As a young child, I overheard whispered conversations between my mom and her younger sisters at family reunions. As soon as I or my grandparents drew nearby, the subject would change….Usually to something like “Oh, do you want a popsicle? I think we should get out popsicles for all the kids!”
I do remember hearing snippets like “touching” “diaper area” “don’t leave them with…” and I remember having an itch in my groin when we were visiting my grandparents as a young child and my mom told me not to touch myself there and offered me a bottle of Vaseline to put on the irritated area. I remember fearing my maternal grandfather, steering clear of him, but not really knowing why….he just reminded me of monsters and nightmares…
When I was nine a local missionary had started to use grooming behaviors on me. My parents found out that he had hurt another little girl and reported him to the mission president. He was sent home. I didn’t understand what happened except that I was not supposed to accept candy. This would have been an opportune time for my parents to shield me and help me know how to handle and report later grooming behavior….
The summer I turned twelve (1984), our family moved fifteen miles away from my mom’s parents. My parents had been given a generous loan from my grandfather to put towards a down payment on a 1930s bungalow with a large yard, in walking distance to school, church, stores, etc. I had just started my first period and was very self-conscious of my blossoming body. After a few weeks of settling in, we went to my grandparents’ home for a visit.
My parents had drilled into me the importance of respect for elders and honoring parents. I knew that obedience was a commandment from God. So, when my grandfather asked me to sit on his lap, I obliged. I gave him a quick hug and tried to leave, but he held me there and asked me to kiss his cheek.
From there, things escalated. He asked my parents if he could have my ten year old sister and I help him with farm work. He would pay us for our time. $2.50/hour. It went from helping him with farm work on weekends with my father there to having us spend summer weekdays on the farm, moving sprinklers, hauling hay, herding sheep, taking care of horses, etc.
One day, he isolated me from the rest of the group and asked me to come with him to check out the orchard. I didn’t want to, but my mom had told me to be a good girl and work hard for grandpa that morning when she’d dropped me off.
He drove me to a separate part of the property to an old trailer parked next to the trees. He grabbed my hand and pulled me in. I resisted. He covered my mouth with his hand and told me that he wouldn’t hurt me if I was a good girl. He had a secret to share with me. He pushed me onto the bed and started to paw me, pulling off my pants and grabbing at my breasts. I cried and told him to stop. He threw his body over mine and then told me that we could do this quickly or the hard way.
He pulled off my panties and started commenting on my beautiful “pussy”. I was frozen in fear. The stench of mildew, old dust and his sweat hung in the air. Even though he was in his seventies, he was a strong, wiry man. No one was in earshot. He molested me for what felt like an eternity, and then he decided his “hard-on” needed attention. “Look what you’re making me do! You’re so wet now.” He then proceeded to rape me.
I was crying and frozen when he told me to get dressed or he’d do it again.
Then, he told me that I must keep silent or he’d hurt my little sisters. No one would believe me over him. I needed to be a good girl and do what he said….
How do you open up about an incident like this to your parents? Especially when it’s your mom’s father? I was scared and confused. I tried to tell my mom that I didn’t want to stay and work on grandpa’s farm, but it was the beginning of the week and we were stuck there until Saturday, when my parents would come collect us.
I tried to avoid being alone with him, but he would find opportunities to trap me and sexually harass and molest me. In the barn, out checking fences, trail rides with the horses, washing dishes after dinner. I was raped so many times I lost count. Sometimes it was just an inappropriate touch over clothing. Other times it turned into rape. He would show up unexpectedly at our house right after my parents left to run an errand and rape me on my own bunk bed. I lived in constant fear.
Meanwhile, I was attending church every week and having worthiness interviews before every youth temple trip. I was terrified of telling my bishop, because maybe he might see me as an easy target and do the same thing. I distrusted all men and boys. I saw myself as warped. I chopped off my hair and tried to make myself look more boyish. I wore baggy clothes to hide my curves. I served in my Young Women presidencies and on the seminary council and would pray fervently for God to fix the situation for me.
And then, two summers later, my mom brought up to me in a conversation at home that two of my cousins were accusing my grandpa of rape and molestation. But, they needed a family member who lived in the same state as him to come forward for the charges to stick.
The words stuck in my throat as I tried to weigh whether I could trust Mom and unload my story. Just as I was about to admit the whole horror to her, she made it clear where her loyalties were. She shared with me that her maternal grandfather had molested her when she was a kid, but he was just having fun. It wasn’t wrong.
My soul screamed out, “Yes, it is wrong! Haven’t you noticed me retreating into myself? Haven’t you noticed how I absorb myself in books to try to enter a fantasy world?”
I was terrified of men. My mom’s baby brother also worked on the farm and he would touch my knees and thigh provocatively. I had lost count of the number of times I’d been violated and teased by LDS men and boys.
A year and a half later, in the winter of 1987-1988, my dad stormed down to my room and confronted me and my sister. “Did your Grandpa rape you?” He asked me.
“No,” said my sister, quietly. “Yes!” I exhaled. The secret was out. My sister then admitted to being molested.
(More of my female cousins had come forward….it was time for the nightmare to end!)
Then Dad grilled me for an hour. He then called the police and asked them to come in an unmarked car, so as not to draw suspicion. I was then asked to make a statement with a male police officer. My parents had me separated into my little brother’s bedroom for more privacy. I made my report as quickly as possible because I felt trapped. I felt so scared, I wanted to puke! The officer explained that I would need to remember clearly what I said in my statement so that the evidence could convict him in court. So, I decided to only report three very clear instances of rape, one from each year.
Then it was a medical exam with a male doctor who used a cold speculum to determine if my hymen had been ruptured….there was no semen evidence available, but I “might be telling the truth”. I came home and cried quietly in my room afterward. The rape exam felt like an additional rape. The doctor never told me what he was going to do, or why it was necessary. I felt so violated!
Then a closed door interview with my male bishop, and though he was kind, I experienced so much anxiety in my interview with him. He wanted all the details, so I gave him the same three instances I had given the police. He helped my parents finance church-arranged therapy appointments for the next few months. My therapist wasn’t licensed yet and had no qualifications for dealing with sexual trauma. I had to write a letter to the First Presidency of the LDS church so they could excommunicate my grandfather.
In June 1998, I was sixteen. My court date was two days away (male, Mormon judge) and I was scared. My mom talked me out of testifying in court when I woke up screaming from my nightmare of facing my rapist in the courtroom. We had learned that the judge was going to have me in the same room as my grandfather to bear testimony. I didn’t want to face him again. I would have nightmares of him turning my body to ice in the courtroom and I couldn’t talk. I was scared and frightened. As I was the key witness, once my mom called to say I wasn’t testifying, he was released. My dad threatened my mom with divorce. I begged him to not tear our family apart. I was tired. Tired of being questioned, tired of having to relive the trauma. I craved normalcy and stability. My dad relented, but there was an icy chill between my parents for over a year.
I felt that this was all my fault. That was why my mother’s family was tearing apart; our family was tearing apart. I was ruining their “perfect Mormon” family image. I was the rift in the earthquake. I retreated into my schoolwork for escape, clinging to my homework and extracurricular activities like tree roots and branches on the sides of a cliff.
My dad could no longer stand the thought of living so close to my grandparents. So, we moved. We moved to the other end of the state to the Navajo reservation. I decided that this would be a space to reinvent myself. I took up running and joined the cross country team…..I became close to another girl on the team and we started a lesbian relationship. Oh, crap! More secrets! On top of this was the excommunication of George P.Lee and the news of his sexual assaults of young girls.
By our senior year, I realized I wanted out of my lesbian relationship and so I lied to my girlfriend about what school I was going to attend. But, she discovered the truth and figured out how to become my college roommate. She threatened to tell my family about our lesbian relationship as a way to control me. Utah in the early 1990s was not the most friendly of places to be out of the closet.
She had been physically abused by her alcoholic father and had spent a few years in foster care where she had been sexually abused. There were a lot of red flags! Anyway, over the next five and a half years, what started as a loving relationship escalated into domestic abuse (sometimes with roommates present who ignored/didn’t understand my attempts to get free…) My freshman and sophomore year, I started to consider suicide. The guilt and shame and abuse made me feel like I could never break free. She threatened to kill me three times, and I begged her to go ahead and do it.
My mom started to pester me after I turned nineteen to write a letter of forgiveness to the First Presidency so my grandfather could be rebaptized. He had never apologized to me, but she kept telling me how sorry he was and how much it meant to her and grandma. I had stopped attending the LDS church and decided to go ahead and write a terse forgiveness note so my mom would stop.
But, I didn’t know how to tell my parents that I needed help escaping my girlfriend. They suspected, but did nothing. I finally got free a few weeks after I met my husband in 1996. He helped me make an escape plan (I didn’t want to press charges….I just wanted out!) and I fell in love with how safe and secure I felt with him. He found me a safe house, arranged a security detail so I would not get trapped by myself, and lovingly showed me what Christ would do in this situation. I went through a disciplinary council with the church to repent of my sins so that we could get married in the temple. I went on to be a Relief Society president and serve in other local leadership positions, and tried for many years to try to make the church a safer place on the local level. As I reached out to other LDS women, I realized that my story is, sadly, not rare.
My grandfather never served any time in prison. He was rebaptized and buried in his temple clothing. My rough count to date is that he raped/molested at least twenty family members, and that he may have also groomed and hurt other girls using positions of authority in the LDS church and moving to new towns before charges could be made. Some of my cousins and second cousins have attempted/succeeded in suicide attempts that are directly related to the toxic abuse in my extended family. This is after years of piecing together different stories shared by different female family members. I hope that in reporting this abuse, the cycle has been interrupted.
Closed door interviews with a man behind a desk still make me anxious. I will never allow my teen daughters to be pulled aside for one-on-one interviews! The shaming starts early, and it doesn’t end unless we shine a light upon it!