The Shunned Speak Out
Location: Miami, FL
Years Out: 10
Mercedes Varas, a 31 year old from Miami, only realized the trauma of her Jehovah’s Witness upbringing years after she left.
She has vague memories of one Christmas when she was three years old, before her mother became a Jehovah’s Witness. From then on, the religion takes almost all of her childhood memories.
Mercedes was baptized when she nine years old. By the time she was 14, she was homeschooled so that she could preach full time, a common choice among Jehovah’s Witnesses families. But Mercedes had romantic feelings for a girl in the Kingdom Hall and she began visiting online chat rooms.
"I started to feel like there was a struggle in me. Like there was something more out there," she said.
She ended up getting involved with a man almost 10 years her senior whom she met online. She tried to end the relationship when she realized "it was toxic and he was controlling," she said. But then he showed up to her Kingdom Hall pretending to be interested in joining. The man told Mercedes that he wanted to become a Witness, but he needed to confess to the elders that he and Mercedes had slept together. Mercedes had nowhere to turn.
After the confession, Mercedes was disfellowshipped.The shunning put Mercedes on the brink of an emotional collapse. Mercedes lost all of her friends and started cutting herself. The man began spreading rumors about their sex life in the Kingdom Hall. Mercedes complained that she was being harassed, but "the basic attitude was ‘what did I expect? That’s what you get for having sex’, " she said.
Though she was reinstated after four months, her life at the Kingdom Hall was still distressing. Based on rumors, the wife of an elder accused Mercedes of having an abortion. She was forced to see a gynecologist to provide proof to the congregation. "I felt like I was being picked and prodded and pulled apart." she said.
She says leaving the organization happened gradually. She moved out of her mother’s house at 19, but she wondered if she had made the right choice and she still attended special meetings to please her mother.
Then she started dating a professor who challenged her beliefs. After beginning therapy, she realized that helping other former Witnesses would aid her recovery. She decided to form a Meetup group for former Jehovah’s Witnesses in Miami.
"The only encouragement there is to think for yourself -- find your own voice," she said of the group’s philosophy.
She entered a Kingdom Hall for the last time when she was 23 years old.