THE MISSIONARY TRAINING CENTER
IN THE MISSION FIELD
Maybe if Iíd grown up in a different family, I would have seen President for who he was. But instead, by the time I got to him, I had already learned to collude with abuse. I had learned this "skill" first from my parents and second from a sympathetic but incompetent therapist who was willing to let me pay him and adore him but who wasnít willing to take my healing seriously. By the time I got to President Whiteman B. Kennedy, egoist and rageaholic, I wasnít even a speed bump in his roaring path.
I grew upon the East Coast, the child of well-educated parents who had immigrated from Hungary. We spoke Hungarian in my home, so I was very fluent in that difficult language. My mother usually worked two jobs to support the family, was religiously devout, and slept in her own bedroom. She was critical of many cultural aspects of life in the United States. Her love of her homeland and difficulty in adjusting to America, along with her constant feelings of being misunderstood and not accepted made her less able to help me cope with the demands on me. My father, brilliant but seldom employed for long because of his temper, abused me physically, sexually, and emotionally, starting when I was four years old. I believe that my mother chose, on some level, not to "know" about the abuse and protect me because she was afraid of him and felt trapped and helpless. While each form of abuse left its own destructive and painful scars, for me the emotional abuse was particularly devastating. Although the sexual abuse stopped sometime in early grade school and the physical abuse stopped by junior high, the emotional abuse never stopped; in fact, in some ways it has become worse as Iíve become an adult, living far from my parents. I still experience those childhood feelings of being uneasy, isolated, not good enough, and overly anxious to please. I compensated, even as a child, by compulsive eating and have struggled as an adult with persistent eating disorders. I never fit in anywhere socially, although I was academically gifted and my achievement at school gave me some measure of self-esteem.
I first learned about Mormonism in the seventh grade while doing research for a paper on comparative religion. What I read stirred something deep in my heart that I later recognized as a testimony. I attended Mormon services first when I was twelve and went sporadically when my parents would tolerate it. I have to say that it was a letdown. I longed so intensely for unconditional love. I wanted so much to feel that I belonged somewhere. I never had that feeling at church. I didnít feel that I had a place, no family took me under their wing, but I kept going because I felt that the Church was true. I begged for permission to be baptized. When my parents finally granted it, after making me wait until I was seventeen and ready to leave for BYU, they rescinded permission on the very day of my baptism. I was baptized anywayóan important act of defianceóand carried out my plans to attend BYUóanother act of defianceópaying for my own education with my savings, a scholarship, a grant, student loans, and student jobs. We were estranged, especially my father and I; but they still had almost total emotional control of my life. For example, I obediently returned home for a year when my father developed heart problems, to care for him and contribute financially to the family.
I had graduated as a registered nurse. In the summer of 1982, I moved back to Salt Lake City and began working at Lincoln Hospital, mostly in surgery. I had a desire to go on a mission, but my parents were angry when I brought it up. I was competent in my work, got along well with my colleagues, was healthy, fit, and trim, active in Church, and feeling that I was an attractive person. This good time didnít last. Gradually, I felt that I no longer fit at church because I was a single professional woman in my late twenties. I tried a nonstudent singles ward but felt equally uncomfortable there with the focus on dating and marriage, since I seldom dated and seemed to lack whatever it took to attract men. In time, I grew depressed, not just because of the emptiness at church but because I realized that I seemed to find myself in one friendship after another that became emotionally abusive. Again I took solace in eating, which naturally made me feel worse. It became harder and harder to go to church.
A friend recommended Reynolds Sorensen as a therapist, and I began seeing him in June 19892. For the next year, he was the most important person in my life. I saw him weekly until April 1990, then after a break of a month or two, resumed weekly or biweekly visits until October 1990 when I left on my mission, and resumed the visits after my mission. I not only invested a lot of time with him, but I also invested a lot of money. He charged $60 an hour, $70 after my mission, and my insurance paid only $40 of that. Basically, I paid $20 a week for more than a year for the privilege of admiring him and feeling grateful that he would tell me about his family.
I really did think he was wonderful. His whole therapeutic approach was that living the gospel would solve my problems so what I needed to do was start going to church again. He was a teacher at the Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of Utah, and he persuaded me to start taking an institute class and attending sacrament meeting. To give him credit, it was true; attending church did bring me greater peace and stability. He gave me priesthood blessings twice and would not charge for those sessions.
However, our "therapy sessions" were mostly little chats that never came close to dealing with my underlying issues. Heíd tell me about his family or stories about his classes. Iíd sit and look at him, feeling so grateful to have a father figure talking with me kindly. I took an institute class from him every quarter. Once I took two. So I was seeing him a minimum of three hours a week. At one point, I wrote him a humble, adoring letter saying I wished I could be his second wifeóthat Iíd be willing to live in his basement and just be a helper for his wife. Obviously my emotional dependence was a serious problem that needed to be dealt with; but he never said anything about the letter, not one word.
Worse, I had serious issues that I needed to deal with therapeutically. He just didnít seem to understand how deeply I had been scarred by my abusive childhood, and he didnít know how to helpóhow, on a very basic levelóto "do therapy." Several times I began to tell him about experiences in my family that were emotionally upsetting to me. Once, when I mentioned the sexual abuse, he stated quite casually, "Yes, you have had some abuse in your background." His minimization of my pain and experiences stung sharply.
The closest we got to "therapy" was a weight control program. We talked about it a lot, but I kept gaining. I realize now that part of me was still saying, "No, I need protection." He tried to send me to a place where he said his wife had lost forty pounds, yet it was all passive motionómachines that moved your legs for you. The diet claimed to be high in oxygen and that consuming oxygen would cause weight loss. It was such an obvious scam that I wanted to say, "Brother Sorensen, I breathe my oxygen!" I couldnít understand how he could believe and advocate something so stupid. His B.S. was in microbiology! Unfortunately, I was so deferential that I not only was silent about my reservations but I actually went to the introductory session. I remember the attendant telling me earnestly to do absolutely no aerobic exercise because it makes your muscles bigger. I never went back.
I was supposed to write down everything I ate all week and show it to Brother Sorensen. Iíd practically starve myself before our meetings on Thursday, then Iíd go on a huge binge after our session. Iíd never write that down and he never asked about the gap in the record. I guess he didnít take my weight very seriously, since he told me that he had clients who were bingeing and purging several times a day. I know now that a client who is supposedly "working" on a problem but making no progress is sending a loud and clear message that something else is wrong. He never got that message.
Even more significantly, I hit my lowest point soon after I began seeing him. In late September or early October 1989,I took annectine and potassium chloride, two drugs needed for a lethal injection, from my work station in post-anesthesia and brought them to my home. I told Brother Sorensen exactly what I had and what each of the medications did, and he simply didnít react. His attitude was very casual. Perhaps he felt that I was just crying wolf and that, if he ignored it, the problem would go away.
However, I was suicidal. I phoned in sick a few days later. Leslie, my bossóand truly a good friendópromptly appeared on my doorstep. She coaxed me into going to the hospital "for evaluation" and strongly suggested that I bring along a toothbrush, "just in case" I might need to stay. Since the only other option was an unpaid leave of absence of indefinite length, I finally gave in and went with her. It was very embarrassing to be a psych patient in the hospital where I worked as a nurse. I was also very angry because I felt so powerless: about being admitted, about the patronizing air of several staff members; about the room searches, rules, and necessary loss of freedoms which must exist on such a unit. I was a cooperative patientóI didnít want to stay longer than I had toóand I escaped into a bubble of detachment as much as possible. I participated in individual, group, and recreational therapies. Toward the end of my stay, I was also started on Prozac, an antidepressant. My admitting physician, Dr. Harmon James, was a psychiatrist with whom I had worked professionally in the post-anesthesia care unit. I felt so ashamed of myself for having to become his patient, but he soon helped me over my embarrassment. Dr. James gave me some very valuable insights during my sessions with him. Still, I was acutely aware of the stigma of being a psychiatric patient. My fear of the consequences of that stigma were justifiedóat least as far as the Church was concerned.
Leslie later told me that she had been watching me closely at work as I became more and more depressed. I had confided to another nurse that I had taken the drugs home. This nurse had then told Leslie, who immediately called Brother Sorensen, told him I was very depressed, and said I might be thinking about suicide. She was outraged when he said, "This is out of my league. Get her some real help." He visited me twice during the three weeks I was hospitalized, and I was very bubbly around him. I also saw him on the day I was released from the hospital. I was Miss Cheerfulness then, too. No wonder he didnít take it seriously. In 1995 when the state closed his practice, I obtained my records from him. Interestingly, thereís no record of Leslieís phone call, my telling him that Iíd taken the drugs home, or my hospitalization. Itís as if in his mind it didnít even happen.
During the winter of 1989-90, I was feeling healthy and energetic. News of the collapse of international Communism energized me. My dream of going on a mission to Hungary revived. At a session with Brother Sorensen, he excitedly told me that Hungary had been officially opened for missionary work, confirming an earlier report I had heard. I was so excited! It all made such senseóa faith-promoting scenario worthy of the Ensign: my parents had been guided by the Lord to leave Hungary during the 1956 revolution. Although they didnít accept the gospel, their daughter embraced it and would be the Lordís instrument in bringing his restored gospel, the Truth which had been lost, back to the Magyars, the sweet people of Hungary. My conviction was absolute, my excitement was enormous. "I bet that thereís at least a 95 percent chance that youíll go to Hungary, since youíre fluent in the language," Brother Sorensen enthused. He totally pumped me up.
But rather than pumping me up, it was his moral responsibilityóhis ethical dutyóto tell me the truth: The Missionary Department has a policy that no one on medication for a psychological problem or who has been treated for/hospitalized for a psychological problem can be sent out of the United States. Iíve gone over and over it in my mind. I was on the mend. It wasnít that I needed something to be enthusiastic about. Did he know about the policy? How could he have not known? Heís counseled dozens of missionaries and worked for CES his whole life.
I talked to my bishop. He was very encouraging and also thought Iíd be called to Hungary. When I told my stake president that I spoke Hungarian, he said that he thought it was possible I would be called to Hungary but cautioned me that it might not happen. Neither one of them mentioned the policy either. How could it be possible that all three of them didnít know?
In the summer of 1990, I filled out my papers, and the call came two months later. I felt fine: healthy, happy, and emotionally strong. My weight was down, and I was maintaining it without real difficulty. It was really the best time of my life. My roommate brought the letter up to the hospital and I opened it in the locker-room. I was surprised and disappointed to see that I was being called to Texas, but I knew the correct response and said, "If the Lord knows Iím fluent in Hungarian and he still sends me to Texas, then thereís a reason for it." I stopped on my way home and told my bishop and stake president, "Well, the Lord must want me in Texas." Reynolds Sorensen was enthusiastic about the calling. He didnít ask if I was disappointed not to be going to Hungary. I never asked my parents for any kind of support. They were angry and disappointed with me and felt I was using poor judgement. Going to Hungary might have been somewhat understandable, but leaving my job to go to Texas was crazy. My ward paid about half the cost of my mission; I sold my car and most of my furniture, and used all of my savings.
Then I found out that I hadnít heard the whole story. On a follow-up visit to Dr. James, I told him about being called to Texas and did my little Molly Missionary speech. He looked at me and said bluntly, "I canít tell you why you got called to Texas, but I can tell you why you didnít get called to Hungary. Itís policy." He explained it to me. I was shocked and furious. I wrote a two-page letter to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, trying to get them to change the assignment:
A few days ago I received my call to serve as a full-time missionary in Texas. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve my Father in Heaven in such a sacred capacity and for the opportunity to learn, grow, and to share my love and testimony with my brothers and sisters.
While I was surprised that I was not called to serve in the land of my ancestry, I was willing and eager to serve wherever the Lord needed me most. This afternoon, however, I learned that the decision to send me to Texas was made based upon a problem which occurred last October and since has been completely resolved. My purpose in writing to you this day is only to share in greater depth my circumstances last year. Perhaps this information may be useful to you in reevaluating my qualifications for missionary service.
I summarized the causes of my depression, my therapeutic experiences with Reynolds Sorensen ("I know my Father guided me to this kind, wise man...), and the period of my hospitalization ("a time of concentrated reflection, learning, growth, and healing"), bore my testimony, dealt straightforwardly with the antidepressant ("Dr. James feels it would be safe for me to discontinue [it] ... but has discussed with me the possibility of remaining on a maintenance dose"), quoted their opinions ("Neither one feels that I am prone to develop an emotional illness again. Both know that I have learned and progressed from my past. The Lord knows this also and has forgiven me my weaknesses. He has allowed me to start anew"), and then concluded:
Dear Brethren, my humble request is that you consider these words which have come from my heart when reevaluating my mission application.... I have had a very strong impression that I would be called to serve in Hungary. Ever since I was baptized in 1978, Iíve had a great desire to share the gospel with the sweet people of my ancestry.
My parents ... have not accepted the Gospel, but I was so fortunate to have been exposed to it and immediately embraced it. Now with my skills in the Hungarian language, I could help return the precious gift of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ to my parentsí homeland.
If however after reviewing my records, I am still called to serve in Texas (or anywhere else), I shall gratefully and enthusiastically accept the call and serve with all my heart, might, mind, and strength. For then I can be sure that the call is so issued, not because of perceived limitations due to events in my past, but because the Lord needs me in Texas.
I included Elder Russell Nelson in the address because he supervised Eastern Europe at that time. At my request, two of the doctors at Lincoln Hospital in whose units I had worked for several years wrote supporting letters about my character to Elder Russell Nelson, since they had worked closely with him when he was a thoracic surgeon and they knew him well. One praised me as "one of our best and most capable nurses. At all times she has been very professional and most competent in her duties." He recommended me "without hesitation." The second doctor, "without reservation" said I would "be an asset to the missionary work in Hungary" and praised me as an outstanding nurse and a dependable worker."
Sherman Crump, executive secretary of the Missionary Committee, called me at work, said the Missionary Committee was "giving your letter serious attention," and that heíd get back to me. I asked him to let me know either way. He said he would. I waited and waited. Finally I called him. He didnít return my call. I called again. Again he didnít return my call. It made me really angry that he wouldnít respond.
I was out of time. I reported to the MTC on 10 October with the issue still unresolved. As it turned out, this was a turning point for me. Iíd spent my whole life being emotionally manipulated by my parents, with my father especially reinforcing his view that I deserved no respect for I had no worth. Reynolds Sorensen, in some ways, was a kindly father figure whom I used as a substitute. But he didnít respect me enough to tell me the truth about the policy, and that has become an issue more important to me even than ignoring my approach to suicide. Then Sherman Crump, by not responding when he said he would and when I truly deserved an answer, reinforced the message that I didnít deserve respect. And finally, the mission I went to in Texas could not possibly have been a worse experience. The mission president systematically and cruelly exploited and manipulated the missionaries. I do not believe God wanted me in Texas. I do not believe he wanted me to endure that mission president when what I wanted was to serve my Savior. And the worst of it was that there seemed to be no appeal within the system to get relief from its abuses.
Thatís not the way I saw things at the time. Iíve come to these conclusions slowlyóafter another deep post-mission depression and years of hard work in therapy. Maybe in a few years, Iíll see things differently yet. But the next three yearsómy mission and its aftermathówere a series of blows and betrayals that kept reinforcing the message I had heard since childhood: You donít count. Youíre not worthy of respect. Youíre nothing.
In the MTC, I devoted all of my energies to being accepting, being spiritual, being good," and interpreting the experiences there as "inspirational." I knew the kind of experience I was supposed to haveóand I desperately wanted to have the same kind of experience. For the most part, it worked, although, reading back through my journal, I can see the slippage between the interpretation a reasonable person would put on my experiences and the inspirational interpretation I tried so hard to maintain.
The first hard experience was being called to see the psychologist at the MTC. I knew why. It was because I was still taking Prozac. When I got the note to report to his office, tears of anger and mortification came to my eyes. At his office, he kept me waiting more than an houróand he was the one who had set the appointment time! I recorded in my diary afterwards:
I was determined to just be myself. ... He was concerned about how I was handling the stress of the MTCóthe food, the regulated hours, the class time, etc. I told him I thought it felt like a vacation. Iím learning and studying; but in comparison to what Iím used to, this is nothing. I told him I was a nurse in a critical care area, used to demanding hours and being on call.
Then he got to the pointóthat because I was on medication, a doctor would be assigned to monitor me in the mission field. Trying to be polite, I told him that Dr. James had said I could stop taking it in the next two or three months. Patronizingly, he explained, "Sometimes there are side effects to medications." Stunned at his condescension, I said, "Iím fully aware of that. Iím a nurse. And there have been no side effects."
He asked if there was anything I needed to get off my chestóanything he could help me with. I said no.
He said, "Then I can write in my report to [the MTC president] that youíre doing well." I said, "Yes, just as I was well before I sent my papers in, and just as Iíve been well for a long time."
Ooh, I was mad! How many times am I going to have to explain myself again and again and again? Will they ever let me live it down? I told them it was a closed episode with no recurrence, no previous disposition, no history of, no likelihood of any more illness. How much plainer do I have to be? Of course, if I get too angryówhere I show itóit goes down on paper. Catch 22 for life. I hate it!(17 Oct. 1990).
The second hard experience was being yanked back and forth between hope and the destruction of hope. My hopes soared when, the very evening of this patronizing interview with the psychologist, a young man came into the room before class began, asked if he could speak to me in the hall, and then began speaking tome in Hungarian. He was an instructor in the MTC and was there to test my speaking ability. I peppered him with questions about missionary efforts in Hungary where he had served three years earlier. Excitedly I wrote:
I donít dare to think about it. I donít want to think about it. I had grown comfortable with Texas. I asked the Lord to [take] it into his hands, that I might trouble myself no more, that His will be done. And now this! ... I donít want to be like Martin Harris by trying to convince the Lord where to send me. And for that reason, I will make no appeal. Hungary does not feel right because I want to go there; it feels right because I feel He wants me there. (17 Oct. 1990).
I waited in a fever of impatience for a week and a half and finally wrote the instructor a note, "Please tell me one way or the other." Even then, I never heard. The message was clearly: "Weíll make all the decisions for you." I smothered my rage, pretended that the Lordís chosen servants were simply following his directions and knew what was best, and told myself that it was my job to accept his will even when I didnít understand it.
Four days later, Sherman Crump was the speaker at our weekly fireside, excitedly relating how this very week he had assigned two more missionaries to Czechoslovakia and two more to Hungary. My heart sank and I struggled to hold back the tears. After the fireside, I went up to the stand and introduced myself. Smiling, he asked enthusiastically, "And where are you going?"
"Texas," I answered. "Do you remember me?"
He paused. "Yes," he answered, then turned immediately to the next person. I turned away, feeling empty. He hadnít remembered me. Even if I had refreshed his memory and asked him about the conversation with the Hungarian instructor sent to test my skills, I donít think he would have had anything to say. I struggled for peace. I just didnít understand. I wrote thoughts so "noninspirational" that they alarmed me, but I felt them sincerely:
I feel like the mission committee lied to me. If they wanted to send me to Hungary, but felt I was unable to do it, I wish they would have been honest and told me so. This bouncing back and forth is destroying my faithónot in the Gospel, but in the system. I just donít understand. I donít want to say, "Lord, change my call." I want to say, "Lordólet them know Iím not second rate! Let them know I can do it!" But then I think, am I acting like Martin Harris? Am I trying to tell the Lord what to do? And my call was signed by the Prophet himself. Shouldnít that be enough? Yes, it should....
Here I am a missionary, set apart, and I feel my faith has evaporated. ... Iím here because I love the Lord, and because the Gospel has been restored. I want to share it with others. I love the Savior. He did so very much for me. Why is this so hard? ...
Iím so discouraged, but I canít show it because "they might be keeping an eye on me."óYou never know, they may still be "evaluating" me. So I keep up this little facade. I donít know. I just donít understand.
I struggled for two days before I reached any kind of emotional equilibrium. I seized eagerly on the advice of the evening teacher, who invited my confidence, that Satan was "try[ing] my faith and testimony through the imperfections of Church members/administrators/procedures, etc." (26 Oct. 1990). I found some comfort in deciding: "Faith does not cause obedience; rather obedience fosters faith" (23 Oct. 1990). I would spend the next year and a half striving for more perfect obedience, hoping for more complete faith, and denying the reality of some pretty ugly situations.
I had hoped that actually reaching the mission field would allay the hesitations and questions I had. Instead, my first experience meeting our mission president, Whiteman B. Kennedy and his wife, Helene, was unsettling. (Everyone in the mission, including Sister Kennedy, referred to him simply as "President"óas though that were his name. And he heightened the impression by referring to himself in the third person.) I was the only sister in the group of new missionaries that reached Texas. I was trying to be my happy, polite, respectful self, telling myself that this was the experience Iíd been waiting for ever since I joined the Church. Presidentís first words to me were: "How do you feel being in Texas?"
"Great!" I said, enthusiastically.
"Show it then," he commanded.
I felt so uncertain and put down immediately. What had I done wrong?
After group orientation at the office, we had dinner at President Kennedyís large and lavishly furnished house in an affluent community. One of the new elders asked, "Is this where weíre staying tonight?" President replied sarcastically, "You wish!" We would discover that the mission home was out of bounds except for arriving and departing missionaries. The mission office was in a separate building.
I immediately felt that I needed to be on my guardóthat this was not a safe place either. By the time I reached my first proselyting area, I had drawn three conclusions:
(1) Mission leaders were privilegedóexempt even from normal courtesies. This view was reinforced during the twelve-hour ride the next day as the assistant delivered us to our various trainers, treating us en route to a nonstop exhibition of rudeness and condescension. (2) Women didnít count as people. Most of the rest of the conversation among the thirteen elders was about womenówomen they had left behind, women actresses, women we drove past. I had been a nurse for nine years. I had not led a sheltered life. Yet at times during that ride, I felt as if I were in a menís locker room. I pretended I was invisible and said nothing. (3) Only numbers counted. The orientation had drilled the vocabulary and procedures into our heads: we were there to "harvest." We had to phone in our statistics every night to the district leaders. If we werenít successful, we would be shamed by our lack of numbers and lack of a "respectable position" on the baptizing list when the monthly newsletter came out.
In my journal, I poured out my uncertainty, my self-doubts. Was I just being "stuck up or haughty or prideful" because I couldnít support these goals without question? Bewildered, I recorded in my journal teaching the second discussion to a girl named Cynthia who reminded me so much of myself a couple of years earlier. She was perky and fun on the outside, but she overate compulsively, slipped into self-derogatory comments, and admitted that her self-esteem was at an all-time low. It seemed so clear to me that by making her feel loved, she would feel her inner worth and could then believe that the Lord actually wanted her to come to him. I left the discussion exhilarated, feeling that weíd made an important break-through. My companion, Sister Allen, criticized me for not being successful in committing her to baptism and lamented that "we hadnít made much progress" (8 Nov. 1990). She also gave me a cartoon-style drawing of a sister missionary wearing a happy-face mask with the comment, "This is the only way to survive here in Texas."
The next month was our first mission conference. The keynote speaker was from the Stephen R. Covey Institute of Leadership. My second companion, Sister Beck, couldnít wait to spend time with the elders and sisters from her old area and made it clear that I wasnít invited. At every break, she was flirting with them. At lunch, she disappeared with a former companion, leaving me and the companionís junior, whom I hadnít even met, staring at each other blankly. At dinner time, she said she wanted to eat with two other sisters and that there wasnít a seat for me. I could no longer control my emotions. Eyes brimming with tears, I disappeared into the restroom where Sister Allen found me. We spent the dinner hour walking around outside the chapel. I was stunned to hear her say that nearly everyone on her bus had confessed to feeling "totally worthless." She described her own experiences and said she felt "spiritually rapedóstripped of spiritual and emotional strength and dignity." It felt so good to express myself without fear of judgement or reprimand, and that hour left me feeling positive and encouraged. I donít like being touched, but Sister Allen and I had walked arm in arm during our conversation and had hugged each other at the end of our conversation. I felt loved and understood. That conversation had given me the inspiration I had hoped for from the conference.
Much of that good feeling had dissipated by the end of the testimony meeting. Sister Beck and I were sitting in front of four missionaries she had known before. We were toward the back of the chapel, and she chatted with them during most of the meeting. They had rude or sarcastic comments to make about 95 percent of the testimonies that were borne.
But the crowning moment came at the end of the conference when we were straggling back to our buses. President pulled me into a classroom and told me to sit down. He remained standing up and, uncomfortable with being towered over, I stood back up. He asked me how I was getting along with Sister Beck, that heíd noticed a "strain" in our relationship. I answered truthfully that she demanded a great deal of control but that we were working on it.
Then he asked, "What about your relationship with Sister Allen?"
Uncertain what he was asking, I responded, "Well, we were companions and now weíre friends. We talked during dinner time.
He bore down: "Someone has reported to me that youíre involved in some improper behavior. Do you have a homosexual relationship with her?"
I was so shocked that I could barely pull my thoughts together. Emphatically and angrily I said, "No!"
He looked hard at me, then said, "All right. Merry Christmas."
My eyes were welling with angry tears, and he said, "You seem upset."
I felt like saying, "No kidding!" Instead I said, "What an awful thing to accuse me of! I donít even like anyone to hug or touch me!"
He said he wasnít accusing me, just asking. "Itís nothing I wouldnítóand havenítóasked any of the elders." He put his arms around me and hugged me, which made me feel even angrier, said, "Now stop crying, and donít tell anyone about this conversation," then opened the door and led me into the hail.
I was physically exhausted and now emotionally attacked. Iím sure part of the problem was sheer fatigue. At the end of a full day of proselyting, weíd boarded a chartered bus at 11:00 P.M. and had driven and talked all night, arriving at 6:30 A.M. the next morning. Conference started at 8 A.M. and the testimony meeting finished at l0:00 P.M. Then we boarded the bus again for another eight hour ride back to our areas, just in time to begin working again. I spent most of the night crying and praying in the busís tiny restroom. I was physically nauseated from being so upset. I felt that my character had been assaulted. I felt violated. I thought seriously about leaving the mission.
Later when I was working in the mission office, I learned that President always arranged for the senior missionary couples from the office to patrol the chapel and report anything "suspicious" to him at these conferences. Someone had probably seen me and Sister Allen in the parking lot and had delightedly leaped to a debasing conclusion that President was only too willing to believe. I later learned from one of the older sister missionaries that President automatically assumed that any woman who was over thirty and not married was a lesbian.
I was so upset as a result of this experience that I broke the rules and called Reynolds Sorensen. He was soothing and affirming. It was natural to have a few adjustment troubles on a mission. Going on a mission was the right thing to doóit made Heavenly Father happy. My mission call was inspired. I was in the place that Heavenly Father and the Prophet wanted me to be. Then he asked me if there was any truth underlying Presidentís question about me and Sister Allen. Startled and upset, I exclaimed, "No!" It bothered me a lot, but I rationalized that he knew me better than anyone else. As a bishop and institute teacher and counselor, he was an inspired man. And heíd really just asked the same question as President, so it was a question that mission presidents obviously needed to ask.
Naively, I was not suspicious when Elder Peterson, an assistant to President, called me the next day just "to see how youíre doing." I asked whether President or the zone leaders had asked him to call and believed him when he said no. I spilled out my feelings to him for an hour and hung up feeling so good to know that there was someone in the mission who really cared about what I thought and felt, who accepted me as someone who was trying hard, who would not reprimand me for my feelings. I discovered later, working in the office, that Elder Peterson regularly conducted these little chats and reported back to President about the results. He was known as one of Presidentís most dedicated little Nazis.
I had, as tactfully as I could, said that Sister Beckís attitude was "controlling." I realized later that it was an attitude that pervaded the mission. President had gone far beyond the rules listed in the "white book" in prescribing our activities. I sometimes felt that we were trapped in thorny thickets of rules. One elder who was in our mission briefly, waiting for his visa, complained in district meeting, "Who is this guy to make up all these rules? There are so many that you end up having to break some to keep others!" The ZLs were furious with himómostly because he was right. Here are some of the "unwritten" rules:
Our phones were locked in some way so that we couldnít dial the operator because President didnít want anyone making calls home or on a calling card. I didnít even know it was possible to eliminate the operator option on a phone, and we were so scared about what else might be happening with our phonesówere our calls monitored? recorded?óthat we didnít even dare try to see if we could get 911. This was a real hardship for missionaries whose tracting areas overlapped more than one calling zone. They couldnít even follow up with investigators in another town.
We had to leave the door to the bathroom in our apartment ajar while we were using it.
Missionaries were forbidden to call or write each other. We were not to share proselyting tips or information with other pairs of missionaries, even those in our own districts.
Even to pass on a referral to another missionary team was a cumbersome procedure. First, I would call the district leaders (DL) who would call the zone leaders (ZL) who would grant permission for me to call the referral to the other missionary team. The ZL would call the other missionaries to inform them that I would be calling. The DL would then call me back to give me permission to make the telephone call. This procedure was later dropped when even that much contact with another missionary became illegal. The information was simply relayed via the "appropriate channels."
We were not allowed to have tape players. No music of any sortónot even hymns by the Tabernacle Choir. No inspirational talks, not even conference addresses.
The "white handbook" says that we are supposed to be out of our apartments doing missionary work between 9:30 A.M. and 9:30 P.M. except for lunch and dinner. President added his own rules by making it an absolute prohibition to return to the apartment for any reason. If we began a menstrual period, we could not go back to the apartment for tampons. We could not even stop in to use the bathroom. Our tracting area included our apartment building; but if we were in the area, we used the bathroom in the 7-11 next to our building, rather than entering our building. The ZLs and APs would often sit outside missionariesí apartments in their cars, to make sure they didnít come home early or come home for lunch.
President had six assistants, so there was a great deal of competition among them. He routinely shared with them information which should have remained confidential. For example, President told his assistants which missionaries were taking Prozac or seeing a counselor/therapist; then the assistants would refer to those missionaries sarcastically and disgustedly. Word got around the mission very quickly.
Summer temperatures in Texas were often 100 degrees with 90 to 95 percent humidity. Regardless of the temperatures, elders had to wear their suit jackets. The only exceptions were the hottest monthsóJuly and Augustówhen they could take their jackets off while they were riding their bikes. If they were walking, the jackets had to be on. Sisters always had to wear pantyhose, no matter how hot it was. One of my most unpleasant memories is the feeling of sweat trickling down my pantyhose. President drove an air-conditioned Caprice Classic and frequently reminded us, as yet another of his rules, "We donít ever mention the heat or the bugs."
His approach to missionary illness was that we were all malingering. Prolonged illness was hypochondria. I once tracted for several days with strep throat and a fever of 103 degrees. (Finally, after I saw a doctor, I spent a day or two in bed while the APs accompanied my companion around our area.) If he was forced to admit that someone was genuinely ill, he still found a way to blame them: If you were sick, it was because you didnít have enough faith. Sister Kennedy told the women in our sistersí conference one year, "Thereís no such thing as cramps. Itís all in your head." One elder collapsed on the transfer van and was taken to the hospital. He had a high temperature and was suffering from a kidney infection. Heíd been seriously ill for several days but, of course, the DL had kept denouncing him as lazy, a faker, a "bucket."
There was an elaborate and ever-multiplying system of fines if our car did not pass a white-glove test at zone conference, if we went over the allowed mileage, if our apartment didnít pass inspection, if we didnít jump-rope (the regulation exercise in our mission) every morning, if we were even five minutes late to district or zone meeting. Sometimes we had to pay these fines on the spot; sometimes the money was withheld from the monthly allowance we were sent from the mission office.
The reasonable Church-wide rule that missionaries be neatly dressed and well groomed turned into another form of competitiveness. At our monthly zone conferences, President would tell admiring stories about how so-and-so had gone home, made lots of money, was driving X kind of car, living in X type of house, and had married the daughter of X bank president3. He was jovial and even a little deferential to the missionaries with money. He frankly encouraged elders to buy double-breasted suits, shirts with French cuffs, cuff-links, and double-starch on the collars. Trouser cuffs had to be a certain length. Sister Kennedy told the sisters that "your clothes will determine how respectfully you are treated." She talked frequently about the "look" she found at Dillardís. It was an unofficial rule that we wear a new outfit to each zone conference. Some sisters were really good at shopping garage sales. Others had money.
Presidentís preoccupation with image was offensively personal and inappropriate. Once when I was in a threesome, President told the second sister to "take twenty pounds off" the third sister. She was already at a perfect weight. She did not need to lose even five, and it infuriated me to see this new missionary run smack into judgement and rejection as her welcome to the mission.
The mission leaders received enviable privileges. One of my companions who had worked in the mission office as Presidentís personal secretary told me that the APs and ZLs received an extra $200 to $500 monthly "so they can go out to lunch" in nice restaurants. Itís true that they had greater travel expenses, but itís also true that travel was the excuse for giving them more money. Even more important than the money was the power they hadóthe power to demand, to torment, to humiliate. Nearly all of them had been humiliated as young missionaries; few of them resisted the temptation to behave differently once they were "unleashed." I was completely disgusted to learn that a zone leaderóone who gave some of the harshest tongue-lashings to those who did not report good statisticsóhad an affair with the wife of a ward mission leader that may have lasted for as long as six or eight months before it was discovered, although at least one of his companions knew about it. He was sent home with a medical discharge; no action was taken against his membership.
A mission rule was: "There is no such thing as a lunch hour." President frankly used a guilt trip to enforce this rule, telling the story of Peter and the miraculous draught of fishes when Jesus asked reproachfully, "Lovest thou these more than me?" (John 21:15). If we stopped to eat lunch, we were admitting that we didnít love the Savior, he implied. A ZL at a district meeting told us that we were supposed to bring a sandwich from our apartments, stop at the curb, eat in the car, and "be on our way in fifteen minutes."
I yearned for growth in the gospel, but it was hard. I had a few very needy companions, one of them mildly retarded. During these companionships, nearly all of my study time went to helping themóperhaps half of my mission. I did not begrudge this time or effort, and I still donít. But I also feel that President gave me a couple of very difficult companions because he felt I had the strength and compassion to deal with them, and I naturally didnít want to disappoint him. During the remaining half of my mission, we never moved beyond the regimented study program with its requirements to read certain things, memorize certain scriptures, complete study guide questions, and have proficiency at certain levels in the discussions. There were rankings here, too. We all started out as Uncertified Teachers, but within three months, we were supposed to become Certified Teachers. There was a third, "optional" ranking, Master Teacher. One companion who was near the end of her mission decided she wanted to be a Master Teacher, so she zipped through the study guide using a cheat sheet that had been passed down through many missionaries. She was one of Presidentís "starlets." Deeply troubled by the cheating, I reported it. Presidentís response was to act coldly toward me and to praise her.
In contrast to our regimented studies, the district leaders and zone leaders had special conferences at which they discussed "deep" spiritual/intellectual topics; women, of course, were never included in these discussions. I remembered with longing returned missionary friends who told how they had been able to study deeply, satisfying their spiritual thirst. How I yearned for that! But in our mission, only the APs were allowed to reach such "nonstandard" material as books by General Authorities.
Companionships were rearranged almost constantly. In my first six months, I had four different companions. This pattern held basically true for the rest of my mission and was pretty typical of most companionships.
Each missionary was supposed to write a weekly letter to President. Part of the letter was supposed to report on our relationship with our companion, and he openly encouraged missionaries to "tell me anything I need to know" about our companions. The amount of tattling that went on resulted, inevitably, in a profound lack of trust.
Elder M. Russell Ballard proudly announced in conference that missionaries all over the world were doing four hours of community service a week. Not in our mission! In fact, it was strictly forbidden. When the president of the mission next to ours called to see if we would help with their service projectómoving a center for the blind that was relocating within our boundariesóPresident gave him an emphatic no. He said it would only take a couple of hours. The answer was still no.
When a missionary questioned President about our missionís policy, he said we were free to do service on P-day. But the white handbook (p. 30) specifically states that community service should not be done on a P-day or weekend. However, transfers and district meetings were always scheduled on P-days. Often zone conferences were as well. What was left over was our own time for shopping, laundry, writing letters, getting hair cuts, and cleaning our cars and apartments. Our cars were inspected weekly at district meeting for cleanliness with especially thorough inspections coming monthly at zone conferencesóincluding Presidentís "fingernail test" to be sure that they were waxed. The mission office staff inspected our apartments every three months or so.
When we phoned in our daily reports about tracting hours, first discussions, progressing discussions, member referrals, asking golden questions,4 and placing copies of the Book of Mormon, the district leadersówho had to report to the zone leaderówould chastise us if we werenít meeting the mission minimums of five hours tracting, three first discussions, two progressing discussions, fifteen golden questions, and three member introductions. These were daily minimums. We were also to have a minimum of eight nonmembers at each baptism and our goal was a baptism every ten days. In the zone where the leader had the affair with the mission leaderís wife, we were required to give an hour-by-hour report each night of how we had spent the day.
We were not allowed to have any input into selecting the goals. During one period that lasted months, the missionwide order was to keep a minimum of eighty-five people in our teaching pool. The teaching pool consists of people who have had the second discussion and are progressing toward baptism. We were supposed to maintain daily contact with these people so they could keep progressing toward baptism. But there were only seventy-five proselyting hours a weekónot enough time to see them weekly, let alone daily. But when we protested, we were told, "If you have enough faith, you can do it." I wanted to teach. I felt genuine love for each of our investigators, no matter what stage they were at, and I remember my joy when each of "my" twenty converts was baptized. But I felt so trapped.
For a time, the rule was: No investigator, no church. We were allowed to go to sacrament meeting, but had to leave immediately after taking the sacrament. That rule was eventually relaxed, but during my whole mission we could not attend the televised sessions of general conference unless we were accompanying an investigator. When I first got there, the elders were all allowed to see the priesthood session, with or without investigators, but the sisters were not allowed to see the womenís general meeting telecast the weekend before general conference. When the sister missionaries cried foul, President changed the policy to allow us to attend one session of conference without an investigator; but we could be admitted to the other sessions, including the women general meeting, only if we had an investigator. I felt starved for the gospel discussions in Relief Society and Sunday School.
Local members were wary of him. Although he could be very charismatic, many members called him a "hardliner," tried not to cross him, and soon learned not to complain. We missionaries were instructed to defend him, rebuke the members who criticized him, and report them to our zone leaders.
On Preparation Day we were not allowed to do crafts, ceramics, or hobbies of any sort. Bowling and roller-skating were forbidden. Elders, but not sister missionaries, were permitted to play basketball. We had to get up at the usual time and go through the usual morning routine. The white handbook specifies that P-day is supposed to begin with the regular study class at the usual time (p. 20). Our P-day activities could not begin until 9:30 A.M. and ended with a district meeting at 4:00 or 5:00 P.M. (The white handbook says P-day was supposed to end at 6:00 P.M.) Sometimes these short days were cut even shorter if we had long drives to reach our district meetings, requiring us to leave at 3:00 or 3:30 P.M. Except for the district meeting, no contact between missionaries was allowed on P-day. We were to have no joint lunches, no cultural activities, no entertainment, no sightseeing.
The white handbook says that missionaries are to arise at 6:30 A.M. In our mission, the rule was to get up by 5:50 A.M. I could have understood this rule if, in such a hot climate, we were allowed to rest a little during the hottest part of the day, but we werenít even allowed to come home.
We were to carry a pocket dictionary while tracting and memorize new English vocabulary.
Missionary name tags in every mission I know about are black, except in the Utah Salt Lake City Mission, where they are white. But President issued every missionary with a white name tag when he arrived. It was pretty obviously a sort of visual play on his name: Whitemanís missionaries had white name tags. I heard from a senior sister who worked in the mission office that a letter from "Salt Lake" put an end to this ego trip after a year by instructing President that the missionaries would wear black name tags.
I blamed myself constantly. When I resisted the "get-the-bodies-in-the-font" pressure, I blamed my lack of faith. When I was scolded or humiliated, I told myself that I needed humbling. When I received guilt-laden messages from President or Sister Kennedy, I told myself they were being sweet and concerned. I told myself that of course they loved meójust as my parents loved me, that I knew it on an intellectual level but just wasnít in tune enough to hear it on a feeling level. When the elders or other sisters were rude, sarcastic, cutting, and emotionally manipulative, I told myself they were insecure and needy. When I was lectured about the rules, I told myself that I needed to be more careful, that the rules were for a good purpose, that this was how I showed my desire to be obedient.
Presidentís favorite theme was obedience. His talks at monthly zone conference always included harsh warnings about criticizing your leaders. "Murmuring" was a sign of a lack of faith. "Sustain, even if you donít know why a leader told you to do it." Sustaining was the equivalent of obedienceóinstant, unquestioning obedienceóin his book. Authority was an unbroken chain: obedience to the district leader, to him, to the prophet, to Godóthere was no difference. It was as if they were all interchangeable.
I wrote on the last page of my missionary journal the mission theme: "NO ONE CAN FIGHT AGAINST THE BRETHREN AND WIN." President frequently told about Sylvester Smith who had become angry at Joseph Smith (they were not related) on the Zionís Camp march and argued with him. The Prophet cursed him, said President, and Sylvesterís horses all died and he apostatized. I took notes during one zone conference where he repeated these stories. "No one can ever take on the Brethren and win! Donít ever disagree with the Brethren!" he hammered home the point. Those who meekly and patiently endured the trials of Zionís Camp, those who were obedient in all things, became the later leaders of the Church. The basis of all Church government is obedience. And the rewards of obedience are power, status, and ever-higher office.
President preached in this same zone conference that the Holy Ghost is a calling that Joseph Smith and other righteous priesthood holders have held. It seemed blasphemous to me when I heard it, but I never said anything to anyone. I realize that this doctrine didnít originate with him, but why was he telling missionaries such speculative doctrine?
At another time, he sternly proclaimed, "Being a member of the Church is not a right. It is a privilege." On one level, he was right. It is a privilege. But he was expressing a threat, not gratitude. It was clear that he controlled this privilegeóthat he could and would revoke it if anyone displeased him.
I underlined these notes in my journal and wrote in anxious self-abnegation:
Howl need these lessons. How I need this president. The Lord knew I needed to be chastenedóto overcome that tremendous pride I hadóto learn the absolute necessity of obedience of heart as well as deed. Oh, how ... grateful I am for the trials I have had hereóto learn obedience and sustaining and to cleanse the inner vessel and to cease murmuring. How very grateful I am to Heavenly Father and the mission committee for not listening to me (or I should sayófor not giving in to my unrighteous, prideful request). ... How very great is my love and appreciation for President Kennedy and for Heavenly Fatherówho knew what it was I needed to learn. (21 June 1991)
Today, I read entries like this with compassion for that terrified missionary, desperately colluding in her own abuse so she could feel safe. I also read them with a faint nausea and with a slow, steady anger.
I was never the direct target of Presidentís temper, but I represented no challenge to him either. I was very easy to manipulate. I was desperately afraid of him and abnormally eager for his love and approval, so the least kindness dissolved any doubts, making me abjectly willing to take the blame, to see any difficulties as my fault, to see everything he said as inspired. Before zone conference in January 1991,I wrote President a thoughtful and carefully considered letter expressing my doubts about being called to Texas and my continuing resentments at having the policy concealed from me. By then, I was with my third companion. All three of them had been treated for an eating disorder and/or emotional problems. I felt that I had been assigned to Texas because of my history. I fasted and prayed before the conference that President would be inspired. I certainly didnít trust my own ability to receive answers.
He scheduled my interview last. He told me that heíd prayed about my letter, felt I should stay, but had the papers drawn up for my transfer to Hungary and was ready to fax them to Salt Lake City if I felt it was right. He confided that he had been considered as a mission president three times before his call but that someone on the Missionary Committee had reservations about him and had held up the call. He stated that he maintained his faith even so, so that he would be ready when the Lord did call him. He also speculated that my life might be in danger from the USSR seizing control over former Iron Curtain countries if I went to Hungary. I, predictably, felt humbled, loved, understood. In his closing remarks at the conference, President singled me out in public, praising a short talk I had given (required of all the missionaries) as an example of "refinement and intelligence," and the "greater maturity" that he wanted the missionaries to develop. I was flustered and ecstatic, resolved to be the perfect missionary.
My glowing adoration received a sudden check the next month when I spent two days between companions with a senior missionary couple, the Drews, who many years earlier had been in Presidentís ward. He was the bishop, Sister Drew was the Relief Society president, and Elder Drew was the ward clerk. They had been good friends then but "now we stay as far away from him as possible," they admitted. They described him as always being driven by competition and a hunger for success, but the warmth they remembered had changed. They described him as cold, hard, sarcastic, and angry. Sister Drew said: "There are two words to describe President: Ďmeaní and Ďvindictive."í They had worked in the office for six months and had seen his mood swing from pleasant to enraged from minute to minute. The office staff was afraid of him. They would warn each other, "President is out of control today."
The president of another Texas mission had asked for a copy of the mission newsletter so they could improve theirs. "President said, ĎNo.í Everything is a secret."
Itís all pretty scary. It sounds as though President has a mental illness.... I felt that perhaps Iím here to give love to the missionaries around me. So very many of them act like whipped dogs, the joy taken right out of them. Many go home early because of all the stress, the lack of love, the constant putdowns, etc. This is so unlike what I thought a mission would be. ... President is training the leaders of tomorrow."... [But] the ones who climb highest here are the robots, the yes-men, the Gestapo. ... They are learning how to be successful in numbers, to be driven [I should have added, "and to drive"], but not to love. What are the two greatest commandments? (7 Feb. 1991)
And this mood was mission wide, as nearly as I could tell. Certainly, my own zone was filled with secrets and competitiveness. The missionaries were afraid of each other. I was immune to a lot of it, since I was older and since there was (a blessing, in retrospect) no "promotion ladder" for sisters to climb5; but I could tell the strain I was under. In February, a few days after my discussion with the Drews, I noticed that I would allow myself a good silent cry almost every time I was in private.
In late February or early March, I got a gut-wrenching phone call from President. He announced gravely that someone had sent him some of my lettersóthat I had "murmured" about the lack of charity and respect in our mission, the Nazi leadership, and the sense of dwindling spirituality. He was furious and berated me harshly. I felt so betrayed and completely alone. And guilty. Of course I felt guilty. Shocked and stunned, I apologized repeatedly, promised to do better, wept with shame and fear. Later, when I worked in the office, Sister Kennedy came flying past and dropped a letter on my desk. "Seal this up and send it on, Sister VŲrŲs," she ordered.
I picked up the letter. It was to a missionary from a correspondent outside the state. The top had been neatly slit with a letter opener. I stared at it in absolute disbelief. And why would it be opened if someone hadnít wanted to read it? Mechanically, I taped it shut and marked the forwarding address on it, but I was remembering a letter Iíd sent to a friend in Salt Lake just before the "bombshell phone call." It had been returned to me through the mission office because of an incorrect address. I felt sick. No one had sent President my letters out of self-righteous shock at my attitude. He had opened and read my mail.
I kept my eyes open for the next few weeks. It was true. He didnít read all the incoming mail for missionaries, but he did read anything that he deemed "suspicious." And if a missionary wrote to anyone else inside the missionówhether it was another missionary or a memberóevery one of those letters was read. I wondered, Isnít that illegal? And I rationalized: "I guess you do what you have to do to stop secret combinations from developing, but it seems to me that that should be done with a great outpouring of love" (19 Oct. 1991).
In retrospect, Iím amazed that I kept going. In a backhanded way, I owe part of it to Reynolds Sorensen. I would bottom out every three or four months, call his office from a pay phone and leave a message for him to call me back. I talked with him a total of five times. He always did call, although sometimes it took two or three days and sometimes repeated pleas from me. I think he lengthened the time, trying to detach me from his help. He was always affirmingóI was doing what Heavenly Father wanted. I had been called by a prophet. Heavenly Father would help me if I worked hard. But he never validated my reasons for being so depressed. He always defended the mission president, the mission rules, the mission procedures. He always made excuses for the other missionaries. They were young. They were under pressure. I never felt that he really empathized with me. I wondered if he talked to President about me, if President told him what to say6. I always felt so ashamed of myself for calling. He never told me that it was all right to ask for help. Later, after my mission, I discovered that when his daughter served a mission, she called home every week. If it was all right for her, why wasnít it all right for me?
It wasnít all bad. Iíll never forget two wonderful months when Elder Stevens was our district leader. He was unusually mature and focused on gospel principles. He deliberately acted as a buffer from our law-of-Moses ZL, screening out the criticism and being sure that all we received was encouragement, positive feedback, and reinforcement. His companion was new and struggling, but I never heard him breathe a word of criticism or complaintóonly encouragement and honest praise. I particularly admired his maturity in sharing only the best part of his mission with his parents because, he said, "Iím on the mission my father never got to have, and Iím going to make it a good one for him, too." He didnít deny the bad parts, but he dealt with it on his own. For the first time on my mission, there was a family feeling in our district.
I did my very best missionary work under him. My companion and I pushed ourselves, even when tracting was just awful, to keep our hours high and to meet our goals. We didnít want to let him downónot because we were afraid of him but because we knew he was doing his best too. I felt safe in talking with him, and I trusted the counsel he gave because it came from the scriptures. Elder Stevensís own hunger for spiritual knowledge inspired me to study, think, and pray harder for understanding. This attitude was so different from Presidentís, who used to say: "Donít be selfish! Youíre not here to gain a testimony. Youíre here to baptize!"
I respected Elder Stevens utterly. I knew that he had conflicts with the zone leader, because he refused to cave in to the usual system of humiliation and threats; but I was stunned when he was transferred after only two months, only a month from the end of his mission. It was hard not to see it as a punishment for his different leadership style, and I remember the anxiety I felt once he was gone.
During my whole mission, I dreaded interactions with the elders in authority. Taking their cue from President, they sneered at sister missionaries, patronized us, and communicated in a thousand ways that we were not valuable to them as missionaries. I will never forget the humiliation and outrage of a dedicated, hard-working sister when one immature DL demanded, on a day when her statistics were lower than usual, "Are you still dripping blood?"
For one sistersí conference, we all stayed overnight in the large home of a wealthy couple who were friends of President. That night, the host and hostess enthusiastically talked us into having a pajama "fashion show." It seemed silly, an odd thing for missionaries to do. Even among ourselves, we sisters were reluctant to do it; but nobody wanted to make waves so we went along with it, even though the husband videotaped the whole thing. A few months later, we learned that the zone leaders attending one of their leadership conferences saw it after hours. I was furious and humiliated, and so were the other sister missionaries; but I donít think anyone even complained. What good would it do?
Some sisters were skillful at manipulating the elders. One companion fabricated statistics and the elders "love her because she tells them whatever they want to hear and then does whatever makes her feel good. Sheís happy. The people who do well in this mission are the ones who lie." In contrast, my next companion and I worked hard and honestly to meet the daily goals of five hours tracting, five discussions, and three member introductions. If we fell short, even by one in one area, we braced ourselves for the evening rip session, listening in mingled guilt and resentment as we were "reamed on" by the district leader. "It would be so easy to lie," I wrote wistfully. One companion told me how, at one point, she had eight baptisms, almost half of the entire zoneís goal for the month, then became so ill that the bishop, a doctor, said she must either be hospitalized or stay home with IVs. It was not a suitable excuse for our DL who reproached her so harshly that she cried herself to sleep and could not be comforted.
In another district when a new companion and I were not getting very many discussions, the district leader would exclaim in nightly disgust: "Whatís wrong with you?" I donít know where I found the courage to finally tell himóa male authority figureóthat our numbers were not necessarily a reflection of our efforts and to lay off.
I was transferred to my second area and fifth companion at the end of April 1991. Sister Fisher was in her fifties and had just come from seven and a half months in the mission office. She independently told me many of the same things that Brother and Sister Drew had describedóbut especially the fear-ridden atmosphere, the humiliation, the lies, the spying, the lack of love. I wrote disgustedly in my journal:
There is so much dirt that goes on here, so much corruption. Itís more like Dallas than a mission of the Church of Jesus Christ. ... Iím trying so hard not to think or to feel. If I think about all this anymore, my testimony will be gone. As it is, I feel that when I go home I donít want to have anything to do with the Church. The gospel is true, but the Church is big business. ... Honesty and integrity are not rewarded. They are secretly ridiculed.
Everything is secret. It is very hard to keep up with who should know what. ... Itís best not to trust anyone. Just be a robotódonít think, donít feel, donít trust, donít speak.
I cried silently to myself when I saw Called to Serve, the new Church video. Thatís what I wanted mission life to be like. Thatís what it should be like. The love that the mission presidents expressed to new missionaries seemed like a dream. I wish so much it were that way. (3 May 1991).
All of the other missionaries around me felt that the movie was the biggest bunch of recruitment baloney theyíd ever seen. They couldnít even be sad. They were just cynical. One missionary had filled an entire page in our area bookóthirty-two or thirty-three linesówith the repeated message, "I hate President Kennedy. He lies. He is a jerk."
I was of two minds whether to believe Sister Fisher completely. Iíve reported here only the information that was also corroborated from my own experience or from the report of other missionaries working in the office. Sister Fisher was two-faced, behaving one way to peopleís faces and another way behind their backs. She gossiped. She liked to binge late at night, and I found myself joining her in an attempt to relieve the stress. The politics in the mission were literally making me sick. I felt physically awful as a result, and I felt awful about myself7. Sister Fisher had been so nice earlier, before her seven months in the mission office. The change confused me as much as it frightened me. She didnít want to proselyte. She had an ugly tongue, would explode in profanity for no reason, would offer sarcastic companionship prayers, and cheated on her reports. In fact, I was one of the few missionaries I knew who didnít pad statistics. If anyone had bothered to check our reports, they would have seen that our statistics didnít match, but I decided I would rather be criticized as "a worthless bucket" than as a liar. No one will ever know what this small act of honesty cost me in moral courage at a time when I felt insecure, emotionally fragile, and already terrorized by criticism.
And I was confused about whether it was even a meaningful act of integrity. One of my companions routinely insisted on up to an hour and a half for lunch and dinner, reported four hours of tracting daily whether we did any or not, and never got up on time; but she was one of the top baptizers in the mission. We constantly found golden contacts who committed to baptism. Helplessly I wondered, "Why now? Why not when I was so hardworking and obedient? It is hard for me to understand. It tempts me to believe that it has more to do with personality than with obedience. Sister M. has terrific people skills. (She knows how to get what she wants.) Whatís the lesson to be learned here?" (18 July 1991).
Sister Fisher was a bottomless well of information about the personal lives of the other missionaries. "The great majority," she said with relish, "the great majority, have problemsóphysical, mental, and emotional. Problem missionaries can end up in any mission; but if the Missionary Committee knows about it, they send them to two missions: ours and Michigan Dearborn. These are both really strict missions so they can keep the missionaries in control."
I suppressed the feeling of anger and despair that swept over me. So I had been betrayed and lied to by the Missionary Committee, struggling so often to humble myself and accept Godís will only to discover once again that my fate had been determined by a committee applying a policy, not revelation. Any hard-won feelings of acceptance and reconciliation had not been a reward of my faith but just a sign that I was submissive and gullible.
President later confirmed Sister Fisherís information. Boastfully he told me in an interview at a zone conference, referring to himself in characteristic third person: "They [the Missionary Committee] know that Whiteman B. Kennedy will take care of problem missionaries. Heíll keep Ďem in line."
I thought bitterly, "Well, if someone wasnít a Ďproblemí before they got to this mission, they certainly would be by the time they left it."
But Sister Fisher also had some good news. President was under investigation and would be released early. Elder George I. Cannon, a Seventy, had come out twice and talked to numerous local Church leaders, missionaries, office staff, etc. Sister Fisher had talked with Elder Cannon himself and then had had numerous business conversations with the Missionary Department in Salt Lake, making arrangements for the Kennedys to travel home, the transition to the new presidency, etc. Elder L. Tom Perry was scheduled to come out for his own "investigation" at the end of May 1991. Then weíd see the end of President. I didnít know whether to believe her or not. I certainly wanted to. It gave me such hope. Of course, I told myself. Once the General Authorities know whatís going on, theyíll put a stop to it.
Sister Fisher assured me that she had been transferred to the field just to get her out of the way and kept quiet during Elder Perryís visit. When the new president is installed, she assured me, sheíd go back to the office, get everything in working order, and then be released. Itís true that she had extended her mission past the usual eighteen months, but I didnít know whether to believe her or not. Why would President keep someone in the mission who obviously had such a bad opinion of him?
Yes, it was true that she had a lot of expertise in the office work. We had to go in twice in one week while she straightened things out. The first time, President didnít even say hello. The second time, he came over to me, gave me a big hug, and told me how much he loved me. I felt so good! Then Sister Fisher sardonically pointed out that she was standing right next to me, and he had turned away without so much as looking at her. I felt suddenly empty and used.
By mid-May, Sister Fisher was losing emotional self-control, refusing to do any missionary work and becoming so violent and angry that I became afraid for my safety. After two weeks of increasingly nightmarish tension, with the help of a stake missionary, I was able to get away long enough to telephone President. He wasnít there. I left a message on the DLís machine. The next morning, the district and zone leaders took me to the local Relief Society presidentís home to wait while they talked to President and he talked to Sister Fisher. The zone leader said it was a "living hell" with Sister Fisher yelling angry expletives. She was allowed to go home, which was what she really wanted. Iím sure this emotional breakdown was due in large part to the months she had spent in the tension-filled mission office.
President talked to me for a few minutes, vowed heíd have Sister Fisher excommunicated, and promised me a "sweet" companion. Shakily I told him that I really didnít think I was supposed to be in this mission; I still felt that I should be in Hungary. He assured me that I was being tested. I asked for permission to telephone Reynolds Sorensen, and President agreed but suggested that I talk to the mission psychologist. I refused. I already knew that everything missionaries told him went straight to President.
President asked me to document everything Sister Fisher had done for the last two weeks. Dated 12 May 1991, this letter runs to seven handwritten pages. I quoted some of the sarcastic comments she had made about other missionaries, including her statement to me that "President laughed when you talked to him about transferring to Hungary and then decided not to do it. He says you donít know what you want."
Usually she was sweet and pleasant to other people, but toward the end of this nightmare period she had made negative comments to an investigator and to a neighbor in our building who had heard so many negative comments about the mission from so many missionaries that I could only describe him as "anti-Mormon." I described how she insisted that the "rules for senior missionaries were different from the rules for younger missionaries": tracting wasnít necessary; it was all right to have the DLs over for dinner; she could use the car for personal errands (once she put more than a hundred miles on it); she made phone calls to missionaries all over the mission and twice called elders who had returned home; and watched television for two or three hours a day. She wanted to know where I was every minute, interrupted my studying with conversation or, when this didnít work, turned up the television.
While she was my companion, she also telephoned her bishop in Hawaii and Elder Cannon to complain about President and was frustrated when he said only to "enjoy the last two months of your mission." I also reported to President that she had routinely brought stacks of papers from the office, much of it correspondence to and from President. She threw away many letters from missionariesí files including one letter from an elder complaining about having to work on the Kennedysí sonís house, another from a zone leader about a missionary with morality problems, and another with a guilt-stricken member wife who had been inappropriately involved with a missionary. Savagely, Sister Fisher destroyed these papers, announcing, "President doesnít need to see this stuff. It will just ruin these eldersí lives if he does." In retrospect, I can now see that, in a twisted sort of way, she was acting out of compassion for people who were less powerful than she was.
Then I was horrified at her temerity, paralyzed by terror of her, and feeling powerless to intervene. As much as possible, I tried to block what she did and said from my mind. If I didnít know, then I couldnít be responsible. Only now, so much later, can I see the parallels between my reaction and my motherís reaction when she left me undefended to the abuses of my father. At the time, though, I was too overwhelmed even to ask myself questions about the ethics of the situation. Naturally, I felt uneasy about writing this letter to President, but I cravenly ended it: "Iíve learned a great deal from this experience. Once again, it has emphasized the necessity of obedienceóin heart as well as in deed. But more importantly, my appreciation of you and the tremendous responsibility which rests on your shoulders has grown immeasurably. Thank you so much for all your help. My love and prayers are with you daily."
I never thought of resisting or making less than a full disclosure. A little part of me felt like Benedict Arnold; but I was so relieved to be away from Sister Fisherís anger, the sarcasm, the chilling laugh, that I felt almost happy by comparison. And of course, I blamed myself for listening to her in the first place. I convinced myself that she had made up her evil tales of the mission office and that Iíd allowed myself to be influenced by her dark spirit. I was more than ready to reproach myself; but my relief, as I threw myself back into proselyting with a new companion, was so real it felt like joy. And since Sister Fisher was documentably mentally ill, naturally, her complaints, protests, and accusations could be dismissed without a second thought.
Elder Perry arrived at the end of May for a mission conference. He was supposed to talk to missionaries chosen at random; but within a matter of days, we all knew everyone who had had an interview with him. I recognized every name on the list as one of Presidentís yes-men, obsequious APs, and flattering ZLs. There were no interviews with "ordinary" missionaries. None with women. Elder Perry didnít go to any of the districts. It had seemed certain, right before Elder Perryís visit, that the Kennedys would be leaving. They even cleaned out the freezer at the mission home. I felt a pang of dread. Did this mean that President would stay?
I wouldnít admit to myself how much I was counting on a change. I tried to tell myself that whatever happened was what the Lord wanted. President had promised to talk to Elder Perry about my nagging feelings that I should be in Hungary, to arrange a private interview, if he could. He didnítósaid there hadnít been time. Part of me felt disappointed, but part of me also didnít care. I was feeling so good being with a normal companion and working hard.
Part of the emotional seesaw was that President had actually defended me. At zone conference in late May, during my interview, I had, in great distress, said that our statistics had not been good in spite of working very hard and that the ZLís "whatís wrong with you?" rip sessions nightly had been very hard to take. President had said, "Iíll take care of that." When he was seeing me out of the office, he had barked at them, "Get in here!" I donít know what he said; but after the conference, they had smothered me with anxious attention: "Iíll carry your bag, Sister VŲrŲs." "Can I get those books for you, Sister VŲrŲs?" "Iíll open the trunk for you." "You wait here, Sister VŲrŲs." It seemed very funny at the time, and I didnít let myself think how differently I would feel to be on the receiving end of Presidentís wrath instead of benefiting by having it turned against someone else.
A friend in Salt Lake City, concerned about the emotional ups and downs I was experiencing, intervened with his former mission president, a counselor with LDS Social Services in Salt Lake City. This man, Dr. Thorne, telephoned without Presidentís knowledge but at the direction of the Missionary Committee and helped me talk through my feelings. I kept returning to the issue of betrayal. I trusted the Missionary Committee, the Prophet, and the Church to speak for God in deciding my future. Yet over and over, I had seen no signs of inspiration. Rather, the conclusion was inescapable that I had been disposed of by policy. I could have handled thatóbut I couldnít handle the dishonesty. I told him that every companion Iíd hadófive by that pointóhad a clinically documented history of psychiatric illness, yet I was repeatedly told that I was there for a "special purpose." Unlike Reynolds Sorensen, Dr. Thorne validated my feelings. He also, unlike Brother Sorensen, treated me like an adult.
Confirming one of Sister Fisherís reports, he told me that a good friend on the Missionary Committee had told him that they were "very aware" of what was going on in the mission, told him to "throw her [me] a lifelineóhelp her hang on until the new mission president arrives." It gave me such peace to be believed (26 May 1991). In retrospect, I was dangerously depressed. My new companion was indeed sweet but she was also insecure and I had very little emotional energy to give her. I was sleeping only a few hours a night. I virtually stopped eating, and I ultimately even stopped drinking water for a couple of daysóthis in the killing Texas climate where, in May, the daytime temperatures were already reaching 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity.
I could feel myself slipping into a black hole and had the good sense to talk to Dr. James. I was afraid of my own depression, but he was so matter of fact that I relaxed. He suggested that I start taking Prozac againóI still had some from pre-mission days and he sent me more. It wouldnít kick in for two to four weeks and the protocol required me to take it for six months. Two days later, much too soon for the Prozac to have taken effect, everything had turned around. I stopped feeling like an empty shell. Looking back on this episode, I can see how being immersed only in the reality of the mission was literally killing me. So simple a contact as a voice from outside, reminding me that there was a different reality, was enough to fortify me.
When my next crisis cameóironically another rageaholic companionóI had been so thoroughly indoctrinated that I didnít call Reynolds Sorensen or Dr. Thorne8. I called the zone leader at 2:30 one morning while she glared at me from two feet away. He told me to "read my Book of Mormon and pray and hang on until morning." The companion admitted some of the problems and denied others. We muddled on. I proudly wrote in my journal that I had learned "to get help from the right line of authorityónot to go to an outside source. I can get support and empathy from friends back home, but the Lordís house is one of order. Everything must be done in order and through the right channels" (29 July 1991). This supportive zone leader, to double the irony, was the very one who had made life miserable with his rules and carping in my first district. Had he mellowed? Or had I lost the ability to distinguish abuse from nurture? (His name was Sangler, and behind his back, we called him "Sangler the Mangler.")
July came and went. But there was no new mission president. The friends who had asked Dr. Thorne to call me wrote, perplexed and shocked. Furthermore, they said, Dr. Thorne was absolutely "dumbfounded." I was in the mission office from late August through early December 1991. I was there when Elder Perry came through a second time, this time for a mission presidentsí seminar. None of us knew what to think. One of my companions wrote from home that she was interviewed about President by a Seventy. He also told her he was interviewing several missionaries. Safely home from their missions, these missionaries could finally be honest. It was devastating to me to know that the General Authorities knew exactly what was going on in our mission, knew exactly what President was doingóand doing to usóand did nothing to protect us. No wonder my abuse issues doubled and trebled during my mission!
I had perfected my skills at denial and collusion, but I still struggled to deal with the emotional disappointment and to make sense of what had happened. President referred constantly to President Gordon B. Hinckley, then first counselor in the First Presidency, and Elder James E. Faust, then an apostle, but now a counselor to President Hinckley, as his "best friends." Had they intervened to save him? Did the misery suffered by the missionaries and the damage inflicted on their emotional and spiritual health count for nothing? And most terrifying of all was the question I didnít even want to ask. Were they all like President? Were money and appearances and power so important to everyone?
At one of our zone conferences, President openly talked about an elder who had had the temerity to write to the Regional Representative with "complaints." My heart was with the elder. I could imagine how fearful he must have been, how desperate to be heard. Instead, the Regional Representative had forwarded the letter to President with a cover letter that said, "Teach your elders the correct line of authority." My sense of being trapped increased.
In October 1991, still in the mission office, I got another companion, Sister Hansen, who had overlapped a month with Sister Fisher while she was learning the job. She told me the same stories: the lies, the dishonesty, the focus on appearance and money. She told me how assiduous President was in his attentions to Elder Cannon when he was visiting; but as soon as Elder Cannon was released as our area president, President sneered, "Elder Cannon was never anything but trouble to this mission.
And I was seeing things for myself. For one thing, it seemed that an awful lot of missionaries went home earlyónot early enough to cause comment, just a month or twoóbut so many of them. Maybe eight or nine out of every ten. I felt heartsick as I started to see the pattern in the records. It confirmed what Sister Fisher and Sister Hansen had said. A lot of them would use any excuse to ask President for an early release and endure his abuse to get it; but with others who had only a month to serve, President would send them home out of exasperation or as a punishment or transfer them so that theyíd end their mission in a strange district. Anything he could interpret as a flicker of "rebellion" brought a harsh response. One AP, a decent man, asked President if he could be just a regular proselyting missionary his last two months. President granted his request, but later at a special "awards" dinner for the APs (another of the perks of leaders), President ripped into him in front of the other APs. I heard them say at the office how President told him he was a failure and would never amount to anything. He endured these comments stoically. After serving for several months as Presidentís assistant, he knew all too well that President seemed to enjoy (or at least couldnít stop himself from) berating missionaries who didnít live completely up to his ideals and expectations. Some missionaries whom President labeled as failures and unacceptable and sent home early were reassigned to other missions and were very successful. And one of the missionaries President was most disgusted with became an assistant to the president of his new mission. In contrast, I can remember one missionaryóa Nazi APówho even requested an extension.
I was in the office when a new sister missionary arrived. She clashed with President immediately over something. He told her she didnít have a testimony and should never have been allowed to go through the temple. He would have sent her home, but the Brethren told him to transfer her to another mission instead. With fright, I realized that she had made waves and he had gotten rid of herójust like snapping his fingers9. After July 1991, President wasnít allowed to send missionaries home early without clearance from the General Authorities. I think it was one of the conditions he accepted for being allowed to finish his term as mission president.
Second, the dishonesties bothered me a lot. President and Sister Kennedy traveled to every zone in the conference every month, always staying at luxury hotels and eating at fine restaurants. President told his secretary, my companion, to always ask for a government discount. If the hotel asked what branch of government, she was to say the missionís initials, but not to say what the letters stood for. She also said he told her, "Never put anything into writing. That way you can always deny it later." Then he laughed as if it were a good joke, but he meant it. The APs and some ZLs would also quote him on that.
One of the Kennedy sons lived in the area. President often had the elders do maintenance and repairs on this sonís home and cars as they did on the mission home, the mission office, and the Presidentís cars. One of the daughters was on the mission payroll as a housekeeper/cook at the home. I tried to justify these arrangements by saying, "Weíre all sacrificing and weíre all working for the same goal, so itís right that the missionaries should help with the work that President is too busy to do, and theyíd have to hire someone to keep house, so it might as well be their daughter. This is what families are supposed to do." But the fact of the matter is that there was no family feeling, and whatever sacrifices the Kennedys were making included a minimum of inconvenience to themselves.
The extravagance was a third aspect that bothered me. In addition to the fancy restaurants and hotels, he provided very expensive gifts for everyone at the mission presidentsí seminarómaybe $200 each. He sent two-gallon glass jars of "Texas-sized" jelly beans to President Hinckley regularly and had one on his desk too. I didnít see the bills, but I heard that it cost about $100 to refill it. He also insisted that he had to use up the allotted budget or it would be decreased the next year.
President referred often and proudly to the fact that he had been ordained a high priest by Spencer W. Kimball. He sent everyone in the mission a card with his line of authority on it and instructions that we were to keep it. It started with his calling as bishop, making me wonder if he skipped over his own ordination as elder because that person had not been sufficiently "exalted." Nervously I wrote in my journal, "Pretty impressive. Make sure we all know who is boss! Just kidding. Missionaries received it with mixed emotions from what I heard: awe and a little resentment" (25 Oct. 1991). A perennial topic among the missionaries was that President would be the next General Authority called. He did nothing to squelch the speculation or the discussion. Iím sure he enjoyed it.
Presidentís attitude toward other churches was violently contemptuous. One of his standard reasons for not letting us do community service was, "Weíre out here to baptize. Weíre not just a bunch of Protestant ministers out here to preach love and do charity work!" This attitude permeated the mission. Many ZLs and DLs said that Pope John Paul II and the cardinals had secret meetings to plan how to brainwash members of the Catholic Church and infect them with evil doctrines and behaviors. The first time I heard this, I immediately said, "This is hogwash!" and expressed my sincere admiration and respect for the Pope. From the response of my leaders, youíd think Iíd just said that the LDS Church wasnít true. I was never so brave again.
I thought my heart would break as I saw the sadness of a new missionary couple who had come from Utah. Elder Taylor, a former bishop and stake president, was a kind, humble, and very spiritual man. Heíd been looking forward to this mission all of his life; World War II had prevented him from serving in his youth. He and his wife worked with all their hearts, might, minds, and strength, only to be ripped on every night by a twenty-year-old district leader for not achieving perfect statistics. As we drove to one district meeting, I saw quiet tears of discouragement rolling down his cheeks, though he didnít want anyone to see. "This mission is like the militaryóonly worse," he said softly. He was a hardworking, righteous man and I saw him being broken into fragments by the leadership style and poisonous atmosphere of the mission. My heart just ached for him.
Troubled, I turned to my usual coping mechanismóovereating in nightly binges and denial. The local Relief Society president told me I was fat because I didnít exercise enough. President told me to go to Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem and "get in shape." When I told him that Weight Watchers was more nutritious and economical, he said it took longer and that he wouldnít have the patience for it. I just smiled and resolved to please him by losing weight fast, but I didnít even know how to begin explaining to him that the weight wasnít the problemóit was a symptom (20 Nov. 1991).
On preparation day 19 October 1991, I typed a rambling twelve-page journal entry, a free-associational walk through my confused and troubled mind that chills me to read now:
... I open the mail, answer the phone, and do the paper work on the baptisms. Itís funny because now the roles are somewhat reversed: Iím the one (gently) hounding the Zone Leaders to get their work in and meet the deadlines. One thing I hate doing. ... I have to keep track of each missionary and fill out a report to President on who does not write each week. Then he has me contact the ZLs and APs and find out what the problem is. Some are nice about it, some are apathetic, and some I just dread calling because they get sarcastic and angry.
... There is just so much backbiting. I know it is because of the pressure here. I guess all I can do is just try to be a calming influence here at the office.
The one thing I have noticed about President is that no mater how heated things get and as angry as he can get with others, he always is kind and gentle and respectful to Sister Kennedy. Thatís how it should be. Thatís what my idealistic little self wishes it all could be like. We have the gospel; that only makes sense. ...
[Is it better] to not feel anything or to feel pain? ... I wondered if my bingeing (which has been getting worse and worse) was an attempt to block out feelings so I donít feel anything, or to make me feel something (physical pain) which was safe to feel and was my own fault. I donít know. I do know that in addition to those things, I was and am trying to fill up an immense black hole. It seems nothing can fill itóno matter how fast I force the food in or how much I put down. Itís always empty, even when Iím so full I can feel my abdomen ready to burst....
As the eating gets worse and worse, and time goes by, my prayers get more and more ineffective (or perhaps itís the other way around). I feel so distantóand Iím a missionary! Yesterday I pleaded with the Lord in the morning to help, and I felt I should fast. Yesterday was the first time I have been really able to fast and feel the Spirit in a long time. My companion does not fast either, although we can both starve ourselves, and then binge. Sister Hansen is bulimic. ... She only actually told me that she threw up once, but she binges and goes into the bathroom a lot and talks about it a lot. I think it both helps and hinders us to be together....
Missionaries are not allowed to communicate with each other in this mission. I guess thatís just a rule to live with. Keeps our minds on the right focus. But if letters come in to the office, instead of getting forwarded on or being placed in their file or whatever, they are opened. Thatís against the law. I donít feel that is right. I guess you do what you have to do to stop secret combinations from developing, but it seems to me that that should be done with a great outpouring of love.
I finally told Sister Hansen that I donít want to hear it [her description of Presidentís behavior]. It makes me not know what to think. ... I keep telling myself not to listen... I just donít know what to think. I guess I just try not to think. ... The things I hear from Sister Hansen are the same things I heard from Sister Fisher. Two witnesses. I just donít know. I donít know if I really want to know. And why did the mission committee say he was going to be released, and then he wasnít? Iím glad he wasnít, because I learned great lessons from that episode. And I do love President. And I know heís doing this mission a tremendous amount of good because heís so strict and demands obedience in all things (even rules we donít know about yet!). ...
I got so down at one point that I wondered if this whole experience was to prepare me to not be disappointed at the judgement bar ... to find out that the Savior would not be as perfect and as loving as I believed. I know thatís not true, and itís probably even blasphemy, but thatís what I started to think. When I trust so much in something or someone, only to find out itís not the way I thought or the way it should be or professes to be, it makes me ache inside. I finally decided it was better not to think about it. Just pretend I donít know anything. Not expect anything better. ...
I read Alma 36:15: "Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds." I started thinking about this verse a lot. Not wanting anything drastic to happen, but just wanting to be locked into a cocoon, to be enveloped by blacknessóto not have to think or feel anything. That would be so wonderful. I could just not have to worry about or process or try to make sense out of the things I see or experience.10
... President has been very nice and kind to me. He has never yelled at me these last few months. ... Even here at the office, he yells at everybody else (although he told me he only feigns anger there, too, so theyíll shape up) but heís never yelled at me. I feel love from him at quiet interview times, but other times Iím almost afraid of him. He looked at me with such disgust one day, but didnít say anything. Itís a lot like my father. ...
I wonder if all this confusion means Iím apostatizing. ... I donít want to be a Sylvester Smith. Would I criticize the Prophet Joseph? I donít criticize the Prophet today. I love the Lord so much. I love his perfect gospel. ... And I do love President Kennedy. I just wonder about things. But I guess I shouldnít wonder. I think itís best not to think.
I think Iím just analyzing too much. Iím the one with the problem. Iím the one who was on Prozac. (I stopped taking it because I was afraid of anyone finding out that I was on it.) ... Iím the one with an eating disorder. ... I love President White so very very much. I just try to think and justify and find reasons and understand. Why is so much money spent? SO MUCH. Why is money so important? ... I donít want to be a Sylvester Smith. I want to be a George A. Smith. Or was it Alvin Smith? How embarrassingóI should have listened more carefullyóthe one who was valiant at Zionís Camp. ... I hope Iím not falling off the path. I hope Iím not a disappointment. ... (19 Oct. 1991)
Two months later I was writing again on the same theme, but I had gained greater emotional equilibrium.:
I want so badly to write, but it is so hard to express anything. President told us at a zone conference not to express our feelings to our companion, especially if they were discouraged or critical, because then Satan would know what we were thinking. It seems Iíve spent the past year re-learning to stifle and destroy feelings and even individuality. Everything I learned with Dr. Sorensen and Dr. James is gone. Itís back to donít feel, donít show who you really are because thatís bad. (15 Dec. 1991)
I survived, though Iím not sure how. In my last testimony, written in my journal on 17 February 1992, I made another desperate effort to explain things so that they made sense:
In some ways [President] is a lot like my own father. Very demanding and precise. I never felt like I measured up, no matter how hard I tried. Only to find out (in both cases) that I was loved. That all the discipline and often feigned (but not always) harshness and chastening were an attempt to make me the best I could be. And not only am I loved, but (could it be possible?) respected by both. What a special discovery. What an easy thing to cover up and forget. Sometimes the methods make us blind to the motives. I love President so much. And I love my father so very much, too.
Reading this now makes me sad. It makes me angry. It makes me sick.
I was released from my mission on 2 March 1992ósix weeks early from my scheduled release date. I returned to Salt Lake where a former nursing supervisor and her husbandóreal Saintsótook me in and let me live in their house even though it was crammed with their two children, an exchange student from Germany, and another friend who was building a house. For a month, I hardly moved. I felt stupid in every way, ashamed to be home early, utterly worthless. I didnít have the confidence to work in my former unit at Lincoln Hospital and applied for a desk job which would be less stressful. But when my former boss, Leslie, found out I was back, she persuaded me to come back to Lincoln Hospital.
I returned to my singles ward to report my mission, carefully telling only positive aspects. I was conscious of the fact that the ward had sacrificed financially, paying half of my monthly costs, and I was grateful. I wanted them to feel that they had contributed to and participated in something successful, positive, and wonderful. I was appreciative that they held a punch-and-cookies mingle in the cultural hall afterwards, but also a little uncomfortable because I sincerely tried to do everything by the book: no reception after my farewell, preaching the gospel instead of talking about myself at my farewell, and not giving a "travelogue" for a homecoming talk. My bishop was an extremely kind and caring man. I told him only a little bit about the hardships of my mission, probably for the same reasons that I kept my homecoming talk so upbeat for the ward.
I resumed the weekly visits to Reynolds Sorensen, huddling in the comfort of his office for an hour of what I thought was happiness per week. A two-week visit to my parents was a disaster. I could tell I was depressed, but I didnít try to get any medication. When another desk job in a related area opened up, offering weekends and evenings off for the same pay and less challenge, I took it. I didnít want any more challenges.
Then in April 1993, I took an overdose of tranquilizers. This was a serious suicide attempt. I was trying to extinguish the turmoil, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness left over from my mission. I was living alone, but a friend came on me by accident and got me to a hospital. The next forty-eight hours I remember only in bits and pieces. I explainedóto myself, to Brother Sorensen, to Dr. Jamesóthat Iíd made a mistake, that I just wanted to sleep11. On one level that was true, since I knew suicide was a sin; but on another level I knew what I was doing.
I realized that Brother Sorensen was not the right therapist for me. About this time, I read Confronting Abuse: An LDS Perspective on Understanding and Healing Emotional, Physical, Sexual, Psychological, and Spiritual Abuse.12 I was very impressed with a chapter called "Regaining Self-Esteem and Trust" by Deborah A. Christensen, which began with an epigraph from Dostoyevsky, "Do not judge her too harshly; she does not yet understand the worth of her soul." That quotation resonated in my heart in ways I could not even begin to explain. I did not define myself as an abused personónot thenóbut her description of the denial of the self, learning that we cannot trust anyone, that only denial and numbness will protect us from the pain, that we are never good enough, described with distressing accuracy my experience of the past few years. I underlined and highlighted one sentence: "The results of abuse depend not so much on the extent of the abuse as on the sensitive nature of the child being abused" (272). Brother Sorensen so frequently and so regularly minimized my pain and my problems that I accepted it as reality, recognizing only that it made me feel continually diminished. After the disastrous visit to my parents, he had me write a letter to them but didnít think it was necessary to send it. I got the impression that he thought it was a nice exercise for me.
Even though I had to wait a month to see Deborah Christensen, I felt strongly that she could help me. I was right. I could tell because the first time I began a sentence by saying, "Iím so stupidó" she stopped me right there. I used to apologize whenever Iíd introduce a topic for discussion. She made me stop that. Whenever I said something painful, Iíd giggle deprecatingly. She made me stop that. She took me seriously. She helped me take myself seriously. In four years, Brother Sorensen had never gotten further with the abuse than the absent-minded acknowledgment, "Yes, you have some abuse issues in your past." Deborah zeroed in on it by the second visit by focusing on what was behind the eating disorder.
Even before I remembered much of the sexual abuse, I attended a group of women who were recovering from abuse. As we each told our stories, I apologized because my story "wasnít as bad." I kept saying, "It was just this ... or "... just that." Debbi said: "No, Veronica. It is as bad. Itís just in a different form."
Soon after I began seeing Debbi, I tapered off seeing Brother Sorensen. It was hard: I felt that I was betraying him, and so I tried to create the impression that I was doing much better. I never told him that I was seeing someone else, and he never tried to stay in touch. I took one more institute class, but I couldnít stand it. I was a thirty-one-year-old sitting in the back row in a room full of nineteen-year-olds. After I stopped, I never went back.
Even with Debbiís help, I couldnít believe that anyone would really love me for who I was. In the winter of 1992-93, I began dating a kind and gentle man who served others tirelessly. Paul was in the elders quorum presidency of our ward, which gave him a position of authority, but he saw his position as an opportunity to serve, rather than as possession of power. He was well educated, but completely unpretentious. I have never met anyone who loved the gospel so much and who lived his life so unyieldingly according to righteous principles.
And he loved me. He treated me with respect and dignity. He brought me roses every single week for over a year. He repeatedly asked me to marry him, but I always refused. He had not served a mission, and Presidentís voice thundered endlessly in my ears: "Donít settle for half a loaf. Never marry a man who hasnít been on a mission." I didnít believe the voice, but I couldnít quiet it. What if I disappointed President again? Brother Sorensen met Paul and told me, "Heís completely wrong for you."
Then on 11 February 1995, Paul died of a massive pulmonary embolism. I thought my own heart would stop from the physical pain I felt. That pain propelled me to a step I might never have taken on my own. The next month, I wrote to President, confronting him about the sickness I felt from my mission. I described Paulís life-style and values, adding bitterly: "He had no desire for power. He didnít wear French cuffs or double-breasted suits; and when he spoke in church, he didnít make sure he held his scriptures the same way as Bruce R. McConkie." I acknowledged his Christlike life. I mourned for his death. Then I wrote:
I wrote you not to hurt you or to blame you for my mistakes. I guess Iím writing so that I can cleanse my inner vessel. Iíve had so many mixed feelings about the time I spent in Texas. Iím grateful to have been a representative of the Savior. I gave 100 percent every single day that I was there. Iím so grateful for the precious souls I taught. Iím grateful for the good things I learned from you, President. But everything I learned in Texas was not good. Iíve been trying so hard to bury that fact from myself. Iím finding that I have to admit it to myself before I move on with my life.
The next part of the letter was excruciatingly difficult to write. I recalled his acid comment about Elder George I. Cannon and queried, "Did you sustain him only externally, only for show, but not in your heart?" I told him that I knew about the missionaries mail being opened. "It was so difficult for me to try to reconcile 100 percent allegiance to my priesthood leaders with recognizing that some things were very wrong."
It was difficult to listen to the APs talk about some of the missionaries with disgust. There was no charity in that mission as a whole. I did have a couple of leaders who were firm and hard working but mixed that with kindness, charity, and gentleness. They took a lot of heat for it from those above them, but they persisted and inspired me to do my very best work.
... I had a companion ... one of your starlets. ... She said that the way you ran the mission was according to Satanís plan. She said some awful things. I couldnít stand it anymore and stood up to her and told her I couldnít take any more of that negativity. The next zone conference we had, she completely betrayed me to you and told you some things which were not true. You were angry with me and wouldnít believe my responses. I want you to know that I had been the one defending you to this missionary, and then I was the one made out to look bad.
The same missionary, by the way, recommended that you send another sister home early. It was unjust, and I told you so in one of my weekly letters. But the meek and hardworking, those with an eye single to God, were esteemed as dross in Texas. ... The stars and starlets were often not honest and often did not keep rules. But they did great good in that they were very successful in baptizing, which is why we were there. It was hard for me to reconcile the fact that obedience did not necessarily bring success in baptisms or in the approval of my president. I felt and was made to feel by some leaders that there must be something intrinsically wrong with me. One hundred percent obedience should have brought more than twenty baptisms. Those who fabricated portions of their statistics should not have been blessed so overwhelmingly. It is still difficult for me to make sense of it.
President Kennedy, there were times you spoke to me with kindness. There were a few quiet interviews when we connected. I know you held your temper when I made some mistakes. You knew that just feeling your disappointment was crushing enough. Iím grateful you spared me the harsh words which could have come so easily, the anger that so frightened me and others. ... But I also remember the looks of disgust. That is why I havenít been able to make myself go to a mission reunion. I canít bear to see that in your eyes. Itís sad that I believe your judgement of me more easily than I did Paulís, who saw only goodness and eternal potential. I want to feel good about myself, to see myself the way Father in Heaven sees me. I need to move on.
I hope you know that I donít hate you, President. Iím not writing this letter to cause pain; Iím writing it so that I can let go of mine. Iíve got to let go of the pain that came from serving in a mission which was led by force, humiliation, and fear. Iíve got to hold on only to the precious memories of teaching the Lordís gospel and baptizing his children. I canít forget the bad parts, nor should I, if I want to learn and grow from them. But Iíve got to let go of the pain and hurt when I think of those bad things. I know, too, that each of us brings unique experiences to where we are and how we act. I also know that you were under great pressure to perform well. I am grateful that only the Savior will judge us, he who knows every thought and intent and can see the whole picture.
I concluded with my testimony.
President wrote back promptly, expressing two-sentence condolences on Paulís death and alluding to the "special" assignment he and Sister Kennedy then had as temple workers. The rest of the letter was careful to give me advice about how to improve without acknowledging by so much as a syllable that anything he had said or done might have contributed to my problems:
I hope and pray, now that you have vented your innermost feelings of resentment, that you will be able to move forward, focusing upon the more positive aspects of living.
We feel awfully sad and shocked to learn of your grievance and disaffected feelings.
Please know that your expressions do not change how Sister Kennedy and I feel about you, Sister VŲrŲs. We have always had great respect and love for you and we shall. continue to hold you in the highest esteem and love.
A national leader once said, "People will hate you, but they cannot win unless you hate them, then you will destroy yourself." Please do not permit your anger and dislike to continue. You are too good of a person to carry such a burden.
Again, please know of our love. We care for you and desire above all for you to be happy.
I heard the words, but I no longer tried to convince myself that this was love. Now I could hear the other part of the message, the blaming part that said: "Youíre resentful. Youíre a dissident. You shock us, because youíre an angry person; but we will nobly continue to love even such an unworthy person as you.
I had moved to a new ward in 1994 but was inactive for all intents and purposes. In the summer of 1996, I attended church when my visiting teacher/neighbor had her baby blessed after meetings in the Relief Society room. The ward clerk, without introducing himself, came up and said, "The bishop wants to talk to you in his office as soon as weíre through here." I totally panicked. My first thought was, "What did I do wrong? Am I in trouble?" Intellectually, I knew that I hadnít done anything wrong, but emotionally I was convinced that I must haveóand I was terrified.
The bishop and a man he didnít introduce to me were in his office. He asked me to teach Primary. I asked, "Can I have twenty-four hours to think about it?" He was surprised that I wanted to think about it. I asked if I could speak to him alone and the other man left the room. I told the bishop that I had not had any callings since I returned from my mission, that I had not been doing anything wrong but that I felt I just needed some space because my mission had not been a good experience. I was so uncomfortable and agitated that I knew I was acting very guilty. I felt guilty. Iíd felt guilty my whole life.
I was so upset that I couldnít attend the luncheon my neighbor held in celebration after her babyís blessing. (I later found out that she had suggested my name to the bishop as a Primary teacher because she herself wanted to be released from that position.) When I made my excuses and confessed that I was falling apart after having met with the bishop, she responded, "Now, youíre just going to have to be brave and put the past behind you."
I was brave. I recognized that I was afraid. I didnít deny it. I didnít try to make it go away by insisting, "I love the bishop." Instead, I protected myself. I was strong enough to write him a letter explaining how "excruciatingly uncomfortable" church has been since my mission, how damaged I felt as a result of my mission, and expressing the commitment I felt I could make at that point:
Perhaps someday I wonít be overcome by panic and memories at church. I love to sing and would love to be a member of the choir. But itíll have to be when I feel readyóor if I feel ready. Until then, Iíll just live a quiet, decent life and follow the teachings of the Savior. Iíll do good wherever I can. Iíll show the love He has given me in my dealings with others.
My bishop never responded. There have been no phone calls or visits from the bishopric or Relief Society presidency. I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, Iím very relieved not to feel any pressure. But on the other hand, I also feel no support. My visiting teacher (the neighbor whose baby was blessed) is very young, just twenty-one, and Iím sure she doesnít know what to do with me. Iíve told her a little about the abuse on my mission and about abuse in general. She had such a hard time trying to understand why I couldnít just "put it behind me" that I asked her hypothetically: "What if you knew of a priesthood leader who was abusing little children? What if your speaking out could make the difference between stopping the abuse or letting more children be violated? What would you do?" Her response was, "Iíd get whatever help my child needed to get her well, but Iíd still sustain and support my priesthood leader."
In two years in this ward, Iíve had a home teacher for about three months. A newly returned missionary, he was determined to reconvert me, assumed that I didnít pray or read the scriptures, warned me not to read books "critical" of the Church, urgently warned me not to be offended because leaders are human, and on his last visit basically taught me all six missionary discussions within thirty minutes. I tried to explain that President Kennedy does not offend meóthat I wonít waste my time being bitter over him or lose my testimony because of him. What angers and frustrates and sickens me is that the highest General Authorities, to my certain knowledge in this case, knew that wrong things were being done but swept them all under the rug. My home teacher bore me a fervent testimony that he knew the prophet would never lead us astray. I said nothing, though the words rang in my head: "But he already has." I was thinking of all of the missionaries in my mission, of the abused women and children in the Church who were revictimized by the Church when they tried to get help, of the priesthood leaders who are getting these messages from leaders up the line and straight from the top: that the end justifies the means, that abuse isnít abuse as long as you can get people to agree that itís their fault, that power is more important than love, and that maintaining the right facade is every memberís sacred obligation.
I am one of the "less active" that this same prophet is so concerned about not losing, but I am not a new convert. I am not inactive because I donít understand the gospel, because I donít take it seriously, or because I am too easily offended. I am inactive because church is not a safe place for people like me, and it is not safe because of some of the leaders who are called by "inspiration."
Recently, through a mutual friend, I met the wife of the mission president in Hungary who was there while I was serving my mission in Texas. She was shocked, incredulous, bewildered. She exclaimed, "Oh, I canít believe they didnít send you to us. I canít tell you how much we needed you. Someone who spoke the language! A sister!" With unmistakable grief in her voice, she said, "We would have loved you in our mission." She was not only saying she would have loved to have access to my talents in her mission. She was saying she would have loved me. I felt that love and acceptance. It helped a little.
Iíve got a long way to go, but I think Iíve stopped colluding in my own abuse. Iím less afraid of what a bishop or a stake president might think of me. Iím more afraid of staying stuck in the place that I wasóof being so afraid of my parentsí disapproval, of being so hungry for love that I paid a distracted though kindly therapist to let me sit in his office for an hour while he talked about his family and his classes; so afraid of my own spiritual perceptions that I sustained an abusive mission president and collaborated in my own abuse and that of others.
I still have problems. I had problems before my mission. I would have taken those problems into any mission field. I accept the fact that I might not have had a good mission if Iíd gone to Hungary, but at least Iíve stopped believing that God wanted me in Texas. He did not want me to feel so abandoned, so afraid. He did not want me to keep chanting "I love President" to myself while I was sick with dread. It seems incredible to me that I lived with such fear.
Iíve faced these fears that controlled my life for over thirty years. Thank God I didnít die from them. Thank God that I have been given more time in which to confront them. Thank God thereís hope.
1All of the names in this account are pseudonyms except for those of General Authorities, Sherman Crump, and therapist Deborah Christensen. My mission was in Texas but I have changed its name. I have changed the name of the Salt Lake City hospital where I worked and identifying information about other individuals, including those of my doctors and first therapist.
2This name is also a pseudonym. He still teaches at the Salt Lake Institute of Religion, but his counseling office was closed by the state authorities. The mother of another client became uneasy about the advice he was giving her daughter and the fact that he was reporting confidential information to their stake president, who was head of the Institute program and thus Sorensenís boss at work. This mother investigated and found that he was not licensed to do therapy. I learned about the closure from the state investigator who interviewed me and from my second therapist. However, I saw in the Institute class schedule that he had been promoted to the top position; I assume a substantial raise came with his elevation. The Institute director/stake president who had received this confidential information was called to be a mission president, creating the opening into which Sorensen was promoted.
3This same values system has followed us into post-missionary life as well. Although I attended only one missionary reunion after I returned home, the letters reminding us about reunions or sending out reports about reunions boast of accomplishments: academic degrees, marriages of the sister missionaries to professional men, callings to certain Church positions, etc. I struggle within myself with feelings of inadequacy. Am I just overreacting because Iím getting older and have unfulfilled dreams and expectations? Possibly, but why are husbands mentioned if theyíre doctors and accountants but not schoolteachers and mechanics? Why are callings as temple officiators mentioned but not those as Cub Scout leaders?
4These questions are: "What do you know about the Mormon Church? Would you like to know more?" A back-door approach was by identifying/focusing on a need of the person approached, for example, "Your family is probably very important to you.
5Toward the end of my mission we had "sistersí coordinators," a traveling companionship. Their attitude became exactly the same as the APs. The night before going home, I stayed with them. It saddened me greatly to hear them mock, laugh at, and put down many of the sisters in the mission. Both of these coordinators had been my companions earlier. The change in them made me both sad and sick. I felt as if I was escaping from great danger.
61n 1996, I confronted him with this and other questions. He said that President had called him and they had talked. He said it happened only once.
7Since childhood I had tried to protect myself and hide from my father behind layers of fat. I suppose it was only natural for me to resort to compulsive eating in order to "swallow" the stress and the pain. During these stressful times, I gained weight steadily and my hair fell Out in bunches. I was angry at myself for eating and depressed at seeing no way out.
8This companion made a point of telling all of her former companions that I was uncooperative and a liar, then boasted to me, "Theyíre in every zone of this mission. There isnít any place you can go where your name isnít mud.í
9This sister wrote to her companion of a week in our mission that, in her new mission, the president had encouraged them to go to Christmas services at other churches. Her whole zone attended a Christmas Eve mass, a beautifully spiritual and moving experience for her. The companion showed this letter to President, and he used it during a zone conference to denounce this other mission president with anger and disgust as "apostate leadership."
10Early in my mission, I recall being surprised when a hard-working and very sweet sister commented, in an unguarded moment, that she wished she could just "be in a coma. That would he better than suicide because suicide has eternal consequences." In contrast, a coma would just provide the relief of quiet blackness and unconsciousness and peace without punishment.
11Interestingly, when I received a copy of my medical record from Brother Sorensen, this suicide attempt was not mentioned anywhere either.
12Anne L. Horton, B. Kent Harrison, and Barry L. Johnson, eds., Confronting Abuse: An LDS Perspective on Understanding and Healing Emotional, Physical, Sexual, Psychological, and Spiritual Abuse (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993). See esp. Deborah A. Christensen, "Regaining Self-Esteem and Trust," 271-84.