Faith, the people who have it will tell you, can get you through anything. And that is so. But the loss of it can take from you everything you have left.
I’d had a complicated relationship with God since I was 12. Ever since I invoked Mormon norms of fatherly conduct and my father beat me for it, I had held God accountable for the miseries—big and small—that crossed my path. Foul weather on the day of a picnic. The debilitating cramps of my menstrual period. The weakness of my joints. The temper of my father. It had felt, at times, that it wasn’t my father taking revenge upon me—but God. Punishing me for the audacity of wanting happiness.
But then there were times when I felt miraculously clear-headed in the face of my father’s cruelty, times when I spoke of charity and justice before congregations—and I knew God was my ally. I was Joan of Arc. I was Deborah the Prophetess. By the time I was 16, I even believed God spoke to me. I still have journals filled with what I believed were God’s answers to my questions. Pages of them. In italics.
Because apparently, God speaks in italics.
So I was Job then. Also a messiah. And also a saint.
We all tell ourselves stories to make sense of the chaos. The cruelty. The randomness of life. Abused children—their well-being threatened by the very people who keep them alive, their innate potential recast as innate badness by their abusers—must tell the most fanciful, the most contradictory stories of all.
* * *
When I was 17, shortly after Joe G.’s sexual assault, I woke up one morning and simply knew there was no god.
If you are not a person who has had faith, you have to understand something: faith is a kind of knowledge. Every day, my entire life, I had awakened knowing there was a God. I felt the presence of God when I climbed the old cedar tree in the back yard. When the dew rose over my neighbors’ lawns after twilight. In the buzz of bumblebees and the drift of clouds, God had always been there. A benevolence. A consciousness. If you have not had faith, you do not know how wonderful that feels. It feels like the sun on your face. With all the generosity of a star blazing out into the vacuum of space.
Then, one morning I woke up, and that was all gone. The sun was gone. Now, there was only the vacuum.
For the first few days, I thought I must simply be in a foul mood. I went to bed every night, hoping it would be different in the morning.
So then, I thought maybe God had gone somewhere else. Maybe I needed to go find God. It was a test. I started by using a different name. Dear Heavenly Mother and Father. I tried it out during my blessings over dinner.
It outraged my father. Mormons have peculiar beliefs about the divine feminine. Yes, it exists, they say. No, you cannot pray to it. Heavenly Mother, they teach, is so self-effacing that She wants you to pray only to Her husband. She doesn’t like attention. Really, it’s an insult to Her.
But it didn’t stop me. My father sulked or stomped away from the table or yelled at me afterwards. It made no difference. I had bigger fish to fry.
But God still didn’t come back.
So I went to my Sunday School teacher. Brother Goodrich. He was a kind man. Not much older than his students. Perhaps late twenties or early thirties. Sandy hair. An open face. His wife sometimes substitute-taught for him. She was equally intelligent and kind. He had served a mission in China and was enthusiastic when I admitted that I wanted to serve a mission as well. We stayed late after class sometimes talking about Chinese, about learning foreign languages, and about my doctrinal questions.
I did not think the Mormon policy against men and women being alone together applied to me. I was still a minor. A child. And he was my teacher.
But what does it mean?
And what does that mean?
He was a patient man.
I pointed to scriptures that I felt might be the door behind which God was still waiting for me. “What about Matthew 10:34?” I asked. The verse was an obsession for me. “‘Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.’ And Christ says he’ll set children against parents, and how your enemies will be those of your own household. What does it mean?”
We talked about it for a long time, and he offered many intelligent interpretations. But none of them were what I was looking for.
God did not come back.
* * *
The summer I was 18, I graduated from high school. The young men and women at my church all began to move away to the colleges where they had been accepted. I was still here. My parents had not spoken with me about college. Mostly, my father mocked any future I suggested.
Writer: You’re going to kill yourself one day.
Office worker: You’re too lazy.
Parent: Who would want to marry you?
The time I should have put into college research and applications, I spent refuting his relentless barrage of doomsday prophecies for my life. Why would I kill myself if I was doing what I loved? I’d for sure be happier than you are. And lazy? How did lazy get me towards the top of my class at Cornish and then in Honors classes, along with straight A’s and a Tae Kwon Do trophy? And if no one wants to marry me, big deal. I’ll adopt.
My rebuttals were the closest I ever came to having a plan. I did not have a goal. I was just trying to survive. So when some of my classmates told me they would be attending community college, I decided to do the same. There was no lengthy application process, and more importantly, my parents agreed to pay my tuition as long as I continued to live at home. At the time, it seemed like a deal. Later, I saw it for what it was. A down payment that guaranteed continued access to the target of their control and abuse.
But, at the time, I thought things were looking up. I continued attending the ward where I had grown up, sitting beside my family in our pew, singing hymns from the same green hymnals, wearing the pastel dresses I had worn as a high school student. Only now, I attended the adult Sunday School class.
One Sunday, I waved hello to one of my teachers from Young Women’s. She didn’t seem to see me. So I went over and said hello. She ignored me, turning instead to her neighbor and striking up a conversation about the weather.
This started to happen every Sunday. Having served as the Young Women’s president the previous year, I had built relationships with many of the women in my ward. Women who had been my teachers and mentors. Women with whom I had quilted and baked. Women who brought me homemade sugar cookies for my birthday. I always made sure to say hello. Now, none of them spoke to me. Not one. Some of them turned towards me and icily looked right through me. Some of them pretended they had not heard or seen me. But none of the women would engage with me.
Even my mother, who was notoriously oblivious to social cues, began to fidget while sitting next to me in Sunday School. She couldn’t even look me in the eye. When I asked her about it, she laughed nervously. Then, she blinked rapidly and looked away, pretending I hadn’t said anything.
Finally, one day my father pulled me aside. “The leadership has asked that you transfer to the Singles’ Branch.”
“But I don’t want to. I’m too young for that.”
“It doesn’t matter. You can’t attend our ward anymore,” my father said.
“You’re a temptation to the married men.”
I could not believe those words, but I never forgot them. I begged my father to tell me what I had done. And to whom. Who thought I could possibly be a temptation with my braces and my glasses and my knees like doorknobs?
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. My father said nothing.
“Who says that?” I demanded. Who on earth could believe that the geekiest, most socially awkward 18-year-old was capable of seducing a grown man? And who would think that it was the grown man who deserved their concern—and not the 18-year-old with whom he was supposedly obsessed? Who thought that something improper had occurred between a teenage girl and a man in his thirties, forties, or fifties—and then punished the adolescent?
I was surrounded by adults who had known me since I was 12. Who had helped us move into our first house in Bothell. And no one—not a single one—ever spoke to me again. Not even to check if I was okay.
Everyone at church had made it clear I wasn’t welcome there anymore. And in the end, it worked. The next Sunday, my father fired up his gleaming red sportscar, and my family sped away to church. I was left alone with the dented blue minivan, to shuttle myself to a new building, towards a new group of people I didn’t know and had no wish to meet.
* * *
By autumn, when my first quarter at college was starting, I had a routine down. Over the summer, I had bought a book and taught myself, finally, how to do my own hair. As if to rub it in my mother’s face, I did up my waist-length hair in elaborate Victorian buns and rolls and twists. Everything I did, at 18 and 19, was to prove a point.
Before driving myself to the Singles’ Branch, I slipped into a black dress, laced up black ankle boots, and looped black eyeliner around my eyes. I marched into the chapel looking like an angry nun.
And like an angry nun, I sat in a pew alone and took the sacrament and scowled through my classes. When the Branch President stood at the podium and shared his vision for us—exactly how many weddings he wanted by the end of the year, which I remember being somewhere above 30—he always glanced at me. Not the other women in their twenties who sat in neat rows, wearing cocktail dresses the shade of Easter eggs with their matching pumps and handsome clutches beside them in the pews. Woman. Handbag. Woman. Handbag. All through the chapel, all of them longing for an engagement ring the way little girls long for a vision of the mythical unicorn. No, he turned away from them, the women who wished for those weddings even harder than he did, and glowered down at me. Me, his problem child. The 18-year-old who did not want to get married.
I glared back.
After a few months, the leadership called me to serve as the branch librarian, so I went to sacrament and then straight to a room about the size of a living room, lined with bookshelves and cupboards, a Xerox machine in one corner, a printer, a few rolling carts of televisions and overhead projectors, and one of those paper cutters with a blade that hatchets down and makes the most delicious slicing sound.
Too many Sundays, the Branch President stood in one of the library doorways and watched me. He was an obese man in his sixties, balding and partial to navy suits. In Mormonism, you cannot enter the highest kingdom of Heaven if you are not married. So I really do believe he was worried for my soul. But at the time, I saw him only as a stand-in for my father and for the unnamed man who had sent me to this godforsaken branch. Out of revenge, I relished remaking myself into a bitch.
It was a new experience for me. And a briefly liberating one. I had always, at school, been the goody two shoes, the bookish shy girl. But in my old ward, they had cast me as the town whore. And now I recast myself as the frigid Ice Queen, a girl-woman who can wither an erection with nothing more than a glare.
It was too obvious that I had been assigned the library in order to be put on display. The hypocrisy wasn’t lost on me. I had been shunned from one ward for apparently being too free with myself, and now I was being closely supervised for failing to be free enough in another.
Only young men came to pick up class supplies after sacrament. Mormon women are allowed to teach only Relief Society classes, Young Women’s classes, and classes for children under the age of 12 before boys are given the priesthood—and of these, there was only the Relief Society class as our branch had no children in it.
So whenever a young man stood at the counter and asked for a kit, I stared at the Branch President as I grabbed a plastic case of pencils, chalk, and erasers and slapped it down on the counter. Then, I gave the young man a stern look and waited for him to go. This wasn’t his fight. It was between me and the President, or me and the larger Mormon church that would allow an 18-year-old to be punished for having been attractive to someone, somewhere.
As the young man turned and left the room, tail tucked, I glared at the Branch President leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, and I thought Temptation to married men, my ass.
I was going to show them. I was approaching 19, and although I’d asked out several boys by this time, none of them had said yes. I’d never been kissed. I’d never been on a date. I was, in fact, unhealthily obsessed with a middle-aged psychology professor at the time. Unlike my father, he paid attention to me and complimented me and listened to me. We spent hours sometimes in his office, talking about obedience and coercion and the ethics of researching romantic love. Other than those conversations, I felt very much alone in the world.
So I leaned into my angry nun identity. I leaned in hard.
I even gave a talk one Sunday about the sins of Mormonism specifically and Christianity in general—how the faith we taught as a doctrine of love had in fact been an instrument of violence, oppression, and discrimination for too much of its history.
No one paid me any attention. Some of the members even approached me in the chapel afterwards and thanked me for being so insightful.
But by this time, it hardly mattered.
I knew I was going to have to leave the church. I just didn’t know if I would ever be able to tell my parents.