Cold and hard Silent and still My heart raging My throat bursting My shoulders constricting. “YOU DID THIS!” The echoes reverberate Off the empty chairs They stand accused With no defense “YOU DID THIS!” The sound blossoms Across the generations Like the ripples of a fetid pool A pool they made And I had to live in. “YOU DID THIS!” And there was nothing I could do To help you To protect myself Powerless, alone, silent, still. “YOU DID THIS!” Tears stick in unfocused eyes As blood drips down my face At pain unfelt At justice denied. “YOU DID THIS!” And I paid the price For your mistake The scapegoat The sacrificial lamb Silent submission “YOU DID THIS!” But I won’t become you. They won’t atone for our sins. I won’t curse the future To justify the past. “YOU DID THIS!” And it isn’t my fault. I can walk away From the darkness Into a rebirth A new beginning
I was supposed to be completing my work. Pages of numbers scrawled in careless handwriting stared at me like a ravenous beast. Every day I would labor over the numbers, but it was never enough. I was behind again. I had my notebook and my textbook in my lap, my back slouched against the wall of the school hallway. It was awkward, but less because of practice. Day in and day out, recess after recess I would work on my missing assignments. Day in and day out, I would be sent out to the hallway while the class graded papers that I had yet to complete. Classes of students would file past, single file. If I thought about it, my cheeks would burn with shame, but I didn’t think about it. That just made it harder to handle. If everyone in Sugar City didn’t know I was a loser, they didn’t have their eyes open. I was in the hall more than anyone else in the fifth grade. I was in study hall so much that even when I went out to recess, the other kids already had their groups of friends. I was a loser and everyone knew it. Even when I walked across the stage to get my diploma wearing my high honors tassel on my square hat. Even when I graduated from college. I’ve worked my whole life to try and overcome that gnawing feeling of inadequacy that haunts me from those early days sitting in the halls, wishing I could disappear.
I read the book, Lord of the Flies, with my teenage son this week. He was assigned to read the book for school. It’s an incredibly disturbing book and I’m glad that I was able to help my son to process the horror of it. I wish someone had helped me to deal with the book when I had to read it as a teen. The level of savagery that the author portrayed has burned itself into my brain. It teaches important things about cruelty and the capacity of good people to do terrible things; the beast that lives within each of us is real and we need to understand it, even if it’s uncomfortable. As a mother of boys, the book is particularly disturbing because it is perceptive. It is unsurprising that the author was a teacher of boys. He knows them well, like I do. There have been many times when I have seen the savage instincts of my sons flare up and I have thought, “They wouldn’t survive a week on their own. They would murder each other within days.” They aren’t bad boys, but they are never too far from doing some very bad things. It takes constant nurturing and guidance to keep the flame of empathy and compassion alive. Like the boys in the book keep the fire alive, I have to constantly tend it. Hopefully they will learn to light their own inner fires of compassion and empathy. In a world where the lights of compassion are being snuffed out, I hope I am successful. For some boys, compassion comes easily. For them, a culture of cruelty too often encouraged and tolerated by adults can be the most damaging. That boy was Simon in the book.
I relate to Ralph, and his struggle to bare the burden of responsible leadership. I relate to Piggy and his asthma that keeps him from contributing in traditional ways. But most of all, I relate to Simon. Simon, the awkward introvert who keeps trying to say the thing that everyone most needs to hear, but he can’t quite get the words out. Simon, who craves the approval and love of Ralph so he tries to hide what everyone can see; that he is different and wrong and broken. Simon, the bravest and best of the boys on the island who was also the most vulnerable and lonely. Simon, the betrayed and abandoned, who loved the survivors enough to face the beast alone. He was the only one who knew the real danger that the camp faced and he died trying to tell them. The beast is not what you think it is. The monster you fear is within you. Within us.
In a culture of cruelty, I don’t want to be popular and cool. I don’t want to fit in. I would rather be Simon. I know what suffering feels like and I want a world where we have less of it. None of it. The beast is not in the other party. It isn’t in another country. It isn’t in another faith community. It isn’t in another generation. The beast is in you. It is in me. We can choose to climb the mountain. We can face the fear and discomfort of self-discovery. We can face our friends and share what we have learned whether they are in a place to hear it or not. I believe in the power of planting seeds. I like to think that before Simon was murdered by the boys he loved that he was gathering seeds on the island and planting them. He was the kind of person who plants seeds.
It’s interesting to think of how the Lord of the Flies might have been different if Ralph had valued Simon. What if he had listened to him? What if he had relied on him instead of on Jack? Perhaps a group of young boys would inevitably create chaos and cruelty. Perhaps a group of fallen adult people are doomed to do only marginally better on this island cut off from our God. Still, I think it is possible for the Simons in our society to speak out more often, even when we do it imperfectly. I think the Ralphs in our society can listen to us more. If we do, we could change the story of the world.
For the new year, I have been re-focusing on gospel study. For what feels like the millionth time, I am beginning the Book of Mormon again. I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…. Each time I begin, it’s the same book, but yet it’s different because I have changed. The world has changed.
The impeachment Senate trial of Donald J. Trump has begun. Hours and hours of arguments have been presented to show the contours of the Ukraine scandal and the reasons for the House to take the extraordinary step of impeaching the President. I assume that hours and hours will be spent by the President’s defenders to cast suspicion on the House investigation. The country is divided with each side determined to remain so to the detriment of our country.
It reminds me of the sons of Lehi. Laman and Lemuel on the one side, Nephi and Sam on the other. Laman and Lemuel were suspicious of their father. He was a strange and visionary man. He had coerced them into leaving the comforts of their home and community to wander in the wilderness, hunting game, and living in tents. It brings to mind abusive families and cults who isolate their followers and subject them to privations. And Nephi and Sam support and believe. They are the “good sons” who hang on Dad’s every word. Laman and Lemuel saw the good in the Jewish people that their father had condemned and they felt judged. Why did Nephi and Sam see things so differently?
Nephi was himself a visionary man. It might be said that he saw even more than his father did of the designs of God and His Son. He clearly recognized the evil that had steeped itself in the culture of the Jews and knew that destruction was near. He knew this in a way Laman and Lemuel did not because he inquired of the Lord. In making a sincere connection with the Spirit, he saw the truth; his family could not continue to follow God and remain in Jerusalem. I assume Sam must have come to the same conclusions.
I’ve been reading the history of my mom’s great-great-great grandfather John Lowe Butler. He lived in Tennessee in the 1830’s when he and his wife joined the Mormons. He moved to Far West and then to Nauvoo. His wife’s sister, Charity Skeen, had also joined back in Tennessee, but was not able to migrate. She was a deaf-mute and her brothers were hostile to the church and felt she was being manipulated against her will. He traveled back to Tennessee in 1842 on a mission. He visited Charity and learned that she was still strong in the faith and wanted to join her sister in Nauvoo. Her brothers threatened to kill John if he took her with him.
He made an interesting observation of his former friends, and neighbors. He said that the society was “all pretty well and bitterly opposed to the principles of the Kingdom of God.” He felt they were “full of the devil and persecution.” He, like Nephi, could see that people were hard in their hearts, immune to the truth, and determined to walk their own way, away from God.
Like Lehi, John Lowe Butler had to leave his home and society in order to follow his conscience and become the man God intended for him to be. In his day, as in our day, as in Lehi’s day, there are divisions that no calm recitation of “the facts” will bridge. The devil rages in the hearts of men. He distorts the minds and hardens the hearts of those who allow him to. The narratives are many. The cynical insinuations multiply like rabbits. There are many warriors fighting supposed bad guys; each side certain of their own superiority. Like the people of Babel, we hardly speak the same language anymore. Where is the truth? Who is the enemy? Is it Democrats or Republicans, Christians or Muslims, Muslims or Jews, rich or poor, white or black? What tribe do you belong to? How can you project the faults of your own tribe onto your enemy? How can you defend your own people regardless of their crimes? That is the name of the game.
But the truth is there for those who are willing to inquire of the Lord. In the Book of Mormon, Nephi sees our day. He sees a vision of the rise of “two churches,” one good and one evil. The evil church oppresses the humble followers of Christ and puts them in bondage. Their creed is not of principle or ideology, but of power and lust. Their God is not of heaven, but of mammon. This church is not exclusive. There are members in all parties, religions, ethnicities, nations, and economic means. They see themselves as above the rules. They put the pursuit of power and wealth over everything else. They look down on those who behave honorably and act with integrity. They subject them to persecution and bondage.
I was listening to NPR in the car on the way home from dropping Austin off at preschool. The news talked about the Rohingya in Myanmar and the severe persecution of those people. I imagined in my mind a mob of angry men full of hate and violence. Their victims were the Rohingya; and then they were my ancestors, the Mormon pioneers in Missouri; and then they were the Kurds in Northern Syria. And the mob changed too in my mind. They changed from back to white, from poor to rich, from educated to ignorant, etc. Their weapons were likewise fluid. Sometimes guns, sometimes household items, sometimes laws, sometimes judges and lawyers, sometimes social media shaming.
And I saw the truth of this moment. Like Lehi did. Like Nephi did. Like John Lowe Butler did. There is a rising of evil. There is a hardening of hearts and a blinding of minds. The humble followers of Christ; not only Christians, but everyone who seeks to elevate mankind to greater civility, kindness, and devotion to true principles; will face persecution. We will be driven out. Metaphorically and literally. Driven from councils and schools. Driven from houses of government and places of employment. We will increasingly find ourselves excluded from parties consumed with hate and tribalism, who seek power and revenge. To follow Christ is to reject these things. Christ had a crown of thorns, not gems. He stood above the people nailed to a cross, not elevated on a throne of gold. He was willing to face rejection and death rather than deny the principles and truth he held sacred. If he had lived transactionally, compromised his principles, and made friends with the right people, he would likely have been embraced by the Jews. Perhaps he would have been made a king. A fallen king for a fallen people. Instead He became the King of a different Kingdom. As he said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
And it has never been of this world. His Kingdom is Zion; where the pure in heart dwell. Zion is all around us, just as the great and abominable church is all around us. We choose which church we belong to by what we set our hearts upon. Will you be driven out with me? Will you take upon yourself the name of my King? Will you become my countrymen in a kingdom that is not of this world? Let us purify our hearts together. Let us partake of a cleansing sacrament of renewal. Let us join hearts and hands in devotion to a higher law, a better way, a holier path guided by the light of truth that resides in the minds of the pure in heart. The Lord will not forget His people. He will not leave us comfortless. As long as we have one another, we will never be alone.
“You clearly have Trump Derangement Syndrome!” Its a common diagnosis thrown out by Trump supporters. I was diagnosed with it today by someone who obviously considers himself qualified to hand out fictitious mental disorders on social media.
It didn’t hurt my feelings because the sting wore off long ago, although I was surprised by source of the attack who was promptly unfriended. There has been a lot of political drama in my life the last couple of days. I have been feverishly unfriending those who refuse to take the time to understand the feelings I experience and expect me to always behave myself when they say ignorant things. I am only human and although I have my fair share of human frailties, I refuse to tolerate those who too often criticize me in my pain, and fail to provide respect, comfort, and understanding.
My mind continues to go back to the idea of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” It is a classic example of gaslighting. First, elect a mercurial and abrasive man to the highest office of the land. Make sure he is incompetent and divisive and fires anyone around him who might tell him anything he doesn’t want to hear. Then, when people get upset and point out problems, say that they are deranged and hate him, thus blaming them for the problem you have created.
Trump Derangement Syndrome is not a real disorder. It is a way of marginalizing a group of people with the stigma of a mental health disorder. Such a practice is commonplace, but wrong. Mental health disorders do not make people without sense or reason in the vast majority of cases. They should not be used to discredit someone, especially when the disorder referred to doesn’t exist. Qualified mental health professionals use diagnoses to understand a patient and guide treatment options, not discredit and dismiss them.
There is obviously something very wrong in America right now. We are imploding rapidly. Our allies, the Kurds, are being slaughtered as we speak. Our President styles himself a king calling the impeachment inquiry “unconstitutional” although his behavior has made it inevitable that he would be impeached, as the only remedy we have for removing a lawless President. This whole thing causes me immense distress. I have pondered long on our current situation and I keep coming back to Carl Jung. His book The Undiscovered Self, Jung hypothesizes about the challenges of our time. I’ve found a lot of wise insights in that book.
In short, he believes that the biggest threat to mankind is the submission of the individual to the collective– a kind of enmeshing where everyone is to blame and no one is to blame for everything. Factions (Republicans and Democrats) can project blame onto other factions while refusing to do introspection and take responsibility for doing the work of societal change and improvement. Gradually the state replaces the individual and eliminates religion, or makes religion into creed, which is state sponsored religion. Rather than bringing the individual to God, creeds use religious manipulation to subjugate the people. The best defense against this enmeshing, according to Jung, is genuine connection to God; real spiritual and individual wellness of individuals.
Jung lived during the two world wars and had a chance to observe and analyse Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini and, even better, the people they ruled. He gave a fascinating interview with H.R. Knickerbocker that you can access here. Be warned, he makes some rather rude generalizations about Coastal Americans and others. Also, some have considered his comments on Hitler to be too flattering. Some NeoNazis use Jung’s words to justify and explain their continued fascination and even worship of him. Jung, for his part, did all he could to stop the spread of totalitarian governments during his lifetime and his words seem eerily canny and applicable today.
The strange behavior of Trump and his supporters has been the source of much distress to the nation and the world. There are reasons for it, but I am unqualified to fully diagnose the problem. Still, it is increasingly hard to make the argument that there isn’t something strange going on in the subconscious minds of those who have created the Trumpian nightmare we are living through.
George Conway wrote a piece for The Atlantic that I thought was excellent in describing the unenviable position we find ourselves with a President who openly displays the textbook description of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Worse, he seems better at disordering everyone else’s life than he does his own, although one could argue he does both. It is called Unfit for Office.
Mental health is being increasingly discussed and recognized as the vital subject it is. The General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had several talks that touched on it. Mental wellness and spiritual wellness are two sides of the same coin. I pray that we can embrace the mental health resources we have to help us solve our nation’s problems, heal our divisions, and create a true Zion society where each of us is free to grow and develop into the individuals God created us to be.
The small television loomed large in the small family room in rural Idaho. “He’s so hot,” Tiffany said with a dreamy expression. I looked at the screen with Pierce Brosnan’s face gazing lazily at me. “I like Magnum PI,” I retorted. I had a crush on the mustached crime fighter for years. Some of my earliest memories center around feeling weak in the chest as I watched Tom Sellek play Thomas Magnum, a tough guy private investigator who looked rough and rugged. In contrast, Peirce Brosnan seemed like a fake to me. He was! Remington Steele was a fake, a con man, a liar. I think that bothered me even then, before I could really understand what the differences were between the two men.
“He has a mustache!” Tiffany replied with a scandalized tone. “How would you even kiss him.” If felt a flutter as I thought of Tom Sellek’s mustached face kissing me. “It wouldn’t be that bad,” I defended. She rolled her eyes condescendingly. “Remington Steele is way better! He’s so suave and his suit is nice and he just looks at you and you melt. And, he’s kind of a bad guy. That makes him cool.” I didn’t understand that.
I was a straight arrow. Even as a little girl, I saw the world in black and white and Remington Steele was gray. I liked to watch the show, but I didn’t trust Remington Steele. Tiffany liked to get away with stuff. Even small cons on my parents seemed not to bother her in the slightest. If you could get away with it, there was no problem. I couldn’t live that way.
Years later I watched her graduate from high school, so anxious to get on with her life and leave her childhood behind, I couldn’t help but feel a great sense of loss. She was leaving me behind as well. I didn’t have a great relationship with her, but I thought things were getting better. She was no longer the bully that she was when we were little. She was always left in charge as the oldest back then, and Tiffany loved to tattle and blame me and criticise me endlessly. I hated her and the feeling was probably mutual. As she became a busy high school student and I started looking up to her a little, things got better. We shared shoes and some clothes, and sometimes talked about boys or school. She would give me advice. Constantly. Sometimes it was helpful, but I didn’t like how she always seemed to want to know everything. I was smart too. Now she was leaving and I was heart broken. She didn’t seem to care at all.
We still saw a lot of Tiffany as she attended the local college. She dated a lot of different boys, but nothing seemed to ever work out. She graduated from the nursing program and moved to the big city to make her mark. She was living in Salt Lake City and working as a nurse when she met David. He was a cell phone salesman with a palm pilot in his pocket. His smooth charm and sad story won Tiffany over and before anyone knew what was happening, they were getting married.
“He’s been married before?” I asked.
“Yes. Don’t be so judgey Bridge!” she retorted.
I was self aware enough to realize that I was judgemental. I had boycotted the senior prom my junior year because they had decided to have prom at Retrix, the only dance club in town. I thought Retrix was the most unholy place in Rexburg and I couldn’t believe that the school was forcing us to support that kind of place. Nothing came of my solitary protest and the next year prom was again at Retrix. I toned down my outrage and I ended up going to it. I was a little disgusted with the way the couples were dancing, but I had enough social awareness by then to keep it to myself. I was learning that the world was bigger than Rexburg and my Mormon upbringing. Tiffany was in the big city now, and she might know a few things I didn’t about the world outside. Even so, I didn’t like how fast everything was going. We hadn’t even met David and now he was going to join our family.
“He’s awesome. You are going to love him. He’s so spiritual and nice and handsome…..” her words and her tone sounded familiar. It was like Pierce Brosnan. He was too good to be true. He was rich and a body builder and he had this sob story about his past that cast him as a pitiful victim of bad circumstances. His parents had divorced right as he was getting ready to go on his mission. He had to stay home to help his family work through the traumatic experience. Then he married a woman who ended up going crazy and stabbing him in the back with a knife from their kitchen. He moved out and got a restraining order against her and filed for divorce. Now he was getting his life back together. He was going to be rich. He was going to be powerful. He was full of drive and determination, and seemed to have just a little bit of a Machiavellian streak; just enough to make him willing to do whatever it took to be successful and that’s what Tiffany wanted most. So what if his past wasn’t ideal? It was his future that mattered, and he was going to be successful.
I never questioned his story. I never speculated that David’s ex-wife might not be the woman that David and his family painted her to be. I never considered that his man might be a con artist; that like Remington Steele, the person he was pretending to be was very different than the man he actually was. I was hopeful that he was a diamond in the rough, a bad boy ready to be a good husband and father as I watched David and Tiffany walk out of the Salt Lake Temple as man and wife.
“There’s been a lot of flying monkeys around today,” I messaged Ben Tuesday. I got a group text from one of Ben’s sisters saying, “Be the change you wish to see in others…..” It was an excerpt from a conference talk. I showed it to my counselor who said it seemed passive aggressive to her. I also got a text from Ben’s mom, whom I haven’t heard from in probably a year. It said, “I love you dearly and I am wondering how you are doing….” I told her that I am good and that I am studying about Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I was listening to a podcast. It was true.
I found an excellent podcast by a woman named Christine Hammond. It is called “Understanding Today’s Narcissist.” I’ve listened to hours and hours of information about the disorder and how to deal with those who have it. Ms. Hammond says that if someone in your family has this disorder, you need to become an expert in it. I can’t claim to be an expert, but I am learning. The biggest takeaway I’ve learned it, don’t put up with narcissistic behavior in your family. If you do, it will spread. Like cancer, catch it early and kill it or you’ll end up with a big mess.
Even though the primary narcissist is dead, his flying monkeys are ready to neutralize the threat to his perfect memory. Because of that, I have taken several steps to protect myself from them and any spies that they may have. It feels a little paranoid, but I am still in recovery, and I don’t need to invite persecution into my life. Even so, I am preparing myself for the worst.
Assuming that they do come across my post or hear about it, they will likely attack the substance of it, including denying or minimizing the predatory behaviors of the narcissist. They will accuse me of slandering the dead. They will assume the worst of motives for my behavior. They will likely try to hoover Ben back in by accusing me of being a narcissist or worse. After the storm of defensiveness is past and they realize that we have moved on, there might be some self-reflection. Eventually, perhaps there will be some healing. If not, that’s okay too. At least I’m not carrying around the guilt of my silence.
Nothing has really changed since before I found my voice. I’m still in counseling. They still think I’m the problem. Nothing is different except in me. As I read the words of my post to my counselor, and I asked her what she thought of it and she said, “Right on the nose,” and then she praised my ability to explain complicated things in a simple way that is easily grasped. I felt a surge of pleasure at her praise. It feels good to be praised for doing something well.
My relationship with Ben is solid. My boys are growing up loved and secure. They are an asset to their schools and to their community. I am feeling an increase in my confidence. The past can be full of abuse, but the only person who can decide to end it in the present and future is me. I can be honest, open, and brave. I can say no to abusive behavior. I can surround myself with loving people and relationships. I can help others to make the journey from victim to survivor. I can’t change my husband’s family, but there are so many things I can do.
Even though there are voices around me casting judgement or criticism, I can’t hear them anymore. I’m listening to one voice, the voice inside me that channels the spirit. It confirms my path. Though adversity is certain, I am also certain to endure it. I drink deeply of the Love of my Savior who strengthens me. He knows my heart and that it is acceptable before him. It is enough.
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.
Motherhood is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. No one wants me to get it right more than I do, but the reality is, there is no social consensus about what good mothering looks like in the real world. I do the best I can, but I know I fall short each day.
Today after I took my three year old in for a doctor’s appointment, I decided to take him shopping with me at Sam’s Club. Usually I don’t go shopping with my kids. I spend too much and it’s exhausting! Today it just had to be done, so I lugged him along. Leaving the store, I pushed the cart while calling for him to stay nearby in the busy parking lot. When I got the cart settled so it wouldn’t roll away, I tried to get him into his carseat. He cried and arched his back. He wanted a drink. I told him I would get him one after I buckled him in. He continued to fight me, so I gave in and handed him the cup. He looked at me murderously. He wanted to get it HIMSELF. I walked away in frustration to return the cart. I jogged through the parking lot, hoping that he had stayed in his seat. When I got back, I buckled him in listening to him lecture me about how frustrated he was at me. I asked him what he wanted and he said, “A drink.” I gave him the cup and insisted he say thank you.
I finally got him down for his nap and after I left he turned over the bookcase and the changing table in his room. He does this frequently when he is overtired. I was mad, but relieved he wasn’t hurt. I want the behavior to stop. It’s dangerous makes a huge mess. What do I do?
I stayed in the doorway seething, and I said, “Austin, when you do this, I feel angry. It makes me want to hit you. I want you to take a rest and when you wake up we will talk about it.” I shut the door and sat down exhausted. I still have a kitchen stuffed with groceries from Sam’s Club. I’ve got to try to get the ambition to put them away.
I found out my sister-in-law sent an email to my husband a year ago. For a long time, she and I were allies and confidants against the predatory system. After the predator died a couple of years ago, she switched sides. She went on the attack in the email. She tried to make a case to Ben that I am an abuser with a serious gaming addiction. She knows that I have depression and that I’m trying to manage it. She’s had depression herself, but her criticism showed no empathy for my situation. Words stand out to me that cut like knives. She said all the things my inner critic says about me; that I’m no good, selfish, and a bad mother. I know in my mind that she’s a narcissist and that what she said is about her and not me, but it still hurts. She’s a part of the abusive system of his family. I’m the scapegoat and the truth teller. I’m the empathetic depressed person who is vulnerable enough to try to get help. That makes me weak to her and an easy target to criticize. I blocked her on my phone and unfriended her on Facebook. I don’t need people like that in my life. I listen to my counselor not the flying monkeys of an abusive system of narcissists.
Ben wouldn’t share the details with me about the email all this time because he was worried about the effect it would have on my depression. I understand why he did what he did, but I wish I had known how toxic she was. I let her have dinner at my house last month. I have a really hard time with feelings of betrayal, and I’m trying to process that. It also makes me wonder what other family members have been saying to him about me behind my back.
Tomorrow morning I can go talk to my counselor about all this, but in the meantime, I’m just trying to make it through the day. I prayed to the Lord to give me comfort and help me know what I can do to be a better mom. He comforted me saying that men and women in this world look on the outward appearance, but that his gaze penetrates into the heart and soul of a person. His judgement is just and he says my heart is pure before him.
So I can take comfort in that. The self that I am learning to love and accept doesn’t have the polish of a narcissistic projection. That’s okay because she is real and God sees her heart. There are some that look at me and judge me as flawed and unworthy. That’s okay. What they think of me is on them. It’s their business. I’m working to surround myself with people who will love and value me, especially my Savior. His love and acceptance is all I need.
For more info on flying monkeys in narcissistic abuse, here are some links.
I just finished watching, “Abducted in Plain Sight,” the documentary about Jan Broberg’s abuse by Robert Berchtold, the pedophile who kidnapped and brainwashed her as a teenage girl. The Broberg’s and the Berchtold’s were families actively involved in their LDS ward. Berchtold’s predatory behavior, as documented in the show, was enabled on many levels within the community. Social structures such as parents, church leadership, and law enforcement were ill equipped to confront Berchtold’s behavior. Although I believe we are much better now at protecting our children from pedophiles, this documentary is an important glimpse at our vulnerabilities and how a predator was able to exploit them. If you haven’t watched it, it’s currently on Netflix.
There are a few things that stood out to me. First, the total honesty of the Brobergs in their interviews was remarkable. The honest account of everything that happened, including their shockingly bad judgement, had the ring of truth to it even though it was incredibly bizarre. So bizarre, it defies rational comprehension, and yet who would make it up? The homosexual blackmail, the seduction of the mom, the multiple abductions of the girl, the bribing of the Mexican guard, the abysmal failure of the justice system to protect the public and this poor girl from her abuser, combine to make an unforgettable story. If it were fiction, I would think it too improbable to gain a wide audience.
I want to explore the ways that Robert Berchtold was able to manipulate the social structure of the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints to enable him in his crimes. He was a master manipulator who, as most predators do, was able to create a culture of silence through shaming his victims, hide behind a convincing facade of charisma, and finally twist the sympathies of victims and authority figures in his favor by casting himself as a victim.
First, he used shame as a tool to create a culture of silence. He seduced both of Jan’s parents and in doing so, he was able to blackmail them and dull their moral sensibilities. He had them so concerned about their own sins that they couldn’t see that he was orchestrating it all for his own ends. If they did see it, they felt powerless to fight it because he had fooled so many other people. He felt no guilt or remorse. He walked into the church building each week, took the sacrament, looked other members in the eye, while committing the blackest of sins. Predators sin with no remorse. They shame others while being themselves free of it. They entrap others in sin and then control them with guilt and threats. These are good people and often children who are manipulated, shamed, and lied to. They are kept in a haze of emotional exhaustion that keeps them from seeing what should be obvious. The problem is, it isn’t obvious, because predators are often incredibly skilled at living a double life and putting up a convincing facade that often includes societal status and money. That leads me to the second point.
Second, Robert Berchtold was able to use a facade of charm and financial success to mask the demon within. Members of the church are vulnerable to manipulation from flattering men who appear successful at business. There is something about the LDS culture that my seminary teacher observed many years ago. He mentioned it in class and I’ve never forgotten it. He said that many people see riches as evidence of God’s favor. We see someone who is wealthy and charismatic as righteous because he has success in the world. He said that you hear people in church mention that their money is a blessing from God. He argued that riches are no more a mark of righteousness now than they were at the time of the Savior. The reason I remember this point was because I was raised in the church and had never questioned that idea. “Of course,” I thought, “If you’re righteous God is going to give you money and success.” The dissonance of that seminary lesson has stayed with me, but over time I have found myself in firm agreement with my seminary teacher. In fact, I have often seen men who have power and influence, money and status, who have shown themselves to be predators both inside and outside of the church.
For anyone who is in doubt about the tendency of LDS culture to be vulnerable to the “money equals righteousness” fallacy, look at the fraud statistics. We are far more prone to involve ourselves in get rich quick schemes like network marketing, real estate schemes, ponzi schemes, or other high risk investments. Summer sales jobs are extremely common within our membership where promises of easy money are tossed out casually when the reality is often quite different. The Brobergs were good, simple, naive people who were vulnerable to the charismatic manipulations of a man who was nothing like them. Robert Berchtold was suave, seductive, an accomplished liar, and had most, if not all, of the church congregation and surrounding community convinced he was a good guy. Even after he abducted Jan and took her to Mexico, the church community was supportive of him. Why? Because they were victimized too. If a member of the church comes to us with a charismatic smile, a high profile calling, a good job, and a few flattering words, we are like putty in their hands. They victimize us and we are unprepared to defend ourselves. That is part of the reason Utah has the highest rate of financial fraud in the United States.
There was an article published in the Deseret News last April called, “Does Utah deserve the title of ‘fraud capital of the United States’?” It explains the reasons we as members are vulnerable to financial predators, but I suspect the same things could be said about our vulnerability to sexual predators. Thankfully, there is now a dedicated regional U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission office for Utah to combat fraud. It is the only state that has one. Hopefully that will help curb the trend. The state lawmakers have also stepped up creating a white collar crime offender registry similar to a sex offender registry to help inform and protect potential victims. As members, we can’t afford to be so naive as we have been in the past. It is time we started being as wise as serpents and not just harmless as doves.
The third point I wanted to make was how Robert Berchtold was able to manipulate the sympathy of those around him. He convinced Jan’s parents that part of his therapy for his pedophilia was to lay next to their daughter in bed alone with her. They thought by giving him access to their child that they were helping him recover. They were so consumed with fear and guilt that they felt obligated to sacrifice and do the “right thing.” Like Abraham offering up his son as a sacrifice, they were offering up their daughter to atone for their mistakes. I am convinced that the Brobergs not only allowed Berchtold’s abuse out of coercion, I believe they thought they were redeeming themselves. They were being charitable by allowing him to do this. This was AFTER he had abducted her and taken her to Mexico. I would find such manipulation to be unbelievable if I had not witnessed it with a predator and his victims in my own life. Skilled manipulators are able to convince their victims that they are the victims and that by enabling the abuse, you are doing a noble thing. If you call out their lies, you become the bad guy.
The manipulation of Jan was horrifyingly fantastic. He used the conditioning that we use with our children in the church to his advantage. He convinced her to believe a religious-like narrative in which her obedience to her omniscient alien parents would secure the safety of humanity. Her disobedience would bring calamity and destruction to her family. Children have an exaggerated view of their own power and are vulnerable to this kind of ego-centric narrative. By convincing her of this religious narrative, he made her into something of a cult member. Now, her parents were not only battling their own shame and their own sexual attractions, they were also battling their daughter who was as obsessed with being with Berchtold as he was with being with her. I can’t be certain, but I don’t think any of the Brobergs were aware of how other members of the family were being victimized until Jan was much older and no longer the object of Berchtold’s obsession. A culture of silence ensured that Berchtold was able to continue his abuse by isolating his victims.
So how can we, as members of the church, guard ourselves against these kinds of predators? First, we can say no to shame. There is no sin that is worth hiding. Christ has suffered for all of it. Confess it, forsake it, and give it over to Christ. The Savior can’t save us from the sins we hide. The scriptures say, “There hath no temptation taken you, but such as is common to man.” We all sin. Let’s be real about it and deal with it rather than obsess about what other people will think if they know. Predators take the mistakes people make, sometimes mistakes that they set them up to make, and use them as blackmail. If enough church members say no to shame and embrace the reality of the Savior’s atonement, those threats lose their power. The forgiveness of the Savior is empowering to victims. It allows us to regain our confidence and emotional strength which we can use to fight the abuse.
Second, we can learn the lesson my seminary teacher taught me all those years ago. Money and charm do not equal righteousness. Yes, most members with high callings have good jobs and nice stuff. It’s easy to think that the trappings of Earthly success are the mark of God’s favor. This becomes a kind of materialist faith in which God is a banker doling out material blessings to the faithful. The truth is, callings, money, jobs, and all the rest are what people see. God looks on the heart. None of that means anything to the Lord. There are plenty of our members hiding in high places in the church community who have black hearts. They can be doctor’s, lawyers, judges, church officials, and politicians. Sometimes they are brought to justice in this life and sometimes they aren’t. As disciples of Christ we need to start seeing one another as He does and not as the world does. If we do, we won’t be as easily deceived.
Third, we can talk to our kids about predators. We can tell them that it is never okay for an adult or anyone to touch them sexually. We can warn them of people who might use the church or other religious ideas to manipulate and victimize them. Before we can talk to our kids about predators, we have to be willing to accept their existence ourselves. The Brobergs seem like stupid people for believing the lies they were told. In truth, the only reason they believed Berchtold’s lies was because they wanted to believe them so badly. They wanted to believe that LDS men who go to church and have wives and families are good people who can be trusted with children. We cling to the illusions we want to have about the world and the dangers we are surrounded with. We don’t want to believe that evil exists and that it can take the shape of something that appears harmless and wholesome on the outside. We want to believe the false reality we believed before the evidence showed something else. If that means ignoring, minimizing, or denying that evidence, we will do it. Anyone can be a victim.
I’ve seen people manipulated by predators. I’ve seen entire family systems under the control of predators. It happens. I’ve been manipulated by them too. I’ve felt the guilt and shame of being a part of an enabling system; trapped in a false reality where good is evil and evil is good. Speaking lies is required; speaking truth is blaspheme. A culture of secrecy and silence keeps us from being agents of change to make our society better. As the world becomes more wicked and our national social fabric unravels, abuse will become more widespread. The internet makes the whole world a stalking ground for the predators of the world. We need to arm ourselves against the evils of our time. We need to say no to shame, no to materialistic religion, and no to a culture of silence that feeds the illusion that it doesn’t happen in our church.
When I was being manipulated by a predatory system, I knowingly put my children at risk. I allowed the predator access to my little boys because I was shamed into thinking that if I put up boundaries to protect them, that I would be hurting the predator’s recovery from depression. It was hard to open up about the situation. I felt like I couldn’t even write the truth in a private journal. I couldn’t even pray about it out loud. I wished I could just forget the things I had seen, heard and been told, but they kept intruding into my thoughts. The truth would not be denied. I broke the culture of silence. I talked to my bishop and my therapist. I prayed and pleaded to know what to do. The answer was unanimous. I was to protect my children. I did. I put up boundaries. When questioned by enabling family members, I was rejected. They denied telling me things I knew they had told me. It was implied that I was fabricating stories I would have never made up and wanted to forget. Even then, I desperately wanted to preserve a relationship with them. I stuck to the boundaries I had set, and to my knowledge, my boys were not harmed. I and they were lucky. I’ve overcome the need I felt to keep the secrets of the predatory system I was a part of. I don’t need to protect their secrets anymore. If any members of it read this, I suspect they will have no doubt of the identity of the predator. If they choose to read my next post in the series, there will be no doubt. They may be angry at me for tarnishing his memory, and that’s okay. I am done with playing this part.
He was a lifelong active member of the church who held many callings. He taught elementary school in two different states. He married in the temple and had six children. He also sexually victimized women and girls for decades. I don’t think anyone outside his immediate family knew the truth, and we were all shamed and manipulated into silence. We were told he was not responsible for his acts and that he had repented, and yet the behavior continued. If we did not forgive and forget each new offense, we were hurting his recovery from depression. We were judgmental and unforgiving. He wasn’t on any sex offender registries and had no criminal record. He was smart and careful and was the most manipulative person I have ever met. They are out there. We need to be honest with ourselves and others about the reality of their existence. We need to be aware of the grooming behaviors that predators use. We need to be vigilant and refuse to ignore the warning signs. It can happen and it does happen in our churches and in our families.
I bring my personal story of a family predator into the discussion, not to speak ill of the dead-he is deceased- or pass judgement on him. I leave that in the capable hands of my Savior. I bring my personal experience in to show empathy to those who are victimized by predators. Some watched this movie and had disdain and revulsion toward Jan’s parents. I don’t. I disagree with the choices they made, but I understand why they made them because I lived in a social system that was controlled by a manipulative narcissist. I’ve seen first hand how it works and why it works. We rely on the people around us to give us a sense of what truth is. If what we see is drastically different than what those around us seem to see, we question our own perception. It is only as I have cultivated a relationship with my Savior and consulted with mental health professionals that I have found the confidence to challenge the social systems around me. Even then, it takes tremendous courage. Even as I write this, I have to remind myself that I am not obligated to keep the family secrets. The denial is still strong with many members of the family and they can choose to live in it, but they don’t get to write my story or keep me from telling it.
As I live my life, I am amazed when I find victims who are strong enough to tell their stories for the benefit of others. Jan’s resilience and strength is incredible to witness. My favorite part is at the end when she confronts her abuser in court. He tries to imply that she is motivated by book sales and fame. She tells him coldly that she is motivated by the desire to expose predators like him to the world. She has become a powerful advocate for child victims because she and her family had the courage to face the truth about themselves and what happened to them. In some ways, her parents have had to have even more courage because their experience is less likely to elicit sympathy and more likely to elicit judgement and condemnation. Their willingness to submit to that judgement rather than lie to themselves and others about what they did has made Jan’s recovery and the family’s recovery much more complete. Secrets and lies destroy. The truth, even when it is uncomfortable, sets us free.
The only way we can destroy the evil among us is if we talk about it. I hope my words help to shine a light on a problem that we face within our membership. As we confront evil with courage and honesty, as the Brobergs did, the Savior can heal us and those we love. His grace is sufficient for us! His angels stand ready to assist us as we take the steps necessary to purge the church of the evils of abuse. A culture of silence polishes and shines the outside of the cup while allowing filth to grow and fester within. Christ wants us to be better. Let us roll up our sleeves and commit ourselves to battling the abusers in our midst and purge their behavior from among us. Let us clean and sterilize the cup on the inside. That is what the Savior would have us do.
I haven’t posted in a long time and there are several reasons for that. I have been helping a friend who is going through a really hard time and although I have had a lot to think about and write about, I haven’t been sure how to do it while still keeping confidences. I’ve thought about writing a parable or something, but everything is still so raw and sensitive that there really is no way to express how I feel even on a private blog without revealing something.
So I just pray that I can write something that will do no harm, but might help someone even if that someone is only myself. The biggest take away that I have had from the last three weeks is that there is real suffering in this world and that there are some people who, through no fault of their own, become victimized again and again. These people have tremendous potential for good, but often cannot see it in themselves because society writes a script for them and they believe that they cannot break out of that script to write their own story.
Les Miserables is my all time favorite book. I’ve read it several times, the last time I read the unabridged version in which I learned more than I ever wanted to about the streets of Paris and Napoleon and French politics. Most of it I have forgotten. The most memorable parts of the book for me have been the characters. Who can forget Fantine? She was lovely, she was good, she was so devoted to her child that she sold her teeth and hair to pay for her fictitious medical bills. Her daughter Cosette was destined to follow in her footsteps; a waif, enslaved by the monstrous Thénardiers, robbed, deprived, and abused in every way. But when great evil exists in the world, the hand of God is also revealed.
Consider the Bishop Myriel. He was the embodiment of the Savior, fearless, compassionate, and wise. When Jean Valjean, the despised convict, brings his vitriol and bile into the Bishop’s home, steals his silver candlesticks, the only things of value in his sparse abode, and flees as a literal thief in the night, the reader expects that the Bishop will allow him to be punished to the full extent of the law as he is caught and dragged back in chains to be identified. Instead, the wise Bishop sees something in Jean Valjean. He sees the man beneath the pain, beneath the course exterior, behind the crimes he has committed. He sees Jean Valjean as the Savior would have seen him, with the eye of hope; the vision of the possibility that Jean Valjean could change. He could live a life different than the one society had carved out for him. He acted on that faith, sent the law enforcement officers away, insisting that the candlesticks had been a gift. When the threat of the officers is gone, he tells Jean Valjean that the candlesticks are a gift to him, a ransom in the similitude of the Savior’s atonement, and that he should use them to make a new life for himself.
Then Jean Valjean continues his life of crime. He even steals from a child, terrorizing him before taking a coin from him. He sees the yellow paper he is required by law to carry that marks him as a convict and forces him into the role he has been told he is to play on life’s stage; a vagabond, a thief, a vagrant. Then he thinks of the Bishop and the candlesticks and the possibility that he could carve a different path for himself. Could he, Jean Valjean be redeemed? Could he have a new life as the Bishop told him he could. He kneels down moments after the child he stole from flees in terror and he weeps at the man he has become; a man he despises. He feels the bitterness, the anger, and the pain melt away in the sunlight of the Bishop’s faith. He throws the yellow paper aside and begins his new life, with a new name, and a new vision for the man he wants to be.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, I highly recommend that you read it or watch the many dramatic reenactments that have sprung up in its wake over the decades. The remarkable life of Jean Valjean as he battles against the social construct of his time, symbolized in the fascinating character of Javier, to live his life of service and moral principle is as inspiring as it is entertaining. Jean Valjean tries to save Fantine, but tragic circumstances result in her death. He is determined to rescue her child Cosette. The child becomes his life, his one and only love, his whole world. He saves her from a fate destined to follow the tragic footsteps of her mother, and gives her a charmed life instead. She is given an education, fine clothes to wear, the love and protection of a devoted father. Instead of victimization and slavery, Fantine’s daughter is married into a wealthy Bourgeoise family where her every need is met. Victor Hugo’s descriptions of Cosette’s happiness are heavenly and they are made possible solely by the incredible sacrifices of Jean Valjean.
In this world of sadness, heartache, abuse, and pain; there is also righteousness, redemption, and noble sacrifice. Jean Valjean would not have become the man he became without Javier, the Thenardiers, the galley slave ships, the yellow convict papers. The evils within the fallen society of France, which could be any place on this Earth, forged Jean Valjean into the man who was able to save Cosette.
I’ve often thought of the name of the book, Les Miserables— the miserable. Truly, it is a story of misery. War, unjust punishments, slave galleys, prostitution, rape, poverty, the slaughter of student protesters in the streets, greed, exploitation of children; there are so many ways in which we humans can create hell on Earth and many of them are explored in depth in this book. And yet, in Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean and Fantine and Eponine, we see that redemption is possible through love and compassion for our fellow travelers on this road of misery that is life. The Bishop inspired Jean Valjean who comforted Fantine. Fantine inspired Valjean who then rescued Cosette. Cosette inspired Valjean to save Marius. In the end Valjean even cracked Javier, his ultimate nemesis. Javier is the symbol of justice in the story, the personification of fallen human construct, self-righteous and void of compassion. He is at last overcome by Valjean’s character which can no longer be denied or explained away. Like the Savior, Valjean’s love and valor were not of this world and this world cannot rule it or understand it. Just as the Savior broke the bands of death and walked from the tomb, Valjean broke Javier; shattered his stereotypes, his cynicism, and his calloused assumptions about the potential of the fallen human soul.
So next time you see great evil; the next mass shooting, the next victim of abuse, the next road rage incident, the next murder– don’t forget, great evil can inspire great love and courage. There is compassion, service, and sacrifice. There is a choice that each of us has; the same choice that Jean Valjean had that day as he knelt in the field. We can walk the path that society dictates; the slut, the abuse victim, the convict, the addict, the helpless spectator, the greedy user, the coward who casts blame and expects others to solve problems. We can walk that path, or we can choose something different. We can cast away that yellow paper no matter what the consequences our fellow men threaten. We can forge our own lives, make our own path, and counter the evils of our time through repentance and the grace of Him who is Mighty to Save!
Perhaps you think there is nothing you can do. Perhaps you believe that you are powerless against the tide of wickedness that is permeating our society. Perhaps you feel you are meant to wait on the Lord who will come rescue us from our peril. I have felt that way too, but something tells me he expects more from us. He sees in us what the Bishop saw in Jean Valjean; a man who can inspire, uplift, and strengthen others; a man capable not of waiting for the Savior to rescue him, but of being the Savior’s hands to rescue others. I picture the Bishop extending his candlesticks to me. “Take these and make of yourself a righteous woman, a handmaid of the Lord.” What potential would he see in me? What could I do with the opportunities that I have around me?
I have had the tremendous privilege to serve some of “the miserable” in the past months. It has given me powerful insight into the way the Savior views each one of his children. Each and every person is of eternal value. It is natural to harbor fear which cripples faith and paralyses righteous action. Those who suffer are often sensitive, easily offended, and difficult to foster a relationship of trust with. Sometimes they may even victimize us as Valjean did to the Bishop. (Fortunately, those I have helped have done no such thing.) When I fill my heart with the sure knowledge that each and every one of God’s children is of eternal value and that his grace is sufficient for them, my fear is purged away. When I follow his promptings and strive to see His children as He does, I know that my efforts will be enough.
Praise be the name of my Master! Glory be to the Son! In Him I find my strength. In Him my weakness is swallowed up. In Him I find meaning and purpose in my life. Blessed be His name!