Bishop Smith seemed shocked when I returned to school no longer on probation. He couldn’t seem to grasp that I was neither far too ruined for redemption nor, I suspected, that I’d managed to slide from his control.
Although I was no longer required to report to him, I still felt an inexplicable need to prove myself. I wanted him to see me thriving because, for all the emotional upheaval I had endured since our first meeting, I had survived. I had overcome it all, everything inflicted both by him and by myself. I wanted to show him that he hadn’t broken me like some once wild horse.
So it was, when he invited me to a special fireside taught by his wife, that I accepted, eye contact strong, internal fire blazing. I wasn’t afraid. I wouldn’t bow. He couldn’t make me run.
Sister Smith was a good foot taller than her husband and several times his weight. Her audience at the fireside was a large group of young women ranging in age from 18 to 21. I’m not sure what her official topic was but her presentation was centered largely on the blessings of being a Bishop’s wife.
Sister Smith opened the fireside by recounting how she and “Bishop,” as she referred to her husband, had met in school and gotten married right away. “No need to wait for weeks on end! When you know, you know!” She bubbled.
Through the course of the presentation, it became apparent that this was a basic marriage pitch. I’d sat through several before. It was no big deal and certainly nothing new but it chaffed me in a way that similar events hadn’t before. Perhaps because I was already so raw.
“I am so blessed to be a Bishop’s wife,” Sister Smith expressed. “Now I have everything I’ve ever wanted and you girls can too if you just stay on the path of righteousness.”
I had heard of women that defined themselves by their husband’s lofty profession. They seemed to feel as if their spouse’s societal role somehow validated them as well. I never understood why these women didn’t just become doctors, lawyers or whatnot themselves. Then they could be the thing they so admired, not just his wife. Maybe they weren’t willing to do the work involved or perhaps the possibility simply hadn’t crossed their minds.
Sister Smith’s words had that same familiar ring. Why was she so enthralled to be “the Bishop’s wife”? Did she somehow think that his spiritual calling reflected her own worthiness? Or did she harbor unfulfilled leadership aspirations herself?
The second possibility intrigued me. Did Sister Smith extoll her imagined calling as the “Bishop’s Wife” to somehow compensate for her own frustrated potential? As a woman, she could never be a Bishop. It wasn’t allowed. Did she subconsciously resent that? Was “Bishop’s wife” the closest she could get? Or was I just reading into it? I toyed with the thought in my head before returning my attention to her words.
Sister Smith was writing down a list of personal attributes on the board that we should attempt to cultivate in order to become more attractive to a worthy marital prospect. She continued to refer to her husband as “Bishop” throughout. I wondered if she always called him that or if she’d just forgotten what his real name was.
“It’s important to remember, girls,” she intoned, “that your place as a woman is in the home. This is your divinely sanctioned purpose. You were created to be good wives and mothers. There is nothing more important than that. You are all here at BYUH to find husbands … and maybe even get a degree, if it works out like that.”
Anger rolled up inside my stomach.
Maybe a degree. Maybe.
A thin line of blood drifted across my tongue, a metallic ribbon escaping the skin ruptured by my own teeth. My jaw clamped shut to prevent me from screaming aloud in frustration.
Time to go.
As I walked home alone in the warm evening air, my soul cried out in rage and sorrow. Rage at the injustice of a system that routinely tamped down the potential of young women, a system that tried to keep them securely and quietly in their place. Sorrow that it was working so damn well.
I thought of my friend Katie who had gotten married the first semester of our freshman year – just one of hundreds. I had later visited Katie at her apartment in the “Young Married Student Housing” section of campus. Her new home was beautifully appointed. Everything was perfectly in place. It looked like a picture out of “Better Homes and Gardens: the Utah Edition.”
Katie offered me something to drink and played the perfect hostess. It felt awkward and forced. We should have been going out dancing at 18, not playing house. It was like she had aged 30 years overnight … or was trying to.
I didn’t have any contact with Katie for a while after that. She had dropped out of school. We were running in different circles then. When I returned to school this semester, I learned that she and Hyrum had separated. Soon afterward, they divorced.
Of course, there were no guarantees in life. If she hadn’t followed the script of our dominant culture, would she have escaped these difficulties? Maybe, maybe not. But then, I reasoned, at least her struggles would have been wrought by her own hand. They were still results of her choices, I supposed. But it didn’t feel that way.
A cool breeze rustled against my humidity-kissed skin and pulled me back to the present. I was just passing the “Johnny Lingo” house. Word had it that the house was owned by the man who had once played the role of Mahana’s abusive father in the Mormon cult classic “Johnny Lingo.” It was said that if you asked, sitting around the nightly fire, he would repeat his famous line, “Mahana you ugly!”
I’d seen the movie in church dozens of times. It centered on a confident, handsome, young Polynesian trader who offered to pay 10 cows, instead of the one she was widely assumed to be worth, for Mahana – the homeliest girl on the island. Mahana’s father, who had said, “I’m ready to give him a cow just to have him take her off my hands,” was stunned by Johnny Lingo’s generous offer. Johnny then took Mahana away. When they later returned, she had become beautiful.
It’s a classic tale. Boy falls for girl. Girl’s verbally abusive father sells girl for cattle. Boy fixes girl. It was a Mormon film staple, its message deeply ingrained.
Everyone wanted the Johnny Lingo story. They wanted someone to save them, to complete and validate them, to give them identity and purpose. I thought of my young dorm mates, giggling about M.R.S. Degrees. I had wanted to scream at them, “Be strong! Stand on your own two feet! Take control of your life!” But I hadn’t yet done that for myself. I hadn’t yet come full circle and taken ownership of my own life.
Instead, I went looking for saviors of my own- the Bishop, the church. It was so much easier than claiming responsibility for myself. But I had slowly begun to do just that. Bit by bit, piece by piece. I was slowly starting to stand up. I had to. It was either that or lay down for eternity. There could be no other way. Starting with that bulletin board in my old dorm, through demanding release from my probation to walking out that night, I had begun to fight back for myself and my identity. I couldn’t be a passive observer in my own existence … not anymore.
The moonlight kissed my arms and legs as the trade winds whipped through my hair. It sent a tingling sensation up my spine that made me shiver.
This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.