Dec 16, 2013

My Struggles With Priesthood Leaders and Mormon People Part IV

OK. I realized, reading all the comments and such, that I need to go ahead and finish this today. I just feel so self indulgent writing about it all and thought I should save it for another time & not expect people to spend hours today reading about me. But I think it's important. This is a thing that involves more than me, it involves my family, friends, a community, because of how publicized everything was and because of how hard it was on everyone who knew me and also Paul (who grew up in my stake.)

So Paul has moved on. He served 4 years, and married again, and had kids. From all I know, he's doing OK. And I'm glad. He wrote a letter during the cancellation of sealing process about how he was glad I'd found someone worthy to marry. He talked about how he knew I was a good person and was moving on and it was OK with him. I am grateful he did that, because I've heard of many circumstances where someone doesn't react that way. Clearly, the part of Paul that is Good really is there, and exists, and hopefully he is living a better, more peaceful, less addiction-burdened life and getting help for his struggles. Because I do love him, he was somebody very important to me and the father of my oldest child (who is, actually, in personality a lot like him.) (The guy I married before things went crazy.)

When I talked to the bishop, it was at a temple recommend interiview. I decided, with a lot of prayer, to approach it differently this time. Instead of saying, I have a problem. I really hate bishops (which didn't get very far with the bishop in Provo... perhaps understandably) I downloaded and printed the article (yeah. I'm already crying)Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse, by Richard G Scott. I read it a few times, then went through and underlined a couple of sentences in the talk. And when I went to see the bishop to renew my recommend, I just told him, I'm really struggling. And it's not because I don't like the church, and it's not because I don't have a testimony. And I handed him that talk and said that the sentences I'd underlined applied to me. He took it and kind of looked across at me and said, "Sarah, I think this is important. You'd better come back and see me. I'll read it, thank you for the article."

So a week passed. I was in a play in town. The Man of LaMancha. I was playing Aldonza and it was a tough experience for me because, in this town, everyone's in the ward, the stake etc. And here I was doing something also vulnerable for me (singing in front of people, and having to say an almost-bad word! They toned it down, but they left one word in. And I was so worried about what people would think of me.) I had my picture in the paper again. I think it triggered something.

That first experience by the river was the first "anxiety episdoe" or "breakdown" I'd had. I had another one the next week, after the play was done. I called up the bishop on the phone. I wasn't very coherent. Mostly crying. & feeling really stupid about it. But he had me come in and see him. And I sat there, across the desk from him, and told him everything that had happened to me. I hadn't told anyone the whole story except, I told part of it to the singles' ward bishop (kinda had to, to have him feel OK about me attending the ward) and I told Jeff of course. But I hadn't told any other bishop or person. Except when people would ask about Jeff's and my time married, and look at me funny because Loli's older, then I'd say something like, I was married before, it was difficult, he ended up in jail.

Anwyay, telling the whole story was cathartic. And strange. And immediately I realized I'd chosen the right person to talk to, because my bishop didn't overreact, and he didn't act all bothered and uncomfortable to see me be pretty emotional, and he was able to express how terrible it was (it was) without making me feel like a terrible person for piling it on him.

he also knew that he needed to keep helping me. I felt pretty abandoned by my first bishop. This bishop un-abandoned me. He met with me weekly, and occasionally we messaged on facebook. when I had further anxiety episodes, he talked to me without acting all weird about it. A person going through an episode of intense anxiety or depression is not fun to talk to--he was patient with me.

I realized pretty soon how much I loved this person. My bishop. And being able to trust him and talk about stuff I'd always been really afraid to talk about was helping. My biggest worry was not feeling stuff. I couldn't "turn on" my feelings anymore, because they had been kind of shocked or killed, it felt like, into nonexistence, except when they'd rise up in these geysers of catastrophe--anxiety or not-able-to-get-out-of-bed level depression. But as I talked to this bishop, and as we grew closer, I began to feel again. It frightened me, how I couldn't feel much for my husband or kids sometimes. I'd have brief, wonderful moments where love would well up inside and I'd feel it, but mostly I felt blank and tired. I was starting to be able to feel love for my husband and kids, little by little, kind of like ice cracking maybe. Ice Princesses are that way for a reason. I mean, before, I went through the motions--hugging little bodies, Hugging husband, asking how his day went, etc, but mostly I felt so blank. And I was unable to engage in conflict because it was too frightening to me. My relationship with Jeff was more like that of a kind parent and daughter, somewhat. I didn't meet him on his terms or challenge him, and I constantly felt like I was a dissappointment to him. Which is really sad because it wasn't true.

Bishop and I started talking about my childhood experiences and how they've fed into this. I talked about some things I've never been able to even fully realize in my head because they were too threatnening, like, what if I'm a bad person. What if I kind of brought on what happened to me. What if all those people who judged me were actually right. But in talking about childhood experiences (and he began sharing some of his, too) we quickly realized (bishop and I) that we have a whole lot in common. It was almost eerie. We began to feel related.

I was really kind of weirded out by this. I said a lot of prayers, because you're not supposed to get too innapropriately close to a bishop. I was starting to feel like he was my Dad. Which, if you're a psych major, which I was, brings up a whole slew concerns. But I prayed and got an answer, just like every other answer in my life, that I was supposed to trust it and let it happen. I was supposed to let this bishop help me, and talk to me, and be my Dad.

I have a great Dad. But he's in California. And he struggles with vulnerability. When everything happened with Paul, he couldn't talk about it to me. Or anyone, not even mom. He still doesn't talk about it. I had a bishop who didn't want to talk to me, and a Dad who couldn't.

When Jeff and I moved up here to where we live, we did so because the house and land were perfect. Exactly what we wanted. But I think Heavenly Father put us in this ward on purpose. I was supposed to meet this one family. I was supposed to let this one bishop become my Dad. And he has. It's kind of a miracle. I've cried with him, and talked to him, and become really good friends with him and trust him and am glad to have him. He's told his family that we're a part of the family. I love all of them. Even before I got to know Bishop/Dad, I had some random experiences going on walks with his wife and was drawn to her in a way I'm not usually drawn to people. And two of the daughters were the first people who came up to me and made friends after we moved in. There's something about those two girls, and me, that I felt like kind of clicked weirdly. We have the same kind of akwardnesses, the same kind of interests, and enjoy the same types of conversation... we all answer too many questions during sunday lessons....

yeah it was all getting a little bit strange. To the point where we were trying to figure out how we were related. Not *if* but *how.*

Dad started talking about this one ancestor of his. It came up because of the book I wrote (Lightning Tree) and the experience of my main character, who lost her family and then had her possessions taken and distributed. He had an ancestor this happened to, as an aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I was pretty interested in this. So he gave me some manuscripts to look over, and some books to study and I learned all about Olive Olivia Coombs and her tragedy. I was getting more and more intrigued about this person, partly because I was working on a sequel for Lightning Tree and her incident happened in the exact year i'd chosen, in a place I'd planned on having my character be at some point during the story. I asked him if he'd mind if I included her story in my book. He said he thought that would be all right with him.

I studied the story more in-depth, to get details and history right. I looked everywhere online and found some additional accounts that Dad/bishop didn't have, and passed them on to him. This is a really rare line to be related to, and so not a lot of stuff had been written about this ancestor. Dad said that he knew of only four descendants today with connection to the family. He'd been in correspondence with a man who was trying to do research about this, and the man had only found four other people with information to add.

I was starting to really bond with Olive and her children, Emily, Bella, Ella and Olive. Bella, the second oldest, was the one related to Dad--his great, great grandmother. (or great grandmother can't remember how many greats). I was feeling a whole lot for them--I felt connected to them.

One evening, we were talking about something. Dad brought up a hymn in the hymnbook that he said he found special, "As the Dew From Heaven Distilling." My ancestor, Theodore Curtis, wrote that hymn. I didn't tell him that, I just asked him, "why do you find that one special?" And he said it was because he had family connected to it--one of his ancestors had written it.

Theodore Curtis is both our ancestors. And even more amazing. Olivia Coombs, who I'd been reading about? She was Olivia Curtis Coombs. My great, great, great something aunt. This woman I'd been reading about this whole time. I was related to her. I later found out that one of the four people this man had been corresponding with, trying to get information about the Coombs incident, was my own Grandmother, Patricia Curtis. It was pretty amazing, and emotional for me. And I understood the counter-intuitive answers to prayer I'd gotten. This bishop, and this family, were my family. There is something special about being a Curtis. I've written about that before. There aren't very many of us around.

My journey with Bishop (and Dad) has done a lot of miraculous things for me. And for him. I didn't know that, at the time I'd given him a jab about his scary bishop tie, he was going through one of the worst times of his life. Lots of stuff was going on, and he was pretty stressed out. Knowing each other, finding a new relative, being friends and most of all, allowing him to help me, has helped him, too. Kind of like how it is in a family.

So thinking back on bishop experiences before, particularly the difficult time when all that happened with Paul, I feel kind of like Heavenly Father has slowly been inching me in the direction of St. Anthony all of my life. I have family here, and He knew it. And He wants me to heal, and so he brought me here where I could. Where I could be "un-abandoned." And let me tell you, if you want to be un-abandoned, someone like my bishop right now is the perfect person to do it. As my relationship with priesthood authority in my life has improved that way, it's improved other ways. Dad's a good example in how to exercise priesthood. He's taught me about asking for blessings. He's taught me to lean on Jeff and not feel guilty for not being independent, but that spouses are for that--leaning on each other. He's helped me step up and be a wife, which Jeff has needed me to be for a long time. I can talk to this family of mine about kid issues and parenting issues and realize, I'm not a bad mom, only a stressed one sometimes. And I've been able to feel more and more for my family as a result.

Priesthood is an important influence in our lives. I think that Heavenly Father blessed me for not giving up. Not all bishops are going to be the ones I (or others) identify with or understand or can communicate easily with, and because I went through something so difficult, it was very hard for me to deal with that. But the thing we don't do is give up and leave, because someday, somewhere, Heavenly Father will come through and help you find peace. If you keep working at it, you'll find it.

I am still pretty vulnerable and scared and worried. Especially when I feel like people judge me or talk about me (which probably they do a lot less than I worry about.) Having your stuff in the papers and having good people believe things about you that aren't true, is a hard thing to get over. But I recently read a quote from Elder Packer (which surprised me. Who knew Elder Packer went through something like this?):

"A few years ago I indulged on one occasion in some introspection and found there were reasons why I didn’t like myself very well. Foremost among them was the fact that I was suspicious of everyone. When I met someone, I had in mind this thought: “What’s his motive? What’s he going to try to do?” This came about because I had been badly manipulated, abused by someone I trusted. Cynicism and bitterness were growing within. I determined to change and made a decision that I would trust everyone. I have tried to follow that role since. If someone is not worthy of trust, it is his responsibility to show it—not mine to find it out."

-Elder Boyd K. Packer, 1977

Here's the link if you want to read the rest of it.

And so step one, for me, was talking about writing in young women. And step 2 (admittedly a pretty giant step) was writing this blog, which I know is read by not only old friends, writing friends, and family, but people in my ward and stake. Ward and stake, I want to get to know you. I'm pretty awkward in person at first sometimes, but I'll keep trying if you keep forgiving me for awkwardness. I really do love people and want to trust them.

Thank you for reading this, everyone who has. I know I'm not the only one who struggles with this stuff. I hope people who read this, who might be on the edge of giving up like I was, can keep going until something great happens. Or maybe if you want, come talk to me. Or give another bishop a chance. As Elder Oaks says, "you don't stop believing in the power of electricity because of a faulty electrical appliance." We are all faulty electrical appliances, but I think we're all mostly trying our best.

About six or so months after that initial meeting with my bishop, and after getting to know him and knowing he loves me and thinks of me like family, and knowing I feel the same, feeling the security of all that, I was called as Young Women president in my ward. I know, I KNOW I could never do this calling without that support, and without healing enough to also accept support from my husband, and also being capable of resolving other stressful issues, with my kids, with the complications of trying to be a leader and not blame myself when things aren't always easy. It's meant I've had to give up the two support groups I was going to *instead* of my ward--a writing group and a homeschooling group. Heavenly Father's working hard on turning my heart back to trusting the people I should trust.

I guess Heavenly Father really does know what he's doing. And I hope someday I can say I'm stronger for this whole experience.

Parts 1-5 of this post:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5


Joy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Luisa Perkins said...

Thanks for the closure! What a blessing, and it's clearly no accident that this man is now your bishop.

I've never been to Idaho, but my grandmother lived for several years on a farm near St. Anthony. She bought the land after her mission (in about 1980) and lived there until she had a stroke (in 2000).

shannon said...

Wow! Just amazed! My friend Hayley told me about this. I often struggle with priesthood leaders, and this story was amazing. I don't know how you didn't throw int the towel a few bishops ago. Glad you were guided to this place to meet some of your family. Thank you for sharing, even those of us who haven't been through the kind of life storm you have, can really benefit from this account.

Emma Tank said...

Thank you for finishing the story. I actually didn't know much of this stuff was going on. Living away from family makes things interesting, but we are so glad to have you in our lives. We are very similar people!

Lynne said...

Reading and remembering some of these raw memories. It's tough. What an incredible journey you have been on Sarah, and what a beautiful woman with words. It has been much, much too long since I have seen you!

Joanna said...

Thank you for sharing of you vulnerabilities. I'm so glad that you did not give up but are working through these fears and have found a measure of growth. How great is that! So brave.

Mrs. Mandy said...

You aren't alone in your tears today...I just joined you! Thank you, thank you for sharing!

Sarah Dunster said...

Glad, Mandy. & grateful. Thanks for reading.

RecessionCone said...

Thank you for these posts. I was a BYU student back when your story hit the papers, and I used to wonder how things have worked out. I'm sorry you've had to go through so much. My wife and I were both completely outraged to hear how your priesthood leaders treated you. Such stories really make me start to think we need to ordain women as a practical matter, because clearly our current system has some serious shortcomings.

I was also surprised to make the connection between your story and The Lighting Tree. I bought that book several months ago, and my wife and I loved it. It was so great to read a book about Mormons that treated them as people, not as caricatures. Anyway, sending you lots of support. I will sell my friends on your book & look forward to more of them in the future. All the best.

Grumpa and Oma said...

Sarah, You are incredibly brave. I am amazed at how eloquently you share your life experience. After reading Part III, I wanted to tell you not to give up, knowing that the Savior would put someone in your path that would help you trust and begin to heal. So I'm glad you went ahead with Part IV.
We all have baggage and sometimes we are hindered by the things that we don't know that we don't know. I believe your blog will help you overcome some of those things in your life. You have been through some incredibly hard trials, but they coupled with what lies ahead will be just enough to make you Celestial.

merrilykaroly said...

Wow, my mouth just dropped open when I read the part about Theodore Curtis! That is so COOL. How incredible is it that you found such a connection with that family before knowing that.

I found this post to be incredibly spiritually strengthening. Thank you so much. I'm always amazed by how things are connected and tend to work out in ways we could never imagine all because God loves us and has his fingers in our lives, directing -- in subtle but beautiful ways -- everything to work together for our good. Life is beautiful.

Thank you again for sharing this. XOXO

Heidi Castle said...

I relate to you and your experiences on many levels.

I think every bishopric should be required to read your story.

Your experiences leave me speechless. You are an amazing woman- obviously very strong.
Thanks for sharing your life and letting all of us grow through your experiences.

Mimi said...

Sarah, I read your posts yesterday and it made me think a lot. Here's what I was most wondering about. When it all went down I think we mostly assumed that you had already some sort of support group behind you with full force. Parents, siblings, priesthood leaders etc. I was sure that strangers would not be helpful to ask how to help (even rude to ask). But now that we're older and wiser and have experienced more I find that sometimes a stranger with real compassion (a talent hard to find) can do more good than the "support" group. The Montel William show called us and persisted we would be rewarded if we could give them some info. Now it seems that with the news trucks and calls and knocks on the door the people that wanted to abuse your situation were in higher numbers than the people offering to help and support. For that I am so very sorry. I am happy to hear that you found people that are able to understand and listen and help you make sense. Your talent to think and see the right make it an incredible story. We wish you the best and think very very highly of you in your artistic accomplishments, career, family and personal life.

Sarah Dunster said...

Thank you, Miriam. Those Montel people sure were jerks :( sorry you had to deal with that, too. I didn't know.

Emily said...

Beautifully written, Sarah. It takes a courageous person to write so honestly about experiences that are so painfully isolating. So glad Hayley posted a link to this; I've often wondered about you, especially after all those graveyard shifts together. You were always one of my favorites to work with.

Joy said...

Thank you.. Loved reading it all. You have gone through a lot. You are great!

The Weed said...


God is good. The thing I love about this story is that your connection to him remained strong, and that connection was most important of all--it transcended and is transcending all the yuckiness. I also love the personal touch the Lord has--the Curtis connection is so special and beautiful.

You are an amazing person, and I think you handled each and every phase of your story with poise, near-earthshattering courage, and in a way that you should be nothing but proud of. I admire you.

Michelle Glauser said...

I've experienced that same lack of feeling, and I discovered at some point that there's a word for it, and it's a beautiful word--anhedonia. (I blogged about it here:

It's amazing to read your story and feel the love that you've felt as you've grown. Thanks for sharing.

Sarah Dunster said...

Thank you, everybody who read this. All of you are and were bleeding to me. Going to go read about anhedonia.