Why Does She Stay?

An early version of this talk was given as part of a panel: Staying, Caring and Hoping at the 25th Anniversary Counterpoint Conference on October 6, 2018. 

I like to think of myself as a brave person. I am rarely frightened in my vocation as a medical social worker or in my role as a faith transition and grief therapist. Companioning others, as they sit with distressing feelings, is routine to me. But I do get scared. And in this Halloween season, I share a scary story of true events that changed me.

Instead of a haunted house or forest woods, lovely dark and deep, the setting is West Los Angeles where I investigated child sexual abuse for the County Department of Children and Family Services.

One chilly-for-Los Angeles, balmy for Utah evening. I investigated allegations that a 13-year-old girl was molested by her stepfather. A social work intern accompanied me as we interviewed the girl at her school. I felt that additional responsibility of training a new professional and setting a good example. In my car after the interview, we reviewed the significance of the sparse but highly credible details we had both observed and heard from the alleged victim and made plans to interview the rest of the family at their home.

En route to the interview, I contacted the local police dispatch. They sent a car and we met the officers outside of the home, a junkyard looking property with a large run-down-home in front and a tiny one-room shack at the rear of a property. The large home was owned by the stepfather’s parents who directed us around back to the shack. The police entered first to assess the safety and remove any weapons.

As we entered the poorly lit home I immediately noted the bathroom with no door, just a flimsy fabric remnant curtain at the end of the shoebox room. This detail corroborated information about lack of privacy the girl had shared with us earlier in the day. She’d disclosed she was being molested when showering.

We began interviewing one family member at a time at the kitchen table located between the front door and the bunk bed where the whole family slept. Family members not being interviewed waited outside with the police.

During the mother’s interview, many statements raised red flags and my intern furiously documented everything on her yellow legal pad. The stepfather, her partner was a U.S. citizen but refused to apply for legal status for her. He was jealous and demanded a high degree of loyalty from her with constant loyalty tests. She was not yet worthy.

Worthiness would be determined by the father-in-law, a pastor at a storefront church. The mother was required to obey her father-in-law as well as her spouse but denied any domestic violence in the home. She admitted that her spouse threatened her with deportation when he was upset with her, she was not allowed access to money or finances and she was forbidden to use birth control. When she did attempt to use birth control her husband tampered with her pills or refused to pay medical bills.

This mother seemed so isolated and depressed. In this foreign country where she had made a new family who did she have to support her emotionally? She had extended family about 2 hours away in another city, but her husband did not like to visit them or have any contact with them. She was not allowed to see her family or contact them without his permission. Her only social contacts were related to her husband or the father-in-law’s church congregation. The congregants were not friendly with her as she and her daughter were frequently used as examples in sermons on wickedness.

Isolation, domination, lack of privacy, control, gas lighting, threats of expulsion from the country and separation from family. All of these were documented for the court report as problems that created a climate of emotional abuse for the children and domestic violence for the mother.

The mother exited the room and the stepfather entered to be interviewed. He was charming and mildly flirtatious painting a picture of himself as a devoted spouse and step-father struggling with the challenge of living with hysterical, dramatic, lying women with worldly desires and rebellious attitudes. They were not perfectly obedient to the wisdom of the worthy males in their life.

About midway through my scripted interview protocol, he stood up from his spot opposite me, picked up his chair and walked around the table placing his chair much nearer to me and blocking the only exit from the room with his body.

I broke out in gooseflesh and saw that the intern did too. It was at this time that I noticed a butter knife mostly concealed by the detritus of school papers on the table. The knife was closer to the stepfather than to me.

The air buzzed with the terrible anxious tension of a gathering lightning strike. I listened to my body. While inwardly panicking at the implied threats I assessed in the room, I remained outwardly calm drawing the interview to a premature close. I cheerfully informed the stepfather I had no further questions for him and would like a moment to confer with the officers.

His facial expression turned menacing and for a solid eternal 20 seconds he remained silent and staring. I called out, “Officers we are done can you come in?” and they quickly opened the door, forcing the father to scoot his chair over so they could enter. The stepfather reverted to charm and smiles as the lead officer entered. Aware that our protocol was violated by the positioning of the stepfather in the room, the officer made eye contact with me and asked me if I was OK with his eyes as he placed his body between the stepfather and myself.

The restoration of balance to the power dynamic in the room immediately reduced the pounding of my heart. I nodded to the officer that I was OK. I was not confident that I could fight off the stepfather if attacked, even with the help of my scrappy intern. But, the protective presence of the officer allowed me to resume slow regular breathing. It was the most frightened I’d ever be during my time as a child sexual abuse investigator.

A child welfare case was filed in dependency court. The family split and the mother chose her children over the stepfather. She collaborated with local law enforcement in pursuing charges for child sexual abuse and domestic violence with child endangerment. She moved in with her extended family and was granted a U-visa allowing her to obtain U.S. residency that put her on a path to citizenship. That is about as happy as endings get in a domestic violence with sexual abuse case like this.

In the week following, I spent several hours of clinical supervision processing the experience with the intern who wanted to know why this mother stayed in such a terrible situation for so long. We compared this case to other cases where mothers stayed with abusers after DCFS involvement and children were placed in foster homes. I asked some hard reflective questions: Where in your own life do you see these same dynamics? What systems are you a part of where you are abused, dominated or oppressed?

And then I received a truth drop, a puzzle piece falling into place. Was it possible? Could it be that I too was in an abusive relationship?

Like most women who stay with an abuser, I did not see the abuse.

Until I did see it.

And then it was difficult to stop seeing it. I was deeply in love with my partner and 100% committed. We were part of a wonderful family and community. Our unity was everything to me. I had sacrificed so much to prove my loyalty and worthiness. In that terrible moment of recognition I began a list of signs that my relationship was toxic:

1. I had no authority in our relationship. Every time my intuition or personal knowledge and expertise on a topic conflicted with my partner, we did what he wanted. He decided. If I voiced my differing views it led to questions about my loyalty and subtle threats of violence. Only my family members that proved their loyalty to him could attend our temple sealing.
2. I was rushed towards premature commitment in my relationship. The day I took out my endowments in the Oakland Temple my body flooded with panic for a moment and I wanted to escape. For a second I thought I was being initiated into a cult. I was only 21, how sure was I that this was right? But I looked around the room at kind faces of people who loved me and I stayed. It was what my partner wanted and I was in love.
3. My partner tried to control my body. I needed to dress modestly to stop my wicked body from tempting men and leading them to sin. In spite of frequent urinary tract infections, my partner pressured me to wear the underwear he chose. I was sexually assaulted as a child, a strange man exposed himself to me in college, these events were my fault. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A righteous woman would have died before allowing herself to be sexually soiled.
4. My partner isolated me from my mother and pitted me against my sisters. I was only allowed to speak to my father and brother. I was a disloyal apostate for trying to talk to my mother. If I wanted to thank her for something or ask a question I had to go through my partner or other trusted male relative.
5. I love to read and study. It feeds me. As an introvert, I feel safest in a book. But my reading for personal growth and attainment was also loyalty tested and censored to stories of men with an occasional story of a submissive woman. For 20 years I gathered weekly with other women under orders from my partner and we studied stories of our male ancestors, acrobatically applying their masculine experiences to our feminine lives.
6. I was not allowed to touch money or exert control over finances. My contributions to the family income had to be turned over to my partner. I did not get a say in how the money was spent. He spent my money on real estate investments while children in our family went hungry. Sometimes our money was used to pay the legal fees of child molesters. I felt equally disgusted and complicit.
7. My partner taught me that the melanin in my skin was a reflection of the idolatry and corruption of my ancestors. It was written into our family history. If I was righteous and obedient my skin would become whiter. I was taught that the sexual submission of brown bodies to white bodies was essential to life now and in the eternities. I believed him when he told me, “It is the purifying path to righteousness for people of color.”
8. My partner threatened to separate me from my family forever if I was not perfectly obedient. I would never be reunited with my mother. I was promised I could only hope to meet her again one day in the home of my older brother if my partner (who has many wives) remembered my name and called me to come over.
9. My partner controlled what I ate and drank. When I was most eating disordered (restricting and over-exercising) I was most praised as attractive, pleasing, and disciplined.
10. My partner gave male children authority over me and granted them privileges and power I had tried to be worthy of throughout our relationship.

That is 10. Ten indicators that I was not in a healthy relationship. There were many more I have not listed. You might be asking yourself the question we too often ask of domestic violence survivors: Why did she stay?

I stayed for seduction, charm and codependence I called love. When we were in a honeymoon phase he would put me on a pedestal and call me angel mother, virtuous, pure, spiritual. I would feel special, full of light, joy, and certain I could never feel that kind of happiness away from my partner. I knew he was the one for me and confidently stated hundreds of times, “I know.” He constantly reminded me there was no life or happiness without him and I believed him.

After I recognized the abuse in the relationship. I worked hard to stay and deny the truth. I was afraid I would die if I left. Women leaving a relationship of domestic violence are at the greatest risk of being murdered when they leave.  When I started contemplating leaving and foolishly shared by doubts with him, he laughed and said, “Where will you go?”

I knew other wives of my partner were murdered for rebellion or disfellowshipped from the family. For simple acts: talking to their mother, writing about their mother, writing a true family history, reporting child sexual abuse, or advocating for women to have equal rights. I could be better, true, loyal. I would stay with him forever and live. One day he would reward me with a peaceful life of ease in a mansion filled with friends. I could endure.

There was no physical abuse. The emotional abuse did not seem that bad. I was perpetually in a self-esteem suppressing shame cycle. I stayed.

And I struggled. I did not want to lose my family. I knew leaving might mean permanent separation from all of my family. And I worried about the most vulnerable family members. Would they be safe if I left? Who would protect them?

I was repeatedly told I was responsible for my partner’s behavior and I believed it. I thought if I tried harder and was more perfectly righteous he would change and be the loving partner I knew he could sometimes be. If I just asked for what I needed in the right tone he would surely grant it?

In my culture, women don’t leave their partners. Commitment is forever. There was so much pressure to stay. Almost every friend and family member wanted me to stay. Who would I be if I left? He was my identity. I did not want to be judged, blamed, marginalized, pitied, looked down upon or to become a project.

But after that 2012 vision, as I reflected with the intern on domestic violence, I began to contemplate leaving. Soon it was all I could think about. I knew it would be difficult and dangerous. But I gathered my courage and tried it. I separated from my partner for a few months, before returning, humbled and submissive. He welcomed me and made some changes that gave me hope our relationship could work out. And after the brief honeymoon came more abuse. I cried, grieved and broke things in anger because I wanted to stay. I took my time. I spent tens of thousands of dollars on counseling. I wanted to be a more perfect partner. I wanted to fix us, but the abuse was relentless.

In November of 2015, I had the courage to leave again.

We remain separated. Although I do see him for special family occasions: mission homecomings, baptisms, performances.  It is hard to stay away. I have to choose my safety and well being over and over again. And I pray that one day I’ll be ready to finalize the divorce. But, in moments of weakness, I still hope so hard that he’ll change and we can be together again.

Since my separation, I have tried to move on and dated other partners: Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Buddhist, Unitarian. They do not try to control my body, voice, mind, what I wear or who I love. They encourage my autonomy and listen to me. And it is not what I am used to experiencing. It feels foreign to be treated with kindness and respect.

My partner -The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints lied when he kept me apart from my mother and myself with false traditions, rituals, and doctrines of control and domination. He was wrong to separate me from my mother. Wrong to pit me against my own body, mind, and heart.

I hope I never go back. And I work at it every day. I remain engaged with my broad Mormon family. Because I survived. Because I escaped. Because I won’t let separation from my abuser separate me from my family. I talk to my mother and see her every day. She is divine. I hold her hands in the garden. Bathe in her womb when I swim. I read the words of her prophets: women like Brene Brown, Bell Hooks, Nayyirah Waheed, and Pema Chodron. I see her face when I look in a mirror. I hear her voice when I speak. She is everywhere in nature. And she is feeding me so strong. Healing everything broken inside of me.

I will never again be separated from my Heavenly Maiden-Mother-Crone. I am a healer too. I see her and I can be her. I have learned the Goddess is always with me. And I remain engaged in the rescue and healing of those ready to leave their abusers.  I try to support those that want to stay with nurture and kindness. I remember when staying was all I wanted. I see my messy, broken, abusive family. I love them with strong boundaries that keep us all alive and safe.

And I remember. Once upon a time, all I wanted was to make my relationship to the Church work. I remember when I believed I was the broken one.

You may also like...

49 Responses

  1. SC says:

    Wow. This parable is so beautiful, powerful, and exactly what I needed to hear today. Bless you and thank you for writing it!

    Other prophetesses who have helped me find the feminine divine so I could more easily leave behind the abusive partner without facing a spiritual void: Marianne Williamson, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz Weber, and Jen Hatmaker.

    • SC says:

      I forgot to add: Sarah Bessey, author of “Jesus Feminist.”

    • April Carlson says:

      I am adding Nadia Bolz Weber and Jen Hatmaker to my reading queue and heartily endorse the prophetesses you named!

      • Ari says:

        I also highly recommend When God Was a Woman by Stone and The book of Joseph Campbell’s lectures on the feminine divine, Goddesses.

    • Andrew R. says:

      I wonder if you could expound on the idea that these women are prophetesses. By what definition. They are all great writers, spiritual leaders/guides. None appears to claim being a prophet, and indeed they come from faiths that don’t seem to believe that we need a prophet.

      So why do you consider them to be, and by what standard.

      I am genuinely interested, and I am not concerned that they have not been ordained as such in the LDS manner. Only that a prophet, at the very least, IMO, speaks for God, and they don’t seem to claim they do.

      • April Carlson says:

        I define a prophet as a seer that sees the truth and shares it through their actions and teachings with respect for the free agency of all humans. As the old spiritual says: “Everbody talkin about heaven ain’t goin”

        I profoundly distrust those that claim to speak for heaven. Especially when they demand I submit and obey them. True prophets are humble teachers that allow you to see God in yourself and others and help you to be a better person. They act as intermediaries promoting reflection, healing and growth. Modern prophets are not arrogant and prideful or domineering. They don’t stand up on an expensive Rameumpton claiming to speak for God twice a year only to have followers complete suicide in response to their teachings. True prophets show you in their actions who they are. False prophets preach physical, emotional, spiritual and relational violence. By your fruits ye shall know them. The prophets I named I know through their fruits. I see the impact of their teachings in my life and others. You can find out if they are true for you by reading and studying their works. Attempt to follow them and observe the results in your life. Then you can know if they are true prophets for you.

      • SC says:

        For starters, Williamson, Bolz-Weber, et al don’t force loyalty/fedelity. Those who listen to their teachings aren’t constrained to obey in any way. Their family relationships in the eternities aren’t under threat of being severed if listeners don’t tow the line and demonstrate 100% fedelity not to God/Christ but the prophetesses themselves. Also, followers aren’t cast out or cut off for consuming certain beverages. They aren’t required to send their children in for closed-door interrogations under threat of additional penalties for refusal to do so. I consider those qualities to be hallmarks of God’s mouthpiece after some traumatic experiences in my own life.

      • M says:

        The Bible Dictionary states that a prophet preaches righteousness and has a testimony of Christ. Having the humility to NOT claim to know for certain the mind of God seems seems to me an odd way to disqualify someone from the definition if they meet the other qualifications. I’d also note that it also seems particularly patriarchal and heirarchical.

  2. violadiva says:

    Wow. Bone chilling. I had to put it down part way and breathe before finishing reading. Thanks, April, for the powerful story.

  3. Ziff says:

    Wow, April, this is an amazing post and a chilling comparison.

  4. Pammy says:

    Wow. So thoughtfully written. I read it twice. Amazing when the normalcy of a situation is seen in a different light when one steps back and views as an outsider. Evolvement in religion has always been a part of God’s way throughout history. Why would it be any different now? You are part of this change and I see many more listening to the stirrings of their mind, heart, and soul. Everything in it’s own time. Line upon line. This is an exciting time. Thank you for sharing.

  5. M says:

    Like Violadiva, I couldn’t finish this the first time I started. I was at the park with my kids and had a couple of free moments and thought I’d dip in and have a read, and this made me catch my breath. Horribly, and awfully, too true. At times, I feel trapped, suffocated by the weight of control being exerted. Thank you for your clarity of thought. x

  6. ElleK says:

    I somehow didn’t realize this was about the Church until I hit the end. Then I had to read it again. Even though I’ve already come to many of these conclusions, what a gut punch.

    • April Carlson says:

      When I gave the talk at Counterpoint one of the audience members berated me afterward for making her think it was about a person! I was hoping to convey the awful feeling I experienced when I finally realized I was tolerating abuse from a beloved institution that was unacceptable to me in a romantic partner. I have been physically assaulted. And learning to enforce boundaries to protect me from physical violence was not half as hard for me as learning to stand up to spiritual violence.

  7. Anna says:

    It took me a long time to recognize that some of the church’s behavior qualifies as abuse. If the church was a person instead of an organization, it would be easier to call it what it is, emotional abuse. And I don’t think it used to be as abusive, but some of the rhetoric has gotten more abusive the last ten to twenty years. Things such as it is wrong to criticize the leaders even if the criticism is correct, or if your prayer to confirm what the prophet says disagrees with the prophet, you are getting your inspiration from Satan have increased.

    One thing people fail to realize with domestic violence is that there is a lot of good in the abuser, as well as the abuse. The victim sees this good, and often overlooks the abuse because of the good things they see. People tend to see good and evil as black or white and how can something so good also be evil? When the abuse is only emotional this is even easier to overlook or not even see the abuse as abuse or blame it on yourself. From the outside, or in hindsight, it might be obvious that the victim should leave.

    Things that are abusive that were not on your list are

    (1) perfectionism, holding up an ideal with the idea that you are lacking and somehow at fault for not living up to the ideal. (The ideal marriage, with dad, mom, and kids and this leaves singles or the childless wondering why God loves them less) Books like “The Not Even Once Club” that suggest you should never make a mistake.

    (2) the idea pushed by our current prophet that God’s love for us is conditional on us being perfect, or at least always being good.

    (3) the sexism of male only priesthood and the endowment that show that God loves his sons more than his daughters.

    (4) the very idea that we have the one true church and a prophet that speaks for God and that he will never lead us astray and how that has become prophetic infallibility and that everybody who doesn’t think like this one man is wrong.

    (5) the church teaches self blame as the default. If you pray and don’t receive confirmation that the BoM is true, you are doing something wrong.

    (6) there are a lot of prosperity gospel teachings that say, if you pay tithing you will be blessed, if you obey you will be protected. Then when the promised blessing doesn’t happen, we wonder what we did wrong or blame ourselves. Example, My brother was hunting on Sunday and was brain injured when a gun with the safety on went off and hit him point blank in the back of the head. So many people were quick to blame him for hunting on Sunday.

    • LaDonna says:

      I would add to that list: in abusive relationships, abusive partners typically isolate and keep their partner away from outside relationships, telling them that others are not to be trusted–that only he should be the center of her world, and he gets angry if she allows others into her world. Likewise, the church has really amped up their “us against the world” rhetoric. The seminary’s Doctrinal Mastery is programming our youth to view the outside world as an enemy to fight and stand against, rather than brothers and sisters to love and grow together with in harmony and invite to Christ.

      The temple also has us covenanting ourselves to give our resources and even our own lives if necessary to an institution rather than to God or our Savior, which is another example of this sort of unhealthy attachment to an abusive partner. Also, the church hyperschedules us around LDS meetinghouses so that we don’t have time to make friends outside the church: Sunday is spent almost entirely at church thank to meetings, Monday night is FHE, Tuesday night is scouts/Activity days, Wednesday night is YM/YW, Thursday night is church ball, Friday night is Elders’ quorum activities, and Saturday is a special day, the day we get ready for Sunday. Our teens spend even their daytime hours at seminary to boot. If we miss even a few of these events, we are stalked as if by a jealous lover!

    • April says:

      It is so important to name the abuses you have experienced as you reclaim your identity as whole and worthy. Thank you for adding to the list!

      • SC says:

        Another parallel is how abusers dictate what their partner can and can’t wear. Our church is unique intsking this to the extreme by dictating even our underwear choices and sorting us into who will get into heaven and who will not based on our willingness to let male leaders dictate which underwear we don underneath our clothes. They rule not only our external clothing choices, but even our intimates.

  8. Mary says:

    This was excellent and eloquent. I came to the conclusion a few years ago the church is abusive. People know what my issues with the church are. I also tell them my issues are doctrinal–not just policy, not historical, not cultural. I also tell them unless they don’t have a testimony, I won’t be discussing this with them. Being informed that the church IS abusive (and is, therefore, fine with abuse despite its claims) is a pretty bitter pill to swallow. I know, because I’ve swallowed.

    Thank you for writing this. I am grateful I now have a prepared piece that I can point to and say, “this is why”.

  9. H says:

    April, this is a beautiful, heartfelt post, and like most people, I found it painful to read.

    But one reason it was painful for me to read is that I have tried to raise this issue in this very forum and been punished for it. In August 2014, Melody published a post here in which she wrote, “I don’t know what’s best for you. I have no idea. It’s not my business. That’s between you and God. But I do know what is best for this Church. I’m convinced, confirmed, inexorably bound to my belief that the Church needs you in it.”

    I left a couple of comments pointing out that many women feel their relationship with the church is abusive, and that a very common way of shaming women into staying in abusive relationships is by telling them that their abuser needs them.

    I made sure that my comments did not violate your comment policy. But it did point out that when a wealthy, powerful institution run by wealthy, powerful men is abusing women, it is harmful and unkind to ask them to make its well-being one of their first priorities.

    Several commenters responded to say that they agreed with me. And Melody didn’t like that. It hurt her feelings. She said so in a comment.

    And so, after a few days, she deleted my comments and any responses to them. ExII supported her in the silencing of women who identified and objected to abuse in the church.

    So I think one reason women stay is that after they have done something like that, they have become complicit in the church’s abuse. Admitting that they themselves have been abused badly enough that they should leave would mean that they would need to admit that the women they silenced had also been abused ~and that they had perpetuated that abuse,~ and that’s a hard thing to face.

    • Wendy says:

      H, I don’t have first-hand knowledge of your experience, but I am sorry you were hurt and am listening. As I have moved further away from activity in the church, I have had friends who have said similar things to me. It hurts.

      All women are harmed in a patriarchy. We are all victims of the same system. Those of us who choose to stay and those of us who choose to leave are wounded and sometimes our own pain may make it difficult or impossible for us to support each other in our respective journeys. I’m sorry you did not feel heard and felt that your pain and experience was invalidated.

      We are all learning at Exponent II and hopefully we are learning from how we respond to our and others’ pain and can work to make this space safe for all.

    • April says:

      I am complicit. And I am sorry for hurting others in my misguided efforts to make their chains more comfortable. I hope I know better now. I am trying to do better. Mormon women have a long history of silencing other women. I am still actively working to reject that legacy, but the brainwashing runs deep.

      • H says:

        Thank you, Wendy and April, for your responses.

        I don’t know if anyone has bothered to look up Melody’s post, but she begins it by acknowledging that what she’s doing is inappropriate:

        “It’s not very politically correct these days in the feminist or progressive Mormon community to make a plea like this. We’re expected to honor every woman in the place she stands, to wish her well wherever she goes. And I do. I also want to be able to say what’s in my heart and on my mind.

        “Political correctness has never been my strong suit. And I’m not sure how to say this except in very simple words. I could say I’m asking out of love, but that may not be entirely true. Except that I love this church. With all its sexist, puritanical, hierarchical insanity, I love it. And I love you too. People like you are making Mormonism better, so even if it’s selfish of me to expect you to listen, I’m going to come out and say it anyway:

        “I hope you stay.”

        Asking women to stay in an abusive relationship because it benefits the abuser is incompatible with feminism and even with christlike compassion. Melody seems to understand this, but she makes the request anyway, because she wants “to be able to say what’s in [her] heart and on [her] mind.”

        I feel like at the very least, if someone publishes a post like this in the future, ExII should expect them to be accountable enough for their actions and statements that they will not delete comments that ask them to understand the ramifications of the selfishness they acknowledge.

      • Linda G Andrews says:

        Amen. You’re brave & growing in wisdom. Growth is always pain-filled, as is most change.

        I’m struggling on a similar path to that you’ve eloquently described. Thank you for your talent in helping me again see the truth in my life.

    • Anna says:

      I have been thinking about this, and I think I understand both sides, both the wish that feminists would stay in the church and the hurt at being asked to stay.

      I would like to reframe Melody’s post a little bit, take a different perspective. She wasn’t really asking abused women to stay and be abused, but more that if the women who can stand up to the abuse and loudly say how wrong it is would stay, there is hope of change. I think that is the only hope of change for the church. So, selfishly, I wish there were more angry women willing to write articles, to voice their pain, willing to hold abusive leaders accountable.

      For me, I just can’t do it anymore. I want to enjoy retirement with my husband and enjoy my grandchildren. But I used to advocate for change. I used to talk to every bishop or stake president who would listen. I even got an interview with a general authority with several of my clients who were also survivors of childhood sexual abuse and we each told him our stories about how the church had hurt us on top of the abuse. I wrote to the editor of the Ensign about an article meant to teach chastity, but had the sad side effect of shaming rape and abuse victims as if they were unclean. I even tried to write an article for the Ensign saying some of what survivors need. But the needed parts got edited out and I withdrew permission to publish. The junior editor tried to make it sound like childhood sex abuse left no lasting damage, and make it sound like forgiveness was the victim’s responsibility, while no real restitution was required of the abuser. It was what they edited out. Once again, the church defended the male abuser, while abandoning the innocent.

      For a while, I know I made a difference, I saved a few women from being injured by the church after being abused at home. But I just can’t do it anymore. But selfishly, I wish for younger women to take over where I left off. Stay and fight to change the church. There is good in the abuser, but it needs to be held accountable. It needs to be confronted with the harm it does. It needs to repent.

      We need more like Sam Young and Kate Kelly who will speak truth to power, not quietly leave without saying why. Yes, people need to be free to leave when they are hurt by the church. But, I still love the church enough that I want some to take over where I left off and attempt to hold the church accountable.

      • H says:

        Anna suggests that Melody “wasn’t really asking abused women to stay and be abused, but more that if the women who can stand up to the abuse and loudly say how wrong it is would stay, there is hope of change.”

        Except that quite a few women who had left because they recognized the abuse happening to them indicated that they felt that was what they were being asked to do. It’s fairly obvious, even in the comments Melody didn’t delete. One commenter states, “And I strongly disagree that the idea that the ‘church is better with me in it.’ The church doesn’t need the Mormon version of me because the Mormon version of me is dead. No one needs a corpse.”

        Furthermore, standing up to the abuse while still in the abusive situation typically means that the abuse intensifies. Sam Young and Kate Kelly, the examples you mention, are clear indications of that. So are countless other women whose pushback against ecclesiastical abuse and punishment thereafter didn’t receive national attention.

        There’s also the fact that there isn’t really all that must hope of change, because abusers rarely change. Granted, it does happen, in rare situations. But in general, sticking around in an abusive situation because you think you can get the abuser to stop just prolongs the abuser’s access to their victims. I imagine April is able to speak to this quite clearly, if she has the time.

        And with all due respect, it is gaslighting to tell women, “This thing you’ve worked so hard to finally admit is happening to you? This dynamic it has cost you so dearly to identify? It’s not really what’s going on. It’s something else. Just let me give you a different perspective, one that makes you willing to stay and be further harmed.”

      • Anna says:

        No, that was not what I was saying. I know that most victims cannot and *should not* stay?

        And, I disagree that staying always and only means you get more abuse. I know a person can stay in relationship with an abuser and not allow more abuse, because I did it with my abusive father. Probably the toughest way to end abuse because it got worse before it got better. But looking back, it was still best for me. Not for you maybe but for me.

        What is more, what is the real difference between excommunication and leaving? Leaving is just voluntary excommunication. Eternally, what’s the difference?

        I understand that you cannot stay in the church and that is fine with me. I can’t do it anymore either. I am out in all but the official records and that is because my TBM husband asked me not to. But I did stay in the church for thirty years and I helped make some small change. Now I am hoping that there are others who will work for change because I have grandchildren still in the church and I hope for them to have a less abusive experience. I can’t get my grandchildren out, so I am hoping for a better experience for them.

        Do you have a better way to protect my grandchildren? Cause I sure would like to hear it.

      • H says:

        Anna writes, “And, I disagree that staying always and only means you get more abuse.”

        But I didn’t say that “staying always and only means you get more abuse.” I very specifically wrote that “abusers RARELY change. Granted, IT DOES HAPPEN, in RARE situations. But IN GENERAL, sticking around in an abusive situation because you think you can get the abuser to stop just prolongs the abuser’s access to their victims.”

        I’m glad you were able to end the abuse your father dealt you. I am curious as to whether you were still living in his house when you managed to do that. It is certainly easier to set boundaries that limit abuse when your contact with the abuser is likewise limited. The analogy here might be that LDS women are able to limit abuse when they refuse callings and don’t submit to temple recommend interviews–but of course that limits their ability to affect change.

        Anna asks, “What is more, what is the real difference between excommunication and leaving? Leaving is just voluntary excommunication. Eternally, what’s the difference?”

        The fact that there’s little difference to you doesn’t mean there’s no difference to anyone else. Many people feel there is significant difference to leaving on your own terms instead of being kicked out in shame. And someone had to sue the church for $18 million not all that long ago in order for people to have the right to leave the church without being excommunicated. I’m not going to post a link because that would put my comment into moderation, but you can find a long article about it from Lavina Anderson (who was excommunicated for trying to end ecclesiastical abuse) if you google Norman Hancock Mormon alliance.

        Anna writes, “I understand that you cannot stay in the church and that is fine with me.”

        Well, good, because if you weren’t fine with it, you’d be unhappy, since I’m not going to change to suit you. 🙂 But really, your being “fine” with my status in the church is neither here nor there. My relationship to the church is absolutely not about you. That was part of my message on Melody’s post: whether the women she knows stay in the church or leave isn’t about her, and it’s not appropriate to insert herself so directly in a decision that absolutely isn’t about her.

        Anna also asks, “Do you have a better way to protect my grandchildren? Cause I sure would like to hear it.”

        First of all, just as my decision to stay or go wasn’t about you, it can’t be about your grandchildren. I get that YOUR decision to stay or go might be about them, but that’s different: you have a personal obligation to them; you’re part of the reason they’re in the church. But none of that is true for me.

        Second, I would point out that people can and do hold the church accountable from outside of it, in some very effective ways. April’s post is evidence of that. Norman Hancock’s actions are too. Same goes for the people who boycotted the church in the 1960s and 1970s over its position on race. And the church’s abandonment of the practice of polygamy is entirely a story of outside forces being brought to bear on the church. As much as it likes to pretend otherwise, the church does change in ways both large and small due to external pressure.

        So I don’t know if what I’m able to do would meet your definition of “better” and I frankly don’t care. Regardless, I do what I am able to do. I write about the church with as much clarity and directness as I can muster. I try to publish things that help both Mormons and non-Mormons understand the church and the pressure it puts on its members–especially women. I try to tell the truth about the church, including the fact that it is abusive to women, even when people don’t want to acknowledge that truth, because I do believe that the truth can set us free.

      • Anna says:

        I am just saying there are two sides to this coin. There are women who pray about staying and are told to stay. I know cause I did. And there are women who pray about it and are told they need to leave. You have no more right to tell women they should leave than anyone has the right to say they should stay.

        I used to work professionally with women in battering relationships, and no matter how bad the abuse was, it was not my place to tell them to leave or stay. It was my job to support them in what they decided.

        That is all I am saying here.

      • April says:

        It is curious to me our tendency to criticize and condemn others for not throwing off the chains of oppression at the speed or in the manner we judge to be best (based on our own often priviledged lived experience). It was easy at DCFS to point the finger at women who abandoned children to stay with an abusive partner. And most of the time those women were also living with mental harm from sexual trafficking or a pattern of domestic violence layered on top of a childhood filled with abuse. People are complicated. Wounded people often are so frozen in fear their body tells them the only choice is to fawn over and friend the abuser. And it saddens me when we engage in horizontal relational aggression against those that are also oppressed and suffering. What if that energy were more directly targeted at the highest power sources of oppression instead of shaming and blaming victims who miss their friends when they escape?

      • jettie says:

        April, your point here is so, so important: “What if that energy were more directly targeted at the highest power sources of oppression instead of shaming and blaming victims who miss their friends when they escape?”

        I had two very close family members have their names permanently removed from the church after watching another close family member report sexual abuse by a high-ranked church leader and the horribly botched response. It was awful how members targeted the abusED instead of the abusER, and in an even worse turn of events, everyone around us further targeted my loved ones who left the church as headed to hell, rather than the abuser whose actions caused them to lose their faith in the church. Misdirected energy! Shaming and blaming should have been directed at the abuser, not the person he abused, nor those who defended her.

      • Mary says:

        I didn’t quietly leave. I told my bishop why. My stake president was my bishop when the problems with my testimony started manifesting in my behavior and my stake president is my near neighbor. I’m sure he knows my reasons, as well.

        However, I don’t begin to think the church will be held accountable. I really have no other way to say this than, in light of the talks by both Nelson and Oaks, I truly don’t think the top leaders care.

        My reasons for my telling my bishop my reasons were to let him know that his attempts to try to bring healing and the ward’s attempts to try to repair damage had been appreciated, but at the end of the day, they can’t change the doctrine and that was my reason for leaving.

      • jettie says:

        Good for you, Mary. I wish I had your courage. I’m in the process of leaving now, but doing so more quietly, because my husband is not at all supportive and neither are my children. But I want to thank you for pointing out Nelson’s and Oaks’ talks–those are what finally woke me up and pushed me over the edge into, “okay, I can do this–I can leave now” action. For years, I had been barely hanging on, believing things would get better. Deluding myself. In the weeks leading up to conference, we were teased with hints that Nelson had been receiving SO much revelation that previous revelations would seem like a “snowflake in a snowstorm” by comparison. As an LDS sexual abuse survivor who lives in where most Mormon are racist, I really believed he would apologize–would correct the sins of the past and acknowledge the church’s wrongdoings against all the raped sister missionaries, the raped children, and finally stop receiving revelations about silly things (cancelling boy scouts) and start doing meaningful things (like empowering girls). But instead, he rebranded the church, offered us even fewer female speakers, silenced women for ten days, let Oaks bash on gays, and spoke on motherhood while reminding us of the TEN kids that his first wife bore for him (and jokingly claimed credit for their births). That was the day I knew I had had enough. The abuse had to stop. It was time for me to go and focus on my spiritual healing elsewhere. I love coming to this site and learning about and from the women in our LDS culture–they are such a blessing!–even tho I am leaving the church itself, I will never leave the sisterhood, because that is still a part of my heritage and ancestry, and that will always be a part of me! <3 I was speaking to an elder from my mission who left the church and I accidentally called him Elder and he told me that he can't use that title anymore and I said, "oops," and then it hit me that he could always call me Sister, even long after I had left the church! That's one of the benefits of me not having priesthood; I will be forever a "sister," who can lay claim to membership in the sisterhood. No membership records or recommends required.

  10. Izzy says:

    This was hard to read. I think it’s because of how much it resonated with my feelings about the church. I was all in, and for 38 years I gave it all of my love and trust. I made the sacrifices of temple marriage and mission, believing the promises. I let it determine every major decision in my life, and a lot of minor ones along the way…To finally realize I was abused and betrayed for all of those years, (all the while believing it was the best thing in my life) is a very difficult thing to accept. But I accept it. And I thank you for articulating my story. Our story. It needs to be told. Shame needs secrecy to survive, so thanks for shining a bright light on this. I believe it is part of the path to healing.

  11. Risa says:

    As a social worker, CASA volunteer, and a woman who left the church once I realized it was abusive, I related so much to everything you wrote.

    Thank you for your words, April. I feel them deep in my soul.

  12. Lorie says:

    This is such a potent, compelling essay, April. Thank you.

  13. Violadiva says:

    This piece has stayed with me and I keep thinking about it.
    What do you know about the dynamics of families where the abuse is targeted at some people but not others? Like a parent having a certain child they pick on, and another that they dote on? Continuing the analogy, if the abuse is targeted at the girls of the family, but the boys are fine, do all the children get removed, or just the ones at risk? I keep thinking about how the men in the church are privileged and not abused in the same way as the women are, but that they are witnesses to how their sisters are treated. Can a parent be a good parent to some and terrible to others? Is that why it’s difficult for some men to see how women are injured in the church?

    • LL says:

      Families in which narcissism/narcissistic dynamics are at play often have the kind of dynamic you (and April) highlight here. There are a number of consistently presenting roles that family members end up filling, and IMO those roles overlay onto April’s metaphor quite well.

    • LaDonna says:

      These questions have a huge impact on my marriage. My husband refuses to see discrimination at church because he doesn’t experience it. He thinks #MeToo is a wicth hunt because he buys into all the rhetoric spewed by LDS male bishop-senators that say so. He thinks schools need more guns because that’s what all the LDS dudebros at church and on talk radio say we need. It literally doesn’t matter when church leaders say, “sisters, your voice matters,” because those same leaders reduced the number of female speakers in conference and actions speak louder than words, so *obviously* my mother’s voice of concern about guns in school, my personal experiences with sexual assault, the discrimination I testify to my husband all fall on deaf ears. And all because of the church I belong to and no other reason. My non-religious and Methodist friends have none of these problems–*their* husbands are all feminists. Sigh.

    • April says:

      In every family where I have witnessed abuse all of the children suffer from that abuse. Regardless of whether or not each body experienced violence. The ones I can’t get out of my head are the “privileged” ones that guard the door while a sibling is raped. They live with a terrible toxic mix of guilt at enabling the harm of a sibling and simultaneous pride in being trusted by the perpetrator.
      It is not the same as being physically assaulted, but it is emotionally traumatic and harmful. This is how I see the men of the church. Victims and enablers of the patriarchy. They are cursed too with no language to name their feelings. No respect for their tender gifts of nurture and creation. No conversation or revelation from Heavenly Mother. A spiritual system of domestic violence (patriarchy) is harmful to all.

  14. Sally says:

    I’m reading this less than one week after the stake president asked the bishop to call me in to ask me about a friend – who is openly leaving the church. At first I thought he was asking me about my testimony – was I doing ok even though my friend was openly sharing her thoughts on being an LBGT ally, and her gratitude for having discovered the CES letter. But he didn’t ask about me; he asked about her. And specifically if I was hearing her “preach against the teachings of the scriptures.” I deflected politely, while stating that everyone has the right to explore principles that give them peace and have private conversations about them. Also, it’s none of his damn business.

    I walked out of there not entirely able to articulate what was so wrong about the whole situation. I”m gaining clarity, but still a bit muddy. But for sure, if another man asked to have a private audience with me, only to ask for details from private conversations, with the understanding that he thought he had authority to bring consequences or punishment on other people for expressing their opinion, I would get the hell out of there. But because these men had “loving concern,” and wore suits, and had “stewardship” over us, they thought it was ok?

    I wouldn’t have called it the behavior of an abuser until reading this. Time to enforce all the boundaries.

    • SC says:

      Wow, Sally. You have experienced a Mormon Inquisition. Scary stuff.

      • Sally says:

        I know. I kept thinking “this is like McCarthy-ism, I’m damned if I out her; I’m damned if I don’t.” So far nobody has followed up with me. I intend to follow up with them, when I find an opportunity that *isn’t* across their desk, but on some more neutral ground.

      • SC says:

        Good for you. Or better yet: if you ever get called in again, try politely declining and countering with an offer to meet him across YOUR desk, instead! 😉

  15. Jessica says:

    Thank you for this perfectly written essay! A true and worthy analogy.

  16. Kristine A says:

    April: thank you for sharing! This was very powerful.

  17. Nancy R says:

    I can’t believe I missed this, but it is so powerful. When I left the church, I thought of the church as a bad boyfriend.

  18. Ruth says:

    April, having known you for many years, I am in awe of your strength and resilience. My internal struggles have been powerful of late, and your words solidified many feelings I’ve had since I sobbed through general conference. I’m not entirely sure where I stand right now, but I love you and am so proud of you.

    • April Carlson says:

      Thank you Ruth! This break-up with my lifetime faith and identity is better now, mostly. But still requires enormous effort. The shift from reliance on external validation and authority to trust in my own authority, insight and access to revelation is the suprise source of strength I have discovered in this claiming of my self and rejection of abuse.

Leave a Reply to Mary Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.