Guest Post: On a Platter #MormonMeToo, Part II
by Rena Lesue
Two-and-a-half years after I’d been taken advantage of, my family moved to Mississippi. My sister, Mary, and I made many Mormon friends and became infamous for our girls-only sleepovers. The summer after we moved there, we hosted one with a dozen teenage girls. We spread out our blankets on the living room floor to watch Better Off Dead. We painted our nails blues and greens, and had whole conversations in movie quotes.
Inevitably, boys came up. Who are you crushing on? Oh, he has Kurt Cobain hair! Does he grab your butt when you kiss? One of the girls, Mika, found my yearbook from Missouri and held it up with both hands. “Rena, ‘do you realize the street value of this mountain?’”
We gathered together, our legs pretzeled, and rated the guys on looks, smell, personality—all the details I happily filled in. When Mom skedaddled to the store for more Doritos, a girl with big Bambi eyes said, “Can I axe y’all a question?” Bambi traced phantom lines between moles on her thigh. Her other hand shook and she fisted it. Her demeanor dropped a thickening agent into the air that rippled over each girl. Smiles vanished, good humor stowed. My hands froze over the dread I braided in Mika’s hair.
“Y’all ever been moe-lested? Or raped?”
I felt myself tuck small, my heart cowered into a tomb of denial. Throats around the room, Amanda’s tallow neck, Hannah’s caramel one, ribbed like a tin can, undulated, swallowing something deep inside.
“Mm-hm,” said an older girl. “My stepdad.”
I tugged at my shorts to cover Australia.
“Me too. An uncle,” said another. She gave PG-13 details.
My neck turtled. Should we be talking about this? Bambi shared her tale. She’d always been a sweet girl and naïve about topics that should remain private. And now she was a brave voice in the pool of girls who bonded over common traumas. The girls shared several moments of sympathy, empathy, and discomfited hugs, and I sat a little ways off trembling, stamping down the zombie memory of that monster hand, the rot, my sin. I kept it buried, writhing beneath the weight of my repentance, my absolution. I was free. He said I was free.
Bambi’s gaze circled to me. She’d made the rounds, marauded the girls’ minds and spilled rotten memories as if paraphernalia from bad relationships, ready to ignite on a pyre. I crossed my legs at my ankles and shook my head. Nothing to see here. She moved on to Mary, whose pitiful expression, even framed in ridiculous-looking tin foil-tipped dreadlocks, said everything. I could never tell her.
Under my lashes, I stole glances at the other girls, other victims. To them, I prayed to God to comfort them. How awful, I thought. How awful that must have been.
Ten years after I was victimized, I carried the weight of my firstborn, a daughter. I lived in Utah, finishing my degree in English Education at UVU. I wrote my first novel about a Mormon woman who was raped and impregnated, but who chose to keep the baby. She navigated rebuke from church members who encouraged her to get an abortion—as this was one of two circumstances in which a forced miscarriage was condoned. It was my research for this novel and a literature class at UVU that put me in contact with other rape accounts. I read The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr and recall the pages where she, at a very young age, had been lured by a neighbor boy to a garage and raped. The parities in conditions, his audacity, her confusion and fury, I knew it all. I had felt it on the floor of that farmhouse in Missouri. I threw it across the room. An inexplicable sense of loneliness followed. So I retrieved the book and clutched it to my chest like a dear friend. Or the twelve-year-old me. It’s not your fault, I wanted to tell her. You’re going to be fine. But whispers to a past-self snag, like everything else, on Time’s forward momentum.
Over the years, Rick, my husband, urged me to tell my parents, but it wasn’t really polite conversation. Molestations don’t usually come up at family functions. Nevertheless, it eventually did.
We’d gone to Mom’s house during the day. She and my dad had retired to Springville, Utah, a quiet artsy community with an old-fashioned soda fountain on Main Street. Mom and Dad lived in a two-storied Nantucket blue home wrapped at the base in brick. I sat at the table with them, chit-chatting about the old times in the Ozarks when a mass slumped in my gut. It was time. I told them.
They were silent, processing, and my mother’s face flashed an uncomfortable recognition: Now it makes sense. I couldn’t bring myself to ask what, pray tell, suddenly made sense about me? What switch had been flipped? What gross error could be forgiven now that I’d revealed myself as a victim?
“Do you need…want to see a therapist?” she asked.
For years, I’d been hoarding courage to tell my parents, and the act drained my reserves. I couldn’t imagine sharing with a complete stranger. Besides, writing salved my wounds. I declined.
“We’ll pay whatever it costs.”
Dad’s lips tightened, his rage compressed between them. “I’ve still got friends on the force in that area,” he said. “Do you want me to take care of him for you?”
Dad had recently retired. His career began in Vietnam where he intercepted and decoded messages in the service of the US Army. Over the years, he was employed by several branches of the government, including Customs, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the FBI. Earlier in his career he’d worked in the Pentagon and had even debriefed the Joint Chiefs. So the weight of that question, its implications… Take care of him how? From the darkness in his eyes, I knew the lengths he would go to protect me were much broader than I’d imagined.
“No, Dad. I’ll be fine,” I said, but not because it wasn’t that bad. Rather, because I didn’t want him to make a choice that would irrevocably alter the course of his life and, by extension, the whole family’s. My dad’s reaction did beg the question: if it was bad enough to traumatize me and drive my father to vengeance, why didn’t we do anything about it? What could we have done? If the statute of limitation hadn’t expired, I could’ve taken the asshole who fondled me to court, but what were the laws regarding a seventeen-year-old abusing a twelve-year-old? Legally, we were both in that gray area between childhood and adulthood. Besides, I had no evidence except for the testimony of my bishop, who hadn’t recognized sexual abuse when he heard it from the victim’s mouth. Even if I wanted to enlist his help, a lawsuit meant a lot of invasive prodding and uninvited pity. If I hadn’t grown up in a religious culture that led me to believe I’d been liable for my own sexual abuse, maybe then I’d have divulged it to Mom immediately afterward and we’d have had more of a leg to stand on in court. But isn’t that what molesters count on? Cultures that place responsibility on the wounded. It is that bad.
Twenty years post-molestation, while in Barcelona and after my encounter with the St. Agatha statue, I went on a walking tour with my grad school associates. On one street, there waved a banner of a woman, bare-chested with purple rails in the place where her bosom should have been. Our guide translated it, said it was an ad for a photography exhibit featuring survivors of breast-cancer. This I understood. Women removing their breasts to cut out a disease that dissolved her to a pale, veiny shell. This was a good reason to remove one’s appendages. To fight cancer. (I daresay we ought to be able to quell the other, cultural cancer without disfiguring ourselves.)
“What does it mean?” I asked, reading the caption. “Costures a flor de pell?”
She rubbed her fingers over the seam on her shorts. “S-seams on tha surface of tha skin.”
“You mean, like scars?”
She shook her head, pointed to where my shirt-sleeve met my shoulder, and insisted on the distinction. “Seams.”
I let the difference float and settle like a feather over my heart. Seams were not scars. I had had a scar on my psyche. It ripped through logic and fed on shame. But literature, time, and experience unraveled bits of the ropey disgrace I’d carried, and then it was me who undid the rest. Me, who ironed out the roughness until only a watermark remained, because it never comes out entirely.
Rena is an English professor at Utah Valley University and former correspondent for The Daily Herald. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction, and her prose has appeared in Ruminate, Segullah, Superstition Review, Gris-Gris, Pinball, Bloody Key Society, Salt Lake Tribune, and Washington Post. She was a semi-finalist for the 2016 VanderMey Nonfiction Prize and finalist in the 2018 Writers@Work CNF Contest. She can be found at renasprose.com. This essay was originally published in Gris-Gris in Jan. 2016.