Saturday, July 16, 2011
Emotional Abuse within a Missionary Companionship, Part 1
I thought about saving this story until later since this is still a new blog, and we are still establishing the direction the blog is going to go. However, I feel that this is a story that needs to be told, and for some reason I feel motivated to tell it now. In this first post, I will explain my relationship with my missionary trainer and my emotional response to that relationship. I also want to comment on the ways in which the missionary culture impacted this relationship. In the second post, I am going to discuss how this experience impacted me later in life.
I left for a mission in the middle of my junior year at BYU. I had always really wanted to serve a mission, so was genuinely looking forward to the experience. Overall, I had a positive experience in the MTC. However, because of various circumstances I ended up changing districts and companionships after about a week there. Additionally, I was supposed to finish part of my MTC experience in Provo and part of it in another country, but due to the lack of other sister missionaries at the other MTC, I ended up spending the whole time in Provo. When I left, I was assigned to a travel group, which consisted of me and one elder who I had never met and who was a native Spanish-speaker. Most missionaries start their mission with a cohort of others who they had got to know in the MTC. However, on my first day, I ended up in the mission home with about fifteen elders whom I had never met before. I believe that the transfer meeting was the next day. All the missionaries who were being transferred met in a chapel close to the mission home. One of the most exciting parts of these meeting was the time when the new missionaries were assigned to their trainers. As each new missionary and trainer were announced, they would stand up and meet each other in the chapel and then sit down together. I was assigned to a short Latin-American sister with long curly hair. She was a native Spanish-speaker (which wasn’t rare in our mission), but she grew up within our mission area (which was rare).
I don’t remember much about those first couple of days together. I do remember that the first time we entered the apartment and she was showing me around, she pointed out the air conditioning in the bedroom and told me that I should never touch it. I said something like, “Oh, ok” and didn’t think much of it. The first couple of weeks together didn’t go very well. She had a tendency to criticize almost everything I did. She didn’t like the way I opened the car door and told me to open it softer so I wouldn’t break it. She didn’t like the way that I brushed the car mats when we cleaned the car because she said that I needed to do it harder in order for them to really get clean. She treated me like I was completely incompetent and that she had to direct or correct my every move. Since we were together 24/7, this criticism went on all day, every day. It was obvious that she struggled with being patient while I tried to figure out the language and what I was supposed to be doing as a missionary.
In addition to the constant criticism, her mood vacillated a lot. She would act very happy and energetic one moment, and then be very angry the next. These bouts of anger were very hard to predict and would completely catch me off guard. I would do everything I could to keep her happy, but I just couldn’t stop the criticism or the anger. After a couple of weeks, I noticed that she had a “public face” and a “private face”. Most of the other missionaries and members seemed to like her ok, as she saved her anger and volatility exclusively for me. It is amazing how quickly her behavior started to change my thought patterns. I became more and more focused on what would potentially set her off. I would wake up every morning with the goal of not making her angry. I would keep careful tabs in my mind of things that had set her off in the past with the goal of not repeating any of those actions. I would also try to anticipate additional things that might set her off in order to not perform those actions. I remember one time, we were returning to our apartment because a senior missionary couple was meeting us there. As we met up with them, my companion was talking with them and I was walking a little ahead of the group and reached our apartment door first. I realized that the door was slightly ajar because we accidentally hadn’t closed it when we left that morning. I quietly pulled the door closed until it latched before my companion got there (she carried the keys), so she wouldn’t know that it had been left open. I knew that if she found out, I would be blamed and chewed out later for this oversight.
In order to give a more detailed idea of what it was like to live within this companion, I thought I would share a couple of additional concrete examples. We were told repeatedly that we were always supposed to stay with our companions. In her mind, that meant that I was my responsibility to always stay right next to her. One time on p-day, I was reading on my bed when she told me that she was going to go get the mail. A couple of minutes later, she reentered the apartment and threw the mail on the floor in a fit of anger and became furious with me for not following her to the mailbox. Another time, we were in a store together and she popped over to the next isle to grab something. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do. Was she walking down her isle and I was supposed to meet her at the end of it? Was I supposed to stay there and wait for her? I decided to start walking slowly down the isle. She came back and was furious that I was leaving without her. When we would get in the car together she would jump in the driver’s seat and start the car. As I would reach for the handle of my door, she would jerk the car forward a couple of times until I was finally able to open the door. One time she was really frustrated with me so she drove off down the street, leaving me standing in the rain. She stopped the car a little up the street so I walked up to it and got in. When I sat down in the car she had the AC on full-blast and when I turned it down (because I was wet and cold) she turned it back up and chastised me for adjusting it.
A natural question that might come up, is why did I put up with all of this? Why didn’t I tell the mission president about her behavior or request a transfer? I think there are several explanations for this. First of all, I came into the mission with a desire to be the best missionary I could which included learning from and following the direction of my trainer. I think it was because of this mindset that I tried harder and harder to do things the right way. Secondly, I had the type of personality in which I wanted to please other people and have positive relationships with them. Somewhere along the line, I had learned that if a relationship with someone wasn’t working, than you should just work harder to set things right. Third, it is amazing how quickly I came to fear her and her power over me. A couple of months after my mission, the news broke out about Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping and later recovery. I remember sitting in a BYU class in which other students wondered why she hadn’t tried harder to get help or tell someone who she was. I felt like I understood to some degree why she hadn’t said anything. Early into my companionship with my trainer, we were reading the missionary manual during companionship study. We read a line about not criticizing your companion behind his or her back. My trainer looked at me and said, “That is really important.” I quickly developed such a fear of her and her power that I didn’t know how to speak up about what was happening without her finding out. Much of what she did was about maintaining her power over me. One morning early in the companionship I woke up and the AC in the bedroom had been turned off. I asked her what happened and she commented, “Oh, I got cold so I turned it off.” I originally thought that she told me not to touch the AC for some mechanical reason, but now I realized that she was “allowed” to touch the AC while I wasn’t. Another time, an investigator made some crabs for us to eat. I really wanted a picture of myself eating crab, but didn’t have my camera. I asked my trainer to take a picture with her camera. I held the crab up to my mouth pretending like I was going to bite into the hard shell because I thought it would make a funny photo. She refused to take the picture because I wasn’t eating the crab the right way and wouldn’t take the photo until I changed what I was doing.
During the last couple weeks of our companionship, I became an empty shell. It was easier to deal with what was going on if I became a robot that did my trainer’s bidding and didn’t feel anything when she lashed out at me. I didn’t talk very much anymore (at least with her) and she commented on my silence (to which I didn’t respond). I racked my brain about how to tell the mission president without openly criticizing my trainer. Even though the interview would be private, I had a fear that somehow my trainer would find out what I had said about her. During my interview with the mission president I couldn’t contain the tears as I told him that our companionship just wasn’t working because our personalities were too different.
I also found out some additional things about about my trainer. I found out that she had originally been assigned to a mission in the states, but that she got “really sick” (her words) and got sent home for a while. She was then allowed to return to the mission field within her native country. She showed me a photo album with pictures of her when she was in the states. Many of the photos showed her with two companions. When I commented about that she snapped the book shut and said something like, “Oh, that mission president just liked to do things like that.” We were together for 6 weeks total (only one transfer) and then she was moved to a different area. Our district leader commented about how unusual it was for my trainer to be transferred because they usually keep trainers and trainees together for a while. My trainer responded, “Yeah, she is happy to get rid of me” while I said nothing. I stayed in the area and was assigned a companion who had only been in the country for a couple of months. I was so happy that I finally had the freedom to make decisions and be myself again that I didn’t mind taking on a lot of responsibility. My trainer was assigned to a companion who was the type of person who didn’t take crap from anyone. After a week together, she told the mission president about my trainer’s behaviors and my trainer was sent home from her mission early.
Later in my mission, I served in the stake where my trainer attended church. During a stake conference she saw me and walked by wagging her finger at me. I was wearing sandals, which weren’t allowed while she was still a missionary. She said, “Oh, now that I am not your companion anymore, you think you can get away from anything.” I replied, "the new mission president is fine with it because I have been having a lot of trouble with my feet” (which was true). She dismissed this with, “Well, new mission presidents will let people get away with anything." I couldn’t believe that after all that time she was still trying to control me.
I share these experiences for several reasons. First of all, I think that it is important to know what abusive relationships feel and look like so they can be identified and avoided. Secondly, I think there are some aspects of church culture that contributed to the nature of this relationship. My trainer was put in a position of power over me and I went into that relationship with a desire to follow and listen to her. Additionally, as members of the LDS church we feel like we should not question church leaders and their decisions. Early into the companionship, I believed that my mission president had used inspiration to assign us together. I didn’t want to question that decision and wanted to be a good team player. Later into my mission, I found out that many of the sisters that had been companions with my trainer had had very negative experiences with her. I don’t know if they ever told the mission president about her behaviors, but I doubt it. At least the implications of a mission president who would assign someone like that to be a trainer are too scary for me to contemplate. Maybe these other sister missionaries were afraid, like I was, or maybe they didn’t want to question church leadership. However, I learned a valuable lesson from this, not speaking out about abuse can have serious implications. I have never come across any other posts on Mormon blogs that touch on this subject, but I am sure that there are other missionaries who have had similar experiences. I think that it is important for members of the LDS church to be aware that this does and can happen, and for mission presidents to be trained in identifying and preventing these types of situations. In the next post I will discuss how this impacted my life post-mission.