In the wake of the #MeToo movement, has it become easier to speak out about sexual assault in religious communities?
Linda Wallheim, increasingly disillusioned with her religion, has begun marriage counseling with her husband, Kurt, a bishop in the Mormon Church. On other days, Linda occupies herself with happier things, like visiting her five grown sons and their families.
When Linda’s eldest son, Joseph, tells her his infant daughter’s babysitter, a local teenager named Sabrina Jensen, has vanished, Linda can’t help but ask questions. Her casual inquiries form the portrait of a girl under extreme pressure from her parents to be the perfect Mormon daughter, and it eventually emerges that Sabrina is the victim of a terrible crime at the hands of her own classmates—including the high school’s golden boys and future church leaders.
Linda’s search for Sabrina will lead her to the darker streets of Utah and cause her to question whether the Mormon community’s most privileged and powerful will be called to task for past sins.
Release date: May 25, 2021
Publisher: Soho Crime
Print pages: 264
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The Prodigal Daughter
Mette Ivie Harrison
“I’ve spent my whole life being a provider so that you could stay home with our children. And you’re happy for me to keep working full-time, saving up for retirement, but you aren’t putting in any work on your side. Now that the kids have grown up and left, instead of recommitting to service in the church, you’re using all your free time to find things to snipe at and criticize. Why don’t you do something productive? Or get a job of your own?” he demanded.
Dr. Zee turned to me. “How does that make you feel, Linda?” she asked.
How did it make me feel? It made me want to light Kurt’s entire wardrobe on fire—no, to burn down the whole house. It made me want to tear up every family photo we’d ever taken. To call Samuel on his mission in Boston and tell him to come home immediately instead of wasting his time convincing other people to join this church.
In therapy, I was the villain in everything and Kurt was the poor, long-suffering hero who had to put up with a wayward, unrepentant wife. Couldn’t he see that this narrative was the problem? The church constantly centering male development and ignoring women? Did he ever try to sit in my point of view, to think about what it had been like to be the one at home with the kids for thirty years, then to have nothing to do and no visible path to make a difference in the church because I had been born the wrong gender?
I took a breath and let it out. Then I tried to find some words that were more constructive. I was trying to be an adult here, even if I was the only one. “It makes me feel sad,” I said.
“Would you like to expand on that?” Dr. Zee asked.
No, I would not. And she certainly wouldn’t want me to start shouting in here. I breathed in deeply, seeking the sense of spiritual enlightenment that I’d once found so close at hand. “Let me just say that I understand Kurt’s frustration. He married me with one set of rules in place, and now I’ve changed those rules on him.”
This was not our first session with Dr. Zee; in fact, we’d already been doing this for a couple of months. Sometimes it felt like we’d never moved past the first session, just circled around the same issues over and over. It was hard for me to tell how much of that was Dr. Zee’s fault and how much was Kurt’s. Or maybe it was mine, and I just couldn’t see it.
“If you wanted this version of feminist equality, you shouldn’t have married someone who wanted you to be a homemaker,” Kurt said. “I love you, Linda, and I always thought we saw eye to eye, but you can’t turn around and say now that you’ve been oppressed our whole marriage. Raising our children is what you chose—it’s what you wanted. And now you’re acting like me asking you to do anything that God commands of us makes me a sexist pig.”
Another deep breath. This was Kurt’s most-used tactic. He turned every complaint I had about the church into a personal attack against him. If I said the institution was patriarchal, he thought I was saying he was power hungry. If I said that the leadership didn’t listen to concerns about women, it was me implying that he was selfish and insensitive. It shouldn’t have surprised me, given that the Mormon Church—or, rather, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—worked very hard to make its members feel that everything in their lives revolved around the institution itself. Work, home, social activities . . . everything should be church related.
I tried again. “I have changed, I’ll admit that. I understand that it’s difficult for you to figure out what you’re supposed to do in response. But I’m not asking you to give up the church, I’m just asking for you to stretch yourself to see things in a more nuanced way, not just in black and white.”
I’d talked to Gwen Ferris, a former member of our ward and a dear friend, about the problems in my marriage a little bit over the last few months, but I’d eventually stopped because it was clear she thought the only solution was divorce, which was where she and Brad had ended up. She claimed that there was no such thing as a mixed-faith marriage, just two people who hadn’t admitted yet that their marriage was over—or ones who were waiting for their partner to finally come around to their way of thinking.
“That’s a lie,” Kurt said, his face red. “You’re asking me to give up God entirely, to accept your view of Mormonism as a fiction written and perpetuated by Joseph Smith, a man I revere next to Jesus in the work he did to save humanity. He gave his life as a martyr, and you think of him as little more than a con man out for financial gain and sexual excitement with women other than his wife.”
He was never like this when we were at home; it was so strange to see this change in personality. I’d have said before we started therapy that he was the gentlest, most even-tempered person you’d ever meet. I hadn’t realized the extent of the anger toward me that he’d been swallowing day after day. Now it was all coming out.
It was true that I had mixed feelings about Joseph Smith as a prophet. I did believe he’d been inspired by God in many ways but that polygamy had been nothing more than his own sexual appetite, excused by his supposed revelations. That mistake had not only indirectly led to his assassination but continued to cost the church dearly over the next century and was still causing damage to the women (and men) who had been born into fundamentalist branches and might never find their way out.
But I’d thought this was a topic we’d already discussed and agreed to disagree over. Kurt had known when we’d first gotten married that I wasn’t your typical Mormon woman. Even if I’d chosen to stay at home with our kids, I’d always had feminist views. It felt to me like he was the one rewriting history in his victim narrative.
“That’s not what I’m asking at all,” I insisted. “I’m asking you to accept that other people might see Joseph Smith that way and still find power and truth in parts of Mormonism.” Me, for instance.
Dr. Zee opened her mouth to say something, but Kurt cut her off. He’d insisted that he wanted to talk to a female therapist, and I thought it was partly because he found women less intimidating and less judgmental. But also, frankly, because he thought emotions and feelings were women’s work, not men’s. I don’t think he could have respected a male therapist, though of course he would dismiss this as ridiculous if I said it aloud.
“Power and truth? You’re talking about my religion like it’s just some book you picked up and are considering for an award. Either the church is God’s one true religion on Earth or it isn’t. Either Christ came and atoned for our sins and was resurrected so that we will all be redeemed or He wasn’t. Either the temple seals families together forever in a real heaven that we will go to or it has no power at all and is a fraud,” he said, then stopped. He was breathing heavily, sweat starting to drip down his face.
I wasn’t the one who’d set up these dichotomies, but I’d certainly heard church leaders frame things this way. It made it easier for them to convince people that any doubts were sins in order to keep them fully invested. Until it stopped working—like it had for me.
“Linda, would you like to respond?” Dr. Zee asked.
On the contrary, I’d have liked to go home, make a half dozen pies and maybe some Christmas candies, and eat them all by myself. But that probably wouldn’t save my marriage.
“I don’t see the world in those absolutes, Kurt. I believe in so many things within Mormonism, but I’m not going to let church leadership have that kind of power over me any longer. I just can’t.”
I’d stopped paying tithing in September in protest against the church’s reaction to its abuse scandals. This protest made Kurt decide he wouldn’t be able to give me a temple recommend as the bishop of our ward. In response to that decision, I’d taken off my temple garments a few weeks ago. Yes, I was being as petty as he was. But I did feel better without the garments on.
“Obedience is the first law of heaven,” Kurt said.
Sometimes it seemed like I didn’t even need the flesh-and-blood version of my husband anymore. I could just get a cardboard cutout and record a few handy Mormon scriptures in a disapproving voice.
Why was I trying so hard to save our marriage? Maybe Gwen was right.
I was still attending church, though I’d begun to feel freer to simply stand up and walk out of meetings where people said things I couldn’t accept. Including sacrament meetings that Kurt presided over and had arranged speakers for.
“Do you really think that God is as anal as you’re suggesting He is?” I countered before Dr. Zee could intervene again. “That there’s no allowance for any gray area? That He doesn’t care about our reasons for supposed sins? Because that hasn’t been my experience with God over the years. I believe God is infinitely merciful.”
“An infinitely merciful God would lead to absolute chaos. What kind of heaven has no order in it?” Kurt challenged.
Maybe one that extended grace? Another deep breath. How could I have been blind to this all these years? Or had Kurt become more extreme in his stances in response to me drifting away from the church?
“All right, I think that’s enough for now. I know you two both have important things you need to say, but I’d like for us to focus on some actions you can take each day this week to feel more connected to each other,” Dr. Zee said, holding up John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which I’d already read. I hated the oversimplifying the book did, but I dutifully pretended to talk to Kurt about it because that was our assignment.
If I refused to do our homework for the week, it seemed like admitting our marriage was over. And I couldn’t bear the thought of telling my five sons, three daughters-in-law, and two grandchildren that Kurt and I were getting a divorce. I couldn’t bear telling my ward members I’d given up. And maybe, just maybe, there was a bit of selfish laziness in there, too, because I didn’t want to think about moving out of our house, dividing up our assets, and trying to live on my own without Kurt’s wise financial stewardship—not to mention his continuing income and investment in retirement. I was too old for all this. As much as I talked about changing the way I saw the world, the truth was, I didn’t want things in our marriage to change.
I’d watched Brad and Gwen Ferris go through this over the last year, and their divorce had made me certain I didn’t want anything of the kind. It had become so clinical, so legalistic. They’d had to list every asset and then decide who got what. Brad got the house. Gwen got their savings. Brad got his car. Gwen got hers. The clothes, furniture, even the food storage in their basement. Everything had to be monetized and then fought over.
From my perspective, Brad was the easiest man in the world to get along with, and I suspected he still loved Gwen and was deeply hurt by her decision to end their marriage. He had seemed broken lately, especially after being released from his calling as Kurt’s second counselor in the bishopric. He still came to church, attended all his meetings, but he was a ghost of his old self, never speaking, as if being divorced meant he had no longer had any spiritual authority.
I hated what Gwen had done to him and that she was no longer just around when I needed her. She’d moved thirty miles south to the city of Orem, where Utah Valley University was located, so she could finish her classes at The Police Academy there. I had to either drive down there to meet her for lunch between classes or make do with talking to her on the phone or by text messages.
And Anna Torstensen, who had been my best friend for years, had started making excuses not to get together with me. I’d once believed our friendship would survive any hardship, but now I saw the truth. Mormonism was a dividing line, and she was on one side, while I was on the other.
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