Book Review: Leaving the Witness by Amber Scorah

Leaving the Witness – Amber Scorah (Viking, 2019)

I received an Advance Readers Copy of this book. It will be on sale June 4, 2019.

Leaving the Witness is a very personal and honest memoir of Amber Scorah’s experience as a Jehovah’s Witness missionary in Shanghai. Growing up in the restrictive boundaries of the Witnesses, Scorah found a freedom she had never experienced while living in China and her time there eventually lead her to leave the religion. Or, as she comes to understand it, the cult.

I’m always interested to read about other foreigners’ experiences in China and although I don’t know Shanghai well I found Scorah’s descriptions familiar and relatable. I greatly appreciated that Scorah doesn’t romanticize Asia. She doesn’t fetishize the Chinese or attribute to them greater wisdom than the average human beings, as too often Westerners do. She tells her experiences honestly and in a straightforward manner. There are things she enjoys about living in China and things she doesn’t and she does not offer her personal experience as all-encompassing knowledge. She touches on the fact that Asia attracts many of the oddities and outcasts of Western society. I’ve noticed this too while travelling, that those who might not quite fit in at home are sometimes able to make a new home as foreigners, where there quirks and foibles are less noticeable. Scorah counts herself among them and I found this endeared her to me.

The religious aspect was fascinating too. I didn’t know much about the Jehovah’s Witnesses beyond the usual stuff – the door-to-door visits, the refusal of blood transfusions, or birthday parties. I didn’t realize how isolated Witnesses were or how heavily Armageddon and the end of the world was emphasized. Scorah does a good job of giving some of the history of the cult and how its practises affect the modern believers. If you are taught that the world is ending soon, then you don’t need to have a retirement savings plan, for example.

The tension and drive of the book is contained in Scorah’s early years in Shanghai. The secrecy that her life is forced into – Jehovah’s Witnesses are illegal in China – and the growing questions she has about her faith. Once she actually leaves the Witnesses, the plot slows down and begins to ramble a bit. I did find it eye-opening just how isolated she was without her religious community. It showed how completely a cult like this (and Scorah does call it a cult) can cut off a person from the rest of the world and how difficult that makes it to leave. Scorah has no friends, very little education, and is completely “disfellowshipped” by her family. While she makes some stumbles along the way, her bravery at leaving and starting a new life is incredibly admirable.

A note on the ending: This is a memoir so there isn’t the neatly tied up package that the reader wants. Just when it seems like Scorah will get the happy ending we want for her, the story swerves. Her tragedy comes out of left field (both in real life and in the book) and seemed to change the whole story. This is Scorah’s life and I understand why she wouldn’t want to keep this part out but from an editorial perspective, it does jar.

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: Leaving the Witness by Amber Scorah”

  1. Interesting, especially since I have relatives who are Witnesses (and incidentally, who live in Vancouver). I suspect there must be all different levels of orthodoxy as with most religions. My cousin dropped out for several years, and though she was cut out of the community to a degree, her family never cut her off, nor did they really exert heavy pressure on her to rejoin, although my aunt very much wanted her to, and her friends stayed friends with her. She did return to it in the end, but as far as I know, very much out of choice – she concluded that she missed the sense of community and mutual support. She and her brother are often very funny about the reputation the religion has though – they don’t seem to feel they have to be deadly serious about it all the time. The result is that I can’t ever quite see it as the cult it’s often represented as, although I realise there must be much stricter sects within it. I could live without my aunt sending me pamphlets every few months though… you’d think she’d have given up after fifty years… ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. I know very little about the Witnesses but what you say makes sense. The way Scorah portrays it seems very intense whereas the JWs I’ve met have not been so aggressive. (We live close to a Kingdom Hall and have never had them come to our door in 4 years.) Scorah hints at some greater issues within her own family that I think certainly didn’t help and led to her estrangement.

  2. Hmm this does sound like a fascinating read. I haven’t read my ‘religious memoirs’ like this, but the fact that she lived in Asia adds another interesting layer to it. Re: the ending you mentioned-yikes! That’s a good cliffhanger to end on haha

    1. Yes, her years in Shanghai are interesting to read about, even without the added religious drama.

      The ending feels really separate from the rest of the book. I think she has another story she wants to tell there but is maybe still processing it. She does tie it in but it really does change the whole tone of the story and I think if I had known that was coming from the beginning, I would have read the book differently.

    2. Hmm interesting-perhaps a second book is in the works? I’m surprised the editor didn’t cut that part out, or allude to it or something…

    3. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another, very different book from her in the next year or two. She ties this in in terms of how tragedy is dealt with differently with religious belief and without but it does feel like there is another entire story here.

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