The first thing that comes across when talking with Dee is how incredibly warm and friendly she is. Devoted to her family, it’s easy to see that she’s the glue that holds everyone together.
It seems to be in her blood; her father is Italian, her mother Spanish. In her own words, they are “each other’s best friends, confidants, and support system.” She speaks to both of her parents frequently, and her sisters every day. She’s a devoted mother of four, and her voice swells with pride as she speaks about her children.
And yet, her pride is tinged with regret for the way they were raised. Her voice becomes sad when she talks of how the first birthday card she bought for her children came after nineteen years of non-celebration. It makes her feel guilty.
If Dee hadn’t woken up from her cult indoctrination, though, she’d still be passing each of her children’s birthdays every year without so much as a card. If Dee hadn’t listened to her gut and hadn’t had the bravery to walk away from over 40 years of brainwashing, her life would still be an endless cycle of meetings, field service, and waiting for Armageddon.
As many people will attest, it’s always easier to join a cult than it is to leave. And Dee started earlier than many as a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Born into a strict Roman Catholic family, it came as a surprise to hear that her mother began studying with the Witnesses when Dee was young.
There’s a good explanation. Dee’s grandfather had died two years earlier, and her mother was missing him terribly. When her best friend began to study with her, she eagerly lapped up promises of the New World, where she’d see her father again. She shared these ideas with her four daughters. The second oldest, at ten, was Dee.
Living with her family on Staten Island at the time, Dee was immediately interested in colorful pictures of the paradise earth. “I wanted to live there,” she says. “The hook kept us in.”
The ‘hook,’ or the promise of seeing dead loved ones again, is a reason many have been introduced into the religion. “Even now, Mom can’t wait to see her dead family,” Dee relates. The hook still has a grasp on her mother, and it’s certainly understandable. In a close family like Dee’s, where family is everything, the prospect of seeing those who have died is undeniably strong.
It was strong enough for Dee herself to be baptized at the age of thirteen. Despite her father’s initial objections to his children attending meetings, he eventually relented. He never became a Witness himself but watched as his wife raised their children in the faith without too much concern.
Dee first began to question things when she was twenty. She left the Witnesses and was disfellowshipped, but returned within a year and was reinstated. When she had moments of wondering whether it really was the truth, she put it down to Satan. On returning, she threw herself into the religion and pioneered for the next eight years.
At the age of twenty-three, she met and married a brother after meeting him at a Gilead graduation (it was at Stanley Theater in Jersey City, NJ). Within a year, her ambitious husband was a Ministerial Servant but his goal was the same as that of many Jehovah’s Witness men: to be an elder. But, in Dee’s words, her husband “was never very self-aware. He was never recommended to be an elder. He was an ex-Bethelite, but had a knack of rubbing people the wrong way.”
The family moved to North Carolina for a fresh start, and it was there that Dee’s husband was finally appointed into the coveted elder role. But sadly, this didn’t mean the life of peace and harmony that many Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught comes from a life in the organization.
“Everyone in the congregation thought we were the perfect family,” she says. “The children were pioneering, and we were always on the platform and had assembly parts. But nobody knew what was going on at home.”
Behind closed doors, Dee was the victim of emotional abuse from her elder husband. It had begun when they were first married. When her oldest child was three years of age and the second was fifteen months, she fled. “I left [my husband] for a month and went to my mom’s,” she relates. “And I spoke to the elders. Big mistake. I was told it was all my fault. As a wife, who was I to tell him anything?”
After leaving the meeting with the elders who simply told her to go back home, Dee was bereft. “I sat screaming in the car by myself. Didn’t they see what I was going through? And they knew. They knew.”
Controlling and emotionally abusive, Dee’s husband exploited his role as head of the family, as per the arrangement seemingly put in place in the gospel. Every time her children asked her something, she deferred to his authority. “I’d tell them ‘ask your dad.’ Everything I did was to give him the honor.”
Now free of the marriage, she speaks openly about the painful subject. “He’d berate me over anything and everything. I was labelled demonic for spending too much money on groceries and it showed I was disobedient. Whatever I made, I gave to him. I always felt as though his hand was on the back of my neck, directing me in the place I needed to go. I thought that if I was submissive, I was helping him.”
Disturbingly, she even admits that she wishes her husband had physically beat her. She explains: “I wish I had bruises or scratches or broken bones. You can see them. Because it’s emotional, you can’t see anything. He hated that I had a close family. He hated that I talked to my mom. And I never told Mom anything but she knew. He moved me away from New York to get me away from my family.”
She worked so hard at supporting her husband to be an elder that she admits it came at the cost of herself. When asked what she’d say if she could speak to her younger self now, she laughs and speaks, as always, with brutal honesty. “Run. You’re a person. You have hopes. You have dreams. The day after the youngest was born, I’d tell myself to run.”
After having left for just one month early in the marriage, the lack of support from the elders meant she soon went back. She had two more children and her life was soon full with raising them all in the Jehovah’s Witness faith.
“Witnesses are drones, following the twists and turns of the governing body,” she says. And what about the New Light teaching that would arise from time to time? “Now I get the giggles when I think about how stupid I was. New Light comes out and we’re like, ‘of course! How did we not see this before? Of course this is the right way!’”
What came from the platform didn’t always make much sense, though, and Dee recalls having doubts about certain things even as far back as twenty years ago or more. One talk dealt with national pride, and how it was something wrong for Jehovah’s Witnesses to display. The brother on the platform scoffed at the idea of supporting one’s home country at the Olympic games. “But at the conventions, aren’t people encouraged to wear clothes from their country?” Dee asked, but only to herself, never aloud.
Like all women in the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Dee’s role was one of silence and subservience. However, as the wife of an elder, she admits she was treated a little differently. “When you’re an elder’s wife, people look up to you. I worked so hard on helping him reaching his goal of being appointed. But some knew what he was really like. Even after I left him, they knew why, and they blamed him. But he was so smug.”
At the age of forty-nine, when her children were eighteen, seventeen, fifteen and eleven, Dee finally left. “The older boys came with me,” she says. “By the time I left, they were already becoming men. He told my oldest to move downstairs into the basement. He told my seventeen year old to find a place of his own. But they supported me.”
He was very hard on his sons, but began to emotionally manipulate his daughter, too. “She was always treated differently to the boys,” Dee reveals. “He only abused women. My daughter came to live with me and didn’t speak to him for six months. When she needed new clothes, her dad told her he’d buy them if she came back to live with him. She told him to keep his money, and she stayed with me.”
Interestingly, her health improved almost literally overnight once she escaped. She had earlier been diagnosed with TMJ disorder, where she suffered excruciating pain in her temporomandibular joint, the hinge that connects the jaw to the temporal bones of the skull. “I spent years constantly rubbing my face,” she relates. “I was in so much pain. And then, five days after I left him, I didn’t have any pain. All those years of setting my jaw when trying not to cry. Trying not to speak. Everything was held in.” Now, she was pain-free.
Although she was now living away from her abuser, Dee still went to meetings, believing it was the truth. “I worried that my children would equate the Witnesses with him,” she explains. “So I carried on going to the meetings and on field service.”
In 2013, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I went for a mammogram and they saw something, so they did a sonogram.” Fortunately, the cancer was successfully treated with radiotherapy and Dee is in remission. Through all of that, she was still hanging on as a Witness, and still believed. By this time, though, her ex-husband had left the organization and had been living with a woman for three years. The elders knew, and Dee was furious. “I asked them why they hadn’t told me I was free sooner. I was still in Witness mode.”
With all this in mind, it’s incredible to think that Dee broke free from her indoctrination at all. But after all she’d been through, it was something seemingly innocuous that woke her up. “My kids became friends with Witnesses from another area,” she says. “One of them started accusing my daughter of things and her mom would text me to attack me. And one day, I sat in my car and deleted her number. Then I deleted another Witness’s number. And another. Each deleted number felt like a chain link popping. I thought that they were all so loving, and when I saw it was no longer there, I started to wake up.”
Rather than feeling fear and panic at the thought of moving away from the organization little by little, instead Dee felt spurred on to do more. “One day, I got really brave and I looked on jwfacts.com,” she says. Within fifteen minutes, she realized that the religion she’d dedicated most of her life to was a lie.
What followed was a flurry of emotions. “I was so angry about all those wasted years. I felt stupid to have been duped. I felt ridiculous. I was mortified. It took God away from me. Jehovah, who I loved so much. Who protected us. It all just floated away. I even emailed Paul Grundy who runs jwfacts.com. I asked him, ‘where do I go? What hope do I have?’”
Although he replied within twenty-four hours, something Dee appreciates very much, she knows that he couldn’t answer her questions. “Even now,” she says, “I don’t trust putting my faith in anyone but myself and my kids.”
One thing’s for sure, though, and that’s that Dee won’t be returning to the congregation. And yet, despite her mother’s strong faith, she hasn’t been cut off. Thankfully, the strong family bonds have triumphed over even the most insidious of cult instructions: that of shunning those who have left. “Mom knows I celebrate Christmas and birthdays. We have decorations, and nobody’s knocked on my door.”
It seems that even now, the prestige of being an elder’s wife still lingers, even though she is now divorced from her husband. Dee has never been disfellowshipped. “The elders know I know stuff,” she confesses, referring to the time her ex-husband used to disclose personal things about people in the congregation. “But all the elders talk to their wives. They don’t want to poke the bear.”
For Dee, the hypocrisy of the elders is simply another thing she is happy to be rid of now she has escaped the cult. Despite it having taken most of her life, though, she remains cheerfully optimistic. “I have wonderful kids,” she says. “And if we didn’t all grow up the way we did, we wouldn’t be the people we are now.”
It seems that despite all her struggles, she retains the determination to keep her family united at all costs. And Watchtower hasn’t been able to break their incredibly strong bond, nor the woman at the center of it.
“I was looking through pictures for the interview and I came upon this one. Last year, my sister, (also an ex-JW), my daughter, and I decided that we wanted to take a picture with Santa. So we waited in line with all of these parents and their children. It was finally our turn. We were so excited. We take our picture and then go to pay for it. We explain to the man collecting the money why this was important to us, a rite of passage kind of thing because we were ex-JWs. Well he says, ‘That gentleman is also’. We turn to see who he was pointing at and it was SANTA! We ran right back to Santa to tell we were ex-JWs, too. We were laughing and crying. He had been a circuit overseer!! As we were saying goodbye he grabbed my hand and said, ‘Be happy’. It was an incredible experience.” – Dee