(WOMENSENEWS)–Over the past few weeks, I have been watching the news about the breakup of the polygamist sect in Texas and the 437 children taken away from their mothers on a religious compound.
I hear the women talking about their environment, I see them in their antiquated garb, I feel the pain in their voices while they yearn for their children. And while I seem quite the opposite of these women–I’m a single mother and a master-degreed media professional working in New York City–I see myself.
At one point this type of adherence to religion, allegiance to my husband and attachment to my church was normal.
I was a member of a medium-sized, nondenominational church that I joined after getting married. I lived in Garland, Texas, in a house not too far from the church. Though I never lived on a compound, I experienced the heavy involvement that many nondenominational churches claim from its members.
My most stable emotional relationship was with my baby son. I socialized with other women who were going to the same church and stayed at home with their children. I dressed in loose baggy clothing and flimsy shoes, practically barefoot, mostly because I did not feel worthy enough to spend money on myself. And the closest similarity I had to the women of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: I would have never thought I was in an abusive marriage steeped in religion.
Impossible Standards Were the Norm
After I left my husband and underwent two years of domestic violence counseling, I came to understand what most people don’t: Abuse takes place in many forms, even within reputable, out-in-the-open institutions such as marriage and the church. And within these institutions, unattainable standards are set up as the norm.
My husband thought the house should be spotless. My religion told me my physical self should be without blemish. Both said I should serve each of them selflessly, wholeheartedly and without complaint.
Within the institution of marriage and their religion, the women on the compound in Eldorado, Texas, were "protected" from the outside world. In their enclosure they accepted that men have more than one wife, that giving over their 13-year-old daughters for sex was OK and that if any woman left she would not survive.
Law enforcement exposing this secret society may traumatize the women on the religious compound now, but I hope it will jar their view of their own lives.
It’s sad that mothers are being separated from their children, and I do not think the government had to take every child from his or her mother. But whatever is done in the dark must come to light; these mothers eventually had to account for not standing up for the children who were being sexually exploited.
Forceful Return to Reality
Now the women are learning that in the United States we have some freedoms–of speech, of religion–but we do not have the freedom to be married to more than one person. Now they are learning that the men they worship do not have the final say about anything, including sexual access to their daughters. Now they are learning that women have rights.
I learned the hard way too. It took me over three years to realize I was in an abusive marriage and a year longer to understand the role religion played in the abuse.
The oppression I experienced began and ended with religion and his interpretation of a biblical dictum that the man is the head of the household. That meant that during my three-year marriage my husband’s word was final. He did whatever he thought was best for both of us. The message took a little while to translate for me at first, but as my self-worth plummeted due to isolation, criticism and sexual abuse, I came around to his way of thinking.
The most dangerous abuse came from within; I put myself last on my own list of priorities. So when it came to earthly needs, like who should benefit from purchases of clothing, who should eat first or whose feelings really counted, it was my husband, even in my own mind.
When I became involved in a women’s group at one church he grew agitated and insisted we leave. We joined another church.
Husband Heads the House
The break came when I left Texas for a trip east to visit my father who was sick. Before I left I asked my husband to give me a couple days’ space since he and I had been arguing. He agreed but then decided to call me a day later so he could pray for me because, as he said, there was something wrong with me.
After that call I could not make myself get on the plane and go back. The things I used to tell myself–he’s a wonderful man, he loves me but he doesn’t know how to treat me, he’s an upstanding, Christian man–suddenly rang false.
It was only after receiving counseling from a county domestic violence service that I began to understand what I had been going through. After I left the marriage, I sent the church a letter to rescind my membership, a decision I made on my own.
So how do I feel about the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints women as they look into the cameras with desperation in their eyes, wondering how they will survive their exposure to the real world?
Alexus Jones is a public relations practitioner who has worked for nonprofits such as American Red Cross and Girl Scouts of the USA. She currently works as a media manager for the Women’s Media Center in New York.