On Death and Defiance

Arizona, just north of the Mexican border

A few years back I attended a reading by Carolyn Jessop who had escaped a fundamentalist Mormon community. Piled her children in a van in the middle of the night and made a run for it. She’d written her memoir, published as Escape (2008), and now was reading at Third Place Books.

She had received multiple death threats. She felt hunted. During the Q&A, an audience member asked if she feared for her life.

“Every day,” she said.

And I remember most of all how I had expected to see a woman up there who was defiant and clear-voiced. Fearless. Strong.

But she was shaking like a beaten dog. Her voice quaked. Her hands trembled as she turned the pages of her book. And even before she said it, I saw the truth: she was afraid all the time.

That night I didn’t understand.

Please, I thought. Please let it be true that she’s a particularly weak person. Easily terrified.

Please let that not be me.

It was a cruel thought. But I was still in my twenties, and I had to believe it was possible to extend myself beyond my past, beyond the limited circumference of my history.

I had wanted evidence that it is possible to leave terror behind.

Instead, I met a woman who most likely had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Who carried a weight of grief and fear that had scarred her.

But now, 11 years after I left the Mormon church, as I approach the final stages of my novel—six years in the writing—now I think I begin to understand.

What is the price of freedom?

And how much can one individual afford to pay?

How, I wondered to my housemate K. last night, do the journalists in China, the satirists in Pakistan, work and publish knowing the risk? Knowing they may disappear one day? Or be arrested, imprisoned for years? Tortured?

Killed?

How do they write in these circumstances?

A Nigerian writer who had been jailed multiple times for his writing once said he often asks himself, “What can I write today that will get me in trouble?”

But how do these writers engage that sense of play, so needful for creativity, under such threat?

“Maybe,” K. offered, “they just accept it. And maybe it took them 20 years to get to that place. Who knows? You weren’t there for the writing process.”

I laughed with happiness at her insightfulness. How true. I have these impossible standards of courage and truth when they are always a process—never a finished product.

So what can I write today that will get me in trouble?

Part of the problem is that I’ve been there before. And I don’t want to go back.

It took me nearly three years to actually leave the Mormon church, four to officially get my name removed from the records so they would stop coming to my house, finding me every time I moved.

My early twenties were a nightmare of terror. I was trying to get out of an abusive home, away from sexual harassment from college professors, out of a religion I could not go along with. Not without losing my sense of integrity. Sacrificing my conscience.

I remember sitting on the floor beside the answering machine in my first apartment at 23. Listening to the message from the missionaries down at the front of the building. Other church members sent to bring me back. All these people I’d never met, hanging around my doorstep.

“We’d like to talk with you, Sister Easton.”

And it had been so hard to get myself even that far away.

Which still was not far enough. Still, they had looked me up. Tracked me down. I couldn’t get away. And I sat there with my head in my hands, every inch of me shaking. I could feel the machine working around me, the gears turning in which I was caught, the reminders that you couldn’t really leave.

Not really.

“You’ll kill yourself one day,” my parents told me. “You’ll never make it in this world without us. Without god.”

It was my anger that got me through it. Sheer rage. “To be furious is to be frighted out of fear,” Enobarbus says in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. It kept me alive.

But now at the prospect of publishing this novel, the controversy it may stir up, the risk of becoming that quaking, battle-scarred woman at the podium, I find my rage is not enough anymore.

I am afraid.

And the novel, when I touch it, withers in my hands and turns to ash.

Over the years writing it, the anger turned slowly to compassion, to understanding. I saw that even those who condemned me, who sentenced me to the worst death a Mormon could conjure, worse even than that reserved for Hitler—Outer Darkness—were victims, too. Their lives equally constricted by fear and dogmatic absolutes and the demand for total obedience. Total loyalty.

I understood how, in such a community, we all had lived in a kind of fear. Not only me, with all my doubts and questions and heretical thoughts.

Two years ago, telling a fellow novelist who is familiar with Mormonism about my novel, he said, “You’ll get death threats. You know that, right?”

I did.

I do.

I can’t deny the possibility.

Little sheets of paper folded demurely in an envelope and dropped at the neighborhood post office. Telling me I will die. I should die. I’d be better off dead.

But if K. is right and I have to get to a place where I can accept that, where I can live and write freely—knowing the potential cost of self-expression—is compassion enough?

I’ve been trying to let go of the anger for a year and a half. To lay the sword down. To give up being a warrior.

But I don’t think that’s going to carry me through. In order to share in the mischievous delight of that Nigerian writer who works to “get in trouble,” I need to keep a little bit of that ferocity.

Because fear is no way to live.

And though it is not acceptable in our society for a woman to be outraged, much less capable of violence, I think I have to be.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu counseled, “Rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him.”

The fundamentalist’s preferred method is a slit throat. A few notorious cases stand out. They believe the act redeems the one they killed.

But I feel a little bit safer when I know how to defend myself, how to crack a man’s ribs. Yes. Even how to kill. One of the last frontiers for women.

My martial arts training and athleticism leaves me feeling a bit braver.

But I’m not an idiot.

I know it’s unlikely I’d be able to defeat a man twice my body weight.

But I sure can make it a struggle to remember.

I’m just tired of the sexual assault this past year. The trusted friends who betrayed me in that most damaging of ways. I’m tired of fearing the possibility of death threats once I publish this book. And I’m tired of fearing that slight chance—however unlikely—that someone from the fundamentalist community might come for me.

“Why don’t you just shut up?” was how I was raised. “If you end up hurt, it’s your own fault for not keeping quiet. For not keeping that mouth shut. And what a mouth on a woman. You’ve no business asking such questions. Thinking such things. Let alone saying them.”

Yes, I’m scared. I’m scared of returning to that place where my own voice and my boundaries and my safety were all subject to revision by church doctrine. Community cohesiveness. Parental pride. Something feral in the artist and her vision that had to be broken. Silenced. Tamed.

But I’m not 20 anymore.

And if I want to be the writer I’m capable of being, I have to find a way through all this fear.

Or at least, a way to live with it.

And knowing that I would have the ability to defend myself if someone does come for me, knowing I could put up one hell of a good fight makes me feel a little braver. A little more powerful.

I know that’s only half the equation. I also have to get to a place where I can accept that I can’t control the circumstances of my own death. I cannot guarantee my own safety.

No one can.

But maybe, just maybe if I do my best to ensure I’m doing everything I can to protect myself—I can show myself that I believe in my writing enough, I value my voice enough, to defend it.

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