family, holidays, mental health

I refuse to let anyone mess up my holidays, and it’s a good policy to have!

I hope everyone reading my blog post enjoyed their holiday yesterday… those who celebrated, anyway. I know not everyone enjoys Christmas. There was a time in my past when it wasn’t such a fun holiday for me. I would say that for most of my 20s, I wasn’t a Christmas fan. I found it to be more of a burden than anything else. In those years, I was still single, and Christmas meant spending money I didn’t have on gifts for people I didn’t know that well anymore, and without fail, at least one dramatic or traumatic altercation with someone from my family of origin.

Christmas got dramatically better for me from about the year 2005. That was the first year after I resolutely decided that I would never again let someone else fuck up my holidays. I have stubbornly stuck to that resolution, and it works really well. It helps that we live in another country now, so no one expects us to take part in Christmas gatherings anymore. Our Christmases are just Bill and me and the dogs, with lots of wine, beer, music, and good food… and presents that don’t have any weird messages or symbols attached to them. There aren’t any arguments. There aren’t any manipulative ploys for attention. There’s nothing but us, enjoying each other and our very compatible and comfortable marriage. It’s peaceful and freeing, just the way I love it. We don’t even bother with church.

I know we’re beyond blessed. I’ve read more than a few angsty posts from people who find Christmas unbearably overwhelming and annoying. I’ve seen a few newspaper articles about how to handle Christmas with obnoxious relatives, which is even trickier this year, since vaccinations against COVID-19 are available and not everybody agrees with taking them. Christmas shouldn’t be something to endure… but for some people, it really is.

Unfortunately, COVID vaccines are just one more issue that divides people, which causes stress in family units. My own family of origin isn’t immune to it. My mom said that one of my sisters invited her to spend Christmas with her family, but this sister isn’t vaccinated and refuses to consider getting the shots. My mom is in her 80s and lives in an assisted living apartment. She doesn’t want to be around unvaccinated people, because she doesn’t want to get sick. My sister also lives in another state, and mom doesn’t want to drive there. So she decided to stay home… which is fine for her, since she’s a very independent person. I’ll probably call her later today to see how it went for her.

Bill talked to his daughter on Skype on Christmas Eve. They had a great chat. Younger daughter said she was very happy with the gifts that Bill and his mom sent to her. She said she was pleased with the gifts, because they were just gifts. There was no weird hidden meaning or guilt message attached. Bill sent toys for her kids, some German candy that isn’t available in the USA, a gift card for a restaurant so she and her husband can have a date night, and a big box of Lebkuchen, German gingerbread. Younger daughter said the Lebkuchen was a huge hit, since she’s pregnant, and the ginger is soothing to her stomach. She said that her mom would buy it in the past, but it was always stale. The box Bill sent was fresh, and much to our surprise, got to her very quickly.

She said that her mother also sent gifts… and then she asked Bill if he ever got gifts from Ex that had “hidden meanings”. Bill chuckled knowingly, because he remembered quite a few occasions when his ex wife sent gifts that weren’t bringing tidings of joy.

He told me about how, back when they first separated in 1999, Ex was letting #3 stay at the home that Bill was still paying the mortgage on. She told Bill not to come home. Instead, they would meet at my father-in-law’s house, and have Christmas there. Under the tree were presents for Bill from the kids… But they were items that Bill already owned. When he left their house to go back into the Army, he left a lot of his stuff there. And instead of sending the items to him, Ex simply wrapped them up and had the kids put their names on the packages. Then she put them under the tree, disguised as gifts. There he sat on Christmas morning 1999, unwrapping the Star Wars VCR tapes that he’d already owned and had watched with ex stepson.

At the time, Bill just blew it off. He figured she was just being a petty bitch. But then he realized that Ex was also doing all she could to eliminate his presence in the family. She threw out photos of him and even stole the one that younger daughter used to sleep with. She cut his image out of pictures. Older daughter once remarked that she had forgotten what he looked like, because Ex was doing her best to erase him… even as she demanded $2550 a month from him in child support, which she received on time, every month, in full, and with no complaint.

For years, I was so disgusted by the cruel things she did. But now, I know that this is the kind of treatment everyone eventually gets from her. She does the same thing to her own children. I don’t know what she sent younger daughter, but I can imagine that whatever it was, it was intended to make her feel shitty. Or, at least, GUILTY.

I have mentioned before that Ex has a habit of ruining treasured childhood relics, like storybooks and music. Bill used to read a book to his children when they were small. It was a book about forgiveness. Just before Bill went to Iraq, Ex sent him the book, with a really cryptic shitty message. She wouldn’t encourage the kids to speak to him. Instead, she had them write him letters disowning him, then she sent him a book to remind him of them… and just before he went to a place where he could have been killed. For weeks, I had to look at that book in our home. I finally told Bill to do something with it so I didn’t have to see it, or I would be throwing it out. He ended up sending it back to her with a note that read, “You need this more than I do.” BRAVO! That was the last time she ever sent him a poisonous package.

Unfortunately, it sounds like she’s still up to her old tricks. I feel sad for Bill’s daughters, and the three other kids Ex has had, but was apparently never satisfied with and just wants to torment. I don’t know what drives her to be the way she is. Some of it, I’m sure, is mental illness… but some of it is just plain mean and cruel. How sad it is that one of the things Bill can bond with his daughter over is the mental fuckery perpetrated by Ex.

Lest anyone think this is going to be another one of my Ex trashing posts… I will now move on to an anecdote about my own family. I’ve written the story many times about what happened in my own family, back in 2003. That was the year I swore off gatherings with my family of origin.

One of my sisters had asked for a ride to Gloucester with us. We obliged, but I told her that if there was a fight, we’d be leaving. Sure enough, hours after we arrived, there was a fight.

Besides the fight, which made the tension in the house unbearable, Bill and I were relegated to the very uncomfortable sleeper sofa in the freezing cold room which had once been a garage. It had been rebuilt into an office, but had poor insulation. I had started my period , and that room wasn’t near a bathroom. I just wanted to be in my own house.

Bill and I resolved to leave the next day. The sister who came with us didn’t want to go home early, and tried to manipulate us into staying. She wanted us to take her shopping. I refused, so she threw a huge tantrum… I mean HUGE! There was screaming, swearing, melting down, and it was like something I would have expected from a toddler.

However, instead of giving in, as I had in the past, I turned to Bill and said, “Come on, let’s just go.” And we did. We left her at my parents’ house. She had to find another way home, which I understand involved taking a bus. She was a woman in her 40s at the time. She and I have talked about that incident just once since it happened. In her version of the story, I was blaming her for our other sister’s fight with me.

I saw our spat from an entirely different perspective. I had told her ahead of time that I was not willing to stay at the house if there was any fighting. My sister had agreed to those conditions. Then, when there predictably was a fight, she tried to change the terms to ones that suited her, even though we had done her a favor by driving her down there, and she had agreed to our conditions.

When I refused to acquiesce to her demands, she had two choices– she could either come with us, or she could find her own way home. When she threw a tantrum, we determined that she’d rather stay in Gloucester… and I sure as hell didn’t need her in my car for hours, complaining non-stop as we drove back to northern Virginia. At the time, that was a very traumatic event, but it was a good thing it happened. Christmas 2003 was what gave me the courage to deal with Ex during Christmas of 2004, when she tried to ruin our holiday.

In 2004, Ex tried to manipulate me into attending Christmas at Bill’s dad’s house. She told us to get a hotel room, since she and the kids and #3 would be staying at the house. She refused to listen to Bill when he said it was a terrible idea. She expected me to show up, even though she never even asked me what I thought of it. It occurred to me that I LOVE my immediate family, but I didn’t even want to do Christmas with them again. I sure as hell didn’t want to do it with Ex, her husband, the kids, and my in-laws. I realized that if I went, it would be yet another disastrous holiday season.

I told Bill I would not be attending the gathering, but he should go and see his daughters. He went… and it was pretty dreadful, although not as dreadful as it would have been if I had gone, too. Bonus– we saved a lot of money because I stayed home with the dogs. I finally learned that obligatory, “forced family time is not always the best idea”…

What am I trying to say here? It’s that the holidays belong to everyone. You have the right to enjoy your holiday, just as much as anyone else does. And if family gatherings cause stress, strife, or cause you to go into unwanted debt, you have the right to opt out… to protect your own sanity. Christmas is optional.

I remember how, back in the days when I felt like I had to spend Christmas at home, it would always take some time to recover. Sometimes it took a few days. Sometimes, it was weeks. The year that we left my sister at my parents’ house, it was a year before she spoke to me again. But, she probably doesn’t realize that I rather enjoyed the silence. Nowadays, she mostly treats me with more respect, which is really all I ever could have hoped for in the first place.

But she did send me a private message with a little drama in it this year… she told me about how, a few years ago, our mom called her up and yelled at her, and brought my name into it. She said that mom was upset about how my sister refused to cooperate with the annual family tradition. My sister insinuated that it was because our brother-in-law had abused her cat when they came the year prior. Brother-in-law doesn’t think animals belong inside. He also enjoys watching us fight.

Anyway, I wasn’t there to see what happened, so I don’t know his side of the story. The bottom line is, because of what had happened during a previous holiday, she decided to stay home, and she claimed that our mom called her up and bitched. She was supposedly “shocked” that sister hadn’t wanted to celebrate, “Especially since Jenny…” then she stopped herself.

My comment was, “Because Jenny what? Because I don’t spend holidays at home anymore? I have DONE my time.” As the youngest, I went to all the graduations, while my graduations usually weren’t attended by my sisters. I used to be the one sister everyone could count on to be there. But that last Christmas in 2003 was the last straw. I refuse to let anyone mess up my holidays.

I stay in my house, sleep in my own comfortable bed, eat what I want, drink what I want, wear what I want, and listen to whatever music I want to… and there is NO fighting… and no stupid manipulative bullshit or guilt tripping or mean remarks about how I need to go on a diet, put on makeup, or fix my hair. There are no intrusive questions about how I can afford my lifestyle or critical, judgmental remarks about things I say, or the way I laugh, or anything else. I can simply be myself, and be appreciated for the person I am… and the person I am is really not so bad.

I am all for holidays without stress, guilt, tension, fighting, manipulation, crying jags, physical blows, temper tantrums, or lies. Ever since I decided that I’m an adult and I deserve these things, life has been better. Ever since we decided that the holidays are for us to enjoy, too, Bill and I have found Christmas to be a lot better… and much more fun! And I haven’t felt the need to read or write to an advice column, asking for help on how to deal with my relatives since…

Last night, the most stressful event was at the end of the evening, as Bill struggled to keep his eyes open. He just looked like a pissed off teddy bear, and it was absolutely ADORABLE. That’s the kind of thing I like to see on Christmas. Here’s hoping that’s how it will be from now on. Any friends or family members who are game for that kind of celebration are welcome. The rest can make drama among themselves and leave us out of it.

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divorce, Ex, family, love, marriage

Proud to be a “good strong woman”…

Keb’ Mo’ has a new album coming out. I love his music, so I’ve preordered it. So far, two songs have been released. One is a remake of the Bill Withers’ classic, “Lean on Me.” The other is a song that features Darius Rucker. It’s called “Good Strong Woman”. I listened to that song this morning after having breakfast with Bill. He’s staying home again today, because he’s taking a couple more online classes at the Jung Institute in Zurich. Bill’s chance to study Jung directly from the source is one great thing that has come out of living in Germany. It’s really something he enjoys doing, which is as gratifying for me to see as it is for him to experience.

Below is the video for Keb’ Mo’s new song.

I love this song and its message. I try to be a “good strong woman” for Bill.

Our breakfast conversation was about a letter to advice columnist Carolyn Hax that was printed in today’s edition of The Washington Post. The letter writer is having a disagreement with her father over her treatment of his wife. Below is the letter in question:

Wow… my first thoughts? What a brat!

Regular readers probably know why this letter gave me pause. Technically, I am the stepmother to Bill’s two daughters. I’ve only met them in person one time. For many years, they were estranged from their dad, mainly because their mother is extremely toxic and immature and she was more interested in punishing Bill for not letting her continue to abuse him, than being a kind and attentive mother and a “good strong woman” to her current husband. There is ABSOLUTELY no reason why Bill and his daughters should have been kept apart, other than their mother’s warped and extremely petty vindictiveness. And if I sound bitter and snotty, so be it. I know Bill, and unfortunately, I know enough about his ex wife. I am definitely not the whole problem in our case.

Fortunately, Bill’s younger daughter has come around, and it’s plain that she’s not like her mother. So when Bill and his daughter Skype, I’m happy about it. Usually, unless I happen to be sitting in the room when they Skype, I give them their privacy. Almost two years ago, Bill finally got to see his daughter in person, after 15 years of separation. He met his grandchildren. They had plenty of time to talk privately, because when he was in Utah seeing his daughter, I was in Germany, hanging out with Arran. I encouraged this gathering, and was gratified when it went well. Bill’s older daughter remains estranged, but she’s 30 years old and has to make her own choices. So be it.

It should come as no surprise to my readers that I empathize with the letter writer’s stepmother. On the other hand, I also recognize that there isn’t a lot of information here. We don’t know how old the letter writer was when his dad married his second wife. We don’t know the circumstances of his split from the letter writer’s mother. All we know is that stepmom is only ten years older than her stepdaughter, and unlike my stepdaughters and me, this stepdaughter and her stepmom actually have a relationship. It sounds like their relationship, for whatever reason, isn’t a particularly good one.

I appreciated Carolyn’s response to this writer. I think she hit the nail on the head, too. Below is her take on this situation.

Stepdaughter: If the “so much more” resembles this, then you do owe your stepmother/dad’s wife/24-year family member that apology.

So many times with so many stories, things can go either way, depending on all the details I don’t have. And maybe this one still can, too; I obviously have little to work with.

But then, ooh, I get the Magic Aside, the throwaway scrap in a question that’s the comprehension equivalent of fumbling around in the dark and accidentally bumping a light switch.

“She’s only 10 years older than me.”

Ah.

How dare he.

Form a lasting partnership with someone younger than he is.

Right?

Think for a moment. If you had fallen in love with someone, a fellow adult, and your father was giving you grief because your partner was 20 years younger, would you be okay with that? I doubt you’d appreciate his being in a 24-year huff over it, and still imposing his huff on your family’s guest lists.

Could your stepmother have let this go? Maybe. But, 24 years. That’s how long she’s been part of your family, and you’re still pressuring others (successfully!) to treat her as an interloper. If you want backup for excluding someone from a gathering, then you need proof of malice on her part. Ookie age proximity or old wounds or not being your mom won’t cut it.

No, of course, you “shouldn’t be forced.” But your conscience, your better self, your love for your dad, your enduring peace of mind and your humanity are all inner voices that are overdue to exert some force.

Again, unless there’s malice — and I mean evident stepmotherly ill intent, not just missteps in a time of awkward transition — I urge you to hear the pleas, please, of your better angels for you to swallow your pride, let go, and respect her rightful place.

I know a lot of people who don’t know our story might want to “come at me”. I’ve heard many times over the years about how I should “be the bigger person” and “recognize that I’m an ‘interloper’ in an established relationship” and, even worse, some have even asked me if I broke up Bill’s first marriage. The answer to that question is a resounding “NO”. I didn’t even meet Bill in person until almost a year after his divorce.

In four days, Bill and I will have been married for 19 years. He’s almost eight years older than I am. If had been the mother of his daughters, I would have been a very young mom. But, at this point, Bill and I have been together about twice as long as he was with his ex wife. We are extremely compatible, which makes me very happy, because when I was in college, I went through seven roommates… and even that was with two semesters of living alone.

It’s not as bad as it sounds, though. One of those roommates basically kicked me out of the room after our first week of freshman year so she could bunk with the party girl across the hall. One moved in for part of a semester because she got kicked out of her room for being busted with pot. That roommate later got kicked out of school for not going to class. And another was a student teacher, who was only at school for a few weeks until she went home to student teach. I got along fine with three roommates, and barely tolerated a fourth. We simply weren’t compatible.

There are always extenuating circumstances, and things aren’t always as they seem at face value. Still, I had friends who found their besties during freshman year and roomed together the whole time we were in college. Some of them are now divorced, even if they’re still buddies with their former roommates. I, on the other hand, couldn’t find a really compatible roommate, but I did find a husband who is just about perfect for me. So what if I came second? Bill and I are married. We love each other. I am now part of his family, and he’s part of mine. And because we love each other and are family, neither of us has to be alone as we get older. I’m so glad that Bill’s younger daughter understands that, and supports it.

When I read the letter in Carolyn Hax’s column today, what really stood out to me was just how self-centered and petty the writer came across. The line about her father’s wife being “only 10 years older” reveals what I think is one of many bones of contention this lady has with her dad and his wife. She mentions there is “so much more to the story”, but chooses to mention the age difference instead of some other reason why she and stepmom aren’t friends. That, to me, is very telling. The age difference obviously really bugs her.

However, if stepmom was a legal adult when she and the letter writer’s dad got married, the age difference shouldn’t matter, especially since they have been married for 24 years. A marriage that has lasted that long probably works well on some level. If stepmom wasn’t a legal adult when she got married, then she was a victim, and shouldn’t be blamed. Either way, it sounds like dad and stepmom love and respect each other, and letter writer should, in turn, understand that, and grow the fuck up.

The fact that the letter writer’s dad is supporting his wife’s complaints about his daughter’s apparent toxic, petty behavior reveal that this isn’t a marriage strictly of convenience. I do know there are marriages that are like that– people get married solely for money, security, or some other commodity. For example, I suspect Ex and her husband have a loveless marriage, based on what I know about her first two husbands and the way she reportedly treats #3. But, based on the letter above, I don’t think that’s the situation for the letter writer’s dad and his wife. It sounds like the dad is supporting his wife. He has his wife’s back, not his daughter’s.

Oooh… now this would be exciting.

The daughter sounds like she is trying to dictate to her father the terms of their relationship. She’s trying to force him to choose between his wife and his daughter. It doesn’t sound like she’s considered the fact that he gets a vote, too. He may very well decide that his relationship with his wife, the woman with whom he shares a home, and presumably, a bed, is more important than a relationship with his grown daughter, who, at least in this letter, comes off as really petty and obnoxious. Like it or not, her dad has chosen to marry someone other than her mother. She should be grateful that he’s found love and isn’t alone. And yes, she should show some basic respect to her stepmother, just as she should to most people. Otherwise, why not simply go no contact?

The comments on this post are pretty interesting. Lots of people are on “team stepmom”. Lots of people are supporting the letter writer. It’s true that the dad/husband is responsible for the fact that his daughter exists. Many people feel that a person’s children should always come first. Personally, I disagree with that, since children usually grow up to be adults, and they need to learn that the world doesn’t always revolve around them.

If the dad decides that he’s willing to continue a relationship with his daughter without his wife’s involvement, that might work out fine. However, based on the way the dad reacted to his daughter’s behavior, it sounds like he’s putting his wife and marriage first. And that’s probably the best thing to do, in the long run. His daughter is grown up, now, so he should focus on living his life, making himself happy, and staying healthy. His daughter can fend for herself. If she doesn’t grow up and stop being so selfish, she may have to do that.

Divorce can really suck. It’s often expensive, painful, complicated, and heartbreaking. However, sometimes divorce is absolutely necessary. It was definitely necessary in Bill’s case. He couldn’t stay with his ex wife without risking his health, or even his life. And he should not have been expected to, especially not for the convenience of someone else– and certainly not for someone who is an adult. Bill’s stepmother had “issues” with Bill’s divorce, because it made it harder for her to see his kids, who technically aren’t even her grandchildren. She doesn’t know the whole story about everything that went wrong, or the most egregiously awful parts of the story, but she also didn’t have to live in that hellish situation. Bill did.

Maybe the letter writer had a legitimate gripe if she was a child when the divorce happened, and the stepmom was legitimately abusive to her in some way. She’s now a grown woman, though, and she probably needs to get over herself and accept her stepmother as a full member of the family. If she can’t or won’t do that, then maybe it’s time she went no contact. Of course, going no contact is a big decision, and it can come with significant consequences. But sometimes it really is the healthy thing to do for everyone involved. Either way, it sounds like dad is sticking with his wife, and she’s going to have to accept that.

I don’t know what went wrong in the relationship between the letter writer’s parents, but obviously, they couldn’t be together. Her dad has now found someone to love, and they’ve been together for a long time, in spite of the daughter’s disdain and disrespect toward their marriage. If the letter writer loves her dad, she should understand and respect that, and stop trying to divide the family with petty foolishness. It sounds like he’s found himself a “good strong woman”, and she should simply be happy for him and try to co-exist with her. I’m sure the letter writer’s dad would want the same kind of strong and supportive partner for her.

Below are the lyrics to Keb’ Mo’s new song, “Good Strong Woman”.

Mama said, “Son, listen to me
That girl is T-R-O-U-B-L-E
So watch out, I know you love her but she’s not your friend
She’ll only be there long as you got money to spend”

Life can be kinda hard on a man

You’re gonna need a good strong woman that’s got your back
Fill you back up when you’re outta gas
A good strong woman goes a long, long way
Makes the right now better than the yesterday
I’m talking ’bout a good strong woman (strong woman)
A good strong woman (strong woman)
A good strong woman (strong woman)
Hm, a good strong woman (strong woman)

She will never leave you if you treat her right
She’ll be there in the morning till the late of night
She’s the kind that’s never gonna let you down
Makes you put the bricks on the world around

Life can be kinda hard on a man

You’re gonna need a good strong woman that’s got your back
Fill you back up when you’re outta gas
A good strong woman goes a long, long way
Makes the right now better than the yesterday
I’m talking ’bout a good strong woman (strong woman)
A good strong woman (strong woman)
A good strong woman (strong woman)
A good strong woman (strong woman)

If you wanna make the bad times better
Make a good thing last forever

Life can be kinda hard on a man

You’re gonna need a good strong woman that’s got your back
Fill you back up when you’re outta gas
A good strong woman goes a long, long way
Makes the right now better than the yesterday

You’re gonna need a good strong woman that’s got your back
Fill you back up when you’re outta gas
A good strong woman goes a long, long way
Makes the right now better than the yesterday

I’m talking ’bout a good strong woman (strong woman)
A good strong woman (strong woman)
A good strong woman (strong woman)
Yeah, I’ll be a good strong woman

Oh, a good strong woman
She’s got your back, strong woman
Talking ’bout a good strong woman
(Good strong woman)

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book reviews, religion

A review of Shunned: How I Lost My Religion and Found Myself, by Linda Curtis…

I am fascinated by demanding American religions, so last February, I downloaded Linda Curtis’s book, Shunned: How I Lost My Religion and Found Myself. Regular readers of this blog may know that my husband, Bill, was once a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is a highly demanding religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are also very demanding. In fact, I have a cousin who was a JW and eventually left the faith, along with his family. I knew a little about the JWs and the Mormons before I met Bill, who officially left the LDS church in 2006. I knew something about how people who leave highly demanding religions tend to get treated… although in Bill’s case, his shunning was only partly due to the religion. He was really mostly shunned because his ex wife is an abusive narcissistic creep who used the church to punish her former source of supply.

Anyway, eventually, Bill’s situation partially rectified. One of his daughters– ironically the one more devoted to Mormonism– eventually reconnected with him. The other daughter remains estranged, but that seems to be more because of her mother’s toxic influence than religion. Still, I remain interested in stories about restrictive religions and what happens when people choose to leave them. Linda Curtis published her true story about leaving the Witnesses in 2018. When I noticed it got a lot of positive reviews on Amazon, I decided to read it.

I started reading Shunned right after I finished reading Fear, Bob Woodward’s first book about Donald Trump’s presidency. I probably would have fallen into this book regardless, but I think reading about religion after reading about Trump’s White House was especially inspired. It took me just a few days to read Shunned, while Fear took weeks. Linda Curtis has a somewhat engaging writing style, and her story is basically interesting. I’m not sorry I read Shunned, although I think it could be improved.

Who is Linda Curtis and what’s her story?

Linda Curtis grew up in Portland, Oregon, one of three siblings. Her mother was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Her father, Frank, was not a believer until Linda and her siblings were adults. Linda’s family often prayed for her father to see “The Truth” and join the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Linda fervently prayed for that herself… but when her dad finally came around and decided to join the JWs, Linda was on her way out of the faith. No one knew that watching her dad’s baptism didn’t bring her the joy it brought her mother and siblings, or her first husband, Ross. They were unaware that Linda was experiencing a crisis of faith that led her to question the beliefs she had held dear her entire life.

Linda had always been a devout believer. Parents sent their questioning children to her because she was seen as a good influence. The religion had helped her develop a talent for sales, thinking on her feet, and connecting to people. Like all JWs, Linda went door to door to talk to people about the afterlife. It was something she’d never questioned until one day, when she knocked on her boss’s door. She hadn’t known he lived at that address. She found herself giving him the familiar spiel, telling him in not so many words that if he didn’t see “The Truth”, he was doomed to obliteration. Somehow, Linda realized, as she spoke to her boss, who had also been a mentor and a friend, that she was condemning a man she deeply respected.

After that chance meeting with her boss, Linda somewhat lost her zeal for the religion. Her first husband, Ross, a convert to the Witnesses, realized that his wife’s participation at Kingdom Hall was waning. He confronted her and she admitted that she was having issues with her beliefs. Moreover, Linda and Ross weren’t particularly compatible, and she realized that she didn’t love her husband.

The couple spoke to the elders at the church, but eventually decided that they needed to divorce. The split seemed relatively amicable, although due to their beliefs, they were still considered married in the eyes of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The religion teaches that the only legitimate reason for a dissolution of a marriage is adultery or death. That meant they weren’t supposed to have sexual relations with anyone else.

Linda and Ross had married young. Linda didn’t initially go to college, even though she was very smart. The religion didn’t encourage her to get a degree. But she did get a job in banking, and it turned out she was very good at it. She got promotions and more and more responsibility. Her family wasn’t necessarily onboard with her having a career; she was supposed to be a wife and a mother. That family life coupled with strict religion was not what Linda wanted for herself. Linda makes Ross sound a bit whiney and immature, but that might be because of her use of dialogue, which was a bit melodramatic. But he also decided to take a drive in Linda’s brand new car after he’d been drinking during one of their fights. I was surprised by all of the drinking that was referenced in this story. I know JWs are allowed to drink (I don’t think my cousin would have ever been a member if drinking wasn’t allowed), but I was under the impression that drinking was supposed to be done sparingly.

After the divorce, Linda moved to Chicago, then eventually San Francisco, as she continued to excel at her career. Meanwhile, she dated men, and eventually had sex. Admitting to adultery made it possible for Ross to remarry, but it also led to the JWs casting her out of the religion. Fornication is what led to her being “disfellowshipped” by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and shunned by her family, even though she was legally divorced when she did it. She could have repented and gotten back into “good standing”, but Linda determined that she didn’t want her life ruled by religion. I can hardly blame her for that. Shunning and “disfellowshipping” people for being “disobedient” to a religion or other group is manipulative and toxic… it’s basically asshole behavior intended to control other people. As I am fond of saying, it’s NOT a punishment to be shunned by an asshole. However, when it’s your family and friends doing it, shunning can be very hurtful.

Through it all, her mother kept telling her that all she needed to do was come back to “The Truth” and get right with “Jehovah God”, and she would be welcomed back into the fold. It was the old “carrot and stick” cure. Jump through some hoops to make mom happy, and everything will be okay. It didn’t matter that the religion wasn’t working for Linda’s life or plans for herself. Linda’s brother, Randy, was the first to shun her, which cut her off from her niece and nephew. Her sister, Lory, who had struggled in the faith and got divorced from her first marriage, eventually also turned away from Linda, telling her that the family would never reach out to her (which turned out to be untrue).

Linda Curtis went on to marry her second husband, the late Bob Curtis. She became a stepmother and began to find her way in the world. But she paid a high price for that freedom, as her family and friends she had known in Portland couldn’t completely accept her outside of the religion. They didn’t completely cut her off, as the title of the book suggests, but they had a lot less to do with her. Leaving the JWs and living life on her own terms was a big step with a steep price. It does seem to me that the high cost was well worth it to Linda Curtis.

My thoughts

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I managed to get through this book somewhat quickly. It’s a fairly easy read. Linda Curtis is clearly very intelligent and basically writes well. Her story is interesting, if not a bit sad. Personally, I think shunning is a shitty thing to do, especially to a loved one. I don’t support it, mainly because at its core, it’s a power move consisting of emotional blackmail and control tactics. I empathize with Linda Curtis’s situation, dealing with a family that had once been so loving turning on her simply because she didn’t believe what they believed and dared to declare independence and free agency.

However… there are some things I noticed as I read this book. First, Linda Curtis has a fondness for so-called “fifty cent words”. I have two master’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree in English. Several times, I had to look up obscure words she used. I did so because I like to know the meanings of words I don’t know. My guess is that the vast majority of readers won’t take the time to do that, and most of them won’t know what some of the more obscure words mean, either. I don’t mind the occasional fancy vocabulary word, but I think too many of them can have a bad effect on writing. For many people, time is money, and it takes time to look up those fancy words. Those who don’t take the time to look up the fancy vocabulary words are going to miss some of the meaning in Curtis’s story. I wouldn’t mention this if it had only happened a couple of times, but it happened several times– enough times that I found it noticeable and annoying.

Secondly, Linda Curtis’s writing style is a bit “novelesque”, but not in a particularly creative or evocative way. Her writing sometimes comes off a bit like she was trying to set a vivid scene. But instead of using details and descriptions to jazz up her tale, she includes unnecessary details to the scenes that didn’t add anything. Like, for instance, at one point she mentions a fly landing on a dirty plate after a discussion she had. That action had no significance on the story she was sharing. It was an unnecessary detail. More than once, she mentioned getting into a car and putting on a seatbelt. There’s nothing wrong with safety in the car. But it was an unnecessary detail that didn’t add to the story and could have been edited out or replaced with something more pertinent to the story. That quality of her writing was irritating to me. It came off as amateurish.

And thirdly, Curtis uses a lot of dialogue that is a trite and one dimensional. Dialogue can be very effective in a personal story, but I think of it as more of a technique that breathes life into the story. This author’s use of dialogue frequently comes off as stilted and melodramatic. Curiously, she could have added some detail and “spark” to her dialogue, but she didn’t do that often enough. Instead, we get details about clothes people wore or flies on dirty dishes, rather than details about non verbal cues or tone of voice.

I did relate to Curtis’s story. I empathized with her sorrow over her family choosing a religion over a loved one. However… I did notice that while Linda’s family had less to do with her, they didn’t completely shut their door to her. She was invited to her grandmother’s funeral, and her parents came to her husband’s funeral. She received gifts from her family when she married her second husband, although no one in her family attended the wedding. I know other people who have been completely shunned, meaning no contact whatsoever, after leaving highly demanding religions like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My husband, for instance, lost complete contact with his daughters for about 12 years. One daughter hasn’t seen or spoken to him since 2004. That’s real shunning. What Linda Curtis describes is more like disapproval. People still spoke to her, even if there was less warmth and familiarity than there once was.

Much of Shunned was sort of a cut and dried story about Linda’s life, but there wasn’t that much deep insight into how she really felt launching a life outside of the JWs. I would have enjoyed reading a bit more about how she adapted to life “in the world”, as she got used to celebrating Christmas and birthdays. She does write a little bit about that, but not very much. She casually mentions having sex with a lot of men, attending a new age church after trying several different ones, and getting involved with friends. But she doesn’t really write about what those experiences were like beyond the surface. I also think she could have delved more into her relationship with her family and how it suffered when she left the JWs. I felt like much of what she writes is superficial, with a lot more about her successes at work. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this book could use a bit more heart and feeling, and less logic and reason.

I don’t think Shunned is a terrible book. I just think that a good editor could have made it markedly better. I also think that Linda Curtis should have gone deeper than she did. Her story lacks insight and spark. If she traded some of the insignificant details for more personal insights, this book would be much improved and more interesting. As I said, it’s obvious that Linda Curtis is very talented in her job. She’s intelligent and accomplished and yes, she finally did pursue her college degree. She has intellect and drive, and I know there must have been some truly amazing moments in her journey that she left out of her book. At the very least, she could have added some spice to the stories she did include.

Shunned is a serviceable enough read; I just don’t think that writing is necessarily Linda Curtis’s gift or her passion. To use musical terms, her writing is kind of the equivalent to someone with a nice choir voice as opposed to someone who sings solos, if that makes any sense. But with some direction, she could develop more of a “soloist’s sound”.

I am not sorry I read Shunned, and I would recommend it to those who are interested in the subject matter. I think I’d give it three stars out of five.

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book reviews, LDS

Repost: My review of Suddenly Strangers: Surrendering Gods and Heroes

Here’s another repost of a book review. This one was originally written for Epinions.com on April 30, 2009. I reposted it on my old blog in July 2014, and I’m reposting it again today, as/is.

Note from 2014

A few years ago, I read an excellent book by Chris and Brad Morin, two brothers who decided to leave the LDS church.  They were from a large family and their decision to leave the church was not met with a lot of acceptance.  The brothers came together to write their story.  I think it illustrates one terrible issue that people run into when they decide they don’t want to be Mormon anymore.  For a belief system that claims that families should always be put first, the attitude toward those who question the beliefs sure is harsh.  Suddenly Strangers is a very well-researched book with plenty of examples from church approved sources as to why the brothers decided it wasn’t as true as it claims to be.  I strongly recommend it.

A few years ago (in 2006), my husband officially resigned his membership to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He had many reasons for doing so. The main one, I think, was that he had pretty much joined the LDS church as a means of saving his first marriage. My husband and his ex wife had converted to Mormonism just three years before they divorced. At the time, it had seemed like a good thing to do, since the church seemed so wholesome and family oriented. They went through the “discussions” with a couple of nice missionaries and were very warmly welcomed as a “golden family”, so called that because they had come to the church on their own accord. But not long after he joined the church, my husband started to learn much more about his new faith and found that he didn’t agree with it. Worse, my husband’s former wife used the church as a mechanism to turn his children against him. When the marriage finally crumbled, so did my husband’s testimony. He became inactive and formally resigned his church membership several years after he had married me.

I have never been a Mormon myself, but my husband’s participation in the faith piqued my curiosity about it. I began to read a lot of books on the subject, and that’s how I came to read Suddenly Strangers: Surrendering Gods and Heroes (2004), by Brad L. Morin and Chris L. Morin. These two authors are brothers who, along with their nine other siblings, were brought up as faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The church had been the focal point of their upbringing and family life. It was also a large part of their heritage and history. They had been taught that the LDS church was the only true church, and that apostacy and denouncing the church was worse than committing murder or adultery. And yet, even so, they felt compelled to leave the church, despite the fact that they knew how negatively their friends and family would react. Suddenly Strangers is the story of their departure, along with their well researched and documented reasons why they left.

Why leaving is such a big deal

I was brought up as a mainstream Presbyterian and that faith, by and large, has been the only one I’ve ever followed consistently. In my church, if someone grew disatisfied and wanted to leave, it was not that big of a deal. Sure, church outreach volunteers might call and ask for an explanation and issue a welcome back, but it’s not like the decision was likely to break up families or cause divorces.  People just leave and that’s it.

As Brad and Chris Morin point out, making a similar announcement to their very devout Mormon family members was bound to cause a great deal of backlash. When they did make their announcement, the reactions were varied. One sister called them and pronounced them “wicked”. She told them she never wanted to see or hear from them again. A couple of brothers expressed sorrow, but otherwise respected their decision. Another brother wrote a letter full of demands that placed conditions on their future relationship. A niece wrote a letter to Brad Morin that practically begged him to reconsider and pray to God for assurance that the church was true.

Of course, the two brothers also had to break the news to their wives. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for LDS marriages to break up when one spouse no longer believes. At the time of his decision, Chris Morin was the father of a one year old child and another child on the way. He actually entertained the idea of his wife, Cathy, divorcing him and remarrying a faithful church member so that his children would grow up in household without a doubter. Then it occurred to him that no stepfather could possibly love his children the way he did. As I’ve witnessed my husband’s pain as his daughters have pretty much grown up without him, I could relate to that thought.

Many reasons for going

In this very well documented book, Chris and Brad Morin include many personal and doctrinal reasons why they could no longer be faithful Mormons. They include many quotes from Brigham Young, some of which ranged from the ridiculous to the unsavory. Brad Morin is a professional educator and he found himself researching some of the historical claims made by the LDS church. He found that many of them couldn’t be accurate. Both brothers discuss how they watched church members behave when someone began to express doubts. Rather than respond to the scrutiny, it was immediately assumed that the person was reading anti-Mormon literature, consorting with apostates, had been offended by another member, or simply wanted to sin. It occurred to them that the judgmental attitudes they were encountering were not in harmony with the warm and fuzzy “families first” image the church put out to the world.

Aside from Brigham Young…

The Morin brothers include transcripts of interviews involving Larry King and the late Gordon Hinckley, who was until recently the church’s prophet. With each chapter, they include actual quotes from church leaders and philosophers. It’s clear they’ve done their research along with plenty of thinking about their decision.

My thoughts

To be honest, I’m of two minds about this book. I definitely think Chris and Brad Morin did exhaustive research in order to make their compelling arguments against the church. Those arguments are no doubt very valuable to those who would want to use official doctrine to disprove Mormonism. However, the part of the book that I found most compelling and more interesting was their discussion of the reactions they got from their family following their decision to resign. I was very surprised and somewhat dismayed to read some of the things these once loving family members said. On page 134, Brad Morin quotes a brother as saying the following when he found out about Morin’s decision:

I am going to be honest with you. I don’t ever want to talk to you again. I don’t want to see you again. I don’t want any letters or e-mail from you. If you write a letter for the family newsletter, I will not send it out. I don’t want you coming to visit on the nineteenth. I still love you, but I don’t ever want to see you again.

A brother-in-law e-mailed the following after Chris Morin announced his decision to quit:

Just heard from Chris, and respectfully speaking, of course, I’m not so sure you didn’t exert some influence there… I think you need to allow people to make their own decisions without your influence… Choices about religion lead to divorce, bad family feelings, and really crappy family reunions, otherwise known as dysfunctional families. People who leave the church end up with huge chips and a need to convert others to their new found philosophy. (137)

It struck me as mildly ironic that this brother-in-law was so quick to chastise Brad Morin for not letting Chris Morin make his own choices. It seemed to me that the brother in law was really selling Chris Morin short, as if he were a child who couldn’t think for himself and had to be talked into coming to the same conclusion his brother had.

But in my opinion, the most offensive missive came from a brother who wrote the following to both Brad and Chris:

The thing that scares me most is your current beliefs. Those beliefs have the capability to destroy me and my family, and anyone who subscribes to those beliefs… You must not say anything to my wife or children about Joseph Smith or any prophet of the church, or any church leader or any church writings, or any church history… We read scriptures in our house. We say prayers in our house. If you visit us you will observe at least one of those maybe both. If we visit your houses we expect to be able to give thanks for the food and to read scriptures even if in our bedroom… If you cannot make this promise to me or if you make this promise to me and break it, my family will not associate (Face to face) with yours… Is this drastic? You bet it is. I have everything I have ever wanted, to loose [lose], if I am deceived. (139)

The pervasive fear that comes from these emails is very surprising to me, but what surprised me even more was when one of Brad’s very intelligent and fair-minded friends produced his own reasons for staying faithful to the church. And then he followed up by stating, “…if it isn’t true, I don’t want to know it” (149). Brad Morin compared this statement to the attitude some people have about not wanting to face reality, particularly when it’s distasteful. He likened it to someone who doesn’t want to know they have cancer. It just feels better to ignore evidence and pretend that everything is okay.

Things I didn’t like about this book

I didn’t really care for the way this book was laid out. The brothers took turns writing chapters and include boxes with quotes in them, endnotes, and various other distractions. I found this layout particularly hard to deal with when I read the heavier chapters that had to do with the church’s doctrine and history. However, even though I found the endnotes a bit distracting, I do think they will be very helpful to people who want to verify research. The list of references is chock full of resources.

I also felt that the writing could have been more polished. This book reads as if the two authors sat down and typed it out without having an editor wade through some of the redundancies. Consequently, some of the material is wordier than it needs to be, particularly in the sections where letters and emails are quoted.

Overall

I think this book may very well be offensive to some readers. If I shared it with my husband’s daughters, for instance, they would probably dismiss it as being full of lies. On the other hand, I don’t know that this book would appeal so much to the casual reader, either, since it takes a somewhat academic approach. I think this book will be most valuable to readers who have been in the Morin brothers’ shoes at some point and have some understanding of where they’re coming from.

Sadly, this book has probably already been labeled as “anti-Mormon” literature by some of the people who might benefit from it the most. In case anyone is wondering, I didn’t get the feeling that these authors had a chip on their shoulders or an axe to grind regarding Mormonism. They even state several times that they value many things about the church and still live the clean lifestyle favored by church members, minus the temple garments. But I fear that some people will still want to dismiss it because it’s a book about two guys who fell away from their religious beliefs… beliefs that were chosen for them before they had the chance to decide for themselves.

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book reviews, celebrities

Repost: Brooke Hayward explains how her family went Haywire

Here’s another reposted book review. I originally wrote it for Epinions.com on January 9, 2012. It was reposted on my old blog exactly six years later. And now, I’m reposting it again, almost three years after the last repost. As this was written in 2012, please bear in mind that some things in my life have changed since then.

Television has certainly changed since I was a child.  Back when I was still at a tender age, movies of the week were very common on the big three networks.  I remember back in 1980, there was a movie of the week starring Lee Remick and Jason Robards called Haywire.  Though my memories of the actual film are hazy, I did remember the movie was high on drama and based on a book by the same name written by Brooke Hayward.  When I recently got the urge to read something new, I went looking for Haywire.  To my delight, it was available on Amazon.com, both in print form and for the Kindle.  I downloaded a copy and spent the next week reading all about how Brooke Hayward’s family went “haywire”.

Who is Brooke Hayward?

Being a child of the 70s, I haven’t seen that many classic movies.  Consequently, I am not all that familiar with Brooke Hayward’s mother, Margaret Sullavan, who was a successful actress and film star.  I’m also not familiar with Brooke Hayward’s father, Leland Hayward, a reknowned Broadway and Hollywood agent.  But the two were at one time a couple and their marriage produced three children: Brooke, Bridget, and Bill.  Besides her turn as an author, Brooke Hayward is known for being Dennis Hopper’s first wife and a model and actress.

Brooke Hayward has also had many famous stepparents.  Her father was also married to Nancy “Slim” Keith and Pamela Harriman.  His first wife was Lola Gibbs.  They divorced, remarried, and divorced again before Brooke was born.  Also before Brooke was born, her mother had a brief marriage to Henry Fonda and a slightly longer marriage to Hollywood director and screenwriter, William Wyler.  At the time of her early death, Margaret Sullavan was married to Kenneth Wagg, an investment banker.

How things went “haywire”

Haywire is, at its core, a book about growing up with Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward as parents.  But at a deeper level, this book is also about being a child of divorce and an innocent bystander to mental illness.  This book was written in 1977, before people talked about how divorce affects children.  Indeed, when Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward split up, divorce was not nearly as common as it is today.  It was a source of shame.

In her elegant writing style, Hayward describes how Leland Hayward and Margaret Sullavan grew up and eventually came together, even though they were very different people.  Leland Hayward liked to live a fancy life, while Margaret Sullavan was more grounded and determined not to let their children grow up spoiled.  Hayward liked the city, while Sullavan preferred the country.  Hayward was a sophisticated jetsetter, while Sullavan remained faithful to her Virginia roots.  They were a mismatched couple, even though their marriage lasted a somewhat respectable (by Hollywood standards, anyway) eleven years.

When Brooke Hayward’s parents split up, she and her brother and sister were asked to take sides.  By Hayward’s account, Margaret Sullavan was very possessive of her children and would manipulate them through guilt.  When they had disagreements with her, Margaret Sullavan would suggest they go live with their father, suggesting that it was somehow a punishment.  One day, Bridget and Bill Hayward agreed that, yes, they would prefer living with their dad.  Apparently, that revelation drove Margaret Sullavan to a nervous breakdown.

Aside from problems stemming from their parents’ divorce, Bridget and Bill Hayward had significant mental health issues.  Both committed suicide.  Bridget died of a drug overdose in 1960 at age 21, just months after Margaret Sullavan’s own suicidal overdose.  Bill Hayward died in 2008 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Both Bridget and Bill spent a great deal of time in mental hospitals. 

Interspersed with her ruminations about life with two world famous but troubled parents, Hayward injects plenty of tales about her contemporaries.  Peter and Jane Fonda were contemporaries and Brooke, Bridget, and Bill spent a lot of time with them.  She describes the elegant lifestyle she enjoyed, despite her mother’s determinations to prevent her children from being spoiled by excess.

This book was updated in 2010 and has a new epilogue, which updates readers on how Brooke and Bill turned out.  There are also pictures which looked great on the Kindle.

My thoughts

I am not a child of divorce, but I am a stepmother to my husband’s two very alienated young adult daughters.  I have only met my husband’s daughters once and they haven’t spoken to my husband since 2004.  Like Brooke Hayward, I have had an up close and personal look at the way divorce can screw up children.  On ther other hand, divorce can be a lifesaver when two people don’t get along.  And if it’s done correctly and the parents put their kids first, it can be a good thing for a dysfunctional family.  Naturally, it works best when parents can cooperate with each other. 

As I read Haywire, it appeared to me that Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward did, on some level, try to co-parent.  Sullavan didn’t like sending her kids to see their dad, but she did at least allow them to maintain that relationship.  However, Brooke Hayward’s account is very telling in that Sullavan was adept at emotionally blackmailing her children.  She made disparaging remarks about Leland Hayward and, though she might not have done it on purpose, asked her kids to take sides.  Clearly, this kind of manipulation eventually took a toll on all three children.  While most children of divorce do grow up without having to do time in a mental hospital or prematurely ending their lives, Hayward’s account of how she missed out on time with her father is very revealing. 

Leland Hayward was not blameless either.  He was somewhat guilty of being a “Disney Dad”, lavishing gifts and money on the children in order to assauge his guilt over not being around.  He was not faithful to Sullavan and that was one of the reasons they split.  I’m sure there was guilt stemming from that as well.

One thing I was glad to see is that Brooke, Bridget, and Bill seemed to get along with all of their stepparents.  I did notice that they seemed to like some of their parents’ choices more than others.  For instance, Brooke really seemed to like her first stepmother, Nancy, more than she liked socialite and future U.S. Ambassador to France Pamela Harriman, who was married to Leland Hayward at the time of his death.  Of course, Pamela Harriman is a fascinating subject all on her own! 

Overall 

While I can’t claim to be a fan of Margaret Sullavan as an actress, nor did I ever follow Brooke Hayward’s acting career, I will admit to liking Haywire.  It’s a fascinating read on so many levels.  It’s entertaining for people who enjoy reading about classic film stars.  It’s also great for people who like to read about family systems.  And now I’d like to re-watch the film that prompted me to read this book.

An ad for the made for TV movie, which was based on the book. I remember watching this film when it aired.

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