You are reading Fiddleblack #15
My father spent the second-last week of his life in a VA hospice room, an ersatz suburban parlor with a beeping bed. It was a relief of sorts after the double-occupant room we’d been overcrowding—except that this room meant imminent death. My sisters, Marti and Teri, and our younger brother Tony scheduled vigil shifts. Tom, third sibling but oldest brother, was flying from Kenai.
Our mother was, predictably, capable in her distress. Present most of the time. She sat and slept in the heavy armchair next to his bed. She murmured medical explanations to him, kept her hand on the sheets near his, sometimes stepped away a moment to recompose herself.
The oncologist predicted death in two weeks, lucidity for less than one.
What to do with a few more days of access? Screen out visitors? Wake him up for every last goodbye? He had already made his final request: “Make sure your mother gets out. She’s a bit of an introvert.”
By now we were all strangely out of conversation.
In life, the man we had all come to call CT upholstered his misanthropic disgust for fools, harpies, fruitcakes, posers, climbers, and sycophants with deceptively gregarious warmth. Because Mormons regard common ward membership as a family bond, congregants arrived at the Hospice Room regularly and unannounced to deliver soothing platitudes. Remarkably, Dad broke the morphine surface for each new visitor, treating everyone with deference, almost meekness. We all anticipated an expulsion at some point, a scatter of well-wishers blown out like wet October leaves. But our father’s single act of exasperation was to seize the transparent tube taped absurdly to the end of his nose and yank it out.
We live near the hospital, so my shifts were easiest. Maya had given up her bedroom to my mother for naps and short garish nights but this afternoon Mom had driven the hour to her home to make space for a hospice bed and equipment. I sat in Dad’s room, trying to concentrate on a book.
“Want me to read to you? There’s a funny chapter about Hoover Dam.”
“Not now,” he answered. And, consoling: “Maybe later?”
He closed his eyes, dozed, woke within minutes.
“Um. Sorry,” he said, and I knew to get up.
I said, “I’ll check on you in a bit.”
This was frequent. It was excruciating for him to sit up and manage the urinal, and mortifying to hand his children a jug of hot liquid, but to him anything was better than a catheter. I walked out to wait on the dismal love seat in the doorway foyer. I held the book open in my lap, but studied the cracked paint behind the gaudy floral print on the wall. A group of middle-aged Sunday couples wandered by, scanning room numbers.
“Here it is,” someone said, after everyone else had passed. They all backtracked to face the door, and me. The three men wore dark suits. The women wore floral dresses or skirts under long coats, hair in tailored and sprayed asymmetries.
“Can I help you?”
“Is this Tom Anderson’s room?”
The women were wearing heels. The men were all tall, approaching portly—my age, maybe a bit younger. I resented having to look upward to make eye contact. I assumed professorial stance.
“We’re the bishopric,” a man with a tasteful dotted tie informed me, as if this were sufficient. In my parents’ world, it was.
I knew these people came with sincere good will. Still. Had anyone bothered to call? Did these men simply identify themselves as ecclesiastical titles? Their wives were not “The Bishopric.” Were they just folded into the term? I knew the answer.
I struggled to contain my philosophies, because the relevant point was that a mere door partitioned us from the quiet throes of a dying man. I tried to smile graciously, but I wanted to make them spell out their intentions. People from my ex-husband Art’s Mormon congregation found it expedient to call my youngest daughter Maya at her apostate mother’s house: they invited her to activities and meetings, assigned her to parts and participations, never introducing themselves or soliciting my consent. My status as ex-wife, ex-Mormon wrecker of values sanctioned them to speak to my kids as if I didn’t exist, to arrange my children’s lives and salvations around the inconvenience of an insistently present mother.
A death vigil means minute after ticking minute.
I stood, still, between my parents’ Bishopric and the door to what was left of my father, waiting for someone to rise to the standards of human courtesy.
One man inquired, “Are you his daughter?”
“Which one are you? Are you the nurse?”
“No, that’s my sister Marti.”
“Oh, then you must be one of the English teachers.”
Teri teaches tenth grade at Ridgeway High.
“Yes,” I said.
After their children were grown, my parents had moved from our hometown of Alpine to a retirement-community condominium in American Fork, ten miles south. The people in their new Mormon ward knew them as “empty nesters,” but doubtless they knew that Tom and Nadeene had apostate children—fairly public tragedy in the Mormon kingdom.
Finally, one of the women stepped forward.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “You must be in so much grief, and we haven’t even introduced ourselves.”
She held her hand forward and told me her name, then turned to introduce her husband, “The First Counselor.” The others leaned toward me, offered names or titles, and shook my hand.
So I said, “I’m Karin. Dad always calls me his Number Two Kid.”
They laughed, recognizing my father’s humor.
“Is he in there?”
Hmm. No. Sorry. He stepped out for a nine-hole—
“Yes, but I just stepped out to let him freshen up. Let me make sure he’s ready for company.”
I opened the door, slipping in quickly as if they all might stream in behind.
“Dad?” I asked from the entry alcove. “How’s it going?”
“It’s okay. I’m done.”
I walked to him, checked IV lines and straightened his pajama collar. I smoothed the sheets and blanket and took the jug to the bathroom. I poured and rinsed and walked back to hook it on the bed rail, covering it with a sheet corner.
He said, “Honey, thank you. I can’t believe you’d do this for me. I’m so sorry.”
“Dad, please. It’s nothing. Your bishop people are here to see you. Can you manage six of them?”
I looked him over, helplessly on display for anyone who might drop by.
“Want me to comb your hair?” I asked.
“No, I can do it.”
I handed it to him and waited. Dad combed carefully. His brown hair had grayed over the past year, and in recent weeks thinned considerably, despite our family decision to forego chemotherapy. His forehead was blotched and translucent. Violently fatigued, he lifted his bloodshot eyes and smiled a little. He handed me the comb.
“Are you ready?” I asked. “Do you need a drink of water?”
I held the glass and straw for him. He took a long painful swallow.
“Okay,” he said. “Send them in.”
“I’ll just wait outside the door. Holler if you need me to come in and kick some butt.”
He attempted a smile, and murmured, and I went out to send the party in. I left the door cracked. I tried to settle into the two-seat couch. Opened the book again.
I could hear drifts of conversation.
“How are you, Tom? Feeling okay?”
“Oh, pretty good.”
“Brother Anderson, we’d like to give you a priesthood blessing.”
I could picture it. The suits closing in. The vial of olive oil, the anointing. Three men, heavy hands on his weakened head. The women keeping their distance so as not to block the Melchizedek flow.
What could this do that my mother’s love couldn’t? What God would respect the authority of these men over the claims of irreligious but loyal sons and daughters? What could commanding do that pleading would not?
Bless that organ so ravaged by alien cells that it bleeds out faster than it draws in.
Bless those nerves to give him a few more genuine mortal thrills.
Bless that small angry woman outside the door to not wreck our incantations.
I tried to distract myself with words on pages, but the tone was wrong, and every time I heard steps I lost my place.
And sure enough. Faux Uncle Bruce, Grand Dipshit of historic Alpine, ambled unmistakably past. Bruce disappeared then reappeared once he comprehended the room number, written on a torn corner of paper in his hand.
Bruce was not an actual relation. His older brother LeVon had been Dad’s high school baseball teammate and best friend. LeVon was a good man by nature—a kind brother to Bruce, who was clearly destined to become a local fool. Bruce had dated one of Dad’s sisters in the early sixties, just long enough to become an inside family joke. My aunt had come home to report that Bruce was “A piggy and a barf.”
But no one really wished to be unkind. When LeVon died of Leukemia in his thirties, Dad shouldered the big brother role. I was nearly grown up before I understood the relationship; Bruce had been orbiting our family life forever. He showed up for family gatherings. He dropped by to shoot the breeze when Dad was pruning, or digging, or cleaning ditches. He hung around the real estate office. He often needed money.
Old photos prove that Bruce was once a kid brother: LeVon and CT in baseball flannels, grinning at the camera as Bruce makes a clownish face. LeVon and CT, suave and shirtless, washing CT’s blue convertible; Bruce, fully dressed, proto-gut protruding, fake-kicking a headlight.
LeVon and Bruce were the sons of an educated and articulate conservative dynasty. LeVon was practicing law when he died, leaving his wife wealthy enough to take her time choosing a new husband. Once she did, she took the kids away to the Midwest and scarcely returned. Bruce struggled through a degree in psychology, which may be one reason my father harbored such a low opinion of the discipline. That, and Sigmund Freud.
Bruce was briefly married, but within three years the wife vamoosed, two babies in tow. Alpine was overtly censorious and privately sympathetic. Once, when I was a kid, Dad pointed her out to me at a title company in Provo. He greeted her and she looked up, said, “Hello, Tom,” but then turned back to the discussion around someone’s desk—I couldn’t discern whether she was an employee or client—and engaged no further.
Bruce had been working for LDS Social Services for as long as I had known him. He called himself a psychologist, but that was delusional. Dad called him a file monkey. Bruce had worked in the same office for thirty years without advancement or updated education. Now a balding dork who wore cheap suits and fat ties in a pretty successful attempt to resemble Dr. Phil, Bruce sat his big butt down beside mine, then he slid even closer and wrapped his left arm around me, dropping his face close as if we were having a deep conversation.
“I’m so sorry about this, Karin,” he said, and it took a second to realize he was apologizing not for our intimate proximity but about my father’s illness.
I pulled away as far as the couch arm would allow, but Bruce seeped like mercury. Alternative seating beckoned from across the small open space but I have a knack for dumbing down when I’m smashed in small love seats by ambiguously friendly dirty old men. In hospital foyers. While my father is dying in the next room. I would have had to push and squirm my way out, maybe put my hand against his shoulder for leverage, so instead I vaguely hoped that he’d leave soon.
But the only reason Bruce might finally get off the couch would be to go in to see my father. And once in, he wouldn’t leave for hours. Not unless we all pitched in to make him go, and I was currently on my own. Bishopric and wives were basking in the blue glow of vicarious tragedy; nothing indicated that the ministry was subsiding. And, at this point, better them than Bruce.
“Bruce,” I said. “He’s really sick. That’s his bishop in there, and he brought the wives and counselors, and they won’t stop talking to him. By the time they get finished, my dad is going to need sleep, you know?”
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” he said. “I know just how it goes. I’ve been through this, you know. Coming to visit your dad just brings it all back. It’s like losing a brother all over again.”
I carry minimal recollections of LeVon.
“Yeah, it must have been really hard,” I said.
“It was. It still is. Not one day goes by that I don’t think about him. And now it’s your dad. LeVon must be hovering over us right now, trying to comfort us, trying to tell us it’s all going to be okay. That’s something I wanted to say to you. I’m glad you’re here. Maybe it was inspiration for me to come up when I did.”
Bruce wiggled his way forward on the cushions, enough to swivel partway around on the seat to display an expression of wise benevolence, followed by a furrowed brow of patronizing concern.
“I’ve been hearing some very troubling things about you, Karin. I’ve been wanting to tell you that I understand.”
“I’m not here to judge you. Let’s make that clear right now. What you do in this life is your business and your business only. It’s up to Heavenly Father to judge, and only he knows who we truly are, deep in our hearts. When I say I understand, I’m not making any sort of comment on your worthiness.”
It had been years since anyone had tried this brand of solicitousness with me. Except for this unpleasant afternoon, I hadn’t been face to face with a Mormon bishop in more than a decade. Art fired off surly emails or harangued the kids with convolutions meant for me. CT had favored the telephone dive-bomb method of paternal consternation: “I just think sometimes women who get too caught up in politics lose their femininity, don’t you? Well, good to talk, honey. Bye.”
For a weird moment I remembered that my dad was right there in the next room. I thought to call him out to make short work of Bruce before I remembered we were patrons of the hospice program.
“Bruce,” I said. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“It’s not my place to judge,” he repeated, and I managed to push off the couch and step over to a single chair. He pulled himself up, too, and replanted polyester into another one, scraping it closer to mine.
“Sexual perversions are indications of prior trauma,” Bruce pronounced.
I looked away, and then turned back, eliminating expression.
“Oohhhh. I see. This is about my Choice Companion.”
Debra was at work all the way down in Utah Valley, in another dimension. I needed her here, at her darkest and strongest, beside me.
Bruce reached over to wrap his huge hand around my upper arm. He squeezed and pumped as he talked.
“I just want you to know that I understand the reasons. I’ve known you since you were a little girl. I know that your heart is good. And I know you’ve been through some very terrible things.”
I could hear the murmurs in Dad’s room. How could these people imagine that a long social call under these circumstances was a benevolence? I wanted to go in there and tell them to get out. But then Bruce would go in.
“What?” I said. “Are you having yourself a revelation? I understand basic psychology, Bruce. And here’s the thing. We’re all traumatized. I just picked sin. I chose it. I enjoy my sinful life. It’s peaceful. It’s not humiliating. I have no intention of trading it in for a good man or a temple recommend.”
He stared at me, incapable of processing the wrong answers. Then he shook his head. “No. No, it’s not that simple. Yes, some sins are grave in the eyes of the Lord, but Heavenly Father sees our hearts. He knows we are hurting.” His hand around my arm felt like a blood pressure cuff. “We all have to answer for our transgressions but I just don’t think you’ll be able to turn toward the light until you can come to terms with your past. You’ve been abused, and you’re expressing your fear by choosing a—”
He let go of my arm and took my hand. I jerked it back.
“Now, Karin, don’t get defensive. I’m afraid you’ll harden your heart to the point that there will be no returning. I feel deeply impressed to tell you that repentance is possible, that your sins may not be entirely within your ability to eliminate until you’ve found a way to heal.”
“Bruce! Thanks for the free psychoanalysis but I think I can manage it on my own. So I had a rough marriage. Oh well.”
“Well, that doesn’t mean that every man in the world is a bad guy, you know.”
“Yes, Bruce. I know that, too. Plenty of good ones out there. Plenty of beautiful ones. I like to look.”
“See there? You aren’t entirely immune to the Spirit of Truth! This is what I’m trying to tell you. But at some point you may find that you are no longer in tune with the Still Small Voice. At some point you have to take responsibility for what you choose, no matter how traumatic the cause.”
My brain was moving toward television static. I wish I could report that I was exercising some degree of agency here, but I didn’t exactly choose to sit there and sacrifice my sanity for my father’s benefit. It’s just the best alibi I can come up with for not telling Bruce to blow off.
“Bruce, I just now in your presence took responsibility for what I chose. Didn’t you hear me?”
He wouldn’t stop. “I know you had a difficult marriage. Everyone could see that. But there was something wrong with you before you married Art.”
Blue uncertain stumbling buzz.
“Something wrong with me?”
“You were abused when you were very young. I mean in a sexual way.”
Reiteration: Bruce is a fool, and not in the King Lear sense. All the right ingredients for a functional human being—his parents and siblings and cousins and even his children made up of the same components, but all the ones I know are humane, receptive to education, capable and self-aware. Bruce, however, is flytape.
“Women who were abused when very young tend to marry weak or abusive men,” the flytape continued. “Your marriage was a symptom of a deeper problem. The deeper problem is that someone sexually abused you when you were very young.”
By now he was hardly reciting to anyone but some cosmic bandwidth.
“And I know the bastard who did it,” he said.
I jolted back from my own frequency.
“It was a long time ago. I know who did it. You were too young to be able to remember. Luckily that guy is dead now.”
My brain went black.
I don’t go for that recovered memory trick—at least not in my case. I have pathologically excellent recall, and I can’t begin to conjure what Bruce was referring to beyond his own fantasies, tumble-dried with Social Services jargon. Sometimes that repulsive afternoon in the hospital comes back to me and I consider calling him up and calling him out or asking him just what he was remembering. Or confessing. But I fear Bruce would enjoy the conversation too much, and that’s not a service I wish to render. Yes I’ve been traumatized but who hasn’t? I’m not one hundred percent sexually healthy but who is? I think I’m well within range of normal sexuality but who, including avuncular Bruce, doesn’t believe that about themselves?
Bruce tends to show up as a dull counterpoint to my brainchatter every time I start musing about my own sexual history. It’s been like that as long as I can remember but since that afternoon at the hospital the uncle-specter has become more rudely explicit. I spend more idle pondering time than I want to over unseemly sexual riddles. Without a doubt, I’m haunted by sixteen years of marital bewilderment. Art, like Bruce, was convinced that there was something wrong with me, and it made him livid. It was a wife’s job to satisfy her husband, he said, over and over, and Art couldn’t help it if he was, in his perennial self-assessment, “oversexed.”
In my clearest states of mind I can brush off both of Art’s diagnoses, even laugh them away like the absurdities they are, but sixteen years is a long time to absorb a husband’s intimate grief and rage. It made me into the adult I am; it’s not simply a thing to be removed. By now I’m a cyborg: whatever I may have been at the moment of union with the beautiful but tormented man I married is now inextricably formed around my memories of him. The image of his indignant face, his long accusing finger thrusting in my direction, the palpability of his dissatisfaction, suck the strength right out of me when they surge through my bloodstream. And part of the effect, for me, is a recurring fear that maybe Bruce and Art were right, that I’m not made as I should be. That I was defective way before Art got hold of me.
Like my father did, I have a restless, imagistic memory—the kind that can conjure ghosts and scenes more vivid than the moment at hand. It grants me too many opportunities to sift for cause. Art, on the other hand, remembered almost nothing of his childhood. He could recite common family memories that I heard in similar versions from his parents or sisters, but when I pressed him he could produce remarkably few independent recollections. During our marriage he kept a copious journal, filled with minute details of each day, partly because he lived in terror of forgetting. Art feared gaps in time and empty spaces. He stacked shelves and counters and closets with objects he saved and stuff he acquired. It was almost as if he thought our home would float away and be lost if he didn’t weigh it down. He turned the radio up full volume so it filled every room in the house and even the yard beyond. Our car was always full of trash and lumber and paint and back issues of The New Yorker, which he read every week, cover to cover, usually while he was listening to the radio. He listened to every show on NPR and he called in to comment sometimes four or five times per day—to the point that the local host would say, on air, “Hello again, Art…”
I don’t have much access to the childhood that made him, and apparently neither does he. Besides, it’s his story, not mine. But I do know that many of the religious tropes that nudged or shoved me into femininity pervaded his childhood, too. He slouched toward masculinity, I suspect, uneasy about its isolating implications even while eager to claim an identity that distinguished him from the five sisters that, at least by the time I married him, he loved and resented in equal depth.
As for me, my early memories are so devoid of sexual awareness that this itself could be some kind of pathology. Art always said that his parents told him nothing about sex, ever. Debra’s didn’t, either. Both of my long-term adult partners picked up the big secrets of grown-up life without parental explication. My dad seized away from sexual conversation with his kids; as far as he was concerned this was entirely not his job. I guess he mentioned a few key points to Tom and Tony in their teens but by then they’d already heard the good parts from their friends. Our mother, on the other hand, explained everything carefully to Marti and me when we were eight and seven. She drew careful pictures of sperm and an egg, and then an embryo in a uterus, with a ballpoint pen. I wish I had kept the drawings.
“So, yes, that’s how babies get made” she said, winding down after a practical and well-organized presentation. “But it’s not just about reproduction. People who love each other have sex because it’s—” she paused, and smiled, clearly recalling something specific. “Grown ups have sex because it’s fun. Because it’s a way to feel close to each other and show love for each other.”
She finished with a firm only-after-marriage admonition, but her rationale strikes me now as poignantly personal: “But only after you’re married. It’s important to wait until you can really trust someone with so many of your emotions.”
I wasn’t traumatized by all this information, exactly, but I was pretty stunned. I had suspected nothing of this. I understood the anatomical difference between boys and girls; I had two little brothers, after all. I understood that there were varieties of kissing; our parents hadn’t raised us in a vacuum. I even knew that some parts of the body were forbidden to all, yet fascinating to some. When I was four, an older girl in our Southern California neighborhood—in fact, from a family that attended our church—had played a pretty graphic game of Doctor with me as patient. She was eight. She needed to perform a thorough check, she had explained, but it was okay because I was under the sheet. As were her head and arms. She would have been more thorough had she not been interrupted; my mother sent her sprinting home, reminding her that she had been baptized, for Heaven’s sake. Afterward Mom explained to me that pretend Doctor was nearly always someone’s excuse to be nasty, and therefore I should avoid it.
Still, I had not suspected at all that nasty was okay, in fact fun, for grown-ups. Maybe this should have been conveyed as something to look forward to but at the time it so inverted my sense of cosmic order that I felt queasy and disoriented. I knew kids could be weaselish, nasty, prone to emissions, nosy, and overly pink. But grown-ups, my parents’ behavior had misled me to believe, ought to know better. I may have been counting on this. For many years I avoided further elaboration. I proceeded to wall out all but the most practical information.
So, I understood the realities of reproductive sex. I was happy to envision myself as the someday wife of a man who loved me the way my father loved my mother, and I sincerely wanted to be a mom, like her. I was pretty sure I would be good at it. I spent a lot of time trying to imagine my future children. Frequently I thought about the boy, somewhere in the world right this very minute, whom I was destined to marry. I often wondered what he was doing and whether he dreamed of me. Although I looked each one over carefully when I had the opportunities, I hoped it wasn’t one of the Alpine boys I already knew. Some of them were very nice, some of them not, but overall they struck me as fairly stupid. For example, not one of them could spell. They asked to copy my schoolwork, and I generally shared but I envisioned a husband who knew things. And the same boys who copied my homework were the ones who told me girls shouldn’t be on the baseball field at recess.
My dad told me otherwise. My dad had taught how me to catch a speeding hardball. I wanted to marry someone like that—someone who liked to play for real.
I maintained this state of mind until I entered Seventh Grade. Alpine kids were bussed to American Fork to attend Junior High and High School. We took class showers in a big open room, all together, after PE. I still looked like a fourth grader. Many of the girls looked ready to make babies, and most of the others had at least hopped on the train. Puberty kept me waiting until I was well into fifteen, when it hit so hard I gained forty pounds of boobs and butt on my 5’2” frame in a single devastating year. The weight hung on and then dropped with equal caprice in my early twenties. Maybe something about all that taught me to separate my mind from my body, to get on with the situation at hand while my body did what it wanted. But in seventh grade I could foresee none of this.
The year I was twelve, our ward leaders called a special meeting in the church cultural hall for teenaged girls only. My class, First-Year Beehives, were just old enough to attend.
The 1974/75 school year was a season spiked with incipient philosophical rupture, dotted with criminal types like Sonia Johnson, Leonid Brezhnev, Gary Gilmore, and the waning Davids Gates and Cassidy. I tend to recall all of these figures more or less simultaneously, but I had to look up the dates to confirm that I was recalling Ted Bundy from the same period. I’ve kept him in a room of his own. It’s now evident to me that the meeting at our church was a response to nearly inconceivable reports of Bundy’s rapid Utah sequence of sex murders. No one knew yet who was leaving a wake of dismembered female bodies in the local mountains. And nobody informed us girls, that night at the church, that an authentic monstrosity was actually out there. But the grown-ups certainly knew. Critical as I might be of adult disclosures and withholding, I do not doubt that they were prompted by indigestible fear for the sea of daughters congregated that night.
The “cultural hall,” an indoor basketball court with retractable backstops, was the standard gathering place for any local function, secular or religious. Because Alpine was too small to support its own movie theatre, kids mobbed there on Friday nights for raucous big-reel screenings of epic Disney films: The Castaways; The Parent Trap; Song of the South. Families attended ward dinners, Boy Scout meetings, Roadshows, Gold and Green Balls, ritual inductions. Re-imaging the northeast corner of the Cultural Hall churns up a lot of anxious memory for me; it feels now like I was sitting back there for the upcoming scary rape talk with Marcie, the twins Lana and Laura, Boydene, Paulette, and Carolyn. But that can’t be right. We were youngest and would have been seated at the front. But I do know it’s the spot where Janie Nichols, lanky and insolent as the bad boys she ran with, had bounced a basketball off my head thirty or forty times in retribution for smarting off at her.
Gender segregation at church, especially at teen functions, was more common than integration, so I wasn’t surprised to be sitting at the church with only girls. But we were puzzled to see the entire bishopric sitting on formally arranged chairs at the front. One of them usually hung around the church to “preside,” but they often left the formal parts of our meetings to the MIA presidency. To the left of the bishop and his counselors were the three women in charge of the girls’ Mutual Improvement Association. Sister Bothington sat in the center of her Godhead as Bishop Nichols did in his.
But the curiosity of the night was Dave Sampson, the County Sheriff, who sat to the right of Bishop Nichols and his helpers. Dave was an Alpiner. In fact he lived in our ward. When he was on Sunday duty, he’d wear his uniform to church and run out at the first squawk of his walkie-talkie. He was a big-shouldered guy, balding, a bit rotund, but Wyatt Earp impressive. On his off-duty Sundays, he wore a suit and tie over cowboy boots, sustaining his gabardine pants with a tooled leather belt and mid-sized rodeo buckle. Sampson was a familiar figure, but we had never seen him front and center—star, guns and holsters—at a meeting for girls.
This was all looking to be very serious, but I had no idea to what degree until I was already good and traumatized. Sister Bothington, gifted forbidder of boisterous children, launched the meeting. We bowed our heads for the opening prayer, and then the Bishop stood to admonish polite attention, shooting a severe and pleading glance toward his own daughter Janie before giving the microphone over to Sheriff Sampson.
And then Sampson stood before us. We were curious and therefore attentive. Our laconic sheriff opened his mouth once, and shut it again, and for a minute I imagined he might just sit back down. He rethought, and then spoke.
“Ladies, we need you all to listen very carefully tonight. I’m sorry to have to talk to you about things you shouldn’t ever have to know about, but there’s times we just have to tell it straight, for the safety of all involved.”
Marti, just a year older than I am, vividly remembers this too. Predictably, my sister and I have interpretive differences. Partly because she worked for twelve years at the American Fork Hospital Emergency Room, she has spent close professional time with sheriff types. Nurses and cops inhabit the same dimension; she knows what they see. In her telling, her sympathy for Sampson highlights his excruciating discomfort. Maybe it’s not true but it seems like the chasm between what sheriffs knew and the naiveté of young girls was wider in the 1970s. But then again, many of the girls in the gym with me had already experienced plenty of sexual trauma—some of it I know, some I can’t guess. Small towns are freighted with open secrets—and the statistics I can access demonstrate that I don’t know the half of it.
But the Utah County Sheriff was there that night to warn us about something that went beyond handy uncles or nasty babysitters. Sheriff Sampson was talking about handsome men, smooth talkers, sick perverts masquerading as exactly the kind of nice guy we might wish to date. He was talking about kidnapers—not the kind offering candy to kids but compliments to young women. And then he was talking about all the things a man like that might like to do to pretty girls. Bundy did go for a very particular kind of “pretty,” but the repetitions of the adjective that night still turn and roll in a box in my head.
And now Sheriff Sampson was talking about handcuffs and cars and dark canyons. Obsessions, protractions, repetitions.
The cultural hall was very quiet, except for the man who was addressing us. At the microphone, Sheriff Sampson systematically plowed through definitions, checking off his list of horrific deeds the right kind of sick man might enact upon young girls. He taught us many new words I had never heard: Bondage. Torture. Necrophilia. A whole new vocabulary list, replete with imagery to insure that we never forgot the meanings.
Fetishism. “Stuff like loving certain body parts that aren’t—well, regular. Like ankles. Or heads. Getting dressed up in certain ways. Dressing a victim in certain ways.”
Voyeurism. “Keep your curtains closed, for Heaven’s sake! Don’t be showing off. Sure, you like to be pretty, but think about who might be watching.”
Masturbation. “Sometimes in front of someone who doesn’t want to see. Some people like to be watched.”
Exhibitionism. “Sometimes they show you and run. Sometimes they’re just getting started.”
Sadism. I already knew this one, sort of. My Dad had a joke: “There was a sadist and a masochist…”
I don’t know what all of this savoir-pouvoir was doing to other girls in the room. Everything around me faded into a darkish heavy blur. This night in the church gym, girls gathered in, interpellated and answering, is for me the uncanny portal. Probably nothing of my gendered or sexual history travels forward or back except through this passage. This is the night I comprehended, irreversibly, that I was female, the night I became female—and everything I desired or valued as such would come to me, in some way, on condition of this knowing.
Eventually I learned to shut down the sheer panic and walk through the dark, get on with my feminine life, but that night and for years after, I was nauseous with fear. I just wanted the sheriff to stop.
“Now, there’s another thing a rapist can do to your body,” he was saying now. “This one is called sodomy.”
I felt a stir behind us. I gulped in the Sheriff’s new word and then looked over: Janie Nichols was heating up. At the moment she was gesturing with her forearm, making a moaning sound, chortling and pushing at her fervent groupies. Somehow, tuning in to her was a relief: something familiarly perverse, a disturbance of light-of-day proportions.
The sheriff, engrossed in the lexicon, continued at the microphone.
“Sodomy is a particularly heinous sin. Our bodies are made for certain acts, and some seriously sick people can get obsessed with the wrong uses of the wrong—uh, openings. The definition of sodomy is ‘anal penetration.’”
Janie emitted a huge snort, and the girls around her giggled wildly. Janie got a grip, relaxed her face into innocent sincerity, and raised her hand.
She caught the sheriff off guard. Thus far, no one but Janie and gang had shifted or spoken.
Sampson stopped, abruptly, and peered out toward us. Janie waved as if she were hailing him from a lifeboat. Sampson squared his shoulders and lowered his eyebrows. What Janie knew, and how she knew it, and what she might do about it in any given circumstance, were nerve-wracking questions for adults and children alike. Janie had three very conventionally pretty sisters who curled their hair and wore heavy eye makeup. She had four brothers, one already married and attending Brigham Young University, one who had vanished into drugs and was rarely mentioned, and two little brothers the same ages as mine, cute and charismatic. Storybook boys. Janie looked and behaved more like her brothers than her sisters, especially the wild one, even though she wore dresses to church and kept her hair long and slightly turned back with a curling iron.
For me, Janie was a perpetual source of intrigue and distress. A bully. A wit. One hundred percent irreverent. Recently during cooking class at the church kitchen, she had cradled a huge green cucumber in the open fly of her 501 jeans. She’d stir some nearby pot under supervision and then turn to swagger and thrust behind prim Sister Daltrey while the rest of us watched in shock and muddled glee. Had someone asked me on that night to select a realistic vegetable, I probably would have gestured in the vicinity of the carrot sticks.
Sheriff Sampson sized Janie up as if he were facing a wolverine. “Um, yes, Janie? Do you have a question?”
“Uh-huh,” she said, coy as hell. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“What don’t you understand?”
“That thing about ‘anal penetration.’”
He stared at her, and then swiveled back toward the ecclesiastical column to make eye contact with Janie’s father. Bishop Nichols was red-faced but he sat still, except to crane his neck around the sheriff’s blocky form to shoot Janie an impotent glare. Janie was behind and to the left of us Beehive Ones. Janie was Marti’s age—they were Beehive Twos. The MIA Maids were further back, and the Laurels beyond. Everyone now was gazing at angelic dangerous thirteen-year-old Janie.
All of us Beehive Ones turned back to see what Bishop Nichols would do next. The man selected disavowal. He nodded at Sampson. Sampson reapproached the microphone.
Sampson said, “Well, Janie, you know what ‘penetration’ means, don’t you?”
“Does it mean to poke something? Into something else?”
Sampson gave her the cop stare. “Yes. That’s what it means. So, you got it?”
“Yeah,” she said.
The grown-ups at the front all exhaled. Most of us girls, however, knew Janie wasn’t finished. And we were right. Just as the program was about to resume under control of the proper authorities, she waved again. And was reluctantly called upon.
“I get the penetration part,” Janie conceded. “But I don’t know what ‘anal’ means.”
“Anal,” Sampson said. “Anal is… well, do you know what a, umm. What a rectum is?”
“No,” she said. “What is a rectum?”
Now the adults were paralyzed, but they certainly had our undivided attention. Dave Sampson sputtered, then stopped. Bishop Nichols half stood and sat back down, and then stood, and said, “Janie! That’s enough!”
Janie purveyed a schoolgirl flummox. “Dad! I just want to understand what he’s saying! You told us that this was all very important information, and we needed to pay attention. I’m only doing what you said! I can’t understand what he’s telling us unless I know what a rectum is.”
Bishop Nichols clenched his jaw and stepped to Sheriff Sampson’s side. The sheriff took a step away, expecting to surrender the microphone, but the bishop stayed put, said nothing, and simply glowered at Janie. All of us but Janie withered back. She simply repeated her question.
“So? What’s a rectum?”
I knew what this word meant. I was raised by a nurse. Marcie Davies leaned over to me and whispered in my ear, “It’s your bum, isn’t it?”
I nodded yes, and she passed the word down the line. And then we all strained forward again to hear how Sheriff Sampson would answer Janie Nichols.
He said, “Anus and rectum mean the same thing.”
Marti and I divide our sympathies on this point too. Naturally, she feels sorry for Dave Sampson. Certain subjects put Marti on high caution, especially when she knows I’m writing about them: I’m prone to ill-advised conclusions. Marti got a little worked up on the phone, emphasizing that Janie’s behavior was one hundred percent inappropriate. But that’s kind of the point. Implicitly violent hierarchies are either reinforced or damaged by the occasional highly explicit. Ted Bundy had forced our local enforcers of young female virtue to spell things out—to spell out the deep codes and definitions of vehemently patriarchal relations. Something in Janie comprehended this, and she was going for damage.
“Well, what do anus and rectum mean? I don’t understand!”
Sampson flushed and then pointed at her, hard. “You know perfectly well what those words mean, Miss Janie Nichols!”
Janie looked around, soliciting backup. Andrea, Carma, and Waneeda, the meanest girls in Alpine and probably all for good reason, gazed back at her, winsome and hungry for knowledge, beseeching Janie to speak in their behalf. Janie said, “No I don’t, Sheriff Sampson. Sir.”
“Sir,” in the town I come from, is not a respectful term. It’s a parody of respectful. Everyone knows it. Sampson clenched his jaw.
Janie turned back to her disciples. “Do you guys know what anus means?”
“Tell them,” Marcie whispered to me, wanting to get this over with.
“No!” the mean girls answered in chorus, and something new, some kind of future dazzling joy in willful noncompliance was implanted in me, even while I continued to fear the fearless Janie Nichols for years.
Sheriff Sampson was shifting into a mode that must, as a cop, been far more comfortable for him. “Haven’t any of you girls been paying attention in your biology class?” he hollered.
No one answered him. We all sat, anticipating his answer.
“Okay, Janie,” he said. “Your anus is your butt. Sodomy is penetration of the butthole! You know what butthole means, right?”
Janie’s girls collapsed in laughter.
Janie said, “Oh! Yes! Sheriff Sampson. I know what that is. Now I get it! Butthole! Thank you, sir! Because I didn’t know what rectum or anus meant!”
She sat down to reload, but by then her father was parting the sea of pubescent girls. Bishop Nichols had probably been a high school jock. He was muscled and big-shouldered even now under his suit and tie, paunch and overnicety notwithstanding. Janie saw him coming and stood back up, grinning, to greet him. He wrapped his fingers around her bony upper arm walked her out as she wailed “Dad! I just wanted to know what the sheriff meant! I didn’t know he was talking about buttholes! I didn’t think we were supposed to use dirty words at church!”
No doubt Sheriff Sampson had recently witnessed unimaginable horrors. Bundy had left a trail of mutilated young female bodies along the Wasatch Front. Laura Aime’s remains were found in American Fork Canyon on Thanksgiving Day of 1974. Our picnic turf, absolutely. Melissa Smith was the daughter of Midvale’s police chief. Midvale was one county up, but just across the line, fifteen miles away. When I think about what Dave must have known and seen, I wonder how he moved between dimensions, at what costs, and what he saw when he gazed over the living daughters of his neighbors and hometown friends.
I get it, all the way up to this point. I believe that information should be available to people—even the hard kinds, even to kids, especially because people, “regular” as well as monstrous, prey on them. I know we can’t outguess all of the potential effects and I do believe we should worry about that, even though I have to acknowledge in some ways that I’m making the same argument that Utah’s Eagle Forum likes to make against anything but abstinence-only sex education. But the more I unravel this story I’ve packed around since I was twelve, the more I comprehend that the night the teenaged girls of Alpine, Utah, were convened to learn the graphic terminologies of sexual coercion from the sheriff and bishop, the message was a lot bigger than Bundy-at-Large.
The message, familiar enough to me now, was that girls cause rape. And even if they don’t, they probably kind of like it. And if they like it, they are as bad as the rapist and will be held accountable by Heavenly Father, who reads the hidden desires of our hearts, the dark lusts of our bodies. We can lie to everyone else, but we can’t lie to God.
This core principle, usually rolling just beneath the surface of most fundamentalist articulations of sexuality, haunts the sexual lives of Mormon husbands and wives, even as we dilute and combine and juxtapose it among other messages that spring more brightly and consciously to our sweetest intimate relations. Stirred up into folk admonitions to women to never refuse their husbands, to always please him sexually lest his rampant desires find expression elsewhere, or in other ways—and mixed in with doctrinal edicts that a wife obey her husband, the bearer of God’s priesthood, even if he directs her to sin, the deep logic of traditional Mormon sexual mores generates subconscious patterns of sexual selfness that, in certain constellations, can create almost unimaginable psychological guilt and strain. For the husband as well as the wife.
This is one thing I know, firsthand.
Maybe it’s exacerbated, maybe alleviated, in the light-of-day world of a culture that cherishes its children. For me, it’s redemption. But the fact remains, always present and always repressed, that children are made at our strangest and darkest intersections.
In the bishop’s absence, the Second Counselor nervously stood to restore order. Soft-spoken Brother Creighton coughed futile noises into the microphone while Sheriff Sampson stood aside, looking like he wanted to unholster. We weren’t quite in a state of riot but we were strangely anarchic. The girls in my class whispered, tittering over a ragged illustrated note that had passed through forty hands at least. Many of us were gesturing across the rows toward sisters and friends. I wanted to catch Marti’s eye but her head was turned in the direction of Janie’s empty seat and then suddenly we all yanked our faces forward at the sound of Sister Bothington’s formidable high-bosomed authority.
“Young ladies! Turn around this minute and give us your full attention!”
Sister Bothington would not have looked out of place wearing Valkyrie horns. Instantly we were silent. Sister Bothington stared us down, class by class, before turning the situation over to the Law. Even Sampson looked shaken. And then the side door opened and Bishop Nichols’s broad silhouette shaped up against the fluorescent hallway lights. It took a second to see clearly that Janie was entering in front of him, remorseful in posture but smirking in our direction. Janie came in and sat quietly, but, because of her, something had shifted for all of us. Janie, who may have been on some level more deeply frightened by this assembly than any of us, had reversed the flow. Some small component, of something, not exactly explainable to my sister in our recent phone call, nor entirely clear in my own mind, had absolutely not been said yes to.
Bishop Nichols regained his nice-guy authoritarian composure. Into the microphone, he said, “Young Ladies, I know that all of this information is difficult for all of you to hear. But this is not just a matter of your physical safety. As daughters of our Father in Heaven, you have a special responsibility to protect your bodies, to keep your mortal temple pure at any price.”
He stood, re-gathering the invisible mantle of the Holy Priesthood, magnifying his calling as the spiritual protector of this special portion of his flock.
“Your bodies are sacred vessels of the Lord. Your bodies do not belong to you. You are the valiant generation of young women, saved because of your spiritual strength to bring forth children in the Last Days. It’s very, very important that you understand exactly what this means.”
I had heard this sort of thing in church—and even in the religious spillover at school, so I imagined that I did know what it meant. I needed to save myself in purity for the man I had probably fallen in love with in the pre-earth life, the man I had promised to wait for, the man I would somehow recognize despite the veil of forgetfulness, that—
“It means,” said Bishop Nichols, voice brimming with concern, “it means that you must protect your virtue no matter what. Evil men abound in these latter days, men who want to do any one, or all, of these terrible things to you that Sheriff Sampson has described to us tonight. It’s a sad comment on the world that we have to explain these terrible deeds to pure young women like yourselves, but you must understand them in order to not be deceived.”
The bishop faltered a bit, glanced briefly in his daughter’s direction. Janie was finished—slumped, sour, examining the floor. The bishop opened his lips to continue, but then faltered again, turned his head toward the women of the MIA presidency. Trim Sister Thompson, demure in belted floral, gazed graciously toward nothing in particular. Hefty Sister Wilson, legs crossed tight and arms folded, turned her face in the bishop’s general direction, glazed. Sister Bothington, jaw fixed and square, glared the Bishop back to his calling. Nichols turned back toward us.
“Sisters,” he said. “You must resist a rapist to the death. Do you understand? Your virginity, the purity of your beautiful young bodies, is your most precious possession. You must not yield it to an evil man, even if he tries everything in his power to pollute you.”
Pollute? I knew what this word meant. Like a filthy lake. A fouled river. A cold shockwave hit me chest-on and rippled inward. I worked my way back to some sense of self by reviewing the new words I had learned, one by one. As I had just been instructed to do for the past hour, I pictured the advance of a full-grown man, imagined every threat, every act linked to each new term, and each gesture faded into black at the reach of his hand, because I knew I’d be dead or worse after the first helpless kick. I weighed about as much as picking-bag of cider apples. But, now, beyond—I began to absorb the terror of surviving it, the improbability of saving myself with a putrid bargain. Heavenly Father wouldn’t forgive it. Everything I ever hoped for in my best heart would be taken away, because I had sinned by succumbing to a psychopath. I heard this doctrine many times after this night, in fact read directly from a nearly-canonical book by Spencer W. Kimball, the prophet himself, called The Miracle of Forgiveness: “There is no condemnation where there is absolutely no voluntary participation. It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.” One Sunday School teacher, a few years later, re-read these sentences to us and then wrote the word “absolutely” on the chalkboard in giant capital letters. He then spent the entire lesson delineating the many ways in which the integrity of this word could be assailed by women who harbored even the slightest carnal desire. Of this kind. Or that. Or this.
Marti says she doesn’t remember this part. Maybe it’s my peculiar inability to blur certain kinds of language. Or, maybe because she has remained faithful but is still cynical and smart, she needs to repress some violent absurdities. And, because she was a member of the rape team in the ER, she understands firsthand that circumstances can get confusing. I’m more or less in line with my sister on this; I’m not willing to go all the way with the theory that no woman would ever lie about being raped. Sex is too strange and complex and culturally constrained to make any such generalization. As a mother I fear, all the time, the voracious girls who follow my youngest son like groupies, who sneak back to his homey garage at night, who seem willing to tear each other apart defending their limited accesses to the Big Social Order he represents to them. For my sons’ sakes as well as my daughters’, I fear the deep structures that portray every “real” man as a latent Ted Bundy.
The summer after the girls’ meeting at the church, we learned the name of the man himself. The news named towns and campuses and canyons that conjured firsthand imagery. For me it was the first of many times I felt the strange heat of a national stare at my home state’s sexual reputation.
At twelve and thirteen I was in high demand as a babysitter. I liked the money, I was good with kids, and night after night I would put other people’s children to bed, return to kitchens and family rooms to straighten the clutter, wash dishes, check the locked doors and closed curtains and sit, quiet, reading, into the very late hours of night, listening for the man with the power to perform unspeakable acts and keep me alive long enough to damn me to Outer Darkness, the place prepared for true and baptized Mormon believers who betrayed their great gift of true knowledge. All that light, all that joy, the blessed resurrection of the deserving while I was sucked into blackness, losing the sound of my own screams in the eternal cold horror I deserved because maybe somehow in my deep heart I had said yes, just a little. Because I wanted to be pretty. I wanted a man to want me. If anything characterized the child I was, it was family love and loyalty, a pure certainty that my people lived in the best of all possible worlds. The faith we practiced held up that constituent preciousness as bait; when I flash back vividly enough, I can hardly forgive it.
But, in general, it’s been so long since I’ve actually believed any of that, I actually forget that my children and partner and I still live geographically in those same strange waters, now with the internet maybe and not so much polyester. It’s not some thing of the past. Only my own past, a fathom or so. The official motto at my children’s public Utah Valley middle school, in the noughties, was “Modest is Hottest.” That’s about as tight as a cultural myth can wrap itself up.
The kids came home from after school once to report that the school standards committee had staged a video-skit to underscore the motto. The angry broad-shouldered woman who served as the school’s hall monitor had lined up five or six of the prettiest, most popular ninth-grade girls. They wore teddy bear masks to hide their identities. Each wore something out of compliance with the dress code—mini-skirt, plunging neckline, bare midriff, temporarily colored hair—while the matronly enforcer of modesty pointed out the particular provocations that would turn apparently nice boys into sexual monsters. And then the whole number finished up with the reminder that really, if you want to attract a man, he’s actually more turned on by the girls who dress like ladies, not prostitutes.
Christian, who had by then already calmly paddled on out to the eddies of mainstream Utah Valley masculinity, remarked, “So, I guess if you really want to get raped, you should wear a pioneer dress, right?”
My father died knowing that his thoughtful, quick-witted, artistic grandson was gay. He hadn’t exactly come to terms with it, but he was working his way through a long and careful reconsideration of his lifetime homophobia. A part of me resents expressing my gratitude for this—I don’t see how I should have to be any more grateful than my siblings that my father treated our children with love and kindness, and in fact there were some shockingly ugly moments in Christian’s childhood for which I won’t ever fully forgive my father—but I do know that, late in his life, after he would have vastly preferred to remain happy and unchallenged in his foundational worldviews, he rebelled against his own making to find connection with a boy he loved and admired. And I’m guessing he did this by re-tracing the making of heterosexual manhood in the very particular forms of it he despised, and then by walking back out into the territory of a grandson who hated them too.
Nothing was more despicable to my father than a man who had to keep proving he had a dick. In my father’s philosophy, a man gets control of himself. A man thinks through his brain, not his organs. A man contains, and becomes, and takes responsibility for himself and the welfare of the people he loves. In this place my father recognized his grandson—and was reaching up from the depths to make claim, even as death was drowning him.
And here in spectacular contrast, here in the hospital, was Uncle Bruce, sitting across from me while my father lay fading in a beeping bed. My father dying on the other side of that closed door while the Priesthood and their wives murmured bless bless bless… And thank the God I don’t believe in, my sister Marti turned the corner and appeared before us. My beloved smart sister Nurse Marti who heard the same bullshit at the church that I did and still believes, still attends, who stashed all the crazy in functional ways, like me and also not. Her marriage has hit some reefs by all means, but she and her husband are thirty years in. She didn’t pick sin as refuge, and I imagine she’s sad that she’ll have to go to best Mormon Kingdom of Glory without my kids and me—or our other siblings either, all flaming apostates—but she sincerely likes my partner, a lot more than she ever liked my husband.
Marti doubled back a step when she saw who was sitting near me.
“Bruce,” she said. “Back off my sister.”
I have no clear path to my father’s mysteries. I do not comprehend my mother’s heart even as I inhabit it. My dad lost his own father when he was seventeen, during a pitch of adolescent rebellion. My mother’s mother died at thirty-three, when my mother was four years old. My mother has no conscious memory of her. My parents each had to invent themselves beyond violent and unresolvable loss.
And I am devastated to realize that my children will have to do the same.
I still can’t comprehend who my husband was, and when I think back on our most bewildering moments, I don’t know how to recognize myself.
He sits in his car outside my house, summoning our youngest child, Maya, for his weekend. I park outside of his, calling her back. Our daughter walks, gracious, through the breach.
Karin Anderson has a Ph.D. in creative writing and poststructuralist theory from the University of Utah. She is a Professor of English at Utah Valley University where she was previously Department Chair and is currently a member of the creative writing faculty. Her writing has appeared in Sunstone, Dialogue, Western Humanities Review, Quarter After Eight, Saranac Review, American Literary Review, and in anthologies with Signature Books and University Readers.