Monday, August 27, 2007


In a very unsolicited moment this past week, I learned a valuable lesson about myself: I am a survivor.

Many of you don’t know this about me, but seven years ago I shared a pivotal piece of information about my life with my family. I grew up in a highly conservative religious setting and my personal revelation clashed with their theology. The result was two years of hateful rhetoric and estrangement that was incredibly painful and quite damaging. It was a period fraught with bitter irony because the faith tradition in which I grew up places a heavy emphasis on the importance and eternal nature of families.

Eventually, I took a job in D.C. and moved back to the area. My parents and siblings live in Northern Virginia, but I approached being in their vicinity with great caution. I consciously chose to live in the city proper as a means of putting a little physical distance between us. I’ll admit, too, the idea of having the Potomac and a bridge separating us also helped me feel a bit secure—like I was living in a castle surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge as the only means of entry. In other words, not so far away that it was impossible to see them, but not so close that it was convenient.

Over the last five years, I’ve worked very hard to build some semblance of an adult relationship with my family members. They have continued to worship in their religion “according to the dictates of their conscience” and I have respected that. I choose not to participate in the faith of my upbringing and I have asked for, but not always received, reciprocal respect for my choices. My lack of activity in church is a point of disagreement for my family, but it is one I choose to largely ignore.

This past Friday, my brother participated in a series of religious rituals that constitute a rite of passage for faithful members of the church they attend. These rites represent milestones for each individual; their equivalent would be like attending hajj as a Muslim or visiting Lourdes or the Vatican as a Catholic. The purpose is meant to raise the participant to a higher plane within the faith and distinguish them as “one of the washed.” (I wrote my entire master’s thesis on this, by the way.) Just as a Muslim becomes known as a hajji and is elevated in status within the Muslim community, so, too, are Mormons elevated in status once they have been “endowed” by participating in temple rituals.

I knew my brother was preparing to participate in these rituals and I respect the importance and significance they hold within his faith community. I may no longer participate in those rituals myself, but I respect them for what they mean and the sociological role they play within the community of believers (see aforementioned note about thesis.) Regardless of my lack of participation, I was genuinely happy for him.

So, where am I going with all of this?

As I mentioned, this past Friday, my brother participated in these rituals, but chose not to include me by failing to call me and tell me he was going to the temple for the first time. While I am not able to physically go with him, due to my lack of active church participation, I would at least like to have known so I could tell him how happy I was/am for him. As it was, I found out after the fact, which left me pissed. I’m still not clear on why he didn’t tell me beforehand, as he has yet to call me or email me and set up a time to talk. What I do know is, I was incredibly hurt and angry at having been deliberately shunned.

I’ve spent the bulk of the weekend being emotional—angry one minute, weeping the next, baffled in general, sick to my stomach in particular… Name the emotion, I’m sure I’ve covered it in the last 96 hours. I was suppose to have my family at my house yesterday for Sunday dinner, but I canceled. I just didn’t have the energy to make the kind of effort I put into my cooking and entertaining. My heart was burdened with other things and any cooking I would have done would have been poisoned by the effect of their actions.

But last night, I had an epiphany.

I’d raged and ranted. I’d even hit a wall (note: hitting things is a bad idea. Your hand will really, really hurt, especially if what you’re hitting is almost 100 years old and made of plaster and lathe.) I’d cried and lamented. I’d thrown my anger around at myself, for thinking I could have a relationship with my family after being estranged; at my family, for so deliberately doing something they knew was wrong and would be hurtful; at the church, for indoctrinating their members in such a way that something like this could even be possible and might even be seen as acceptable.

Eventually, I dried my tears, blew my nose, and realized I am a survivor. I had been through this range of emotions and conflict before with my family and, while I was bloody and bruised previously, I wasn’t broken. I managed to get through the horrific rhetoric and hatefulness and still live. This weekend was horrific and hateful again, but I pulled through and I’m going to be okay. I still love my family, but I’m much clearer on the parameters of my place in their life. As a result, I’ll be modifying my parameters regarding their place in my life.

My therapist often use to say two things to me during those years gone by. First, “you are not broken.” And second, “I know you feel icky now, but you’re not always going to feel this way.” This weekend was pretty icky, but somehow I’ve arrived on the other side of it a bit more impervious to meanness. I’m still angry, but I’m not seething with bitterness. I’m glad I’m not always going to feel this way. More than that, though, I’m glad that I can not only survive, but thrive.


cele said...

While you will change your family never will. Maybe some of them can grow (a bit) but the imbalance will always be there. Especially since you are dealing with a cult religion.

I am glad that you pulled some goodness and growth out of all of the sorrow and anger. I do not, and I've said this to my mother several times, see how a parent can love and nurture their child and then throw it away because of a biological difference, a theological difference, a political difference and yet it happens daily. To friggin' weird. It makes you wonder if all the nurturing and love were a lie in the first place, and yet it wasn't.

ME said...

I usually bristle at our shared religious upbringing = cult comparison. But when (historically lukewarm) adherents toss out common sense, common courtesy, respect and manners in order to exclude you from all knowledge about a family event, it sounds like the cult with an A+ in effort.

I'm glad you can glean something useful from the anger and frustration of the past 96 hours. You have survived and thrived and built a family out of everyone who has loved and nurtured you when your bio family can't or won't. Once again, you dig through the shit to find treasure.

Hang in there!

oxox MR

SML said...

Good for you for finding your balance within the moment of anger and hurt.

You really don't need that in your life.


wc said...

Glad to hear you're doing better. I know what you mean when you say you still love them, but I wish there was a stronger line drawn in the sand. You might not be pissed anymore, but I sure am.

Sideon said...

You're much more graceful and compassionate than I will ever be.

I sit (because I am sitting) amazed, and slightly envious, and wondering if I could/would ever be as humane and accepting as you are with your family.

You're not broken - Mormonism is broken, and it will never be fixed from within by the people and individuals that IT considers its enemies. (How's that for making it into a conscious entity?)

Be well, Tewke.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Cele: It makes sad to think my family can't change, but I think you're pretty accurate in that regard. I'm with you, too: I also don't understand how a parent can love and nurture a child and then shun them because of some -gical/-ical difference. Totally anathema to what I think parents should be and do.

ME: That's me. The shit digger! Seriously, huh? I keep sticking to the mantra I adopted seven years ago: I can either be bitter and angry or compassionate and forgiving. I've largely chosen the latter, but I'm realizing that a little bit of anger mixed in with the compassion and forgiveness keeps everything in perspective and will hopefully lead to better balance and boundaries where my family is concerned.


WC: No worries. I'm still plenty angry!

Sid: Thanks. I guess I'm a sucker to hope. I hope one day they'll see the error of choosing a religion over their child and they'll see I'm not the problem. Hope's a good thing, right? 'Cause sometimes, that's all I have to hold onto.

P.S. ALL: Sorry for the back and forth on my replies here. I keep finding horrible grammar gaffes...

Miss Understood said...

I've said many times before how much I hate religion, and this is one of my exact reasons.

Your family obvioulsy believe in what has been preached to them - the difference between desire and action - yet they obviously aren't prepared to apply the same rule to themselves in their treatment of you.

It makes me sick. x

janeannechovy said...

Argh!!! These people are so toxic. You've given them so, so many chances to act like normal, reasonable human beings (sideon: a large percentage of Mormons, even fairly orthodox ones, would never dream of acting as shitty as these particular Mormons!), and they've squandered every damn single one.

My vote (not that I have one)? You be completely honest with them--about how hurt and left out you felt, AND, about everything else that's important in your life (and you know what I'm talking about here). Then fuck 'em. You've made so much more of an emotional and other investment in them than they deserve, and if they can't appreciate the great person that you, their daughter and sister, have turned out to be, well, they're just not worth the bother.

We're all sending big squishy hugs (well, squishy except for my large abdominal protuberance) your way. And wet kisses from Number Two.

Di said...

Woo hoo, JA!! I totally agree! I even agree that most Mormons are much nicer than this. ;-) (Sorry, I'm just having empathy for our Mormon readers today, as this has become quite the religious rant vehicle, which is understandable, but I can't help doing my bridge-building thing anyhow someone stop me I can't stop making clauses about clauses in order to make everyone feel okay and welcome and included yet still covering the original OUTRAGE at hand and I don't know how to fix it all...)

Whew. I almost got lost in my own verbal vortex.

Glad you're doing better, Tewkesy. Enjoy the feeling of water off a duck's ass, it's one of the few positive side effects. :-)

Hugs from me 'n The Boy.

ME said...

I third JA!

As mi esposo says, don't give gifts that aren't wanted. Your family has figuratively (and literally) rejected your gifts over and over.

You can't help but be hurt when your family does this, and they become less honorable beings each time they reject you.

I think you should break up with them. Tell 'em how their behavior has hurt you repeatedly and you're not going to put up with any further abuse.

The consequence of delibertately excluding you from the family is your absence. They didn't want you to know about bro's temple trip, so give 'em the JM Free Zone they "want."

(Which will also illuminate their plethora of remaining issues--minus their convenient and perpetual scapegoat to blame it all on).


Terri@SteelMagnolia said...

I'm sorry...


I was raised a very strict Roman Catholic.... and... my son came to me with some news 2 years ago...

but I love him so much....

I just felt so bad for him that it took him so long to tell me... and that I was the reason it took him so long.

Makes me cry right now.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Ms. U: Ironically, it's what I hate about religion, too. Despite my fascination with the need religions fills in the sociological landscape, I am still stunned when it's used a a weapon. And, like you, I'm sickened when those I love use it against me.

JA: I'm at a point where I'm ready to be completely honest with them and let the chips fall where they may. Unfortunately(?), Bee isn't; doesn't want to deal with whatever crap my family would fling our way. Having been on the receiving end of said flung crap before, I can certainly understand and respect the sentiment. Thank you for the big, squishy hugs and wet kisses!

Di: The water off a duck's ass thing is going very nicely. It really came in handy today. It's like I'm impervious to bullshit and meanness. I can live with that! Hugs back to you and The Boy.

ME: A "JM Free Zone." Hm. I like that! Maybe I could have signs made... xoxo

Merujo said...

It's really a hard thing. I have never been able to fathom limitations of religion that diminish the concepts of unconditional love and acceptance. Which is probably why I strayed from my church rather quickly as an adult.

I was raised Catholic, as were all my siblings. One of my sisters became born again somewhere in the 80s, and one of her first acts was to send my gay brother a letter telling him he was going to Hell. After her first marriage died and her second husband's health deteriorated, it was, of course, my brother and his partner who flew halfway around the world to their cabin in Idaho to build a wheelchair ramp and rewire the place.

Same sister became Mormon after some guys came to her door. Her daughter got married in their local temple last year. All of us siblings got an announcement after the fact, since we were not welcome at the ceremony, with a request for cash and a bank account number. Again, of course, my brother sent $100. He's never gotten a thank you.

This woman just had a baby. We didn't know she was pregnant until the baby was already here, and we got an e-mail saying that they would appreciate cash contributions to the child's care and in response, they will send us a copy of the Book of Mormon. Not a thank you, but a religious text.

I'm just not sure what to say anymore, and I honestly don't understand.

I'm so sorry you've had such a tough time to go through! You are such a strong and lovely human being. I know that you will be able to turn this event into something positive, through discussion here, through your own contemplation of your world. So many people still have so much to learn about dignity and grace and kindness and decency and generosity of spirit. Fortunately, there are people like you around to help teach it.

Liz said...

A very moving post, Tewekes. I hope you feel love and acceptance from the other people in your life.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Merujo: Bless you! I'm just as baffled as you are. Even growing up in the church, I never understood why non-Mormons or inactive folk or Jack Mormons or whatever you want to call them were left out of family events. I mean, I understood in so far as I am an intelligent person who can understand when strings of words are put together into sentences. But from a rational, conceptual standpoint, I never got it. It felt wrong then and remains wrong now. Your brother and his partner sound like my kinda people, though. Or, as Bee would say, "Blessings await them."

Liz: I am surrounded by amazing people whose love and acceptance I often feel. And for which I am grateful.