Woman talks about life in the religion she now calls a cult
WE SIT out on Tracey Jeffery's back patio in Torquay.
It's mid afternoon. She has a cigarette in one hand and uses the other to pat her dogs, which are always close by.
Funny, intelligent and outspoken, Tracey has decided to talk to me today to share the story of her life as a Jehovah's Witness.
It has been 10 years since she left the faith.
She's almost 50 and says it's time to share her story, or "spill her guts," as she says with a smile, not just of belonging to one of the world's most controversial religions, but also of a life that has seen her marry four times, survive several personal tragedies and raise her daughter Jess for the most part as a single mother.
She starts at the beginning.
When Tracey was five-years-old, her mother decided to join their local Jehovah's Witnesses group.
Before that, Tracey's mum was a church-going Methodist, Tracey said.
Tracey remembers her mum and sister getting baptised in the late '60s as the church spread the message that Armageddon was coming in 1975.
Tracey remembers clearly being included in the teachings of the religion as a child.
She also remembers being taught about the "massive threat" of Armageddon.
According to the religion, after Armageddon, or the destruction of the human race, Jesus, along with a selected 144,000 people, will rule the Earth for 1000 years.
"As a kid, that's all you're taught," Tracey recalls.
Tracey remembers being frightened of the idea of Armageddon and seeing lurid publications which showed babies being killed and people running in the streets as Armageddon began.
It's flaming child abuse when I think of it now, because now I know better how terrible it is.
Her sister Robyn was about 18 when she joined the religion and eventually the rest of the family followed suit, with the exception of Tracey's father, who was never a Jehovah's Witness, Tracey said.
The religion made Tracey different from her peers at school.
When it came time to sing the national anthem, which she remembers was still God Save the Queen at that time, Tracey wasn't allowed to stand to attention with the rest of her class, because that would mean you were pledging allegiance to the country and not to God, Tracey says.
Being different from everybody else caused her embarrassment as a child, but it was only the start of what was to come.
Four days before Tracey turned 9, her grandfather died.
The family brought an elder from the religion around to the house to counsel her and Tracey admits that did a good job of assuring her she would be reunited with her grandparent in paradise one day.
On her birthday, she received a present from her grandmother.
"I still remember what she gave me, it was that board game, Trouble," Tracey said.
Her mother told her it would be the last birthday present she would ever get because as members of Jehovah's Witness, they didn't celebrate Christmas or birthdays.
While friends at school still bought her small gifts for her birthday, Tracey would be pulled out of school the week before Christmas so as to not be involved in any holiday activities.
Tracey now believes her mother was suffering from a mental illness, bipolar depression.
In addition, her mum was involved in several serious car accidents and was bed ridden a lot and eventually Tracey left school to care for her.
Tracey remembers arguing with her mum in the afternoon, then finding her dead a few hours later.
Her mum left a suicide note, asking the family not to blame Tracey for what had happened.
But the note failed in its task and Tracey was made to feel responsible for the death of her mother by several family members.
In the months that followed, Tracey was in a fog of denial and says it only really sank in that her mum was dead six months after her suicide.
She was also the victim of a vicious sexual assault during that time, but never reported the incident to police because she felt nothing would be done about it.
She had distanced herself from the Jehovah's Witnesses in her late teens and was married for the first time at 19, but was divorced a few years later.
"It was a nightmare of a marriage," Tracey said, adding that the man's family had caused a lot of trouble in their relationship.
She then met and married the man who would become the father of her only child.
He left six months after Tracey gave birth to their daughter, Jessica.
When Jess was 14 months old, Tracey found that all her former religious beliefs came flooding back and she was struck with the fear that her child would die in Armageddon if she didn't rejoin the Jehovah's Witness.
She started Bible study again and was baptised into the religion in Toowoomba when Jess was 2.
It wasn't long before she met the man who was to become her third husband.
He was also a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses and the two had a whirlwind romance.
They married when Jess was 5.
"That marriage was pretty good for a few years," Tracey said.
Later, the couple moved to Hervey Bay and it there that the cracks began to show, both in Tracey's marriage and in her belief in the Jehovah movement.
An elder from Toowoomba with whom Tracey and her husband had both been friends was accused of murdering his wife, who was five months pregnant.
Her naked body was eventually found at the bottom of Perseverance Dam.
The pressure also grew on Tracey to go door-to-door witnessing with her daughter.
"I tried very hard to live up to this standard," Tracey said.
"But I started to question things and my marriage started to break down."
On top of witnessing, the family also had to go along to three meetings a week and fit in family and personal study.
It could be exhausting, Tracey remembers.
"You're made to feel guilty if you miss a meeting. The whole thing's a guilt trip," she said.
For someone who is naturally curious, the tough conditions placed on members of the religion were also hard for Tracey to endure.
There could be no discussion of faith outside literature provided by the group and questioning the teachings was not allowed openly at a meeting.
Jehovah's Witnesses members were discouraged from joining in activities outside the religion, with Tracey being told she "might as well have a red light out the front of your house" for daring to join Amway.
"He pretty much called me a prostitute," Tracey said.
They keep saying they're not a cult - they are a flaming cult.
Members are also discouraged from joining Facebook and other social media outlets because that would encourage them to become part of the world and "they are no part of this world," Tracey says.
Ironically, what brought her involvement with the religion to an end is the very thing she has been doing unobtrusively since I first sat down with her - smoking.
Tracey started smoking to deal with the breakdown of her marriage.
She repeatedly asked for assistance with saving her marriage but was given no help.
Instead she got a very clear message - give up smoking or be disfellowshipped, removed from the religion.
The ultimatum angered Tracey so much, she handed in her letter of resignation and removed herself from the faith.
Her actions drastically limited the contact she was able to have with her three siblings, who were all still members of the religion.
Since she walked away from the faith, Tracey has become a vocal critic of the Jehovah's Witnesses movement, especially since revelations of the religion's alleged cover-ups of child sex abuse have emerged, and has been labelled an apostate, or a person who forsakes their religion.
"They try to tell you that you are turning your back on God. I was turning my back on the religion and the doctrine and all that.
"But I have now turned my back on God in a lot of ways. I still have belief in God, but I think he must be bipolar."
Tracey says a lot of talented people, including her brother Mike, have wasted their talents while being members of the Jehovah's Witnesses movement as they aren't encouraged to get an education or develop their skills but rather to devote their lives to faith and preaching.
"Now that I'm out, I realise how stupid this whole thing has been. I was a sheep," Tracey said.
She says she now has questions that she can't answer because she no longer has specific religious beliefs.
"I've studied all the other religions - what is going to happen now when I die?" she said.
"I don't believe in any religion now, I don't trust any religion now."
Tracey has some regrets; she misses Mike, the closest sibling to her in age and relationship, the one who shares a similar sense of humour and her favourite of the three; and she regrets Jess's involvement in the religion.
"It makes me mad that I put Jessica through the door-to-door witnessing as a child," Tracey said.
But that's all in the past now. Tracey is now a grandmother of two and is happily married to her fourth husband.
She has a range of interests and can finally indulge her curious mind.
And she has an interesting story or two to share if anyone has time for a coffee while relaxing in the sun on the back patio.