Sharing the Map of Female Experience
I can remember the moment, a cold, March day in a warm classroom on BYU campus. The inversion was beginning to loosen its strangle-hold over the valley and I was beginning to emerge from a months-long depression, a byproduct of emotionally violent misogyny and my first heartbreak. I had read the article with interest but had the detachment of a soul lost in a dark mist. The article was in no way controversial; a faithful essay acknowledging and de-constructing the problematic aspects of the gospel for women. Indeed, the main thesis of the essay was that Mormonism was not oppressive for women but rather, revolutionary for women. The class’s discussion on this particular topic was like many that take place at BYU, remarkable only for the antipathy towards the subject. But somehow, for me, that was the day the fruit was offered. And I partook.
It began subtly at first, a fire in my womb, as if that which makes me what I am awoke and refused to sleep any longer. The fire spread to my limbs one at time, taking a moment to activate each nerve-ending, and then slowly planting itself in my heart. I had been born again only to feel that life being asphyxiated under the weight of a force I could not control. It was as if a war was being waged between this awakening and my physical body. All of my muscles constricted at once, an unseen serpent of muscle memories, socialization, indoctrination and fear wrapped around my chest to crush the life-force within me. In desperation I cried out, “Why? Why have I never heard this before? Why haven’t they taught us this?” I did not recognize my voice but I recognized the pain; a deep, primal pain that my body had been hiding in a forgotten sinew. In the awakening of a deeper consciousness, the unheard sob of my soul escaped and hung in the air as a cry for help. For a moment I saw my pain reflected, briefly igniting in the eyes of my dear teacher and then disappearing just as quickly as it had come. That was all the answer I needed. The knowledge that the pain was real and that I had not awakened to be alone in this new and often inhospitable world.
I share this story, not only because it is the story of my feminist awakening, but because there is power in the sharing. I have never spoken of it before. It was a memory known only to me, and perhaps my teacher, and I kept it because it was raw and painful. But as I sat down to write this essay, it was this experience that kept bubbling to the top, longing to be released. Longing to be shared. Longing to be healed.
Ursula LeGuin once said that “when we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.” In reading this, I am reminded of how California spent 100 years as an island because those who knew the truth believed those in authority who told them that their truth was wrong. I was afraid before that someone would take my story, my truth, and use it to diagnose me. Afraid that someone would use this painful, personal story to prove that I was crazy or abused, that I had delusions of grandeur and that I have manipulated truth to push my own agenda. Perhaps some still will. And perhaps I fear this because some part of me believes these things are true. But I have recently been convinced that those who would do this to my story are not worth thinking about. I also know that I will never begin to get over my fear, that I will never be a whole person worthy of that god-given spark of divinity until I offer my experience as truth.
For too long, too many of us have stood at the sidelines content to have our stories, our experiences told through the eyes and language of somebody else. How can we be surprised then, when those stories are no longer about us and instead we become an object in somebody else’s story? I have been thinking a great deal recently on how the female experience within the gospel often gets caught in this trap. I asked that question all those years ago because despite being raised in the Church, that was the first time I had been introduced to the idea that the unique experience of Mormon women should even be considered and that was deeply painful to me.
Perhaps there is no more poignant example of where women’s experience is either not considered or forgotten all together than with the revealed doctrine of Heavenly Mother. We are told nothing about Her, we are told that She is too sacred to talk about, certainly to sacred to be talked to and if we do, we are disobeying the prophet, pushing our own agenda and blaspheming God. We are supposed to be content with the knowledge that she exists and somehow makes sense out of female exaltation. To some this knowledge is nothing more an amusing academic riddle, one to be talked and talked to death with little consideration for the half of humanity to whom this question means everything and unaware that it is they who profane the very being of God.
And so here is my contribution to truth: I have experienced the Mother. She came to me, uninvited, as I hovered between life and death and this has transformed me. Whether or not She is theologically relevant, the gift She left me with is knowledge…knowledge of myself. Is there any gift greater? There is no agenda in the desire for knowledge about ourselves and there is power in sharing the truth we have learned. After all, sharing our truth gives voice to our humanity, heals our wounds and gives us the courage to find new territory within our existence. And maybe in sharing, we women will develop the key to understanding the incomplete map we’ve been given.