Book Review - Out of the Cocoon A Young Woman’s Courageous Flight from the Grip of a Religious Cult

Cultic Studies Review, 5, (3), 2006, 447-450

Out of the Cocoon: A Young Woman’s Courageous Flight from the Grip of a Religious Cult

Brenda Lee

Robert D. Reed Publishers (Brandon, OR). January 2006. ISBN: 1931741654 (paperback), $14.95. 238 pages

Reviewed by Mary Kochan

Nearly 15 years ago, Pennsylvania singer-songwriter Rick Maas penned these lyrics portraying his impression at the age of five of the conversion of his family to Jehovah’s Witnesses:

When I was a little boy,

Religion never brought me joy,

I used to think a lot about confusion.

The day they took our Christmas tree,

I couldn't sit on Santa's knee,

There was no more make-believe,

Just to please them.

No more birthday cake for me,

If you are cut, just let it bleed,

Dedicate my life

To Armageddon.

Now another child convert and ex-member of that group has given voice to the deep sense of loss, and subsequent rage, experienced by children whose families enter high-demand, restrictive groups that rob them of the normal joys of childhood. Brenda Lee was born into a materially poor, but heritage- and relationship-rich, farming family in rural Pennsylvania, where a child learned early the value of his or her labor to the family, where cousins were as close as siblings, and where animals and the outdoors taught as many lessons as books.

Her life was not idyllic; there were stresses on the family, to be sure, and her parents were no more perfect that anyone else’s. But her prospects for solid, healthy development into adolescence and adulthood were good on that 1962 day she was born, and they stayed good until she was nine years old. When her mother accepted a “free home Bible study” from visiting Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Methodist Sunday-school teacher had no idea that this study would end up costing her a relationship with one of her children and her own relatives, and that Brenda, younger by a decade than her siblings, would pay with her childhood.

Lee’s descriptions of the agonizingly boring and interminable meetings and assemblies, and the way that “witnessing” devoured her mother’s attention and ate up family life, will be familiar to all who were kids in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ organization. But unlike those who were raised in it from infancy—such as me, a third-generation JW—Brenda and others whose families convert during their childhoods experience searing losses. Beloved friends and relatives are labeled “bad associations,” joyous holidays become shunned “pagan rituals,” and hopeful dreams for the future morph into nightmares of what JWs call “the battle of Armageddon and God’s destruction of this wicked system of things.”

For Lee, the destruction of these relationships and the emotional damage the association with the Jehovah’s Witnesses did to her life are the unifying themes of her narrative. She begins her book with a dedication to her son, Derek, and the promise that she will always love him “unconditionally.” This is the love she longed for from her own mother, love that the Jehovah’s Witnesses forbid. In that cult, as in others, family love flows from a narrow faucet and the “organization” can close the spigot at any moment.

Brenda Lee will leave home to make her way in the world not only bereft of normal family support, but struggling to make sense of relationships after her family’s conversion derailed her emotional development.

This is the narrative into which she invites us. Although the prose is uneven, the author’s voice is so strong and sympathetic that early on her story becomes gripping. Largely because she is so courageously transparent, we care about this lonely girl and angry adolescent; we cheer for her as she throws lifelines of friendship out of the cult in her struggle to be free of a past that has damaged her more than she will fully realize for years. We feel the frustration and heartache that accompanies her marriage to an indifferent and unsupportive man who leaves her with full responsibility for their infant son.

It is at this point the narrative bogs down and could have used serious editing. It is often hard to follow the chronology of the events Lee describes as she struggles to find the daycare help necessary for her to support herself and her baby. Despite the editorial glitches of some portions of the story, many women will strongly empathize with what she calls the “Daycare Nightmare.” A standalone book on the subject would not be a bad idea for her next project.

This portion of the book might seem to some readers a long and unnecessary detour from Lee’s narrative, until we remember to ask why this struggling young mother is in this predicament. Having left the Jehovah’s Witnesses myself and having been divorced with two of my children still in elementary school, I understand what it is like for a child to be without parental support. And now, as a grandmother who assists nearly daily with childcare for my own children’s children, I recognize the simple, practical value of these ties that cults so callously cut. With sadness, I observe that we could multiply by thousands this lament of Brenda Lee:

When I look back on our lives, I truly regret that my family missed out on getting to know Derek. They never experienced his first steps, first tooth, first word, first bike ride or first day of school. They never knew what it was like to watch him hunt Easter eggs and squeal with delight when he found one, proudly tie his shoes, or struggle to write his name. They never attended his school plays, brought him homemade soup when he was ill or watched him wildly tear open his Christmas presents after weeks of anticipation. Surely they must feel a void in their lives.

And what has Derek missed? What have the Jehovah’s Witnesses stolen from him? He’ll never know the joy of making cookies with Grandma, being spoiled on a shopping trip by Grandpa, or hearing stories of how Grandma and Grandpa met and fell in love. He’ll never share an overnight visit with them, never frequent the homestead where his mother grew up and never come to know, never even meet, his cousins, uncle or aunt. (p. 172)

Some former Witnesses will be disappointed with Out of the Cocoon’s lack of attention to theology—to questions of religious truth. This apparent lack is because, for many former members, theological questions were uppermost in their minds and were the main reasons for their departure from the organization. These people have written a number of memoirs that deal with those issues. But Brenda Lee’s account is different, and refreshingly so, in focusing almost entirely on relationship issues. For this reason, it is likely to appeal to many former members of other high-demand groups who would surely echo this cry of the heart: “[S]hould any religion have the right to scoop out an individual’s identity and dismantle their [sic] family unit? Is that what the Divine Being had in mind? Weren’t we instilled with independent thought for a reason?” (p. 214)

Indeed we were, and it is as a thoughtful and insightful woman that Brenda Lee has penned this memoir that celebrates the triumph of her successful flight to freedom and compels us to celebrate with her.

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2006,