By Jennifer M.
Jenny. She put on the itchy dresses and ruffled socks. She took her baptismal covenant seriously, after all that was part of how she’d get to be with her family in heaven, forever. She had to be good and she had to be clean by taking the sacrament each Sunday, reflecting on her sins from the week and again promising to be better. Sitting in hard little chairs she heard the grown up voices, she absorbed all the stories and her eyes widened at the pictures she saw of illustrated stories in the scriptures.
Sundays were a day to be quiet and still and to take in the scripture stories by paying attention and being obedient. In the hallways her head was bowed and her arms folded tightly as instructed by firm grown up voices. Quiet, Jenny. Fold your arms, Jenny. Bow your head in the hallway. We show love to Heavenly Father by doing these things, by being“reverent.” She sang along to “reverently, quietly” and “choose the right” and more songs that reinforced that she should be obedient, quiet “shhh be still”, and learn “everything that I must do, to live with Him, someday.”
The promise of getting to be with her family in heaven after death was contingent. This point was always emphasized. Being with your family after you died had to be earned through righteousness. “Families can be together forever through heavenly father’s plan, I always want to be with my own family and the Lord has shown me how I can. The Lord, has shown me how I can.”
The Lord’s instructions were ancient scripture but also the words of living prophets and past prophets. The Lord’s instructions were also given by “priesthood authority” the local leaders, her bishop and stake president. Jenny’s eyes had to look up to see them as they sat facing the congregation, they were lifted up steps away from the rest of the ward. Heavenly Father communicated with them. Knowing they communicated with God, Jenny always wondered if Heavenly Father told them her thoughts. If they knew that she was bad. When her brother told her the rain was God crying because he was disappointed in her, deep down she believed it. Of course he’s disappointed, she thought. He knows my thoughts.
Jenny grew Sunday by Sunday, singing “that for me a sinner, He suffered, He bled and died.” What a shame to be so bad that God’s only begotten son had to suffer, to bleed, and to die for Jenny. She’d watch as she grew older, the boys who teased her for being fat, the boys who she had seen being mean pass the sacrament to her row and others in the chapel. The boys had the priesthood. If she was good she could grow up to marry “a worthy priesthood holder.” She could bear their children as children are the “jewels in a woman’s crown”and because motherhood is the most noble and sacred duty. Sometimes Jenny would shamefully wonder if maybe she’d be a mother to an apostle or prophet and then she’d embarrassedly push it away.
Jenny learned what happened to wicked people from an early age and usually with illustrative gospel art to enhance the lesson. Lotts’s wife disobeyed. She looked back. And she was killed for her disobedience. Laban and Lemuel rebelled, their future generations were cursed with dark skin. Heavenly Father kicked Adam and Eve out of the garden because they disobeyed. Abraham showed obedience by willingly starting the sacrifice of his son until an angel intervened. Nephi showed obedience by cutting off Laban's head and putting on his clothes.
Jenny memorized the articles of faith. She knew that “all mankind may be saved by obedience to the law and ordinances of the gospel.” She wanted to obey. She wanted to be good and be an eternal family. She’d repent for her thoughts and for being naughty with childish mischief. She’d promise to be better as she took the bread and water each week and in her prayers. The sacrament was a very nice time, because right after she was the most clean as she was since her baptism at 8 years old. She felt good in those moments, until a bad thought would come, then the process would start all over again for the week. Being taught that “thinking it is as bad as doing it” meant that there was a whole lot for her to repent of. After all, she didn’t want the savior’s second coming to reveal all her thoughts on display as she had been taught in Sunday school. She didn’t want the Savior or anyone to know how much the primary leader annoyed her. How she’d linger in the women’s restroom or the “mother’s room” for as long as she thought she could get away with it before again bowing her head, folding her arms, and returning to class. She'd try harder to be "gentle and loving in deed and in thought, for these are the things Jesus taught."
Jenny was a scared child. Terrified of ghosts and frozen with the fear that she was expected to extend her hand if ever a ghost were to appear in her room. She was taught to extend her hand and ask the ghost to shake it. If they wouldn't it was proof that the ghost was one of Satan's and if the ghost agreed to and had a physical hand, then they were a "resurrected being" and she could trust they were sent from the Lord. She was terrified of bedtime. What if this is the night an angel (or demon) would come as had happened to Joseph Smith?
As a teenager she carried the weight of her daily sins that grew exponentially. She was often disappointed in herself. At church activities she wrote letters to her future husband promising to be worthy of him. At some point she started cutting herself. The relief would wash over her. It made so much sense to bleed her own blood instead of thinking about the Savior bleeding for her. She could shed her blood too. It would make everything better because she was suffering too. She could suffer too and in doing so be freed from her guilt.
Jenny woke up often before 5am since her seminary class where she learned the scriptures in detail started at 6am. One day the seminary teacher taught scripture about how bodies are a temple which Jenny had been taught since a toddler in nursery class. This day though, there was something added. The teacher said that any mark we intentionally make on our bodies we would carry throughout all eternity. Her breath stopped momentarily as the teacher backed up the statement with scripture. The Lord was displeased with people marking their bodies, it was associated with the wicked in scripture stories. Jenny’s eyes glanced down to the scars on her arms from cutting. She realized throughout all eternity she’d be reminded of how bad she was.
Jenny started dating a "non-member." As their relationship developed and matured, they kissed and made out and crossed a line into sin. Jen felt guilt. So much guilt that she confessed what happened to the bishop during an interview with him to determine if she was worthy to "get dance card" so that she'd be allowed to attend church dances. The bishop was angry, she could see the redness and sternness in his face. He slapped his hands together saying that she needed to “shut that door.” He held up 2 fingers and asked if her boyfriend had put his fingers inside of her vagina. Despite saying no, she left without a dance card. She had gone too far to be clean and would need to go without taking the sacrament or going to youth dances for a few months.
Jen knew the doctrine that sexual sin was “next to murder.” She knew that now that she had sinned in a sexual way whether touching herself or “petting” with her boyfriend that her worth was now next to a murderer. She thought back to when she was little and scared of “the nightstalker.” She’d heard and read stories about a murderer named Charles Mason too. She often would think of how much she was like them.
A really horrible thing happened to Jen. When she was a late teen she was raped by a coworker from her afterschool job. She felt so ashamed that she was no longer a virgin. She was now the chewed up gum that nobody would want, the milked cow that nobody would buy, the used or damaged goods. She didn’t tell her boyfriend, her parents, or her church leaders and kept the shame hidden deep inside her though it felt like a sharp blade.
At this point in seminary teachers were teaching from scripture from books but also from the talks and teachings of prophets. She’ll never forget the day she heard the words said by the prophet of her childhood, some people in the ward had affectionately nicknamed him Yoda but his name was Spencer W. Kimball and he had said “it’s better to lose one’s life than to lose their virtue.” The words stung and took all the air from her lungs.
Even in her most painful and powerless point of her life, she had still been bad. She was still a disappointment and disobedient because she hadn’t physically fought during the assault.
Jen grieved and cut and tried to live a double life, to not think about the weight of her sins during the week. One Sunday her Sunday School teacher looked deeply into her eyes and he said “you can't have one foot in the ocean and one on the shore.”
Jen tried to be all in and when the shame was too much she decided to be out. She told her therapist she wanted to date women. Her therapist replied “why would you do that and give up your chance at having a family?” Jen remembered that it was her sacred duty to bring souls to the earth and build up the kingdom of God. Jen remembered the teachings of “the one true church.” She knew “wickedness never was happiness.” Jen went back to church. She told the bishop about the assault and how she’d been sexually active for a period of time after it. She was again restricted from taking the sacrament for months, but she was grateful. Grateful to repent of it and for not facing the embarrassment of excommunication which she knew was the typical outcome of sins this grievous.
Jen married a man who not only had the testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, she married a man who taught her the fundamentalist early church doctrines of the faith. Jen knew that this was the time she’d be able to get things right and that even though they hadn’t married in the temple, she could somehow become righteous enough that they’d be able to eventually be sealed in the temple. Jen held this hope so dearly in her heart. A child was born and grew and Jen tried to fit in with the moms of the ward. She planned weekly storytime at the park. She’d read to the children and then they’d play while the sisters talked. The sisters were seated around a park table gossiping about another woman. These temple going women talked about her and called her “sloppy seconds.” She knew she’d never belong with the sisters in the ward. She was “sloppy seconds” too.
Jen and her husband were committed to living the gospel. They paid tithing and were sealed in the temple, Jen went weekly. They taught on Sundays and also mid week in church youth activities. Jen was a librarian in the ward because according to the second counselor, the bishop said he wanted “a real Nazi in there.” One day she made a minor mistake in what could and couldn’t be copied from the library copy machine. A priesthood holder in the bishopric came to tell her. She went home and cut. Her husband saw and asked that she speak to the bishop of the ward about the cutting. She made an appointment to see him. Once there she was so embarrassed. She hesitantly showed him the cuts on her arm, told him that she knew her body was a temple and that she and her husband thought she should repent. The bishop agreed. He told her to not take the sacrament for 3 weeks and to think about the gift of having a body and the need to treat it like a temple.
Jen had been taught that being righteous brings happiness. That her depression would be cured if only she would “serve more and think of others instead of herself." She served more and more and attended the temple weekly and still she decided one morning to sit in the garage with the exhaust on and peacefully die in the car. She sat in the car and waited greedily, wanting it to work until she suddenly remembered there’d be nobody to pick up her youngest child from preschool. She went inside and cried.