The women who want to drag you down

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A previous outtake from my memoir The Accidental Terrorist ended with these lines:

Women wield a strange power over the male missionary—even women who don't exist. Perhaps especially women who don't exist.

There's another scene in the book that addressed what I was alluding to there—at least, I thought there was. When I went looking for that scene, I couldn't find it. I had to dig way back to the second draft of the book to locate it, and now I'm not sure what possessed me to take it out. Believe me, it's going back into the latest draft.

Names, of course, have been changèd.


One landmark event that took place on the border between January and February was my first mission conference. Every six months or so, it seemed, the entire mission was summoned to Calgary for a full day of training sessions, activities, and inspirational meetings. Almost the entire mission, I should say; I caught up with most of my district from the MTC that day, with the exception of Elder Vickers, the one I really wanted to see. I suppose Prez found the cost of flying him and his companion in from Yellowknife prohibitive—if not in terms of money then in terms of man-hours lost.

The conference was held at the largest stake center in the city, and late in the afternoon, after what already seemed like an endless succession of meetings, we filed into the cavernous chapel to hear addresses from our mission president and from our visiting General Authority, Peter G. Murdock.

We sang “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” as an opening hymn, and after short, fluffy talks by the Apes and President Tuttle, President Murdock took the pulpit. Besides his responsibilities as one of the Seventy, the governing body next in authority to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Murdock was top man in the church’s missionary department. This alone made him scary enough, but on top of that he was the closest Mormon equivalent to a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher I’d ever heard speak in my life. With his broad shoulders and strong jaw, he might have played a convincing fifty-year-old Superman—if Superman seethed and snarled when he talked, that is, and threatened to pound the pulpit to flinders as he underscored the points in what was less a sermon than a vitriolic harangue.

There was no joy in President Murdock’s delivery, though he lectured of joy, no charity in his pitiless gaze nor love in his flinty heart, though he invoked a God of love and charity both. His method was not to inspire or ennoble his stripling warriors, but to terrorize us into a docile, slavish, by-the-numbers execution of our duties. Bitterly, in what struck me as more a threat than a warning, he recounted the story of an elderly woman whom missionaries in Germany had baptized into the church a few years earlier. “After she came out of the font, elders and sisters,” he spat, “the bishop laid his hands upon her head, and in the course of conferring upon her the gift of the Holy Ghost, he was inspired to tell her that she might have joined the fold forty years earlier if only the missionaries then had paid attention to the promptings of the Spirit and not bypassed her door, and that those elders would surely suffer the pains of Hell for the sake of those unnecessary years of darkness and sin!”

This story chilled me, as I’m sure it was meant to, but it was nothing compared to the arctic freeze that descended on the chapel as Murdock ranted about the moral quicksand waiting to snare those of us who took a single ill-considered step off the straight and narrow path. “You watch yourselves out there,” he barked. “You gird up your loins with the armor of God, especially you young elders, because this world is just crawling with women who would love nothing better than to drag you down.”

We might have been spared any elaboration on that dire pronouncement if it weren’t for Sister Roper. Into the space at the end of Murdock’s paragraph Roper coughed a harsh and disbelieving laugh, loud as a gunshot. She was sitting behind and to one side of Snow and me, and I turned my head just in time to see her clap both hands over her open mouth, eyes wide with shock.

A stunned and frigid silence reigned for two short seconds, which is all the time it took for President Murdock’s face to suck every last remaining particle of warmth out of that chapel. He went from white to molton red before most of us could remind ourselves to breathe. Mouth quivering with rage, he thrust his head as far out over the pulpit as it would go and thundered, “Do you think this is FUNNY, Sister? Do you think it’s a JOKE when a district leader and his companion tract into a house with only a mother and her teenage daughter at home, and within five minutes the daughter is performing oral sex on one elder in the bedroom while the mother does the same to the other in the LIVING ROOM? Maybe YOU’D like to be the one who has to listen to stories like this EVERY WEEK, and then explain to the poor, hard-working parents why you had to EXCOMMUNICATE their stupid sons! WOULD YOU LIKE THAT?

I couldn’t swear to it, but I think I saw teeth marks in the pulpit when Murdock’s tirade was over. The rest of that meeting could fairly be described as anticlimactic, and while I’m not sure what sort of resentful thoughts might have occupied the sisters as they filed out of the chapel after the closing prayer, I believe I have enough insight into the psychology of elders to know what was on their minds:

“Jiminy Christmas! How come stuff like that never happens to me?

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on February 12, 2015 12:47 PM.

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