book reviews, LDS, religion

Repost: A review of Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary by Jacob Young…

Here’s another repost of a book review I wrote for my original Blogspot blog. This one was posted October 6, 2013, and reappears here as/is.

 I just finished Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary, an interesting book written by returned Mormon missionary Jacob Young, who spent two years serving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Russia.  Young was a missionary at the tail end of the 1990s.  I was especially interested in reading about his experience because I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia in the mid 1990s.  Although Russia and Armenia are different places, they were both once part of the Soviet Union.  In the 1990s, there were still some things going on in both countries that made the experiences of living there somewhat similar.

Young’s job as a Mormon missionary was to convince Russians to join the LDS church.  Given the culture in Russia– especially given that during Soviet times, religion was pretty much discouraged or even outlawed– being a missionary in Russia must have been tough.  Russians are notoriously fond of tea, alcohol (especially vodka), and cigarettes.  Convincing locals to give up these things so that they could be Mormons must have been very difficult.  And Young does confess that he and his ever changing companions did have challenges in getting potential converts past the first discussions, even if they managed those.  However, I was surprised to read that Young was a reasonably effective missionary who did baptize a number of people, a few of whom stuck with the church.

Despite his successes, Young suffered through some annoying and eccentric companions.  He had one companion who sang and hummed incessantly, annoying Young to no end.  He had another who would use a mirror to spy on Young when he used the toilet, checking to make sure he didn’t masturbate during the few minutes he was alone.  The companion would aim the mirror at a small, high window in the bathroom.  Having lived in Armenia, I am very familiar with the type of window Young writes of.  My first apartment in Yerevan had one.  Since missionaries are supposed to be with their companions at all times, dealing with the very hard core ones was a real challenge for Young.

Young also suffered a crisis of faith.  He writes of missing music that wasn’t church approved, reading books that weren’t religious in nature, and not having to spend all his time knocking on doors, pestering people who weren’t interested in Mormonism.   Young wrote to his parents about his sliding faith and talked to his mission president, who seemed to be a good guy.  He also confesses to “cheating” on a few rules.

As I finished reading this book, I wondered where Young stands on Mormonism today.  I got the sense that he might have left the church or at least gone inactive.  I did not get the impression that he got a big sense that Mormonism is “true”.  He does, however, concede that while the mission was not really the best two years of his life, he did gain a lot from the experience.  Having had my own tough trials over the 27 months I spent in Armenia, I could definitely relate to that sentiment.  There were many days when I wanted to escape Armenia… and I didn’t even have to deal with the constraints that Mormon missionaries have to deal with.  I lived alone for most of my time as a Volunteer and could drink all the liquor, coffee, and tea I wanted.  If I had wanted to smoke, I was welcome to do that, too.  Masturbation was also not forbidden to me and I was allowed to dress pretty much as I saw fit.  Armenia in the 90s was just a tough place to be, though; and I think Young’s time in Russia was similarly difficult.

And yet, there’s not a day that passes that I don’t think of those days in Armenia.  They changed my life.  I came away from the experience with more than I put into it.  While Young may not have appreciated the job he was there to do, he does write about all the things he did take from his mission experience.  He apparently became quite proficient in Russian and was able to read, write, and speak it.  While I was able to speak and understand passable Armenian (smattered with a few Russian words), I could never write it and reading it was always a painfully slow exercise.  There were times when it was actually easier for me to read Russian, which is a language I have never formally studied but sort of rubbed off on me.

I admire Jacob Young’s writing, which is personal, confessional, and very fluent.  His book does have a few comic moments, but it’s mostly very introspective and revealing.  Young puts a human face on Mormon missionaries, who probably aren’t looked at as humans by the masses trying to avoid being hooked into a conversation with them.  Young concedes that he didn’t enjoy pestering people for the Mormon church, even though there were a few people who joined the LDS church and appreciated it.  Young admits that as a missionary, he pressured people who weren’t sure.  He and his companions targeted people who were lonely and vulnerable.  He baptized married women, even if their spouses didn’t want to join the church.  He sowed dissension within families when he baptized single people whose families weren’t interested in being LDS.  There were also times when he was “schooled” by Russians who had spent a couple of hours on the Internet and learned more about Joseph Smith than he knew, just by reading sites that weren’t “church approved”.  Young admits he was embarrassed when a Russian told him about Joseph Smith’s habit of bedding and marrying teenagers and women who already had husbands. 

I am impressed that Young realizes and admits to doing these things in the name of scoring more baptisms and being a more successful missionary.  I am especially impressed that he realizes that doing these things may have caused problems for the converts.

I don’t know what Elder Jacob Young is up to now, but I did really like his book, Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary.  I would certainly recommend it.  Four and a half stars from me…

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book reviews, LDS, religion, sex

Repost: A review of Happiest Misery: My Life As A Mormon by Jared Lonergan

In light of Mormon sex therapist Natasha Helfer’s excommunication, I’m going to repost a couple of relevant book reviews. Keep in mind, they are unedited and posted as/is. This first one was posted on the Blogspot version of The Overeducated Housewife on September 7, 2014.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been keeping myself occupied with reading, playing computer games, watching re-runs on iTunes, drinking beer and listening to music.  After I finished reading about Betty Broderick, I decided I needed to read something that wasn’t true crime.  Some time ago, I downloaded Jared Lonergan’s book, Happiest Misery: My Life As A Mormon (2013).  I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading this book, especially since I love “exmo lit”.  But now I have read it and overall, I thought it was good reading, though perhaps a bit unconventional.

Jared Lonergan is a talented writer and I was definitely interested as he described being raised LDS in Kansas and Chicago.  As Lonergan explains, it’s not so common to be Mormon in those places.  Like many faithful Mormons, he was very much involved in his faith and did his best to follow its many rules.  One of the many rules of Mormonism is that sex before marriage is prohibited.  So is masturbation.  For Jared, these rules turned out to be very difficult to follow.

Jared starts his story as a nine year old youngster, noticing the pretty women in the church.  One of his older friends goads him into telling an older girl how “hot” she is in a rather vulgar way.  He gets away with it because he’s so much younger and cute.  It seems to ignite a sexual obsession within him; but then, Jared is obsessive about a lot of things, like weight and physical attractiveness, his own and that of other people.

Most of this book consists of an almost obsessive, stream of consciousness-like spew of Jared’s thoughts.  As someone who has studied a lot of psychology, I found Jared’s thoughts very interesting. He’s always thinking about sex, but he knows he’s not supposed to indulge.  So he tries to distract himself or shame himself into thinking about other things.  He doesn’t use a lot of official swear words– only occasionally does he slip up and utter the word “fuck”, for instance.  Instead, he uses the Mormon equivalents to swear words like “fetch” and “frick” and “crap”.  I’ve always found it amusing that some folks think it’s better to say “fetch” rather than “fuck”.  The intent is the same; it’s only the letters that are different.  But Jared dutifully avoids officially swearing, just like he avoids sex and other “sinful” behaviors to the point of driving himself mad.

Jared also has an eating disorder.  He is obsessive about food, his weight, and exercise.  He gains and loses weight, especially on his mission to Bordeaux, France.  He describes his mission as a terrible time in his life and spends the whole time obsessing over the girlfriend he left behind, Annie.  Annie is also Mormon and has dreams of a temple marriage and perfect family life.  Jared wants to give her that, but he has trouble fitting into the Mormon mold.  That inability to conform causes him heartbreak, although maybe in the long run, not conforming was for the best.

Jared’s parents were Mormon converts and they joined the church before Jared was born.  He explains that a couple of missionaries came over one day and impressed them by being respectful and upstanding.  According to Jared’s parents, he wouldn’t have been born had it not been for the Mormon missionaries, who impressed them by convincing them how important family is.  Three brothers followed Jared’s entrance into the world.  Perhaps because his parents were converts, Jared’s upbringing seemed to be a mixture of hardline conformity to Mormon ideals and familiarity with life outside of Mormonism.  Jared writes about his brother, Aaron, who requires multiple brain surgeries.  Mormonism probably helped his family cope, since the church believes that families can be together forever… as long as everyone pays, prays, and obeys, that is.  And Jared does his best not to disappoint.   

As I read this book, it occurred to me how utterly distressing, frustrating, and impossible it must have been for Jared trying to grow up in the church.  He’s obsessive, sexually frustrated, and seems terrified of doing something that will get him sent to the wrong echelon of Mormon Heaven (which frankly, to me, sounds like a really boring place).  He tries to act and look the part of the perfect Mormon, but no one is perfect and some people are less perfect than others.  So on top of trying to come of age and mature into a healthy adult, Jared is trying and failing to become the perfect Mormon male.  He doesn’t measure up and it leads to depression and rejection, since other people expect him to be who he’s not. 

Parts of this book were annoying to read.  For instance, Jared doesn’t like fat or ugly people and he liberally insults them.  But then he turns around and acknowledges his own shortcomings and his inability to be perfect is a kind of torture for him.  It ends up being poignant and kind of tragic.  At one point, he visits a doctor who tells him he needs to masturbate because his prostate is enlarged and causing him pain.  But Jared can’t do that because it’s “wrong”, according to his faith.

Parts of this book are kind of funny, too.  I thought Jared’s overuse of “swear words” like “fetch” and “crap” were humorous, if only because to a non-Mormon, they just sound silly.  I mean, in most ways, Jared is a normal, red-blooded teen with hormones running through his body and sex on the brain.  But he has to substitute the word “fetch” for “fuck”.  So when he has a “nightmare” about almost indulging in lustful sex with a supermodel, he says “Fetch off!” and “Fetchin’ hell”…  and it seems ridiculous.

I thought Jared’s thoughts on his missionary experience were interesting, too.  It seems like being a missionary might have opened his eyes a bit about how others see the church.  He also had his eyes opened about some of the church leaders, recognizing that they were really just men. 

Overall, I liked Happiest Misery, though I thought the ending was a bit abrupt.  I’m not sure how Jared feels about the church now.  I got the feeling he had turned into an exmo, but I’m not really certain about that.  I do think it’s a fascinating look into the psyche of a young man growing up Mormon, especially since I suspect Jared may have had something else going on mentally besides simple growing pains.  I recommend it.

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homosexuality, LDS, mental health

I hope the first thing she did was ditch the underwear…

Last night, I read the news that noted Mormon sex therapist, 49 year old Natasha Helfer, was excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Helfer is the latest person to challenge some of the LDS church’s more toxic beliefs. Typically, when someone does that, especially when the someone is a female, the church responds by holding a “court of love” and kicking them out. I wonder if excommunicated members get an insulting pamphlet inviting them to come back, like my husband did when he resigned his church membership.

Helfer has said that she thinks the LDS church is targeting the mental health profession, while church officials claim that she was disciplined for her public opposition to the church’s teachings. I suspect that church officials aren’t too pleased that Helfer, who is an attractive and intelligent woman with a powerful voice, is leading members away from the counsel of the old white dudes who have been running the church since its inception. That, and Helfer obviously knows a little something about clubbing, as she said “It was so ridiculous. I was treated like I was at a club with a bouncer in it.” Helfer said that when they didn’t let her into the council with her phone, “I did not plead or beg.” It wouldn’t surprise me if her lack of pleading and begging was also offensive. Evidently, church Helfer signed an agreement that she wouldn’t record the proceedings. Church officials asked her to turn off her phone. Since she had prepared her notes on the phone, Helfer declined to turn it off and left.

While I do have a basic understanding of how important religious beliefs can be to people, I also think that Helfer is probably much too good for the LDS church and she’s better off without being constrained by church leadership. I’m sure it was painful on some level for Helfer to be excommunicated, particularly since it was such a public decision. However, I also believe that now she has the freedom she needs to be completely open and honest. It’s like her eyes have been opened to the truth. And now, she can open other people’s eyes.

According to The Washington Post, Helfer ran into issues with church officials when she started saying such horrifying things like masturbation is not a sin, pornography should not be treated as an addiction, and same-sex marriage should be supported. Church stake president, Stephen Daley, who is also Helfer’s husband’s former boss, sent Helfer a nastygram about how “negative” Helfer’s posts were toward the church and its leaders. However, Helfer’s positions are in line with what licensed mental health professionals promote. So… it sounds as if Helfer chose to be a good sex therapist rather than a good (and obedient) Mormon woman.

Helfer specifically posted on her personal Facebook account and podcast comment sections, “The last thing I want for my people is to replace one patriarchal prick for another. You can quote me on that one. Beware of any person/organization/system that assumes they know better than you about what you need.”

Daley took note of that comment and its “colorful” qualities when he chastised Helfer. To her credit, Helfer’s response was, “When will they stop calling homosexual people degenerate and perverse and unholy? They’re upset that I called them patriarchal pricks. If they want me to stop saying bad words, they need to stop calling other people bad words.”

Helfer, and other progressive Mormon therapists, noted that many of her clients were left damaged by things they heard said from the pulpit, and they are left to “pick up the pieces” when members with sexual issues that go against the church’s teachings come to them for help. And Mormons, who mostly seem to support science and research efforts, are much less progressive when it comes to issues like sexuality. Below is a video I have shared many times in my blogs about Mormonism and why I think it’s so fucked up. Here’s a reminder for those who haven’t seen it or need to refresh their memories.

This video was made in November 2003 in the Toulouse, France, mission. He touches on masturbation and pornography… just what Helfer is referring to.

And here is a more humorous take on Mormons beliefs regarding masturbation. It’s partly based on a now retired pamphlet called “To Young Man Only”, which was passed out to young men from 1976 until 2016. The pamphlet was all about how to avoid masturbation. In it, Boyd K. Packer, a former church leader, refers to “the little factory”, which causes wet dreams.

Self-abuse is “immoral”? I don’t think so. It’s the safest sex a person can have.

This is a light-hearted, funny look at real church teachings and comments made by leaders such as Boyd K. Packer and Mark E. Peterson, whose words are regularly quoted by church members. But this is a serious issue. Church members have actually committed suicide over issues like masturbation and homosexuality. And some unlucky church members have wound up in “aversion therapy” sessions which have also caused great harm to their mental health. The church is also against banning “conversion therapy”, which supposedly helps people with “same sex attraction” (the church’s term) become straight. It doesn’t work, and causes harm, but the church’s stance is that banning it is disrespectful to their religious beliefs. It doesn’t seem to matter to the church’s leadership that people have DIED over these practices.

And those who haven’t died often suffer needlessly, thanks to unsound and inhumane beliefs that are promoted within the church. I dare anyone who doubts how painful and damaging this “therapy” is to read Jayce Cox’s account of his time at Evergreen, a conversion therapy program that was offered at Brigham Young University and employed electric shocks to reverse homosexuality. Cox’s experiences were featured on MTV in 2004. Evergreen is now defunct, but it was renamed North Star and revamped… and sadly, Jayce Cox, died in 2013. Prior to his death, he worked as a suicide prevention coordinator in Helena, Montana. He was a much beloved friend who died much too young.

Natasha Helfer clearly cares about her clients and doing good work that is promoted by professional mental health organizations. I congratulate her for her bravery, for I know that it’s not easy for people to leave Mormonism, particularly if one’s entire family is in the church and believes wholeheartedly in its tenets. But she’s in good company. According to The Washington Post:

Helfer’s disciplinary case follows those of at least three high-profile former members who were excommunicated from the church for apostasy. Kate Kelly, who advocated for the ordination of women in the church, was excommunicated in 2014. John Dehlin, a well-known advocate for dissenting Mormons, created a forum online to help them gather and was expelled in 2015. And Sam Young, who protested one-on-one interviews between clergy and youth, was excommunicated in 2018.

Helfer has said she plans to appeal the church’s ruling. She has thirty days to do that. Personally, I think she should just abandon the church and go on doing good work for people who need her help. Life is short, and I doubt she’s going to change the church’s stance on these issues. On the other hand, she’s definitely made some big waves… and, as famous Mormon woman Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once said, “well-behaved women seldom make history.” We’ll see what happens.

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dogs

My dogs have “Embarked”…

As some regular readers know, my husband Bill and I adopted a dog last fall. Noyzi came into our lives after a dog we had tried to adopt from Sardinia escaped his pet transport taxi and got hit by a car. We had tried to adopt the dog from Sardinia months after we lost our precious Zane, a beagle mix we adopted from Atlanta Beagle Rescue in December 2009. Zane was a very special dog to me and I missed him terribly, but it’s not so easy for Americans to adopt dogs in Germany. A lot of the reason stems from animal shelters near U.S. military installations having been burned by servicemembers who adopt animals and bring them back when it’s time to leave. Or they just dump the animals they brought over to Germany.

Naturally, Bill and I aren’t like that. Our dogs are family members, and we would never consider leaving them at a shelter. But thanks to the irresponsible actions of some of our countrymen, we figured we’d be wasting our time going to a local shelter. Additionally, thanks to COVID-19, getting a dog from a German dog rescue was also not going to be feasible. Last spring, we were not permitted to travel out of the area where we live. After the botched delivery attempt from the pet transport, we decided we’d rather be responsible for picking up our new friend ourselves. At least then, we could be sure the dog was properly secured before we took him out of the car! I am still haunted by the memory of that sweet hound from Sardinia, terrified as the taxi driver took him from her vehicle and set him on the ground, unsecured. Once that happened, there was nothing at all that we could do, and I knew in my heart that he was doomed.

Noyzi (also known as Noizy) was named for an Albanian rapper by a young man in Kosovo who found him wandering the streets, shrieking at the top of his lungs. He was a very young puppy when he was found; perhaps not old enough to be away from his mom. The young man gave him to an American woman named Meg, who rescues street dogs in Kosovo. A couple of years later, a mutual friend put me in touch with Meg, and we arranged to bring Noyzi to Germany. Noyzi was one of a few lucky pooches who found new homes last fall, just in the nick of time. If we had waited another month, it would have been hard to get him up here to Germany, thanks to COVID-19. I sure have loved having him around, though. It’s rewarding to see him evolve and his personality is very endearing and sweet.

I have never had a dog like Noyzi before. All of my dogs in recent times have been beagle mixes of some sort, although they’ve all been mixed with different breeds. Our first beagle rescue, for example, probably had husky mixed in with his beagle heritage. He had ice blue eyes and shedded constantly! Our other rescues were beagles to varying degrees; Flea was probably the closest to a purebred beagle, while MacGregor was definitely part basset hound, and I always suspected Zane had a touch of Labrador in him.

Since DNA tests are all the rage right now, I decided we’d see what breeds make up Noyzi and Arran. A couple of friends recommended Embark DNA tests. After a few weeks of resistance, I finally took the plunge. I bought two tests from Amazon. When they got to me, I used the high speed Q-tip like swabs in the kits to collect saliva from the dogs’ cheeks, attached the swabs to the vials of solution that came with the kits, put the completed kits in the included postage paid envelopes, and sent them off. Last night, after about a two week wait, we got the results, which included genetic health tests and breed analyses.

When we first got Arran, I figured he was a beagle/coonhound mix. But then Bill had a colleague who said he looked like a German Shorthaired Pointer. After reading up on GSPs, I thought maybe she might be right about that. As for Noyzi, I had no idea… At first, I wondered if he was part hound, due to his coloring. But then, after living with him for awhile, I figured he had some herding dog in him. He likes to collect toys and put them in his bed, or more recently, up in the spare bedroom we use as an entertainment room… but since we don’t have proper seating in there, it’s more of a doggy hangout room. Zane used to like to sleep in there during his last months.

I kind of knew that when we sent in the DNA samples, Noyzi’s would probably come back as “village dog”. Sure enough, I was right about that. However, I think it’s cool that his DNA is another sample for Embark, adding to the bank of unusual dog breeds they have in their database. I was pretty tickled with Arran’s results, especially since they sent us a cute video and guessing game for his results (Noyzi didn’t get a video for his). It turns out my instincts about Arran were right. He’s mostly beagle, with American English Coonhound and Llewellin Setter and “Supermutt” DNA. I had never heard of a Llewellin Setter, but it seems it’s kind of like an English Setter. When I was a kid, we had a dog who was a mix of Cocker Spaniel and English Setter. Now that I think about it, Arran shares a few traits with her… and he’s definitely got bird dog proclivities. But he doesn’t have any GSP, after all. I guess I should trust my instincts.

I resisted getting the tests done because I wasn’t sure how well they’d work out. I’m sure there aren’t a lot of dogs like Noyzi in the United States. I was right about that, hence the Eastern European Village Dog label. I thought we could get them done over here in Germany, but the results would have been in German. We did have our vet do DNA testing, but it turns out the kind she ran is more for breeders to show genetic information to buyers and prove bloodlines. It doesn’t tell you anything about the breed. It’s also NOT cheap! Apparently, Noyzi doesn’t have any significant genetic issues anyway. Arran is at a higher risk of getting disc disease, thanks to his beagle ancestry. The Embark vet sent us an email ahead of the results to let us know about Arran’s increased risk of getting IVDD. But as he’s about 12 years old and still very much a scrapper, I’m not too worried about it. I think he’s going to be our longevity dog.

Anyway… I highly recommend the Embark DNA tests. It was a lot of fun learning about our dogs, and I suspect that as the systems refine, we’ll learn even more about them. I wish I could have done these tests on our other dogs, too. I will make it a point of having them done whenever we add new canine family members. I think they’re helpful in determining the best ways to take care of our dogs. As the weather gets nicer, Noyzi gets more playful and sweet. I made another video yesterday featuring my crappy guitar playing… but at least Noyzi is a cute co-star.

I’ve been wanting to try this song for ages, but needed to be able to play it. Now I kind of can play it… I’ll keep practicing, while Noyzi continues to be adorable as he interacts with Tommi, the neighbor’s Lab.
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true crime, Virginia

Double repost: the tragic case of Crystal Ragin

Here are two posts that originally appeared on the Blogspot version of this blog. I wrote the first one, not knowing anything more about the case than what little was in the paper. One of Ragin’s relatives sent me a private message. She was initially upset about my comments, but then told me more about what had actually happened and asked me to write more. So I did… and I am including the second post with the first. As usual, these posts are mostly unedited and appear “as/is” from 2014.

This is a truly tragic story…

I like to read The Daily Press sometimes.  It’s the newspaper I grew up with and I used to read the paper version of it every day when I was growing up.  Today, I check it a few times a week to see if anything interesting is going on in the area where I grew up.  Today, there was a very sad story about a woman who made a very poor choice in husbands.  Now she and three of her four children are dead.

Fort Eustis Army Sergeant Crystal Ragin was an exemplary soldier who was going to go to school to become a drill sergeant.  She was well-known for being very good at her job, responsible, punctual, and very hard working.  A mother of four, she had been married to her second husband, John Moses Ragin, since 2006.  They met in South Carolina, when Crystal was a guard at the prison where John Ragin was serving a 15 year sentence for manslaughter.  He had killed his childhood best friend.

Once John Ragin was released, Crystal, who by then had joined the Army, was free to marry him.  She did, and he became a father figure to the three children she had with her first husband, Mike Burton.  Then Crystal and John had a child of their own, I’Kaos.

John Ragin was apparently a very jealous and controlling husband.  He insisted on Crystal calling him often.  He never wanted her to go out alone.  He demanded that she live according to his wishes, which included swearing off eating meat.  He was very suspicious of the men Crystal worked with in the Army.

On August 19, 2011, John Ragin had apparently had enough.  He brutally murdered his wife and her three older children, Sierra, La’Kwan, and Rasheed, stabbing them 74 times, and setting their home on fire.  Then he took I’Kaos and went back to South Carolina, where he was arrested the next day.

Ragin now may face the death penalty and his son is being raised by his maternal relatives in South Carolina.  What an awful thing for that family to have to deal with… and what a terrible legacy that little boy now has.

I’m sure Crystal Ragin was a wonderful woman, based on the article written about her.  I wonder why she was attracted to John Ragin.  I can’t imagine finding a killer attractive, but I realize that these things aren’t always based on logic or common sense.  Sometimes people can change…  or so they say.  I can’t imagine I’d want to have my children around someone who had done time for killing someone, but I know that sometimes there are mitigating circumstances.

I just think it’s very sad that this woman, who had four beautiful children and a promising career, ended up with someone who obviously couldn’t control his rage or impulses.  I don’t know what Crystal’s reasons were for choosing to marry John Ragin.  It would be easy for me to blame her for being unwise.  But really, she just sounds like someone who trusted someone who was ultimately untrustworthy.  She and her kids paid the ultimate price for that choice.  Her young surviving son will now have to carry on with a father in prison or dead and a mother and siblings who were brutally murdered.

My experiences being Bill’s wife have taught me that people sometimes make very poor choices when it comes to finding mates.  Bill made a bad decision to marry his ex wife and he paid a dear price.  But at least he’s still alive and healthy.

Reading about this case reminds me of the old story about the scorpion and the frog.  A scorpion wants to cross a stream, but doesn’t know how to swim.  So he asks the frog to help him.  The frog worries about being stung, but the scorpion points out that if he stings the frog, they will both die.  So the frog trusts the scorpion and halfway across the stream, gets stung.  As the doomed duo start to sing, the frog asks the scorpion why he did it.  The frog says, “You knew what I was when you picked me up.  It’s nature.”

With some of these people, I have to think that it’s in their nature to be violent and controlling.  In some cases, no amount of love and understanding can overcome that.  I wish Crystal’s family much peace.    

AND the follow up piece… Originally, I had a link to the 911 calls regarding this case. Unfortunately, those were taken down. Listening to those recordings really drove home how dangerous John Ragin was and how Crystal Ragin and her children were completely failed by the Newport News police department.

How the police failed Crystal Ragin and her kids…

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about Crystal Ragin, a soldier at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia who, along with three of her four children, was brutally murdered by her husband, John Moses Ragin on August 19, 2011.  The lone survivor was the youngest child, a boy named I’Kaos, Crystal Ragin’s son with John Moses Ragin.

I must admit, what I knew about that case was based on one article I read in the  Daily Press, which is the local newspaper for the Newport News area.  Though I was born and raised in the Hampton Roads area, I haven’t lived there since 1999.  I only occasionally read the news that comes from there, and that article from the Daily Press was the first I had heard of Crystal Ragin.  This morning, Ragin’s former sister-in-law contacted me on Facebook and asked me to take another look at the story.  So I started reading more about the tragic relationship between Crystal Ragin and John Moses Ragin.  What I’ve learned is very disturbing.

In June of 2011, John assaulted Crystal and threw her to the floor.  She hit her head on a dresser.  The week of the murders, Crystal faced John in court on the assault charge resulting from that attack.  A judge found that there was enough evidence to convict John, but for some reason, decided to defer sentencing for two years.  This decision was especially strange, since Crystal Ragin met her husband in a South Carolina prison; she was a guard and he was an inmate serving time on a manslaughter charge because he’d shot and killed his best friend in 1991.  He was released in 2005 after serving just 14 years.  John Ragin already had a history of violence that, somehow, the court didn’t take into account.

After the hearing, Crystal Ragin filed a protective order against John, saying she “feared for her life”.  As it turns out, her concerns for her life were entirely valid.  However, it took over 24 hours for a Newport News Sheriff’s Department Deputy to attempt to serve John Moses Ragin with the protective order.  Between the time the order was granted and a deputy made an initial attempt to serve it, John Moses Ragin stabbed his estranged wife and stepchildren 74 times and then tried to cover up the crime by setting their apartment on fire.

By the time the deputy had arrived at the apartment to serve the papers, it was already a devastating crime scene.  This makes me wonder, too, how was it that the deputy didn’t already know about what had happened?  Don’t the police agencies communicate with each other?  Or was it the deputy who initially discovered the crime scene?  Given that there was a fire involved, I wonder why no one called the authorities until after the fire was out.  Didn’t the other residents at the apartment complex notice the fire?

Crystal Ragin called 911 on August 18, 2011, while she was at a Shell gas station with the kids.  John Moses Ragin confronted her and wouldn’t let her leave.  According to a Daily Press article, John Ragin was confronting Crystal because he wanted his son, I’Kaos.  He planned to take the boy to South Carolina and was blocking Crystal from her truck because she wouldn’t let him have their son.

Crystal told the 911 operator that there was a pending order of protection she had filed that hadn’t been served.  In the background, you can hear John Ragin repeatedly telling Crystal to “stop lying”.  He sounds very menacing, yet Crystal is very calm as she speaks to the 911 operator.  She sounds like a well trained soldier, keeping cool in a crisis.  I think if I had been in her shoes, I would have been hysterical.  I can’t imagine how very terrified she and the kids must have been.

Though Crystal Ragin had a protective order pending against John Moses Ragin, when a police officer arrived at the scene where he had been threatening her, they let him go. The second call is from maintenance supervisor Johnny Kennedy. He’s calling about the apartment that the Ragins shared, which looked like it had been on fire. Mr. Kennedy could see a body and was calling to report his findings.

Officer E. Jenkins of the Newport News Police Department was one of the police officers who came to the gas station after Crystal made her 911 call.  Officer Jenkins describes Crystal Ragin as obviously scared and “shaking”.  He called a dispatcher in an attempt to find the protective order that had not yet been served.  Somehow, despite looking for 35-40 minutes, the dispatcher was unable to find the pending protective order.  John Ragin claimed he knew nothing about it and, in fact, he said he and Crystal had had sexual intercourse the night before.

Crystal denied having sex with John Moses Ragin and claimed that he was “crazy.”  The police officer offered to escort John Ragin to the apartment so he could pick up his belongings.  Somehow, that didn’t happen and Ragin was able to get to Crystal and her kids, where he violently ended their lives.

I read an article from May 2012 about how angry Crystal Ragin’s family is about how the protective order was handled.  Apparently, because the protective order was signed late in the afternoon, the police department’s policy was to wait until the next day to attempt to serve it.  Ragin’s family asserts that the Newport News Sheriff’s Department’s tardiness may have played a direct role in the murders.  I don’t have any direct experience with Newport News police; I’ve never even gotten a speeding ticket in Newport News.  But if it takes them 24 hours to act on a protective order, I have to wonder how much good the order would have done in this case… or any other case, for that matter.      

Though it’s terrible enough that John Moses Ragin killed four people, it’s even worse that they really suffered before they died.  Crystal Ragin was stabbed 18 times.  According to Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn, one of the stab wounds went through Ragin’s face, “from one side to the other”.  Crystal Ragin’s daughter, Sierra, was burned so severely that her lips “curled back from her teeth”.  Sons La’Kwan and Rasheed were repeatedly stabbed.  Their deaths were not instant.  The medical examiner who testified in this case described the conditions that led to their deaths, noting that there were stab wounds in their heads, necks, and torsos.  Some of the wounds were so deep that they actually went through the bodies.  Rasheed was only six years old and weighed just 40 pounds, yet he had 27 stab wounds.

John Moses Ragin was charged and convicted with three counts of capital murder in the deaths of the children.  In the death of Crystal Ragin, he was charged and convicted of second degree murder.  He was also charged and convicted of felony arson and unlawful stabbing.  Though the death penalty was considered in this case, shockingly enough, Ragin was sentenced to three life sentences in the deaths of the children, 40 years for the death of his wife, a life sentence for arson, and five years for each count of unlawful stabbing.  The jury was unable to come to a unanimous decision to sentence Ragin to death, so he will spend the rest of his life in prison. 

I am no fan of the death penalty, though I stop short of saying that it’s never appropriate.  I have no idea why the jury wasn’t able to come to a unanimous decision for death in this case.  John Moses Ragin is obviously an extremely violent and dangerous man and it’s very clear that he’s guilty as charged.  Moreover, Crystal Ragin’s family was hoping he would get the death penalty and clearly made their wishes known to the court.  Yet there were people on the jury who did not feel the death penalty was appropriate, so by law, the judge had to sentence Ragin to life in prison.

Perhaps the people of Virginia can take some comfort in knowing that John Moses Ragin will never be a free man again.  He’ll likely eventually end up at a supermax prison in Virginia’s coal mining country.  Though things may have improved there since 1999, it’s my guess that Ragin’s time won’t be easy if he ends up going to either Red Onion or Wallen’s Ridge prisons.  Given Ragin’s propensity toward violence, it won’t surprise me if he winds up in Wise, Virginia with the worst of the worst, like Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the D.C. snipers.  

In the wake of this case, the Newport News Sheriff’s Department now serves protective orders at night.   
As for Crystal Ragin’s family, there have already been more casualties related to this case.  According to Crystal’s former sister-in-law, two family members have already died with broken hearts.  The family has known no peace since the terrible day they lost Crystal Ragin and her three oldest children.      

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