It was a beautiful day in September 2001. The sun beat down on the fragrant gardens of temple square, and I looked and felt radiant in my wedding dress. There had never been a finer looking man by my side. He was tall, handsome, strong, and righteous. We had made it to the temple having kept the law of chastity and we had a bright future ahead. It would be our happily ever after. As my face scanned the crowd, I saw him. My smile faded a little. Why did he have to be here? Why was this dark cloud of dread on the horizon of my day in the sun?
My father-in-law looked handsome. My sister even commented at how nice looking he was with his graying beard and sunglasses. Fit and trim in his tuxedo, he looked dashing even for a man in his late fifties. With elegant features and natural good looks, he blended nicely with the gathered crowd. His speech and manner seemed more refined than his brothers and sisters and other family who tended to be boisterous and rough around the edges. I knew he had been the only one of his many siblings to graduate from college. He had taught middle school for many years. Still, I much preferred his unpolished relatives to this man. I knew who he was.
Months before I had lain on a couch frozen with fear as I heard him verbally abusing his wife. He sounded like a monster. When I confronted my husband-to-be about the terrible things I had witnessed, he confided his family’s secrets to me. Some of them. His dad had a dark side. As he explained his dad to me, I felt a revulsion combined with heartrending sympathy. I wished I could unhear the jarring things that I had heard.
He said his father had been sexually victimized as a child. He had depression. He was unemployed and abusive to his wife. He had walked down the highway naked in an attempt to end his life. He had struggled with an addiction to masterbation on his mission that had caused self-esteem problems. It was later that I became aware of his more troubling history.
He had been caught peeping on his bishop’s daughter when his family lived in Vernal. Ben was just a baby then. They had left Vernal. Later he was found using mirrors to peep on women in the J.C. Penny dressing room in Logan. Peeping was something of an addiction with him, I was told. I marveled at the planning and premeditation that must have gone into such a plan. This was a dangerous man. But Ben insisted that all that was in the past and that his dad would never hurt me.
In the first year of our marriage, we went up to Cub River to visit Ben’s family almost every week. It began to interfere with my schooling because I didn’t have enough time to study. Ben’s mom and sisters were fun and kind and eager to build a good relationship with me. And then there was Ben’s dad, always on the periphery. He said very little, but his presence was large. I didn’t like him, and I made little secret about it. Mostly I ignored him.
When we got back from our honeymoon after the September 11th attacks, Ben’s dad gave us an impassioned speech in which he said that the United States deserved the attack because of the legalization of abortion. He insisted that Ben enlist in the army as soon as possible. He knew that this was the beginning of world war three and that enlisting was the only way to avoid the draft and being sent to the front lines, “where the stupid people are sent.” I felt a mixture of terror and dread and rage. My father-in-law was insane. Would my husband enlist? He had blamed my country for horrible terror attack and then implied that the only reason someone might fight on the front lines in war was because they were too stupid to game the system. Who says stuff like that? When we got into the car to leave the house, I said to Ben, “You aren’t going to enlist are you?” Ben said, “My dad doesn’t make my decisions for me. We will look into it. That’s what I told him I would do.” Ben eventually joined the ROTC.
At a family function, we were all seated at a large table. Ben’s extended family were all around and we were discussing something. I had a great love and respect for Ben’s dad’s mother and I asked her a question. Ben’s dad interrupted and answered it. I interrupted him and said, “Yes, but I asked her.” There was a very awkward silence. Later, Ben’s sister confronted me about the way I had treated her dad. I can’t remember what I said, but something about that I didn’t like the way he treats her mom. That set her off. She was livid at the disrespect. I was not allowed to have negative opinions about her dad. After discussing the situation with Ben and enduring many awkward hours, I finally decided to apologize to Ben’s dad and make nice. He apologized as well, and everything was okay again. Except I started getting sick whenever I went up to Cub River to visit.
It wasn’t intentional, although I’m sure it seemed like it was. We would make the drive up the canyon, turn onto the winding dirt roads, and park in front of the beautiful cabin with the fantastic mountain view, and I would find a bedroom to lie down while everyone socialized. Sometimes it was a headache. Many times I was sick to my stomach. I would sometimes vomit.
I tried to pretend that everything was okay, that everyone didn’t treat Ben’s mom like crap, that his dad wasn’t creepy and that this family wasn’t all wrong. Sometimes it would get easier. Then we would get a phone call from Ben’s mom.
She would call every couple of weeks and talk to Ben about what his dad had been doing. She and his dad seemed to have a weird connection. It seemed like she would know when he had been messing around sexually, and he would tell her what he had done. Sometimes she would tell the bishop, or she would have him tell the bishop; I’m not sure which. It was always a big crisis and then when she decided that he had repented, we were told to forgive and forget. I told Ben that was what abusers want you to do. Then they can keep hurting you.
One day Ben was on the phone with his mom. He was white and clearly devastated. He said, “How can we know that our wives are safe? What about our children?” I knew this was big. Ben told me that his youngest sister, who was fourteen, had her best friend over to spend the night. Ben’s dad had groped her. For a while, I just sat there in shock. I thought of that poor girl and her parents who had trusted the wrong family. I thought of the betrayal of a young girl by her father. This was her best friend. What else was this man capable of? I felt the shame of being in his family. I knew that what he had done was criminal, but I had no proof. I had heard the story from someone who heard the story from someone else. I knew I was supposed to forget what I had been told, but I never did. Later, when the sister got married, her best friend was in the wedding line. It was jarring to think that this was the girl my father-in-law had abused. She was so beautiful. One of the prettiest girls I had ever seen and she was standing in the wedding line only a stone’s throw from the man who groped her in her sleep. I wondered how he had managed to get away with it. The girl must not have known what happened. For a moment I wondered if I had remembered correctly. I checked back in my journal where I recorded what I had been told. The girl’s name was the same.
One of the most disturbing things I witnessed was at a birthday party for Ben’s dad. Ben’s mother had bought her husband a high powered telescope. I was appalled. I looked at Ben and there didn’t seem to be any concern in his eyes. Was I crazy? I knew they had said he had an addiction to peeping on women and no one bats an eye when he gets a high powered telescope for his birthday? To watch deer? I wanted to run down the mountain and tell every woman in the valley to pull her shutters. I felt so helpless.
When Ben and I moved to Texas, that meant that we had some good distance from Ben’s dad. It was only occasionally that we had to see them and gradually his hold over Ben receded. I was a little relieved that our first child was a son. Our second son came soon after. Even though they were boys, I still couldn’t quell my anxiety. I remember preparing for a trip to visit Ben’s family and I gathered my two toddler boys close and talked to them about appropriate and inappropriate touching. Ben saw what I was doing and became enraged at me. We both knew why I was doing it. He said, “You give them those talks every time we go and see my family and they are going to put it together!” I was hurt and angry. Did my children not matter? I didn’t even want to think about me. I didn’t matter either. What if I woke to find his hand in my shirt? What would happen? I knew that I would be expected to forgive and move on. If my children were victimized, I would be expected to do the same. I felt so unloved and afraid.
Eventually, after my third son was born and I was in therapy, I talked to my bishop about my anxiety about Ben’s dad and my children. I told him that my father-in-law had a sex addiction and a diagnosis of NPD. I suspected that he had victimized children in the past and was concerned that he would hurt my children or me. I told him that he was going through a second set of church authorized sex addiction recovery sessions, but that I had doubts they would be successful. He assured me that my concerns were valid. I also talked to my counselor and he encouraged me to take measures to protect my children. Still, I didn’t have the courage to do it until I prayed and knew it was the right thing to do.
First, I had to talk to Ben. It started out really badly. I told him that I no longer felt comfortable spending the night at his parent’s house or allowing his dad to have any time with our children without direct supervision from one of us. He was angry. He told me he should never have told me about his dad. He should have known that I wouldn’t understand. That hurt. I remember asking him some hard questions. What would he do if his dad victimized me? Did I matter to him? What would happen if he hurt one of our children? At first he denied that possibility, but I persisted. Did he think his dad was capable of sleeping with a prostitute, visiting strip clubs, or groping a teenager in his home? Did he really know I was safe? I’ll never forget the tortured expression on his face. He knew I was right to be concerned. There was a risk, and he knew, maybe better than I did, that no one mattered in his family except his dad. If one of us was hurt, his dad would not be held accountable. He agreed to the boundaries.
Second, I had to tell my mother-in-law we would not be staying with them. I insisted that we just loved Ben’s sister and wanted to stay with her. She insisted that Ben’s dad would be so disappointed if we didn’t stay. She lovingly asked if there was anything that was making me feel like not staying at their house. I knew that she knew why. I decided to tell her the sexual addiction was a problem. I wanted to prevent a bad situation. She insisted that if I didn’t stay with them, that his depression would get worse. I held my ground and she did too. Finally I said that the three incidents that caused me concern were, the peeping on the girl in Vernal, the J.C. Penny peeping, and the groping of the fourteen year old friend. Her tone changed instantly. “How did you hear about those things?!?” Then she pivoted, “Those things never happened,” she said emphatically. I said, “I would never make those things up. You told Ben those things and he told me. Do you think Ben made them up?” She changed tack. “I know that (he) would NEVER hurt you. I can promise you that! I have received revelation and I know that he would never hurt you or your boys.” I guess I was supposed to take comfort in her supernatural ability to know what her husband was capable of, but I knew she didn’t protect Joann’s friend, and I knew she couldn’t protect me or my boys.
I was at my parent’s house at the time of this conversation. I was devastated by how my valid concerns and efforts to protect my family had been received by someone I thought cared about me. Ben’s mom announced to everyone that Ben and I would no longer stay with Ben’s dad because of me. Ben’s dad called Ben and said, “Just let me know if I need to go away for a while so that you can stay at the house.” Some family members were very angry with me, but others were surprisingly sympathetic. I found out later that another sister-in-law had expressed similar concerns and set similar boundaries.
Ben went up to visit his family first, and I drove down to meet him later. His family seemed to go out of their way to be nice to him and treat him special. He assured me that everything was going to be fine and that no one was going to be mean to me. We ended up staying in a hotel which made everything a lot easier. It was awkward, but our new boundaries were respected and although they were challenged regularly in our yearly visits, we maintained them and our children were safe. I would have talks with the boys about sexual abuse before each visit and check with them after.
Ben’s dad would toy with me. He would go out and mingle with the grandkids when he knew I was visiting with other family members. I had to stay vigilant and always be aware of where he was. I would feel a jolt of panic if I saw him with the children. I would approach them and watch from a distance. Once he locked eyes with me and then took my son around a hill to where I couldn’t see them. I didn’t know if I should panic and make a scene. I was sure he was hurting my boy, but then a moment later, they were back. He did that with two of my boys that day ages 10 and 9. The first chance I got I asked both of the children directly, “Did your grandpa touch you?” They both said no. It was just a game for him. He wanted me to know that it didn’t matter how hard I tried to protect myself, that he was in control. He could have hurt them. He didn’t. My concerns were invalid.
He was a cunning abuser. His abuse of his wife was obvious, but he was subtle with everyone else. He was condescending and cruel to his wife, but she played her part so well that it almost seemed like she deserved it. It was almost impossible not to despise her. Aside from the victims of his sexual abuse, he was very indirect. He never said an unkind thing to me in all the years I was married to Ben. He used his enablers to keep me in line. The sister who dressed me down for disrespect, his wife who pressured me to put my children at risk; they were his flying monkeys doing his dirty work for him and all the while he could sit back and look like the innocent victim of my judgemental cruelty. He was very subtle and shrewd.
One day I overheard Ben and his mom discussing his dad’s latest plan to make money by making some kind of investment in Thailand. I knew that Thailand was the pedophile capital of the world and my stomach dropped. He was going to go there to victimize vulnerable children in a third world country! I decided to call his bishop and express my concerns. His bishop was aware of his plans and knew exactly why he wanted to go to that particular country. It was a relief to talk to someone who seemed to be as concerned about his behavior as I was. That bishop, as well as many others and a family counselor, tried to help his family and hold him accountable, but that was difficult to do. He had a superhuman ability to justify his behavior. Nothing was ever his fault and his web of enablers constantly fed his need to feel superior.
Still, I could tell his power over the family was fading over time. His two sons had encouraged their mother to leave him. When Ben’s grandpa died, his mom made the trip to be with her family for her father’s funeral. Ben’s dad was angry that he wasn’t getting her attention and he took his revenge by going to a strip club instead of being there to support his wife of over forty years bury her father. Her family was livid. Even her children were angry. He had been unworthy to attend the temple for years even missing the weddings of his children. He still tried to command religious authority, even insisting on making a speech before a baby blessing in which he was unworthy to take part in, but such displays only seemed to make him seem more pathetic. He still had a hold on several family members. Ben’s brother had joined the army after his mission. He didn’t go to college, choosing a career in sales instead. These things were in line with the values of his father. Ben’s sisters were likewise influenced, but they were putting time and energy into their own families. Ben’s dad’s constant demands on the time and energy of his wife made things difficult for them too. His assurances that this month he was going to start making his fortune in his network marketing business, started ringing hollow as grinding years of poverty passed. I saw several healthy signs that perhaps the iron grip of the abuser would not crush the family after all. There seemed to be more acceptance and empathy for me and other family members who stepped outside of the controlling grip of the web the abuser had woven.
Then Ben’s dad was diagnosed with stage four liver and colon cancer. I felt a wave of relief. He would be gone, and I could enjoy family gatherings without the stress of making sure he wasn’t going to hurt my kids! Everything was going to be okay. How wrong I was.
The cancer re-established his complete dominance over his family. He was no longer a weak and tantrum prone narcissist, he was now a cancer victim. This rapid transformation from abuser to victim was a frightening thing to observe. A narcissist is at his best when he is seen as a victim, so he relished his new role. He was intoxicated by the idea of beating the odds and overcoming the cancer. His family was elated when he told them he would repent and get his recommend renewed. He was going to be a new man, but first, he had chosen the most unconventional and expensive treatment plan available which would involve an extended stay at a health spa in Mexico. Ben’s siblings immediately began taking out loans to make it happen. He gave stirring speeches, and brought my own teenage son to tears. I was terrified at the power of his manipulations. I suddenly understood cult leaders and the power they had over their congregations. I was sure that Ben would fall for it and we would be sucked in financially. Fortunately, Ben and I agreed to limit our support to what we could handle in spite of incredible pressure from family members. They did make it happen. He had everything he wanted, but even so, he was going to die. He came back from Mexico, he “repented” of his sins (which sins he repented of are unclear) and had his temple recommend restored before he passed away. Now everything is forgiven and forgotten for good…….except no one is allowed to talk about what happened and the ways it has impacted our lives. At least not openly.
For a while, I hoped that now that he was gone, that we could talk about what he had done to us and how we could move forward and heal, but such openness about the past is not allowed with most family members. I have talked to Ben’s mom who has admitted that her husband was abusive. Unfortunately, she wants to think that the abuse was not that bad. Sometimes she assures me that she plans to have some family counseling sessions. Nothing comes of it. I suspect she is telling me what I want to hear. I sent a letter to one sister that I felt a close connection with. The letter was an explanation of my feelings about her dad and how I would never see him the way she does and if that is something we can agree to disagree about. I didn’t hear back from her. When I brought it up weeks later, it was really awkward. I broke the one rule in the family that is not forgivable; I refused the family narrative.
In a narcissistic family system, appearances are the only thing that matter. Looking good is essential. In order to feed the insatiable ego of the narcissist, even in death, he must be praised and felt sorry for and his perfect family must live out his narcissistic fantasies. The family narrative is that he lived a tragic and flawed life, but he has been redeemed. His spirit apparently appears in the temple from time to time according to some family members. The family narrative is that everyone has healed, except Ben and me. We were told that we project our own dysfunction onto them (My dysfunction in particular since I am the outsider). In spite of that, there is ample evidence of serious psychological dysfunction in almost every family member. The carnage is undeniable, but the victims are unable to see it and unwilling to confront the awful truth about the abuse that they suffered. As always, the victims don’t matter in a narcissistic system. They need to forgive and forget as soon as possible and then go back to playing their assigned roles. And the cycle of abuse repeats itself within the family. New abusers and new victims, but the same abusive patterns modeled and practiced for generations.
A year ago in therapy, I spent hours and hours writing letters to different members of Ben’s family. I was convinced that if I said the right things, that they would love and accept me, that they would understand that I was not to blame for the situation that their father created. If I just wrote convincingly enough, they would heal and we could be an eternal family. Eventually, after literally hundreds of type-written pages, I wept. I wept and wept and wept as I said goodbye to my husband’s family. I still love them, but they don’t love me and they probably never will. I can’t change them and I’ve finally accepted that. They want me to do the one thing I can’t do; deny my reality and trade it for theirs.
Last summer we visited Idaho. We didn’t see any members of Ben’s family. I don’t know when or if we will see them again. Even the thought of it makes me physically ill. The only people I allow into my life now are people who respect my boundaries. The only relationships I invest in are those that feel good and allow me to speak openly when they don’t. Life is too short to cultivate the other kind.
I still love them. They were a part of my life and my husband’s life and our shared history. They are valuable children of God who were abused by someone who should have loved and nurtured them. They were betrayed, manipulated, exploited, and lied to. The wounds in my relationship with them are just a fraction of the sad consequences of his terrible choices. I don’t blame them, but they aren’t safe for me. I love them too much and I feel too sorry for them, and I’m too eager to save them when it isn’t within my power to do so. In the end, God is the only one who can sort it out. They have their path and I have mine and those paths diverged. Thankfully, my husband continues to walk the path with me. We have plenty of problems in our little family, but we are honest and authentic and strive to meet the needs of our children rather than exploit them for our narcissistic supply.
Some may question why I call my husband’s father a predator. To me, a predator is a complex part of an ecosystem that is cunning and exploitative and I feel that word encapsulates my observations of him and the web of enablers that surrounded him in life. I don’t use the word predator to dehumanize him. On the contrary, I hope my account reveals the man behind the epithet. He was not a monster, he was human, but he was as dangerous as a monster. He was clever and manipulative and I indirectly enabled his behavior with my silence. I know that because I was never completely under the control of the family system, I was not privy to most of their secrets. In the beginning, they let me in on a few things, but I had a troubling habit of remembering them. I don’t think they ever really trusted me. I’ve always seen his abuse as an iceberg in which what I saw was a small fraction of the whole.
Once, Ben’s sister was in a custody dispute with an ex-husband over their two daughters. She called Ben in a very angry and defensive tone and demanded to know what he had told her ex. He confronted her with the fact that their dad had groped a teenager in their home. She said dismissively, “That is nothing. What do you know? What have you told him?” Ben said he had no idea what she was talking about and that he had said nothing. I have often thought about what we don’t know that would make the sexual assault of a minor child “nothing” in comparison? What was Ben’s sister so desperate to keep a secret from her ex-husband that would endanger her custody bid? How many victims did this man have? What is the shape of the iceberg beneath the surface?
I may never know. I was never meant to know. I was only meant to supply. I supplied my children, my facade of normalcy, my smiling face in family photos, and my silence. Until now. I am silent no more. All predators and their enablers have been given warning to stay away from me and everyone I love. I will expose you. I have no sympathy for you. I will not be manipulated or made to serve you. I will set boundaries with you, I will call law enforcement on you when you break the law, and I will report you to the church authorities. Enablers slander my reputation, but they know the truth even if they don’t want to look at it. The truth has a habit of resurfacing no matter how hard you want to deny it. I will never again be made to stay silent.