The following is taken from remarks given by Mary Ann Benson over the past few years in various settings, relating her personal journey out of mormonism. They are compiled and adapted for presentation here.
Many of her comments were originally given at "Sunday Gathering" in Salt Lake City, Utah, in August 1995, when she and her husband, Steve, had been out of the mormon church for only a short while. Mary Ann expanded her remarks at the national X2K Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, in February 2000, and again at the annual ExMo Conference sponsored by the Salamander Society in Salt Lake City, in October 2001. She spoke at the national convention for Gay Mormon Fathers (Gamofites) in Fort Worden, Washington, in August 2001, and most recently at the national Affirmation Gay and Lesbian Conference in Las Vegas, in September 2002.
From Mormon Patriarchy to Personal Peace: How I Came to Leave--and Liveby Mary Ann Benson
Posted on "Recovery from Mormonism" bulletin board
December 6, 2002
Thank you for the kind words occasionally said about me. If you dont mind, Id like to get a copy of them. That way, the next time a mormon patriarch asks me, "Just who in the heck to you think you are?," Ill have an answer.
Steve and I have a lot in common with mormon gays. We have lived in a society that has judged, condemned, and marginalized us. We may have friends and family members who disapprove of us and who openly criticize us for being who we are.
Yet, through it all, we have been able to find our authentic selves. We are free to seek the happiness that everyone deserves. And over time we are healing our wounds.
In the Beginning was the Wordand the Word Did Not Make Sense to Me
I was born and raised in a small mormon community in southeastern Idaho called Mink Creek, only a few miles from the small mormon community of Whitney, where Ezra Taft Benson (my husbands grandfather) was himself born and raised. Steve had, it was said, "royal" blood flowing through his veins. In contrast, my parents were regarded by his grandpa as "the salt of the earth"--in other words, peasants. I was the eighth of nine children. My dads dairy farm, along with my moms huge garden, provided us with the basic necessities of life.
I remember thinking as a young girl that I had been born the wrong sex. My brothers were given many more opportunities and privileges than us girls. The boys got to go on all the fun scouting trips and outings while the girls had to stay home and make nylon-woven hot pads. Boys got to go to priesthood meeting with Dad. Girls didnt get to go to relief society with Mom. Boys got to pass the sacrament. Girls got passed over.
I did assert myself the best I could, however, by refusing to learn how to milk the cows. I knew that as soon as I did, my brothers would make me do it most of the time. I guess my behavior didnt sit very well with one brother. I remember him telling me, "I feel sorry for the man who marries you."
Yet, in spite of all this, I ended up looking to that very patriarchal system for the answers to my life, because that is what I was told to do. I was taught from infancy that my role in life was summed up as follows: "Keep the commandments, marry a returned missionary in the temple, have lots of children, and youll be happy."
At the age of 12, I was taught in Sunday school that Jesus was the Only Begotten Son of the Father. Not understanding what that meant, I went home and asked my dad. The concept of the Holy Ghost coming down and having sex with one of the Fathers earthly daughters, Mary, to create Jesus was offensive to me. I discussed this with my dad, in the end only to be told I was not to question but to accept it on faith and I would blessed.
Today I look at it a little differently. I no longer see it as a miracle, but as divinely-sanctioned incest.
In seminary I was taught an aspect of church doctrine--the so-called "new and everlasting covenant" (or polygamy)--which was extremely offensive to me.
Following high school, I attended summer school at Brigham Young University. Three different returned missionaries proposed to me that summer. They were all scheduled to graduate in August and didnt want to leave the Y without their degrees--and a fiancÚ. By the time I met Steve, I was sick of marriage proposals and was so relieved when he told me he just wanted to be my friend. (He confessed to me later that he secretly hoped things would develop past the friendship stage, but didnt want to get stiff-armed, so played it cool at first).
A few months later, we began dating over the objections of his mother, who strongly disapproved of me. After meeting me only once, she told Steve I was not "the one" for him. She said I wasnt refined enough and that I was too domineering. She also told him I was too tall, my bones were too big, and that I was trying to use my body to catch him.
Steves father warned him to watch out because my dad was a Democrat.
Despite their disapproval, Steve asked me to marry him and we became engaged. (As a side note, I was the first girl Steve ever kissed and he only kissed me after he proposed and I said "yes." I describe it as a peck on the lips.)
He informed his parents of our intentions to marry and after several hours of discussions they convinced him he did not have enough dating experience to know for sure that I was the one.
So, to appease his parents, he broke off our engagement and began dating other girls. But it wasnt long before we were seeing each other again and knew we had something special between us. (Maybe it was that first kiss!)
Steve proposed again and I accepted. I worried about the reaction of his parents to our second engagement but he assured me he would take care of everything over the Christmas holidays. When he returned to Provo from Christmas break in Dallas, I asked him, "Well, how did it go?" Steve replied that he didnt bring it up to them because he didnt want to ruin their Christmas. I could tell that if Steve didnt grow a backbone soon, they would ruin our lives. Fortunately, he quickly did and told them for a second time we were getting married, regardless of what his parents thought.
We didnt know it, but the firm, controlling hand of the priesthood was about to put the patriarchal grip on us--or should I say the sure sign of the choke.
One cold winter morning in Provo, Steve received a phone call from his grandfather stating, "Stephen, Im not calling you as your grandfather, but as the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. I want you to break off your engagement to Mary Ann and go home and mend the family."
Well, how could Steve say "no" to a mormon leader who had just pulled rank on him? So, he dutifully obeyed, withdrew from BYU and went home to Texas, where his mother had visions of a blond-haired, blue-eyed, petite girl for him dancing through her head.
Much to her dismay, however, our love for each other could not keep us apart. At General Conference that April, Steve went to his grandfathers church office and told him that we were in love, had already broken off our engagement twice to keep his mom happy and wanted to get married. Steves grandfather replied with surprise, "Why didnt you tell me you had broken off your engagement twice?" (Steve thought prophets were supposed to know these things).
Ezra Taft Benson told Steve that any young man who had served an honorable mission, was morally worthy and attended the temple was entitled to personal revelation as to whom he should marry. He told Steve to go ahead with his plans to marry me.
Steve said, "But what about Mom?" His grandfather replied, "Dont worry. Ill take care of your mother." He did, although she bitterly complained about "the Priesthood interfering in family affairs." (Funny how she didnt complain when she persuaded President Benson to intervene and break up our second engagement).
We were eventually married in the Salt Lake Temple by Grandpa Benson, with his blessing. Steves mother told him the marriage would never last. Who would have guessed Id be partying with a bunch of gays and lesbians in Las Vegas 25 years later, divorced from the mormon church, but still married to Steve?
I certainly did not ever imagine wearing a sleeveless dress or a g-string--such a far cry from the day when, as a counselor in the relief society presidency, I was reported to my ward leaders for walking to the community pool in my bathing suit instead of in my garments.
My how things have changedand Im not just talking about my underwear. Now, we get to associate with really cool people, like all of you.
Held In the Palm of Gods Love? How about Gagged and Bound in the Chains of His Patriarchy?
A few years after our wedding, I found myself at home with three children under the age of three, the youngest being severely and chronically ill. I had done what I was taught to do. I had kept the commandments, married a returned missionary in the temple and had my children--but I was miserable. Still, I blamed myself for my unhappiness. I didnt realize it at the time, but my marriage was steeped in a mormon male tradition that left me feeling depressed and suffocated.
I tried to find the happiness I had been promised by working harder in my role as wife and mother. I also asked Steve to help me with the children more--which he gladly did--but I was criticized by my mother-in-law when she phoned one evening and asked to speak to Steve. When I informed her he was bathing the baby, she asked me, "Why is he doing your job?"
In my late twenties, I decided to search for the happiness I was told could be mine by gaining more education. Since church members are admonished to seek wisdom and knowledge out the best books, for me that meant the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and the Bible. So, I began an in-depth study of the scriptures. In the process, however, I found major contradictions, particularly between the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, both which the church claimed to have been revealed by God.
So, I began searching other church publications, such as the Journal of Discourses and the History of the Church and was perplexed to discover prophecies of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young that were not, and never could be, fulfilled. I also came across doctrines taught early in the church that have since been abandoned.
Disturbed as I was by my findings, I kept them to myself and tried to do what the church required of me: more fasting and prayer; increased temple attendance; storing a years supply of food, clothing and fuel; immersing myself in my church callings; serving with greater conviction; etc. I reasoned that my unsettled feelings were just evidence that I somehow was not measuring up, that I was falling short of the mark.
I was even told by one of my sisters that if I would stop sinning, repent and live the commandments, my asthmatic son would be healed. Numerous priesthood blessings had promised him health and strength, but since he was still ill, she figured I wasnt faithful enough.
In my early thirties, I became aware of emotional, physical and sexual abuse in my extended family--and also of denial and cover-up of that abuse by my family and mormon bishops. I wondered how my adulterous brother-in-law could repeatedly receive temple recommends from church leaders who were supposed to be able to discern his worthiness through revelation and inspiration.
I started reading many books on abuse, including The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, Co-Dependant No More by Melody Beattie and Homecoming by John Bradshaw. I began to realize that I had been born and raised in a dysfunctional family. As I saw the mormon church keep withdrawing support from the victims and protecting their perpetrators, I began to question how healthy the church system was. I found many of the same dysfunctional behaviors (i.e., denial, minimizing, blaming, shaming, etc.) being used by church leaders. It was at this point that I decided that maybe I wasnt the one who had the problem. Maybe, just maybe, the church system was unhealthy and I was okay, after all.
This really was the first time I questioned the validity of the formula I had been taught for a happy life.
Boyd K. Packer didnt help matters either when, in 1993, in his address to the "All-Church Coordinating Council," he claimed the three enemies of the church were intellectuals, feminists and gays/lesbians. I had never thought of myself as a feminist--at least not as defined by the church--yet if standing up for women, men and children who are sexually and emotionally abused means Im a feminist, then I wear that label with honor.
I disagreed with Packer when he said that sexual abuse, in the eternal scheme of things, was like having "a very, very bad day in the second semester of the first grade." Sexual and emotional abuse can affect ones whole life, as well as the lives of generations to come, if the cycle is not stopped and the victims healed.
Thankfully, one evening in our mid-thirties, as we sat around a campfire during a family outing, Steve shared with me the problems he was having with church history and doctrine and I, no longer able to keep things bottled up inside, poured out my life-long doubts, questions, fears and concerns.
Together we began a quest for truth.
And It Came to Pass That My Testimony Couldnt Last
When my youngest child entered kindergarten (meaning I got a couple hours a day, five days a week all to myself), I reached for a book, one that I knew Steve had read. I opened Jerald and Sandra Tanners The Changing World of Mormonism.
My next-door neighbor (who was also my home teacher), had seen it resting on my end table in the family room. He admonished me not to read such things, warning me that if I did, I would find myself on the road to apostasy. He told me, instead, to just "keep the faith." He also warned Steve that if he continued asking questions about the Book of Abraham, he would be
excommunicated. Gosh, I miss those friendly monthly visits.
But I reasoned if the mormon church was true, there was nothing to fear. I believed I could read all the so-called "anti-mormon" literature I wanted and it would still be true. Silly me. I soon discovered that this "anti-mormon" literature was nothing more than early church history and doctrine that simply had been repressed or shelved by the church.
Most importantly, however, I gave myself permission to read whatever I wanted. I examined works by other authors, including ones on polygamy, mormon women, church history and doctrine.
Sadly, I learned that what I was taught during four years of seminary was not the whole truth. To the contrary, I discovered that the church had suppressed, changed, edited, rewritten, added to and lied about much of its history and doctrine and continues to do so, all in the name of promoting and protecting the faith.
On such matters, for instance, that Adam is God; that blood atonement is necessary for salvation; that the temple ceremony cannot be changed; that Blacks would receive the priesthood only after the rest of Adams posterity; that Indians would turn "white and delightsome" when they accepted the gospel; and that, according to Joseph Smiths Fifth Lecture on Faith, God the Father is a personage of spirit, not flesh and bone.
A flood of questions filled my head.
"If the mormon church is true, then why does it change its history?"
"If the church is true, then why does it quote Joseph Smith saying that the Book of Mormon is the most correct book on Earth and then proceed to make over 3,500 changes in it?"
"If the mormon church is true, then why is the Book of Mormon brimming with plagiarisms from the Old and New Testaments, as well as from such 19th century works as Ethan Smiths View of the Hebrews and Solomon Spauldings Manuscript Found?"
"If the church is true, then why do the papyri from which the Book of Abraham was supposedly translated have absolutely nothing to do with the life of Abraham, but are instead common Egyptian funerary texts written hundreds of years after Abrahams death?"
"If the mormon church is true, then why doesnt the church follow its own 13th Article of Faith, which begins with, We believe in being honest . . .?"
I felt betrayed.
I believed that ultimately the validity of mormonism rested on its claim that the Book of Mormon was translated by Joseph Smith from gold plates. I decided I had to know for myself if what the critics were saying about it was true.
So, I began to dig even deeper. I spread many potential sources of the Book of Mormon across my dining room table. Maps, pamphlets, books, manuscripts, first editions and the like, soon covered it completely.
I purchased a paperback copy of the Book of Mormon and began color-coding it with possible sources other than the gold plates. (It was certainly a different approach than I had learned in seminary). Everything colored orange came directly from the book of Isaiah. Everything in gray from the King James Old Testament wording in Malachi. Everything blue came from King James New Testament wording for the time period between A.D. 1 and A.D. 421. Green were writings supposed to have been made between 600 B.C. and 1 B.C. (composed, curiously enough, in King James English). Yellow indicated Spauldings Manuscript, brown signified View of the Hebrews, and so on.
For several months, when Steve walked through the door after work, he would ask to see the latest markings in my "Book of Many Colors" and we would discuss my findings. He was aware of most of what I was discovering, as he had been reading about these things for years. I asked him why he hadnt told me about them before. He said he didnt want to be the one to lead me out of the church.
Contradictions stared me in the face every time I opened my scriptures. Attendance at church meetings left me with migraine headaches from hearing only part of the truth while I knew the whole truth was being left out.
Steve came home one night and found me sitting among the maps, manuscripts and my
marked-up Book of Mormon, weeping. He was now beginning to see how it was adversely affecting me. It began to have an emotional affect on him, as well.
It was during this period that Steve and I played emotional leap frog with each other. One day, I wanted to leave the church; but he didnt. The next day, he wanted to leave; but I didnt. Back and forth we went. I waffled between firmness of purpose and indecisiveness. Some days I felt sure and independent; other days I was frightened and besieged by doubt.
I was scared to death about what all this would mean in my life and the lives of my children. Irrational thoughts and questions popped into my mind.
"What will happen to my children if I leave the church? Surely, I will lose them."
"What will happen to my marriage? After all, Steve fell in love with and married a mormon girl. If Im not a mormon will he divorce me?"
"Will we be financially secure if we stop paying tithing?"
"Will something bad happen to me if I stop wearing garments? I just know Ill be raped or worse."
(All those faith-promoting stories that keep you in line came to mind as I asked those kinds of questions).
"How will our families and our predominately mormon community treat us?"
And, "What if Im wrong? After all, even the very elect could be deceived."
After I put down the last marker and thumbed through all the many colored pages, tears welled up in my eyes. I realized it wasnt true.
What to Do?
I wanted to stop paying tithing on my half of the income, yet there was a catch. Steve said that because I didnt work outside the home and didnt bring home a paycheck, I really didnt have income on which to pay tithing. (Now, before you jump all over him, remember he was still "the patriarch" of our family at the time). He also said he was afraid the leaders of the church would view a 50% cut in payment of tithes as a big red flag.
I agreed the church leaders might see that as troublesome. But I didnt agree with Steves view that I had no income. Wasnt half the salary check mine? After all, I worked hard caring for our children and home. Simply because the outside world didnt compensate me with a paycheck didnt mean I wasnt entitled to pay my fair share of the tithing if I wanted to--or didnt want to.
Steve called a few of his progressive-thinking friends to get their advice on this new dilemma. They could see it his way--and mine.
Working for a newspaper, Steve collects and saves articles on all kinds of topics. I went to his "Motherhood" file and found an article he had clipped out. It stated that if a man had to pay for the services that his wife and mother of his children performed (i.e. cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundering, tutoring, taxiing, banking, counseling, etc.), he would pay out roughly $137,000 a year.
With article in hand, I returned to Steve and said that if he didnt think I made any money to tithe, then I wanted him to pay me for my services. I told him I was worth at least $137,000 a year (although Steve now tells me Im "priceless").I would then be free to decide if I paid tithing.
Steve did some quick figuring and realized he couldnt afford me, so he agreed to let me stop paying my half. A few months later, after he concluded that the temple ceremony was an obvious rip-off from the Masons, he stopped paying his tithing, too.
I also quit my church calling because I could not support and sustain a system that kept women down. I met with the bishop and informed him my last day of service in the relief society presidency would be December 31st. (I had just given him my two-weeks notice). I told him I would fulfill my calling until then, but after that he would have to find someone else to do it.
The bishop asked me why I wanted to be released. (Notice that I didnt go in there asking to be released; I told him I was quitting, but that is not what he heard). I informed him I had received my own revelation pertaining to my life and would not be serving in that capacity after December 31st. He sat there for several awkward moments, not moving or saying anything. Finally, he said the Lord had revealed to him that I should be released, so he released me. Say what? The revelation hadnt come from God; it came from me! Poor guy, I was probably a first.
During this crisis of faith, the stake president called in Steve and asked him to serve as ward mission leader. I wondered if Steve could go out into the world--our neighborhood--and teach the Book of Mormon as being divinely inspired.
Steve suggested to the stake president that he pretend the meeting was a temple recommend interview and ask him the same questions. The stake president agreed.
"Do you believe the leaders of the church are prophets, seers and revelators?"
"Do you believe the Book of Mormon is the word of God?"
"Do you pay a full tithe?"
"Do you sympathize with apostate groups?"
Steve then asked the stake president, "Do you still want to call me to be ward mission leader?" "No," the stake president replied, "and I probably wouldnt give you a temple recommend, either."
I was subsequently asked to be the ward choir accompanist. Looking back on it, this was the only church calling I would have accepted. We were still attending church regularly as a family and our children were involved in all the church programs, young woman and scouting. But I was beginning to crack. I asked a good friend of mine, Martha, how long I should stay in the church. She gave me some excellent advice. She told me to stay in as long as I possibly could, that I would know when it was time to leave.
In the meantime, pressure was being placed on Steve to get back into line, including from the stake president who was sending him letters accusing him of being under the influence of Satan.
The stake president also turned his attention on me, wanting to interview me. He even suggested that he come over to our home to sing hymns and pray with us. He told me that he really enjoyed going around the stake, visiting members of his flock. I thanked him for his concern but said I was sure there were many out there who needed his visits more than I did. Still, he was unrelenting. He said he wanted to meet with me to understand my needs. I informed him I needed my privacy. I therefore chose not to meet with him. (I had my own thoughts, feelings and questions to deal with and I didnt want outside forces pressuring me, as they were pressuring my husband. Besides that, I didnt believe my struggles were anyones business but my own).
The stake president then attempted to place unjustified guilt on me. Despite my repeated requests for privacy, he told me in a phone call that I would be responsible for his "blocked" spirituality in other areas of his life if I refused to meet with him. I never bowed to his manipulations, so I guess he is still spiritually constipated.
By this time, I was beginning to understand that the mormon church had only as much power over me as I chose to give it.
In an attempt to save Steves faltering faith, his father arranged for a meeting with family friend and general authority, Neal Maxwell, to answer our questions. Maxwell wanted to know what the questions were in advance so he could prepare his answers. Upon seeing our long and detailed list, he invited Dallin Oaks in to help, saying Oaks was more informed in some areas than he. I was invited to that meeting and reluctantly went along.
The three-hour meeting, on September 9th, 1993, with Oaks and Maxwell was very disheartening. Before they would talk with me about my concerns, they swore me to confidentiality. Shouldnt it have been the other way around?
I expressed to them my concern for the women, the abused and the neglected in the church. I also took my color-coded Book of Mormon and showed them how its obvious plagiarisms had caused severe cracks in the foundation of my faith, in my testimony of the church and in my belief in God. I wondered if their "special witness" could repair the damage that had been done.
In reference to my scripture studies, Oaks said it looked to him like only "5%" of my Book of Mormon had been colored. He admonished me not to throw out the entire book simply because 5% of it had problems.
I reasoned, however, that ultimately the truthfulness of the mormon church stood or fell on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. It was either a divinely revealed document from gold plates, or it wasnt. The Book of Mormon was either 100% of what the church claimed it was, or it wasnt. So, Oaks argument that there were problems with "only 5%" of the Book of Mormon was, for me, 5% too much. Besides, since I was the one who had actually done the research, I estimated that far more than 5% of my Book of Mormon had been crossed-referenced to other sources.
When I left that meeting, it felt like a wrecking ball had swung through the remaining walls of my faith and I was now left standing in a pile of rubble. Based on how they answered and didnt answer my questions, I was surer then ever that the Book of Mormon was not what the church claimed it to be. (For a list of questions presented to Oaks and Maxwell, as well as their answers, see our story archived on the Ex-mormon Recovery board).
I deeply mourned the loss of my belief. I also wondered how, in good conscience, I could remain a member of this organization. The answer was simple: I could not. I knew the time to leave had come.
I decided my spiritual and personal relationship with God was between me and him and no one else. I reasoned that since God had created me, he had given me a brain and that a just and loving God would not condemn me for using what he created me with. After all, I had studied his word, I had asked his apostles and I knew I could stand before him and explain my decision. If he condemned me for that, then he was not my God.
I found comfort in the song by the rock group "Styx" (and Im not talking about the sticks of Joseph and Ephraim). The song is entitled, "Show me the Way:"
"Every night I say a prayer in the hopes that theres a heaven,
And every day, Im more confused as the saints turn into sinners.
"All the heroes and legends I knew as a child have fallen to idols of clay,
And I feel this empty place inside, so afraid that Ive lost my faith.
"Show me the way,
Show me the way,
Take me tonight to the river and wash my illusions away,
Please show me the way."
On September 16th, 1993, I penned my letter of resignation from the mormon church. After a second meeting with Maxwell and Oaks, Steve wrote his letter of resignation. Shortly afterwards, the bishop called and said that after consulting with the stake president, we would be "allowed" to leave the church. A week later this same man called and asked if he could buy our home. He really coveted it (especially the custom laundry chute, wooden railings, fireplace, tile floors and exterior colors) and assumed that since we had left the church, we wouldnt want to stay in our heavily mormon neighborhood. I thought he was calling to see if I was okay. I told him it wasnt for sale.
A chapter in my book of life was closing and I didnt have a clue what the next chapter would be.
All I knew is that I felt exhausted--yet free.
You Shall Learn the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free
(At Least Thats the Theory)
Finally, I was free from prying church leaders and their demands on my time and emotions. I was free from outside forces pulling at our family. The impossible expectation of perfection was lifted, the magnifying glass of "what will others think" was broken and we all were set free to be ourselves.
As our leaving became public, we received stacks of letters, both positive and negative. I spent the winter months wrapped in a blanket on the couch reading them and thinking about my future.
Our three oldest children remained members for a time after our resignations. Our youngest was only seven, so had not been baptized. The older children, however, expressed worry that if they publicly left the church, they would be subjected to ridicule and rejection from their friends at school. We listened, yet encouraged them to think for themselves. We created a safe environment for them to ask questions and search for answers.
Contention and strife left our home because I did not demand that the children conform to something they were not. Their personalities blossomed as they were provided an environment where all parts of them were cherished and embraced. All questions and concerns were discussed in the open light of day. No topics were taboo. No opinions were discouraged.
Our family scripture reading changed from the Book of Mormon to the New Testament. That only lasted into the Book of Acts, when Paul entered the scene and started putting women in their place. Still, we tried to maintain some faith, even attending a neighborhood Christian church, but found the similar use of fear and guilt too controlling. We began to apply the same scrutiny to Christianity as we had applied to Mormonism. I decided organized religion was not for me.
Our family scripture reading changed again from the Bible to books that taught high moral character, ethical living, tolerance and kindness. I felt it was particularly important to expose our children to strong female role models, so we spent the next several months reading about the first female doctor in the United States.
The church continued to hound our children, inviting them to various activities, and reminding them of what they had come to no longer miss. A year later, they requested that their names be removed from the records of the church. I knew their decision was based on fact and information, which serve as a basis of personal power and choice, not propaganda and falsehood, which only serve to enslave.
Upon hearing that our children had left the church, our former stake president told Steves family (at a wedding where his daughter was marrying Steves cousin), that the trouble with Steve was he didnt obey the stake presidents counsel and my problem was that I wouldnt even allow him to counsel me.
But Was I Truly Free?
As much as I wanted to establish my own boundaries and rights, I still struggled on a personal level with my identity. Mormonism had defined my whole life. If I wasnt mormon anymore, then who was I? I had been so well programmed in understanding and meeting the needs of my husband and children that I didnt even know what I liked.
I knew some things I didnt like: grinding my own wheat and making and baking my own bread. So, I stopped that promptly.
But who was I? Up to this point, I had supported my husband and children in their lives.
Where was my life? I was wife and mother. I knew there had to be more to me than that, but who and what? I began to feel angry at the patriarchal system that had defined and limited me. I was also angry with myself for allowing myself to be pigeon-holed into only those two roles.
I looked around my home and realized I was continuing to act out my prescribed role. Likewise, my husband and children--conditioned by mormon culture and tradition--continued to play out their roles. Even though I had left mormonism, patriarchy still reigned supreme within the walls of my home. Years of praying, paying and obeying had turned me into a co-dependant doormat and I was furious--with the church, my parents, my husband, my in-laws, my children, myself. And I was angry with God.
Like gasoline, my anger could be used either as fuel to move me forward into finding answers for my life or it could consume me and destroy everyone and everything in my path. I sought out a counselor and began the "T" word: therapy. I knew the only person I could change was me. I knew I could heal from the limited life sentence I had been given with the help of a trained, non-mormon professional.
I examined every aspect of my life, piece by piece, and I realized I had never been free to be me and to find out who I was. As I looked back over my life, I saw how I had made decisions that werent based on my own feelings and desires but, instead, on church teachings and expectations. I realized that I now had to live with the consequences of those decisions.
I felt a tremendous loss of "what might have been" and I sank into depression, as I mourned this loss. My whole body ached, my sleep patterns were disrupted, I cried a lot, my appetite changed and the simplest tasks seemed monumental.
I just plain felt lifeless.
Even though I had left the mormon church, patriarchy was still dripping from the walls of my home. Was it possible to scrape it off and still find my house standing? Or was it true, as one friend told me, that "culture is our destiny"?
Deep inside, I knew I could not remain chained to traditional roles and ever be happy. I knew I wanted a marriage based on equal partnership and respect but I had no clue how to obtain it. None had ever been modeled to me. I hoped it was possible and I hoped my marriage would survive the changes I had to make.
Finding My Buried Parts--and They Werent in The Hill Cumorah
Dreams brought to my consciousness areas that needed changing. After years of being enmeshed with Steve, I needed a space where I could separate from him and find my own identity. I rearranged the bedrooms and created a room all of my owna room with soft, cool northern light where, like a butterfly trying to break out of its cocoon, I pushed, pulled and wrestled with myself.
Breaking free from the old patterns of relating, thinking and living was difficult. At times I clung to the old way because at least it was familiar to me; other times I totally rebelled and refused to do anything at all.
My children and husband wondered what was up with their mother and wife so I called them together and explained how in this game of life, I had, up until then, served as everyones cheerleader, watching and supporting from the sidelines, while they were out on the field actually playing the game. I explained how I wanted to join them out there on that field. I added that I was hopeful they would cheer me on.
Change was slow and painful. After all, the rule book was being rewritten in the middle of the game. The changes I made in my life affected all of us and were sometimes unsettling. Power struggles, temper tantrums, sulking, transference and triangulation were the norm for a while. It took time to learn that there were other ways of relating besides being "the controller" or being "the controlled."
Our leaving the church prompted criticism and condemnation from family members and associates. It was at this point that I realized I had to surround myself with people who were accepting and non-judgmental. This safe environment provided the space I needed to explore who I was. I read more books. The Artist Way by Julia Cameron and The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie were like paperback surrogate mothers to me. I also did, and still do, a form of free-flow writing that helped me get through the days I felt stuck or off-balance.
Like the butterfly, I spread my wings and flew from flower to flower, tasting new things and ideas. Each flight was accompanied by its own fears and rewards. I went back to school, taking classes in assertiveness training and women studies.
I listened to nature recordings while burning aromatherapy candles. I found the sounds of the earth--especially water, be it the ocean, water falls, streams or rain--to be very cleansing and healing. I felt connected to Mother Earth and I loved day trips to the mountains, where I soaked up the silence and collected pine cones and bark from old trees. I didnt have a finished product in mind when I gathered those things (although we now scatter the pinecones around the inside of our home as part of our annual Christmas decorating); I just loved the process of exploring and discovering.
I enjoyed massage therapy that released the pain and stresses I had stored in my muscles. In fact, I experienced feelings of being alive that I had never had before. "Breema" bodywork--where I felt energy tingling and pulsing through my head, arms and torso--was extremely healing. I took up painting, woodworking, and scrapbooking. I loved the creative process. I started experiencing the many colors of life.
I used to think in terms of black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. I now see the shades of gray, diversity in thought and actions, the many paths that people walk on their personal journeys and how one path is not for everyone.
I know that I am not a sinner.
It is human to feel all kinds of emotions--even those which religion would like to demonize. Yet, emotions are not bad; they are human and it is only inappropriate if those emotions are acted out in ways that hurt oneself or others.
Anger, for instance, I believe is a very healthy emotion. It alerts us that something is out of balance. It is a warning flag that gets our attention and says something needs to be addressed. My anger served its purpose. It got my attention, showed me changes that needed to be made and then dissipated.
I experienced a deeper, wider range of emotions. Since I no longer had to deny and suppress parts of my being, I was free to experience all my feelings and embrace all of me. I felt whole.
I set limits and boundaries. I let go of unhealthy ways of thinking and believing. I separated and detached from issues that were not mine. I learned what I am, and am not, responsible for. I learned to say "no." I set down other peoples baggage I had been carrying and I refused to pick it back up. The heavy weight on my shoulders lifted and the body aches disappeared. I learned to say "yes" to things that are of value to me.
I did volunteer work for our local police department and even found myself in the position of president of the departments citizens police academy alumni association after its immediate past president was forced to resign due to his arrest for domestic violence. (Who would have thought there ever would have been a female President Benson?)
I now work in the arena of fine and creative arts, something I learned I need to be truly happy. I also saved and bought myself a baby grand piano and I compose my own music.
I know that only I possess the answers to the questions of my life and I no longer look outside myself for those answers. I evolved and my ideas about God also evolved. Life to me is now self-responsibility, separateness, individuality, tolerance and respectfulness.
It took a few years to erase the mind control tapes that had been programmed in my brain and to overwrite them with new programs. I learned that as I gave myself permission to think my own thoughts and experience my own truth, the tapes slowly lost their power over me.
My children and my husband also experienced great changes in their lives. They examined who they were and what made them happy. Steve was able to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a police officer, a man who has been vested, in the best way, with power and authority, sworn to uphold our laws which protect the innocent and vulnerable and to preserve our individual rights and liberties. He is also an atheist. ("God less America," as he likes to say).
Our oldest daughter wants to become a specialist in abnormal psychology, so that she can better understand her parents. Our oldest son, a business major, is learning the dynamics of the marketplace and has recently begun to understand the dynamics of dysfunctional religion. Our younger son wants to play in a rock band. Our youngest daughter dreams of becoming a professional singer and dancer.
As for Steve and me, we have arrived at a very loving, supportive, equitable and workable relationship. We do not agree, disagree, believe or disbelieve all the same things. That makes our marriage diverse and vibrant. It also makes it quite interesting. When we found our authentic selves, we discovered we really do love and appreciate each other.
Post-Mormon Living with Friends and Family
My old mormon friends no longer associate with me. I understand that, because we are in such different places. I find it difficult to make new friends who are mormon, as culture, language, mindset and religion tend to get in the way.
A case in point: At work, I had developed a friendship over several months with a young gal who was LDS and very creative. She knew me only as Mary Ann. One evening, while we were out socializing with friends, she was informed of who I was married to. A blank stare came across her face, her jaw dropped and she said, "Youre married to Steve Benson?" I said yes, I was. Very hesitantly, almost in shock, she asked, "So, you are Mary Ann Ben . . ." I replied that, yes, I was. She just sat there, looking at me. I could see the cogs gum up as the cognitive dissonance kicked in. I could imagine her conflicting thoughts bounce back and forth in her mind. Here she knew me on a personal, albeit limited, level, had laughed with me, confided in me and accepted me for who I was--that is, until now. Now, the rumors that she had heard about me, the warnings about "those apostate Bensons," were shouting down her personal truth and knowledge. She made several attempts to speak but each time was unable to vocalize. My heart went out to her. To relieve her discomfort, I told her it was okay if she hated me. She has never spoken to me since.
Keeping my identity under wraps did not work so I decided if religion came up, I would say I was a former mormon. Practicing mormons feel very threatened and I had a difficult time with the mentality of mormon co-workers who harbor a "holier-than-thou" attitude. They have no clue how offensive they can be. (I am ashamed that I, too, once treated people the same way and had no idea how offensive I was).
I went through a phase where I didnt have much patience for those who did not respect the belief or non-belief of others and who were always trying to convert them to their way of thinking. When we have objected to their intrusiveness, we have been criticized by mormons who say, "You left the mormon church but you cant leave the mormon church alone."
Well, heres the deal, Neal. When you withdraw your missionaries, get them off my front porch and leave the world alone, then well leave you alone. Mormons think that its okay to criticize and try to change the beliefs or practices of others, but that its not appropriate for anyone to criticize or challenge their own culture or belief. They cant have it both ways.
So, I have not remained silent when I have seen attempts made by members to convert non-members. Last summer I was in Utah with a group of women from work, one of whom is LDS. Everyone in the group knew she was mormon and knew that I used to be. As we were headed to the airport, she went on and on about how beautiful the Salt Lake Temple was and how she wanted us to visit Temple Square. Our time schedule did not permit it, yet she continued pleading for us to at least drive by. She proceeded to tell how the early pioneer women had sacrificed their fine china so that the Kirkland Temple could be built and that its walls actually sparkle in the sunlight.
The non-mormon women asked what the inside of the temple was like. The mormon woman said she hadnt been inside the Salt Lake Temple but was sure it was very beautiful. When asked what they do in the temple, her answer was typically evasive: "I cant say; its sacred."
Frankly, by this time Id about had my fill of her chatter. Realizing that she was not going to answer their sincere questions, I reminisced aloud how 24 years ago that month Steve and I were married in that very temple. If they wanted to know what went on in the temple, I said, I would be happy to tell them. The van fell silent.
I wasnt the one who had brought religion into the workplace; she had. Not only that, she had brought it into a van from which none of us could escape. I went on to express how 20 years later, Steve and I, on top of a small mountain in Nevadas Great Basin National Park, had recommitted ourselves to each other, and how that simple ceremony was, by far, more beautiful than our temple wedding. Needless to say, she no longer talked about the Salt Lake Temple and my work associates know where they can go to get their questions answered about mormonism.
Several months later, another non-mormon co-worker asked me why her mormon friends cant have pictures taken during their wedding ceremony. I explained it was, in part, because of the temple clothing the bride had to put over her wedding dress. She wanted to see these clothes so, in the privacy of my home; I donned the garb and showed he--secret handshakes, passwords, penalties and all. She thought it was all absolutely silly--yet felt sad that her friend didnt have pictures of her wedding.
There is one group of people I have had no difficulty in developing friendships with. That is the gay community. In fact, they are one of the most fun, authentic groups with which I have had the pleasure of associating. Last year I had the honor of speaking at the National Gay Mormon Fathers Conference, or Gamofites. It was a great opportunity to over come the fears and silly notions I had been taught in my childhood. I laughed, cried and celebrated life with them. I also boogied with ten to fifteen guys all at the same time out on the famous Timberline Bar dance floor in Seattle. I didnt want the weekend to end.
But I also listened to them as they spoke of their heartfelt struggles for authenticity and the terrible things said and done to them at the hands of the mormon church. My heart ached when I learned that a young man, freshly returned from his mission, had decided to deny his very essence. He planned to live a lie, go back home and get married to a girl in the temple because he felt the pressure from his family and church was too great to overcome. My thoughts also went out to his young bride-to-be and possible future children and the enormous impact his decision would have on their lives.
I witnessed raw pain as one young man approached and quietly spoke to me. His voice cracked with emotion as he whispered that he didnt know if he was "okay." I wrapped my arms around him and drew him in close to my heart. He lowered his head to my shoulder and sobbed. I tried to comfort him, "Yes," I said, "this road is hard and sometimes it hurts. Yes, its okay to be right here where you are. Youre okay. The way out of pain is through it and, yes, youre going to make it."
I have a few extended family members with which I am very close, but the majority of them believe I am either too feminist in my views or have been deceived. I also find myself an adult child of divorce, as my mother split with my father last year after six decades of marriage. She is 81 and he is 84. Im happy she finally found the strength to stand up for her rights. I see peace in her eyes, as she is no longer under the controlling thumb of patriarchy. My wish for her is that she may have happiness in her remaining years.
Agreeing to Heal and Live
I try to remain open minded about new ideas and ways of life. Thanks to a friend who recommended it to me, Don Miguel Ruizs book, The Four Agreements, has become by paperback dad. I urge you to pick up a copy and put it next to your bed. Its true what they say--when the student is ready, the teacher will appear and boy was I ready for this book.
The Four Agreements are:
1. Be impeccable with your word.
2. Dont take things personally.
3. Dont make assumptions.
4. Always do your best.
These Four Agreements have helped me transform my life.
As the author explains the First Agreement:
"Be impeccable with your word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using words to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love."
A friend of mine would like his wife to join him on a path beyond mormonism. Maybe some of you would like your friends to join you here, out of the closet so to speak, yet we need to let go of trying to control the outcome. I like to use the analogy that religious organizations serve as a security blanket for some people. They have it wrapped tightly around them to cover their nakedness, their insecurities. We may want to help them understand that they dont necessarily need that comforter anymore, that they can put it down. We may even want to rip it off them and say, "See what this organization has done to you. Why are you still clinging to this old, worn-out blanket? Cant you see how they have shamed you and denied you your true self?"
But maybe they dont know they will be okay without it, even if they start to see the holes in it. To remove their blanket would be to expose them when they are not ready. In fact, if we try to rip the blanket off of them, they will only hold on tighter. Only they can "let go" of their blanket--and only when they are ready. We need to let go of trying to control the outcome. All we can do is support and validate them and use the power of our word in the direction of truth and love.
The author continues with the Second Agreement:
"Dont take things personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of other, you wont be the victim of needless suffering."
Id like to share an email that Steve received not too long ago. Out of respect for his privacy, I will not use his name.
"Dear Mr. Benson,
"I am a gay, former Mormon . . . My name may sound familiar to you, as I was a na´ve BYU student who, five years ago, submitted a letter to the editor in BYUs Daily Universe, complaining that they were supporting the work of a heretic by printing your cartoons.
"I have felt awful about that letter for years. It was written during a desperately confusing time in my life. I was attempting to be truer than true, to prove to God that I was completely loyal to him and his church, hoping that I would win his favor enough to be healed and blessed with heterosexual desires. In the letter, I exhibited some of the most blatant elitism and self-righteousness to be found in Mormondom. Ironically, it was exactly those prevailing attitudes that chased me out of the church forever.
"I am embarrassed and ashamed that my own words were used to attempt to defame the name of one Mormon who has decided to come clean and be honest with himself and the world. For those actions I beg your forgiveness.
"I was pleased to hear that you are planning on attending the Affirmation conference this fall in Las Vegas. I regret that this apology couldnt have been made personally at the conference. If I could attend, it certainly would have been.
Steve didnt take it personally. He realized that what this person had said years ago wasnt about Steve. In fact, Steve felt great admiration for the courage and honesty this person showed in eventually coming to his own truth.
When Steves father heard of our childrens decision to leave the mormon church, he wrote us a letter admonishing us as parents to bring our children up with the knowledge that Jesus is their savior and quoting the scripture that it would be better for a millstone to be tied around our necks and we be drowned in the depths of the sea rather than offend the little ones.
Its always nice to hear from the in-laws.
At that time I was not immune to the opinion of my father-in-law and I needlessly suffered. But, today, I try not to take things personally. What others say and do is just a projection of their own reality, their own dream. Its not about me. Practicing this Second Agreement has really freed me from agonizing about what other people think or say about me.
Don Ruiz expands in his companion book to The Four Agreements that if we feel hurt by the actions or words of others we should mentally thank them. Because are showing us where we are still wounded and need to heal. The comments by mormon co-workers no longer bother me because I dont take them personally. Their words are really about them, not me.
The Third Agreement:
"Dont make assumptions. Find the courage to ask question and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstanding, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life."
I worked at a scrapbook store, next to a Subway sandwich shop. One Afternoon, I went over to Subway for lunch. The manager there, who usually greeted me with a smile, didnt this time. She looked mad. As I approached the register to pay, I overheard her inform a clerk that she was going next door to my store. I assumed that when the manager spotted me, she was angrily reminded of the regular habit of those in our store going to Subway at lunchtime and asking for a discount (a common practice among neighboring businesses). I returned and asked a co-worker what the Subway manager had wanted. I was told that she had come over to specifically speak to our store owner and would be back when the owner was in.
Wanting to be impeccable with my word, the next time I saw my store owner, I told her that I had been over to Subway and observed how angry the manager seemed to be. I told my owner that the Subway manager would probably be coming over to complain about our request for discounts.
The next day, I was informed by the owner that the manager had, in fact, come back and talked to her--however, it was not about me, my co-workers or the discounts. Rather, the Subway manager was upset with a pharmacist at a nearby grocery store who had the annoying habit of taking up a parking place in front of her store. Thats what I get for making assumptions. If only I had had the wisdom to ask the Subway manager questions and thus avoid all the unnecessary drama.
Steve made a similar mistake in making assumptions.
Last Christmas, Steve stopped over at the neighbors. During the course of his visit, he noticed a bowl on the kitchen island which he thought contained peanuts. He popped one in his mouth. In reality, it was bit-sized dog food for their miniature poodle. Thats what he gets for making assumptions.
The Fourth Agreement:
"Always do you best. Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret."
I no longer push myself when I dont feel well. I no longer condemn or compare myself against what I am able to do on my "down" days with what I am able to do on my "up" days. The mormon guilt-laden admonition to seek perfection can never be achieved and only guarantees unnecessary angst. I have learned to dump that baggage and get on with enjoying my life, on my own individual and realistic terms. I remind myself when I am finished with something that I have done my best in that momentand then I let it go.
In Closure . . .
Today, I am very happy that I am a woman. In fact, I love being a woman. Like Gilda Radner said, "Id much rather be a woman than a man. Women can cry, they can wear cute clothes, and theyre first to be rescued off sinking ships."
Margaret Anderson, a leading literary light of the early 1900s, had a pretty straight forward formula for happiness. "The great thing to learn about life is, first, not to do what you dont want to do, and second, to do what you do want to do."
So, I no longer look outside myself for answers to my life. I know that only I possess the answers to the questions of my life, as only you have the answers to the questions of your life. My spirituality comes from within. We are our own gods. We are the creators of our own lives.
My personal motto is: "Live one day at a time and make it a masterpiece."
And to that Ive added the Four Agreements:
Be impeccable with your word.
Dont take things personally.
Dont make assumptions.
And always do your best.
I realize there will be issues that will arise in the future that stem from my past that I will need to deal with, and thats okay.
In fact, one of them occurred just last month. During a long car ride to San Diego with Steve, (who was preparing remarks to be given upon receiving the "Emperor has no Garments" award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation), I became physically nauseated as he was reading aloud from the actual script of the secret temple covenants with their accompanying names, signs, and penalties. (It had been one thing for me to disclose them to my non-mormon friend a few months earlier; it was not nearly as pleasant hearing again the word for word abusive language of the ceremony). At my request, Steve stopped reading aloud three-quarters of the way through the bloody oaths. I was really ill.
I was surprised that these emotions surfaced, as it had been a long some time since I had had anything bubble up like that. I tried processing these emotions with an empathetic listener at the convention. He suggested I try cult de-programming. I brought that suggestion here to the "Recovery from Mormonism" bulletin board and asked for your help. My heart was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support that streamed across my computer screen from "exmos" who understood me, yet were total strangers to me.
I was so appreciative of all your thoughtful, supportive and genuine responses. One, in particular, really resonated with me:
"Sometimes you just have to be willing to let the waves wash over you and be OK with the momentary feeling of going under. I've been out of the church quite a bit longer than you have and there are still times when I find myself dealing with residue from the mormon ways that I invested the first thirty years of my life accumulating.
"It's a lot to work through and much like bereavement, there's no statute of
limitations on the amount of time it takes to heal. The silver lining is that as long as
this stuff is being purged from you, you're growing and evolving. Feelings buried alive
never die so it's good that the stuff keeps coming up so that you can continue getting rid
"Your reaction to Steve reading about the temple ceremony is understandable. It's dark stuff and it comes from a thread of human consciousness that's repulsive to those who have moved beyond it. Be glad it repulses you. It should. It means you've moved beyond it and it no longer has a place in your consciousness to rest or take root. . .
"For whatever it's worth Mary Ann, you and Steve have brightened the lives of a
lot of people and contributed a lot to the healing that needs to take place once mormonism
is left behind. You guys have had a very specific hand in my own healing and I feel very
grateful to you for your willingness to share your stories and your lives.
"So take some comfort tonight in knowing that your gifts to others are always coming back to you, one way or another. And here's some [of] it coming to you now in the form of my heartfelt love and appreciation.
"My best to you,
TLC and others reminded me that evening that I was not alone. After such an outpouring of love and support, I knew I could release these normal feelings and reactions, by letting them flow through me.
You have introduced to me another community of wonderful people, many of whom are further down the recovery path than me--people whom I honor, people full of integrity and conviction. Thank you for your help, "each and every one of you" (I just had to throw that in there for old times sake).
So, this is where I am. I live now, in the present moment, fully experiencing all my senses.
I am in a fluid state, flowing as water flows through a riverbed; flowing through my emotions; flowing through my thoughts; flowing through each day. Some areas I flow through are like turbulent rapids; but most areas are now smooth as glass.
I dont know what will happen to me when I die, and thats okay. All I know is Im here--right now. Im being. Im breathing. Im alive.
Thank you for letting me share my story with you. And thank you for sharing with me.
Mary Ann Benson