Monday, July 8, 2019

Unrighteous Dominion

Back in the day, Brigham Young University would select twelve young men and twelve young women each year for the university’s most prestigious and generous scholarship, named after the Mormon church’s current president. The finalists were flown to Utah for a weekend of competitive bonding. Being chosen as a Spencer W. Kimball Scholar remains one of the great honors of my life.

President Kimball served as the Mormon Prophet from 1973 until his death in November 1985. He bore a strong resemblance to his contemporary Yoda – short and ancient, with a croaking voice that could move mountains. He was one of the most godly individuals I've ever encountered.  

In the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, Elder Price’s big number is “I Believe.” The song is a catalogue of accurate yet outlandish-sounding tenets of the Mormon faith – such as “I believe … that in 1978, God changed his mind about black people.” 

That’s President Kimball’s legacy. During the nineteenth century, the Mormons picked up a lot of racist myths and folk theology. As a result, no one with a “drop” of African blood could be ordained to the priesthood, or participate in the Church’s most sacred rites. After the purported doctrine became increasingly untenable in the 1960s and 70s, President Kimball was the one who finally had the vision to open the temple doors to everyone, regardless of race.

Unfortunately, Spencer W. Kimball’s myopic successors in Salt Lake City still haven’t had the courage to ask God what She thinks about the way they’ve treated women and LGBT people. Or the humility to listen to the answer.

Even without the plaque from BYU, President Spencer W. Kimball would be one of my personal heroes. Nevertheless, I must acknowledge that President Kimball single-handedly did more damage to me and countless other LGBT Mormons than anyone or anything before the church's shameful role in the Prop 8 campaign. 

As Bryce Cook wrote in his comprehensive history of the divide between the Mormons and the gays:

Spencer W. Kimball’s popular book, The Miracle of Forgiveness, first published in 1969, devoted an entire chapter to homosexuality, entitled “Crime Against Nature.” As one LDS historian explained, “[This chapter] is the earliest and most comprehensive treatment on homosexuality by an apostle, and the foundation from which Mormon thought, policy and political action on homosexuality grew for the past 45 years.” 

Kimball described homosexuality and homosexuals using terms such as, “ugly,” “repugnant,” “ever-deepening degeneracy,” “evil,” “pervert,” deviant,” and “weaklings.” He taught that it was a spiritual disease that could be “cured,” and to those who felt otherwise, he responded: “How can you say the door cannot be opened until your knuckles are bloody, till your head is bruised, till your muscles are sore? It can be done.” 

This “curable-disease” mindset – based on obsolete psychological thought from the 1950s and 1960s – was embraced by Kimball and other church leaders because it aligned with their spiritual views of homosexuality. They believed that homosexuality was a psychological or spiritual malady that could be cured through intense repentance, self-mastery and even marriage to the opposite sex. This belief informed the church’s ecclesiastical approach and training of leaders, as well as Mormon mental-health therapists, for years to come – and it was probably the most psychologically and spiritually damaging of all the church’s teachings on homosexuality

I read The Miracle of Forgiveness multiple times when I was a teenager. I carried the book around for years, before finally throwing it out when I moved houses this January. Nevertheless, I don’t remember a word of what President Kimball said about gay people, in his book or anywhere else.

I had to have known. But I couldn’t associate the man I loved and admired with this ignorant and hateful message. So I repressed or disassociated my memories of the Prophet as homophobe. No doubt that made the experience all the more traumatic.

One of my other conflicted legacies from Spencer W. Kimball is journal writing. President Kimball himself was a lifelong diarist, and regular journal writing was one of the themes of his tenure as Prophet, along with finally freeing the slaves, encouraging all members to maintain a year’s supply of food storage, and weirdly fetishizing Native Americans. (I’m not sure what the current Mormon fads are under President Russell M. Nelson, other than avoiding the word "Mormon.")

Ever the dutiful Mormon boy, I conscientiously wrote page after page in journals from my youth through my mission in Korea. Today these volumes fill multiple boxes in storage.   

I hate reading old journals from my Mormon days. Occasionally I appreciate how they evoke happy memories, like road trips with my high school and college friends. But eventually the conflicted subtext overwhelms and shames me. No matter how blandly affirming the words on the page may be, on some very visceral level they also trigger repressed emotions and memories about what was really going at the time. How can prose be both leadenly earnest yet also clumsily dishonest? 

In contrast, I enjoy coming across material I wrote after leaving the Mormons and the closet, before writer’s block dammed my output. Nowadays it’s a treat to go back and read my blog posts from a few months ago. Frankly I don’t remember writing most of them. But I recognize and like the guy in the stories.

In July 2015, I left a successful career in private practice in Seattle and accepted a job with the Attorney General’s Office as the chief legal advisor to Western Washington University. My parents have lived in Bellingham for 38 years, and my ex and his new husband had moved to Bellingham the prior year. My new job therefore was a tremendous coup for my family, particularly my three young children. In addition to its perfect location, the position at WWU was my dream job because it involved fascinating and rewarding legal work in a stimulating environment that I intended to enjoy until my retirement.  

Unfortunately, within a short period of time this dream job turned into a nightmare situation. Soon after starting work in Bellingham, I began to experience unprecedented and severe symptoms of stress and anxiety, including insomnia, bruxism (teeth grinding), and trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling). In November 2015, my new doctor diagnosed me as having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A specialized therapist helped identify how my symptoms were rooted in traumatic events I experienced thirty years before, when I was an overachieving, closeted gay Mormon missionary and student at BYU. 

When I told my therapist about my youthful journal-writing habit, she suggested I delve into the archive. I pulled out the volume from Fall 1981, when I entered BYU. I didn’t have to read very far.

My very first journal entry after arriving at BYU was about our Sunday School lesson that day. The text was from Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants. (Not satisfied with the Bible and the Book of Mormon, the church compiled additional revelations by the Church’s founder Joseph Smith, Jr., into a third book of scripture.)

What is now Section 121 of the D&C comes from a sixteen-page letter written from jail to members of the church in March 1839. The Mormons had been forced to leave Missouri by jealous mobs and the governor’s infamous “extermination” order. Joseph and several other church leaders were imprisoned in Liberty, Missouri, on trumped up treason charges. 

The epistle begins with Joseph’s prayer for God to relieve his distress and smite the Mormons' enemies. God responds by saying things could be worse, but they’re going to get better, and offers a rhapsody about all the blessings and wisdom waiting for the saints.

Then the letter’s tone and point of view suddenly change, asking a question about the nature of leadership – why are many called, but few chosen?

The answer:  when most people are placed into positions of authority, they “aspire to the honors of men”:  “we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control of dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men.” 

God (or Joseph) concludes with sorrowful words that I can still recite from memory almost forty years later:

We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. Hence many are called, but few are chosen.

In March 1839, the Mormon church was less than nine years old, and Joseph had struggled to attract trustworthy converts. He was understandably focused on “volunteer management,” as we say in the nonprofit world. Lord Acton famously observed that power corrupts, while absolute power corrupts absolutely. “Unrighteous dominion” is Mormon shorthand for the sad phenomenon of petty power corrupting pettily.

My healthcare providers and I figured out that my PTSD symptoms were rooted in the traumatic disconnect between my identity and my repressive Mormon upbringing, and the resulting sense of powerlessness, repression, being silenced, or rendered invisible. But what had triggered these debilitating new symptoms after thirty years? 

I kept reading my Utah journals, but I didn’t really need to. My therapist identified my reporting relationship at work as a primary trigger for my PTSD symptoms. As WWU’s full-time general counsel, I was responsible for coordinating all the university’s legal work. However, in a unique bureaucratic tangle, I reported to my local colleague Kerena Higgins, rather than to the Bellingham Section Chief or to the Education Division Chief. 

Kerena is an Assistant Attorney General in the Bellingham office whose assignments included devoting half her time to advising a handful of WWU departments. Kerena had spent her entire brief legal career in the Attorney General's Office. Her role as “Team Leader” and thus my nominal supervisor was her very first management assignment. 

Kerena mishandled the situation by engaging in petty tyranny and self-aggrandizement, and undermining my efforts to assume the general counsel role. The effect of her conduct, the bizarre reporting arrangement, and my employers' bureaucratic actions had the effect of evoking or “lighting up” the trauma and stress of my youth.

Part of the tragedy is that the Attorney General’s Office hired me because the university clients said they wanted a skilled general counsel, rather than a bureaucratic hack. At least that’s what they said at the time. Here’s what my employers at wrote in their letter introducing me to WWU’s then-President:

Roger is an experienced attorney who is joining the Attorney General’s Office specifically for this assignment. Roger was admitted to practice in Washington in 1990. Roger spent seventeen years in private practice in Seattle from 1990 to 2015, most recently at Davis Wright Tremaine, where he worked from 2002 to 2015 and was a partner from 2011 to 2015. In addition, Roger worked at the ACLU of Illinois from 1995 to 2000. Roger has extensive litigation and appellate experience which has included many of the substantive areas that arise at universities, including public records, contracts, employment, and civil rights. He has also acted as a generalist in litigation, and demonstrated a high capacity for learning a wide variety of legal areas. We believe this experience and these abilities make Roger well qualified for this role…. 

We are pleased to have Roger join the Attorney General’s Office and to step into this general counsel role. We believe that Roger fits the criteria that our office sought for this position well, and that he will meet the criteria that you discussed with us when we met in April. 

Nevertheless, within weeks of my arrival, for whatever reason, Kerena and a few others at the Attorney General’s office set out to undermine my efforts to fill the university General Counsel position. Intentionally or unintentionally – at this point it doesn’t really matter. 

Tort law recognizes the concept of the “eggshell skull” plaintiff. Even if you didn’t tap very hard, you’re still responsible for the catastrophic damages that ensue if you happen to pick a particularly vulnerable victim. In my case, it’s everyone’s tragic misfortune that my novice supervisor’s “unrighteous dominion” resonated with the specific traumas I endured during the course of my gay Mormon youth three over decades ago, and triggered debilitating new PTSD symptoms.

I don’t know what it would be like to work with Kerena Higgins as a professional colleague.  Rather than with her as an insecure, envious, and inexperienced “team leader” who – just like me – was placed into an awkward position by unthinking bureaucrats.  

After the university general counsel job went to me rather than to Kerena, I described the odd reporting arrangement to my best friend at the law firm in Seattle. He told me he had a bad feeling about it. Hell, I had a bad feeling about it. But I’m always quick to give others the benefit of the doubt, and quicker to blame myself for any problems. That’s why it’s so easy to gaslight me.

I also agonize over big decisions. On my next trip to Bellingham, I entered Old Main for my first time. From the university’s online directory, I’d figured out the location of each person’s office in the Attorney General’s suite. I wanted to see if Kerena had moved next door into the larger office vacated by my now-retired predecessor as the university’s general counsel. 

Some days I wish Kerena had been honest enough to acknowledge her belief that a “Team Leader” always outranks a “General Counsel” and therefore deserved the corner office. Maybe I would have walked away.

Instead I got a parking ticket and PTSD.

Up tomorrow:  "Passive Aggression"

After each episode of Game of Thrones, the online magazine Slate asks “who is currently the worst person in Westeros?” “Westeros” is the fictional continent whose throne everyone is fighting over on HBO. “Western” is the shorthand everyone in Bellingham uses to refer to our community anchor, Western Washington University. My former employers at the Washington Attorney General’s Office hired me to serve as Western’s chief legal advisor, then spent the next year abusing and discriminating against me. When I’d made enough progress with PTSD to share some of the stories about my experiences, I decided to borrow Slate’s framing device. Stay tuned to see who will ultimately be crowned as the Worst Person in Western-eros…. 

Click here for other episodes of "Who is the Worst Person in Western-eros?"

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoy reading your blog.
    I hope you are finding good coping mechanisms for when your anxiety flares up. Recovery is always too long.
    I wish you and your family well durning this absolutely insane year.