I am fascinated by demanding American religions, so last February, I downloaded Linda Curtis’s book, Shunned: How I Lost My Religion and Found Myself. Regular readers of this blog may know that my husband, Bill, was once a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is a highly demanding religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are also very demanding. In fact, I have a cousin who was a JW and eventually left the faith, along with his family. I knew a little about the JWs and the Mormons before I met Bill, who officially left the LDS church in 2006. I knew something about how people who leave highly demanding religions tend to get treated… although in Bill’s case, his shunning was only partly due to the religion. He was really mostly shunned because his ex wife is an abusive narcissistic creep who used the church to punish her former source of supply.
Anyway, eventually, Bill’s situation partially rectified. One of his daughters– ironically the one more devoted to Mormonism– eventually reconnected with him. The other daughter remains estranged, but that seems to be more because of her mother’s toxic influence than religion. Still, I remain interested in stories about restrictive religions and what happens when people choose to leave them. Linda Curtis published her true story about leaving the Witnesses in 2018. When I noticed it got a lot of positive reviews on Amazon, I decided to read it.
I started reading Shunned right after I finished reading Fear, Bob Woodward’s first book about Donald Trump’s presidency. I probably would have fallen into this book regardless, but I think reading about religion after reading about Trump’s White House was especially inspired. It took me just a few days to read Shunned, while Fear took weeks. Linda Curtis has a somewhat engaging writing style, and her story is basically interesting. I’m not sorry I read Shunned, although I think it could be improved.
Who is Linda Curtis and what’s her story?
Linda Curtis grew up in Portland, Oregon, one of three siblings. Her mother was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Her father, Frank, was not a believer until Linda and her siblings were adults. Linda’s family often prayed for her father to see “The Truth” and join the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Linda fervently prayed for that herself… but when her dad finally came around and decided to join the JWs, Linda was on her way out of the faith. No one knew that watching her dad’s baptism didn’t bring her the joy it brought her mother and siblings, or her first husband, Ross. They were unaware that Linda was experiencing a crisis of faith that led her to question the beliefs she had held dear her entire life.
Linda had always been a devout believer. Parents sent their questioning children to her because she was seen as a good influence. The religion had helped her develop a talent for sales, thinking on her feet, and connecting to people. Like all JWs, Linda went door to door to talk to people about the afterlife. It was something she’d never questioned until one day, when she knocked on her boss’s door. She hadn’t known he lived at that address. She found herself giving him the familiar spiel, telling him in not so many words that if he didn’t see “The Truth”, he was doomed to obliteration. Somehow, Linda realized, as she spoke to her boss, who had also been a mentor and a friend, that she was condemning a man she deeply respected.
After that chance meeting with her boss, Linda somewhat lost her zeal for the religion. Her first husband, Ross, a convert to the Witnesses, realized that his wife’s participation at Kingdom Hall was waning. He confronted her and she admitted that she was having issues with her beliefs. Moreover, Linda and Ross weren’t particularly compatible, and she realized that she didn’t love her husband.
The couple spoke to the elders at the church, but eventually decided that they needed to divorce. The split seemed relatively amicable, although due to their beliefs, they were still considered married in the eyes of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The religion teaches that the only legitimate reason for a dissolution of a marriage is adultery or death. That meant they weren’t supposed to have sexual relations with anyone else.
Linda and Ross had married young. Linda didn’t initially go to college, even though she was very smart. The religion didn’t encourage her to get a degree. But she did get a job in banking, and it turned out she was very good at it. She got promotions and more and more responsibility. Her family wasn’t necessarily onboard with her having a career; she was supposed to be a wife and a mother. That family life coupled with strict religion was not what Linda wanted for herself. Linda makes Ross sound a bit whiney and immature, but that might be because of her use of dialogue, which was a bit melodramatic. But he also decided to take a drive in Linda’s brand new car after he’d been drinking during one of their fights. I was surprised by all of the drinking that was referenced in this story. I know JWs are allowed to drink (I don’t think my cousin would have ever been a member if drinking wasn’t allowed), but I was under the impression that drinking was supposed to be done sparingly.
After the divorce, Linda moved to Chicago, then eventually San Francisco, as she continued to excel at her career. Meanwhile, she dated men, and eventually had sex. Admitting to adultery made it possible for Ross to remarry, but it also led to the JWs casting her out of the religion. Fornication is what led to her being “disfellowshipped” by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and shunned by her family, even though she was legally divorced when she did it. She could have repented and gotten back into “good standing”, but Linda determined that she didn’t want her life ruled by religion. I can hardly blame her for that. Shunning and “disfellowshipping” people for being “disobedient” to a religion or other group is manipulative and toxic… it’s basically asshole behavior intended to control other people. As I am fond of saying, it’s NOT a punishment to be shunned by an asshole. However, when it’s your family and friends doing it, shunning can be very hurtful.
Through it all, her mother kept telling her that all she needed to do was come back to “The Truth” and get right with “Jehovah God”, and she would be welcomed back into the fold. It was the old “carrot and stick” cure. Jump through some hoops to make mom happy, and everything will be okay. It didn’t matter that the religion wasn’t working for Linda’s life or plans for herself. Linda’s brother, Randy, was the first to shun her, which cut her off from her niece and nephew. Her sister, Lory, who had struggled in the faith and got divorced from her first marriage, eventually also turned away from Linda, telling her that the family would never reach out to her (which turned out to be untrue).
Linda Curtis went on to marry her second husband, the late Bob Curtis. She became a stepmother and began to find her way in the world. But she paid a high price for that freedom, as her family and friends she had known in Portland couldn’t completely accept her outside of the religion. They didn’t completely cut her off, as the title of the book suggests, but they had a lot less to do with her. Leaving the JWs and living life on her own terms was a big step with a steep price. It does seem to me that the high cost was well worth it to Linda Curtis.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I managed to get through this book somewhat quickly. It’s a fairly easy read. Linda Curtis is clearly very intelligent and basically writes well. Her story is interesting, if not a bit sad. Personally, I think shunning is a shitty thing to do, especially to a loved one. I don’t support it, mainly because at its core, it’s a power move consisting of emotional blackmail and control tactics. I empathize with Linda Curtis’s situation, dealing with a family that had once been so loving turning on her simply because she didn’t believe what they believed and dared to declare independence and free agency.
However… there are some things I noticed as I read this book. First, Linda Curtis has a fondness for so-called “fifty cent words”. I have two master’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree in English. Several times, I had to look up obscure words she used. I did so because I like to know the meanings of words I don’t know. My guess is that the vast majority of readers won’t take the time to do that, and most of them won’t know what some of the more obscure words mean, either. I don’t mind the occasional fancy vocabulary word, but I think too many of them can have a bad effect on writing. For many people, time is money, and it takes time to look up those fancy words. Those who don’t take the time to look up the fancy vocabulary words are going to miss some of the meaning in Curtis’s story. I wouldn’t mention this if it had only happened a couple of times, but it happened several times– enough times that I found it noticeable and annoying.
Secondly, Linda Curtis’s writing style is a bit “novelesque”, but not in a particularly creative or evocative way. Her writing sometimes comes off a bit like she was trying to set a vivid scene. But instead of using details and descriptions to jazz up her tale, she includes unnecessary details to the scenes that didn’t add anything. Like, for instance, at one point she mentions a fly landing on a dirty plate after a discussion she had. That action had no significance on the story she was sharing. It was an unnecessary detail. More than once, she mentioned getting into a car and putting on a seatbelt. There’s nothing wrong with safety in the car. But it was an unnecessary detail that didn’t add to the story and could have been edited out or replaced with something more pertinent to the story. That quality of her writing was irritating to me. It came off as amateurish.
And thirdly, Curtis uses a lot of dialogue that is a trite and one dimensional. Dialogue can be very effective in a personal story, but I think of it as more of a technique that breathes life into the story. This author’s use of dialogue frequently comes off as stilted and melodramatic. Curiously, she could have added some detail and “spark” to her dialogue, but she didn’t do that often enough. Instead, we get details about clothes people wore or flies on dirty dishes, rather than details about non verbal cues or tone of voice.
I did relate to Curtis’s story. I empathized with her sorrow over her family choosing a religion over a loved one. However… I did notice that while Linda’s family had less to do with her, they didn’t completely shut their door to her. She was invited to her grandmother’s funeral, and her parents came to her husband’s funeral. She received gifts from her family when she married her second husband, although no one in her family attended the wedding. I know other people who have been completely shunned, meaning no contact whatsoever, after leaving highly demanding religions like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My husband, for instance, lost complete contact with his daughters for about 12 years. One daughter hasn’t seen or spoken to him since 2004. That’s real shunning. What Linda Curtis describes is more like disapproval. People still spoke to her, even if there was less warmth and familiarity than there once was.
Much of Shunned was sort of a cut and dried story about Linda’s life, but there wasn’t that much deep insight into how she really felt launching a life outside of the JWs. I would have enjoyed reading a bit more about how she adapted to life “in the world”, as she got used to celebrating Christmas and birthdays. She does write a little bit about that, but not very much. She casually mentions having sex with a lot of men, attending a new age church after trying several different ones, and getting involved with friends. But she doesn’t really write about what those experiences were like beyond the surface. I also think she could have delved more into her relationship with her family and how it suffered when she left the JWs. I felt like much of what she writes is superficial, with a lot more about her successes at work. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this book could use a bit more heart and feeling, and less logic and reason.
I don’t think Shunned is a terrible book. I just think that a good editor could have made it markedly better. I also think that Linda Curtis should have gone deeper than she did. Her story lacks insight and spark. If she traded some of the insignificant details for more personal insights, this book would be much improved and more interesting. As I said, it’s obvious that Linda Curtis is very talented in her job. She’s intelligent and accomplished and yes, she finally did pursue her college degree. She has intellect and drive, and I know there must have been some truly amazing moments in her journey that she left out of her book. At the very least, she could have added some spice to the stories she did include.
Shunned is a serviceable enough read; I just don’t think that writing is necessarily Linda Curtis’s gift or her passion. To use musical terms, her writing is kind of the equivalent to someone with a nice choir voice as opposed to someone who sings solos, if that makes any sense. But with some direction, she could develop more of a “soloist’s sound”.
I am not sorry I read Shunned, and I would recommend it to those who are interested in the subject matter. I think I’d give it three stars out of five.
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