But I’m a good Mormon wife

Sean and I had the perfect life. Then his faith started to crumble -- and mine did, too

Topics: Mormon Church, Life stories, Religion, Coupling, Love and Sex,

But I'm a good Mormon wifeA photo of the author with her husband

“I don’t believe in God,” my husband whispered in the darkness of our bedroom.

My breath caught, and I was afraid to look at him, this boy I met and married eight years ago.

I was only 19 on the day we were sealed for eternity, the wet snow blowing into our faces as we exited the Portland, Ore., temple. I imagined a life of Church service, my husband at my side as we finished our BYU degrees, raised our children, and served missions together in our old age. On the night we got engaged, we struck a deal. “I’ll get you to heaven,” I said. “But you have to keep me here on earth.”

Now his confession hung over our nuptial bed. And though I’d known this was coming — he’d been struggling with his faith for at least two years — I’d never considered what I’d say. Sean had always been the rational one, a brilliant computer scientist who spoke sense when I was in the throes of clinical depression. Now, my thoughts went still as I groped for his hand. Before I could process what I was saying, forbidden words slipped off my tongue. “You are more important to me than the Church,” I said.

I wondered what my pioneer ancestors would say if they could hear me, these grandparents so faithful that they abandoned their East coast relatives for a life here in this Utah desert. Some of their graves stood a few blocks from where I whispered my betrayal, but I didn’t care. I loved Sean, and that had to be enough.

But in the weeks that followed, there was a distance between us. We stepped lightly around conversation, kept talk to the kids, work and the mundane. Our friendly touches in the kitchen disappeared. My acceptance shifted to bitterness and anger.

I spent my morning runs worrying about what was being said around my Mormon neighborhood. We lived 20 minutes south of BYU’s desert campus, and most of my running partners had husbands high up in the Church hierarchy. I waited anxiously for them to mention my heathen family, wondered if they’d heard that my eternity with my husband was now in jeopardy, that in the hereafter I’d likely be pawned off to some other righteous man as a plural wife — probably my ex-boyfriend; hopefully not Brigham Young. And all the while I couldn’t stop thinking. Why, Sean? I didn’t sign up for this. You promised me we’d spend eternity together, and now you might as well be gone.



That sinister word flickered around in my head: divorce. It manifested itself onto my notebook paper as I scribbled out my daily morning pages. I didn’t want it, but sometimes I thought both of us would be happier if we said good-bye.

Sean and I spent our time in the usual way, taking long summer walks along Hobble Creek. While our two eldest sons raced ahead on their bicycles, we followed with the baby (okay, the two-year-old) in the stroller. Sean obsessed about death. “I’m so terrified of losing you and the boys,” he said one day after waving hello to our neighborhood women’s leader. He looked over at me and said, “I couldn’t bear it.”

Confused sadness flickered in my eyes. His fears were utterly foreign to me. We’d both been taught from an early age that death was simply the gateway back to God. How could he not see — as I did — that this was true? I know we’ll be together again, I wanted to say. Instead I said gently, “I hope for your sake that you die first. Then you won’t have to deal with the grief of losing us.”

Sean was as supportive as an atheist could be. He even went with me for the first hour of church to help with the Squirmy Ones. But when he’d leave early, I’d cry in the bathroom, feeling completely alone. I never said that word aloud: Atheist. My heart clenched just thinking it.

We rarely talked about religion, yet it consumed us. When Sean replaced his temple garments — the sacred underwear he’d promised to wear day and night — with boxers, I couldn’t take it anymore. It was too much betrayal. I called up a neighbor with a husband like mine and cried. But instead of empathy, she offered questions that stunned me into silence. Was Sean addicted to pornography? Watching R-rated movies? What sin had brought him to this terrible place?

My tears stopped. Her questions were so off-base that they seemed absurd. She was sincere, and trying to help, but she believed what the Church teaches — that a man would only leave because he’s disobeying the commandments. She couldn’t understand this was a rational inquiry. She saw everything as the result of sin.

This started my brain twitching. I knew Sean was still a good person, that he still maintained the same moral standards he had when he married me. The Church was wrong about him. What else might they be wrong about? I shoved the thought away.

But I wanted to understand him. This was Sean, the man who stood by me during years of clinical depression. The man who pretended to be a dinosaur while he chased our shrieking sons around the room. He wasn’t some heathen. I couldn’t believe that. I wouldn’t believe it. He’d always been a skeptic, and even though I didn’t agree with him, I knew intellectually that he’d never make this decision without careful consideration of the facts.

As summer shifted to fall, I often found him hunched over his iPad reading everything he could find on Mormon origins. I started to join him in his nightly bath, and the information would seep out. He’d pause from our usual safe topics and bite his lip. “I’m sorry, but I just have to tell you. Did you know that …” and then he’d tell me what he’d been reading. About how Joseph Smith mistranslated some Egyptian hieroglyphics that are part of our canonized scripture. About how he translated the Book of Mormon while looking at a stone inside of a hat.

I listened half-heartedly, questioned his sources, though I wasn’t about to go looking at them myself. Our prophets had made it clear that anything written outside church documents was suspect and anti-Mormon, fabricated for the sole purpose of destroying faith. Yet Sean continued, until one night it was about polygamy, my archnemesis.

“Did you know that Joseph Smith married a 14-year-old girl against her will? Did you know that he’d send men on missions and marry their wives in secret when they were gone?” I sat there silent as he kept talking, a horror growing in my gut. I knew that if Sean was right, then Joseph Smith was a fraud. I saw no difference between his acts and the modern-day acts of Warren Jeffs, whom I abhorred. And if Joseph Smith was a fraud — then what did that make the Church?

I left the bath early and went straight to bed, feeling a magmic pressure building inside me. The scholar in me couldn’t let it go. I had to know.

I already did know.

When I finally broke down a few weeks later, Sean was the one to hold me as I wept into my pillow and traipsed down the familiar road to despair, wondering what my life even meant if the Church wasn’t true.

“It’s OK, Maren. It’s OK. I’m here,” he said as he stroked my hair, whispering into the darkness. What felt like an end, though, slowly opened up into something else.

Over the next few days our usual mile walk turned to four as my brain tornadoed through discovery, my conversations stopping mid-sentence with “Whoa, then that means …” Whoa, we suddenly have 10 percent more income. Whoa, our weekend free time just doubled. Whoa, we can try alcohol, coffee and tea — the trifecta of forbidden drinks.

The sad whoas came, too. Whoa, will my father ever talk to me again? Whoa, what will my friends say? Whoa, we are going to die.

My transformation consumed me for the next month, and we stayed up late talking every night. When I shed my garments for slippery Victoria Secret panties, my self-esteem skyrocketed, and our late nights shifted to other things. We were finally adults, taking our firsts together, learning about each other without barriers.

Ironically, the Mormon Church teaches that marriage can only thrive if God is an equal part of it. But when we left God out of it, we were free to love each other completely, to share the burden of our grief as two individuals with no one else.

It’s been seven months now, and I don’t know what the future holds. I have never been more uncertain in my entire life. But one thing is clear to me. Whatever happens, wherever we go, Sean will be at my side, holding my hand as we face it together — and alone — for the first time.

Maren Stephenson is a writer who loves hiking, camping, and mountain biking in the Utah desert. She is currently working on her third book.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>