Date: February 13, 2017 09:03PM
Anyone in any religion has to accept a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. The essence of faith often involves the suspension of disbelief. Certainly this is required of anyone actively believing in mormonism. Once you have accepted that its three principle scriptures (in addition to the Bible) are what mormonism’s founder states them to be, you need no longer worry about cognitive dissonance. You may wait for the afterlife when God will explain everything that is perplexing here on earth.
I set aside the skepticism of my rational self when I joined the mormon church as a teenager. I so wanted to be part of something larger than myself. I loved the emphasis on strong families and firm moral character. Sundays and Thursday evenings were spent with other teens who were equally willing to believe.
Dedicated adults prepared lessons and spent countless hours as chaperones at dances and other uplifting events. It was everything I had hoped it could be. I knew it was true and I loved it with all my heart. My faithful self was so happy that my rational self agreed all doubts should be shelved until the next life.
Prior to being a mormon, I had been a “good kid.” I took school reasonably seriously and I did not “get into trouble” with boys. My only sexual experience involved masturbation. I had experienced my first orgasm at age 9 on the playground while climbing on the monkey bars. It frightened and delighted me. I engaged in this practice with some frequency, wondering what it was.
As I moved into early adolescence I began to read books about the changes of puberty and what to expect. I now understood that orgasm was the feeling you had with sex. Having that feeling alone through masturbation was, according to the books I read, healthy and normal for young ladies. Indeed, it would serve them well when they grew up and were ready for sex.
My lessons in mormonism, however, revealed that any sexual experience (including masturbation) outside of marriage was one of the worst sins that could be committed. Only murder was worse. Those who committed the filthy sin of masturbation were to confess to their church leaders, gain forgiveness from god, and never engage in it again.
I was so ashamed of myself when I learned this. I made an appointment to see my church leader right away.
My church leader at the time I learned that I was committing a sin close to murder was a carpenter, so I will refer to him as “President Carpenter.” (I attended a smaller mormon congregation known as a branch, their leaders are known as branch presidents.)
I had an appointment to see President Carpenter right after Sunday school. We sat alone in his office at the church with the door closed behind us. He kindly asked why I was there. I told him I was guilty of masturbation and wanted to know what to do to be forgiven. President Carpenter told me not to worry about it. Telling him made the sin go away. God still loved me and I should just not do it any more. He said it might make me selfish if I did.
I left with wings on my feet. Rational self, however, recalled that the books I had read said nothing about being selfish. Rational self said she thought it was a normal part of becoming a healthy woman. But faithful self kept rational self at bay and went on being a good mormon teenager.
The urge to masturbate did not go away. After a stressful day at school the joyful release was welcome. The guilt immediately afterward was not. President Carpenter had finished up his term of office. Our new leader was President Teacher, a college instructor. I made an appointment to see him.
President Teacher took his role as branch president very seriously. Unlike President Carpenter, who had teenaged children of his own, President Teacher was barely 33 years old. He was honored and humbled to have been called of the lord at such an early age to hold such great responsibility.
I told him the same thing I had told President Carpenter. President Teacher said he knew exactly what I needed to do to prevent ever committing this sin again. I am sure he believed he was receiving inspiration from the Holy Ghost when he gave me his advice. He had developed a way of looking into my eyes that made me feel he could see my soul.
The advice he gave was this: “Except for using the bathroom, do not ever let your hands caress your genitalia. Especially not as you lie in your bed waiting for sleep. When you awake in the morning, do not linger in bed. Get up immediately and get on with your day. Will you promise me that you will do this?”
In spite of my rational self calling out “WAIT WAIT, you don’t understand at all!” my faithful self bowed her head and said, “yes.” Both selves wanted to be out of that meeting as soon as possible.
Masturbation for me was a full bodied physical experience. It never involved touching myself and it never took place in bed. But there was no way I was going to explain that to anyone. It was hard enough for me to say the words masturbation and orgasm, much less describe to a teacher how I achieved them.
There was no doubt President Teacher thought he was inspired. There is no doubt he was not. His advice was easy to follow since I was enthusiastic about hopping out of bed in the morning and I never touched myself anyway!
I still loved my life as a mormon teen. As I began my senior year of high school, I was called by the church to be on a stake youth leadership council. A stake is a geographic area comprised of multiple congregations. Only the most spiritual youth are chosen for this honor. Four teens and four adults worked closely together throughout my senior year to create and deliver full days and even full weekends of fun and uplifting activities for the hundreds of teens in the stake.
Instead of attending high school during my senior year, I enrolled at the local community college. I received both high school and college credits for the courses I took there. Between the stake youth council and going to college, I was really pretty full of myself and just how cool I was. Of course, faithful self insisted that I try to be humble!
In addition to regular mix of young people, community colleges are also full of adults from all facets of life who have “gone back to college.” It was great to mix with this group as well.
I fell in love for the first time that senior year. My beloved was an “older man.” We had conversations about things that mattered. Every time I saw him, my knees went weak. We soon added physical intimacy to our time together. It was understood between us that the penetration that produces life would never take place unless we were married to one another and it never did. But hands and mouths are more than adequate to produce the sensations that keep lovers coming back for more and we were both very satisfied with our relationship.
Except for faithful self. She was once again committing a sin close to murder and probably closer. I experienced my first orgasm in the presence of another human being with older man. I was actually embarrassed. It was an act so private that I had never considered what it would be to share the experience. “Go ahead and scream,” said older man, “It is ok to make noise when you climax.”
The only noise I wanted to make would have come from faithful self who would have shouted NO STOP THIS RIGHT NOW IT IS WRONG. But physical self had emerged and she was having the time of her life.
I graduated high school and headed immediately to Brigham Young University for summer session. I couldn’t wait to attend college in the environment I had come to love at mormon youth events. Older man was not in a position to come with me, but he was sure “we” didn’t have to end. He wrote me the most romantic letters and assured me that I was always on his mind and he couldn’t wait to see me again at school breaks.
BYU was like a stake youth dance that never ended. As the impoverished child of a single mother attending school on Pell grants and a job on the grounds crew, I was very different from the more affluent girls in the dorms, but we all loved one another. And nobody was getting love letters as heartfelt and well written as mine!
BYU at the time grouped students together by housing units to create church branches. Small, full functioning congregations consisiting entirely of young, single adults. Branch Presidents were called from the local community to serve as leaders of these units. All other leadership came from the student’s themselves.
Faithful self soon found her footing and I knew I had to repent of all my activities with older man. I made an appointment with President Accountant, another extremely young church leader, whose four small children and beautiful wife were widely admired by all the students in our branch.
In order to save the embarrassment of having my leader think he was giving inspired advice, and then being mistaken, I decided to share every detail of what I had experienced during my senior year. I juxtaposed it with the fact that, while doing so, I continued to serve as one of the most spiritual youth in the stake.
Even rational self was happy to be making this confession. In the back of my mind I wondered about my relationship with older man. He was nearly old enough to be my father. My own father was a difficult figure in my life. While my relationship with my father was not sexual, it was strained to say the least. Was older man a father figure? Ewww – I was thinking that President Accountant would likely refer me to the school’s counseling center and I would be happy to go.
Poor President Accountant! His reaction was one of shock and dismay. He let me know he and the lord found my behavior reprehensible. I had the distinct impression he was actually afraid of me. I believe he had never in his life heard such a matter-of-fact representation of human sexuality.
He told me that people can be excommunicated or disfellowshipped for this type of behavior. I asked if that was needed for me to be back in the lord’s good graces. He wasn’t sure. He asked me to write down everything I had told him so he could share it with his stake president to find out what to do next.
I was to read a book by the current mormon prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, called Miracle of Forgiveness. It outlines clearly how absolutely horrible ANY kind of sexual activity, outside of marriage really is. Indeed, even between married couples some things were not to be considered. What a scum I was.
And how dearly I still loved older man. It felt so right to be with him. How could it be wrong? Nevertheless, I called him to explain my confession and that I could have nothing more to do with him ever. He was deeply hurt, but he understood. After our phone call he wrote me that he would not stop loving me. He knew I wouldn’t respond, but he would continue to write to me as his heart was too full not to share it with me. He knew that I needed to go through this time of repentance and to finish my education. And that when I was ready, he would find a way to be waiting.
I submitted my letter of confession and I read Miracle of Forgiveness. I knew that if I kept myself clean god would probably bless me again. He had never stopped loving me, but he hated what I did. President Accountant told me no church disciplinary action would be taken. He did not recommend any counseling and I did not pursue it.
After the summer term, I changed dorms and moved to a new branch. I was glad to be free from President Accountant whose physical responses to me were those of someone who wants to get away as soon as possible.
A new dorm, a new church leader. A fresh start. The new branch president, President Retiree, scheduled one on one meetings with each student in the branch to get to know us better.
When it was my turn he asked questions about my life before BYU. I happily told him about being a convert and going to college early. No need to mention older man because my sins had been washed away by the act of the prior confession. I felt free and happy. As our meeting ended he said, “I see you have overcome some serious moral transgressions. I hope all of that is completely over.”
I bowed my head and said “Yes.”
Rational self was NOT amused. Just the prior week I had heard a high church authority talk about the power of repentance and confession. How no one, not the lord, not the person to whom the confession was made would ever remember it. And here I was with “moral transgression” apparently on my “permanent record.” There was no one to whom I could turn. I thought again about calling the counseling center, but what could they do? I really was considered “damaged goods,” and clearly, nothing was going to change that.
Older man wrote me frequent passionate letters. I treasured them. I didn’t answer them. I didn’t have any physical relationship with anyone, not even myself. I still managed to have an enjoyable fall semester. Faithful self could not stay outraged at physical self. I HAD been told I was forgiven. I was dismayed at the difference between what the high church authorities preached and the actual practice I experienced, but I was young and I loved living at BYU.
Christmas break came and I went home for a few weeks. During that time I had occasion to see older man. But only at a distance. Although he had been writing to me, he honored my request to stay away from me. The effect of seeing him was visceral. I wanted his embrace, his mouth, his smile. What I got was his intense gaze. The one that Clark Gable gives Vivien Leigh at the barbecue at the beginning of Gone with the Wind.
When I returned to college I was in the same student branch for the winter / spring semester. I dated a few “boys,” but none could compare to older man. I missed him and thought of him constantly. I even replied to one of his letters.
Shortly after that reply I had a letter from Older Man’s wife. I had always known he was married with no intention of ending that relationship. We had discussed it and concluded that we would live and love for the moment. It was so right when we were together, surely the future would take care of itself.
She wrote that she knew I had written to him and that she could not compete with me. She offered to leave him. She asked me to let her know whether or not she should. If I was going to continue to correspond with him, she would leave him and he would be mine.
I did not want him under those circumstances. I replied to her that I would never correspond or reach out to him again in any way. If she wanted to leave him that was her decision, not mine but I made a promise that if I felt like reaching out to him I would seek counseling from someone in a position to help me restrain myself.
She did not leave him and I never learned how much she knew about the situation. Did she know he had been writing to me (with no response) for months? How did they resolve the issue? He actually continued to write to me after that. True to my word, I never replied.
Here I must identify Older Man. He was President Teacher, who was also an instructor at the community college I attended. He was my Branch President during our time together.
When a woman under 18 is in a sexual relationship with a man nearly twice her age, there are laws that call this rape. Even if the young woman consented and was free to leave the relationship (I never felt coerced). Even an adult woman in a sexual relationship with a man with ecclesiastical or other authority over her may have her relationship considered rape. Not only ecclesiastical – he was an instructor at the college I attended.
I really did feel that President Accountant was afraid (or maybe hoping? – nah, that’s mean) that I would “seduce” him as I seemed to have seduced his predecessor. Certainly my disclosure went far beyond anything a young accountant with a large family, serving as part time volunteer clergy, was prepared to manage.
Mormons are famous for threatening church discipline against participants in sex outside of marriage. Neither President Teacher nor I received any such discipline. When his leaders learned of my confession, there was no discipline. Branch Presidents usually serve for a finite number of years. President Teacher was replaced just as he might have been anyway.
On one level, it wasn’t sex – he never “put it in.” And I really appreciate that! On another level, it was certainly some kind of abuse. Yes, I was a willing participant, but I was also a minor and he was a church leader and college instructor.
I never considered Older Man a predator, but I remain disappointed in the response of the mormon leadership, including both “presidents” at BYU and the church leaders with oversite of President Teacher. They read my exacting, detailed account of the relationship. Couldn’t someone, somewhere have said, “You are forgiven, please, for your own comfort, share your story with a qualified therapist. There is nothing wrong with you, but it would be healing if someone could listen and help you process all that has gone on.”
Yeah well, THAT never happened! Woulda been nice though!
I went on a date with my soon-to-be husband, Doug, shortly after my promise to wife. I felt nothing of the weak-kneed desire that attended any encounter with Older Man, but he was a pleasant enough person and he seemed to like me. I learned his class schedule and waited to meet him after classes. I wanted to want someone I could have. We met in January, went on our first date in March, and were married in a mormon temple in May.
Immediately after our engagement we shared our news with President Retiree. He was beaming! He said he knew that angels in heaven had worked to bring us together and that we should marry as soon as possible. So we did. I was 18 and Doug was 25, we were 19 and 26 on our wedding day.
By the time I was 24 we had three little boys in diapers. Doug and I did everything we could to serve the lord and be a perfect mormon family. We lived in a little town in Utah, near BYU. We had very little money. I had completed 2 years of college when the babies started arriving.
I was a stay at home mom. I could stretch a dollar to amazing lengths. Cloth diapers hung on the clothesline outside or on racks all over my kitchen in bad weather. Food was prepared from scratch. I created educational games for the children and was their exclusive companion. I was bored out of my mind. I had wanted to finish college, travel, get to know myself, meet interesting people.
I was adept at managing cognitive dissonance. I had married and had children because that is what god wanted. If I was bored or unhappy that was the influence of satan and I must try harder to love my life.
My hands were constantly cracked and bleeding from dealing with wet diapers. I wore bandages to keep from getting blood on everything I touched. I turned the pages of books with the edge of the palm of my hand, the only place where there was intact skin to give traction.
When I was not being the perfect mormon mom, I put the children in the yard and shut the door and would not let them in. Sometimes I sat under the kitchen table, telephone in hand, talking with another mom, begging her to stay on the phone with me because I was afraid I would hurt the kids if I didn’t have another adult to talk to.
The mormon prophet at the time was Ezra Taft Benson. He counseled that mothers belonged in the home and at the crossroads when their children returned from school. That was what the lord wanted. For a woman to do anything else was less than righteous.
Nevertheless, I made a conscious decision to disobey the prophet. I was returning to college. We were poor enough that I was still eligible for the Pell grants that had been supplying my tuition and fees before I was married. I additionally took on student loans to pay for child care. Doug was in full support. We would pay another per son to meet the children at the crossroads.
Within weeks of returning to school my hands cleared up entirely. So did my outlook. I delighted in picking up the kids at the end of my school days. I attended classes three days per week and was at home 2 days. I was no longer under the table, I was sitting at it, engaged in research projects and writing papers while the kids ran in and out of the house. I had a sharp eye out for the little ones and interrupted my schoolwork to run and play or help settle a squabble. When Doug came home at the end of the day, he would park baby Robbie on his hip and start cooking, encouraging me to head to the library after dinner.
One night I was reading to oldest son, who would have been 5 or 6 at the time. His hand had wandered to his genitals. As a good mormon mom I would need at some point to teach him that masturbation was a serious sin. As he behaved in this perfectly natural way, I knew that I never wanted him to feel guilty about his sexuality. I said, kindly, “private parts are for private times. Let’s finish this story and you can do that when you are all by yourself.”
Doug and I were still taking the active mormon role we had always accepted. I was one of the leaders of the organization that served the church’s children from age 18 months to 12 years. Doug was a leader of the men under around age 40. Doug and I attended mormon temple sessions at least twice a month in addition to our regular service to the church during three hour meetings on Sundays and the attendant planning sessions for our leadership roles. We gave the mormon church more than 10% of our pre-tax income.
However, we began to have lengthy conversations about our lives in the mormon church. Were we truly doing all we could to serve the lord? Was mormonism the actual path required? Our lives were far more joyful when we added my return to school, in direct contradiction of the prophet’s counsel.
As I finished my undergraduate degree I had the opportunity to take an advanced course in mormon church history. I had already accepted the contradictions to reason necessary to believe fully in mormonism. I was now invited to accept many more: The first prophet’s participation in polygamy without his wife’s knowledge. The complete copying of the mormon temple ceremony from the Masonic rites. Joseph Smith, the first prophet, had been dismissed from the masons, where he had been rising in ranks, when his polygamy was discovered.
The church history instructor began telling us the story of Fanny Alger, the prophet’s first “plural wife.” The lesson was accompanied by the caveat, “Not that this should affect your testimonies.” Ms. Alger was a teenager who had been in the role of live-in nanny in the Smith household. Joseph fell in love with her and polygamy became a doctrine of mormonism.
My rational self leaped out of her many years’ retreat. “THIS IS SO WRONG!” she asserted. “I know this story, I lived this story. My Older Man was a church leader, President Teacher.” In addition to being his lover, I babysat his children and tidied his kitchen after they went to sleep. Older man was NOT inspired; he was human and the exact same thing was going on with Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger.
It was completely clear - This is NOT the way God would operate. I do not have to accept that this is the only true church and I do not have to subject my children to guilt and shame about their sexuality. I will not ask them to assert that they believe that the more bizarre aspects of mormonism will be explained in the after life and they should not worry about them. I am done.
Faithful self was delighted. All she wanted was to be faithful and good. She did not need to be a mormon to do that. Being a mormon had so distanced me from any sense of genuine self that I had forgotten who I was. Even faithful self could see that, actually, I had been untrue to real virtue and a slave to obedience.
When Doug and I finished folding diapers and sorting socks that evening I told him, “The emperor is naked.” I told him how I had concluded that. He knew my history. His own upbringing had been filled with guilt and shame about all things sexual and questions about mormon history that were answered with a severe, “We don’t need to worry about that, all you need to do is obey the prophet or you will be in satan’s power.”
We began the process of extricating ourselves from mormonism, each step more joyful and liberating than the next. The feel of clothing on bare skin as we stopped wearing the body covering undergarments required of those who have been admitted to the mormon temple. The freedom to discuss what we really thought and wondered about church founder, Joseph Smith. My church history class had revealed a great many truths. We wondered aloud together about them, free to express doubt and apply rational analysis.
We have never wanted to return. 12 years after attending our last mormon church meeting we formally resigned our membership in mormonism. (Known within the church as “having our names removed,” the equivalent of voluntary excommunication.) My faithful self still tries to do good in the world and to be part of something larger. My rational self maintains a back and forth acceptance of agnosticism or atheism depending upon evidence and experience. My physical self is well satisfied with all the delightful aspects of being human and sharing life and sexuality with a partner of many years.