Book Review - Leaving the Witness

ICSA Today, 2020, Vol. 11, No. 1, 18

Book Review: Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life

By Amber Scorah

Reviewed by Doug Duncan

Viking (Penguin Random House), New York, NY. 2019.  ISBN-10: 0735222541 $15.49 hardcover; $14.99 Kindle ( ISBN-13: 978-0735222540 288 pages.

One of the best ways to learn about and understand cultic groups is by reading the stories of those who have left those groups. An excellent example of such a story is Leaving the Witness…, by Amber Scorah, in which she chronicles her life, departure, and early recovery from her time as a Jehovah’s Witness (JW).

Scorah and her husband were missionaries for the JW’s in the city of Shanghai, inside communist China. She opens the book with a description of some of her first impressions upon her arrival inside this strange (to her) culture. Then, she skillfully weaves her story back and forth, telling about her background and how she grew up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) in Vancouver, Canada, in a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father.

Scorah does well as a Canadian ex-patriate living in China because she becomes skilled in the language—perhaps even more so than her husband and some of the other JWs living there. She eventually has a podcast for English speakers who are trying to learn the Chinese language and culture, but that comes later in her time there. One suspects that Scorah’s natural intelligence and curiosity have helped her along this path, though she has little formal education, and she is probably not even aware of how gifted she is. However, it is clear to any reader of this well-written book that she is quite talented.

In the process of telling her story, Scorah has some interesting reflections on how, as a JW, she was an outsider in her own culture back in Canada, and how that standing relates to being a Westerner living in China. Because their missionary activity in China is illegal, the JWs there have to keep a very low profile. Thus, they are not able to meet as often as they would in a free country such as the United States or Canada, and that has the ironic effect of loosening the level of control Scorah was subjected to by the JWs. That circumstance left her with more time to think and reflect about what she was doing there and why. As she started to consider her life and mission in China, the author began to question why God would have ignored a people such as the Chinese, who have a history extending back thousands of years with a culture, philosophy, and profound religious thinking that rival those of the West. 

Late in her time in-country, Scorah develops a transocean email relationship with an American man, which affords her an opportunity to begin to explore her doubts and misgivings about her life and beliefs in the Witnesses. They have to be careful in what they say because they assume their emails are being monitored by the Chinese government; so they come up with euphemisms so they do not have to use words such as Jehovah or Bible. I found Scorah’s descriptions of her life at this time to be very interesting—and relatable for those of us who have been through similar experiences in the process of leaving cults—because, while she is busy exploring her doubts about her faith and the loveless marriage in which she was trapped, she is still teaching the Bible to several Chinese nationals and indoctrinating them into the JWs.

Inevitably, her life eventually blows up as she decides to leave the Witnesses, and she and her husband split. Of course, all of her Witness friends shun her, and she is left all alone in a foreign country. Nevertheless, she manages to survive; and after another year in China, she moves to the United States.

She well describes her struggles entering a culture that she was estranged from, both by distance while she lived in China the previous few years, and also by being part of an insular cultic subculture for her entire life. She takes up residence in New York City, where some incredibly sad and tragic things happen to her. But the book is ultimately a tale about the triumph of the human spirit, the inspiring tale of one courageous woman who manages to overcome tremendous odds to embrace a life of freedom. I enthusiastically recommend it, not just to former JWs, but to former members of other cultic groups, as well.

About the Reviewer

Doug Duncan, MS, LPC, was a member of an aberrant religious group for more than twenty years. After defying the cult leader and marrying Wendy, they eventually left the cult and Doug began the task of rebuilding his life. He enrolled in a master’s program in counseling and earned a degree and license to practice therapy. After working on their cult recovery issues by reading all the available cult literature, attending conferences, and becoming involved with ICSA, Doug and Wendy started a ministry to increase others’ awareness and understanding of cults. They are frequent presenters at churches, civic groups, and conferences, and also facilitators of a support group for former members of cults and high-demand groups. Additionally, Doug offers individual counseling to former members.