Speaking My Truth: My Life in a Polygamist Cult

           We live in a culture where virtually no subject is off-limits:  people casually reveal their SAT scores, the word underpants is bandied about is if it were light bulb.  A few days ago I was standing in the shampoo aisle at a department store and behind me two women (obviously strangers to one another) were chatting.  One said, “I tried that one, but it’s not the same color as on the box.”  I turned, and they were discussing which hair color most thoroughly hides “the gray”.  They might as well have said:

GRAY WOMAN #1:  Yes, my uterus is thoroughly atrophied.

GW#2:  Mine as well.  And I’ve become frigid.  I just decided, “Enough is enough.” 

GW#1:  I told my husband:  thirty years, thirty years.  Get yourself a little street chippie if it’s so important to you.

            Naturally I fled the store without my purchases.  Given such delicate sensibilities, I know it will seem incongruous that I would now wish to tell my own sordid tale:  that of having been reared in a polygamous cult.  But to my dismay, nothing is being written about this most secretive and shameful element of the religious life.  Stand in the new releases/non-fiction section of any major bookshop and there won’t be four or five memoirs lined up side-by-side on the subject.  Read the news and it’s just not being discussed every day.  My goal is to bring what is hidden into the light.  I would like to do the same for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but like most people, I believe what happened (and happens) to me is the only way for me to understand what is happening at all.  If I don’t know myself, love myself, and pity myself, how will I know, love, and pity people thousands of miles away, doing God knows what with sand and goats?

            I grew up believing that the only way into the Celestial Kingdom was through the taking of many spouses and the making of many children.  In our branch of the KQRW, we were married very young, so we would have other children to play with while our parents played Canasta.   We weren’t expected to reproduce until twelve or thirteen, because it took us that long to figure out what ‘reproduce’ meant.  The leader of our church was the Prophet Ezekial Yoder, whom God had decreed to lead us all into the Kingdom of Heaven, and not just through marriage but also through laboring on his farm without compensation.  There was no greater gift than to be humbled in this way.

            The Prophet declared that he had had a vision, and I was to be spiritually married to a boy named Leroy Glipenheimer.  The preparations were made, and here is a photograph of me with my dad on my wedding day:

 

However, Leroy, at ten, was not prepared to enter the Kingdom (although I appear quite happy in this photograph, and I was:  my IQ is what is called ‘borderline high-functioning’).  Leroy absconded on his little sister’s bicycle, which he managed to ride all the way to Gary, Indiana.  His maternal grandparents, believing their daughter to be clinically insane, adopted Leroy and thus was my first marriage thwarted.

            The Prophet then decided my sister and I were to marry at the same time, I to a young man named Jedediah Jackson, and she to . . . I forget his name.  Absalom?  Titus?  Philemon?  Here we are on our wedding day.  [Aside:  the KQRW believed tricycles should only have one wheel in the back as a form of spiritual discipline.  My father removed my second wheel, and I am ashamed to say I sometimes put it back on so I could ride faster.  As you can see here, I was in the process of putting it back on when my nuptial preparations interfered.]

 

            My grandmother joined us for the happy, spiritual occasion.  Lin and I loved her very much.  Oh, we sure did love her.  We loved us some Grandmother.  Melinda’s face is such a portrait of love I could cry.

            Alas, my betrothed Jedediah stole his father’s favorite Arab horse and rode off into Kentucky.  He and his family eventually reconciled, but by then he preferred to be called Bill, and he had ‘married’ outside the faith.  She was a woman called Amber Dawn and I understand she is much enamored of the racing cars.  They have been shunned, but are sometimes unshunned for holidays.

            At this point the Prophet prayed heavily and with a sincerity of praying that revealed unto him that I should not be married until I was thirteen.  I was disappointed, because playing with boys was often more fun than with girls, as boys loved baseball and running and shooting BB guns, three of my favorite activities.  At thirteen I was given my first husband, Tim, and we were hand-joined, wrist-bound, broom-jumped, swatted with empty paper towel rolls, and then we took the ceremonial walk around the block.  Tim was quite a bit older – eighteen to my thirteen – so he introduced me to really good music, but he refused to touch me because it would have immoral.  So we listened to Steve Martin records instead [STRICTLY APOSTATE AND WOULD HAVE RESULTED IN US BEING TARRED, FEATHERED, PLUCKED, UNTARRED, AND MADE TO GO TO SCHOOL], and he was a good husband to me.

            Shortly after, the Prophet announced he had found my second husband, Fox.  Fox was very different than Tim in that he slept outside, ate only what he hunted, and ran trap lines along the river.  He was persistently gamey.  He made extra income by working in a fertilizer plant, and I confess to having very unholy thoughts about Fox, as he was fit from outdoor work, he had long, brown wavy hair, and the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.  Even his teeth were beautiful.  Alas, Fox was 23 to my thirteen, so he too refused to consummate our relationship.  Here is a photograph of Fox and me walking down the road from a KQRW Fellowship convention.  I am inappropriately dressed, having just performed in a skit.  Fox is wearing his customary bison head.  It’s clear that he was a good husband, as he is carrying the heavier pelt.

            Husband #3, Job, could run long distances; Husband #4, Israel, was extremely tall.  All were strong in their faith.  Husband #5, Stacey, was homosexual, and that was one of the few times the others became jealous, because he and I used to stay up late at night, looking at my one secular book, 1,001 Uses For A Dead Cat, which caused us both to cry with laughter.  When it was His Night with me we used to hide under the blankets to read it, but the others could still hear us giggling.  The Prophet had a false leading with Husband #6, He Of Whom The Less Said The Better, and I finally had to go the Leader himself and say that if he did not undo the ankle-fast betwixt me and the Dark One, I would be forced to tell the church The Prophet Ezekiel’s secret:  he himself had broken his vow against the secular world, and knew all the words (even the ones that weren’t actually words) to every Flock of Seagulls song.  Husband #6 was removed from the compound and shunned, and the Prophet was visioned that even though #6 will live a long life, he will spend eternity circling the Lake of Fire on a tricycle missing a back wheel.

            I now spend my days with Husband 8, Jonah, as the Prophet has moved the others around to other women who need children.  The women are the head of the household, the men are the body, and they must go where they are needed.

            I appreciate this opportunity to share my truth.  Growing up polygamous was very nice for me, and I met many good men that way.  Thus I am crippled by shame and self-pity, and I recommend it for any woman who just doesn’t have that special something that allows her to be monogamous.  I was a victim, and am grateful for the experience.

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Published in: on June 30, 2008 at 9:20 pm  Comments (38)  

38 Comments

  1. I’ll bet your a hoot at Creative Memories parties.

  2. You’d probably be interested in reading my blog about my days growing up in a Jewish Polygamist sect – Oy Shlegetz – led by the the Ashkenazi Prophet Shlomi ben Nafka. After my Bar Mitzvah, my family received daily visits from our sects most ‘nosy’ Shadkens, who always tried to match me with one of the five sisters from the Frankel clan – Chana, 12; Riva and/or her twin sister, Rifka, both 10; Rachel, 8; and Elizabeth, 6, who we all just referred to as the Shiksa looking one. By the way, every Bar Mitzvah’ed boy in our Shul had called Dibs on Elizabeth.

  3. This is bugging me to no end…I meant to type the word “you’re.”

  4. Kate, I made two typos IN the blog entry and I haven’t fixed them. So don’t be feeling like anyone in this particular glass house is going to be throwing rocks at you.

  5. sadly, my first husband in polygamy was my cousin. we do expect, however, that this union will result in offspring who are somewhat more suited to our faith.

    p.s. completely delighted that you were picked as a favorite and your interview on The State of Things was re-aired.

  6. Amanda, I’m so glad you escaped from South Carolina and left those kissing cousins behind.

    Sweet baby Jesus, Bob Jarvis could even make a brown suit look cool.

    Zip, where your shoes at? Couldn’t at least one of them husbands buy you some?

  7. Oh, it’s not you. I have this terrible fear that my mother is following me around the internet with a red pen.

  8. I am concerned. What happened to husband number seven? Was it too traumatic to remember? Did you block it out?

  9. Isn’t it just like me to leave out #7? I swear, I’d lose my legs if they weren’t attached. (P.S. ARE they attached? (P.P.S. Can’t remember him. He did something with irrigation.)

  10. The look on Melinda’s face made me laugh so hard I KNOW that feeling.
    I am trying figure out what her sash says in the other picture Miss Sesquicentennial Pincher ?

    I know that kinda sucked. But I have the courage to say stupid things from time to time.

  11. I realize of course that with 8 husbands it’s hard for you to remember my #1…so let me refresh your memory. His name was Larry, he had a birth defect so his hand was crooked and his fingers were tiny…he couldn’t hold on to his french fries and utensils were completely out of the question. He died a tragic death in a swap filled with aligators in Florida…they didn’t find him for days. He was buried in one of my favorite outfits, his banana yellow ruffled shirt and his black velvet dinner jacket. We taped a picture of our 12 children to his stubs. How easily you forget my pain. I love you anyway.

  12. PRIVATE TO MELINDA MULLENS: Oh, how you fabricate. You may recall that at Larry’s funeral you and I were standing at the casket, and even though much of him had been ‘given over to the alligators,’ the casket was open. It is true about the twelve photographs taped in the coffin, but as we stood there very very silently and for a long long time, unsure of what to do or say, I looked at the stubs and said, “Yep. That’s Larry.” And you made SPITTLE.

    Your pain is always on my mind. As mine used to always be on yours. And I love YOU.

  13. Private to HavenKimmel

    It’s true of course, but I could barely write the words without reliving the entire sadness of it. I only made it through because you….love of my life reminded me while we looked down upon his death face that “never was there anyone as close to your own dear face of Elvis…as Larry”. Thank God my #6 and #11, LisaMarie and BabyAaron carry his blessed genes. Plus they’ve learned to eat their french fries with their toes. Something that you…my most precious heart taught them.
    I love you more…and sorry about spelling alligators wrong…I was dripping while I wrote.

  14. Most people believe the polygamist sects are out west (in places like Utah). They’d never understand the Hoosier connections.

  15. There are several polygamist sects in Indiana. While I wasn’t raised in such an environment, I did join one in 1972. It was located on a farm between Daylight and Paradise, IN. The community — composed of nine men, 16 women, and 43 children — supported itself by selling the world-famous “Who’s Your Bar-bee-que” sandwiches. I am certain you have heard of it. We also generated income from selling Chinese-made Amish quilts and chilled cantaloupe balls from various roadside stands along heavily traveled U.S. 41.

    I personally was the husband to four women during my time at the ParaLight Soul Farm. Though our bishop and head cook frequently arranged marriages, I have to honestly say that I married for love in each one of my weddings.

    All in all, I would say that my cultish experiences were fairly positive. Eventually, I was ex-communicated from the group for theological differences that arose after I made the mistake of openly challenging our leader over whether it was the Angel Homer or Jethro who had revealed to us the recipe for our heavenly barbeque sauce, which was made from Double Cola, Hunt’s ketchup and Indian Summer vinegar extract. While our leader said it was Jethro, I had a vision one night that it was, in fact, Homer who had etched the cooking instructions on the back of a yard sale sign near Moreland.

    I haven’t told this story to many people so I am very grateful to this haven Haven has created for us.

  16. Off topic, I know, but any possibility of making some book appearences in New York this fall? Discovered your extraordinary talent with The Used World but happened upon it too late to catch you in person.
    Looking forward to the film version of Solace of Leaving Early–will certainly be worthy of springing for a babysitter. (The fabulous Richard Yates novel Revolutionary Road apparently will also be making it’s way to the big screen soon)

  17. PRIVATE TO JEFF: Thank you for the very informative comment. You did me a mitzvah.

  18. Jen Weiss, you are extremely kind, but the odds of you ever seeing the film version of Solace onscreen are precisely the same as if, when you were two years old, your grandmother gave you a dollar bill on which she had written your name. Let us say some forty years pass; bills are taken out of circulation; magicians set them on fire, etc. And then you are in a bodega in New York and a Pakistani man hands you your change and there is that same dollar bill. Those odds.

    Mike Nichols has optioned it; indeed, he has paid a screenwriter 4,592 times what he paid me, and that will be the end of it. When his partner called to say they wanted the book and actually pretended it would be made into a film? I said, “Mr. Brokaw? Forgive me, but I am not a cagey person. I appreciate your enthusiasm, and we both know how unlikely it is that either of us will see that film. I’m glad you liked the book, though.” He laughed. I believe he is accustomed to people . . . how to say it, sucking up?

    But I’m very happy you enjoyed The Used World. I worked long and hard on that book, all the while trying to make it look effortless, which is just a stupid thing to try. All best wishes.

  19. George Stuteville, you are some sort of evil genius. You know the hidden ways of Indiana and of the occult utopian communities there. I am shocked, awe-struck, and I have a slight pain in my right shoulder.

    We surely know one another and you have adopted an alias, for obvious reasons. I have a question for you. I met a man whilst abroad (in North Carolina) and he was a Hoosier by birth. He said, “If you’re really from Indiana, what do Hoosiers call a green pepper?”

    You are on, sir.

  20. MICHAEL T., DUDE! It said Mooreland Fair Queen. What else could it have said?! That is polygamist royalty you see standing there. The most beautiful girl who ever lived, although deeply wicked.

  21. John M., You said, “Zip, where your shoes at?” You know who that sounds just like? ZIPPY HER DAMN SELF!

    You need to move back now. You have been at your ‘career’ long enough. Thank you.

  22. I know what Hoosiers call a green pepper!
    Can I throw down a gauntlet too? The real item for the word grows where I currently reside…

    The real Hoosier test is knowing what to serve underneath chicken n’ noodles…

  23. RUH ROH, George Stuteville, if you are indeed he: Tasses knows the answer to the first question and I know the answer to the second.

    Oooo! True story! One year my sister brought chicken and noodles to my Mom’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. She had made them in the morning and the turkey process went rather slowly, as it does, oh, and also Mom opened the oven door to check on the pumpkin pies and the over rack fell out sending liquid pumpkin pie flying into the next room. So at one point Melinda said, “Haven, check those chicken and noodles and make sure they’re hot enough.” I opened the lid and said, “Yep, they’re at a slow boil.” I turned to walk away and noticed that THE FLAME WAS NOT ON BENEATH THEM. I reluctantly opened the lid again and indeed, there was noodle fermentation going on RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. I was scarred FOR LIFE. Mercy, I might have to lie down.

  24. I growed up eatin’ Hoosier queasyene. In answer to the culinary questions, let me tell you a story. This one, we’ll set in town of Folsomville, which is about halfway between Buckskin and Tennyson, but closer to Santa Claus actually.

    It was the annual Stuteville reunion — an event populated by 200-300 of my first cousins, a bunch of aunts and uncles, several dogs, a goat on grill and the ash-filled urns of my grandfather, George Washington Stuteville, and his brother, Grover Cleveland Stuteville, (Theodore Roosevelt Stuteville was still with us then, I think.)

    My uncles had been sitting up all night with the goat, which they were roasting on a set of bed springs over a pit of coals. About noon or so, they let it be known that it was about time to eat, and if anyone was hungry, they’d better damn well get over by the food tables so we could have prayer and then get down to business.

    While my brother prayed, I sleeved my Bud in a foam rubber IU thingie to keep it warm and got in line. Shoot, I filled my plate with some of that hot mutton, slathered on the barbeque, got a piece of Sunbeam bread, a spoonful of green bean casserole, a square of jello with carrots imbedded in it, a dollup from one of the dozen or so pasta salads that were offered, a pinch of greens and cucumbers (I knew my Mom would be watching.)

    Now, my aunt Myrtle had made her customary stuffed green mangos — a hellish concoction of onions, ground meat — but I passed them up. Naturally, she took notice and umbrage, shouting out, “What’s a matter, Bo, don’t you want none of my stuffed mangos?”

    Knowing how feverishly she must have worked alonside Satan in the kitchen all morning, I did the polite Hoosier thing and lied: “I love ’em, Aunt Myrtle, but they hate me. If I eat one, it’ll be instant heartburn and I don’t have no Tums or Rolaids out in the car.”

    “That’s, ok, Bo. Just make sure you get you some of my deviled eggs,” she replied, perhaps a bit too cheerfully.

    Before I got out of the line though, I went for a bowl of chicken and noodles — a true delicacy from my Aunt Donna Kay. But can you image how my disappointed I was to see that there were no biscuits to rest my noodles on.

    “Somebody forget the biscuits?” I asked.

    “Nope, but somebody forgot the Bis-Kwik,” said Aunt Anna Mae, who was the oldest of Dad’s sisters. “So, Bo, why don’t you just put your noodles over these mashed taters? That’s what they do in Kentucky”

    Me, generally never being one to try to strange foods, went ahead Anna Mae’s suggestion, and I am here to report that it was quite good.

    Memorable, in fact, and I probably would have never remembered it except for the recent challenges to prove my Hoosierness.

    PRIVATE TO HAVEN: Hint…there is a chance, a very small one, that you may have read something I wrote.

  25. George, you came, you ate, you conquered. I bow to you. And the WAY you slipped in the mango, making it STUFFED, which is archetypal. In fact, all of this is so rich with verisimilitude I’m wondering if you shouldn’t just take over the blog for me, and I’ll take up the French horn. I worried about the answer to the chicken and dumplings, because my family was from Kentucky, so we ate them over mashed potatoes. (Not those Thanksgiving ones, you know, the ones that looked like they were being made in a black plastic trash bag in prison? Fresher ones.) But I learned to eat almost anything on or under a biscuit.

    O HERE’S A GOOD ONE. My dad used to order a cup of coffee at a diner, pour some in the saucer and soak it up with a biscuit. Hmmm — until this moment that always seemed particularly unsavory but now I’m wondering if I oughtn’t try it.

    PRIVATE TO GEORGE: Who is highest scoring high school basketball player from Indiana, and under what conditions might I have read something you wrote?

  26. PRIVATE TO GEORGE: Really all this talk about mangoes is a way of avoiding the real topic: what happened to the days when everybody had a story, and there were reporters cranking them out with a kind of freedom completely oppressed these days? Another thing that we must begin considering is our insatiable need for gossip in American politics. I’ll bring this up the next time I talk to my friend John D. at IUPUI. He likes it there, as generally an undergraduate college is the wellspring of a university. (I can’t really parse that sentence.) My brother sure has noticed the changes in our cultural and political life, as he graduated in 1971. Things were very different then. I still think biscuits and coffee is a good idea.

  27. Haven,

    Boy, that anecdote about the bubbling pumpkin pie (translation: punkin) was a potboiler, if I ever heard one.

    And your father’s practice of sopping up coffee with a biscuit is an improvement over the Southern Indiana practice of draining the cup in the saucer and then slurping from it, doggie-style.

    So, this week I had just returned to work from a week’s vacation to find The Used World leaning against my computer monitor in my cubicle. It was a gift from a co-worker who knew I loved all things Indiana. His note said: “You’re going to love this.”

    Last night, I forced myself to slow down because I was reading it too fast. Now I am about halfway through and getting ready to go online to buy the Zippy memoir. (My cat’s name happens to be Zip.)

    As for the highest high school basketball scorer of all time… Well, if my Google serves me correctly, I think the honor probably goes Herman “Suz” Sayger, who scored 113 in that March 8, 1913 blowout between Culver vs. Winamac. Culver beat the famous Winamac School for the Blind and Lame, 154 -10; Sayger had 56 field goals and one free throw.

    Course, it depends on how you define, “highest.” I think my cousin Billy’s efforts in 1993 should not go unremarked. He scored three points and a bag of pot while extremely loaded on crystal meth during the contest between the Cannelton Miners and the Ursa Majors.

    ———————–

    MORE PRIVATE:

    Haven, I can tell from your hints and you smoked me out. I used to be a reporter for The Indianapolis Star. I worked there more than 20 years and there is a teensiest-weensiest chance you may have read one of my pieces. I spent half my career in Washington, DC, but I also worked the state desk for several years, pursuing stories that often took me up to your neck-o-the-woods. I did a rough estimate once on my crime-related stories and came up with more than 300 murders that I wrote about (not to mention the savage butchery I wreaked upon the English language.)

    And you are right…this talk about mangos and biscuits enables us to avoid the real topic and it is this: the route between two Hoosier towns, Liberty and Freedom, seems virtually impassable no matter how smooth the chip and seal.

    Why is this?

    I have been out of the newspaper business for a number of years now and have thought a lot about what you asked. I have come to one conclusion. It’s not a sexy one and it is not necessarily a theory of oppressed freedom.

    You asked what happened to the days when everybody had a story and reporters had the unoppressed freedom to crank them out.

    Here’s what I think. As a society, we don’t have a lot of context to draw from. I also think as a society, we could stand some editing but I will save that diatribe for another day.

    In the days when I was a reporter, covering the herd movements of the brontosaur, exciting cave makeovers, the melting of the glaciers over Delaware County, hot sex between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons and the discovery of important flint-based campfire technology, there existed in the newsroom some sort of implicitly understood ranking system of what was important to readers and what could be important to readers.

    In those days, we had context. We sought content. We controlled the media.

    Now, thanks to the Internet and any other number of mass media delivery devices from YouTube to text messaging, the media is almost completely democratized. Anyone with a story, can tell their story, can tell it any way they want, and probably reach as many people as we ever did in newspapers.

    This is the First Amendment on steroids and Starbucks!

    Something that pops up on MySpace potentially carries the same gravity as it would in the New York Times.

    It is a free market mall of truth and lies and libel and facts and funnies and slander and slime, porno, subprime and sublime. Together it is the screaming shrill of everything and every topic can rise above its own relative level of importance if it is loud enough.

    We are gagging on content! Total freedom, baby.

    Problem is that it all competes for attention at the same level: LOUD and UNEDITED.

    Because everything matters at the same level, not a damn thing matters at all.

    Invade Iraq and then bring it on to Iran? Sure, why not? Just wait until Britney Spears regains custody of her children and Jon Benet Ramsey is found alive and living in Area 51 with her reclusive uncle Elvis Presley.

    For those in the news business, this din means an unrelenting news cycle.

    Editors demand to “Gimme what you got for now!” Practically speaking, the time it takes a reporter to comply means one less call to a source, fewer moments to research and NO time for context.

    We brought a lot of it on ourselves when editors began to succumb to market pressures first brought on by cable tv and US Today that lead to the commoditizing of news.

    The language of the newsroom provides a clue. When I first got to The Star, we had a writing coach and a lot of us spent time considering such “technical” things as narrative lead paragraphs, transitional sentences…you get the idea. When I left The Star much of the talk about journalism dealt with how a story was to be “packaged.” Did it have a photo? Chart? How about an illustration or a timeline? Was it worthy of the prime shelf space, Page 1? If not, could it be pumped up?

    There was more pressure on reporters to deal with their editors’ typographical angst than the topographical relations among who, what, when, where, how, and most importantly, why!

    Finally, why is there such an insatiable need for gossip in American politics?

    It could be said that gossip (he said, she said) is two-dimensional and pretty easy to cover.

    But I think in most political structures from academe to government, gossip is the grease that the human nature slips up on most!

    EVEN MORE PRIVATE TO HAVEN

    I am a book hound.

    As I read The Used World, you are sooooo moving up on my list of fav Indiana writers, shoving aside Jared Carter (Work, for the Night is Coming), Ted Dreiser, Walter Wangerin, Jim Thom and George Ade. You have edged out Scott Russell Sanders, but not quite John Mellencamp, greatest Hoosier Poet of All Time. Sorry.

    Old James Whitcomb Riley, Ethridge Knight, Jessamyn West, Dan Wakefield, Kin Hubbard are choking on your literary dust, though. I thought Tarkington was always overrated (though he did spawn a great neighborhood in Indianapolis) and you would have made a has-been of Lew Wallace and his bastard son, Ben Hur. (I am thinking of writing a sequel, however, under the working title, “Ben Hur, Done That!” Thoughts?)

    William Miller Herschel, too (God, ain’t so bad to Indiana, after all!) But come to think about it, Susan Neville is pretty darned good, so I would say it is neck and neck between you two. I plan on reading some more of The Used World tonight, so I’ll let you know how you come out.

    For what it is worth, my fav book(s) of all time is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and/or Death in the Family by James Agee. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (can’t wait to meet her in the afterlife…I am going to ask her if she’d like to join me for a cocktail.)

    Finally, apologies for overstaying my welcome here.

  28. i’m a slow reader…or maybe just slow. I just finished the part where claudia gets the baby. the reporter/skeptic in me said, “no way, the baby would have already been discovered if the cops investigated the death of the mother. then i remembered a story i once covered in indianapolis in 1983. i went with some vice and drugs detectives when they were going to bust hookers on east wasington street. one of the prostitutes they got was a girl of about 22. when we went to her apartment, there was an infant there. i couldn’t help but notice that the apartment was strewn with toys…i am talking some expensive toys that were inappropriate for the baby’s age. yet, that mother in what struck me as a pitiful maternal gesture, lavished the kid with these things. meanwhile roaches crawled in the apartment and over the baby’s crib and bottle. there were cigarette butts on the kitchen floor. a can of beer in the refrigerator and some sour milk. oh, i forgot about the hypodermic needles and the spoons splayed on top of a used up book of matches. i was a young reporter and totally intrigued by the toys. so, a couple of days later, i went to the marion county lockup to see if she would talk to me. she spun a story about growing up on a farm outside of lebanon, about being a pom-pom girl as a freshman in high school…when i went back to talk to her friends and relatives, i discovered it was all true. i wrote a sunday story about this prostitute and the toys that filled the nasty apartment she shared with her pimp/boyfriend and baby. the story was completely factual….nothing was made up and yet, for decades, i have been nagged with sense that i never really got at the truth of the matter and it was this: when was the decision made by her or someone else that set off the cascade of events that put her on the street doing $40 tricks in parked cars in alleys and dangerous lots…a prick away from a disease called AIDS that hadn’t been discovered yet?

    …now, back to the book

  29. Let’s see: I agree with everything you say about the news (of course there is the openly howling death of the newspaper business itself), and it’s true of publishing, as well. Editors can’t edit, writers can’t write, no one even makes an attempt at verisimilitude. That’s so much the case I’m considered odd for the lengths to which I go to make sure every detail about every gun, every car, every shoe is precise. People here who’ve known me a while know I played pool every day for 18 months before I started writing the novel about the girl pool hustler. But I’m unusual, and here’s how I know. Because there is such a person as James Frey, and people bought it.

    You must have been so glad when we realized our error with Let Us Now Praise, which I had reversed. MY FAULT. I’m going to SAY it was very late. There’s a 50/50 chance that’s true. It’s one of my favorite books, too, and A Death in The Family is just unbearably good. I worked for the press that published Jared’s Work For The Night Is Coming. You’ll notice if you open the book the two halves of his face don’t match; one is sort of grim and the other is light. Beautiful picture. Same press — we organized the big fundraiser for Etheridge when he was dying of cancer, in order to pay his medical bills. Bly, Sharon Olds,
    Coleman Barks, everyone was there. But the great great moment was when Galway Kinnell, about whom I used to have impure thoughts, stood up and recited all eleven sonnets that make up When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone. He hadn’t even finished them yet, and he held no book. Barks sang Appalachian songs and stomped his feet while he said poems. Etheridge was wounded in Korea, and another Indiana poet wrote of him, “those scars are like stars that show you where he has gone with his love.”

    Curiously, I was holding a book by Walter Wangerin about an hour ago, on Christianity and Homosexuality. Right beside me is The Quaker Reader, edited by Jessamyn West (and well). She has a fine stylistic edge. She knew, for instance, to title a particular section with one of Rufus Jones’s most famous aphorisms: “Love God and do as you please.”

    As for the baby in The Used World, my brother-in-law of 20 years was the coroner of Henry County for 30 years, and one of the stories that bothered him his entire life was being called to an abandoned farmhouse where a group of drug addicts were squatting. There were a number of children there, and the police had been called, Social Services had made one visit. And then one night a four-month-old boy rolled off . . . who knows what, and into a pile of gasoline-soaked rags. He landed face down. I remember how Mark, who was a big man, held out his hands and said, “He was so tiny I could barely hold him, and he was naked.”

    John Mellencamp is THE MAN. (He’s not The Man in Black. Good heavens, let me spare you that faux pas.)

    I have gone on and on but I’ve found that as the world becomes more and more the Terry Gilliam nightmare — the proliferation of gossip delivery engines — Twitter, for God’s sake? what we’re really seeing is something a dear old friend of mine, Jay, predicted a long time ago. He said that the first two decades he practiced, we lived in a neurotic country, but for the past ten years everyone is a narcissist, and guess what? No treatment for that. Narcissists actually scare him, and for good reason, and our power structures cater to them. But also, George? There are so many stupid people. Oh that feeling, when you meet someone who makes graceful conversation, and is intellectually curious — people who read books and get a chill when you mention Glenn Gould or Thelonious Monk — pure joy. But that doesn’t happen often anymore. I can’t tell you how many people “playfully” criticize me for not watching television, as if I’m trying to insult them by not knowing what Two 1/2 Men is. Are.

    Love and work.

    p.s. Just a first rate answer there on the basketball question. I mean, you OWN that answer.

  30. ADDENDUM: I forgot to say that I find Scott Russell Sanders to become more sublime with every book. And did you mention Vonnegut? OH WHAT A NIGHTMARE MY 14th YEAR WOULD HAVE BEEN WITHOUT HIM. And what about Ross Lockridge, who had the unique idea to kill himself as soon as he’d sold his first book? I didn’t feel that way myself, so much. I’m also very dependent on J. Brent Bill, who writes books on elements of Quakerism, and he does so in a plain style that would please even George Fox himself. That’s Brent on the oatmeal box, by the way. Everyone HAS to know, “Is it William Penn’s father?” No. It’s J. Brent Bill. I’m pretty sure he lives in a town with “Bean” somewhere in the name.

  31. When I was at The Star, a couple of feature writers and I believed that it was possible to recreate reality with precision reporting that focused on details of scene and place more than upon sourcing and use of quotes. I actually had to put the idea in place when I was assigned to cover the military funeral of some young Marine who was killed in some sort of foolishnes. I forget which “conflict” this was. Anyway, his family was a collection of stiff-lipped, terse, angry and always sad small towners from Ripley county. I wrote the story based on the shell casings I gathered after the Honor Guard did their gun salute to this unfortunate kid. Later, I did a big Sunday take-out on a Zionsville teenager who tried to commit suicide and ended up firing a bullet through her head, which severed her optic nerves, leaving her blind, but still beautiful. I spent weeks with her and the family. My lede graph was something like this: The last thing Gina saw was her own face in the mirror and the gun she held at her temple.

    That’s why your opening scene with Claudia just blew me totally away. The reality had occurred and I knew it.

    Haven, your writing on the acquisition of “stuff” at the Emporium was also perfectly true to my experience as a reporter. I remembered a feature I did on an auction in the fall that the family of a man accused of being a bomber in Salem, Ind. held to pay his lawyer. I was struck by how all the farms around him were in the midst of their bounty while this farm was being reaped clean by neighbors who had hated the stern, backwoodsy, silent man with a reservoir of violence in him so deep that ultimately stripped his family of everything they had ever owned. There was more to the story, too.

    My own experience with Hoosier Quakers was the meeting in West Newton, Ind., where I had to attend as a requirement for my son to be in the day care. It was, for me, an entre’ to a celestial world view that was so different from the Southern Baptists of my youth. For me, the silence screamed.

    Haven, I loved newspapering. It allowed me be in places where someone with my background had no business to be, to have a cheap seat from which to watch so many events unfold, or unravel.

    As for the Indiana writers, I was lucky to have had Walt Wangerin as a college instructor when I was at the University of Evansville. I find his style and sentence structure to blunt much of his work, I would recommend The Book of God as an alternative to someone who doesn’t want to read the Bible.

    I think your friend, Jay, has the best take on our times that I have ever heard. A nation of narcissists. Oh, the implications of that are so fearsome I don’t even want to contemplate it. Maybe Sinclair Lewis can shine light on that subject with It Can’t Happen Here?

    Our literature has redemption power, but how can it compete with 2.5 Men? I don’t think people are necessarily stupid; I think they are cautious. It really gets my goat when I return to Evansville and get subjected to a lot of uninformed opinions and local smugness. Randy Newman had a line: “He may be a fool, but he’s our fool.” I am not making myself clear here but the deal is that they don’t care and wear it as a badge of honor how little they are willing change their mind and understanding of anything. George Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield and Robert Mugabe stand as perfect political examples of this!

    Ok, I got some more reading to do, but first I have to vacuum the cat and dog hair off the living room rug, pull some weeds and go out and play a round of golf.

    ….and oh, thank you from the depths of everything I hold dear for this literary experience…this is the first and probably only time in my life I have the privilege of communicating with an author as I read her book!!!! It just don’t get no more sublime.

    and if they think they’re better than him, they’re wrong h lot of his work to be blunted by his peculiar style and ph

  32. Sorry. The last two lines of my previous post is not a complete sentence!

  33. and the subject and verb of my previous sentence are at odds with each other….

  34. I do hope anyone who wants to join this conversation with George, who seems now to be a friend of mine, will. I would welcome any contributions.

    My friend Brent Bill says “Spiritual silence is a scalpel. It slices our souls open.” I agree completely, and yet it is all, it’s the most important element of my life and certainly of Quakerism. When I was in seminary at the Earlham School of Religion and someone said they found the silence of the Meeting for Worship ‘restful,’ I knew theirs had not gone deep. As Heraclitus said, the soul is so deep we could search and search and never find the bottom.

    I started to say I take it as my mission to go deep, but really it is my inclination and my vocation, to look at the world head on, and then below and below that. I’m guessing that being a reporter is very similar: those bullet casings are utterly specific, they ARE the real, and at the same time they are arrows pointing at the abyss.

    I’m also always surprised by people who ‘enjoy’ writing, which is not the same thing as loving your work, as you did, as I do. Writing is a scalpel; it’s the most painful activity in the world to me. I feel an enormous sense of responsibility to the imaginary readers I try to hold before me. The book I’m writing now, for instance, is causing me GREAT SUFFERING and I’d like to FILE A COMPLAINT. One day I think I can pull it off and five minutes later I see that the task ahead of me is impossible and all is lost and I don’t have options and of course it’s rather distasteful to complain about making a living doing what you love, particularly when it involves sitting in a study in a barn in silence all day. TELL IT TO A COALMINER, HAVEN, I remind myself.

    I agree with you about our populace being cautious, and the ways that evolves into inertia and a refusal to engage with the world at a fiercely moral level. Having lived in the south for 13 years, I’m always stunned when I go back to my home county at the way people don’t look at each other, or how a glance from a stranger in the supermarket seems so cold. Caution is all about self-preservation, and once you are in the jaws of the Self, good luck getting out. Forget compassion, forget vision, forget heroism, forget even friendliness. March in time, dress like your neighbor (but don’t love your neighbor), keep your car clean and for god’s sake CUT YOUR GRASS AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE.

    For the record, I wrote the opening scene with Claudia 38 times. Periodically I’ll see the folder marked “Claudia” and will be reminded of the NIGHTMARE of that time. I’d still be writing it, I’d be up to version 482, if my editor hadn’t said, “Number 39 is the last one, got it?” So that’s what you hold. And your story of the auction is similar to what drove that novel metaphorically from the beginning: the way objects become ruins, and the narrative voice coming from them can be so clear sometimes. As I say in the novel, the ‘things’ in the Used World Emporium aren’t the dead but they represent the dead, somehow.

    You’re not reportering anymore? I hope you’re doing what you love in some other way.
    HK

  35. Haven Kimmel:

    Damn you and God Bless You.

    You have written such a deeply complex, lovely, and challenging sequence in and around Chapter 8.

    I have re-read this section several times now, virtually making no headway over the weekend. I had hoped to put the book to bed by Sunday night.

    But noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

    First: comments about ‘Becka (may I call her that?). Her situation is pitch perfect, at least to my experience in Indiana. In my younger daze, I hitchhiked from Evansville to Lancaster, Pa., to attend a charismatic Christian gathering called Jesus ’73. Yes, I was a Jesus Freak then. My friend and I got picked up outside of Indianapolis by a whack-job who, after finding out we were believers, insisted on taking us to his house in the country outside New Castle to “break bread.” They served Sunbeam bread. I remember that when we got inside, he got his wife and daughter out of bed and ordered them to serve these “brothers in the Lord.” I wasn’t hungry, but as I felt he might be offended and slay us and his wife and daughter or, if we were lucky, merely smite us, I went ahead and chowed down, asking for an extra helping of peach cobbler. I remember feeling so sorry for the daughter who was probably nine or ten. As we ate, he launched into a theology based on righteous anger, that would end with some type of dystopia involving Christ as a general over an army of saints and angels fighting Satan and legions of demons. It wasn’t a scenario I was particularly interested in, having invested a lot of thought in avoiding the war in Vietnam. I did not use hallucinatory drugs in those days; I didn’t need them then.

    In my association with the charismatics, I heard a lot of tongues and prophecy. And, like you pointed out in the book, the prophecies all sounded pretty much the same. I remember being bummed out about my inability to receive the gift of tongues. A couple of my friends, whom I knew were a lot less deserving, were able to get down and speak in all kinds of strange mutterings. And someone near them could understand what was said! Not me. And no matter how hard I prayed and fleeced for it, I never attained glibness in gibberish.

    But as you get older, you also mature spiritually. So it was around 1976 or so, I realized God had indeed answered my prayer for tongues by allowing me to have a brief relationship with a woman who was a freak for French kissing. Ultimately, I ended up taking First Corinthians 13 as my defense on the whole matter and cast my lot with the Unitarians where I participated in the burnings of several Questions Marks and Exclamation Points on various lawns of true believers near Tell City.

    NOTE: As a reporter, I once covered a group near Hammond, Ind., who believed a local prophecy that a giant tornado was going to destroy America in March 1986. It did not come to pass.

    But I digress…

    I mentioned that I read slowly…and I slow it down even more when it is something to savor, or, understand, or in this case, both. At this rate, though, it will be August before I can get to your other works and who knows if I will ever crack open Little, Big?

    See…it’s all about me…narcissism in action?

    So bless you, Haven, for creating the Christmas eve with Millie, Claudia and ‘Becka (would she mind if I nicknamed her?). It was so poignant and so loving and so true. We do proceed through much of our lives knowing “of” life without knowing living?

    It was breathtaking in the previous chapters watching Claudia and Becka reveal themselves…all the more wonderful because it was brought about by little Oliver, who came to them with the power to not only change their lives but to redeem their very existence! Wow, Haven! You’re the man! Best commentary on redemption I’ve ever seen. (And thank you for resurrecting the baby from Henry County that haunted your brother-in-law. Haven’t seen a better act of bringing one back from the dead since Lazarus, kiddo. Did I already say, U-DA-MAN?)

    And what was Oliver’s power? His own dependence. Is this the uber Messianic message: that being a recipient of Grace means being an agent of blessing and grace? And if not blessing and grace…then simply being an attendant and respondent to necessity? Diapers NEED changing, mouths NEED feeding, souls NEED God, scar-faced pit bulls NEED rescue.

    By the way, have you read Dietrich Bonheoffer? And just one more leak from the stream of unconsciousness. I have a childhood friend who lives in St. Meinrad, Ind. When I visit, we go there to the monastery/seminary for pizza if the American Legion Hall is closed and we cannot get a breaded tenderloin. At the abbey, we pass one of Benedict’s statutes where the pedestal is inscribed with these words: “To labor is to pray.” At Dominoes, the motto is Delivery in 30 minutes or it’s free.

    Finally, damn you, Haven Kimmel for Hazel’s dreamscape. It is one of the most complex, demanding, gorgeous chunks of sentences I have ever encountered. I have re-read it several times now. Basically, it explains everything, doesn’t it. Here’s a side benefit: I used to fret that I couldn’t read James Joyce or Proust because of how they messed with time and kept me confused. Now I don’t have to worry about it. You messed with time all the time in this novel. Who knows what year or even what moment. the character is actually in? It’s kinda how reality is constructed, isn’t it?

    All this is to say that you seriously cut into my golfing* time this weekend. I intend to finish it off tonight. The book, not golf.

    PS: Hazel is a powerful, powerful character. I would so love to meet her in real life. I would fear her and basically move furniture around if she asked (told) me to do so. I sense there are no bounds for her capacity to love or to act, however.

    PPS: You are Amos, right?

    * I highly recommend the book, Golfing With God or Breakfast With Buddha, both by Roland Merullo. Also, I have a cool personal story about bicycling on the grounds of Kumbum Chamtse Ling, the Tibetan Cultural Center monastery near Bloomington, Ind., shortly after 9/11. It involves an angry dog, tattered Buddhist prayer flags fluttering over a cornfield, and my desperate need to take a whiz. Oh, and an aborted attempt to meditate.

    You asked if I am doing what I love.

    Answer: IDUNNO. Maybe, sometimes, no. The Gannett Corp., effectively ended my newspapering days in 2002 when it bought The Star and closed my office in DC. But my answer to your question would have been the same even if I had had a front-page byline this morning. Truth is that I got into reporting as a substitute for writing. I mostly write for a living now with the electric co-op association in Arlington, Va., but I have been dabbling lately in poetry and attempting to take my fiction to a higher level than journalism. I keep thinking there’s a book in there in somewhere. Maybe I’ll find it. Right now, my job is to read and learn from the masters.

  36. You know how it is when you have a really great dish of something delicious. Let’s say, macaroni and cheese. You gobble it down and then feel disappointed because you just ate it all so then you take a fork and scrape the dish, careful to get all the crunchies, so you can taste it once more.

    That was me when I finished The Used World.

    It was about 1 a.m. last night when I read the last word.

    Haven, I wanted more. I wanted to know how Becka would make out, and Hazel, Caroline, Claudia Oliver and the baby. I even wanted to know how Vernon comes out of this. (He is salvageable, isn’t he?) I have seen Becka…her soul may well have been inside one of the teenage Amish girls I once saw smoking cigarettes outside a convenience store on U.S. 50 near Loogootee. I know Claudia — she happens to be tall, but she could have been one of those very fat, or horse-faced, club-footed, or withered-arm girls you see at IGA and can never guess at their depth.

    You have created a wonderful work here. It is perfectly authentic — every plot line, every bit of dialogue, every bit of description. It is specific to Indiana and to the world.

    More than that, you have created a stylisticly gorgeous piece of literature. Here, I am thinking of the control Doctorow exerts in Ragtime, or Dos Passos in his trilogy, heck, even Capote in In Cold Blood. And you took total control of time, place and action.

    Action? I had whiplash on the last 35 pages or so.

    I am so greatful to my friend who left this book at my desk. I probably would have discovered your writing anyway because I gravitate to things Indiana and of beauty.

    I thank you, too, Haven, for taking time from your own writing to reply to me these last couple of days. What an experience this is! I am going to go get Something Rising and take it with me to read next week when I am in Indiana for our annual family reunion.

    Maybe the remainder of this week I can knock out Little, Big. My golf game is suffering, however, from a lack of attention.

    George

  37. I loved, loved, loved your two memoirs, A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Off the Couch. (I grew up in Indianapolis in the 70’s.) I just finished Couch, which is what led me to your blog. Call me sensitive, but I’m a little offended by your derisive use of the terms like Celestial Kingdom and prophet that are part of LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) belief. The FLDS, who practice polygamy, and who are not part of the LDS church, may use the same terms, and maybe you thought you were just making fun of the extreme practice of polygamy, but please be aware that you are also ridiculing some LDS beliefs at the same time. The LDS church does not practice polygamy, but it does believe in a Celestial Kingdom and it has a prophet and it calls congregations at the local level wards or branches.

  38. I am enjoying this discussion immensely, even though I left my native Indiana (Bloomington, to be specific) nearly two decades ago to take up residence in The Great Hogopolis of Chicago – a decision that has ultimately stripped me of my fluency in that most innerestin’ of dahlecks, South-Central Hoosier.

    I was the first native-born Hoosier in the family; my parents and all my family were from various spots around Kentucky. My father was from Louisville; my mother grew up in some rural wide-spot-in-a-dirt-road that was named for a deceased huntin’ dog, I believe. At any rate, I have never until tonight heard of green peppers being called mangos, which I assume is a Northern Hoosierism. (It shows up on a YouTube series called “How To Speak Hoosier”, in which the actors speak far too fast and with the wrong accent to be Southern Hoosiers.)

    Note to non-Hoosiers: Indiana has a rich kaleidoscope of subdialects with their own unique vocabularies. Indiana also boasts a wide variety of accents: Northern Hoosiers speak with the flat nasal whine found all through the Upper Midwest, while Southern Hoosiers speak the slow drawl of the upper South as they polish their guns and skritch their houn’ dawgs behind the ears.

    To Haven, George, and others who have either read or written for the Press: I think part of the problem with the modern media, at least where newspapers are concerned, is the fact that there is no real competition anymore outside of major metropolitan areas. New York has several major newspapers, Chicago has two, but when I was growing up (I was born in 1965), even smaller metro areas such as Louisville and Indianapolis had two papers. And the families that owned those papers (Pulliam for the Indy Star and the Indy News; Bingham for The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times) kept their news operations separate, freeing their staffs to compete with each other, with the “minor” paper occasionally getting a scoop on the “major” one.

    I enjoy your blog immensely, Haven. I found it while looking you up online after a friend and fellow Hoosier (with whom I have been corresponding after a hiatus of about 22 years) recommended your books as a “must read”. Judging by the blog they certainly are. I now have to find them.

    By the way…what’s all this talk of Sunbeam bread? I thought real Hoosiers only ate Colonial. 🙂


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