Approximately 50 years ago, I was molested and raped as a young girl in a small Mormon farming community in SE Idaho. It has taken years for me to realize the impact that this has had on my life. The abuse took place over time by the area counselor to the Stake President. The covert pedophile moved to the area and befriended my parents. I often spent Sundays after church playing with the pedophile’s daughter, which created a perfect scenario for the man to groom me for his own purposes.
For years I suffered from recurrent nightmares where a Holstein bull would appear out of nowhere and chase me around the farm. It’s deep guttural bellows filled the air as it furiously tried to find me and to crush me with its massive body. The feeling behind the night terrors was one of the bull wanting to completely pulverize and destroy me as a living being– to smash me into an unrecognizable pile of bones and flesh. I had no answer for those dreams until I began therapy for the abuse years later. Once I equated the bull’s hatred with the abuser’s actions, the nightmares largely disappeared.
Like most children that suffer substantial abuse, I blocked out the experiences from my conscious memories, but its effects still emerged from my subconscious memory from time to time. Traumatic abuse of this sort severely impacts self-worth, and for years I truly thought that my life had no intrinsic value. Decades later, I learned that substantive childhood trauma rewires the brain’s circuits and impairs 5 areas of the brain associated with developing a healthy sense of self-esteem. To understand that the lack of self-worth, which had plagued me for decades, was due to impaired biological functioning and not to some inherent character flaw was a game-changer.
As a teen, I also experienced sexual arousal when I was alone with the bishop for worthiness interviews. At the time, this mortified me, and I thought that I was under an evil influence because I had no viable answers for why my body responded as it did. I never acted on the urges and instead chose to belittle myself with shame and guilt over something I did not understand. I concluded that there was something really wrong with me to have no control over my body’s sexual arousal. I did not realize that it was the body’s unconscious memory of being sexually aroused by the pedophile when he abused me and acted as the man in charge of what god wanted to teach me.
When I attended mental health counseling at BYU for the abuse, I asked my family about it. My mother told me that she reasoned that if I had been abused by the pedophile and family friend that god would heal me and she prayed for that result. She cautioned me against mental health counseling as she believed that it was Satan-inspired and was a tool to tear families apart. She told me to trust in god as she had done and that would suffice. I needed more than that.
Mother stated that my grandfather caught the pedophile abusing my uncle in our family’s hay yard. Soon after that the pedophile and his family left the area. After a few months, authorities contacted my grandfather and asked him to write and sign an affidavit about what he had witnessed in the hay yard. The abuser had reoffended in his new community and the authorities wanted the affidavit to create a case against him and to hold him accountable for his harmful actions. My grandmother forbade my grandfather from doing so because she did not want to cast the church in a bad light or to ruin anyone’s reputation. I suspect that my grandmother’s refusal to provide supporting evidence towards the man’s crimes was also based on the fact that if the story was picked up in the newspaper, it might cause people in the small Mormon community to not look so favorably on our family. In the community, reputation was everything.
The underlying communication was that it was more important to protect the church, its image and people’s reputation than to put a stop to the abuse. Putting the church’s image above the welfare of children and one’s own family was hard for me to grasp. A part of me tried to dismiss the family dynamics as to how the abuse was handled back then, as people not knowing any better; however, ignoring offenses and trusting in god as the only viable option, in my opinion, served as a spineless deflection away from the responsibility to stop the abuses. I’ve come to conclude with time that people will only see what they want to see as true–it’s unfortunately how the human brain is hardwired to frame reality.
There is more to the insidious story, but I will stop here. On many levels, the abuse that went on in the name of god and protecting the church wounded me in ways that I am still unraveling. I don’t like to frame myself as a victim, but as I have read books such as Van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score,” and Walker’s “Complex PTSD,” I am coming to a new understanding of just deeply being emotionally and physically abused as children affects people. Recent advances in scientific research is giving new insight into understanding the lasting effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences.
The physical abuse and pursuant lack of emotional support and denial, which I experienced in the Mormon culture, rewired my nervous system to see life as a constant threat. This alone has has created a substantial stress on my body and I deal with it every day. Early on I was groomed to give away my power to male and family authorities, and to rarely question people that supposedly acted for god in my behalf. This supported the church culture, often at the expense of family integrity. You either conformed to church authority and if you chose not to fit in there was social Hell to pay. I learned early on to go numb to life, to live in constant fear, and to close my eyes to what I really saw going on around me.
After a lot of soul-searching, I left the church in the early nineties after serving a mission to Spain, woking in the Provo Temple, and graduating from BYU. The decision terrified me at the time. My soul needed to get away from the indoctrination to protect the religion at all costs before I could begin to hollow out a space in life where I could live authentically. As for the abuse that I experienced at the hand of the Mormon religion, I no longer blame it as the tarpit that I once framed it as a reason to no longer move forward in life. Yet at the same time, a part of me still exists that wants to ignore the abuse’s effects on my life, but I have realized over time that disassociating with the many abuses is how I survived. At least now, as a mature adult, I can embrace the inner child that was ignored and rejected and give it the unconditional love and health-based emotional support that it never received in the Mormon culture, especially as a female. One of the greatest blessings I have learned from leaving the church is that the Creator’s love is truly unconditional. Contrary to the fear tactics used in the church to keep members subdued, I have not lost the ability to know light and truth.
This following is a meditative piece that I wrote. I share it as a prayer for all of us that are seeking healing in life and learning to grow strength from life’s adversity.
All life is precious.
All life is sacred.
All are connected through the beauty of our souls.
Each breath is blessing.
Each heart in beauty.
True self reflected by the wisdom of your soul.
© Cristi Jenkins 2018 All Rights Reserved Permission is granted for publication on this site.