Sunday, February 11, 2018

The #metoo moment and the stories we tell

I wrote the other day about Adah and Zillah, who openly declared their husband's violent secret, about Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, who were belittled and punched and choked by the man they'd each married, but didn't let that treatment silence them.

I've been thinking a lot over the past many months about issues raised in the #metoo moment. About story after story I've been told by women I respect of sexual assault and harassment. About what it can mean when a man you should be able to trust uses or abuses you instead. 

I don't like that there's so much to talk about, but I'm glad people are talking about these things. Partly because the conversations seem to be building a greater culture of accountability for those who act without regard to the agency and dignity of others. Mostly, though, because I've heard enough about how sexual assault and domestic abuse can mess with a person's head, seen enough the sense of shame and isolation it can create, that I'm glad people around the world are able to hear more stories and know they're not alone.

Which is why I'm not entirely satisfied with how media coverage and informal conversations of these issues have been conducted: from Harvey Weinstein on, the focus has typically been on the offending men. 

There's a place for that, to be sure. A place for airing of grievances when the old systems for telling truth and pursuing justice seem to have failed. A place for holding people to account. But it's not the end of the story: it's just the part that gets attention, because all too often it's the prominence and influence of the men that we care about. Even though it's a cultural obsession with prominence and influence--and a cultural disinterest in the broader community--that has left so many men feeling entitled to women's bodies in the first place.

We are drawn to stories about power. But we need stories about healing.

Because even after the consequences have come for the offender, the damage and disorientation can remain. And the quiet, internal drama of sorting out the detritus others' actions leave in us does matter, desperately, to the health of an individual and of a society.

I got my wife Rupi Kaur's poetry collection The Sun and Her Flowers for Christmas. Here's how she talks through the process after assault in one of her poems:

it's too heavy to carry your guilt--I'm setting it down
i'm tired of decorating this place with your shame
as if it belongs to me

it takes monsters to steal souls
and fighters to reclaim them

I think the gospel has a lot to tell us about how to set down others' guilt, how to wipe ourselves clean of their shame. I think a gospel that says our souls are worth more than the whole world can teach us a thing or two about how to fight for them.

And I hope we talk about this. With our sisters and our brothers. With our daughters and our sons.

I hope we learn how to turn open wounds into battle scars we're proud of when this life is done and we meet again back home. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Adah and Zillah: Heroes for Our Time

A few days ago in Sunday school, we talked about Adah and Zillah. 

You may not have. Their story is in the scriptural material the lesson covers, but is not highlighted in the manual. But I teach in my ward, and I made a goal this year to get in one more story each week than the ones people usually tell. On Sunday, I thought it worked nicely to follow up the story of Cain and Abel with another contrasting pair: Lamech and Enoch. 

Cain, of course, is remembered as the world's first murderer in the Abrahamic traditions. The account of him in the Book of Moses is more specific: Cain makes a secret bargain with Satan to trade human life for power and gain. We talked in class about how to this day, people who can't have the natural respect of integrity often try to make up for it by forcing respect with their wealth or their power. 

Lamech is the second murderer mentioned in the Bible. His story, too, gets a more complete telling in the Book of Moses (5: 47-54). In that account, Lamech is the new master of the same secret combination as Cain. A man named Irad finds out, starts to warn people about the secret--and Lamech kills him. 

That's where Adah and Zillah, the wives of Lamech, come in. Lamech tells them about the murder. He says he's better than Cain: Cain killed for gain, but Lamech killed for the oath's sake. The secret has become its own end. If Cain would be avenged sevenfold, Lamech says, Lamech would be avenged seventy and sevenfold. 

Now: Lamech has just killed a man. There's no way for Adah and Zillah to know if he would try to do the same to them. But whatever fear they surely felt doesn't dictate their actions. These two women seem to sense the weight of what's happened. Maybe they don't want the toxic feeling of keeping a secret like that. Maybe they just know that Lamech has to be stopped or he'll repeat the same pattern again. And again. And again. Maybe they can see that each time they'd stand by and let him do it, the secret would get harder to break. 

So, the scripture says, they rebelled against their husband. They declared openly what they'd been told to hide. And the scriptures say that though the secret combination of Cain and Lamech continued among the sons of men in those days, the daughters were through. After Adah and Zillah, they refused to keep silence anymore. 

We talked about this in Sunday School. About two women in the scriptures we can take as models. 


Read in the news today about two women: Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby. Both had been married, in succession, to a man who was, by all accounts, soft-spoken and reasonable in public settings. A man who seemed to be honest and decent and successfully projected an image as a good Latter-day Saint. 

Both of them came to know that in secret, he was willing to trade another person's dignity for his own power. He grew verbally and physically abusive. One wife has pictures of the physical injuries. It's not as simple, in cases of abuse, to show the psychic and the spiritual scars. Each of the women told her story, initially, to people--like their bishops--who could have offered resources and support. But the people they told trusted outward appearances. I suspect they believed in the man they thought they knew, and not in the harder truth they were being told. They may also have been blinded by the vain things of this world: Jennifer Willoughby remembered being told to consider how her actions would affect her husband's career. 

I wish someone had flipped open their scriptures instead and told her about Adah and Zillah. Had told her in no uncertain terms that she made the right choice in not keeping that secret. I'm glad that, in the absence of good initial counsel, Jennifer and Colbie kept talking anyway. That they declared it openly--so it wouldn't just keep happening again and again and again. 

I think we get complacent in the Church sometimes. Assume that a soft-spoken manner and a clean white shirt make a man righteous. Make do with the few scriptural stories and spiritual generalizations we're asked, at bare minimum, to review over the course of four years. 

We need to dig deeper. We need to hunger and thirst for more. 

We need to tell the stories that will help the weary and the downtrodden to stand up for what's right. 

Just like Adah and Zillah did. 


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