“It doesn’t matter if I told you to bring in wood or not. You should have looked and seen that it needed to be done. So yes, no matter how much whining and crying you do, you’re grounded, Chad.”
My stepfather, Kent, bald and in his late fifties, didn’t even look at me as he punished me for something I hadn’t done. He sat on the living room sofa watching a football game on the television that I wasn’t allowed to use; it was his TV, not to be used by children.
I stood there, feeling helpless. “But–but, dad, I–rehearsals start tonight.” I called him Dad, since mine wasn’t around, although Kent never acted like much of a father. My voice sounded weak, unsure. Talking back had never worked well for me in the past. Usually when he got like this, I knew that my job was to remain silent and quietly accept my punishment. Talking back would only make it worse.
But if he grounded me tonight, I would miss the first rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My parents had allowed me to try out for the show and I had a lead in it, and I had been excited for weeks about the chance to begin rehearsals. If he grounded me now, I would miss rehearsals and then be kicked out of the play.
Kent still didn’t look over, but he raised his voice, exerting his authority. “I said you are grounded!”
“What if I carry in some wood now? I could do it really quick before I have to leave.”
“You’ll be doing that anyway. But you are still grounded. Now go get to work.”
My insides clenched up. I knew if I pushed him much farther he would get violent. “I–can I at least call to let them know I can’t make it?”
And now he turned toward me, still sitting, but his hands balling into fists. He was yelling now. “I said you were god-damned grounded! If you wanted to join your little fairy play, then you should have done your little fairy chores! You don’t get to use the god-damned phone! Now get out there and stack the wood, Chad!”
I fled from the room and put on my coat, boots, and gloves. We had a wood stove in the basement that needed to be regularly stocked with wood to keep it burning. Our family had a large wood pile in the back yard, covered in snow. Once a week, it was my job to bring in armfuls of wood, which had to be dug out of the snow pile, and stack them in the garage, where they could dry and be ready for the fire. I checked the garage and found there was a full stack there already; I had just restocked the wood two days before, but I knew it was pointless to bring this up to Kent. When he got in a mood like this, he would find something, anything to rage at until his rage passed.
I spent the next hour chipping ice and snow off of the wood pile using a hammer and a shovel, then I loaded my arms up with one load of wood at a time. I stacked the pile in the garage until there wasn’t anymore room, then went inside, shedding my wet coat and gloves, my skin dry and red from the cold. I put my winter gear away and went silently to my room, not bothering to ask for any dinner or to use the phone again. Rehearsal would be starting in ten minutes and I couldn’t be there, and I couldn’t tell anyone why.
A few minutes later, Kent walked into my room without knocking. He stood over me, his voice stern but a bit kinder. “You worked hard tonight, so I’m going to give you a choice. You can stay here and be grounded. Or you can go to rehearsal tonight. You will still be grounded for the week, but I’ll let you go just to the rehearsals. If you choose this, though, there will be additional consequences.” I had no idea what he meant by that, but I had to go to the rehearsals, I just had to. I told him my choice, and he responded with a “so be it.”
“Thanks, dad,” I said, grateful and relieved. “It starts in five minutes. Can you give me a ride?”
“I most certainly can not.”
“Can I call someone for a ride?”
“Absolutely not. You’ll have to walk.”
The high school was three miles away. I would never make it in time. “But I’ll be late!”
He started me down, eyes furious. “That isn’t my problem.”
Three hours later, I got a ride home from friends. Rehearsal had gone well, even though I’d been late, and we’d read our parts out loud for the first time. A few friends asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t tell anyone. I was invited out for milkshakes, but I said I couldn’t, I had to be home immediately.
When I walked in the front door, the house was deathly quiet. I walked up the stairs, where Kent was still sitting on the couch, but in the dark this time.
“I’m home,” I said softly.
He didn’t look at me. “Go talk to your sister.”
I walked down the hall to Sheri’s room, nervous. I knocked on the door, softly. “Can I come in?” Sheri didn’t answer, but I opened the door. Sheri, age 12, my only younger sibling, sat on her bed, tears streaming down her face. I could tell Kent had been screaming at her. When he got like that, he would call her such terrible names.
“Are you okay?” I asked, and Sheri wouldn’t look at me.
“Kent told me I’m grounded for a month because I should have been helping you with the wood. He’s been yelling the whole time you were gone.”
I looked behind me and saw Kent standing over me in the hallway. “I told you there would be additional consequences, Chad. You made your choice.”
Kent stayed in my life for five years, from ages 13 to 17. Toward the end I started fighting back, which only made him more violent. At the end, he put my mom in the hospital and we got a restraining order against him. The divorce happened quickly and he was out of our lives. I didn’t see him after that, and got the news of his death years later. But those are stories for another time.
Kent was a bully, in the truest sense of the word. He would rage around in storms. He would be calm and happy for days, even weeks at a time, and then he would be emotionally manipulative, verbally abusive, and sometimes physically violent. We never knew when the storm would hit. He had this ability to make you believe the abuse was your fault, that you should have been able to anticipate his needs and understand the consequences before they had been laid out.
While Kent was in my life, I walked around believing that I was flawed, broken, and incapable of doing anything right. And I truly believed it was my fault and that he was innocent. He was the father figure, there to be obeyed. He was the Priesthood holder, holding God’s authority to make decisions in the household, and our place was to obey.
I have lived in Salt Lake City as an out, gay man for just under five years now, and it struck me this morning, with breaking news from the Mormon church, that the leaders of the LDS church treat the gay population the way that Kent treated me growing up. Every few months, for the entire time that I have lived here, there is some new subtle, passive information from the church, delivered in such a way that it indirectly attacks gay people. Painful and direct public statements and initiatives that cause turmoil, emotional pain, relationship stress, and thoughts of suicide in believing gay members. (While I myself am no longer Mormon, my family still is, as are many of my friends and many of my clients).
Yesterday, the Mormon church publicly stated that God, through revelation, has publicly backed church policies that state gay couples are apostates and that children of gay parents may not join their church without disavowing their parents. A few months ago, the church responded to the policy change, saying they were only doing it to protect families not hurt them. A few months before that, they showed their public support of groups in Utah that are vitriolic in their hatred of gay people. A few months before that, they called gay families ‘counterfeit’ in comparison to heterosexual families. A few months before that, they released a public statement of their disappointment over the passage of gay marriage. A few months before that, the church put their public support into initiatives fighting gay marriage. And on and on, going back to Proposition 8 and opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and the support of reparative therapy initiatives and the teaching that homosexuality is curable and to the usage of shock therapy in attempts to cure gayness.
And all the while with the message that “we are the prophets, we are the authority, we speak for God and your place is to agree and support us. If you are gay, you aren’t trying hard enough not to be. And while we continue to wound you, abuse you, and hurt you with our agendas and initiatives, we expect you to love us and know that we are right.” The message remains consistent, every few months a new statement or action to put gay people in their place.
For those that read this post, there will be many reactions. Some, those who are hurting, will nod and agree, perhaps shed a few tears. Some will be angry, and wonder why I have to criticize the church that they love. Some will dig their heels in, believe that the church is good and that eventually it will come around. Some will read in disgust and agree fully that the church is wrong. And some will stay where they are, hurting, not knowing how to reconcile their feelings of pain with their deep belief that the church is true and that its leaders speak truth.
I remember well those feelings. And so I close this blog post with one final story. After living with Kent for years, and suffering his abuse, I was pulled in by the school counselor to discuss what was happening in the home. It was the first time I opened up about the abuse.
“My stepfather yells a lot, and he gets violent sometimes, but that’s okay, it just means I need to keep trying harder. It’s not his fault, he is doing the best that he can. It’s not so bad, he’s gonna get better and see what a good family we are someday. I just have to stick with it and be strong.”
And the counselor had looked back at me and compassionately told me, “Chad, your stepfather is abusive. He’s hurting you and your sister and your mother with words and actions. You don’t deserve it, you aren’t causing it, and it isn’t your fault. There is nothing wrong with you. Never, never allow yourself to be abused.”
And I realized, quickly and with clarity, that my stepfather was an abusive bully. And I realize now, with quickness and clarity…
So is the Mormon church.