When I am twelve years old, my mother asks if I have ever been molested by a relative. Yes, I say.
She begins to ask who it was, then stops herself. Just tell me, she says, if he’s been through the temple.
Mormons go through the temple when they become adults, usually just before they marry or go on a mission. It is a particularly sacred rite: you must complete a set of interviews with the bishop and the stake president before you are given a temple recommend, a white card many Mormons carry in their wallets, certification of righteousness. I will never go through the temple, never achieve that level of righteousness as an adult. By the time I am twenty-one, I will leave the church for good. I will never know how it feels when temple workers part my clothes to anoint my skin with consecrated oil here, here, here.
I’m seven years old, the youngest in a family of six kids, it’s a Saturday morning, and my parents’ bedroom door is open. Sunlight shines into the hallway from the window. We all pile into bed with Mom and Dad, and Mom says, This is why we wanted a king-size bed, so we could all fit. Her eyes are shining crescents. All of us kids have the same eyes, almost disappearing when we smile. She buries her nose into Micah’s blond hair, everyone’s favorite, and he laughs and squirms.
She pulls Jacob close on her other side. Sponge babies, she says, are always the sweetest.
She is talking about the unreliable birth control she was using when Jacob was conceived, when I was conceived. He and I were sweet babies, and we are sweet children.
Although I can’t articulate it, I know already that sweetness is more important in a girl than in a boy; it’s what I have going for me.
I am sweet and I am cheerful and I stay where I am, but I want to crawl over my brothers’ bodies, squeeze in beside Mom. I want to burrow my head into her guts. I want to pry open her lips, stuff my hands in her mouth, I want to print her smiling face on my insides, place her in me like a moon, smiling and smiling until I’m stuffed overfull with her. I want to own her. I want to obliterate her.
After Dad’s pancakes, it’s Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner on TV, and after Land of the Lost, it’s time for me to make bread.
I scoop wheat to feed the electric wheat grinder on the countertop. The grinder is mine. I was in a commercial for Magic Mill wheat grinders at six years old, and they paid me with my very own electric wheat grinder. It roars like a motorcycle engine and wheat clangs and rattles down its throat. It jumps and jitters across the counter and unplugs itself in excitement. The motor winds down, dies. I plug it back in and try to hold on while it revs up, but I’m stumbling along the counter to keep up. Finally I let go and watch it jank around.
Bread making takes hours. I love the feeling of a dough in my hands, like the firm bottom of a fat baby. I love to punch down the sponge in the bowl after the first rising, feel it sigh and collapse around my hand.
We have enormous red-topped canisters of whole wheat around the house that we use as end tables. Mormons are commanded to keep a two year supply of food, stocked up against the Last Days. We have jars of preserves on big wooden shelves downstairs, water in mason jars, and wheat.
I am seven years old and the family bread-maker. My swarm of brothers elbow each other to get the first hot slice as it comes out of the oven. The smell blooms from the kitchen to fill the house. Butter and honey shine, melted into my own thick slice.
My siblings and I keep the house from descending entirely into filth, if only barely, only by our fingernails. Other families say chores, but we say jobs. It’s restriction, not grounding. Dad exhausts himself trying to marshal us to our jobs, now stalking the house for Saturday inspection. He is head of the family like Christ is head of the church; today he is a stand-in for Jesus, making sure my room is Saturday Clean. There’s a primary song:
Saturday is a special day
It’s the day we get ready for SUN-day!
We clean the house and we wash our clothes
That’s how we get ready for SUN-day!
My brothers prance up and down the hall singing in falsetto while Dad examines my bedroom. He runs a finger along the top of my bedroom door, his half-tongue-in-cheek white-glove check. If I fail inspection today, I’m on restriction for the week. Dad lowers his voice in a faux-disciplinarian timbre.
Well, it’ll have to do, he says, mock-glowering at me.
Then he sees I’ve left a pile of clothes in the corner; I’d been playing dress-up with my best friend. Blood washes up into his scalp. He gets quiet, a shift from hilarious to terrifying in three one-thousandths of a second. I’m in trouble and he doesn’t have to say a word.
I am seven years old and my sister Leda rolls my hair into pink sponge curlers before bed. I sleep all night on a nest of plastic curlers for Sunday ringlets.
Sunday mornings are cold cereal at the long wooden table, my brothers in a belching contest, faces sleep-creased, hair sticking up. Cold leaks in through our huge single-pane living room windows. I stand over the heat register, and hot air bellies up my nightgown, I put my hands lightly over the bulge.
Look, Leda. I’m pregnant, I say.
After breakfast my sister unrolls my pink sponge curlers, pulls a ringlet long, and together we watch it bounce into place. I put on my Sunday dress, hot pink taffeta trimmed with pink and white flowers. My sister’s dress matches—hers short-skirted, mine long; she sewed them both. Mom emerges from her bedroom in a black slip over a bra over white garments, a halo of Chanel no. 5. She steps softly to the bathroom. Mom hasn’t been well enough to go to church in many weeks. She leans to wipe steam from the mirror, lips stretched over teeth while she mascaras her lashes. Sweat hurries down her face, licks her short hair into curls at her nape, and she blows out a gust of breath.
Time for my distemper shot, says Mom, laughing down at her mascara wand.
Distemper shot is what she calls hormone replacement. She had a hysterectomy shortly after I was born.
Mom places her hands delicately on the bathroom counter as if to steady herself. She is balanced at a decision: church or no. She lifts her chin, turns her face to one side, flirting with her reflection. Church wins, today she will come with us.
As we load into the VW bus, Mom stops me with a hand on my shoulder. She licks her thumb and rubs my face clean.
Ew, Mom, I say. I hate the smell of her spit drying on my face.
You can’t go to church looking like an urchin, she says.
At Sacrament Meeting we take up half a pew. Six kids makes us only a medium-size family in Provo. There are two twelve-child families in our neighborhood, and one with sixteen. Mainstream Mormons are not polygamous, the practice disavowed two generations ago. This means just one wife in each family, one woman constantly pregnant for over twenty years, pumping out child after child after child.
My hair gropes its way to Dad’s suit and sticks to his sleeve, a blind, tentacled sea creature. He sweeps a hand down his arm to detach me, I make a whispering giggle and gather my hair behind, pin it against the back of the pew with my body. Micah draws mazes for me to solve; Sacrament Meeting is long and we are hungry and restless. I drag my pencil through my brother’s maze while he draws another.
After church, the twelve-year-old deacons scramble outside to throw snowballs in the parking lot. I climb into the bus with the rest of the family, and Dad starts toward Cherry Lane.
Noooo, Dad! My brothers and I all protest at once.
That’s the old fogey way, says Jonah.
Stupid Sunday drivers, says Jacob.
What’s wrong with old fogeys? I’m an old fogey, says Dad, waggling his eyebrows at us. But he’s steering us in the other direction. We can see the slow march of cars going the old fogey way while we break free to the left, cheering. I am not convinced this route is faster, but my brothers have pronounced it so, and they know everything that I do not.
Oh Dad, says Leda. You’re a young fogey.
They seem old to me, but Dad and Mom are still so young. Six kids and Dad isn’t even forty yet, Mom just forty-two.
Mom has placed her fingertips over her closed eyes, crease growing between her brows.
Getting a headache? says Dad, soft now.
Mmmm, she says, mouth working like she’s sucking on a candy.
Home is the smell of roast and church shoes kicked off savagely. Other families change out of their church clothes, but we eat in them and my brothers open their full mouths to show see food, then we do the dishes and roughhouse and spill gravy on our Sunday finery.
We rotate Sunday dinners between the six of us, one kid in charge of the whole shebang, roast and potatoes in the oven before church and dishes afterward. For a time, all six of us made Sunday dinner together and cleaned up together in a mad squirming knot in the kitchen. But we are too big, the kitchen too small, and Sunday dishes deteriorate into escalating, hostile games of Stop-touching-me/Not-touching-you as my brothers wrestle into the living room, booming the floor and shaking the house until Dad yells:
And if it goes on, Dad boils down the hall, head gone deep red, jingling his belt buckle.
Which is a terror-filled word from Dad, who does not swear. I don’t know if he ever actually uses the belt or just threatens us with it. I will grow to think it would be a relief if he would use it, just get it over with.
Dinner is on the table, but church was too much. Mom has retreated to the dark of her bedroom where Dad brings her a plate. She turns over in bed toward him, devoting to Dad her last crumb of energy. The music is dead in her voice, it pulls low and slow from her center, each word a moan. Dad’s answering tone is careful gentleness, the way you talk someone off a ledge.
This is normal. This is just how Mom is, on bad days. When she’s in the bedroom with the door closed, you do not knock, you do not go in. She is like this for days or weeks or months, and then one day the door will open.
At night after a good day, Mom’s laugh chimes, tumbles down the hall, Dad’s answering laugh moving underneath.
Provo lies at the bottom of a bowl of hulking mountains, in Utah Valley—Happy Valley to those who live here, sincere and sarcastic at once. My childhood house sits at the foot of Y Mountain, painted with a white Y halfway to the summit. It’s tradition—every year, students at BYU climb the mountain, armed with buckets for whitewashing the Y. Most are already winded when they get to our spot on the slope. You live here and mountains become backdrop, but every now and then you see them new again, unreasonably huge creatures ringing the valley. Growing up here, I heard them creak and shift at night. Belief in God comes easy with these omnipresent beings lurking over your shoulder. The mountains listen in on your secret thoughts, they judge your every move like the High Council, suited and tied and disapproving. Like them, the landscape talks in a man’s voice, dry and stingy with greens, lawns a luxury, coaxed out of the soil only with constant drenchings. Our valley is unarguably male.
Wife: seven-year-old girl
Husband: teenage boy, a cousin
Year: 1975. The girl wears red-white-and-blue shorts.
Place: her home, the basement family room. Sunlight shines in through a sliding glass door, stripes the yellow and orange shag carpet.
Consummation: The boy is watching TV, invites the girl to sit on his lap. He takes her hand and places it first on his belly. They both watch the TV screen, they watch but don’t see. He opens his shorts and moves her hand millimeter by millimeter, wraps her hand around his penis. Silky skin, hard and hot underneath, his hand on top of hers.
Duration: a few seconds, thirty seconds, a minute, an hour.
Their bodies fit, his chest against her back her bottom his hips their legs. A flood of love and shame. She knows she has done something wrong. Soon she will be eight years old. She will be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and will then be fully responsible for all of her actions. When she is baptized, she will be immersed in water and made clean of all her sins. She suspects this sin, however, might be etched too deep for water.
Not her. Me. I am the girl on my cousin’s lap. Do not mistake.
I open my mouth and swallow this whole, my cousin and his hot skin, me and my hand and the singing thrill that moved through my body. It’s nothing, it is not part of my story, I slip it into a pocket behind my ribs and go on with school and dance class and recitals and booming racket of brothers and I will not notice that my story has fragmented, exploding outward into the sky above Happy Valley.
My mother’s long fingernail is in my ear. My head is in her lap, and she is dragging a perfectly manicured nail through the paths and folds of my ear. My eyes are closed, body blissed.
All clean, says Mom.
Don’t stop, I say, not moving my head.
There’s nothing left to clean. Perfect, pink, little shell-like ears, she says.
Please, I say.
She indulges me. All the wax gone, nail scrapes bare skin, my hands tight between my knees, she digs in deep. It is a bright pain but I don’t want her to stop. I picture the red trail she leaves. She leans down and whispers:
You came out of my womb flirting with the doctor who delivered you.
It’s a half-joke. Delivered gently, but her voice is thick.
I sit up and the air feels colder for the warmth I’ve left. I don’t know how old I am. Has she always said this, or does she smell my corruption, do I stink of my cousin’s skin?
Mom says: Your first time on an airplane, I gave all you kids Dramamine to put you to sleep, but instead you and Micah were wired, running up and down the aisles. I found you, she says, sitting on a man’s lap, flirting like crazy.
I remember this. I remember the fat white man and I remember lying about my age, holding up three fingers although I was only two. My back fit against his belly, his lap warm. My character formed at birth, already evident in toddlerhood. Mom sees right into my perverted little heart.
But what does a two-year-old know about flirting? Maybe I was only fearless. I believed I could be friendly to anyone. And then and also: I am wrong and I am a flirt. Derrick Wolf raised his hand at school to complain that I touched his elbow. The boys my age are repulsed by me and my cooties, but I like boys, and maybe I shouldn’t, not so much.
I am supposed to grow up to be a wife. I am supposed to attract a righteous man. I am built for, meant for wiving. I will be to my husband as the church is to Jesus. I am meant to please him.
But I am already wrecked.
Flirting is shameful except when it isn’t. When Mom flirts it isn’t serious, she’s just playing at it with my sister’s boyfriends, they fall in love with her like everyone else but harmlessly—she’s a mom and a wife and so above the mess of my need.
Her earnest flirtation is saved for Dad. She goes to bed early and Dad says:
Don’t start without me.
He raises his eyebrows at her, cartoonishly suggestive.
Mmm, better hurry then, says Mom, swinging her hips as she goes.
The folding door at the back of the Relief Society room is open to show the baptismal font, blue swimming pool water, Celestial chlorine clean. Mormons are baptized at the age of eight. Baptism on Saturday, and then on Sunday I’ll be confirmed, a full member of the Church.
My father in white holds his hand high behind my head while he recites the baptismal prayer. The water is up to my ribs. I bend my knees and he lays me backward in the water while I hold my nose, then he pulls me up again against all that water. I’m getting ready to climb out, but there’s a quiet commotion among the men in their black suits. It seems the end of my braid floated up; I wasn’t completely immersed. A mite of sin holding to the tip of my braid. They call for a do-over. Dad does the prayer again and grabs my braid and dunks me with gusto so I lose grip on my nose and one foot floats up, cold air on my toe. It feels sloppy, but they call it good. We slosh our way up and out of the font.
I’m not sure I believe in my cleanliness. That toe poking out of the water, like Achilles’s heel. I want to get back in, try and try until we get it right.
I want to believe I can be good from now on.
But I won’t. I’ll sin again. Within the hour I’ll pick a fight with my brother.
I will sin again with my cousin.
In years to come I will sin a million times.
There’s a picture from this day, of Mom and me. I’m in my white baptismal dress and white bow, and Mom is crouched behind me, gripping my shoulders while I have a stranglehold on our calico kitten, Rover Cleveland. Mom looks happy. She’s slim, hair in a Dorothy Hamill cut. I’m grinning toothlessly into the camera, sinless for a minute.
When I turn twelve years old, my mother tells me I am now old enough to wear my hair in a French twist. I’m doing my own hair now, spend an hour getting it right on the Sunday after my birthday. I carry my head differently at church, officially a young woman. At school I’m in orchestra (violin), band (clarinet), and guitar class. I inherited my siblings’ outgrown musical instruments, carry them all with me to school—two instruments in one hand, one in the other, book bag over my shoulder, a nerd in full flower. After school is ballet, then Coppelia rehearsals, hours of ballet every night. I want to do all of it, hungry for the world; I am not growing up fast enough, my body not wide enough to hold everything I want to be.
One night I’m reading on the loveseat Dad hammered together from scraps of wood. Mom emerges from her room at the end of the hallway, sits next to me in the darkened living room.
I’m looking out over the city from our giant windows. Mom looks at the wall.
Have you ever been . . . molested, by one of your relatives? she says.
My heart grips hard inside me. The memory emerges against my will, pulled up like a rabbit out of a hat. I want to lean into her. Mom, I want to say, You see it. You see me.
Yes, I say.
She seems to draw into herself. She is looking down at the space between us on the love seat.
Who was—she begins. She corrects herself. I don’t need to know. Just tell me he’s been through the temple.
Good, she says. She nods to the space between our hands. That means he’s reconciled with Heavenly Father.
She gets up and goes to her room.
I’m left in the dark, the city lit up below.
Maybe, I think, it never happened after all.
Otherwise she would have taken me in her arms.
At twelve I have my first kiss from fifteen-year-old Dan and lie to my mother to cover it up: second wiving. At twelve I open my bedroom window when Robert the paperboy taps on the glass, lean out and let him (sin sin sin) feel my breasts: third wiving. When I am twelve Dave H., a grown man, pushes me to the floor, stabs his fingers into me, and I believe I must have invited it, that my rope-soled wedge sandals and my smile were the irresistible switch that turned him on. I believe and don’t believe it. He tells me not to scream and this means he knows what he’s doing is wrong. But I do not struggle hard enough, I do not try to hurt him, and this means my guilt is certain.
Fourth wiving, fifth wiving, sixth. There will be more boys, more men, more than I can count.
It’s a spring day and we’re having class outside. We are adolescent girls, and this is MIA, Mutual Improvement Association. Years later it will be called Young Women’s. At church, after Sacrament Meeting with everyone, and Sunday School with kids our age, the girls go to MIA and the boys to Priesthood Meeting. We’ve brought folding metal chairs to the grass so we won’t ruin our Sunday clothes. This is the lesson where we’re told that touching below the neck or above the knees is a sin. We are to keep ourselves pure for our future husbands; it’s better to die than to lose our virtue. The teacher compares me to a stick of gum that has been chewed and can’t be unchewed. I see myself stuck to the bottom of a desk, hardened there, kids picking at me under the desk through the years. We are sitting on metal chairs in a circle, and it’s a soft spring day, and I’m wearing a blue dress with little white flowers on it, and it slides over my pantyhose. I cannot look at the faces of the other girls. I am holding the MIA manual, its slippery cover open in my lap, and there are the words, neck and knees, below and above, tight words on a too-bright page.
At a certain point in the temple ceremony, attendees tie green aprons over their white temple clothes. The apron symbolizes the fig leaves Adam and Eve used to cover their nakedness. The aprons are meant to be simple. They are all made to the same template, no variation allowed.
But you can embroider it, says Mom. With green thread only.
I am barely a teenager, too young to go through the temple. Mom is embroidering an apron as a gift for my brother’s fiancée—she’ll wear it when she marries my brother. Mom isn’t supposed to reveal the ceremony’s secrets, but she tells me bits and pieces.
I think you would appreciate the symbolism, she says. It is strange and beautiful.
Mom is pushing the boundaries of what is allowed. Her green-on-green embroidery admits a narrow space for her eccentricity, the outlines of the leaves swooped and shaped into baroque scallops.
At its core, Mormonism is a mystical religion. I picture the temple ceremony, white-costumed believers sweeping their arms in choreographed signs, aprons unfolded in unison to hide their figurative nakedness.
Mom’s needle moves in and out, she pulls shining green thread taut, hands making semaphores. The apron on her lap, she on the king-size bed. On the wall behind her is one of my dad’s paintings, an angel looking down on Mom, paused in flight. He is somehow feral, scaled up from human size just enough to be disturbing.
As I walk home from church, the carillon bells chase me down the sidewalk. Every hour, they play the refrain from a hymn.
All is well, chimes the carillon.
All is well.
Excerpted from Wiving: A Memoir of Loving Then Leaving the Patriarchy