A little over 24 hours ago, something incredible happened that I am still struggling to process. On a scale never before seen, the Jehovah’s Witness organization – the religion of my childhood – was exposed on primetime US television in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers.
This was personal, and not just because I was raised a Witness and continue to feel the vindictive punishment radiating from my former faith in the form of shunning due to my decision to leave on conscientious grounds.
Leah Remini had reached out to me earlier this year to give me the opportunity of being involved in the production of the show. As an activist, you dream of having this kind of exposure for the cause you’re passionate about. Now, nine months later, I am seeing the glorious end product of what was discussed in that initial nerve-jangling phone call.
It’s hard to express how surreal it was to be on set with Leah, Mike and the rest of the contributors. I’m a professional YouTuber and I earn a living from creating video content on my “John Cedars” channel. I’m also heavily involved in the production of a new documentary, The Truth About the Truth. Making videos is literally my bread and butter, and yet nothing could prepare me for two frantic days of filming the Aftermath special when I was flown to Los Angeles back in May.
The professionalism of the film crew was a joy to behold. I marveled at the spectacle of dozens of highly talented professionals scurrying around diligently attending to their duties. It was clear that no expense had been spared on the production. A large rented space somewhere in Hollywood brimmed with millions of dollars’ worth of cameras and equipment.
In a corner of the studio, make-up artists busily worked at making the contributors camera-ready. (They certainly had their work cut out with me!)
There was catering. There was a table with snacks and coffee. There was even a table with medicine, if needed, and a medical support person on hand (who, interestingly, just happened to be an ex-JW!).
Leah and Mike were every bit as sincere and passionate about their work in real life as they are on camera. They listened to our stories attentively and were visibly moved by what they were hearing. I saw my role as predominantly one of consultation and fact-checking rather than sharing my personal experience, but when I felt moved to talk about my father shunning me, my wife and small child, my words were met with boundless empathy and compassion.
It was a highly emotional experience. On more than one occasion almost everyone was in tears. I later learned that even the film crew were having a hard time keeping it together behind the cameras and were blown away by what they were hearing.
By the end of the first day I felt emotionally drained, which only deepened my respect and admiration for what Leah and Mike are doing. If this is how I felt after just a few hours on set listening to heart-wrenching stories, what is it like for them doing this for months on end for each “Aftermath” season?
Fast forward six months, and now I’m riding another emotional rollercoaster by witnessing the reaction to what we created together, which appears to be overwhelmingly positive. Ex-Witnesses seem to be overjoyed at finally seeing their experiences portrayed and their feelings of pain and betrayal vindicated. They know we were only scratching the surface with what was discussed, and there was only so much we could cram in to 90 minutes, but by sharing our own stories we were, in effect, sharing the stories of thousands of our fellow cult victims – stories hitherto largely ignored. I’m profoundly happy to see that many ex-Witnesses are finding themselves able to heal now that the hurt they have experienced is being revealed and explained to the world.
More than anything, I’m personally proud to see so many commenting on how accurate and factual the show is. It was very clear to me from my earliest conversations with Leah that she is committed to exposing the truth and nothing but the truth, and at every stage of my involvement I have seen unwavering dedication to making sure the information presented is as accurate as possible. My offers to assist in fact-checking were only ever met with enthusiastic acceptance. Other contributors have commented that they too were impressed by the producers’ obsession with getting every last detail right. The end product is a show that, in my view, is the most significant and impactful piece of investigative journalism on Jehovah’s Witnesses that has ever been shown on television.
Understandably, many ex-Witnesses are already clamoring for more. I obviously want that too, but I guess we will need to be patient. The ex-Witness movement has taken a massive stride forward by gaining the exposure that Leah and Mike have granted us by allowing our message to piggyback on their Emmy-award winning success.
In time, hopefully this first step will lead to more exposure as Watchtower sheds its false “mostly harmless” reputation and the cult hiding in plain sight is laid bare to all. We will just have to wait and see. I believe we are extremely fortunate to have even made it this far. Leah in particular has very little to gain and much to lose by operating so far outside her comfort zone in taking on an organization that hasn’t impacted her personally, but it speaks volumes of her kindness and compassion that she has pursued this subject regardless. Whatever happens next, I will always be grateful to both Leah and Mike for listening to ex-Witnesses and giving them what they desperately need: a voice.