Guest Post: When the Shoe Doesn’t Fit – LDS Families and Physical Abuse
by Kelly Ann
“I have a family here on Earth, They have been so good to me …”
You know, it’s the first line of “Families can be Together Forever” that so many young Primary children love to sing. That is all, I felt, except me …
I sung it. I smiled. Eternal families – that’s nice. But I felt that shoe didn’t fit me. I didn’t want one. I could never really get past the first line of the song.
My family wasn’t so GOOD to me – so why would I want to be with them FOREVER!
And it wasn’t that I worried about fighting with my siblings in the here-after. When I was young, my mother got divorced “for our protection.”
My biological father’s rage was mostly directed at my mother, I was never per say physically hurt by him, but I remember the screams, the chairs that were thrown, and the knife that nearly hit my brother. And I remember not being allowed to go to pre-school because the world was “out to get us”. After my mom left for work, and my biological father was in charge of getting us to school, he’d close all the doors, block the windows, and start ranting. I remember my older brother crawling out the window and as I sat there crying, telling me that I’d be ok.
It wasn’t that my biological father was intentionally trying to hurt us – he was diagnosed in his late 20’s as Schizophrenic. But 25 years ago, that diagnosis and medications weren’t so well understood (not that they really are now). My mom had married in the Temple to a man she fell in love with at BYU, and she wanted it to last, to get better, to be ok. But after my mother ended up in the battered woman’s shelter raped by her husband and my biological father ended up in the mental hospital after kidnapping my baby sister, she filed for divorce. Our safety was more important than her “eternal marriage”.
And I am so grateful to her for that decision.
But here is the thing that has killed me – I remember comments as a much older child from members in our ward who didn’t understand why my mother had divorced and had the audacity to remarry a non-member. Granted she hadn’t told them all details but they knew the general gist – and were incensed that she would give up so easily on a “Temple Marriage”, particularly when it wasn’t his fault (you know being sick and all …)
I admire my mother’s determination, her perseverance, and her tenacity to provide the best for her kids and to raise them in a church that didn’t seem to understand. I can’t imagine if my mother had stayed with my biological father – because the stamp left on me from such a short exposure is unbelievable. I feel so blessed that even though my mom’s second marriage was far from perfect, that I was able to have a dad who loved me and provide a sense or normality. And even though my biological father’s condition has improved with medications over time, I don’t want to think about what else I could have been exposed to. I read about some children who were thrown into the SF Bay a few years ago by a mentally ill parent, and that absolutely broke my heart. I could relate.
So why am I bringing this up now?
I don’t usually talk about it – in a conversation to a trusted friend, in explaining my family, I might say “my mom got divorced for our protection” but I don’t generally talk about the abuse I witnessed. That is, until last week, when in Jury Duty, I had to answer a question under oath, as to “did I know a child who had been victimized in a similar way (to the physical abuse being tried)?”
I said yes, “A, B, and my biological father was physically abusive.” And as I sweated with nervousness and tears welled in my eyes, I removed my now-fogged glasses so I wouldn’t have to look at the judge. Maybe it was because I was PMSing, but to admit this to a court room was hard. And I didn’t want to serve on a jury where I’d have to hear similar atrocities directed at a child. After a few more deeply personal questions, I said something to the effect of – “I am a sensitive person, I have experienced many crazy things in my life, and while I am a scientist, and try to look at things objectively, if you show me a piece of graphic evidence, it will make a much more indelible imprint on me – not only because of my experiences but because as a recourse, religion has brought me peace, and I don’t watch R-rated movies or many PG-13 movies nor seek violence as a source of entertainment.” And I meant it. The judge then asked me if it would be too emotionally hard to be a juror on the case and I said yes. And I was dismissed.
It is a bit embarrassing to think that that court may think I’m a nut job. I shocked myself by how much of a reaction I had. How after so many years of living a good life and coming to terms that all families are a bit messed up even within the church, and maybe I am grateful for mine and want to be with them forever (although somewhat complicated I suppose given the implications of my mom’s second divorce) that these emotions would surface. Because you see, I don’t get emotional until I do.
I have thought quite a bit about my response, and the role that religion has played in my life as consequence to my experiences. I am not entertained by stories of violence. It’s not that I’m naïve to the world –I’m not – but I prefer to focus on the good.
But that got me thinking, why can’t I talk about what I have experienced more openly? Why is it that the LDS world never seems to talk about their experiences with domestic violence or mental illness?
I have heard General Authorities acknowledge the problem but in popular culture, people don’t like to admit that they come from or don’t have the perfect “forever family”! I am not saying that we should display all of our dirty laundry – but I know it exists. In college, I had a good friend whose father who was Bishop was physically abusive. I don’t think it is healthy to hide those facts.
I am grateful for the ideals that the church teaches – for the more normal families that it has exposed me to, for willing to address that problems exist. But I would like to open a discussion of people’s experiences with physical abuse and mental illness and divorce and how they are perceived and how people deal with it within the church. That’s a tall order but hopefully will bring some good discussion. And maybe help me further process my own.
Because when it comes down to it, my experiences have shaped my faith, my dependence on God, and who I am today. And if nothing else, it is good to express that.