Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Literary Wives #14: Not the innocuous read you might believe it to be...

The Bishop's Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison
I believe we have definitely mixed it up a bit with this selection for the Literary Wives online book discussion group! 

Check out the other co-hosting bloggers' reviews:

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J
Naomi at Consumed by Ink
Kay at whatmeread

I am uncertain exactly what I expected when I began reading this book, but it wasn't anything as grisly and psychologically wrong as what I encountered within the last 50 pages! Such a bland title is quite the fooler, in my opinion! Sure am glad I had over two weeks to decompress after finishing it! I needed it. I am told there was a real-life murder mystery very similar to this in the Mormon community not so many years ago. I can only assume that may have provided the impetus for this book. Unfortunately, although the author's stated intention was to enlighten readers about female roles within Mormon communities, my main takeaway was the ability of perpetrators to hide behind masks of public personas they have created to falsely represent themselves as upstanding citizens to be respected and revered. Additionally, I was forced to imagine the numbers of females who may have endured similar abuse with no revelation of the abuser's identity. Scary! We should all be aware of statistics citing the lack of rape reporting, particularly if it is incestuous, among the general populace, let alone within a "closed" society as described here. Two weeks later this is STILL my immediate reaction!

For me, Linda was definitely a sympathetic character, though my own personal opinions/attitudes definitely colored my reactions to her and her life. This had nothing to do with her working as a full-time stay-at-home mom--I've been there and done that! It had everything to do with my belief that these women are trapped in a belief system, community, and political system that continually denounces them and affords them little to no power or prestige. As a "secular humanist," myself, I find this unbelievable and untenable. I personally cannot imagine being told what to do, when to do it, and in many instances how to do it by the all-powerful males in my life. I'm uncertain just how typical her husband, Kurt, might be as a Bishop within the Mormon system of life. It seemed he might be much more lenient and liberal in his relationship with Linda than most of the other husbands depicted. But perhaps I am wrong in that assumption.

I keep remembering something learned in a Sociology course years ago: The diversity among the members within any one group (intra-group) is just as great as the diversity among/between members of any different groups (inter-group) within that same society. These same crimes do occur outside the community of Mormon believers, but I sincerely wonder what type of influence such a closed and rigid culture might have in aiding and abetting these "partriarchal" criminal behaviors. (This may well just be my own prejudice showing.) I was reminded of the many ways patriarchal religious systems appear to me to be very similar in their treatment of and attitudes toward women, though again, there is great variation among the self-proclaimed believers within religious systems, else there would be no subdivisions or break-away groups within each religious sect.

Once Jared and Kelly leave the "Bishop's" house, Kurt tells Linda that Carrie has left her husband, Jared, and daughter, Kelly, with only a note stating that she will not return...
        I'm surprised she left Kelly,"... I was more than surprised, I was in knots about it. A mother 
     leaving a child, it was--unfathomable to me. What pain had she been in? What had she been 
     thinking? It was one thing to file for divorce and to ask your husband to leave the house. Or even to 
     take your daughter and find an apartment. To leave her behind, and in the middle of the night 
     without a proper goodbye...I shivered. 
        "It's hard to know what goes on in the mind of a woman," said Kurt. 
        I hated when Kurt said things like that. "It is not that hard. Women are just as sensible as men,"   
     said. "If you understand what their lives are like." (6)
In my opinion this translates to: "If you understand just how little power and control women have in this system." And this is the author's intended theme: to depict women's lives, especially within the Mormon system. 

I was later struck by the extreme irony of Kurt's talk presented at Carrie's funeral service:

     He talked about Christ's atonement covering all sins, even the sins that we think are the worst. 
     Pedophiles, murderers, and adulteresses. He read Christ's response to the Pharisees about the 
     woman caught in adultery. He didn't specifically talk about Carrie being an adulteress but he did 
     look out at the audience and ask directly who here was so clean of sin that they could cast the
     first stone. (232)
For me, this brought the realization that in some places on this planet, females can still be stoned to death...all in the name of religious law. What a travesty of humanity. :(
     Except for a niggling feeling on that first day, everything Aaron Weston had done had made me 
     believe him to be a deeply caring father and a devout, humble Mormon. His talk was one of the 
     best I had ever heard... (234)

As her grandfather, Aaron addresses Kelly directly in his talk at his daughter's/her mother's funeral:
     "...I know that Carrie is waiting to see Kelly again. It may be a hundred years, but she will wait 
     there still, and she will be as beautiful as she was the last day that she saw you."
     "There will only be forgiveness between you. She will be cleaned from all her sins and so will you 
     and you will be two shining daughters of God forever. (234)
Linda's thoughts after hearing both her husband, Kurt's talk, and Carrie's father, Aaron West's, talk at Carrie's funeral:
     If Kurt was good at speechmaking, Aaron Weston was ten times better. I was wiping at my face
     and wishing that I had brought more tissues. People sometimes said they'd had a feeling about a 
     man who would turn out to be a prophet, that the Holy Spirit had whispered that this man would
     be the leader of the Mormon Church someday. I felt like that about Aaron Weston at that moment. 
     He was the man who should raise his granddaughter. I had no doubt of that. (234)

In rereading portions of this book to compose a review, I am struck by what I feel to be an out-and-out criticism of the hypocrisy of religion. Talk about charisma! This guy could convince "the Pope to buy condoms," as I've heard people say. I am sympathetic toward those so easily manipulated by their own emotions, however, I feel that is much of the reason for the success and continued influence of organized religion. It is an emotional ploy played out on those who are responsive to it. 

I believe each religion began as mankind's attempt to understand and explain the world and their place in it, but it has all too often been used by humans to fool other so many ways. It is very sad and yet so true; many times the most unethical and evil among us create a societal "shield" of religion behind which they can hide themselves and their evil deeds. In this book, a patriarchal religion definitely aids criminals to hide unbelievable crimes. In order to retain hope for mankind overall, I try to keep reminding myself, that is NOT true of almost all believers--they use their religion for good and it provides them with a sense of security and comfort...but there are always "a few bad apples in every barrel"...and some have a true gift for convincing others.

We must remember some people are simply too scarred and beaten down by those they should be able to trust unequivocally for love, respect, and security, to ever fully recover, no matter what. It always makes me even sadder to learn of family members abusing, mistreating, or permanently harming their own kin; for so many times that causes irreparable damage from which victims can never fully recover to cope with life. Every one of us should be more aware of this as a possibility among people with whom we interact.

And now for the wifely questions! 

1) What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

For me, the Mormon community defines a wife as totally subordinate to a man/men/her husband. As I mentioned before, Kurt appeared to be an exception among the Mormon men portrayed in the book, in that he did at least allow Linda to express herself. However, she was expected to give of her time and effort to support the people of his bishopric at his behest, with no acknowledgement of her efforts. I felt for Linda's need to talk about her own daughter; unfortunately, there was no avenue for this, since it was just considered to be "God's will" and she should accept it and get over it. It was rather obvious that Linda and Kurt's adult sons were not "sold" on the devout Mormon religion their parents practiced; some were already living elsewhere with wives who were self-sufficient professionals employed outside the home full-time, and there appeared to be much more of an equal partnership within their marriages. I believe this reflects the current US trend--movement away from organized religion to a practical application of honesty, integrity, kindness, generosity, and respect, all to be demonstrated in the most mundane actions and behaviors of daily life. Good thoughts and intentions define good behaviors and actions. Pretty simple, with no deities, no rituals.

2) In what way does this woman define "wife"--or in what way is she defined by "wife"?

Oh, all these women appeared to be totally defined by their role as wife, wife to a man, to serve that man, in whatever way he determines. There was no question of a wife acting outside that role, unless they were not living in the bishopric among other Mormons. I was fascinated with all the doctrines regarding the location of a marriage ceremony determining whether a couple would be together after death, etc. I guess all that doctrine works for some, but not for me...

I found this to be an enlightening read with regard to the Mormon religion. I have known Mormon believers through the years, but none as "devout" or hard line as the people described herein. Personally, this bishopric was a scary prospect overall. What are your thoughts? 


  1. Hmm, I guess I thought a little differently about this novel. Although I think there was a lot of misogyny, for sure, I also thought that Linda did quite a bit more than her husband knew she was doing and that she was struggling within herself to define her own role in life.

    1. I agree with you, Kay. I can't explain it, but I just couldn't get past the unfair and unjust treatment of women and the extreme hypocrisy of Aaron West. Although I had at least 2 1/2 weeks to "get over that" initial reaction--it was the overwhelming response I still had when I finally composed my review yesterday! It's just a hot-button issue for me, I guess, especially when tied to organized religion! :) It's just my radical side!! lol I do believe Linda did things behind Kurt's back, but that's the problem for me, she should be able to do what she wishes with no fear of who knows or whether he will find out and what he might think or do if he does... See? Radical, I tell ya!

  2. I like that you tie in the concern over rape culture, which is a very real thing, and the lack of reporting it. As I mentioned last night, many are aware of the sexism and patriarchal attitudes that pervade this community and culture. It is something that I (and many others) hope changes, but it seems like change is slow and it happens over long periods of time, rather than in line with other parts of wider culture.

    1. You can probably attribute my linking to the "rape culture" to my husband since he researches interpersonal violence and his PhD research centered on that. Societal change is ALWAYS slow, in my opinion. Look at the pervasive racism that still persists in the US? I get very impatient with injustice and discrimination. (As I'm sure you can tell in my review!) I am glad to know you feel this wasn't in any way typical of such a community and that there are females working for change within that US subculture! You go, girl! :) I trust your own marriage relationship is much more equal than was depicted by Harrison. I realize most writers will exaggerate to make a point.

  3. I like that you had such a strong reaction to this book - it makes for good reading! I agree that there are some disturbing things presented in this book, but I decided not to take it to mean that these things are happening within the Mormon community (or other religious communities) all the time. I got a strong sense that these things are not the norm, and that the number one priority of the Mormon church is to promote happy families. The goal is a good one, but there are obviously problems with the fact that women are not allowed in roles of power. This kind of thing does make it easier for abusive situations to take place. I thought Linda was a good character - it showed her struggle between the good things about her community and wanting to support her husband, and her belief that women should have more power.

    1. I agree that Linda was conflicted, and I think that's a good thing, because she seems like a person who would push the envelope enough to create at least a bit of change. And any societal change requires much pushing and time! :) You are obviously a much more balanced person than I! Patriarchy is one of my main dislikes about most organized religions, at least of those most common and/or accepted in the US. I couldn't tell, could ya?!? :) Overall, I think I liked the mystery part better than you or Emily.

    2. I think I took the novel more like Naomi did, that there were some extreme personalities in the novel and they didn't necessarily represent the norm.

  4. Wow, this sounds like it would have been an intriguing read. I do not know much about the Mormon religion and will put this on my TR list. Hope to make the next one!

    1. As you can tell, it hit a real nerve with me! Even after 2 1/2 weeks it just made me so angry! I realize the abusive men depicted are NOT the norm, but still... ;) I thought the writing worked very well for the most part. I love mysteries!