I just finished Brock Talon's 2015 book Escape From Paradise: Leaving Jehovah's Witnesses and the Watch Tower after thirty-five years of lost dreams. Those of you who read this blog regularly may already know that I like to read exit stories from people who have been in certain religious groups. I often read and review books by and about exMormons, but sometimes I read about the JWs, too. In many ways, the JWs are a group that resemble the Mormons, though their beliefs are different. I am less interested in what either group believes and more into how they treat their members and the methods they use to get people into and staying with their belief systems.
I downloaded Talon's book a few months ago and just now got around to reading it. Overall, I thought Escape From Paradise was an interesting book, though it's not the first one I've read about the Jehovah's Witnesses. Indeed, I have read a number of books about the JWs. I also have a cousin who was a JW for years until he and his family finally left the religion about ten years ago.
Escape From Paradise is one man's account of being converted to the Jehovah's Witnesses when he was a young child, being raised in the religion, and finally deciding to abandon it. Brock Talon is a pseudonym, as are the rest of the names in this book. Talon explains with a touch of humor that the name he chose for himself sounds like a good one for a superhero or a porn star. But then he explains that he's just an ordinary guy who grew up a JW and later worked at the world headquarters for the Jehovah's Witnesses. He writes that he simply wants to explain what it's like to grow up a JW.
Brock Talon writes that he was not born into the Jehovah's Witnesses. His parents converted to the religion when he was about five years old. Talon describes his parents as unhappy people. His father was apparently and angry and abusive. His mother was apparently a very sexually repressed woman who thought of sex as necessary only for procreation. She was a stay at home mom whose curious son had just started asking questions about God. One day, Talon's mother was visited by a Jehovah's Witness who was going door to door. Realizing that her son had questions about religion that she couldn't answer, Talon's mom let the visitor into her home. Voila! Suddenly, a new family of Jehovah's Witnesses came to be. Talon also has a much younger brother who was raised JW.
Do you remember having birthday parties when you were a kid? Birthdays are different for JWs. Brock Talon vividly remembers his sixth birthday because his parents threw him a party. They had promised him the party before they joined the Witnesses. So they invited a few cousins and non Witness friends over for cake and ice cream. That was the last time the author celebrated his birthday or any other holiday until he finally left the religion, when he was well into adulthood.
Talon's mostly well-written story includes humorous and snarky observations about life as a Witness, their beliefs, and most strikingly, the consequences that befall members who don't stick to the straight and narrow path. He writes of being kept very busy by church callings and constantly worrying about being seen by other members who might rat him out to church authorities. He explains what it was like to be married to his first wife, also a member, and how contentious and difficult their marriage was because of meddling from church officials. Indeed, Talon made the mistake of confessing to having pre-marital sex with his first wife and they were both disfellowshipped for a year. While that may not seem like a terrible thing for those not in the religion, when your life revolves around your church, it can be a devastating punishment. As I was reading about this, I couldn't help but realize that Talon's story sounded a lot like many of the stories I've read by exMormons.
Talon tellingly writes about what it was like once he had left the religion as a middle aged man, suddenly having to experience the more worldly things that most people experience as teenagers. One funny passage is about Talon's first visit to a strip club with a bunch of work friends, where he got his first lap dance. Another passage is about a party he and a couple of friends threw that included enough beer for every attendee to have just one. And he got in trouble because church authorities had heard that the party had gotten "wild".
Most of us have been approached by a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses. They often come door to door, wanting to spread the news about their religion. This kind of proselyting is also done by Mormon missionaries, who come in pairs knocking on doors in a bid to get people to hear their message. It may seem like there are a lot more JWs out there going door to door than Mormons. That's because while only Mormon missionaries are expected to go door to door, every Jehovah's Witness is obliged to spend at least eight hours a month spreading the faith. Over the past twenty years or so, I have only had contact with Mormon missionaries once. I have lost count of the number of times I've had run ins with JWs. They have visited me everywhere I've lived with the exception of Fredericksburg, VA (which is when I ran into Mormon missionaries) and Fort Belvoir (which is a place where door to door religion peddling is prohibited). Not every Mormon is a missionary, but every active JW is involved in spreading the news. That's probably why it seems like there are so many of them.
Though this book is about the Jehovah's Witnesses and what it was like to be one and then leave the faith, I think it's also about what happens when people allow others to dictate so much about how they live their lives. People who are brought into strict religious systems don't know anything else, so they are more willing to tolerate the lack of privacy and self determination that can come from these groups. It can be terrifying for someone who is surrounded by church members and has no outside family or friends to decide to reclaim control of their lives.
There were a couple of instances where I felt Escape From Paradise could use a round with an editor. However, on the whole, I enjoyed reading Talon's story and could relate to it. He has a good sense of humor that keeps the reading entertaining. While this book may not be appreciated by faithful Jehovah's Witnesses and couldn't be described as an objective account, I do think it's a worthwhile read by those who are curious. Talon's story will ring true to those who know about the JWs and have read other books by people who have been involved with it and later left the religion.
I recommend Escape From Paradise and give it 4.5 stars.