Originally published on Ex-Mormon Mavens and cross-posted here with permission.
I signed myself and my youngest daughter up for a self-defense class a few years ago. All I really wanted out of it was the ability to have a few tools to prevent me from freezing should I ever need to defend myself. I got that and a lot more that Saturday afternoon.
Before lunch we had a chance to practice on a punching bag. Mind you, I’ve never hit anyone or anything in my life; I avoid killing anything, including insects, unless they are actually harming me. I’d thrown a few half-hearted swings when suddenly I found myself throwing real punches. To my surprise each one got harder than the one before. It felt good. Really good.
I’d probably thrown about a half dozen good ones when suddenly my mind was filled with images. These were snapshots of the times in my life I’d been abused or harshly mistreated either mentally, emotionally or sexually. Some of them I had no previous conscious recollection of. Like a slideshow of rapidly changing pictures across a projector screen they filled my body with intense grief and I thought I was going to be ill.
I excused myself outside, trying to comprehend what was happening. I tried not to stuff it down and ignore it as I’d learned so well as a child. It’s likely I’d learned the “Turn it off” method spoken of in the “Book of Mormon” musical.
As I sat outside on a planter box I began to comprehend the significance of the images. What I recognized was pattern that had plagued me as far back as I could remember. What each of these images had in common was that I had never acted in my own defense or self-interest. Never fought back. Never spoken up. Never said “no” to or walked away from those who sought emotional, spiritual, even physical power over me.
Most horrifying was the realization that it had never even occurred to me, even as an adult, that I had any other options than to “take it.” I was overcome not so much by the images themselves, but the realization that I’d lived my entire life physically in passivity. Time stopped as I reviewed the mostly forgotten scenes I’d been shown.
Why? Why had I not even known that I could have done anything? I don’t remember anything about the rest of the afternoon.
As time went on I was thankful but also relieved that in the aftermath of those memories I had no desire to focus on the perpetrators, nor did I blame myself. I simply sat in awe of how it was possible to live 46 years and not know I had choices when threatened. I reflected back on my own children, knowing full well that there was no possible way any of them would have stayed quiet or stuck around in the situations I endured. I went home with more questions for myself than answers, but determined to keep an open mind and see what revealed itself.
I allowed myself several months of quiet and solitude wherever I could grab it; one of the unexpected gifts of joint custody. I gave my heart and my mind permission to show me what needed to come forward and be brought into the light or recovered from the unconscious so that I could heal and evolve. I let myself cry. A lot. I held that little girl who didn’t know normal. I comforted that young bride who previously wouldn’t admit that what had happened to her was rape. I forgave myself and the perpetrators and released each memory by burning it on a piece of paper after working with it. I slept more. I ate less. At times my body felt frozen, like a deer in the headlights. I managed to function at work but when I came home I’d head straight for the couch and just sit until I fell into bed. I knew inside there was a lot moving and shifting happening.
Through it all I was also tracing the patterns of helplessness back through my life. But when I got to the beginning of me, there was another thread…my mother…my grandmother…my great-grandmother….no voices, no fire in our bellies. It made perfect sense. I had never seen anything but helplessness, not only in the women in my family, but in the women who were my role models growing up at church. This was my feminine heritage, not only ancestrally, but spiritually and religiously. It colored everything.
I became a vigilant watcher of myself and all women around me, for this pattern or lack of it, this lack of “fighting back” or the courage to do so. I became a student of my own and others’ behavior in the face of abusive power.
I decided, with the prompting from my Spiritual Teacher Jayna, to perform a healing ritual for myself and my feminine line. I was determined that this pattern would end with me. No more helplessness, no more meekness, no more tolerance of abuse. It seemed my daughters had dodged this plight and had enough personal power to act for themselves, but only because I had always encouraged them to share what was in their hearts, to make their own decisions and to expect kindness and respect wherever they went. I wanted to make a new pattern for my granddaughters and forward, perhaps heal not only backward but forward so they were not imprinted in any way.
The ritial all came together quite naturally despite the fact that I was a newbie at this earth-based, Pagan thing; at least consciously. Underneath my Mormon background, where women sat witness to men performing all ordinance and ceremony, my Pagan Goddess persona took this stuff on like a pro and it flowed out of me when given a chance, as naturally as sap from a tree.
Synchronistically, I was scheduled for a long overdue partial hysterectomy in the coming months so it seemed fitting to use this most feminine part of my body in the ritual. I had made peace with letting go of my uterus. Gone were my days of bearing babies. Although I loved marking the rhythm of my body with the cycles of the moon it was now taking too much effort and causing too much inconvenience to keep my womb in my abdomen. This womb had held my children, and was once in my mother’s womb, and her’s in my grandmother’s.
I summoned the courage by my pre-op appointment and asked my surgeon what I needed to do in order to procure my uterus after removal. He was surprisingly cooperative, suggesting we use a specific hospital, which tended to have a more lenient policy on these things. He said he would do what he could to make sure I got it back. It felt good to be honest, open and my authentic self in asking for what I wanted. When I arrived at my 2 week post op check up he had it for me in a plastic container, labeled and placed in a brown paper lunch bag. When I got home I placed it in the bottom back of my freezer with a LARGE label and gave myself a few months to heal. In the meantime I practiced non-silence as often as I could in every area of my life.
I will skip most of the details of my ceremony due to their sacred nature to me but I will share that I did the ceremony alone in my back yard, under a Spring Full Moon. It involved what was supposed to be a small fire but turned into a huge bonfire in an almost supernatural way. It was powerful. It was healing. It was fun. I named each woman in my feminine line starting with my great grandmothers, both maternal and paternal and moving forward until I reached my sisters and finally, myself. I had only known one of my great grandmothers, but I had listened to enough stories over the years from relatives.
After calling her name and inviting her presence, I named her feminine wounds out loud, one at a time: the ways in which she was not allowed to be fully herself. Then I proudly named the feminine gifts she brought to our line and I thanked her for sharing them with me. For, despite their wounds they had gifted the women in my family generously. While it could have been wishful thinking, and it’s possible I imagined it all, I will say I didn’t feel alone in my backyard that night and somehow I found a new strength and power in its wake. I felt the strength of the generations with me on that dark, crisp night as the fire I’d built blazed bright in my eyes.
The following year I found myself surrounded and somewhat overwhelmed by the stories in the media of LGBTQ youth taking their lives because of the way they were bullied by their peers and treated by their families. Some of them were LDS. I grieved. I felt helpless. I pondered the problem. I realized that we, as women, the mothers, aunts and grandmothers, have the ability—more than anyone—to turn this tide, if we, as a group, refuse to let any child be bullied. I realized if this tide was to turn with this generation it was vital that we as women stood up and refused to let the children in our charge be taught inaccurate, outdated or bigoted information. We would have to stand up to our schools, our churches and our families.
Out of my pain I posted on my Facebook Wall a status with the MLK quote, “Our life begins to end the moment we remain silent about things that matter,” and followed it with my thoughts that we, as women, need to stand up and refuse to let our children and our neighborhood children be given misinformation in our churches, in our schools, in our homes. I cringed as I posted it. I imagined the possible ramifications personally, but I had to speak out.
The response was fascinating and unexpected. I got a few positive comments from my non-religious, more liberal friends and there was not the backlash I had feared from my family. No big surprises: until my private message box began to fill with messages from LDS women, mostly my peers—women who I had raised my children with.
Each expressed, in her own words, the same basic sentiment. They thanked me for speaking out and standing up and stated that although they agreed with me, they could not speak out publicly or in their homes for fear of the consequences. I was dumbfounded. How could this be? What century were we in? What was this saying? These intelligent, educated, compassionate women were still afraid of being “burned at the stake” like the witches were centuries ago. I could not comprehend that as women in the 21st century we had made so little progress.
I pondered this. I still ponder this. I can’t say I came to any substantive conclusion other than there was a pattern. As I’ve continued to live my life outside the LDS culture and mindset I have had other women reach out to me in support and for support in speaking up, in leaving, in staying. And so, I ask you to continue this conversations with me.
Do you speak up?
Do you stand up?
Do you speak out?
Do you remain quiet?
Are you able to speak your truth in your life?
In your home?
In your church?
Is there anything or anywhere that you are holding back?
What keeps you from speaking out in your family or publicly?
Let’s have a conversation.
Valerie Wilkins Alder is a Native Oregonian, Mom of four and would-be writer who shares her life joyfully and passionately with her husband of 18 months. She posts under the pseudonym InconvenientRuth on the blog Ex-Mormon Mavens. She is a dental hygienist, massage therapist, shaman and ordained minister who loves to split her time between her family, her bicycle and her yoga mat. She was raised in the Mormon Church but left at age forty to pursue other spiritual paths. Her passion for the equal rights of all people stimulated her official resignation from the Mormon Church over the Church’s official stance and involvement in attempting to prevent Marriage Equality in California’s Prop 8.