From the time I was a very young girl, I was being sexually abused by multiple members of my family. As is common for children in this situation, I was convinced that it was all my fault, the result of some error or fundamental flaw on my part. The shame was overwhelming, and so I told no one of what was happening.
I distinctly remember feeling elation when the time came for my baptism. At last, my “sins” would be washed away, completely! I could finally be the “good girl” everyone always thought I was! And I had a plan: to achieve salvation, I would just have to make sure that no one ever touched me again.
What I didn’t realize then (and wouldn’t for more than two decades) was that the situation was entirely out of my control. The abuse continued, and with it a deepening of shame and self loathing that only increased as I entered the Young Women’s program. Every lesson on the importance of virtue was like a dagger through my heart. I was this evil thing who had seemingly never had any virtue to lose, and I lived in terror of the eternal consequences.
At last, at the age of 14, the agony of not “repenting” finally outweighed my fear of confession. A bishop I had loved and trusted was nearing the end of his tenure, and his impending departure from the calling was enough to galvanize me into action.
I confessed to my parents in a letter. To my shock, they assured me that it had not been my fault. They then sent me to talk to the bishop.
There are many components of that interview that I still cannot recall, great gaps my traumatized brain refuses to revisit. Other aspects, however, will never fade. I distinctly remember the room where I met with the bishop. How small I felt staring across at him behind the enormous desk. I remember the painting behind his head, one of the second coming of Christ, with the righteous bathed in light to his right and the wicked cowering in misery and shadow to his left. I remember this feeling of absolute horror, of betrayal, a desperation *not* to be made to say what he was insisting I recount. And the shame. Wave after wave of soul-crushing shame.
And then, the moment that would haunt me for years to come. He demanded to know how recently this had last happened. Was it occurring after my baptism? If so, I would need to repent.
I cannot describe the shock and horror at this point. My parents had been wrong, it *was* my fault! At least, everything after baptism was (and everything before was still my doing, I just couldn’t be held accountable for it). I panicked, mumbled something vague about it only continuing “a little while after I turned 8” (when in fact it had been years) and left his office knowing that the only reason more repentance hadn’t been demanded from me was because I had misled the bishop.
I spent the next twenty years cowering from that interview. I avoided dating in the terror that I could not be trusted to ensure that the boy did not cross any lines. I avoided doing baptisms for the dead, as I feared that I was not worthy to enter the temple and yet could not bear to bring the subject up again in yet another interview. I became painfully shy, reclusive, and found myself grateful that no one would ever love me, because that meant I would never have to face the shame of not being worthy to marry in the temple. All the while, I did everything I possibly could to be righteous, became Pharisaical in my obedience, desperate to make up for my past.
My misery escalated in college when the bishop came to the YSA Relief Society to give a lesson on sexual purity. Here was another bishop whom I liked and generally trusted, and I was losing all ability to cope. I *tried* to get myself to meet with him, returned to his door again and again in an effort to force myself and simply sign up for a time slot and go from there. Then, I would remember that fateful interview, and could not do it.
I began to have nightly panic attacks. A few short years later, while in graduate school, I suffered a massive psychological breakdown. Afraid of the calm fervency with which I wished for my own death, I abandoned my graduate program, dropped out and shut down. I knew, without question, that there was no point: I could never go forward without first looking back. And even now, I could not do it. I had tried that once, faced my fears and confessed my “sins”, but there had been no solace, no peace, no help. Just shame.
It took me years before I finally reached out to a therapist. Years after that before I could bring up the abuse and aftermath. Years of extensive cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR (a technique used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder) before I could even begin to understand.
The bishop had been *wrong*. Whether at the age of 6 or 11, it didn’t matter. I was not guilty of sin; I was being abused. I was not the perpetrator, but the victim. That lifetime of shame had *never been mine to bear*. Yet I had borne it, and been encouraged to carry it, by one who I had been raised to trust unquestioningly, and who I had turned to in desperation. Years of agony, all for nothing.