Guest Post: Being Disfellowshipped at 14
Trigger warning: suicidal thoughts, ecclesiastical abuse
The other day, I found myself reading through the journal entries I’d written both before and after I was formally disfellowshipped from the Church.
I was disfellowshipped when I was 14 years old.
Like many Mormon girls my age growing up on the Wasatch front, the LDS church was my whole life. My family went to church weekly, had scripture study every morning at 6 am. I attended mutual every week, sang in the ward choir, and often accompanied my ever-faithful dad on the visits he made for his calling. As a Mia Maid, my journal was full of the kinds of silly yet excited exclamations one might expect from a 14 year old girl whose whole world was wrapped up in Mormonism: “So excited for mutual tonight!” “I can’t wait to meet a return missionary and get married in the temple someday!” (I kid you not, there’s even an entry that says “Ward choir tonight was SO AWESOME!”)
While I was an outwardly typical Mormon girl in many ways, there were some things about my past and personality that made me feel different. One was that my mom and my biological dad had been through a messy divorce when I was pretty young. Another was that, as a young child, I’d often been exposed to adults viewing and acting on sexually explicit material. And another was that by the time I was 14, I’d known for several years that my feelings towards both boys and girls didn’t jive with what I was taught that I ought to feel and aspire to as a girl in a very heteronormative church.
I was about 9 when I first tried to tell my mom that I felt that something wasn’t right with me. I remember that we were on our way to Chuckie Cheese. I remember how broken I felt as I sobbed hysterically and cried, “Mom, I’m a lesbian!” over and over. I remember my well-meaning mother calmly reassuring me that I wasn’t and telling me to stop worrying about it. And I remember deciding that it was better not to talk about it anymore.
Five years later, I found myself in a Bishop’s office with a man 40+ years older than me asking me questions.
“Did you have her kiss your breasts?” I remember him asking me. “Did you have her lick your breasts?” he asked, staring right at me. My answers to both had been no; I’d touched her chest and she’d touched mine, yes. We’d kissed, but that was all. I’d told him all that, this old man that I’d been taught to revere, this man that had so much power and authority over me, but still the questions kept coming. The girl was a relative and two years younger, and it was clear from his use of the word “have” that because I was older that he thought I had been acting predatorily.
Eventually, the questions ended, and my bishop began to spell out my sentence.
“It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones,” he read aloud from Luke.
“Do you know what that means?” he asked. I didn’t respond. I couldn’t. “That it is better to be killed than it is to have done what you did.”
He told me too about what would happen when I died: that I would stand there with everyone I’d ever known in front of a giant screen, whereon they would see in detail every disgusting and sinful choice I’d ever made. I would be disfellowshipped, he then told me. And then came the worst part: if I didn’t repent, he told me, I wouldn’t be able to be with my family in heaven.
I remember sitting there drenched in shame, self-loathing, and confusion.
After being disfellowshipped, I was immediately released from my calling in Young Women. Per my bishop’s suggestion to my parents, I was no longer allowed to babysit, which had been something I’d done almost weekly and had been a source of confidence and purpose. Sacrament meeting now left me feeling anxious every time it was time for the sacrament and I wondered whether the boys my age passing the bread and water would notice that I was the only one on my pew who had to refuse the sacrament.
Once at a mutual activity that wasn’t at the church, I remember being asked by one of the young men to say the opening prayer. I remember how my face grew instantly hot and how deeply I was reminded of how deviant and disgusting God thought I was. I remember how my thoughts spun around in my head: “We’re not at the church, so does that mean that I can pray? Or am I not supposed to? Does that mean that Heavenly Father doesn’t want me to pray at all, ever? That I’m so gross and wicked that God doesn’t want to hear anything from me?” After a few awkward seconds I finally mumbled that I couldn’t. I remember wanting to disappear.
The tone of my journal entries change dramatically after the day I was disfellowshipped.
“I will never be able to be married in the temple now,” I wrote soon after my meeting with the Bishop. “I am a horrible person,” I wrote, “no wonder my parents hate me.”
I never wrote explicitly about what I’d done or what I’d experienced or felt after being disfellowshipped. I don’t think I could bring myself to write about something I didn’t yet have the language or tools to adequately process or understand. But after this experience, I started to refer to myself in my journal as “(my name) 1” when I was feeling OK and “(my name) 2” when I started to hate myself. My anxiety worsened dramatically, and after being disfellowshipped, my journal is suddenly littered with suicidal entries: “I feel dark and alone… I sometimes wonder if it would be better if I were just dead so no one would have to deal with me,” one of them reads.
I wasn’t a perfect child by any means and will never claim to be. What I did as a 14 year old girl wasn’t great or ideal. But I can’t help but wonder sometimes how my life might have taken a different course had I left that Bishop’s office as a 14 year old girl feeling that while what I had done had been wrong, that I was still loved and precious and whole. I sometimes wonder how much of an impact being disfellowshipped had on so many of the things I’ve dealt with in the 15 years since: how terribly I’ve struggled to feel that God loves me; how every time my car broke down or I had another panic attack or my anxiety made it difficult to even get out of bed in the morning I wondered if it was punishment from God for never being good enough to deserve His love and protection. When I struggled with infertility, and later, when I miscarried, the feeling that stayed with me through it all was that all of this was God letting me have the pain that someone like me deserved.
Fifteen years later, my views of God have improved dramatically. This wasn’t easy work: a year of intense weekly therapy with a non-judgmental, understanding LDS therapist and then eventually, finding the courage to find a home for my faith outside of Mormonism has allowed me to connect with a Savior whose love is unconditional and freely-given. I am finally healing from the shame that I felt so deeply as a Mormon teenager who experienced things and made choices that I didn’t understand how to process or frame. But I don’t want that to be the takeaway from this post.
What I worry about as a mother, and as an older sister and aunt to so many amazing Mormon kids and teens, is the ways that parts of Mormon culture tells young people who already face so much uncertainty and self-doubt that they are less than. The worst of this shows up with how “serious” sins committed by children and teens are too often dealt with in the church. I recognize that my situation might be extreme. Most Bishops (I hope, at least) wouldn’t look a teenager in the face and tell them that it would be better if they were dead, and most (I assume) wouldn’t disfellowship a 14 year old girl for doing what I did. But I know from so many conversations with so many people that leaving a Bishop’s office with an overwhelming feeling of worthlessness isn’t an experience that is unique to me, and I know too that I’m not the only Mormon girl who has had to undergo therapy and seek God elsewhere to work through the shame that their experiences with Mormon men in power brought them.
My hope for Mormonism is that eventually, it will learn to better convey that the worth of souls truly is infinite in God’s eyes. That Mormonism will learn to accept that human sexuality is normal and good. That Mormonism will come to understand that giving men the power to decide who can and cannot be part of the fold and who is and isn’t worthy of belonging and love is unhealthy and damaging.
Until then, I have three pleas for my Mormon friends:
1) Please consider not allowing your children to be interviewed alone.
2) If you choose to allow your children to be interviewed alone by a Bishop or Stake President, please educate them. Please make it very clear to them what kinds of questions are appropriate and which are not, and remind them to listen to what the Spirit is telling them in these interviews. Does a question that is being asked make them feel uncomfortable? Is something that their leader is telling them leaving them with the feeling that they aren’t worthy of God’s love? Remind them that nothing they ever do will disqualify them from God’s love or yours, and that while their leaders are good people, there are situations and experiences that Bishops trained as accountants or surgeons or dentists or lawyers cannot possibly have the necessary insight to offer sufficient counsel for.
3) Remove shame from everything you say: from how you deal with your child’s misbehavior to how you describe God to how you talk about yourself. When shame is used over the pulpit to try to motivate people to change or toe the line, talk openly with your children afterwards about how and why you feel differently. Talk about how you feel about things like disfellowshipment and excommunication. Would God work in that way? And if so, in what situations and why? Does separation from a person’s family and support system foster or harm spiritual growth?
My intent here isn’t to say that the LDS church is all bad. My biggest hope is that we can recognize the places where it does fail, though, and take steps to ensure that others don’t have deal with unnecessary shame and pain brought on by some of the church’s current practices. Let’s help make the church a better place for future generations.