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That's a Personal Question

January 9, 2019

I say that I never read memoirs and I really don't, but I find myself reading Tara Westover's Educated after having just finished Michelle Obama's Becoming. Both came highly recommended and on all the Best of 2018 lists. Michelle's book was very well written and I think she did a nice job of telling her own story inside the bigger story that is her husband's. Saddest ending to a book ever though. 

 

No really. I cried. I can't remember the last time a book made me cry. Maybe never. But lord that part where they moved out of the White House was sad. 

 

Tara's book is also very well written. She grew up on a farm in Idaho with a religious fanatic, survivalist father who didn't trust the government so there was no schooling, no drivers licenses, no birth certificates. She shares the story of how she extricated herself from her isolated and dangerous upbringing to get to college, not even knowing about such world events as the Holocaust or the Civil Rights era when she got there. Part of what makes it so interesting to me is that I am also ex-Mormon, although not the fundamentalist, survivalist kind. I was more the old-guys-having-sex-talks-with-teen-girls kind. 

 

Yeah, so this is a thing that's been in the news a bit lately, partly due to the leaked video of a Mormon bishop interviewing a 12-year-old girl about her sex life. These "worthiness" interviews take place between the ages of 12-18, just the child and their Bishop, alone in a church office with the door closed. When a Mormon gentleman named Sam Young began a website and petition to stop the practice, he was excommunicated by the church for "conduct contrary to the laws and order of the church." This American Life discussed the issue on a recent podcast entitled But That's What Happened. Theirs was reported by an ex-Mormon who had experienced the practice firsthand and interviewed several people, both current and former members of the church. 

 

Please understand that Mormon bishops are not professional clergy. They are laymen who have been "called" to lead a congregation, usually for three to five years. They volunteer in this capacity for several hours a week while they keep their paying day job. They have no formal training in either counseling or ministry. And they are all men. (There are no women church leaders in the Mormon church because they can't be priesthood holders.) 

 

So these worthiness interviews begin at the age of 12 and typically happen annually through the child's teen years. The Bishop asks the child if they love God, do they pay their tithing, are they following the Word of Wisdom (the no-drinking-and-smoking rules). Then they ask if the child is living a "chaste life." There are very little guidelines for the bishop - and those that are present now are a recent addition - because the church says that he needs to have discretion about what he asks and how he follows up. So an underdeveloped, naive child like me, who's never had a boyfriend or even been kissed, could answer "Yes" to the chastity question and generally move on with the interview. 

 

But a 12-year-old with boobs who's maybe getting some attention from the boys is going to be treated differently, and there are thousands of personal accounts where the bishops ask the girls about what kind of underpants they wear (Is it sexy underwear? Are they bikini underwear?), whether they masturbate (Did you use your hand, or a device?), do they have unclean thoughts about boys? Any answers in the affirmative will only prompt more detailed and personal questions from the bishop. 

 

Mormons are taught that they only way to repent and receive forgiveness of sexual sins is to confess them to their bishop. Not like Catholic confession, where there's a curtain and anonymity. Just you and him, alone, in his office, face-to-face, with the door closed. And once a confession of anything sexual (not just intercourse) has been made, there will be many, many detailed questions. Who instigated it? Over the bra or under the bra? Where did he put his fingers? Did the two of you impersonate sex? (That's a funny one to me.) The church says this is the only way the bishop can evaluate the situation and determine what sort of guidance needs to be delivered. 

 

My experience was this: I participated in these worthiness interviews beginning at the age of 12, but I was never probed on sexual questions because I think it was clear that I was totally inexperienced when it came to boys. I got my first real boyfriend when I was 16, a good Mormon boy from my town who was a year older than me. He had dated a few other Mormon girls before me but they were from neighboring towns. I was his first real girlfriend that he went to high school with and saw every day. 

 

And we eventually engaged in some "petting and necking" - yes, those are the terms the church used, even in the 80s. I didn't think too much of it. We were young and experimenting. We stayed (mostly) dressed and while I knew we were pushing the boundaries I didn't think we were doing anything too terribly wrong. I had friends that did more - lots more. 

 

But I guess my boyfriend was a better Mormon than me, because after we broke up - maybe at his own annual worthiness interview, although, as I've said, it's expected of all church members that they confess to the bishop any time they've engaged in pre- or extra-marital sexual behavior - he confessed all to the bishop. 

 

I know this because he showed up at my door one night to apologize to me for what we'd engaged in - part of his penance, I'm sure. I don't think anyone but a Mormon girl can fully grasp the awkwardness of her ex-boyfriend standing at her front door asking her forgiveness for having touched her in an inappropriate manner. 

 

The next day my dad got a call from the bishop. Yes, yes he did. I don't know how much the bishop told my dad (my money's on all of it) but he asked my dad to bring me to his house to talk to him. Y'all, I didn't even have a drivers license yet. The bishop was a blue-collar man without much formal education, in his 60s I guess. And my dad drove me to his house to meet with him one-on-one in what I guess was his home office. I think my dad sat in the living room and visited with the bishop's wife. 

 

The bishop told me that my ex had come to speak with him, was I aware of that? Yes. He went through the laundry list of items that he had confessed, asking me each time if that were true and did I in fact engage in that behavior? I nodded or otherwise confirmed that I had, without offering up any additional information. At the end of the list, he asked if there was any other behavior that I needed to share with him? I did not. He asked me if I planned on engaging in any of this behavior again. I told him I did not. Then he said, "I guess what's really bothering me is why B. came and repented but you did not?" 

 

I told him I didn't really think it was necessary and maybe I could just deal directly with God on my sins. He assured me that that was not true and beseeched me to come to him immediately in the future should I sin again. 

 

I never went back to church again. 

 

 

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