Secrets and Spies-Regaining Privacy After Life in a High Control Group
It’s an intrinsic part of my personal nature to overshare. I have zero doubt that this would be the case no matter my upbringing. I like to talk, and admittedly, I enjoy talking about myself. My upbringing, my interests, my world views. However, I often struggle with my own right to privacy; to keep some things to myself without feeling an aura of guilt. I struggle with the ability to be asked a question and give a limited answer, or, no answer at all. My religious background made secrets feel sneaky, and asking for privacy was, without a doubt, suspicious. Keeping things to oneself was considered a flaw of character and I wanted to be flawless.
It is just the social norm for those in the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other high control groups. Secrets mean hidden sin. Advocating for privacy means wrongdoing. An honest, godly person has no need to shut others out of their personal lives; they have nothing to hide. Privacy is akin to isolation and isolation is heavily discouraged; unless it’s isolation due to shunning in which case it is then rebranded a loving arrangement, but that’s neither here nor there. Besides, what is the point of keeping things to yourself when God knows exactly what you’re thinking all of the time?
When it happened, the moment the words I don’t think I believe in this anymore slipped from my mouth, I didn’t even consider that this secret I’d been keeping, a secret I could barely muster the strength to admit even to myself, would suddenly make its way to everyone I knew. I was simply confiding a deep fear to my then husband in an effort to find relief and reassurance. Yet the immediate thought of an indoctrinated individual when a dark secret is revealed is to go to the church leaders as soon as possible. Jehovah’s Witnesses are great spies. They will root out any hint of wrong doing, any small malfeasance they can find and turn their friends or family members over to the gestapo… I mean… elders. Policing each other is programmed from a young age, and you are even encouraged to turn yourself in for even thinking the wrong way. After all, if you know someone is doing something your church deems sinful and you don’t seek help for them, then you have to be willing to share in their sins as well when God comes a-knocking on your door. And the result will be bloody.
As a teenager, I remember my friends giving the cold shoulder to peers who were more reserved and quiet. If you didn’t offer up every detail of your life, if you didn’t answer invasive questions in depth, if you were shy, then there was something deeply flawed within you. What were you hiding? We’d wonder, while deciding you weren’t a person we could safely associate with despite having zero evidence of any wrongdoing. We found pride in transparency and turning over the secrets of others as if some special award awaited us for doing so.
As I got older, it became apparent that this mindset was common amongst the elders of the congregation. Any questioning was to be met with open arms; they ask, you info dump with as much grace as you can muster. And if you didn’t, you weren’t being humble and truthful. You were hiding something and they would often do whatever was necessary to uncover your secrets.
This became problematic for me over the years as I slowly began to question if my religion was true and doubt that God was an existing magical entity who was reading my thoughts 24/7 as if I was just so interesting. Who could I confide in that wouldn’t turn me in? Who could I trust? Well, on that fateful evening my spouse sat me on the sofa to discuss how we were feeling, “spiritually” speaking, and suddenly my fears and doubts spewed out like I was a funnel cake filled child on a tilt-o-whirl. Yet, all was calm. He was understanding. He encouraged me to research my doubts to strengthen my faith. But then it happened. My research found glaring flaws in our doctrine, it founds holes in the historicity of our sacred tome, and it shone unfavorable light upon biblical literalism. “We should seek help from the elders.” His words wrapped around my throat like angry hands. I knew my fate and I was doomed. Begging for time to wrap my head around the reality that I was deconstructing my beliefs was met with an urgent plea to seek help from self professed “spiritual physicians”. I was denied privacy and space. Something as personal as spirituality and faith was now about to become the business of an entire congregation and, knowing the gossip train, it was going to become the business of people who didn’t even know me. And it did. The elders, unable to allow our conversations to remain confidential (a courtesy only extended to pedophiles within the religion), told their wives, as evidenced by their swift unfollowing on social media. They asked for my friends to dig up any potential wrongdoing on my part and report to them. They tried to make connections between me and freshly emancipated apostates in a congregation hours away, and from there my private fears continued to spread. This is as much a story of lack of privacy as it is one of typical Christian gossip. And worst of all, it damaged my trust in my spouse beyond repair.
My fragile feelings were being poorly dissected and misunderstood to the point of absurdity. And I had no recourse but to withdraw entirely from a social system set up to keep me shallow and fearful. It was a bumpy road, but I became more skilled in guarding my privacy. Living that “double life” I had been warned about in my youth was the only thing keeping me sane and safe. I made new, non-JW friends and kept the details of their lives and our social outings limited to my significant other. I sent birthday wishes and Christmas cards with the utmost discretion. I no longer shared my soul with those once closest to me. It was too dangerous. The result of my spouse arranging visits from elders without my consent, often with little to no notice, was a slow build up of resentment. Walls being built between us meant to keep each of us safe from the other. I tried vainly at times to tear them down and stand equal together in transparency for the sake marital bliss, but brick by brick he built them back stronger believing the mortar to be love and truth. The one person I felt I needed to be open and honest with was afraid of everything I had to say, and he, I am sure, had secrets of his own.
I shed that life and left it behind. It was powerful to request the elders, on their final visit to my home, to respect my privacy. I was not their book to read. I was not a criminal to be forced into confession.
I am still an open soul. I will tell strangers my story without a thought. But that doesn’t mean I am unguarded. I have feelings and thoughts meant only for myself, ideas and longings shared only to the closest of friends, and I’m learning that is healthy. Choosing the amount of information you want to share is vital to setting boundaries in all aspects of your life. No one has the right to enter your private mind without permission. And those who seek to do so, do not have your best interests at heart. Consent isn’t just meant for the physical body, but for the entirety of our minds as well. We draw the lines now. We choose who may cross over them.