A Bitter Forgiveness

One of my favorite books of the last 20 years is Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, which depicts a brutal double-murder with deep roots in Mormon history and belief. So I was excited when a mini-series based on the book started airing on Hulu in April—excited but also nervous because we all know how disappointing screen adaptations can be. But this one’s excellent, not least because it digs into how easily mainstream LDS culture, with its strict gender hierarchy and its emphasis on revelation, can mutate—has mutated—into domestic tyranny, cruelty, and violence. In most true crime books, murder is a rejection of community norms; here, it’s also a dark reflection of them.[1]

In honor of the series, I’m posting a dark story of my own about Mormonism. Like Krakauer’s, mine is set in the era of “president and prophet” Spencer W. Kimball, twelfth leader of the church and revered successor to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Though Kimball is mainly an unseen influence in the mini-series, his photo appearing on the walls of devout church members, he’s the major focus of my story, which is about four improbable audiences I had with the great man when I was a senior in college. No, true crime fans, my story involves no bloodshed, but it does depict an emotional violence that contributed to multiple attempts to kill myself. And, as I pointed out in an earlier blog post, some of the teachings that drove me to despair in my twenties still contribute to a high suicide rate among young Mormons, so it’s more urgent than ever to examine them with a critical eye.

In addition to honoring Under the Banner of Heaven, this story is also a thank-you to readers of my book, Iron Legacy, and listeners of my podcast, Healing Your Family Legacy. Both audiences have told  me how much they appreciate the personal narratives that I share, so here’s a brand new story to ponder. And, in honor of my forthcoming Iron Legacy audiobook, here is a sound file of me reading “A Bitter Forgiveness.”

I won’t conclude by saying “enjoy” because it’s not that kind of story, but I’d love to hear your reactions, either in the comments below or privately, via my contact page. Thanks for reading.

By my senior year in college, my faith had become a battleground. Don’t get me wrong; I still believed almost everything the Mormon church had taught me because those folks take a back seat to no one when it comes to indoctrination. The battle was over a single question: was there a way out of my own vast sinfulness, or was I so offensive to God that I would remain mired in evil, no matter how hard I tried to be good?

For those unfamiliar with my life story, I am a survivor of sustained, multidimensional abuse for which I was trained to blame myself. A savage beating meant I had committed a heinous offense, and, if I couldn’t remember any such offense, it was only because my inherent sinfulness made terrible sins—sins like slurping my milk or dropping a cucumber slice on a just-laundered tablecloth—seem trivial to me. When my herculean efforts to be good all failed, I became convinced that I was simply a “bad seed.” At times I fought it with all my might; at other times I gave in, thinking “If I’m a bad seed, no matter how much I try not to be, then I may as well act like one. “

In college, my behavior swung between frenzied piety, when I would pray and fast for days on end, and miserable decadence, when I would drink, take drugs, and have sex with anyone who asked—not uncommon for a survivor of sexual abuse. But, even at my lowest, I clung to a dream of my future self as the ideal Mormon woman—pure of heart, shining in the light of God’s love, and walking the path of perfection. I had no inkling how to reach that beautiful future from my present ugliness, but I clung to the hope that such a transformation was possible–not through my own effort, of course, but through the miraculous power of my Heavenly Father.

Then one day the path opened up before me. The opening was so unlikely and so unexpected that it seemed miraculous, and I felt at last the mysterious guiding hand I had craved since childhood. It happened on an ordinary day: I had attended a philosophy class then put in a few hours at my work-study job in the main office at the University of Utah School of Social Work, where I was queen of the ditto machine, producing stacks of purple-lettered handouts for graduate and undergraduate courses. As always, I had a headache from the fumes of the ditto solvent, so I gladly agreed when Jenny the office manager suggested a hamburger at the student union.

Tall, red-headed Jenny was officially my supervisor but wore her authority lightly, framing orders as requests and showing genuine appreciation when I obeyed them. She sometimes seemed more friend than boss, stopping regularly to chat over the kachunk-kachunk of the ditto machine. I admired her because she was a super-Mormon with a checkered past, as I hoped to become, and I liked her because she talked frankly about her struggles and tried to help me with mine. We had lunch or coffee together every couple of weeks, so this invitation was not unusual, nor was our catch-up conversation as we walked to the student union. The only thing unusual about the day was the weather, warm and sunny, feeling more late May than mid-March.

It was warm enough that we brought our hamburgers outside to a patio table. We seemed unlikely lunch companions, Jenny neat and professional in a beige suit and pearls, her red hair swept back into a French twist, me in bell-bottoms and a blue denim shirt, my hair long and loose. My negative-heel Earth Shoes and her business pumps magnified the nine-inch difference in our height, so I was glad to sit down and stop craning my neck to look up at her. As I set my giant Coke on the table, Jenny jokingly waggled her finger at me. For some strict Mormons, cola drinks were on the no-no list along with coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco.

“The least of my sins,” I shrugged, “like rolling through a stop sign with a corpse in the trunk.” Jenny laughed, shaking her head. I enjoyed making Jenny laugh, which felt like giving back a little something in return for her kindness. When we were settled and eating our burgers, we began talking about her wedding three months away. I applauded her choice of carrot over vanilla wedding cake and her decision to put her bridesmaids in simple apricot sheaths. As we moved on to flower arrangements, seating charts, and music, we could have been any two young women discussing any wedding until Jenny began talking about the ceremony itself.

The ceremony would be a temple marriage, which is much more ambitious than a typical church wedding. Mainstream Christians marry “’til death us do part,” but devout Mormons marry “for time and all eternity,” meaning forever—assuming both parties live good Mormon lives and keep the commandments, that is. A temple marriage makes them husband and wife while they’re alive, husband and wife when they move on to the spirit world, husband and wife after they reunite with their resurrected bodies, and husband and wife as they ascend to the status of gods, creating and populating their own new worlds. Moreover, a temple marriage is essential for that last ascent, called “exaltation,” because Mormons cannot enter the celestial kingdom alone, no matter how exemplary their lives.[2] Such an important rite is considered too sacred for profane eyes, so the only witnesses at a temple marriage are Mormons whose beliefs and conduct have been examined and recommended by a bishop. Those without “temple recommends,” even members of the wedding party, must wait outside on the temple grounds in what I like to call the heathen holding area.

Though I prefer the heathen holding area now, then I was obsessed with what went on inside the temple. I had witnessed my parents’ temple marriage, which followed many years after their regular wedding, as sometimes happens when a blood Mormon like my mother marries a convert like my father. But I had been so young at the time that I remembered little, just an image of my kneeling, white-clad parents holding hands as they faced each other across an altar. Because my fantasy future self, the perfect Mormon woman I still hoped to become, would be married in the temple, I wanted to know much more about the sacred ceremony, but Jenny had barely begun to talk about it when she dropped a series of bombshells, one after another.

“By the way, President Kimball will conduct the ceremony” was the first.

“We met yesterday to discuss it” was the second.

“Oh, and we also talked about you” was the third.

“He wants you to come see him” was the last.

I may have dropped my hamburger, but all I actually remember is feeling a physical shock, like a cartoon coyote who runs into a wall painted to resemble a road. I would have been less shocked had Jenny told me Marilyn Monroe was her maid of honor and wanted to hang out with me. In my world, President Spencer W. Kimball was a bigger star than Marilyn, and, where Marilyn was often called a goddess, President Kimball was a god—or as close as a living human being could get.

That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. The Mormon Church has a steep, elaborate hierarchy, and President Kimball was one breath from the very top. He had titles and honors and great fame, having recently written The Miracle of Forgiveness, still an influential book today. When I met him, he was president of the apostles and would soon become first president, which is a Mormon pope and then some. Already, Kimball had been confirmed as “prophet, seer, and revelator,” meaning a man who perfectly understood and expressed the mind of God. To me, raised to revere mere bishops, stake presidents, and high priests, President Kimball was indistinguishable from the great men of the Bible and even Joseph Smith himself. In my mind, Jenny was offering an audience with God, and I needed a few minutes to absorb the idea.

“You’re kidding,” I said finally. Not my most astute reply, but how else could I explain Jenny’s saying that President Kimball wanted to talk to me?

“No, Donna,” she smiled. “I told him all about you, and he really wants to talk with you.”

“You told him all about me?” When it came to my sinfulness, Jenny didn’t know the half of it, but the half she did know was bad enough.

“I told him . . . the basic facts.” Seeing my alarm, she quickly added, “He understood, Donna. Seriously, don’t worry; he’s heard it all before. He’s heard worse, way worse. He really wants to help.”

“With what?” I cried. Jenny sighed, then glanced at the table next to us, where a large group of students was having lunch. I could tell she didn’t want to mention specifics with other people in earshot.

“Your life,” she said finally. “Your earthly life, your eternal life. He can help you get back on track.”

“Why would President Kimball bother with me?” I murmured. “That’d be like me taking a personal interest in one of those ants.” I pointed toward a line of ants crossing the concrete patio. Jenny reached across the table to clasp the hand I was pointing with.

“Listen, Donna,” she said softly. “President Kimball counsels people, all kinds of people, much more messed up than you. He’s famous for helping people get back on track; that’s what his book is about. He helped me when I was struggling, and now look at me, getting married in the temple!” I did look and suddenly felt that maybe, just maybe, I could follow in Jenny’s footsteps. I felt a thrill of hope and a shiver of fear.

“Okay,” I said. “If anyone can help me, President Kimball can, right?” Smiling broadly, Jenny pulled a tiny notebook from her purse, flipped through it, tore out a page, and pushed it toward me. On it were the apostle’s name and a telephone number, the “K” of Kimball flowing across the page to end in a loop.

In less than a week, President Kimball and I had our first meeting. March had become March again, cold and blustery, so I shivered as I approached Temple Square in a skirt and low-heeled pumps. Though I didn’t have a lot of clothes to choose from, I had fussed over my outfit, rejecting my usual peasant-blouse-and-bell-bottoms in favor of a pleated skirt and vest in matching red plaid. To honor the occasion, I had splurged on L’eggs and rolled my hair, but, when the day turned windy, switched to a high pony tail instead. As jewelry, I wore small silver stud earrings and a large silver peace sign dangling from a heavy beaded chain.

I don’t remember how I got downtown from my boarding house near the university; I’ve tried, but I can’t retrieve that information. I do remember that my legs were numb with cold when I approached Temple Square, so it’s possible I walked the three miles. But my cold legs didn’t bother me because I was filled with butterflies—not just butterflies of anxiety but butterflies of giddy hope as well. Someone was going to help me, someone with wisdom and power beyond my comprehension, someone who could explain to me why I had been born so bad and be my witness that I had fought against my badness, fought really hard, and had only given up fighting because my efforts never made any difference and because I was exhausted by decades of punishment. Someone was going to understand me and forgive me and bless me! I had no inking how any of that would happen, just knew that this meeting with President Kimball was my last, best chance to escape the darkness inside me.

I crossed South State Street to enter a white office building next to the Hotel Utah where a polite man at the front desk directed me to President Kimball’s suite on the top floor. Too excited to wait for the elevator, I raced up the stairs feeling oddly detached from my body, as though my legs climbed and my arms pumped while my head floated five feet above them. I had fasted since the previous day and prayed for hours that morning, so I was as ready as I could be to meet the great apostle. I found him sitting behind a huge desk in the middle of a huge office, his eyes downcast and his hands folded. The aide who had shown me in nodded and left the room without announcing me, a signal to wait quietly.

I bowed my head as well, honored to share a moment of silence with the prophet. But I was too excited to pray, so I looked around as discreetly as I could. President Kimball’s large office featured plush burgundy carpeting and matching velvet drapes, heavy and tied back with thick cords like the curtains in old theaters. On two walls were bookshelves filled with hardback books, some in sets. I couldn’t see many titles but assumed they were religious and reference works. Though I saw no photos or knick-knacks, there was a painting on one wall, a half-figure of Jesus Christ standing against a smoky sky in pale, voluminous robes. The messiah was handsome, brown-haired and brown-bearded with a bright, uneven halo like an explosion behind his head. He regarded the viewer with a frank, appraising look, his brown eyes large under dark brows. The sides of his mouth disappeared into his moustache, so his expression was hard to read and seemed to change as I stared at the painting. Right now, it looked encouraging.

I took in President Kimball’s appearance with quick, furtive glances. He looked like he did on television, only smaller: bald, jug-eared, and bespectacled. Stray wisps of white hair refused the discipline of the comb, and something about the structure of his face made his glasses appear crooked even though they weren’t. In other words, he was goofy-looking, which made him even more impressive to me, like a man with so much power he had no need for physical size or strength or symmetry. In later years, many people would remark that President Kimball looked like Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, spawning a rumor that he had been the model for the green Jedi master despite emphatic denials by the puppet’s designer. At the time, though, I was aware only of how astonishing it was to be standing in the great man’s presence as he prayed. A moment later, he stood to greet me.

“Welcome, Sister Lee,” he said in a soft raspy voice, the result of surgery on his larynx fourteen years earlier. Coming around his desk, he clasped my hand between his two hands, which felt wonderfully warm and soft. I rejoiced at his touch and his words of welcome. After some polite inquiries about my health and my family’s health, he sat me in a straight-backed chair and, from behind his desk, began to question me about my relationship to the church, beginning with my Pioneer ancestors and continuing step by step from the time I entered Primary as a three-year-old Sunbeam through my last successful bishop’s interview at sixteen. Satisfied that I was a pedigreed Mormon, though he undoubtedly had known that already, he moved on to the reason for our meeting.

“Sister Lee, you are a young person in a hazardous situation, and you must tell me about it, tell me everything.” As he spoke, I felt a rush of relief at the prospect of completely unburdening myself followed by a rush of shame about how much I had to confess. Did President Kimball have the time I would need to tell him everything? Would he reach a point where his ears became so choked with my sins that he’d order me to stop speaking? Would I be overcome by shame and become unable to speak? I took a leap of faith, resolving to do what he asked, no matter how terrible it was. I started with a relatively recent vice.

“Since I got to college, ” I began, but he held up his hand to stop me.

“You should kneel,” he said, so I stood to do so, unsure whether I should face his desk or another direction. He pointed left, so I knelt facing the painting of Jesus.

“Since I got to college,” I resumed, “I’ve been using a lot of speed, uh, amphetamines, and—” Again, his hand went up, accompanied by a small frown.

“No,” he said, “not that.” I was taken aback: was he shocked already? Mormons were supposed to avoid coffee and tea, and there I was, talking about illegal drugs!

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Um . . . where should I start?”

“Your most serious sins, sins against the Law of Chastity. Tell me about the first time you engaged in petting. Who was the boy? Where were the two of you? How did it begin?” I felt myself blush, partly because I had so much sexual sin to report and partly because I wasn’t entirely sure what petting was. I had once been teased for thinking it was stroking someone like a dog, so I knew it was more sexual, but I had no idea what counted as petting and what didn’t. I knew the base system, though, like every American teenager, so I chose second base as the threshold of petting.

“The boy was named Carl,” I said and so began to tell the story of my teenage sexual encounters. When I faltered, which was often, President Kimball prompted me with a question such as “What happened next?” or “And what did you do then?” He was not satisfied with general statements or summaries; he wanted specifics, not just a reporter’s “who, what, where, when, and how” but the kind of detail you see in a novel. What was I wearing? What were my exact words? What did a particular touch feel like? As I divulged these intimate details, President Kimball showed little reaction, sitting very still and repeating his questions in his quiet rasp while making an occasional note on a legal pad. For me, the experience of working my way through every sexual encounter I could recall was excruciating, like building a giant pyramid with blocks of my own flesh. As the afternoon wore on, my knees ached, my thighs cramped, my stomach soured, and my head hung down so far that my neck hurt for days afterward. But I resisted the urge to omit or summarize, reminding myself that what I did not confess, fully and freely, President Kimball could not forgive.

Eventually, the ache in my knees turned to burning, as though the carpet were covered in lye. I noticed it just as my recollections reached the recent past, when I had inexplicably said yes to a stranger who leaned out of a car window and said, “Hey, babe, wanna go to a party?” I described every detail of the encounter, with President Kimball prompting me as he had all along, asking over and over who had done what to whom. He never asked why I got into the car of an unknown man ten years older than I was–or why I did any of the things I had described to him in such detail. In every case, he wanted to know only what I had done, not why I had done it, which I assumed was because the what is the part that needs to be forgiven.

When I finished my confession, I lifted my head and looked around, rubbing my sore neck. From the light, I guessed it was mid-afternoon. Watched by the portrait of Jesus, who now looked gravely disappointed, I saw President Kimball make a final note then leaf back through the other notes he had taken.

“Satan rages in your heart, Sister Lee,” he said finally. “Many people say Satan is a myth—I expect you have heard as much at your university—but he is terrifyingly real, and the sins you have just confessed to me prove it. Satan works tirelessly to ensnare you in filth because he wants you for his kingdom as ardently as our Heavenly Father wants you for His. Tell me, Sister Lee, when was the last time you felt the Holy Spirit move in your heart?”

“I’ve . . . never . . . felt that,” I said in a whisper.

“Because Satan fills your heart with evil, driving out the good. No doubt he gained a foothold long before your petting session with”—President Kimball flipped through his notes— “Carl.” He paused again, looking intently at me. “I see a rebellious spirit in you, Sister Lee, a proud, rebellious spirit.” Wordlessly I nodded, staring at my knees on the maroon rug. “You are here, not because you love God and want to keep his commandments, but because you can no longer bear the suffering caused by your sins.” I nodded again, wishing I could dissolve and soak into the rug. “But it doesn’t matter what brought you here,” said the prophet more gently, “as long as you are truly repentant and prepared for the hard work of earning God’s forgiveness.”

“Oh I am!” I exclaimed. President Kimball responded by explaining that repentance was a gift and a blessing and the only way to a happy life, as long as it was true repentance. He asked me some questions about how bad I felt about my sins and seemed pleased by the guilt, shame, and extreme self-loathing I reported, regarding them as signs that I recognized the enormity of my sins and genuinely repented them.

“Then why have I always felt just as bad?” I asked, “Even when I was a little kid, and my worst sin was dawdling in front of a store window?” President Kimball waved away the question, asserting that feelings of guilt, shame, and extreme self-loathing were evidence of sin. In his words I heard an echo of the backward causality to which my parents subscribed: I was punished; therefore I was guilty. A seed of doubt in the prophet’s great wisdom began to swell, but I crushed it before it could germinate. President Kimball would deliver me from evil if I trusted him as the voice of my Heavenly Father. Doubt was one of Satan’s tactics, mean to ensnare me just as I was about to be reconciled with God and his church. Doubt was my rebellious spirit rebelling yet again, and, this time, I would not let Satan win!

“Sister Lee?” I heard President Kimball say. I realized my mind had wandered.

“I’m sorry,” I replied. I—”

“Don’t apologize,” he said. “My voice is hard to hear, I know.” He cleared his throat and leaned forward. “Sister Lee, I asked why you do not weep for your sins.”

My heart soared at the question. Finally, I thought, a chance to tell the other part of my story! Finally, a chance to tell President Kimball about the pain I had suffered as a child, to make him understand that I had lost my tears, lost myself somewhere in that pain. Looking up at the portrait of Jesus, whose large brown eyes now seemed sympathetic, I told the prophet about the day my father beat me so brutally that I resolved never to cry again.[3] He listened as impassively as ever and made a couple of notes while I waited for his response. And waited. He sat silently for so long that I began to wonder if he was consulting God about how best to respond to my suffering.

“There are many ways to rationalize and excuse our sinful habits,” he said finally. “Many blame their parents, especially nowadays and especially in secular environments such as your university. But blaming others for our sins is a sign that we are not truly repentant.” He paused for a moment to let his message register, watching my head sink back down until my chin was on my chest again. “Sister Lee,” he continued, “your life is your own to develop or destroy. You alone chose to renounce the gift of tears, which is essential for repentance, and we can go no further until you choose to reclaim that gift. Go now, and come back when you can truly weep for your sins.” Stunned, I struggled to my feet and left without a word, walking obliviously through the city in the growing dusk until I reached my rooming house. There, I crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head.

A week later, I was back on my knees in front of President Kimball, wearing a long velveteen skirt, two slips, and thick knee socks to insulate my flesh from the maroon carpet. Distraught after our last meeting, I had called Jenny, who explained to me that the prophet looked for signs of repentance beyond words of sorrow and remorse. She also explained that he had no patience with excuses of any kind, citing one of his favorite lines from the Book of Mormon.

“‘Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins,'” she quoted. “President Kimball takes those words literally, and he expects you to take them literally too if you hope for forgiveness.” I repeated the words then copied them onto an index card, which I taped over my desk, vowing not to offer President Kimball any more excuses or explanations.

At our second meeting, the prophet received me as warmly as before. To my surprise, he asked me to repeat the exercise of recalling and describing my sexual transgressions one by one. I saw the value of the repetition, however, when I found myself remembering additional details and even additional episodes. As I spoke, I made sure to express my remorse non-verbally, even though it took some effort because, over the years, I had trained myself well to conceal feelings of sadness and shame. When I saw my tears winning President Kimball’s approval, I summoned more tears by remembering how I felt the previous week when I thought I had lost my last chance at forgiveness. And I brought to mind other losses, especially my beloved grandfather Bevan, who had died less than two years earlier. With a large handkerchief clutched in my hand and my hair left loose so it fell into my eyes, I made myself a spectacle of grief to convince President Kimball that I felt genuine anguish about my sins. I did feel genuine anguish, more than he could imagine; I was simply exaggerating its outward signs. But I must have done a good job because the prophet smiled when I finished speaking.

“You have a broken heart and a contrite spirit,” he said, with a satisfied half-smile. “The recognition of sin is a bitter and exquisite torment, a necessary torment without which you cannot be forgiven. But the recognition of sin is only a first step. True repentance means getting rid of sin completely, now and for the rest of your life.” He laid out a program of prayer, fasting, church attendance, socializing with active Latter-day Saints, scripture study, tithing, and, most importantly, avoiding occasions of sin. No dates, no parties, no men at all until I was firmly on the path of perfection and ready to look for an eternal husband. It was a tall order, but no sacrifice or effort would be too great if it relieved me of my terrible shame.

“All right,” I said. “I’ll try.” My response made him frown.

“Trying is not enough,” he said, shaking his forefinger at me. “You must do it.”

“Then I’ll do it.”

“Promise me,” he demanded. “Promise me that you’ll never sin against chastity again.”

“You want me to swear that, for the rest of my life, I won’t let myself be touched by a man who is not my eternal husband,” I said slowly. I thought about all the boys and men I had known and all the men I had yet to know, thought about them, not with desire but with the knowledge of their desire, which seemed vast and overwhelming. I was young, pretty, and, like many survivors of sexual abuse, not yet aware I could say “no” to someone who wanted me. How could I possibly promise to fend off every ardent man coming my way for the rest of my life? I began to weep again at the impossibility of what President Kimball was asking.

“How can I promise you I’ll never sin, not even once?” I cried.

“As I said, you just do it,” he replied calmly. “Then you keep that promise. You meet the requirements I described, keep the commandments, live an exemplary life. And, at some point, months or years or centuries from now, you’ll receive positive assurance that the Lord has forgiven you. That is my guarantee.” The room fell silent. In anguish, I shifted from knee to knee; then I tried to stand up but struggled because my legs were half asleep from kneeling so long. As I slowly rose, I looked at the portrait of Jesus, who now looked like he was waiting for me to speak, then I turned toward President Kimball in his chair.

“I don’t think I can make such a promise,” I said, my voice shaking.

“We’ll talk again next week,” he replied then stood as I left the room.

Two more times, we repeated the same program: a couple of hours dedicated to my sexual transgressions and my “bitter and exquisite torment” at the depravity of those transgressions. President Kimball didn’t just want the salacious details of my offenses against chastity, and he didn’t just want evidence that I felt extreme remorse. He wanted both together, sex-as-sin and sin-as-sex. And his hunger for that combination was palpable.

At the end of each meeting, the prophet pressed me to promise I would sin no more. Each time, his tone of voice and his language grew more exasperated, as I were refusing a simple request out of pure stubbornness. He didn’t seem to understand that I wanted to make the promise he asked for. I wanted to sin no more, and, in fact, I intended to sin no more. But I had spent most of my life wanting, intending, and trying my hardest not to sin, yet somehow I always managed to sin anyway because of the darkness I carried inside, a darkness I could neither understand nor alter. How could I, in good faith, promise not to do something that I would inevitably do unless Heavenly Father somehow lifted that darkness and allowed me to start fresh? Yet Heavenly Father would not lift the darkness and allow me to start fresh until I had lived sinless for months, years, or even centuries. I was in a classic catch-22: I must be forgiven to live sinless, and I must live sinless to be forgiven. I felt completely trapped and more hopeless than ever before.

At the end of my last meeting with President Kimball, I stood up before my feet fell asleep and told the prophet that I could not make the promise he requested, nor would I ever be able to make it in good faith.

“Then you deny yourself the forgiveness of the Lord and the forgiveness of the Lord’s church,” he replied, rising to his feet as well. “You’re making a decision of great consequence, Sister Lee. Don’t make it lightly.”

“It’s no decision at all,” I sighed. “I can’t make a promise I might unintentionally break.” President Kimball took a deep breath as though he were about to deliver a short speech then exhaled audibly and simply nodded. Picking up my purse from the floor, I walked out of the room, watched by the prophet and by the portrait of Jesus behind him. The prophet kept his face impassive, as usual, but the painted Jesus looked sad, and for the first time I noticed that the hand he hugged to his chest had two fingers almost raised, as though, behind president Kimball’s back, he was trying his best to bless me.

My interviews with President Kimball started the process that would end with my leaving the Mormon church—my apostasy, in LDS language. I’d love to tell you that, as I walked away from Temple Square, the scales began to fall from my eyes and the heavy burden of sin I had carried since childhood began to lighten as I contemplated the monstrous injustice of blaming abuse on the victim. Hell, I’d love to tell you that even a single brain cell was whispering “There’s something wrong here, “but, no, all the wrong remained with me, only now I knew it always would, not just for the rest of my life, but for all eternity. I would need another eight years—of using drugs, of being used for sex, of orchestrating chaos, of betraying myself and others, of attempting suicide—before I was able to see myself as a survivor of childhood abuse, and I would need an additional two years before I could see how the Mormon church had both fostered and compounded that abuse.

There is an odd postscript to this story. Though my interviews with President Kimball began to separate me from the Mormon church, the prophet remained interested in me for the rest of his life, regularly calling my mother to ask how I was doing. With no small irony, his interest raised my status among devout Mormons, especially once he ascended to the First Presidency. No one was more impressed than my mother, who hadn’t even believed me when I first told her about the interviews. Once she started fielding calls from the prophet’s office, however, she broadcast my personal relationship with the great man so that everyone in town knew about it. Over the coming years, that relationship would initially help my reputation among the Mormons of my home town then, once I became an apostate, blacken it beyond recognition.

[1] I’ve said it before, but let me say it again: there’s also much to admire in LDS culture, starting with strong family and community bonds, which both the book and the series treat with great respect.

[2] Mormons claim that no one who is truly worthy will be denied the celestial kingdom because they weren’t married in the temple. That doesn’t mean they’ll be admitted as single people; it means they’ll be offered a posthumous temple marriage (marriage by proxy, which their spirit-selves can accept or refuse). LDS officials struggle to explain why single people are denied exaltation when Paul praises the unmarried state in 1 Corinthians 7 and when Jesus himself said in Matthew 22, “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” But, whenever there’s a conflict between scripture and a church leader’s “revelation,” scripture is tortured until it supports the church leader.

[3] I tell this story in Chapter 1 of Iron Legacy.

3 Replies to “A Bitter Forgiveness”

  1. Feeling very privileged to read this Donna; what an odyssey. Feeling very proud of you too, and kindred. When it comes to promises, we know in our hearts the ones we are capable of keeping, and the ones we dare not make. Your character and humilty carried day in the presence of that authority figure, where I have no doubt many would have acquiesced. Even with the pledged help and support of the highest of the high, you were still able to conclude that there was no there there, and took your leave. A courageous decision. From there, you’ve parlayed your personal experience to help others make sense of what brutality their lives may have seen, illuminating a path to whatever peace we can eek out as humans. I appreciate your service, and the many successes from it, including my own.

  2. “. I was in a classic catch-22: I must be forgiven to live sinless, and I must live sinless to be forgiven. I felt completely trapped and more hopeless than ever before”.

    I’ve never read an account that validates my own experience. I too nearly ended my life several times after a bishop made it his quest (Using the Miracle of Forgiveness) to “heal” me of having any sexual thoughts. Period. Multi hour sessions each week for six full months- and I was just a virgin who’d never even known her own anatomy! He wouldn’t let me serve a mission until I could say those thoughts had stopped.

    He only gave in to my begging to go once I promised to always confess my thoughts to a priesthood leader but the situation repeated in the MTC with another old man asking the same questions. I couldn’t bear telling a third man (mission pres) once I got to the field so I came home. The stress of it all induced night time seizures at the MTC and night terrors, for which I was given more priesthood blessings and prescribed a specific order of prayer to “request the presence” of my ancestors and visualize them surrounding my bed at night to keep Satan’s angels away. I’d never had seizures in my life.

    And it it was the same, grueling detailed questions about my fantasies and what I was wearing and my body. I was 23 and from the onset he made me believe I was no longer worthy of the spirit so I had to rely on him (the bishop).

    LDS family services accused me of scrupulosity but I wasn’t the one who came to confess anything to him, I just wanted to serve a mission and wasn’t aware I had sinned. They then said that he was in treatment with them and to forgive and forget.

    I recognize now the culpability of my parents and never wanted to blame them. But never allowing me to know my anatomy, sex education, and revering priesthood holders as infallible set me up.

    Can I ask how you made it through? It was seven years ago for me and therapy, leaving the church, etc still hasn’t helped. I’ve almost lost my marriage and my life and don’t know what is left I can do? I shut my brain and body down so completely to sex. I’ve got so little hope left.

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