"When Religion Encourages Abuse:
By Brian Evenson
Many things can serve as a motivation to write fiction— things read, conversations overheard, something momentarily glimpsed then lost, an unusual juxtaposition of objects on a desk. Most of the time my motivations for writing remain implicit, not quite taken in by the conscious mind. Father of Lies, though, is the exception: I know exactly what led me to write it.
I first had the idea to write Father of Lies while teaching at Brigham Young University. Coming back to Provo after living several years in Seattle, I was hyperconscious of the way in which a few Utah Mormons saw their involvement in the Church as an excuse not to think. "We don't need to think: our leaders think for us." I began to imagine a religious leader who would take advantage of this blind obedience, using his position to hide the worst sins. Guessing such a book might not fly at BYU, I pushed it out of my mind.
Before long, I was in the middle of a controversy concerning my first book, Altmann's Tongue. An anonymous student wrote a letter to a general authority, suggesting the book was immoral and that I must be evil. The general authority (still unidentified) passed the letter on to the university. I was asked to write a response to the student and did so without knowing who she was. I had a strong defense for my position, but as I met with administrators, including President Rex Lee and Provost (now General Authority) Bruce Hafen, it became clear that they weren't interested in hearing why I was writing; they were interested in getting me to stop writing. My department chair wrote a memo suggesting that further publications like Altmann's Tongue would bring repercussions. Hafen suggested that another book of fiction like Altmann's Tongue would only work against my staying at BYU. Even after I received an NEA Creative Writer's Fellowship, they didn't change their position.
I left BYU, taking a one-year job at Oklahoma State University, which quickly converted to a permanent position. I took a few months to relax and recuperate, thinking about what to write next. I spent some time working on Father of Lies, but eventually set it aside.
In early 1996, I began to reread Andrew Vachss' crime novels, which deal with child abuse with sensitivity and great knowledge without denying the need to reveal and destroy the darkness in conjunction with healing the abused. I read Linda Sillitoe's admirable novel, Secrets Keep, about a family on the Wasatch Front forced to face secrets they've ignored for years. I remembered a few people I thought I'd known well growing up. Later I found they'd been abused. Somehow I hadn't known—hadn't wanted to know.
Then came a fine article in The Event called "Keeping Mum on Mormon Sexual Abuse," that a friend in Utah forwarded to me. In the article, Marion Smith, founder of the Intermountain Specialized Abuse Treatment Center, chronicles abuse in the Mormon Church, shows the Church's hesitation to make changes, and makes a chillingly convincing case for the way in which silence allows abuse to breed unchecked. Not long after, I read the first volume of the Case Reports of the Mormon Alliance, which contained case studies of child abuse in the Mormon Church. Difficult reading, it helped reinforce the seriousness and the extent of the problem, made me begin to think again about Father of Lies.
I began to speak about abuse with other Mormons. Often they agreed there was a problem, but said it wasn't as bad in Mormonism as in other religions. A relatively small number of people were being abused. It doesn't sound so bad if you think of it in terms of numbers, I suppose, but as soon as you start putting names and faces with the numbers, you realize that percentages don't matter: what matters is that there are children and adults who are being abused and who are being given harmful counsel from their religious leaders. What matters is that much of it could be easily prevented.
I began to write Father of Lies again. I began to speak to therapists and individuals who had suffered from abuse. I learned about ChildTrauma Academy, a child trauma program doing the finest cross-disciplinary work on child abuse that I know of. I read extensively in psychiatric literature. I was a priesthood holder, a former member of the high priest leadership and a former bishopric member: I had seen the Church system from the inside, could make some good guesses about how the system could be abused, felt the potential for abuse needed to be revealed.
Even though the final book adopted a broader sweep than just Mormonism (since abuse is a problem in many religions), Mormonism is still at the heart of the book for me: I'd like to see my own religion make much-needed changes. Some Mormons have told me I'm crazy to write a book of this kind, that I'm just asking for trouble from the Church. But I've reached a point where I don't want to collaborate any more by remaining silent. If the price of religious faith involves setting aside your convictions in favor of blind obedience, is it a price worth paying? For me, it isn't.
Brian Evenson is the recipient of a 1998 O. Henry Award and the author of four books of fiction, most recently, Father of Lies, Four Walls Eight Windows.
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