Mujer Non-Grata: An Ongoing Series on Life in a Cult, Healing from Religious Trauma Syndrome, and Navigating Life after Religion
To read other posts in this series, click here.
It always started with chatter.
We wouldn’t have acknowledged it as gossip—but we knew chatter. You see, youth group kids? Youth group kids are experts at concern trolling—offering prayers as penitential asides to the gossip we could trade like currency for power.
“Did you hear about Melissa*?”
“Hey, what do you think about this whole Melissa thing?”
“Girl? Did you hear? I can believe it…”
I manage to almost make it a full day without engaging with this particular news of the day, but gossip is the unavoidable rot of any close-knit community, especially those that seclude themselves from others. It always finds you—either as a victim or a participant—and it found me that day in the St. Thomas More Cathedral bathroom after the 5:15 p.m. daily mass. Cornered by a petite senior named Laura, the not so secret self-professed resident Catholic Student Union (CSU) gossip, I am trapped as she ushers me to one of the back stalls, her face aglow.
“Oh my gosh, did you hear what happened? It’s awful! Just awful!” Though she is whispering, there is unmistakable glee in her voice. There is nothing she likes more than being the first to let someone in on CSU news.
“No,” I sigh, looking for any polite excuse to walk away. While I will shamefully admit that I love myself my daily dose of Perez Hilton and celebrity gossip, I try to stay away from the CSU gossip, having been at the center of it more than once.
“What’s up? Did someone die?” I say, my sarcasm, as usual, going over Laura’s head.
“Well, you know how that girl Melissa loves to go out and party—how she always drinks when she is out and how she is just so…”
I give a halfhearted nod, refusing, for the millionth time, to explain (to another woman!) that a woman going out is not a sin. While I did not have the language at that time to explain slut shaming or rape culture, I still prickled when engaging in these conversations. I still knew they were wrong.
“Well, she got so drunk on Saturday at a frat party or something that a guy took advantage of her.”
Laura’s eyes widen dramatically, like an anime character, waiting for me to respond.
“I know, right! She was just wasted!”
I take a deep breath; I try to hide that my hands shaking.
“What do you mean some guy took advantage of her? Was she raped? What the fuck happened? Is she ok?”
Laura frowns in disapproval—my language, as usual, a point of contention with the women in the community.
“Well, he had sex with her when she was so drunk...” she repeats, her tone forcing me to focus on my distorted reflection in the paper dispenser behind her head. I am truthfully afraid that if I make eye contact, I will hit someone for the first time in my life—and while she is petite, she would knock the shit out of me, rosary in hand.
“Is she ok?” I ask again, steadying my voice. “Do you know if she reported it or if she went to the ER? Does she have anyone as a support system?" I feel nauseous, past memories washing over me, triggering a physical reaction I wish would go away. I want to sit down. I want to throw up. I don’t know Melissa well, but we are friendly and I feel shattered hearing about what has happened.
“How would I know what she has or has not done?” Laura spits out, visibly annoyed she did not get to have the conversation she had hoped for. For her, this news is salacious, not devastating. “I don’t want to embarrass her, ok?” she says, taking out her expensive compact, powdering her nose while taking a minute to admire her reflection.
“I mean, she must be so embarrassed. I would die.”
Before I can say or do anything, a gaggle of loud freshmen girls walk into the bathroom, giving me the perfect out. I slip away without another word to do the only thing I know how to do at this time. I sneak back inside the now locked Cathedral, it’s pews empty and dark, and find the farthest row in the back to sit myself down and cry.
2 YEARS EARLIER
“Alicia, I really do not want to go out tonight,” I say, pouting dramatically while pointing at my bed.
“Oh no. No, no, no. Not tonight. No way. We, my fair lady, are going out tonight and it is not negotiable.”
She throws me a dress from her closet, stealing worn-out pajamas from my hands.
“Ally..." I sigh. "Can’t we just stay in and watch Finding Nemo?” I reach for my blanket.
“Nope,” she says, laughing. “We are going out. We are young and we will live this night like true Seminoles!”
I begrudgingly change into her dress, sipping on my usual pre-party whiskey. For all of my resistance and feigned exhaustion, I have never regretted a night out with Alicia. She makes even a simple dinner at Po’boy’s with friends seem like an adventure.
I am lost in a crowd of drunken students, the blur of garnet and gold impairing my senses. I spot my friend Levi outside, smoking a cheap cigar under the canopy of a Spanish moss-covered tree. I shamelessly steal a cigar from his vintage case and sit by the raging bonfire—whiskey and country music pulsing through my veins.
I smile and think to myself, “This is why I came to Tallahassee.” The smell of firewood and the crackle of the red-blue flames lulls me into a drunken bliss.
Hours go by. Well, maybe hours. It could have been minutes. I have lost track of time.
“Hey, where is Alicia?” I ask, realizing I have not seen her since we arrived.
I reach over and tap a very stoned Levi on the shoulder. “Hey, have you seen Alicia?”
He shakes his head, stretching his neck as he looks around to see if he can spot her.
“Let’s look around, ok? I am ready to head out anyway...” he says, brushing ash from his shorts. While not entirely sure either of us can drive home, I am also ready to go-, impatient to take my bra off and climb into bed.
I dial Alicia’s number, but it goes straight to voicemail, as usual. I can hear her voice in my head, obnoxiously reminding me that, “Voicemail is for dinosaurs, bitch.”
“So, the last time you saw her was?” Levi asks, scanning the crowd again.
“With those guys from Pensacola—the ones we met last year, remember? Her family friends?”
“Oh, yea." he says, rolling his eyes. "The football douchebags!”
I push him playfully, laughing as we enter the house, a cloud of smoke enveloping us both. Every corner is packed to the brim with intoxicated students.
We look everywhere for her. “I don’t see her!” I yell over the music, now tired and beginning to fade. But Levi comes over with a concerned look on his face.
“Marci, come with me!” Levi yells back, yanking my arm so hard I pull back in pain. Apologizing, he leads me through a crowded hall to a closed bedroom at the end of a dark hallway.
“I heard some of the guys talking…” he says cryptically, pounding his fists against the closed door.
“Alicia! Ally! Ally! Ally can you hear me?” His tone frightens me, his frantic screams miraculously booming over the thumping music.
“Levi? What are you…”
But then I hear it. Though faint, there is someone crying inside that room.
“Is that Alicia?” I gasp, my heart racing.
Levi throws his entire weight against the door. He does this again and again and again.
“Alicia,” Levi yells, pulling me away. “If you can hear me, we are coming in, ok? If you can, move away from the door.”
Folks have begun to gather around us like vultures waiting for a kill. Not a single one offers to help us get into the room, though. Not one.
Levi rushes at the door again, this time finally cracking it in two. I stare at the shards of wood, shocked that the door has given in.
Alicia is laying half-naked on a disgustingly messy bed, a man twice her size pinning her down below him, his enormous hands clamped tightly over her mouth.
It suddenly hits me. I recognize this man. I know him. We have broken bread together. We have drank together.
I know him--and so does Levi and so does Alicia. We all know him.
Mitch is one of Alicia’s best friends. They have known each other for as long as they can probably remember, having taken summer vacations together and celebrated holidays with each other’s families.
Mitch seems as shocked as we are that Levi was able to brake through the locked solid wood door. Panicking, he pushes Alicia off the bed, her head hitting the hardwood floor with such force I am sure he has killed her.
Levi lunges for him, but Mitch is just too fast. He sprints for the door, his pants and underwear a twisted mess at his feet. I launch at him, unsure of what I am planning to do. Realistically the most I can do is hurt myself, but I do what I can and improvise, clawing at his face, streaks of blood rushing down his cheeks as his skin gets caught underneath my nails.
He howls in pain and throws me against the wall like a rag doll. I hear something crack, but force myself to stand up and move past the pain. I need to get to Alicia.
“What the fuck is wrong with you, you stupid cunt!” Mitch yells, indignation in his voice as he runs out of the room, his pants still at his feet.
The crowd makes way for him, cheering his escape as if he has won some sort of gladiator battle.
Standing, I suddenly feel woozy from an extremely sharp pain on my right side. “Maybe I hit the wall harder than I thought?” I think, stumbling over to Alicia, grabbing a wrinkled blanket off the floor to cover her and try to warm her up. She is shaking violently. I see Levi searching for her clothes on the floor.
“Alicia,” I say, trying to muster my calmest voice to come forth from the depths of my fear and rage. “It is going to be ok. You are going to be ok.”
My voice breaks, so hoarse from yelling that I start coughing, but I continue to whisper encouragement in her ear, hoping to break through the dull stare that has taken over her beautiful face.
She does eventually look up, but her olive eyes, usually so full of life, look over my shoulder to the crowd of voyeuristic assholes in the doorway.
“Go away!” I yell, choking on my own fury.
One man timidly asks, “Is she ok?” He looks ashamed.
“Where were you five minutes ago? Where were you when we needed help?” I hiss, slamming the door in his face. I hate them all.
I hate them. I will always hate them. I can still see their faces.
“Marci…” Levi says, handing me a wrinkled shirt off the floor.
“You’re bleeding. Your nose.”
I look down. While I cannot see my face, my borrowed dress is covered in blood. I wipe my face with the back of my hand, a mixture of tears and blood now running up and down my forearm.
“Alicia," I say, pulling her close, trying to get the tangled hair off her face. There is vomit on her shirt and the skin around her mouth is already beginning to turn shades of purple, yellow, and blue.
“We have to get you to the hospital, doll,” Levi says to her slowly, hoping she will understand that we want to help.
“No,” she says, her voice high and frightened.
“Yes.” Levi says gently, but no less firm. “We are going to the ER. You need to see a doctor.”
Her body goes limp in his arms as tears stream down her face.
“I drank too much. I should have—you didn’t want to—stay home, you said…”
Every mumbled word is a dagger to my heart. I hold her hand and squeeze ever so gently, careful in case anything is broken.
“Alicia, this is not your fault.”
But she is no longer listening . She has laid her head like a child’s on Levi’s shoulder, her eyes closed as she sinks into a restless and painful sleep.
“What did the doctor say?”
“Well, they are talking to her now. Marci, he broke her jaw. That mother fucker held her down so hard he broke her jaw. They think she has broken ribs too and probably a concussion.”
“Are the cops here? She needs to file a police report.”
Levi looks at the floor, a pained expression on his face.
“I don’t know. You know, she’s known him her whole life. Their families are friends…”
“Levi, she has to! He can’t just…” I am struggling to form sentences. “We can’t let him get away with this!” My hysterics have caught the side-eyes of the nurses in the hallway.
He looks at me, eyes bloodshot, exhaustion carved into his face. Everything I need to know, I can read in his expression.
Alicia will not be pressing charges.
“She doesn’t want her parents to know…”
A young doctor interrupts us, holding the x-rays they had taken of my side when we had come in.
“You have two broken ribs, Miss. The nurse will come in to go over your care plan and some pain management for when you are discharged and can go home. Police officers are also here if you wish to speak to them. Please know that it is your decision how you proceed. You do not have to speak to them. You are an adult and do not need to let anyone know anything you do not want them to know. You do not have to put yourself or your family through any of this.”
The doctor walks out, leaving Levi and I alone again in the sterile hospital room. He rushes over, frantically whispering into my ear, “Alicia told the police she doesn’t know who did this. She said she didn’t see his face and that we didn’t either."
I shake my head, rage tears staining my mascara stained cheeks.
“Marci. You didn’t see him, ok? Do this for Alicia. The cops already told her how this will ruin her life if it gets out and how disappointed her family will be if they find out. She could have to leave school. We can’t do that to her. You can’t do that.
He looks me straight in the eyes, his strongest weapon at the tip of his tongue and he knows it.
"You would never tell your parents what happened and you know it. You would never tell. They would bring you home and we would never see you again. ”
And he is right. I would never tell. They would never know.
A women’s meeting has been called for Wednesday after daily mass. Dutifully, the women of CSU file into the dingy student lounge, playfully fighting over the better couches with the more worn-out comfy spots. While no one has explicitly told us why this meeting has been called, we all know it is meant to address what has happened in the last few days, at least in the abstract. Why else call a women-only meeting that typically happens later in the year?
Brother William walks in, one of the youngest brother’s working for the Brotherhood of Hope in Tallahassee. He asks us all to settle down so we can begin and not take up too much time.
He is so young, barely a novitiate, but he has become a sort of student liaison, his youth an ally in the Brother’s evangelization on campus. The students trust him because he feels like one of their own. That is probably why he was chosen to speak to us that day, assuming that we would relate and listen to the closest thing to a peer within the order's power structure.
“Well, I am sure most of you know why we are here,” he begins, a slight hesitation in his voice. He is visibly nervous, uncomfortable in this space with us, uncomfortable with women in general.
I scan the room, spotting a woman who I think is Melissa in a corner of one of the more worn our sofas in the back of the lounge. Like I said in previous posts, time dulls the edges of even the best memories. Maybe it was her. Maybe it wasn't. But her eyes are shut, obscured by the hair falling over her face, her fingers absentmindedly thumbing a rosary.
“As many of you know,” Brother William pushes through, “we all struggle with our fallen nature in a world that tempts us at every corner. Given the current atmosphere on campus and our own recent experiences as a community, I thought this would be a good time of year to have a modesty discussion with the women of CSU.”
I look around the room, hoping someone—anyone—will speak up and acknowledge that this is wrong. This is not the time for a modesty talk. This is not the place or the crowd for a talk about women's modesty. This is the opposite of any reasonable and compassionate pastoral approach to healing our community, in particular for those like Melissa who have been victims of sexual abuse. Who knows how many others were in that room. The statistic is 1 out of 4 women in college is assaulted before they graduate. How much more modest could we be? We were already dressed like Duggars, every piece of "scandalous" skin covered.
I look to Melissa, but she is staring out a window, hunched over in as close as a protective fetal stance as she can manage.
“We all know our brother’s in Christ are, by their very own masculine nature visual creatures and it is because of this that you, as their sisters in Christ, must protect their hearts and guard their purity and your own. Your modestly and pure hearts are the greatest weapons men have against Satan's temptations and their own selves. You truly are a special type of a warriors.”
I do not hear what comes next. I am sure there was talk about the sexual allure of collar bones and ankles, but I can’t remember. I think I blacked out from rage. God, I wish we had all tackled Brother William (metaphorically speaking) in some sort of act of solidarity in the face of utter this modesty bullshit. What I would do to go back to that moment and to say what I wish I had said--to dissent so loudly that someone would have heard me. I wish I had yelled. I wish I had told Brother William to fuck off and how the only solution to rape is to teach men NOT TO RAPE. But I didn’t. I didn't have the knowledge to challenge the toxic rhetoric we consumed day in and day out about our bodies and existence as women and men in CSU. In my mind, I had no agency whatsoever.
I did stand.
I stood with as much grace as a baby giraffe discovering her legs for the first time. I am even surprised myself, amazed that my body has the will to physically take over, the need to leave that room instinctual. As I make my way out over a see of women, I catch Brother William's stare, his face full of concern. For the first time, I see that he is not all powerful. He is afraid. He is afraid that I will make a scene or that I will challenge him. For the first time in a long time I feel powerful. This pathetic young kid on a power trip is afraid, even more afraid than I am. He is afraid of a woman and her voice, unprepared for disagreement. I glare at him for a long time, long enough for those in the room to know that I was leaving on purpose and that I was being defiant—but I do not say a word. The thing about a cult is, you will never make ground from the inside (and I know that is a controversial position even amongst "liberal" theologians, but I have to speak to my own truth). I was never going to change anyone's mind in that room in that moment, but by leaving I could at least save myself. I grab my worn out Vera Bradly bag, never to return to CSU again.
I have so much to say about this particular set of anecdotes from my time in college and in CSU—but to try to deconstruct purity culture, rape culture, and toxic masculinity will take more than a short author’s annotation at the end of an already extremely long blog post.
I will say this, though. I am still haunted by what happened to Melissa and Alicia—haunted by CSU’s response and the Brother’s decision to address Melissa and others like her and their trauma with victim shaming and discussions on how not to get raped. I am haunted by the discouragement and slut shaming Alicia and I felt at the hands of not only police officers, but medical health professionals. The language around protecting men’s hearts and preventing scandal is and always will be an attack not only on the dignity of women, but also a false narrative about the nature of men.
Toxic masculinity is rampant in our culture. It perpetuates the myth that men have no agency over their sexuality and their sex drive, that women must and need to protect themselves from men’s sexual urges and their own sexuality (and that they themselves have no personal sexual drive), and that our fallen nature somehow supersedes our ability to be good, have agency, and understand consent.
I refuse to believe these lies—and they are lies. They have always been lies and they will always be lies. Men and women are both sexual beings with sexual needs, wants and desires. These needs, wants, and desires are good and they are natural and they make us human. Men and women are responsible for always asking for consent before engaging in any sexual or physical encounter with anyone. Men and women should not need to fear each other as sexual predators or temptations. Men and women are not bound as sexual creatures to only feel entitled to their sexuality if it is tied to reproduction or the denial of said sexuality as an offering for God.
Our culture teaches otherwise. The Church teaches otherwise. The Brother’s taught otherwise. CSU believed otherwise and became a flagship for toxic relationships, forced and manipulated vocations, and abusive marriages.
The trauma that comes from this distorted approach to sexuality is still with most of us who were involved with the Catholic Student Union and with anyone who comes from this type of evangelical/conservative purity culture. It is also, I believe, the most sinister of the scars we bear. We are marked by these invisible scars even if we cannot identify them by name. We are always trying to untangle ourselves from this trauma. THIS. IS. SPIRITUAL. AND. EMOTIONAL. ABUSE.
This trauma lives in the priests and pastors who fear women as threats to their vocations, celibacy, and the future of the Church.
This trauma lives in the priest and pastors who fear their own sexuality as their own personified Satan—projecting this distortion on those who offer them community and love. The trauma becomes their prison.
This trauma lives in every youth group where men and women are taught to fear each other and themselves—the corruption of sexual theology and identity leading to broken men and women who fear their bodies, other’s bodies, and attachments to other persons, existing in shame because they are sexual beings who long for connection but have been told this is sinful and an impediment to sainthood.
This trauma lives within all married couples who struggle to see their sexuality as not solely tied to parenthood and pregnancy, already so indoctrinated with purity culture they cannot help but feel dirty and broken as sexual beings who enjoy the pleasures of being physical and intimate with their partners for any reason other than reproduction. This is particularly cruel for those who feel broken when they cannot have children and are at a loss for how to process that loss, grief, and healing within a relationship that, according to our theology, now lacks a certain foundational meaning. The same goes for those who do not feel called to have children at all.
This trauma lives in every single woman (and man) who has been called a vocation vampire or a chalice chipper struggling to understand how their very existence, value, and personhood could be a threat to God’s will or God’s love fir his sons (and daughters).
This trauma lives in every single woman who jumps when someone simply taps them on the shoulder because, as my favorite spoken word artist says (see below), we are easily startled.
This trauma lives in every single LGBTQ priest who teaches and perpetuates hatred from the pulpit while secretly hating themselves more behind closed doors, forever caught in a cycle of denial, repression, isolation, deception, and hatred.
This trauma lives in every single LGBTQ parishioner who feels orphaned by a church that judges them more for their sexual preferences than the purity of their hearts and their devotion to their fellow brothers, sisters, and communities .
This trauma is in all us and we are all a part of perpetuating it, regardless of if we are ever even able to acknowledge it's harm in our own lives and how we inflict it on others. Again, as a truly awful priest once said to me, " Truth is truth is truth, right?"
And we are rape culture. This is the truth.
My hope for all of us is this:
Break the chains. See this spiritual abuse for what it is and learn to name the evil. We owe it to not only ourselves, but to those who will always come after us. There is always healing for those who feel their brokenness at the hands of spiritual abuse and misogyny is meant to hide behind the shadows. At a minimum, there is always love and community.
The always amazing Blythe Baird and her spoken word piece Girl Code 101.
* All individuals’ names (excluding mine and organization names) have been changed, as have some details that would disrespect the privacy of those involved.
**Again, a quick reminder that while I am an academic and a writer--this is a reflection piece and it will not be perfect. I write this because I think it needs to be written and needs to be out there. We all need to talk about religious trauma more. I truly believe it is through community that we will begin to heal.