Ouch! That’s when it happened, in 2017. I realised I’d been conned.

It was only after deciding JW doctrines were not true that I really felt trapped. If you had asked me earlier if I was free to believe as I chose, I would have emphatically responded, “Yes!” Now I realized, with horror, that it wasn’t true. I couldn’t change my mind without losing my entire family and everything I’d known, so I did what most people in high-control groups do. I tried finding a loophole or a grey area where I could hide my true beliefs and keep my friends and family. For two years, I continued my constant JW activity along with my husband who still believed. I just needed time to figure things out.

Sadly, I realized there is no grey area, no way to keep my family and friends and my authenticity and freedom of belief and expression. This impossible situation is by design. It is a method of control by JW leadership. Members report each other to elders for the slightest expression of “doubt”. JW’s only talk about things related to their religious activity. No one would socialize with me outside the religious context. There was no dignified way out of this trap.

I desperately hoped my family would be the exception to the rule. They loved me. They were smart, reasonable people. If I explained that I had good reasons for no longer believing, surely they would love me enough to respect my right to take my life in a different direction. Tragically, I realized my family’s love for me was just as conditional as that of most JW’s. They needed permission from their religious leaders to love me, and that was never going to happen.

I was born into the religion—3rd generation on one side and 4th on the other. I had never formed close friendships outside the group. I was still afraid of “worldly” people. I didn’t know how to have a meaningful conversation with “unbelievers”. I felt like an awkward adolescent having to learn social and life skills from scratch. I cried frequently and developed a sleep disorder and asthma due to the stress. On two occasions, I broke out in hives all over my body.

I formed hundreds of good friendships by attending nine different congregations during my life. I had grown up with these people. I had volunteered on construction projects with them, travelled to foreign countries with them, learned foreign languages with them, and spent countless hours in the ministry with them. I tried to salvage some of those relationships. As I “faded”, I spoke to loved ones individually and tried to show a little of my authentic self. One by one, they all cut me off. As people started talking and warning each other to avoid me, I discovered I was blocked or shunned by others who had never even spoken to me. Why would they pre-judge me? This was a prescribed response. They were expected to prove their loyalty to God by cutting me off. According to the group’s leadership, my sincere personal expressions were “poison”, “dangerous” and “contagious”. I was a leper, the walking dead. I didn’t exist, unless I returned to the religion. 

I realized that now was my only chance to have children. I had planned to have them in Paradise after the terror of Armageddon had passed. I cried every time I thought of it. I researched IVF options due to my age. There are several reasons I didn’t attempt to have a child, the main one being that I couldn’t face becoming a mother while also experiencing the trauma of losing my entire social network. What could I offer this child? No grandparents. No uncles, aunts, cousins or long-time friends. No one would share that joy with me. All of this overwhelmed me.

Two of my family members were excommunicated 20 and 40 years ago. Despite having no contact information, and with some trepidation, I attempted to reconnect with them. Would they be angry? Would they reject me? Fortunately, they were empathetic and supportive. They knew what I was going through, but we had missed out on huge portions of each other’s lives. My aunt was cut out of my life when I was about six years old. I was told she was expelled from the religion and the family. I wasn’t allowed to talk to her. Sadly for me, her daughter was the only cousin my age, so I also lost my cousin at the same time.

Many years passed. The only family member my aunt didn’t lose was her father because he was never a member of the religion. Sometime after he died, she attempted suicide and was hospitalized. My mother told me her sister was in the hospital and that grandma—who had shunned her for years—went to the hospital to see her. I remember thinking, “I bet this happened because of the shunning. I wonder if Grandma regrets shunning her daughter, and will stop. Why doesn’t my mom seem more upset? Why doesn’t she go to the hospital?”

Now that I’ve reconnected with my aunt, she has confirmed what I had suspected—her suicide attempt was due to the trauma of organized ostracism. When I told my dad that I no longer believed JW doctrine, he admitted that he hadn’t believed since I was fourteen. For 30 years, he carefully “questioned” among close friends and family, but kept his true thoughts to himself. I asked why he hadn’t left the religion 30 years earlier. He replied, “I would have lost my family.”

My entire adult life, my father never told me I was free to leave. He never told me he would still love me. When my mom discovered my disbelief in 2020, she was pressured by JW relatives to shun me. Then she and they pressured my father. So, for fear of being “outed”, my dad shunned me too! A non-believer was shunning me! Of all the betrayal and hurt I felt, this was the worst. My dad understood what he was doing. He was forcing me to face his own greatest fear without his support. After eight months of shunning, my dad apologized and said things would be different, but with only two brief exceptions, our relationship shifted to being entirely virtual. He would call me when my mom was at her religious meetings and didn’t know what he was doing. Here was a grown man hiding his relationship with his daughter out of fear of the power religious leaders wielded over his family.

“They’re making her afraid of me” is what my dad told me by phone the day before relatives abducted my mother. My mother has early dementia, which causes anxiety and paranoia. Most of the time, she doesn’t remember the JW rules that require her to shun her husband and children who no longer believe —she just remembers that she’s a wife and mother who loves her husband and children—but when she’s reminded of the JW doctrine, that non-believers are dangerous and evil, she has panic attacks. JW relatives were eager to interpret this anxiety as their need to intervene to prevent “spiritual endangerment”.

On April 20, 2023, my aunt lied to my mom, telling her she needed to get out of the house for a few hours of “girl time”. Instead, she abducted Mom and moved her into another home and city. This was a permanent move and she was now not allowed to see and talk with my dad. Dad had been Mom’s caregiver and husband for over 50 years. After four months, my dad capitulated to the blackmail requests of the family: “Reconvert to the religion [you don’t believe] and shun your children who don’t believe [either], or you won’t get your wife back.” My father was forced to relocate to a town two hours from where he and my mother lived, and eject my non-believing brother from their home. No one outside of the religion has been able to contact my dad since.

Can you help me stop mandated shunning?