On July 5th, we were pleased to welcome New York-based author Amber Scorah to Montreal for the launch of her book, Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life.
The book is 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.
Amber was in conversation with Montreal-based filmmaker and documentary storyteller, Mia Donovan. The subject matter is close to Mia's heart, as her film, DEPROGRAMMED deals with similar issues.
The film chronicles Ted ‘Black Lightning’ Patrick’s anti-cult crusade. His practice of ‘deprogramming’, also known as ‘reverse brainwashing’, started in the early 1970s and quickly snowballed into a vast underground movement composed of concerned parents, ex-cultist-turned-deprogrammers and some sympathetic law-enforcers whose mission was to physically and mentally remove individuals from ‘cults’.
First, Amber read a passage from Leaving the Witness describing her time in China.
In discussing the difference between a religion and a cult, Amber explained that her ultimate gauge for distinguishing the two is: "does the group cause harm?" She said that while religion can be a positive thing in people's lives, there are instances when it can become negative if it crosses into the realm of harm. She also talked about the repercussions of leaving the faith, and being shunned as an apostate by her former community, among other things.
The conversation was followed by a Q+A where Amber fielded audience questions, as well as a signing.