One of the more unfortunate periods of my life was the three years we lived in Utah. We moved to Orem, Utah, when I was just starting sixth grade. So I was what, nearly 12? An awkward time in life anyhow, but moving to Orem certainly made things worse in a major way. I was totally unprepared for the impact of Mormonism day in, day out, and for being surrounded by Mormon culture all the time. My parents, at that point, were converts of less than a decade, and had also never been around so many Mormons – and I think it is amazing that they stuck with the church during, and after, those three years. They both went through Mormon-related hell in many ways. Not that I noticed it that much at the time – I was a new teenager and was therefore appropriately self-absorbed.One thing that was such a rough transition for me was the way girls my age acted. We were worlds apart. I was always a late bloomer and was nowhere near puberty yet at that point, but I was also still very much a kid in many other ways. I liked to play and run around and be a kid; I didn’t style my hair daily and I mostly wore jeans and t-shirts. The girls my age were already wearing makeup, dressing up and noticing fashion (and, more frequently, noticing the absence of it on others), and were crazy for the boys. I felt like I had landed on another planet. I’m sure they thought so too, as I was not warmly welcomed – although, par for the Mormon course, the girls were good at putting on their best pious fellowshipping act around the adults. Otherwise, it was pure Mormon Mean Girls. Urgh.
So I became an outcast of sorts – or one of those fringe-y kids who don’t really have a core group to hang with. And although I thought nothing of it at the time (and it was never deliberate on my part), I ended up being friends with people whose parents were longterm jack Mormons, and the one non-Mormon girl who was in my class at school (yes, one). I still can’t put most of these experiences into words very well, but suffice to say, I understand well why non-Mormons in Utah have a shorter life expectancy. The dynamics were just so weird. And I never felt I could legitimately take on the Mean Girls or the other pretty people, I became a major rebel in most other ways. I got into lots of trouble at school and vandalised things and defied authority at every opportunity. And a few of the prettier people started to like me seemingly against their will, and would be friendly with me when their posse wasn’t around. Strange days.
I could go on and on, but this post isn’t about Utah or Mormons per se. It’s about Danielle, a girl I went to junior high with – to Orem Jr High with, in the middle of Happy Valley, full of mainstream Mormons. As I went through my normal daily gig of hanging with the fringe, I was so constantly bewildered and mystified by the world I was living in, that many things just totally escaped my notice as being out of the norm. You all will likely recognise Danielle immediately, though I didn’t at the time, and didn’t really process the entire experience until some years later.
Danielle came to school kind of irregularly. No one really talked to her and she didn’t talk to others very much either. And for some reason, Danielle always wore a long dress with long sleeves, with a white pinafore/apron thing. Her long hair was always done in a braid. She often had a slight body odor and greasy-ish hair when it was late in the week – probably she was only bathing once a week. She spoke so little that she was almost invisible. But I usually talked to her whenever I saw her. She easily fit into my ‘fellow fringe person’ group. When she spoke, she had a very quiet, whispery voice, and it was very hard to hear or understand her. She walked around with her eyes down most of the time. In my new world of all Mormons, all the time, I figured her family was just extra orthodox and that she was shy. It’s telling that she didn’t stand out like a sore thumb to me. ‘Normal’ is a very plastic notion.
One day, I was standing in the hall between classes. Danielle came up to me (very unusual in itself) and said, “I just wanted to say goodbye.” I asked where she was going. She said, “I’m going to have a baby.” Her face turned beet red and she looked down at the floor during this interaction. At the time, I didn’t even believe her really, I thought maybe I had misunderstood her soft-spoken sentence. I was so naive, I didn’t even immediately look down at her belly, although I did as she was leaving. Yes, it was protruding slightly beneath her long skirt and pinafore. I didn’t know what to say, I smiled and said goodbye and she walked away.
We were both about 14 years old. I never saw her again.
When I hear about Helen Mar Kimball, I always see Danielle in my mind’s eye. No one will ever be able to convince me it isn’t anything other than coercion and child abuse. I was a dork at school, make no mistake, and dressed all wrong and was young for my age. But I was myself. My parents weren’t forcing me to wear certain clothes, live out their adult religious practices (beyond going to church on sundays of course), or ‘marry’ someone likely much older than me when I was still a child. That this was happening as an open secret under everyone’s nose is tragic. It was the embodiment of cultish practices happening right in front of adults and children alike – but because of its strange-cousins relationship to Mormonism, it was just not addressed at all. Even when it took the form of a pregnant child at school.
I wonder where she is now.