In college, I had been powerfully persuaded to join a sorority, and couldn’t understand why they would want me. Eventually, I’d joined, then de-activated, and felt lost my sophomore year.
On a spiritual quest, I attended a Christian gathering and was astounded to learn that Jesus, icon of mainstream America, had spoken against doctrinarism, materialism, sexism, racism, violence, and had thrown over the money changers’ tables. Even though the words embarrassed me, I “gave my heart” to him – in secret. I didn’t like to make a scene.
Then I dropped out of college, and hitchhiked across the country with the first man I found who thought it was a good idea. I felt I had to “get away.”
When our money was gone, in Bradenton, Florida, I took a job at McDonalds, and my boyfriend went to work at the Tropicana juice factory. Terrifically depressed, at home alone one day with no one but the roaches and TV for company, I knelt before a chair and prayed for direction, promising God that whatever He said, whether I liked it or not, I would do it, if only I had direction. I’d only expected a vague notion, but to my great surprise, an oval light appeared in the room, and I heard a voice say That’s it – and I understood that “it,” my promise to follow Guidance, was key.
Having seen very few independent women in my life, I didn’t know how to follow anyone but a man, and would find God hard to hear. Afraid to be alone, I married the boy-man with whom I was living and traveling, and we eventually moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to be somewhat near my parents.
The night before my son’s birth, I felt his spirit come into me, a beautiful light exploding with gentle sparks of fine gold. My mother was visiting and, when I told her, she insisted we go to the hospital. We did and, even though I told the doctors the feeling was wonderful, they sent me home with antacid.
The birth was nearly a death for both of us, thanks to the doctor who induced my labor. I was not as far along in my pregnancy as the doctors had thought, so my pelvic bones had not loosened, and my baby became stuck. Thinking they were going to lose us, they used a vacuum extractor to pull him through. I as unable to ask questions because of the mask pumping drugs into me, so was left to my own conclusions: I’d heard that vacuum extractors were used for abortions. I was shocked when they showed me a living baby, though he was in a coma for thirty minutes.
On a trip to Ohio, when Michael was six months old and sitting on my lap, my husband drove very slowly in an icy blizzard with two lanes of traffic crawling and stopping. Once, after sitting in another vehicle’s exhaust, I asked him next time to stop farther back. Irritated at being told how to drive, he stopped fifty yards back, and smirked. We were both astounded when, seconds later, a speeding, out-of-control tractor-trailer rig used that space to pull in front of us and exit the highway, where otherwise there’d have been a massive death scene.
My husband announced one day that he felt called to the ministry. First shocked, I was later embarrassed to find myself in the role of a minister’s wife. I still loved the “counter culture” and believed that Jesus came to show us how to not be “of this world,” so I was delighted we had found the “hippie church” in downtown Phoenix. I didn’t want to create our own church, but my husband never asked me.
While playing my role on Sundays, during the week I suffered from nightmares of forgetting my baby in bizarre places and other events even more upsetting. When Mormon missionaries came to the door, I decided to invite them in to converse, and soon had nightmares about them.
Within the year, I was able to quit playing “minister’s wife,” as my husband felt called to seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky.
There, my husband found us a job as house parents at Spring Meadows Children’s Home. While he spent long days at school, I stayed home with our two children, one- and two-years old, and six to eight teenage girls with a variety of emotional issues. “We” were on duty six days a week, twenty-four hours a day, but it was mostly my work.
One afternoon, working with the girls in the kitchen, I suddenly felt called to find Michael, and walked immediately to a chair in an unused room of the 4,000-square-foot house, and found him choking on a marble. Without thinking, I swung my arm gently and connected with the center of his back. A marble popped out, and he looked up, unconcerned, so I figured he’d just begun to choke and hadn’t had time to become afraid.
In Louisville, we discovered a “radical Christian” Church (a common term in the seventies), where the congregation welcomed gays and lesbians, and recycled, ate healthy food, and marched for peace. Friendships had been rare for me, as I’d allowed myself to become isolated in the housewife role, so these relationships were nourishing and important. At a Halloween party, a man asked me to paint a tree on his forehead, and I did, adding the roots beneath the tree, so it formed a beautiful circular design – and I felt part of something absolutely sacred.
“We” should never have been given that houseparent job, which turned into my job – six days a week, twenty-four hours a day, with two children of my own to care for. Within three months, I was a nervous wreck. After two girls climbed out a window one night during a snow storm, intending to run away, I began having nightmares and woke up one night dry-retching. Thankfully, the girls had been brought back by the police, very cold, but safe. I understood their frustrations and desire to be “away,” maybe get married and thereby become free of the orphanage system. They needed so much more than the system or I could ever give them.
As soon as my husband finished his first year, he quit seminary, blaming me for lack of support. Interested in “intentional community,” we followed some other Christian friends to the Catholic ecumenical community called New Jerusalem, in Saint Bernard’s Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. There I started a Third World craft market at Christmastime and a year-round children’s clothing exchange open to the neighboring, more economically-oppressed Parish.
I discovered a community of peace activists, with whom I once leafleted outside Senator Neil Armstrong’s office. A man, looking very much like the Monopoly banker, refused my leaflet and asked me with a sneer and strong stare, “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
At first I was shocked, but after pondering his response to my anti-nuclear material, I decided I understood: he believed the television – it wasn’t his fault. And with that was born a vision: One day, if I were lucky, I’d work to put a different sort of programming on TV.
A local peace group invited me to help organize a five-state peace conference. Others had planned conferences before and directed my work, but I managed the promotions, poster and mailing design, and registration. I worked enthusiastically, and the keynote speaker Sidney Lens said it was “the best organized conference” he’d ever been to. Thrilled at the peace-dove pin I was given when it was over, I thought it a wonderful possibility that I might make activism my career.
Eventually we moved back to Arizona, and my husband found a church he liked, though I absolutely did not. The people refused to discuss things like nuclear power, ethical investments, or Jesus’ teachings on materialism, racism or sexism. I attempted to converse on these subjects occasionally, politely, of course, but was told that everyone thought I was making trouble. Unfortunately, these were my only acquaintances when I decided I needed to divorce my husband.
When he told everyone that the divorce was my idea, the entire church quit speaking to me, though I’d also quit attending. Soon he told me (truthfully or not, I don’t know) that a number of people were willing to testify in court that he was the better parent, and he said that the most dominant member of the church – who happened to be my doctor – would testify that I was schizophrenic! He was demanding full custody of our children. I had imagined getting a small rental in town and us sharing custody in a kind and equitable manner.
Maybe the doctor hadn’t really said that. I’d never been diagnosed with anything worse than depression. My husband’s mother, on the other hand, had been hospitalized at least twice, he’d told me, for some indeterminate mental illness. I’d later learn that this is called “projection,” to accuse another of what you fear in yourself.
But I was alone, young, emotionally abused for nearly a decade, physically abused twice (but had forgiven him), and lacking any experience in standing up for myself. I chose not to defend my sanity in court, worrying thatthose church members might actually intend to lie about me. And their testimony might be believed and recorded in legal judgments.
I might have gone to my family for financial help to actually defend my situation, but they thought I should stay married. As my father put it, “You make your bed, you lie in it.”
My husband had promised to return joint custody to me after I’d gotten a college degree and could support myself. So I bent to the manipulations, and gave him full custody of our children. I would seethe at Christians for decades after that, and wrote off God and Jesus for a long while too.
After six months without my kids, I woke up as if from a stupor and realized the enormity of what I’d done. When I asked my ex for mediation counseling to discuss what would be best for the children, he agreed to attend, then cancelled appointment after appointment until one day I slammed the phone into the wall and screamed as I’d never screamed before or since that I would sue him. He promptly left the state.
I talked to a half-dozen lawyers and learned the hard truth about suing across state lines for custodial rights if you aren’t the one in possession. I could have followed them, but he threatened to flee the country with our children if I tried to follow. “I’ll go to Ohio – or New Zealand,” he said, “and you’ll never see them again.”
I moved to Tucson, and missed two precious years of my babies’ young childhood, and they missed me, as my husband left them with whatever woman was willing to care for them while he went to school, and at least one who only did because someone had to – she called me and told me.