Cast out: Religious shunning provides an unusual background in the Longo and Bryant slayings
The Register-Guard, Mar. 2, 2003
By Karen McCowan, The Register-Guard
Shunning. In the eyes of most Oregonians, it’s an unfamiliar, even archaic, practice – a throwback to the era of “The Scarlet Letter.” Yet it provided a bizarre backdrop for two recent familicides that occurred here just two months and 75 miles apart.
Shunning is not a topic that typically arises when detectives interview a murder suspect.
But Christian Longo, accused in the December 2001 killings of his wife, MaryJane, and their three children, raised shunning as the reason they moved to Oregon, so far from friends and family in Michigan.
After McMinnville resident Robert Bryant killed his wife, Janet, their four children and himself in February 2002, Janet’s sister also cited the practice, saying it helped create the isolation and despair that drove Robert – “a loving and dedicated husband” – to snap.
Both families were members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who say shunning is an act of love intended to inspire repentence and a return to right living.
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Taking a break?
Officially, the practice is known as “disfellowshipping.” The word may sound less drastic than the “excommunication” of the Roman Catholic Church, but the practice goes far beyond denying sacraments to those cast out.
J.R. Brown, national spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Watchtower Society, explained it in straightforward fashion:
“Basically, it is a discipline that is applied by the congregation,” he said in a recent interview. “Its purpose is to correct what is wrong or at variance with the scriptures … We base it on what is in the Bible, I Corinthians 5 and 6: `Neither receive him into your home, or say a greeting to him or share a meal with him.’ All spiritual relations and all social relationships are severed – and, by extension, business relationships.”
Defense attorney Ken Hadley said he expected “more to come” out on Christian Longo’s disfellowshipping when Longo’s murder trial begins this month, and prospective jurors were quizzed about their knowledge of the practice.
Scholars who’ve studied the Jehovah’s Witnesses use terms such as “psychologically devastating” to describe the impact of shunning – particularly on those who’ve known only the Jehovah’s Witness faith.
None of the researchers interviewed for this story suggested the experience was a rationale for murder.
“I’m not familiar with any case when it was shown scientifically or social scientifically to be a cause of homicide” said Denver University religious studies professor Carl Raschke. “People are shunned, ostracized all the time without doing this.”
In fact, one sociologist who has studied the Witnesses suggested that the disfellowshippings preceding the Longo and Bryant familicides were simply signs of coming trouble.
“People don’t get disfellowshipped for nothing,” said University of Washington sociology professor Rodney Stark. “It seems far more likely that, rather than disfellowshipping being a cause, it was just one more symptom of someone with serious problems.”
But other researchers said the isolation and tension inherent in disfellowshipping can also create emotional distress.
In their book “The Orwellian World of Jehovah’s Witnesses” (University of Toronto Press, 1984), former Witnesses Heather and Gary Botting call the group’s disfellowshipping “a form of social and spiritual ostracism, the effects of which are legendary.”
“Jehovah’s Witnesses have a closed society in that they try to ensure that the majority of their friends and acquaintances are from within the congregation,” they wrote. “If a Witness should be disfellowshipped, he not only loses most of his friends, but also finds himself out in the world with limited employment opportunities.
“The very focus of his `spiritual education’ that makes him successful as a Witness leads to difficulties in coping with the larger world.”
Witnesses are taught that “the external world must be regarded as inimical, hostile and ugly, as a primary `enemy,’ ” the couple contended. “A move into that alien world is a frightening and painful experience” even for those who leave voluntarily, having prepared for the break, they said.
For those forced out suddenly, they wrote, the break can be “psychologically disruptive.”
Ironically, it is the extraordinary support within groups such as the Witnesses that makes being cast out so devastating, said Julius Rubin, a sociology professor at Connecticut’s St. Joseph College. His book “The Other Side of Joy” probed the effects of shunning in another group that practices it, the Bruderhof.
Being a Jehovah’s Witness is not just a matter of gathering for an hour or two on Sunday mornings, he said. Rather, the congregation’s cocoon of fellowship extends to study and door-to-door evangelism throughout the week, to informal socializing – even to business and employment referrals.
“They do remarkable things for each other,” Rubin said. “They take care of their own. That’s why shunning is absolutely horrible, not only for the individual, but for the family. They feel that they’ve been cast into this unredeemed world and its hopeless sinfulness. At every level, they lose support – social, financial, spiritual.
“I can’t emphasize too much how devastating it is. You go from this warm, close-knit, loving group where the church is much of your life to a disciplining in which your own father and mother will systematically shun you.”
Brown, the church’s spokesman, confirmed that even immediate family is expected to avoid contact with the disfellowshipped, except those living in the same household.
He also acknowledged that the practice is intended to be painful.
“Its purpose is to correct,” he said. “The proof that it does correct is every year we have thousands that correct their ways and come back – apply for reinstatement.”
Some 40,000 to 50,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses are disfellowshipped each year, out of 6 million worldwide, Brown said. Some 20,000 to 25,000 are “warmly welcomed back” each year after repenting, he added.
“It is not viewed by us as something unloving, but as a means of bringing the sinner back to his senses,” Brown said.
Shunning raised early
When Lincoln County detectives asked Christian Longo why he moved his family to Oregon, he immediately raised the issue of his disfellowshipping in late 2000.
“Primarily everything was getting too stressful in Michigan, with everybody being so close,” he said, according to the court transcript of a January 2002 jailhouse interview. “It was a little ways before that time that I was disfellowshipped from the religious aspect of our life. And everybody was kind of compounding on us from that level.”
A spokesman for his former Kingdom Hall in Ypsilanti, Mich., said Longo was “put out” after being convicted of forgery and writing more than $30,000 in bad checks.
One relationship severed as a result was with his own father, an elder in the congregation, Longo told detectives.
He also said Kingdom Hall members were visiting MaryJane at home, suggesting that she consider “maintaining a little bit more of a separation from me, not just outside, but even within the household, just being a little bit more distant than she probably was … Still being a wife, but not being so devoted to sticking by everything that I did.”
The couple concluded they “needed to distance ourselves from that,” Longo said.
They moved to Toledo, Ohio, in the spring of 2001 – a development so alarming to MaryJane’s sisters that they drove to Toledo and begged her to return to Michigan, the Associated Press reported in January 2002. They took her to a restaurant so she could speak freely, but she insisted she would not leave her husband.
When her cell phone was disconnected later that year, the sisters again drove to Toledo. But the Longos had already moved on, leaving behind such sentimental treasures as family photo albums. MaryJane’s family filed a missing persons report, but withdrew it after postcards in her handwriting were mailed from South Dakota in November. She’d written that Longo was in a job training program and that she would send a new address once he got a permanent work assignment.
In fact, the family had been living in a succession of rental housing on the Oregon Coast. MaryJane was so isolated that neighbors at their last home, a Newport condominium, didn’t even know she and the children were living with Longo.
She was last seen alive Dec. 16 at a Salem furniture store, where a salesman remembered her as “aloof and weary.” Her body – and those of Zachery, 5, Sadie, 3, and Madison, 2 – would be discovered in coastal inlets Dec. 19, 22 and 27.
An eerily similar case would unfold just two months later and 75 miles away. Once again, a disfellowshipped former Jehovah’s Witness would relocate his family to Oregon. Once again, his wife and children would live in such isolation that no friend, neighbor or fellow church member would notice their absence and report them missing.
But – in a departure from the Longo case – Robert Bryant apparently took his own life after shooting his family.
In this case, Janet Bryant’s sister, Sharon Roe, raised the issue of disfellowshipping.
Roe, who’d attended the same Shingle Springs, Calif., Kingdom Hall as her sister and brother-in-law, said he was disfellowshipped in 1999 for apostasy, after renouncing some of the faith’s beliefs.
Congregation spokesman Mark Messier told reporters Robert Bryant had been cast out because of “unrepentant behavior” and “conduct not in harmony with the Bible’s principles.”
In a telephone interview with The Register-Guard, Roe said Robert Bryant had been an elder of their Kingdom Hall about three years when he began questioning the organization’s structure and beliefs.
His misgivings crystallized, she said, after he met a troubled young woman while distributing Watchtower literature; she told him she had been sexually abused by her father and the church failed to help her. He began reading the Bible on his own, she said, finding what he considered inconsistencies with Witness doctrine.
“They were very mad at him for questioning,” she recalled.
Church elders held a hearing which resulted in Robert’s disfellowshipping from a congregation that included his parents and siblings, Roe said.
While not officially disfellowshipped, Janet Bryant eventually opted to join her husband in staying away. She, too, experienced shunning, her sister said.
Janet was devastated when longtime friends refused to greet her at the grocery store, Roe said.
Meanwhile, Robert’s landscaping business suffered as family members quit working with him and he lost Jehovah’s Witness clients. In January of 2000, he filed for bankruptcy. Both Bryants developed stress-related health problems, Roe said.
She could understand, she said, having once been disfellowshipped after marrying outside the faith.
“It was horrible,” she said. “I had anxiety attacks, health problems. They brand you as the wickedest person on earth. Your whole realm of family and friends you’ve had since you were a little kid – gone.”
But the final straw came for her sister and brother-in-law when they heard rumors that his parents were exploring the possibility of court-ordered visitation so they could take their grandchildren to Kingdom Hall. “Robert was so upset, he was vomiting,” Roe recalled.
The couple quietly sold their home, Roe said, and she and her husband helped them pack their belongings to leave for Oregon in the middle of the night.
For a brief time the Bryants appeared to make a successful fresh start. In the long daylight hours and dry weather of Oregon summer, Robert found plenty of landscaping work. The couple obtained a loan to place a manufactured home on two acres west of McMinnville.
Then came the winter rains, however, and things got grim once again. By the time Roe came to visit over the Christmas holidays, Robert was telling Janet they had only enough money to last two more months.
” `After that, we’re going to starve,’ he told her,” Roe said. “Those were his exact words.”
Police believe Robert Bryant waited until Janet and their four children – Clayton, 15; Ethan, 12; Ashley, 10 and Alyssa, 9 – were asleep the night of Feb. 23, 2002 before shooting each at close range, then turning his gun on himself. The bodies were not discovered until March 14.
Wives such as Janet Bryant and MaryJane Longo face a spiritual “no woman’s land” once their husbands are disfellowshipped, say those who have studied the Witnesses.
“In these two (Oregon) cases, I would speculate that the wife was caught in an almost intolerable tension between conflicting Biblical demands,” said David Weddle, a religion professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. “She can either remain faithful to the teaching and practice of this faith upon which her eternal salvation rests, or remain faithful to her husband, which she’s also taught to do by the same organization.”
Brown, the Jehovah’s Witness spokesman, did not speak specifically about the Oregon cases, except to call them “tragic.”
But he confirmed that the church teaches that “marriage ties remain in effect” even after a spouse is disfellowshipped.
“They are still `one flesh,’ ” he said. “The only thing that changes between the husband and wife is the spiritual nature of the relationship – The Jehovah’s Witness would discontinue studying scripture or spiritual discussion with the spouse.”
Even a disfellowshipped husband is “the head of the house, according to the scriptures,” Brown added.
“Our advice would always be to the wife, `Well, you should cooperate with the head.’ “
Some of MaryJane Longo’s family members worried about her because she’d been raised in a faith that left a wife so completely in the power of her husband, true-crime writer Carlton Smith reported in an August 2002 Willamette Week.
As a Witness who still believed the church’s teachings, she could not simply find another denomination to join, noted Rick Ross of the Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements.
“You have to understand the mindset of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” said Ross, who has testified in Witness-related court cases.
“They teach that the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, alone, is the connection to Jehovah God on Earth. All other churches, organizations and governments are part of the world system which is influenced by Satan,” he said.
So women such as MaryJane Longo and Janet Bryant, raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, would probably feel they “really don’t have a choice but to live to themselves,” Weddle said.
Sharon Roe believes that spiritual legacy kept Janet Bryant isolated from outside relationships that might have saved her.
“They brainwash you to be afraid of the world, of any support out there,” Roe said. “Janet was afraid of making new friends.”
The fear may explain why three weeks passed before police, in the area on an unrelated burglary call, discovered the Bryants’ bodies. Likewise, authorities had no clue about the deaths of MaryJane Longo and her children until their bodies were discovered.
Atypical domestic violence
Katherine van Wormer, a University of Northern Iowa professor of social work, has long studied domestic violence homicides. The Longo and Bryant cases are “totally different” from the classic pattern, she said.
Usually, offenders are males killing a wife or girlfriend after a break-up. Typically, they have been batteriers, lashing out in “If I can’t have you, nobody can” violence, she said.
But those close to MaryJane Longo and Janet Bryant said there was never any hint of physical – even verbal -abuse before their killings.
Also, men in classic domestic violence slayings rarely kill their children, van Wormer noted. The two disfellowshipped fathers remind her more of the female perpetrators she has studied, whose victims are more typically their children. Their rationale is often more like, “If I can’t take care of you, nobody can,” van Wormer said.
Both men had expressed despair about their inability to provide for their families, she said. “They were taking the world on their shoulders, you might say,” she said. “They saw themselves as totally in charge and responsible. They couldn’t support their families, and life was getting worse and worse.”
Even with her sister dead at Robert Bryant’s hand, Roe refuses to characterize what he did as domestic violence. She insists that he had untreated depression and was “not in his right mind.”
“I have known him since age 15 and he was never a vengeful, angry person,” she said. “I never heard the man raise his voice to my sister.
“He was just desperate. He didn’t think he had a way out. And if he was not going to be able to take care of his family, he was going to take them with him. I believe he thought for some bizarre reason that he was protecting them.”
In at least one respect, however, the cases do fit the domestic violence profile.
“One of the factors in domestic violence is isolation, and shunning certainly comes into play with that,” said Margo Schaefer, community outreach director at WomenSpace in Eugene.
Religions with rigid gender roles have been statistically associated with a higher incidence of domestic violence, she added. “The church is protecting their community from behaviors they consider nefarious” she said of shunning in such settings. “But, on the flip side, that may put the person’s family members more at risk.”
For van Wormer, one of the most chilling revelations in the Longo case is that a neighbor in a unit directly below the family’s condo didn’t even know MaryJane and the children lived there.
“That says a lot about their isolation,” she said. “They couldn’t even make any noise.”