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Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life

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A riveting memoir of losing faith and finding freedom while a covert missionary in one of the world's most restrictive countries.

A third-generation Jehovah's Witness, Amber Scorah had devoted her life to sounding God's warning of impending Armageddon. She volunteered to take the message to China, where the preaching she did was illegal and could result in her expulsion or worse. Here, she had some distance from her community for the first time. Immersion in a foreign language and culture--and a whole new way of thinking--turned her world upside down, and eventually led her to lose all that she had been sure was true.

As a proselytizer in Shanghai, using fake names and secret codes to evade the authorities' notice, Scorah discreetly looked for targets in public parks and stores. To support herself, she found work at a Chinese language learning podcast, hiding her real purpose from her coworkers. Now with a creative outlet, getting to know worldly people for the first time, she began to understand that there were other ways of seeing the world and living a fulfilling life. When one of these relationships became an "escape hatch," Scorah's loss of faith culminated in her own personal apocalypse, the only kind of ending possible for a Jehovah's Witness.

Shunned by family and friends as an apostate, Scorah was alone in Shanghai and thrown into a world she had only known from the periphery--with no education or support system. A coming of age story of a woman already in her thirties, this unforgettable memoir examines what it's like to start one's life over again with an entirely new identity. It follows Scorah to New York City, where a personal tragedy forces her to look for new ways to find meaning in the absence of religion. With compelling, spare prose, Leaving the Witness traces the bittersweet process of starting over, when everything one's life was built around is gone.

288 pages, Hardcover

First published June 4, 2019

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About the author

Amber Scorah

1 book121 followers
Amber Scorah is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, Gothamist, and Believer magazine.

Amber became a parental leave advocate after the loss of her son Karl on his first day in childcare, and was named one of the 100 most influential people in Brooklyn culture by Brooklyn Magazine.

Before coming to New York City, Amber lived in Shanghai, where she was creator and host of the podcast "Dear Amber--The Insider's Guide to Everything China," one of iTunes' Top 10 Podcasts of 2008. Amber is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 575 reviews
Profile Image for Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader.
2,124 reviews30.2k followers
May 31, 2019
I have a feeling this memoir is on the cusp of something really big. If my review is the first you are hearing of it, I think you will be hearing about it again. And again. ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Amber Scorah is a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness. Her life is spent believing in Armageddon and spreading the word as a witness. Amber is so devout she moves to China to minister there, where it is illegal to do so.

To do what she did in Shanghai, Scorah had to use fake names and other measures to stay under the radar of the authorities. She would search for people to target who might be “safe” to approach.

She also had to look for work to make a living, and she found that in a Chinese language learning podcast. She could not tell her coworkers her true purpose. It was through this work and creativity that she was exposed to a more secular way of life, and the world opened up over time and made her question her beliefs.

Scorah ends up “escaping” from the faith and, as a result, is shunned by her family and friends. This leads to her coming-of-age in her thirties where she finds herself with no education and support to rely on.

Scorah travels to New York City where she experiences a personal tragedy. She has to make sense of it in a different way than she may have in the past.

Y’all, Leaving the Witness is a beautiful book. Amber Scorah is a force. I get chills thinking of what she experienced and where she is today. Her writing is exquisite; just the kind of sparse but powerful prose I love most.

Leaving the Witness is the inspiring and completely captivating story of Scorah’s most personal journey. The questions she raises are poignant and immensely thought-stirring. After I turned the last page, I spent several minutes processing the ending and the book. I also found this an emotional read. Scorah faces some true struggles, and the way she writes about them shows her heart and makes her completely relatable. This is a masterpiece of a memoir, and if I’ve enticed you even a little, I strongly encourage you to give it a try. I don’t give star ratings on my blog usually, but if you are curious, this is worthy of all five stars.

I received a complimentary copy. All opinions are my own.

My reviews can also be found on my blog: www.jennifertarheelreader.com
Profile Image for Barbara.
273 reviews214 followers
November 17, 2021
Amber Scorah's poignant memoir details her life growing up a Jehovah Witness in a family that had been entrenched in that religion for three generations. It was a way of life, a recipe that told her what to think (but not question), how to act, and how to remain separate from the outside world. Follow that recipe and Amber would have eternal life in paradise, tweak it and various punishments would be meted out by a powerful panel of men. Being labeled an apostate would be the ultimate judgement, worse than murder or child abuse. No other J.W. would acknowledge her; she would become invisible even to family members. Instead of eternal life, she would be condemned to Armageddon, like all those worldly people who lived in Satan's domain. This is what Ms. Scorah faced when her beliefs withered and died.

All I knew about this religion before reading this book was that they often rang my doorbell trying to convert me, and they could be very persistent, just as persistent as they were in controlling all aspects of a believer's life. The author's total indoctrination in such an insulated community eliminated any need or desire for her to question or doubt. Because she could speak Mandarin, she was sent to China to proselytize. Meeting people from a different and very old culture, people living within a country as restrictive as her religion, made her wonder why they would want or need her God. Certainty about her beliefs began to diminish. Her job at a podcast program where her religion was hidden and a continuing conversation on the internet with a non-believer bled the life out of whatever religious beliefs remained. Her life as a J.W. was over. She left the religion, her husband, her family and friends - her whole existence. She was entering a new world, one she knew little about. For her it was a pitch black night and she had no flashlight. Freedom to think and do what she wanted wasn't always easy.

This memoir was not a plea for pity. It was a heartfelt and difficult journey, one I took with Scorah as she trekked into this unknown world, a world I had always known. Is this religion a cult? Are all religions cults? What about political alliances? Social organizations? I think the answer depends on one's perspective. For me, a cult is the extreme adherence to defined beliefs, discouragement of: questioning and conversation, higher education and reading opposing beliefs, disassociation from those outside the group; it is the complete control of the follower's mind.
Profile Image for Canadian Reader.
1,064 reviews25 followers
June 23, 2019
Amber Scorah’s memoir about leaving one of the most controlling and restrictive of religious organizations, the Jehovah’s Witnesses— a movement that Canadian academic M. James Penton characterizes as “alienated from the world” and “hostile to society in general”—appears to have grown out of an article published in the American bimonthly magazine The Believer..

Ironically, it was Scorah’s travelling with her Jehovah’s Witness husband as a “missionary pioneer” to China, the largest totalitarian country in the world, that allowed her to escape the extreme, end-of-days religious sect and her moribund marriage. Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned in China. In order for members to operate there, the organization’s normally rigid structures and dictates (e.g., thrice-weekly meetings) have to be relaxed. Witnesses must function under the radar of the government. They must first form “worldly” friendships with Chinese citizens, slyly sussing out early on whether or not potential converts are connected to the communist party. If no government connections are detected, JW “preachers” can then proceed to a more toned-down version of proselytization than is typically conducted in North America.

Apparently linguistically gifted, Scorah seems to have caught on to Mandarin more easily than most. (Prior to moving to Shanghai, she and her husband spent three years in Taiwan, attending language classes there.) Witnesses are firmly opposed to higher education: Armageddon is on the horizon, so what’s the point of going to school? Learning only makes a person more worldly; it bloats one’s sense of self. More importantly, attending college or university exposes young people to dangerous views contrary to the faith, and equips them with the intellectual tools to begin asking questions. In this regard, Scorah is initially a typical Witness. With no post-secondary experience or specialized training, she is poorly equipped for employment of any sort. As many Witnesses in foreign countries do, she sets herself up as a teacher of English. Subsequently and somewhat surprisingly, she manages to get a job delivering a weekly podcast for foreigners who want to better understand Chinese ways. A listener in California, Jonathan, begins messaging her as a result of her work, and an online friendship and flirtation develops. Jonathan eventually learns of Scorah’s religion and challenges her about it on a daily basis, gradually eroding her faith and a lifetime of programming. As she begins the process of “leaving the Witness”, Scorah holds on tightly to Jonathan, seemingly her only friend in the larger world. She believes her relationship with him will provide a route out of the Witness life. Not surprisingly, he makes himself increasingly unavailable.

Scorah describes the attempts of Witness elders stationed in Shanghai to intervene and set her straight. She tells about their exhortations to her to pray and repent, and about the threat of being “disfellowshipped” (excluded from the fold). Her experience of being shunned is mentioned, though not in much detail, as is her fear of being deemed an apostate (one who has rebelled against “Jehovah God”). “Apostasy,” she writes, “is the worst of all sins, the only one for which there is no forgiveness possible.” In spite of this and her lack of an exit plan, she feels an unrelenting “low electrical current” buzzing behind her panic—the persistent, unsettling hum of the thought “that we were all wrong. It wasn’t the truth.” Alarming as this inner sense is, it keeps her going.

As the title of the memoir suggests, this is a story about leaving and finding another way of living. The book gives only a sketchy, impressionistic sense of what it was like for Scorah to grow up within the religion. (Lloyd Evans’s memoir, The Reluctant Apostate provides a more informative and comprehensive treatment of that experience.) Although Scorah was a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness, in many ways, her upbringing within the sect was not typical. Her parents were, for the most part, inactive in the movement, mainly because of her father’s alcoholism and reluctance to engage socially. (He died from alcohol-abuse-related organ failure at the age of 47.) Scorah’s practising-JW grandmother had stepped in to save Amber and her siblings from succumbing to the temptations of the world. These interventions are mentioned in passing by the author. However, the details of childhood and youth are not the author’s focus. I’ll admit to being somewhat disappointed by this.

Scorah spends some time documenting the hard psychological work involved in redefining oneself after rejecting a rigid religious ideology upon which one’s identity has been based. Her treatment of the practical aspects of making her own way in the world—moving to New York, finding a place to live, gaining employment and a formal education, making friends, having a relationship and a child—is rather rushed and superficial.

Scorah chooses to end her memoir by describing a tragedy that befalls her out of the blue—randomly—as tragedies so often do. All her challenges to this point—the loss of a religion, a marriage, family, friends—have been met with a kind of fierce determination, a drive to survive. But now, she must grapple with an experience that knocks the stuffing out of her. What she learns about “the cost of being raised on myths” is that “it makes it impossible to deceive oneself anymore.” She writes:

I begin to understand why people concocted ideas about life and death. I now know what dread we were all trying to avoid, with our cults and religions. Even those with no religion—we were all hiding, indoctrinated, embedded with ideas about how we must be and must live to impose order on the disorder. . . only the upheavals, the blindsides, the tragedies . . . discompose us enough to investigate just how much the environment in which we find ourselves has created the way we see the world. It is a struggle to see the truth through our indoctrination, to verify the stories told to us by the culture we have been born into, or have chosen.

With its unusual Shanghainese setting and observations about Chinese culture and customs, Leaving the Witness makes for an interesting reading experience. It is an important testimony about what it means to break away from an oppressive and controlling religious cult.

Rating: 3.5
Profile Image for Jen.
1 review1 follower
April 14, 2019
Never would have guessed that in a book about Jehovah's Witnesses that I would also find a mini historical look back at the beginning of the podcast era AND Alanis Morissette's breakout album "Jagged Little Pill."

This book really checks so many boxes: it's a spy novel, an insider's look at a religious cult, in parts it's even a coming-of-age story. And all along, it's the memoir of one very strong woman. The journey Scorah has been on in life is truly incredible, and she courageously takes you with her through all the peaks and valleys. It's as entertaining as it is inspiring, as educational as it is personal, and as thrilling as it is tragic. It is also incredibly well written, containing bits of insight and humor that can only exist when one is baring one's soul so generously.

I read a review copy of the book, and I imagine by the time it's released in June it will have already been picked up to be made into a feature film. Kinda hope it's called "You Oughta Know."
Profile Image for Jerrie.
986 reviews130 followers
August 23, 2019
For this one, I felt the author distanced herself too much from her story. It almost felt like she was writing about someone else most of the time. There are some good segments in the book, but overall the writing style was so-so. The author has, however, gone through some dark times and unique challenges and has some valuable perspective to give.
Profile Image for Don Campbell.
76 reviews
June 22, 2019
I was not raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but at the age of 18 I became convinced that they had “the Truth.” But, college, my friends (especially THAT girl), and my mother’s hopes for my future delayed my decision to “give it all up for Jehovah.” But a terrible experience with drugs convinced me that the only way to find happiness was to commit fully to being a Jehovah’s Witnesses at age 20.
Commitment meant dropping out of college even though my education was fully paid for by means of a grant I’d received. The hardest part was saying good-bye to my friends, though after my clumsy attempts at proselytizing, they were probably glad to be rid of me. After baptism, I became what was called a Pioneer, one who committed to spending one hundred hours a month in the preaching activity (30 more hours per month more than you, Amber. Of course, who’s counting?)
After 20 years I finally left. Like Amber, it was a relationship that was the lifesaver that gave me my life. I had no degree and no savings. After all, the “End” was coming in my lifetime, back there in 1991.
I also experienced a kind of spiritual vertigo, drawn to religion and spirituality but still distrustful of “false religion,” i.e. anything other than Jehovah’s Witnesses. Eventually, I went back to school at age 40 and was the Outstanding Religious Studies student the year I graduated. Then, I went to Seminary and received a Master’s degree in Divinity, becoming one of the most despised people in the Witness universe, a member of the clergy.
Since leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses, I have become a proponent of interfaith and ecumenical understanding. Rather than seeing the differences between the “truth” and what everyone else believes, I understand “religion” as humanly designed systems, influenced by the culture into which they are born, that seek to answer the BIG questions. (Much too big a topic for this already too long review.)
Amber Scorah’s book reminded me of the good, the bad, and the ugly of those days spent under the penetrating gaze of the Watchtower. I am so glad that she has written this book of her experiences. And while I don’t use this appellation any longer, I’d like to say, “Thank you, Sister Scorah.”
Profile Image for Natali.
433 reviews303 followers
June 26, 2019
I was raised a Jehovah's Witness and left the religion when I was 19. Reading this book felt like someone plucked all the thoughts that I had back then but never had the courage to articulate.

One example: When she describes the mind-numbing ritual of district conventions, she says that she wished she had a baby so she had an excuse to get up and wander around. I ALWAYS thought that! I could not stop laughing about that shared commiseration!

This was a triggering but important book for me. I cannot speak to how someone with no exposure with this religion might experience this book but I can say this: it took incredible bravery for her to write this. She is also funny, articulate, a great story teller, and incredibly erudite for someone who was denied upper education. For that reason alone, I recommend the book.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,657 followers
July 9, 2019
This was a really interesting memoir, but there were a lot of threads that did not come together for me. She's introspective about leaving her faith, but she is not as introspective about her "loveless marriage" and her dependence on men in every realm of her experience. The end was just thrown on and I won't spoil it, but I just did not at all see it coming and it felt like the entire book could have been written about that because she has her biggest insights about religion then. The book lacked a cohesive thread--perhaps because she depicts herself as a non-agent in a lot of the book.
Profile Image for Tanja Berg.
1,863 reviews425 followers
December 29, 2022
This is the story of how Amber left the Jehova’s witnesses. It started by volunteering as a missionary in China, where she eventually learned to think for herself, as the JW need to operate in secrecy there, and thus have less control over their members. JW must only read what the elders prescribe and adhere to their version of the truth.

It was Jehova's witnesses that pushed me from the latent, non-participating Christian that I had been for years. They were so insistent, showing up on my doorstep every week - ignoring my claims of being a baptist - and finally demanding I take a stand. I was new to town and they probably thought I would be easy to bring into the fold and control. When I did take a stand, I found that I could not only reject Jehova's witnesses take on Christianity. I could not believe any denomination's version of it. You should have seen the look on the Jehova's witnesses when they came round again, expecting me to join their fold and I told them that "yes, I've thought it through - I'm an atheist now".

The relief of their being no sin, no heaven and no hell is indescribable. It’s not the same as being amoral, morality and Christianity (or any religion), have no correlation and only the most tenuous of relationship. Actions have consequences, and you should be aware how you influence life around you, is it mostly positive or mostly negative? Are you better than me for doing good in fear of someone condemning you to hell fire? Or me, doing good because it’s right, expecting neither reward or punishment.

Amber’s journey to de-conversion is an interesting one because her indoctrination was so deep. Although I see the parallels to my own life, it also took me 30 years to learn to think for myself.

The world would be a better place if everyone lived as if this life and this experience was the only one. Maybe we would care more for each other, our world and the creatures we share it with them.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,367 reviews541 followers
June 30, 2019
If not for all that had happened here, I would not have left my religion. I would certainly still be a Jehovah's Witness had I not come to this country and learned its ways. Perhaps I would have been happier. But no matter what it took to get here, to this breezy corner, or how alone I was among these 1.3 billion people, I felt ecstatic to be free, to have this life. I didn't know who to thank anymore, so I thanked the sky, the trees, the smiles, the sounds – the things I knew to be true.

There was a group of Jehovah's Witnesses that came around to call on me when I was a young mother – smiling sweetly at my girls as they tried to convince me to let them into my home for deeper talks, month after month – and because I believed that they were honestly interested in the state of my soul and salvation, because I believed that they honestly feared for the everlasting future of my children, I couldn't bring myself to be rude to them beyond saying no thank you to more information, I had my own beliefs, thanks; they persisted until they didn't, but I was never mad at them for trying. Amber Scoran kind of sours that memory for me with Leaving the Witness – describing the JWs as a cult whose members would have thought of me as a "worldly" mouthpiece for Satan; people who were mostly interested in logging their obligatory monthly proselytising hours, knowing we apostates were actually beyond saving.

Scoran herself seems to have given up on converting hopeless Westerners, and because she had been taught that Armageddon couldn't come until Jehovah's word had spread all around the world, she decided to learn Mandarin and take the message to untapped China – a move that involved a three year stay for her and her husband in Taiwan for language lessons, and then a covert move to establish themselves in Shanghai, where the Chinese government had outlawed the organisation. Because the JWs in China had to operate in secret (with fewer meetings and virtually no community oversight), Scoran found herself no longer under the direct mind control of the Governing Body, and after making an online connection with a man who forced her to confront the fact that she was, indeed, in a cult, she was compelled to take the frightening move of leaving her church, her husband, friends and family – being disfellowshipped for apostacy meant that everyone she ever knew (all of whom were JWs) were no longer allowed to acknowledge her existence. Not only was she now utterly alone, in Shanghai, but Scoran had the niggling fear that she had actually made a mistake and shut herself out of paradise. I can't imagine the bravery that it took Scoran to leave everyone and everything behind.

As a narrative, Leaving the Witness gives some biographical information about Scoran's upbringing in Vancouver, a bit of the history of the Jehovah's Witness organisation and a look at life inside its culture, quite a bit about how hard it is for Westerners to learn Mandarin and adapt to Chinese life, and because Scoran found a job on an early podcast (and eventually launched her own popular podcast on adapting to life in China called “Dear Amber”), there's some interesting info about that industry. Eventually Scoran does leave everything behind, and the end of the book jumps ahead months and years at a time to share how her life has worked out – if I had a complaint it would be that she glazed over so much at the end that had obvious dramatic impact (and I don't know if I was interested in everything she had to say about China), but it's Scoran's story to tell and she told it well. Introspective, candid, written with refined prose, it's hard to believe that Scoran left her church with no higher education (what's the point in pursuing a profession or saving for retirement if the world could end any day?), and the obvious improvement in her intellectual engagement with life is enough to argue that she's better off out of the JWs. With the insight Scoran gives here into how life operates as a Jehovah's Witness – the control, the sexism, the clamping down on curiosity and participation in society – makes me think that when those seemingly sweet women used to come to my door, I should have shouted at them, “You're in a cult and you're not taking us with you!” (But, of course, that would only prove that I was speaking for Satan.) Overall, a fascinating and well-told life story. I'm just going to preserve here some of Scoran's most startling passages:

I knew that my explanations of the world made more sense than anything else I had come across, if only I could find someone who had the right heart and would listen. I was as confident in my mission as a suicide bomber is of his: God would help me, and one day I would be in paradise for having done it.

On the fact that there's an organisation through which JW's can buy a fake university degree for $3000 in order to work in foreign countries:

In fact, it was encouraged by some of those in higher-up positions, who reminded us of a Bible principle I have since seen the Governing Body use to lie in child abuse court cases: theocratic warfare. Meaning, if being dishonest will do something to advance Jehovah's will, then it's okay to make an exception and keep one's clean conscience.

One night, when I had a particularly long-lasting case of insomnia accompanied by my usual terrors of the Armageddon I heard so much about during my visits to the Kingdom Hall, I went out to my dad in front of the TV and asked him if he might be able to spank me, since crying myself to sleep had generally worked well in the past. This was the only kind of help I knew to seek from my parents.

Witnesses were the only ones who would be allowed out of Hitler's concentration camps if they would renounce their faith. And they didn't. In China, a Jehovah's Witness missionary had been imprisoned in solitary confinement for years in the 1950s, for preaching after Mao came to power. Kids with cancer chose death rather than take a blood transfusion. My culture was one of biblical proportions: men sacrificing their own child at God's request, fathers that allowed angry crowds to rape their daughters to protect God's angels.

On the affair that sealed her break from her husband and church:

My apocalypse hadn't looked like I thought it would: no oceans turning to blood with every piece of clothing taken off and pushed onto the ground, no skies turning darker with each penetration of my body, no giant hailstones raining down through the roof, no vultures picking clean the bones of our violating carcasses. It had been a fevered drive on a dark highway, fast, muddled bodies, a shower smelling of unfamiliar soap, an earring left behind on a black sheet. The closest thing to the Four Horsemen was a Trojan condom wrapper on the floor.

Recommended for fans of Tara Westover's Educated, Jenna Miscavige Hill's Beyond Belief, or Miriam Toewe's Women Talking, Leaving the Witness was a fascinating and enlightening read.
Profile Image for Cynthia.
758 reviews120 followers
December 30, 2019
For a memoir about someone leaving a religion and finding a life, I was disappointed to discover that very little of the book focuses on the experience of questioning her beliefs and actually leaving the Jehovah’s Witness religion.

In Leaving the Witness, Scorah recounts some of her childhood and teen years, but she focuses mainly on her time in China as a Jehovah’s Witness. She gives a lot of details about what she did as a Jehovah’s Witness in a foreign country. A lot. She reports on the foundation of the religion, the Chinese culture, and details her podcast pitch along with a few conversations that transpired on the show. Over halfway through the book, she finally began to explore what caused her to doubt the beliefs she had been raised with. I wanted so much more of this process and that isn’t what I received.

I am sure it isn’t her fault that this book was promoted in a way that led me to expect something much different but had I known what to really expect, I might not have read it. It certainly does have some positive points. Scorah has an extensive vocabulary and uses some interesting descriptive language, although using a variety of metaphors to convey one idea causes the comparison to lose its power and this happened frequently throughout the book.

I don’t want to criticize how she chose to communicate her story. The setup, however, really didn’t work for me. There was a lot of quoted dialogue from her podcast and her online conversations with the man who helped her see another side to her beliefs. Every single word exchanged in these conversations was shared in the book. It was too much, in my opinion.

Much like the facts she reported about the beliefs of her ex-religion and the culture of China, the book felt more like she was reporting on someone else’s life. She touched superficially on some of the confusion she experienced in the religion but I felt she offered little understanding of the tremendous impact her consequential shunning and enormous loss of human connection caused for her. The writing was generally distant from the emotions, even as they were described. I would have liked to delve more into the meat of how her experiences made her feel.

The last chapter was, undoubtedly, the most powerful of them all and I did finally get a sense of the author’s pain through the writing. Had the entire book captured that as well, this would be a much different review. Amber Scorah has certainly endured some incredibly difficult things and has found the courage to survive and share her story. That is commendable, even if the book didn’t quite work for me.

Obviously, I’m in the minority. This book has high ratings which essentially means others have appreciated it much more than I did. Take a look, if your interest is piqued. May your experience be better than mine.
Profile Image for Shelli.
360 reviews76 followers
June 24, 2019
Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life is the solidly-written memoir of writer, podcaster, and former Jehovah’s Witness missionary Amber Scorah. Raised as a third-generation Witness and in a loveless marriage, she convinces her husband and the elders of the church to let her move to Asia – a lifelong dream – with her and her husband as missionaries, of course. After a stay in Taiwan, she and her husband land in Shanghai, where Amber – an inherent introvert – finds she has only a fair to middling aptitude for proselytizing, very illegal in China, but that she has a great talent for podcasting. Eventually, her exposure to the world outside her religion, with which she had so little previous experience, opens her eyes to the fact that not everyone who’s not a Jehovah’s Witness is ill-intentioned and evil (yes, she was really taught that). Combined with her dismal and claustrophobic marriage and an online affair of the heart, she finally realizes she’s in a cult, and manages to extricate herself from both it and her marriage.

My big complaint is that the book ends right after that, as Amber eventually leaves China and, with her family and friends forbidden from interacting with her because of her “disfellowshipped” status, she lands herself in New York City. This would be fine except for the fact that just pages before the end of the book, Amber suffered a huge personal tragedy, about which she has written in a number of magazine articles totally separate from her life in Jehovah’s Witnesses but I’m putting behind spoiler tags anyway: . She grieved, despaired, processed her grief, and was left in a traumatized but functional state, all in literally a few pages. While it’s true that this was a major event in her life, it felt like a such an out-of-place coda that I sort of wished she’d ended her book before it happened.

3.5 stars.

I received an advance uncorrected proof of this book at no cost via Goodreads Giveaways but was otherwise not compensated for my review.
Profile Image for Jenny.
271 reviews
August 16, 2019
2.5 Really wanted to love this book. I bought it immediately after hearing the author’s interview on Fresh Air, because the wait at the library was too long. The book really needed a good editor. Scorah is a good writer, but there was quite a bit of repetition and perhaps it some of it could’ve been avoided if it was written a linear fashion instead of going back-and-forth in time. Yes we get it, you didn’t go to college, and finding a job is hard because JW tells you not to focus on the future. (This was brought up so many times I stopped feeling sympathy for her.)

Full disclosure, I have family I dearly love who are JW, so maybe the book would be more gripping to someone who was unfamiliar with the lifestyle, shunning etc. I’d also recently watched the movie Apostasy.
Profile Image for Laney.
501 reviews
July 11, 2019
I was hoping this would be more like Troublemaker by Leah Remini, which totally blew my mind about all things Scientology. But I guess Jehovah’s Witnesses are not quite as outrageous as Scientologists, so it just didn’t have the same juicy scandalous feel. :)

It was interesting to learn more about Jehovah’s Witnesses and what they believe, and it was interesting to hear the story of an American who was secretly preaching in China. But then the book just grew less interesting as it went along, and then the ending was just very, very sad and depressing.
Profile Image for Tania Mason.
101 reviews
June 22, 2019
I really wanted to enjoy this book. I have read memoirs based on the same premise, but this one just didn't cut it. I couldn't read another "I'm so good at speaking Mandarin." I felt like there was more details in who she spoke to and where she lived rather than the doctrines of a cult. I really struggled with the four relationships with men she described, and then claim she didn't know how to start a new relationship. Then there was a comparison between the Cultural Revolution and her leaving her faith. Then the end of the book went off on a whole new topic, that although she tried to connect back to her beliefs now, seemed like material for another piece.
Profile Image for Jeff Koeppen.
542 reviews35 followers
November 20, 2019
My only experience with Jehovah's Witnesses is through the countless Watchtower and Awake magazines which Witnesses feel the need to regularly leave in the little free libraries in the park near our house. For some reason we no longer have them knocking on our door. I knew little about this religious cult (it does meet this definition) before reading Leaving the Witness.

I was hooked by Leaving the Witness right off the bat. The book opens with author Amber Scorah arriving in Shanghai. To prepare for this trip Amber studied the Chinese language for four years. Why are Jehovah's Witnesses sent to China? Because Jehovah's Witnesses believe that once China is converted to their religion the end of the world will commence and the Witnesses will begin their eternal lives on an Earth converted to a paradise by Jehovah. Trouble is, the Jehovah's Witness religion is outlawed in China so their meetings have to be held covertly and the Witnesses have to watch their backs and be cognizant of what they say in public or on the phone to avoid the Chinese authorities or snitches. Converting the Chinese people, therefore, is a difficult task.

The book follows Amber's life from arriving in China to her eventual disfellowshipping from the religion with flashbacks to Amber's upbringing and how belonging to the Jehovah's Witnesses affected her life as a young person. She also explores the beginnings of the religion, its inner workings, and beliefs and practices. Spoiler alert: it was fabricated by old guys and the rules favor men. Even today old guys from New York call the shots, its patriarchal nature remains in intact after 150 years. While the beliefs may not sound that far-fetched to the average reader familiar with quirks of modern religions, some of the practices are downright shocking.

I found this look in to the Jehovah Witnesses very eye-opening. Her experience as a Westerner living in China is also fascinating to read about. The audible book was narrated by the author herself and narration was kind of flat but the story was so good that it didn't affect my interest. I'm glad I got to hear her tell her story.
Profile Image for Laurel.
339 reviews15 followers
June 10, 2019
Fantastic. A MUST READ for any former member of a cult or high demand religion. Honestly, so deeply mirrored my experience of leaving that it was a bit triggering, and also incredibly meaningful to me. This book accurately describes the feeling of emerging from naivete, emerging from a false world into the real world. It's traumatizing and confusing and embarrassing. It is liberating. What you see can't be unseen.
Profile Image for Michael Sclafani.
213 reviews4 followers
June 10, 2019
I can’t bring myself to rate a memoir of someone I know personally, but this is a deeply personal book of a truly remarkable person. Mostly, it is about losing one’s anchor in the world, and while her story is so peculiar, it is a feeling I venture we all know well to some extent. I know I do.
Profile Image for Molly.
127 reviews13 followers
March 9, 2019
I requested and received an ARC of this book from the publisher.

All Amber Scorah knew was life as a Jehovah's Witness. Brought into the church at a young age by her grandmother, Amber conceived of the world as completely black and white, with JWs being the only people "inside the truth" and the only people who would live eternally. After a youthful indiscretion that almost got her kicked out of the church, she married a fellow JW and they embarked on a life in China as covert missionaries.

Amber's faith unravels over the course of a few years, as she learns more about Chinese culture and alternative ways of looking at life, death, and spirituality. This happens with the patient prodding of a man she meets online through her work as a podcaster. With her marriage failing as well, Amber travels to the US to meet this man and sees how a life without Witnessing could be possible and even good.

Life post-Witness isn't easy though, and Amber's struggles are really heartbreaking. The book ends almost abruptly, with her having come to no real solid conclusion about how to live life without religion and how to deal with death. That isn't really a criticism, because who among us has? Amber is very relatable despite her highly unusual life. I really enjoyed this book and her voice.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,603 reviews2,575 followers
July 29, 2019
(3.5) I jumped at the chance to read this due to my interest in women’s religious memoirs. Like In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott and Educated by Tara Westover, this is the story of growing up in a cult and what happens when, as an adult, a woman has to build a new life free from the constraints – but also unmoored from the comforting framework – of a previously unquestioned belief system. Scorah grew up in Vancouver’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, although she was temporarily disfellowshipped as a teenager for having premarital sex, the faith was her home and gave her a sense of purpose. Witnesses are discouraged from attending university or pursuing careers; without exception, they’re expected to preach and win converts – the only task worth engaging in given that the world is headed towards Armageddon.

Scorah and her husband went to China as clandestine JW missionaries. Her Mandarin skills were good enough that she could become friends with her English-language pupils and then start to talk to them about religion. In the meantime, she became an early podcast host with the program “Dear Amber,” which offered advice on the Chinese language and culture. She embarked on a flirtatious correspondence with one of her regular listeners, Jonathan from Los Angeles, who goaded her into rethinking everything she’d been taught to believe. “I was questioning with a mind that had been trained not to. It was highly uncomfortable.”

As her marriage and faith simultaneously crumbled, Scorah had to decide what was left to form the foundation of a new life on her own in New York City. “My eye-glazing peace, unquestioning contentment, and eternal life were gone, and the time ahead of me was filled with people I didn’t yet know, uncertainty about the future, and, one day, death.” I was absorbed in the bittersweet outworkings of this before and after: a process of losing faith and deciding what’s next.

The final chapter is a whirlwind tour through her first years in NYC, including the tragic death of her infant son, Karl. This makes for something of an abrupt end to the book; I might have liked to get as much detail on all this as we got about the time in China. But it was clearly a deliberate decision to present such life and death matters from a hard-won secular perspective, without the false balm of a religion that promises she’ll see her son again. There’s a lot of secrecy about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so this is a rare insider’s view as well as a wrenching account of loss and starting over.

Favorite passages:

“I was starting to understand that truth was ambiguous, and subjective. So much of who we are is what we have been taught by our culture, or even our family. Why did God make us such complicated beings, and why couldn’t he make the important things that a human race might need to know more evident—say, with an address from the clouds every Friday afternoon to remind us of why we were here and how we were supposed to live?”

“Curiosity is a bad quality for the preacher. You preach because you are sure. You preach to people who don’t need to hear it, because possibly you are the one who needs to be saved.”

Full disclosure: Amber Scorah offered her book through a Facebook group we are both a part of. Thanks to her and Viking for sending a free copy for review.
Profile Image for Penny (Literary Hoarders).
1,144 reviews133 followers
August 1, 2019
A quick read. Good, but fairly simplistic. Her voice comes across as simple and perhaps immature? A good story about having the courage to leave the Jehovah Witnesses - an incredible accomplishment on her part - she's in China and has the incredible courage to leave her religion, her husband, move to New York and rebuild her life outside of the Witnesses. Not faulting that aspect at all, I just felt the writing was fairly simplistic and sometimes immature?
Profile Image for Kat N.
3 reviews2 followers
February 12, 2019
I really enjoyed this book. Incredibly interesting and eye-opening to see how some people have lived/are living. The author tells her story with insight and wit, and brutal honesty. I laughed and I cried (boy, did I cry), and the descriptions of Shanghai teleported me there instantly. A highly original story that needed to be told. Five stars.
Profile Image for Emily Polson.
556 reviews76 followers
November 20, 2020
"We as humans seem to work the hardest to avoid our biggest gift: freedom of choice."

Leaving the Witness is the story of a woman who travels to Shanghai as a Jehovah's Witness missionary, only to discover the tight grip this cult religion had on her mind and slowly worm her way out. The first half mostly exists to set the stage, but the book starts to come alive as Amber comes alive, pushed by a stranger from the internet to re-examine and question her beliefs for the first time. She talks about the comfort that comes from accepting a strict set of ideas and beliefs about the world, and the subsequent challenges and discomforts of leaving that kind of addictive certainty behind. "We policed ourselves to sustain our nirvana," she writes. "We shared a willful blindness disguised as innocence and purity." At one point she quotes a text about ex-cult members who face the complex struggle of "trying to use their own thought processes to disentangle their own thought processes." This was the most compelling part of the book for me: Amber working through the process of unlearning and re-educating herself on how to exist in the world when the path forward has not been delegated for you by a team of elders, a lengthy set of rules, and a fear of Armageddon.

While Amber ultimately decides to leave her husband, her religion, and her belief in God entirely, I think she successfully avoids making this book's thesis an argument against faith itself. Instead, I think she argues in favor of self-awareness and self-determination, of not simply accepting the truths spoon-fed to us in our youth, of wrestling with doubt seriously rather hiding behind rote answers memorized to defend a comforting bubble of belief.

Recommended for fans of Educated...
Profile Image for Derek Driggs.
181 reviews6 followers
April 1, 2023
Only a person raised in a high demand religion, one that really consumes your life, can understand that life. I found this relatable in many ways. I thought the final chapter was the most poignant and only wish the author could have spent more time in that part of her journey.
Profile Image for Tiffany.
145 reviews12 followers
July 26, 2019
This was captivating and compelling. It's hard to critique a memoir as it is the story of someone's life, the ending felt very fast, but again, it's her life, her lived experience, not a story. I hope her life brings her more and more yang as she continues to build her new life. Amber Scorah is a warrior.
Profile Image for Rex.
232 reviews
December 31, 2022
I saw Amber Scorah interviewed on The Daily Show and was immediately intrigued by both her and her story. The next day I ordered her book. I read it in three days.

Although I keep it kind of quiet, I'm very anti-religion(s). I think most all of them have done far more harm to the world than good. I've read many books by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others that have helped crystallize and legitimize my thoughts. So the topic at the core of Leaving the Witness appealed to me strongly.

Although the book does criticize that cult that tries to legitimize itself by claiming to be a religion, that is not the main focus. Instead it is a highly personal, open and detailed memoir of a woman who was victimized by the Jehovah's Witnesses for the first 30 years of her life. Scorah reveals details about her upbringing and subjugation that most of us would find impossible to publicly share. She is candid to a level I have seldom experienced, and I applaud her for it. I suspect it was cathartic, and Amber Scorah is certainly someone deserving of catharsis and a new start.

I felt a strong attachment to the author as I learned the details of her life. I don't know how to explain this other than I could somehow relate to the experiences and emotions she underwent. I found myself wishing I could discuss some of these things with her in greater detail and that she is someone I would enjoy knowing. I didn't feel like an outsider as I so often do when reading a memoir.

My only criticism centers on the structure the author chose to tell her story. I guess I am a rather literal, linear kind of person. I tend to like things told to me chronologically. Like many authors do today, Scorah chose to jump around in time quite a bit, as well as space. Although this wasn't really confusing, I sometimes wondered about the missing gaps until they were revealed later. A few of them never came up again. Her story is so appealing and intriguing that I didn't think it needed this literary device to sustain interest. When this book is turned into a screenplay - and I suspect it will be - I hope they decide to dispense with the story leaps and tell her amazing story in a more straightforward manner.

Oh, and I think they should cast Amber Scorah herself in the lead!

If you enjoy stories of "escape" from mental and/or physical captivity, you will thoroughly be rewarded by Leaving the Witness.
Profile Image for Paul.
815 reviews44 followers
August 30, 2019
This is a brilliant and moving book describing the author, who was born into a family immersed in the Jehovah's Witness religion, and how she extricated herself from the cultlike hold of that religion. The gradual discovery that she was in a cult finally made her realize that there was another entire world out there that wasn't in fact evil or born of Satan. Her mind had been shaped and controlled virtually from birth, and there were aspects of the truth that had to be defended according to JW doctrine. Parts of that defense were abhorring anything that challenged the restricted rules of JW. The book describes the gradual process of her discovering that JW was a cult and that she was brainwashed and unable to see the world as it exists out of the JW system. She finds that the patriarchal system is oppressive, and having to answer to a group of men anytime you violated the exhaustive rules of the system was unfair, to say the least.

There is a deeply affecting part of the book in which she describes her absolute shunning by the organization and its adherents, including her family, her husband, and all her friends, and she ends up in New York City as an absolute blank slate, having no friends in the entire world. She describes the sudden death of her four-month-old son in daycare with incredible pathos and how she was finally able to understand the chanciness of the universe. It took her years to unindoctrinate herself, and she would still default to feelings that came up from her JW training. The mind control of the cult was fairly incredible, much like Scientology, in my opinion.

Ultimately she was able to have second child, a girl, and continue her life from that point onward.

For me, this book was un-put-downable, which is rarely the case for me. I have a long record of being able to put down books, or at least read them over long periods of time. The intensity and quality of this book was so immediate that I couldn't stop reading.

I would recommend this book to anyone, especially those who have left a strict belief system and are starting to think on their own. It's excellent.
Profile Image for Aria.
482 reviews41 followers
June 25, 2019
---- Disclosure: I received this book for free from Goodreads. ----

So, this is kind of hard to review. First off, I'd like to be clear that it was really good. A very unique memoir in which I really can't find anything to fault. It covers her early life in the Jehovah's Witness world, & how she ended up in China, of all places. Then it moves into the even more engaging ways that being a secret missionary in an openly restrictive (oddly enough, not an oxymoron) country allowed her what she most needed: space.

I have notes about all the things I want to mention in relation to this book. It truly was a reading experience, & I will definitely recommend it to others. I hope I will find a way to turn my notes into some coherent, worthy review. For now though, I will just say this book, overall, is about shedding old skin, living w/ the rawness & vulnerability of a different kind of life in a world that now must approached anew, & growing the hard-won strength that comes w/ standing on one's on feet for the 1st time. The whole thing was a lesson in listening to the truth of one's own experience, & deciding for one's own self, who it is they are going to be, & then owning all that comes of those decisions. While she herself left a widely recognized cult situation, she recognizes in the end how many commonly accepted belief systems, both religious & not, utilize cult-like, proscribed thinking to keep subscribers in a numb, cottony-cloud that blocks out other ways of thought as only so much noise. She is perhaps better able than most to recognize these things about the wider society, because she was raised outside these otherwise common modalities of secular & societal beliefs. If more people could see these processes at work across all areas of our society, we'd be in a much better position to start looking at what really lies beyond them, in an objective way. In the end, it all boils down to that old maxim: question everything.

Hopefully I will come back to complete this, & make more sense when I do. For now, I recommend just reading the book. I found it to be edifying, but then, I'm no stranger to skin-shedding.

822 reviews1 follower
March 23, 2020
I found this book to contain interesting information on the Jehovah's Witnesses. They are presented here as a cult from which the author "escaped". While not doubting the cult description, it struck me that many of their beliefs; i.e. they have the only truth and only they know God's rules, to be common among many main line religions as well. This was not emphasized at all in the book, only hinted at at the end when we find that the author is not an adherent of any faith and does not pray. If you are interested in understanding the mindset of a radical religion, this is a book you should read.
Profile Image for Mimi.
1,508 reviews
July 17, 2019
I heard a few interviews with Scorah in the past few weeks, most lengthily the Fresh Air in which she appeared. There was nothing in the story that I hadn't heard in an interview, but it was fascinating and well told.
My only quibble was the pacing - I knew about her family tragedy, and when I found myself on page 253 of a 279 page book without it being introduced, I knew it was going to be glossed over, and it was. I wish that she'd either expanded that section, or addressed it in a later book.
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