On Saturday, July 28, my niece’s husband told her he was going for a walk after breakfast. He never came back. That evening the search began on his and surrounding properties, and his body was finally discovered on his own land. He had killed himself with a gunshot to the head.
I came as close to hating this man as I could ever come to hating another human being. I blamed him for destroying my niece’s life. She married him at 18, and had to commute to college for her music degree while at the same time performing all her housewifely duties. They lived in an isolated world of a fringe religion concentrated in a midwestern community close to where I grew up, a right-wing Christian sect which demands the wife defer to her husband in all matters large and small.
The main purpose of life, according to this sect, is to populate the earth with holy souls like themselves. It is a staggering responsibility, but it’s what God wants. My niece, ever the good wife, bore children. My niece told my mother that she’d continue to have children until her body “just gave out.” That was God’s plan for her. But God had additional plans, as well. My niece was given the tasks of a pioneer wife (including canning, preserving, gardening, constructing much of the family’s clothing, and educating the increasing throng at home as best she could as well as cleaning, food preparation, ad infinitum),
No matter how much work she did, however, it was the husband who was considered the breadwinner and head of the household. His decisions were final. In fact, I believe his chief responsibility at home was being Decider in Chief.
His life ranged a much larger sphere than hers. He was a member of a respected Town Department, a fellow just bursting with Christian respectability in this tight-knit community of souls. As a Department Official he was one of the most visible of the town’s Leading Citizens, viewed as a friend by many. He taught classes in in civics, prayed a lot in public, and, though only his very closest friends and sect members were witness to this, didn’t allow his wife’s mother, my sister, past the front porch and into his house.
“You’re not going to get what you want,” he said when she approached. What my sister wanted to do was visit her daughter’s family and give presents to the children but she, being unaffiliated with any church, was not welcome (though the presents and the money she also gave were for some reason deemed acceptable).
He was very proud of this house. He had made it exactly as he wanted it, a modern log cabin which could only be reached from the highway by a very narrow and winding trail. He named this “The Narrow Path.” His cabin was surrounded by forest and fields. It was a beautiful spot and far away from the evils of the world. He even constructed a church building on his land so that the sect could have a permanent place of worship. rather than meeting at different members’ homes from one week to the next.
My sister would spend hours and hours making scrapbooks for the kids, using her not inconsiderable artistic talents to make little books and drawings for them. She left these in “fairy boxes” by the house that she was not allowed to enter, trusting that they would eventually be found by her grandchildren.”Fairy boxes” themselves were, of course, a concept that my niece’s husband couldn’t tolerate and yet more proof of my sister’s wickedness. Still, the presents were not sent back and my sister felt some comfort from leaving the boxes and then seeing that they had been taken.
But at last the rupture came between my sister and my niece, the one that seemed irreparable. I won’t go into details, just enough to say that the incident itself would have been small in a normal family but in my niece’s family it was a major breach of ethics. The husband felt challenged by the mother-in-law.
My sister, who has not had an easy life in any case, felt her heart and spirit break. She loved those kids, and she loved her daughter. Not in the godly consult-the-husband-first way my niece’s husband required, but she loved them fiercely for all that.
So, now he has gone and killed himself. What am I make of this? The civic leader, man of God and defender of the faith — he just decided to pull that trigger and to hell with everything else. I find myself angry as I’ve ever been — thinking, “So he dragged my poor niece and their kids and my sister and everybody in our family through all this religious fanatic HELL and now he’s KILLED himself? Isn’t that a SIN, you who were always so holier-than-thou? What do you expect your family to do now? You have deserted them, my niece with seven kids and left them with your creepy religion and your remote log cabin and questions. They must have so many questions …
I am reading his obituary now, the same words in various local papers. He was a hero, a friend, a kind man, a comforting presence, and so helpful with children. My niece is mentioned merely as one of his survivors, and his good deeds and civic participation are allowed to shine in their full glory.
Nowhere can I find a mention of the manner of his death. I’m sure there’s some sort of “code of silence” for the Department and within his sect, but I’m curious. How could he be so incredibly thoughtless? This, no matter what reason he had for himself, must have been the most arrogant action he ever took. He dragged his entire family into a faith — and then with this act it’s like he took it all back.
I doubt we’ll ever know. But whenever I hear one of these zealots speak of how gloriously ecstatic they are, I’ll look deep into their eyes. In his eyes I didn’t see ecstasy, though I saw fear, anger, frustration, even, perhaps, madness.