One morning, years ago, the major landmark in my town caught fire. A relic of the town’s glory days in the nineteenth century, it dominated our modest skyline, and I’d been used to passing it every day on my walk to work. I had not heard the news yet that day, and I glanced toward the monument as usual. The top part of the edifice was now a charred stump; it may even have been surrounded by wisps of smoke. But oddly, I registered nothing unusual. My brain projected normality—what it “knew” to be real—onto what I was seeing, overlaying it like a private movie. When I heard the news later—only then did I believe my eyes.
All of this is to say that I didn’t recognize I had been sexually harassed for seven years, despite having been a self-professed feminist since I’d learned what the word meant, despite having learned feminist theory at the feet of leading scholars in college, despite having been supportive of friends who had gone through sexual harassment and assault. And even after I allowed myself to understand what had happened, despite knowing of the importance of breaking the silence, and despite having been grateful to others for breaking their silence, I kept silent.
Back around 2009, I was looking for answers for some minor but annoying medical symptoms. My usual doctors seemed out of ideas, so I made an appointment with a local alternative practitioner. As I sat in his office, I noted that he didn’t have on a white coat, nor did his office seem especially clinical, but as “doctor’s appointment” was a category of the landscape of my world, as fixed as that monument in my small town, I only hesitated slightly when he asked me to remove my shirt as part of the exam. There was some plausible reason, which I now can’t remember—visual inspection of a rash, perhaps?
After the exam, he suggested that I do a patch test for some vitamin deficiency on a two-inch square of my “lateral breast tissue.” Then he added, “If you can find enough.” Then he chuckled: “Heh heh.” Trying to remember what “lateral” meant from way back in freshman biology, I must have looked confused. He repeated himself: “Lateral breast tissue. If you can find enough,” gesturing to my on-the-smaller-side (but well-formed, I had always thought with some pride!) breasts. And then he chuckled again, as if to drive home what he was saying: “Heh heh.”
If he had had spinach between his teeth that day, I wouldn’t have said anything. If he had farted during the exam, I wouldn’t have said anything. Because another fixture of my world was the personal code of conduct of a Nice Girl: always be polite and never point out when someone does something embarrassing to himself. So I ignored his comment, and then I convinced myself it had never happened, that it couldn’t possibly have been what it sounded like, a creepy evaluation of my breasts’ sexual appeal or lack thereof in the context of what had been billed as a medical examination.
I didn’t get up and walk out in outrage. I didn’t even stop seeing him (well, I did after a while, when I got sick of buying all the vitamins he prescribed). I didn’t alert the community; I didn’t expose him. And once I finally allowed myself to admit to myself what had happened, I didn’t tell anyone then either, not my close friends, not my husband, no one. I merely quietly unfriended him on Facebook.
Why? Because I was ashamed—at my silence, at my acquiescence, at my gullibility for going to someone who wasn’t a medical doctor, at my agreeing to take my shirt off, at the overall triviality of the event in the larger scheme of things (after all, he didn’t touch me; I was a grown woman; it wasn’t ongoing; it wasn’t some terrible work situation that I had to endure to keep my job—was it really sexual harassment?), even ashamed of, well, my breast size, which would have become part of the discussion if I had ever told the story. Embarrassed, too, for him, for saying what he had said. Worried about his reputation, about his livelihood. Because these are the unquestioned edifices in our society: a man’s honor, a man’s work, a man’s understanding of what happened (he’d surely deny that his intent had been anything other than innocent). I didn’t want to believe these monuments were on fire even as they burned right in front of my own eyes.
I finally told one person. This summer. And then in October, I wrote “me, too” when the #metoo hashtag went viral. Still, my doubts persist. Will I be criticized for doing everything I criticized myself for above? Will others hold me as responsible as I held myself? Above all, I think about the women throughout my life who’ve told me about being sexually harassed or assaulted: fellow undergraduates when I was an undergraduate; fellow grad students when I was a grad student; work colleagues; friends from every era of my life. I did not seem—I desperately hope—unsympathetic, but “this happens to others and not to me” was part of the landscape of my world, solid as any building, so I’m sure my empathy arrived, if it did, as if from a long distance. Today I’d look them in the eye and say, “I’m so, so sorry this happened to you, and thank you so much for having the strength to talk about it.” I’d listen, listen, listen some more, as long as necessary, forever. One of my favorite quotes, ever since I saw it on a greeting card in college, is a haiku by Mizuta Masahide: “Barn’s burnt down—now I can see the moon.” As what separates us becomes a wisp of smoke—has always been a wisp of smoke—what I see are these women’s faces.
LYNNE NUGENT’s personal essays have appeared in Brevity, Mutha Magazine, the Tin House blog, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” column, and elsewhere. Her previous essay for Full Grown People, “The Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card,” was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Find her at lynnenugent.wordpress.com.
“Did I tell you? I’m multi-orgasmic,” said my eighty-three-year-old mother. This was her conversational style—ditch the segue and go straight to another chat about sex. I was taking our picnic gear from the trunk of my car and needed a minute to process. “I learned that word in the book you gave me.”
Walking along our favorite beach with its long, easy-going shoreline gave my mother and I time to talk more honestly after my father’s death. In the process, we became friends. She was like a broken piggy bank as her collected stories spilled out. I was the first woman she had ever talked to about sex; from my teen years on, I knew more than she did on the subject.
On one of our earliest walks, she revealed that for their first twenty years of marriage, the missionary position was the arrangement. And for the last thirty years it had been husband-directed abstinence. Once I was past my do-I-really-want-to-know-this reaction, it was distressing to think how sexually unfulfilled she must have been her whole life.
Even though my father had enjoyed dirty jokes and recited smutty limericks, I realized as an adult how unworldly, if not prudish, he was. On one occasion after a lesbian couple had visited, my mother brought up a new topic of inquiry—how do two women make love? When I started to answer, my father said, “You can’t be serious,” in a tone freighted with yuck, and fled to the living room to watch The Brady Bunch with my kids.
“Now that I know more,” my mother said on another beach walk, her voice thick with resentment, “I realize that sex with your father was strictly for his benefit.”
I asked her to say more. She hesitated, her eyes taking my measure, as if to see whether I was grown-up enough. “The fact is,” she said, her face flushing with embarrassment, “I never had an orgasm during intercourse in my marriage. I’ve only had them in my sleep.”
“I’m really sorry, Mom,” was all I could think to say at the time.
The more she revealed, the more I was struck by the difference one generation can make.
When I was nine, the Big Talk with my mother consisted of her buying me the book OnBeing Born, which contained not one mention of how people “did it.” Ten years later, my mother’s second attempt at instruction came shortly before I walked down the aisle. She offered this as my sendoff: “Sex can be beautiful.”
With the advent of the women’s movement and the freedom to have intimate talks with women and men, I enjoyed a good lover or two. Unlike the women of my mother’s era, I knew how to take care of my sexual needs with or without a partner. A bonus was frequenting, without the slightest embarrassment, the paraphernalia treasure house in Berkeley called Good Vibrations.
I would have taken my mother to choose her own vibrator, but I didn’t trust that she could remain as composed as the sophisticates who shopped there. Only in the Bay Area could women pretend it was no big deal to see an entire shelf of hefty Day-Glo dildos. And so for my mother’s next birthday, I bought her a small, basic vibrator and the book Sex for One by Betty Dodson. I insisted she open my gift at home, after a birthday lunch with my daughters.
Later that evening my phone rang.
“Were you trying to kill me?”
“Mom?” I barely recognized her throaty voice.
“Who else? Your gift almost took the top of my head off.”
Then I remembered her special present.
“Well,” she tried again, “this is the best gift anyone has ever given me. I had no idea.”
With that it started. Sometimes, when my mother and I chatted on the phone, catching each other up, her tone would soften. I knew what was coming. It was as predictable as the ochery sky that precedes a Midwest summer storm. And sure enough, she would pause for a moment and then share, “Mr. Right dropped by today.”
I would picture her mischievous smile and appreciate her late-in-life pleasure all over again. “How nice for you,” I would say and mean it. “There’s nothing like an attentive lover.”
I was happy for her in private, but her did-I-need-any-batteries remark in the aisle at Rite-Aid made me—her enabler—blush. I was more comfortable in the roles of sympathetic listener and occasional sex educator. There were still things my mother wanted to know about in detail into her nineties.
She was curious about the younger generation. What did they use for birth control? She thought the morning-after pill was great, but she worried that kids took sex too lightly and had it too early. “It should be special,” she said lost in thought while we drove along the winding coastline after a day at the beach. “I hope it was for you and the girls.”
We never talked about my sex life and how my mother had openly fretted over my getting pregnant before marriage—ironic, since she hadn’t provided a single method of avoiding it. Several girls in my high school had been sent to “their aunts” for extended vacations. Their pregnancies were the narrative that dominated my mother’s vigilance until I was safely married off without the proverbial shotgun. Later, when she occasionally dug my first and sweetest love, Jerry, out of her memory vault, my feelings of resentment at being spied on by her reconstituted like a glass of Tang. Reliving my adolescence when sex was half terrifying and half aching required me to stop and take a breath before I could appreciate why she worried. It took a while after the Jerry exchanges before we were back on the friendship track.
After a memorial service for a family friend, my mother brought up the topic that was most on her mind. I anticipated another gloomy pre-death drill on where to find the money she had stashed in various shoe boxes if she “croaked.” Instead, it was what if she died in bed and the paramedics found Mr. Right? What would they think of her at her age?
I wanted to honor our unique end-of-life discussion and not go for the easy retort, you’ll be dead. Instead I said, “I’m sure they’ve seen it all. Besides, they might think you’re really worth saving. Ignore the DNR on the fridge door and keep you going.”
We never stopped talking about sex. I should say my mother never did. We would laugh about the way intimate details of sex were being hinted at in the new century. “How ridiculous,” my hip mother said after watching a vaginal fragrance ad of a woman dancing through a field of lavender after the implied douche. “We need information, not crap like that.”
On one of our last trips to the beach, my mother said, “You’re a writer. You should write about the fact that there are a lot of old ladies out there, like me, who think they have to go without. We still have all of our urges and body parts, but no one talks about it. And their daughters aren’t as thoughtful as you were.”
“If I did, it would be about you.”
“You could wait until I’m dead,” said Mom—the eternal shock jock. “It won’t be that long.” She could move between death and life in a matter of minutes, going over the details of her imminent departure in the parking lot and then once inside Safeway buy two half-gallons of ice cream.
“Oh. What do I care?” she said with a devilish grin. “Go for it.” She asked me more than a few times how this very essay was coming along.
We didn’t always have serious talks about sex. One time we settled on our beach blanket, and with a little wine to loosen our imaginations, made up commercials for vibrators, delighting in our witty jingles until the tears streamed down our cheeks. I miss those times.
Shortly before her death at ninety-seven, we were having coffee in her kitchen. “I want you to take this box,” she said, moving our cups to the side and putting a small silvery box on the table. She lifted the lid and I saw the very dog-eared book Sex for One and Mr. Right wrapped up like a mummy. “I think my time has about run out, and if your brother gets here first and finds these, he might think the worst of his old mother.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes, honey. I don’t think I ever thanked you adequately for that wonderful birthday present. It changed my life.”
When I saw how frail she was, I took the box.
Just when I was about to break down in sobs, anticipating how much I would miss her, she cut through my sentiment in the formidable directive tone I knew from my childhood. “And don’t put it in the dumpster outside,” she said, her eyes fixed on me until I nodded yes. “They probably go through the trash here. You never know these days who’s spying on you.”
BARBARA CLARKE works as a freelance grant writer and written extensively for corporate clients, trade magazines, and newspapers on a variety of topics. Her memoir, Getting to Home: Sojourn in a Perfect House, was published in 2009. “How Many Writing Books Does It Take to Write a Novel, Memoir, Nonfiction or Something besides an Annual Holiday Letter?” appeared in the 2010 debut issue of Line Zero, a literary-arts magazine. She is currently completing a novel that includes socially relevant topics on the health insurance industry (where she worked as an executive for fifteen stressful years), the pre- and post-Feminine Mystique generations, and the various ways of love. She uses Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” as both her personal and writing guide. Her blog is www.thiscertainage.com, and her website is www.barbaraclarke.net.
I have a meeting with a senator in two days. A real senator, too, not a state one. They say that he’s very handsome in real life. Like, when they make lists of things like that, of handsome senators, he’s usually on that list so it’s been suggested and verified by multiple other people, not just me. As I write this, two days before I meet the handsome senator, I am aware of a giant red bump protruding from my face, sitting above my upper lip and below my nose.
I have been torn all week between messing with the zit and just leaving it alone. I want it to be invisible immediately, but to make it be invisible immediately you have to mess with it, touch it and, poke at it with concealers that thwart the fairly effective spot treatment gel that I sometimes must use. The alternative (leaving it alone) means that the medicine is free to do its work. But to do this, to make it go away faster, means to leave it unconcealed where I must confront it whenever I pass my reflection (in mirrors, shiny appliances, freshly washed windows.) My four year old reminds me of it. Mommy, there’s something red above your nose, she says although she means below my nose.
I got an email last night from the senator’s people; they would like me to introduce the senator to the group of women I am hosting. Can I prepare remarks? Of course I can, of course. I can certainly do that. Instead of thinking of my remarks, though, I wonder how many more coatings of medicine I can get on my face in two days to make the zit be gone.
For several years, an evangelist lived across the street from us. He was a grade-A moron but he loved the lord, and in the city where I live, you don’t have to be smart to make people give you money and tell you you’re awesome—you just have to love the lord and encourage others to do the same. I’d walk past my window and see him across the street behind his screen door wearing nothing but a pair of tiny shorts, talking on the phone, and patting his soft belly. He’d yell into the phone loudly, quoting scripture I assumed, then he’d laugh and pat his belly some more, technically inside his house but he might as well have been outside you could see him so easily. He wore cheap suits and let his dog shit in all the neighbors’ yards. He was friendly and loud and stupid, and I couldn’t stand him. He was a man that takes up space and makes noise like there will never be a shortage of either.
I’m meeting the senator because I run an organization that teaches young people how to love writing. He is a good senator, in addition to being handsome, and he is meeting with area businesswomen. My organization was founded by women and is run mostly by women, so it sort of makes sense.
Yesterday during a workshop, I was helping a girl who always comes to our workshops even though I don’t think she really likes them. Every time she’s there I end up trying to get her to finish whatever she started working on because she just tunes out. She acts like it’s school even though most kids act like it’s the opposite of school—like it’s fun and they’re there because they want to be there. The kids had been led through a series of exercises that left them with a handful of ingredients that they could readily bake into poems. She already had all her ingredients right there on the paper. The poem just had to be assembled, and all she had to do was write it down.
“Nah, I’m not doing it anymore. I hate doing this. I’m not writing.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked her. “You have everything right there—why won’t you write your poem? “
She’d been scribbling with her pencil, generally looking as disinterested as an eleven- year-old can look, crumpling up her paper and moving her chair around. She stopped suddenly and looked right up at me.
“You’re not going to hang it on the wall anyway even if I do.” She said this like it was a challenge.
Sometimes I hang the kids’ stuff on the wall. Not all the kids’ stuff, but some of it if they’re particularly proud of it or it’s especially funny or good or if I need to cover a crack in the plaster. I never thought that she’d noticed or cared but the mother in me realized I’d been played. Of course she cared. She just figured I didn’t.
“I will hang your poem on the wall. As soon as you are done writing it I will hang it on the wall. I promise.”
“Seriously?” Her eyes blazed.
“Seriously.” She sat down and wrote her poem.
The stupid evangelist had a really sweet wife. She was young and fresh and seemed mostly resigned to the fact of her doom with this man. I was walking the neighborhood with my mother one night close to Christmas when we saw him in his front yard. Knowing that his sweet wife had gone into labor that morning, we asked after her and their new baby.
“Well, it’s a girl.” He said and paused. “But that’s okay. There’s always next time.” He waved half-heartedly and was gone before me and my stunned mother realized what he’d said and how much we hated him for it.
When her poem was finished, I hung it on the wall. On her way out the door, she nodded her head as if she was thinking, “It’s about goddamn time.” I put it in a place where the senator will see it when he comes in two days. He’ll notice it either before or after we shake hands and either before or after he notices or doesn’t notice the zit that sits above my lip and below my nose. I have not written my introductory comments yet. I have another thirty-six hours of medication applications before I need to have those done.
I spend my time knowing that I have created something fairly good and interesting and that’s why a senator is coming. I’m wondering why I am thinking more about my face than that fairly good and interesting thing. The stupid evangelist would not be thinking of his face. He was told that he was awesome for so long that he easily believed it even though it was not true. That’s all it takes, maybe. You are awesome, you are awesome, you are awesome, and then you think you are. The stupid evangelist with his cheap suits and his easy maleness and the convenient religion that allowed him to be more than his sweet wife and their sweet new baby girl never flinched. He took up all that space and made all that noise, but that was all okay. He was awesome. People told him so.
Listen, because I need you to hear this: I will tell you that you are awesome. Unlike the evangelist, I will say it because it is true, because I mean it. You are awesome. You are the opposite of taking up space and making noise. You are the poet and the poem. You are the clean piece of paper, smooth, unmarked, waiting for the ingredients to be assembled. I will put you on the wall where the senator can see you, where the world can see you, where we can read you and celebrate you always. I will put your poem on the wall, I will always put your poem on the wall, and I will use the stickiest tape, and I will hang it in exactly the right place, I will do all this for you, I promise.
JENNY POORE is a local education advocate and the director of the children’s writing non-profit WordWorks! She lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, with three kids, a husband, and a yellow dog named June Carter Cash. Two of her favorite things are coffee and Sherlock Holmes. You can read more of her stories and essays at www.sometimestherearestorieshere.com.
As a gentile living in Salt Lake City, the holy beating heart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I probably have no right to meddle in Mormon religious matters, even though the Church meddles in secular ones every day: a prohibition on Powerball tickets, a ban on adoptions by cohabitating couples, arcane liquor laws that turn restaurants and taverns into temperance-era time machines, Proposition 8. I certainly had no right to attempt to claim a place in the standby line for the Priesthood Session of the LDS October 2013 General Conference. Besides being a gentile, I am also a woman: strike two. In the Mormon faith, men get the priesthood and women get motherhood. Men bestow blessings and women birth babies.
Strike three: I am childless.
Strike four: childless by choice.
After four years in Utah, during which I had learned to soften my loudmouth and dodge conversations about family and children, it astonished me when Mormon feminist organization Ordain Women called out the Church on its separate-but-equal lie: Motherhood is not equal to the priesthood. Motherhood is equal to fatherhood. Only priesthood is equal to priesthood.
Until Ordain Women made headlines, I was only dimly aware of Mormon feminism. I had heard of excommunicated feminist scholars and a “wear pants to church” protest, but Ordain Women felt more direct and radical, more relevant.
Ordain Women believes the priesthood should transcend gender and parenthood, just as Joseph Smith intended in 1842 when he envisioned the Nauvoo Female Relief Society as a “Kingdom of Priests.” Without the priesthood, women cannot take the reins of clerical or ritual authority. Men oversee everything they do, even in the all-female Relief Society. When the Church limits women’s roles because of motherhood, it echoes patriarchal justifications for locking women out of everything from the voting booth to education.
Maybe if women held the priesthood keys, I thought, they would spring open doors for me, too. Maybe I could finally claim a place for myself here, a childless gentile in Zion. Do not get me wrong. Everywhere I have lived, I have endured relentless uninvited commentary about my choice not to bear children. I am selfish. I am depriving my parents of grandchildren. I will never know real love. I will never be a true adult. But here in Zion, the commentary cuts deeper: Here, I am denying spirit babies their bodies. Here, I am defying God’s commandment to “be fruitful, multiply”—and risking the salvation of my soul. I am goingagainst God’s plan. The patriarchy of the church trickles down into my life, too. What happens to Mormon women happens to me.
So on October 5, 2013, when Ordain Women attempted to claim places in line for standby tickets to the priesthood session, I joined them although I did not join them as myself. I joined them as a woman I’ll call Sarah, who could not attend and whose name I drew from a stack of proxy cards, similar to the LDS ritual of getting baptized by proxy for a deceased ancestor. I was her proxy sister, and it was my sacred duty to carry her to the door of the Tabernacle.
At least, that was my justification on that day. Now I know I had it backwards: she was the one who carried me.
Hours before walking to City Creek Park where Ordain Women gathered for a prayer and hymn, I realized I did not own a stitch of appropriate attire. Every member of Ordain Women, I was certain, would show up in raiment befitting potential priesthood holders. All I had was a closet full of hippie patchwork dresses, boyfriend jeans, and Chuck Taylor All Stars. On the one hand, patchwork dresses are at least dresses; on the other, you can see the silhouette of my thighs when sunlight hits the diaphanous cotton gauze—not exactly modest attire for Temple Square. Gentile that I am, I still respect the sacred space beyond those fifteen-foot walls. Plus, it was chilly, the first true autumn day. As for the boyfriend jeans: modest but sloppy. Tomboyish.
Too broke to justify new clothes, I was trapped in a double bind: dress like a boy or stay home.
Would my baggy jeans insult these women who yearned for the priesthood so badly they were willing to risk apostasy—or worse, excommunication? Would I attract hecklers? Then I realized that my dilemma represented the secular vs. spiritual tug-of-war I face every day living in Salt Lake City: How do I navigate Zion’s spiritual and cultural expectations of femininity and modesty while staying true to who I am?
I had to go.
On my way to City Creek Park, I stopped in Temple Square and listened to Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s voice booming almost God-like over loudspeakers.
A woman’s moral influenceis no more or nowhere more powerfully felt, or more beneficially employed, than in the home.
I found myself transported to the first time I heard words thundering over a loudspeaker. It was a union picket, probably 1979 or 1980. I was four or five. A man chanted, “Solidarity Forever,” and picketers sang back, a call-and-response. I never forgot it, the visceral feeling of words at that volume, how they vibrated in my heart and bones. As Elder Christofferson spoke, I watched a pair of little girls, maybe six years old, spinning in frilly white flower-girl dresses by the edge of the reflecting pool, as if rehearsing their future wedding dance. Most sacred is a woman’s role in the creation of life. Were these their first loudspeaker words, the first ones to vibrate inside their hearts?
The world has enough women who are tough; we need women who are tender. There are enough women who are coarse; we need women who are kind. There are enough women who are rude; we need women who are refined. We have enough women of fame and fortune; we need more women of faith. We have enough greed; we need more goodness. We have enough vanity; we need more virtue. We have enough popularity; we need more purity.
Families picnicked on the lawn east of the looming temple spires: men with their suit jackets strewn on the grass, sleeves rolled up, backs of their hands shielding eyes from the afternoon sun; women tossing napkins and sushi trays into Harmon’s grocery store bags, wiping their toddlers’ mouths.
If this were Portland, Oregon, where I lived for nine years before moving here, somebody would have raised a fist and shouted. We have enough patriarchy! We need less theocracy!
I was an ex-pat in my own country. And yet, part of me must have assimilated. Why wasn’t I raising my fist? Why wasn’t I shouting?
As I stood up—
Take particular care that your dress reflects modesty, not vanity, and that your conduct manifests purity, not promiscuity.
—I thought again of the hippie patchwork in my closet and felt good for choosing my comparatively modest jeans.
Then, as if to put me in my place, a young elder walked by, looked me up and down, and scowled. I could almost hear what he was thinking: Tomboy. Dress like a woman.
By the time it was almost my turn to approach the Tabernacle door, I already knew it would not turn out the way that Matthew: 7 booming over the loudspeakers in Temple Square a few hours earlier had promised: knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Not this door, not this time. The guard standing sentry at the bottom of the steps had turned away Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly, and the news trickled down within minutes to the rest of us, along with a message to stay in line: each of us would knock at that metaphorical door, even knowing the answer. We would force the Church to cast us out one by one, not just our gender, but us.
Up until the moment she was turned away, Kate Kelly had believed—really believed—the door would open for her. What for her had been an act of pure hope and faith had for the rest of us transformed into a ritual drama.
Earlier, as we walked two-by-two from City Creek Park to Temple Square, we passed elders holding up signs, the best-dressed beggars I have ever seen in their starched white shirts and black wool suits.
“Need Tickets,” their signs read.
Nobody around me seemed to notice this reversal of the normal order in Zion: men beseeching women. I thought the elders meant it tongue-in-cheek, a jab at Ordain Women for attempting to “steal” their tickets.
Then, after we arrived at Temple Square and stood shivering in the early autumn chill, I noticed an elder clutching a sign to his heart:
“Be an answer to prayer. Need tickets.”
I knew then that the elders on the sidewalk had been sincere, and in fact, their signs were not directed at us at all. Walking past the conference center, we simply happened into their path.
By contrast, Ordain Women rules forbade begging tickets off sympathetic male friends or relatives. This protest was not about getting in. It was about being let in. Still, I wondered why we did not thrust signs into the air and chant. Did the elders milling about on the square know why we were there? Did the frilly princess girls? How could they know our purpose if we did not assert ourselves in some way?
A sister missionary wearing a star-print dress in Wonder Woman blue-and-white and a red corduroy coat passed by, arm hooked in her companion’s. Her nametag bore a United States flag. Her outfit, I realized, made her the embodiment of that flag: a living, breathing Lady Liberty. If this were a protest in Portland, I could safely interpret that dress as a “statement.” Here, though, I am still learning how to read. But my questions cut deeper, too. As a man had asked me just before the group left City Creek Park, “How do you do a religious protest?”
Until Ordain Women, all my protests had been secular.
I once dressed in all black for a theatrical funeral procession through downtown Portland to protest the Carabinieri shooting Carlo Giuliani at the Genoa G8 Summit in 2001. At the front of the march, several “pallbearers” carried a black cardboard coffin aloft, which we planned to lay at the door of the World Trade Center. On our way there, we staged a die-in in front of the Oregonian newspaper offices.
Another time I locked arms with a line of strangers to prevent donors from exiting a parking garage to attend a fundraising dinner for President George W. Bush.
In Seattle, I chanted, “This is what Democracy looks like!” and “Whose streets? Our streets!”
In Washington, D.C., I plopped down in resignation on the lawn in front of the World Bank as riot police circled our demonstration.
Locked arms, blocked intersections, costumes, signs, chants, dances, drummers, direct actions, handkerchiefs shielding nose and mouth in case of pepper spray: these signify protest to me. But how do you mount a religious protest, where your target is a higher authority?
And in Zion, is there ever really a difference? In March 2011, I attended a protest in the Capitol Rotunda against a bill that threatened to strike at the heart of Utah’s model public records access law, the Government Records Access and Management Act. Conservatives and liberals joined forces, and for the first time since moving here in 2009, I felt like I could claim a place in this community. As I ascended Capitol Hill on foot that day despite an aching knee and a fever, I realized how hungry I had been to get involved in civic activism again, to carve out a space for myself as a Utah citizen. I moved to Utah kicking and screaming when my husband landed a promotion he could not refuse, and for the first few years, I barricaded local politics out of my life, refusing to learn representative names or follow the issues. As a liberal gentile, I felt like I had no voice, anyway—no hope of being represented. Even most Democrats in this state sound like Republicans to me.
Inside the capitol, I was shocked at the politeness of the protest. Protestors held signs—
Talk About a Freight Train
Sunshine Not Secrecy
GRAMA may be old, but she has a voice
Only Cockroaches are Afraid of the Light
—but they did not, as Portland anarchists would have, lock arms and shut down the capitol. They spoke their minds for the appointed time and dispersed on cue.
What made the protest culture here so polite? Was it just the conservatism of the state in general or something about the Mormon culture? Then, someone said, “You know the Church is behind this bill. If you’re fighting government secrecy, you’re fighting the Church.”
In other words, there is no such thing as a purely secular protest in Zion.
But is there such thing as a purely religious one?
Now, standing in line at the Tabernacle, I clutched my proxy card, worried if I loosened my grip it would float away on a breeze. Back at City Creek Park, when organizers had invited attendees to carry proxy cards, I knew I wanted to do it. I felt the desire viscerally, a physical ache in my lungs. It was so intense I almost reached for my inhaler until I realized this ache was not asthma: it was a testimony, Mormon-speak for burning in the bosom, the fire of truth.
I wondered what it meant to volunteer to get cast out for somebody else—and for somebody else to request it. It was the opposite of a proxy baptism, when living Mormons stand in for the dead, getting dunked in the baptismal font on their behalf, a magical telegraph bouncing from star to star: you are wanted in our fold. My proxy was alive, inhabiting a body, and she had telegraphed me through her Mormon sisters.
What if these women knew about the afternoons I spent circumnavigating their temple during my early days in Salt Lake City, longing to tap into that magical telegraph machine and zap a signal to my dead brothers in the phantom zone? Or the time I wrote my brothers’ names on a slip of paper and carried it to the temple doors, where for just a moment, I considered sticking it into the lock like a pathetic skeleton key?
Was I so desperate to tap into the temple telegraph machine that I was using Sarah to do it?
On the loudspeaker, Elder Christofferson had derided feminists for scorning the “mommy track,” but he was wrong. Back at City Creek Park, I had witnessed an Ordain Women member fielding urgent texts from her daughter about an eleventh-hour homecoming dress catastrophe. All around me in line, women fussed with strollers and tended to toddlers. And just as I had predicted when I scorned my baggy jeans in my bathroom mirror, the Ordain Women members came dressed worthy of the priesthood: most of all Kate Kelly in a mustard yellow, waffle-knit blazer and purple pencil skirt. These women radiated color, a stark contrast to the elders’ black-and-white suits. Even here, I did not fit in, except for this: All my life, people like Elder Christofferson have assumed I thumbed my nose at motherhood, but they never ask why I do not want children, just like they do not ask these women why they want the priesthood.
Ask, and you shall receive.
Suddenly, it felt right for me to carry Sarah to the door of the Tabernacle. Who better than the gentile, the childless-by-choice tomboy in boyfriend jeans, to be cast out on her behalf? For that is what I am, always, as long as I live in Salt Lake City: an outcast. Marked, set apart.
One by one, women ahead of me approached the Tabernacle steps.
One by one, they sought entrance.
One by one, they were told, “Entrance to this event is for men only. Please go to LDS.org.”
The guard meant they could log onto LDS.org to watch the priesthood session live for the first time in history, the perfect Orwellian maneuver: nobody could accuse the Church of sexism if women could live stream the priesthood session at home—at home, there was that phrase again. At home: where I had almost stayed because of a stupid outfit.
When it was my turn to break from the line and approach the Tabernacle alone, I glanced from the crowd of people to the men snapping camera shutters at the front of the line and thought, “Nobody knows I am doing this as a proxy.” Should I announce it? Was it dishonest to let them think I was Mormon? Or could they already tell?
I looked up at the temple. How did I not notice before? Our ritual was playing out in the shadow of the west central tower, the one with the Big Dipper carved into it: the constellation for lost souls. In the basement below lies the baptismal font, where proxies stand in for the dead. If the temple really were a telegraph machine, the tip of that Big Dipper handle would be the wire connecting to the sky, to Polaris, the North Star. From there, any soul can be found, maybe even living ones. Maybe my proxy sister’s. Maybe by standing here, I was transmitting a message to her.
I swallowed hard: dry tonsils, pill-stuck-in-my-throat feeling. “I am seeking entrance for me and”—I thrust out the card instead of speaking her name, as if exorcising her from my body. I needed the guard to see her as separate from me.
To my surprise, he leaned forward and read her name. He did not hurry. As a Mormon, he understood what it meant to be a proxy for someone. He understood I was carrying a burden. In this small act, I had transferred my burden to him.
But I had given myself away all the same: No Mormon in the baptismal font would exorcise her proxy. I was a phony.
The guard looked me in the eye. “Welcome to Temple Square,” he said. “Entrance to this event is for men only.”
For the first time, I felt the full weight and power of the Church bearing down on me, as if for that moment, the temple had been tilted from its foundations just a crack to let me peer inside at the baptismal font, then dropped, Wizard-of-Oz like, crushing me. It did not matter if I thrust out the card. What mattered was my heart. I had become her. I had become a Mormon woman.
I maintained eye contact as I nodded.
I did not cry because I did not know if Sarah would cry.
Finally, I understood: This protest was not a protest at all, but a prayer. We did not need signs because Heavenly Father could read our hearts. We did not need chants or locked arms or sit-ins because in the very submission the Church demanded from us as women, we held the trump card: We had made them tell each and every one of us no. We had made them witness our submission. We had made our burden theirs. It was not a ritual drama; it was real.
As I rejoined the crowd, a brilliant green dump truck loaded with trash bags barricaded us from the door: picnic detritus of the day—paper cups, sticky silverware, empty sushi trays, greasy napkins—the very things the Church’s strict gender divisions define as “women’s work,” were now a literal barrier to entering the Priesthood Session.
The women, however, did not decry their fate. Instead, they broke into a hymn: “I Am a Child of God.”
I was the only one not singing, the only one who did not know the words.
In an intersection on our way back to City Creek Park, a man dressed in a devil costume with a University of Utah Utes hat pointed a pitchfork at us and growled, “It’s just like Hair Club for Men. You can’t have it because it’s for men!”
Was he mounting a secular protest or a religious one? After all, in the Mormon faith, there is such a thing as false testimony, a burning in the bosom inspired by the devil instead of Heavenly Father. And yet, that Utes hat: a cheeky reference to the annual “Holy War” between the BYU and Utah Utes football teams. I got the sense the Dark Lord of the Hair Club for Men was more riled about women’s social roles than any doctrinal dispute.
But then, isn’t that what we had just protested: social roles as doctrine?
Behind me, a man shouted, “Satan is a Utes fan? Oh, come on!”
Later, when we returned our cards so our proxy sisters could keep a tangible memento, I asked if I could contact the woman on my card. I wanted to tell her how it felt and what it meant to me to do that for her. The organizers suggested I write my name and email address on the back of the card, so I did. Even if she never contacts me, we are eternally connected as proxy sisters now, our relationship sealed by that artifact, an unofficial temple ordinance record.
On my way out of the park, I asked one of the women if it might offend my proxy sister to have a gentile carry her name to the Tabernacle.
“Non-LDS men can attend the priesthood session,” she said, shrugging. “Why not you?”
I knew right away what she meant: If non-LDS males who possess no other credentials for the priesthood than their gender can attend the priesthood session, certainly non-LDS women who live under this patriarchy can, too.
But for me, it also meant something more fundamental, something less and something more at the same time: Why not me?
KARRIE HIGGINS lives in Salt Lake City. Her writing has appeared in Black Clock, DIAGRAM, Quarter After Eight, the Los Angeles Review, and the Los Angeles Times. Her essay “The Bottle City of God” won the 2013 Schiff Prize for Prose from the Cincinnati Review and will appear in the 2014 issue. She is at work on a book by the same title.