Author Note: Whether you think the Book of Mormon is fiction, history or scripture, the story of Lehi’s sons has some interesting elements. The Church repeatedly states that it opposes abuse of all kinds. However, information about how to recognize patterns of abuse is pretty scarce. Fortunately, Laman and Lemuel are here to set an example of how to abuse a family member. Conveniently, their entire story takes place in the chapter before the Isaiah chapters, when everyone gives up on reading the Book of Mormon anyway. Let’s take a deep dive into the First Family of Mormonism, mingling scriptures with the perspective of modern social sciences about abuse. I’ll put a couple of books in the footnote if you want to dive deeper into the psychology of abusive relationships.
When you’re in a bad relationship, whether you describe it as abusive, toxic, unhealthy or dysfunctional, one of the trickiest things to deal with is advice from well-meaning people who think you can just address the problem the same way you would in a healthy relationship. “Why don’t you just talk about it when things are calm?” someone will ask with the best of intentions. “Surely if he knew how you felt, he’d stop.”
The assumptions under that advice are: (1) the problem is that the victim isn’t communicating her feelings well enough; (2) the abuser cares about the victim’s feelings; and (3) the victim won’t be punished for making the abuser feel guilty about his behavior. There is a vast chasm between abusive relationships and healthy relationships.
At some point, I realized that the difference between a good relationship with some problems, and an abusive relationship is what happens between the visibly bad episodes. In a good relationship with some problems, you can talk about problems. You’re basically equals and you respect the other person. In an abusive relationship, talking about problems frequently makes them worse because the abuser will punish the victim for speaking up. The abuser is in charge. You are not equals, not at all, not ever, not even when the abuser is being nice.
Laman and Lemuel physically abused Nephi. These weren’t typical brotherly fights in which Nephi gave as good as he got. Nephi is an abuse victim. What’s insightful about the story of this family is that it shows L&L’s consistently toxic attitudes that underlie the actual physical abuse. I’ll go through various episodes and point out the elements. I am not a mental health professional. I’ve researched these sorts of issues over many years trying to understand the dynamics in my own family. I prayed a lot of anguished prayers, asking Heavenly Father why there was so little guidance about dealing with abusive family dynamics from the Church, and in answer to that prayer, I read Nephi’s story with new insight.
After the family travels a few days away from Jerusalem, Lehi sets up camp and sends his sons back to Jerusalem for the brass plates. The four brothers return to Jerusalem where they try and fail to buy the brass plates from Laban. The owner, Laban, sends people to kill them so he can steal all the items they brought to try and buy the brass plates. The four brothers hide in a cave and Laman and Lemuel start beating the younger two brothers, Sam and Nephi:
And it came to pass that Laman was angry with me [Nephi], and also with my father; and also was Lemuel, for he hearkened unto the words of Laman. Wherefore Laman and Lemuel did speak many hard words unto us, their younger brothers [Sam and Nephi], and they did smite us even with a rod. And it came to pass as they smote us with a rod, behold, an angel of the Lord came and stood before them, and he spake unto them, saying: Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities? Behold ye shall go up to Jerusalem again, and the Lord will deliver Laban into your hands. And after the angel had spoken unto us, he departed. And after the angel had departed, Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur, saying: How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us? 1 Nephi 3:28-31.
The strangest part of this story is that an angel shows up to stop the beating. That never happens. How often do abused people, children even, pray to God for deliverance and nothing happens? Nephi gets an angel to defend him.
The ordinary part of this story is how the abuse plays out anyway. The four brothers have tried and failed to do something difficult. Rather than band together as a team to try again, Laman blows up in blame and anger. Sam and Nephi haven’t done anything wrong; they had an idea that didn’t work. Blame is typical in a bad relationship. When something goes wrong, the abuser will find someone to blame and it won’t matter whether or not the blame makes sense.
L&L spoke “hard words” and then physically beat Nephi and Sam with a stick. After the angel tells Laman and Lemuel to stop hitting their brothers, they stop. Divine intervention stopped the most visible aspect of this abusive situation. But it didn’t change the attitudes under the abuse. Abuse is an attitude that erupts into words and actions from time to time, but it is always dysfunctional even if the abuser is not hitting the victim at the moment. Laman and Lemuel stop beating their brothers, but the underlying relationship dynamic has not changed. L&L don’t apologize, and they’re still angry.
Later, Lehi sends his four sons back to Jerusalem again. This time it is to persuade a family friend, Ishmael, to bring his family and join them on their journey. The four brothers persuade Ishmael and his family of daughters and a few sons to come with them. While the group is traveling back to Lehi’s camp, the second abusive episode erupts.
The fight is about returning to Jerusalem. Laman and Lemuel want to abandon this crazy journey and go back to Jerusalem. This time they have more people on their side. Several members of Ishmael’s family agree with Laman. Nephi tries to persuade them to keep going (see 1 Nephi 7:6-15).
After Nephi’s speech, they (it appears to be more people than just Laman and Lemuel this time) are angry. They tie him up and threaten to leave him in the wilderness to be eaten by wild beasts. Nephi doesn’t say anyone hit him this time, though tying someone up is definitely physical violence (see 1 Nephi 7:16).
Nephi has another miraculous answer to his prayers. He prays and asks the Lord to give him strength to burst the bands that tie him. That works and Nephi frees himself. This miraculous intervention doesn’t impress the abusers. They are all set to attack him again when other people in the group intervene and talk them down (see 1 Nephi 7:19).
Remorse kicks in when others intervene. They stop trying to lay hands on Nephi again and plead with Nephi to forgive them. Nephi forgives them and tells them to pray for forgiveness from God. After the offenders have prayed for forgiveness, the group continues on their journey.
Laman may be the chief instigator of the attacks on Nephi, but in this story the patterns change a bit because more people are involved. Laman doesn’t hit Nephi; he wants the wild beasts to do the more violent work. Several people finally stand up to the group led by Laman. They apologize to Nephi. Laman did not apologize after the first episode, and I wonder if the apologies in this episode came from the other people involved. The text doesn’t say.
In contrast to abusers who keep their behavior a secret, Laman does not keep anything secret. He actively tries to recruit people to join him in hurting Nephi. It appears that the others feel bad about how far they went, once someone who is not Nephi points out their bad behavior. Frequently, an abusive relationship includes apologies. However, because the underlying abusive dynamics have not changed, the apology does not stop the abuse from happening again.
This episode shows both the importance and the helplessness of bystanders. The witnesses intervened to stop the abuse. Nephi couldn’t stop it on his own, and the abusers weren’t going to feel bad on their own. The witnesses had to speak up. Witnesses who speak out are important in identifying and condemning the abuse.
The helplessness is that the witnesses only stopped this one episode. Speaking out against abuse ends an episode, but it doesn’t change the underlying dynamic of the relationship.
A Non-Bad Interaction
Abusive relationships are not all bad all the time. Even abusers have good days. If someone was horrible all the time, it would be easy to leave. A victim stays in a relationship because he hopes things are getting better. He hangs that hope on the good interactions. What the victim doesn’t see is that what he thinks is a good interaction is really just an interaction that wasn’t as bad as it usually is.
By this point in the record, Nephi is dealing with the two brothers who usually lead the pack during abusive episodes (Laman and Lemuel), one brother who is usually on his side (Sam), and a couple of brothers-in-law whose names we never know. When Nephi refers to his brethren, we don’t know how many people he’s talking about, but I assume it means the group includes more than Laman and Lemuel, since he does continue to mention Laman by name when Laman instigates something.
Nephi has a conversation with his brothers that brings him “joy and great hopes” (1 Nephi 16:5). What happens to cause him such joy? Nephi speaks about spiritual things like obedience and repentance, even making pointed remarks about how “the guilty taketh the truth to be hard,” and exhorting them to keep the commandments of the Lord. Instead of trying to kill him, his brethren “humble themselves before the Lord” (1 Nephi 16:1-5).
That’s it. That’s the joyful and hopeful experience. They don’t beat him or try to kill him when he explains some spiritual concepts and tells them to be obedient to the Lord.
If you listen to someone in an abusive relationship, you’ll hear this type of story in which the victim has “joy and great hopes” because of something rather mundane. When the wife is explaining why she doesn’t leave her abusive husband, she’ll tell a story in which he once stayed calm and didn’t hurt her, holding that up as proof that he’s a good man. Listen to what he didn’t say, and you’ll see the abuse cycle is still intact. He didn’t apologize for his behavior outside of the abuse cycle; he didn’t acknowledge the effect of his behavior on her; he didn’t offer to get help to make permanent changes; he didn’t treat her with genuine respect and see her as an equal; he didn’t say she could hold him accountable for the way he treats her. No, what happened was they had a non-bad interaction. The victim vaults to “joy and great hopes” because the abuser acted normally for once.
It’s just the victim grasping at straws. If an abuser really was going to change, he would agree to be held accountable for his behavior. Instead, all he does is have an interaction that is so neutral that someone in an ordinary relationship wouldn’t even register it as good, but it’s the best the victim has to prove that things might get better.
The Blame and the Bow
Out in the wilderness, the men are using bows and arrows to kill animals for food. Nephi breaks his bow. Nephi records, “and after I did break my bow, behold, my brethren were angry with me because of the loss of my bow, for we did obtain no food” (1 Nephi 16:18, 21). But he also says that his brethren’s bows had lost their springs. It doesn’t appear that anyone was angry with the other men for having unusable bows. Only Nephi gets blamed for everyone’s hunger.
Blaming someone when you should be working together with them is an abusive dynamic. They are all going hungry when Nephi’s bow breaks, including Nephi. In an emotionally healthy relationship, people would provide comfort: “It wasn’t your fault! I know you feel bad about it too, but don’t worry we’re all in this together and we’ll figure out something.” That does not happen in an abusive relationship. The constant blame produces fear, isolation and loneliness. You alone carry the burden to make sure everything goes perfectly so you can’t get blamed.
Nephi makes a bow and finds food (see 1 Nephi 16:23). This story gets taught in Sunday School classes as an example of Nephi’s faithfulness and resourcefulness. And it is a story of his faith and resourcefulness. But it’s also a story of the burden he carries. No one even tries to help him. No one works together with him. He alone is responsible for fixing everything by being more faithful and more resourceful than anyone else. Being in an abusive relationship is profound loneliness on a level that people with healthy relationships do not comprehend. You are always alone.
Building the Ship – Ridicule
Nephi summarizes the next eight years in about four verses (see 1 Nephi 17:1-4). We don’t know about any specific interactions, but the next stories Nephi tells show that nothing in the relationship with Laman and his other brethren has changed in those eight years.
The family’s journey has brought them to the sea. It’s a beautiful place, but this isn’t the destination the Lord has in mind for them. They are to build a ship and sail across the ocean to the Promised Land. None of them know anything about sailing. Nephi has never built a ship before, but he’s gotten instructions from the Lord and starts to make tools.
Already in this story, Nephi has recorded visions; they left their comfortable home in Jerusalem when the Lord told Lehi to leave. They’ve seen angels and heard the Lord’s voice. So let’s just conclude that Nephi saying the Lord told him to build a ship is not quite as unbelievable to the others in this group as it would sound to a modern reader.
Nephi’s brethren call him a fool and don’t want to work with him. Even given all the divine intervention they’ve seen, there is definitely some room to disagree with Nephi’s plan to send them to sea on a ship he is building based on revelation from the Lord rather than on any real-world experience.
The abusive element in this interaction is their glee about Nephi’s pain. “Now when they saw that I began to be sorrowful they were glad in their hearts, insomuch that they did rejoice over me” (1 Nephi 17:19).
People who are not in an abusive relationship will sometimes say that they would simply not tolerate abuse. They would stand up for themselves. What people in healthy relationships do not understand is the fear of humiliation and ridicule. Imagine how unhealthy a relationship must be for a brother to be gleeful and rejoicing because he made his younger brother sorrowful. Imagine a husband laughing when his wife cries in humiliation at something he has done. Imagine a father yelling at a child that he’ll ‘give them something to cry about’ while the child is already sobbing in terror of the father.
The reason it is so hard to stand up for yourself in an abusive relationship is that the abuser feeds on the pain they have caused. If you admit that he hurt you, then he wins. If you make yourself vulnerable by asking for an apology or respect, then he wins. If you are sad, then he wins. The abuser enjoys causing pain.
Laman wins this episode; Nephi admits the ridicule made him sad.
Building the Ship – The Lord Intervenes
All the frustrations of the past eight years in the wilderness boil over at this point. Laman and the others unload all their frustrations on Nephi — the suffering and the physical hardship and their belief that this whole journey has been pointless. Nephi replies with a series of scriptural stories, starting with Moses leading the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. He testifies about how they should be faithful to the Lord. He reminds them that they have heard angels and seen miracles, but stops short of talking about how they treat him (see 1 Nephi 17:23-47).
After this heated argument, his brothers want to throw Nephi into the sea. Nephi calls on the power of God to save him. Again, the Lord gets involved and physically shocks the brethren. Nephi’s brothers acknowledge the power of the Lord: “We know of a surety that the Lord is with thee, for we know that it is the power of the Lord that has shaken us” (1 Nephi 17:55).
As in the other times the Lord has intervened, it stops the abusive episode without changing the abusive dynamic.
Building the Ship – The Good Times
After the Lord’s intervention, the other men in the family work with Nephi to build the ship. Once it’s finished, everyone can see “that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine” (1 Nephi 18:4).
Building this ship undoubtedly took a period of time. Nephi does not record any other friction with his brothers while they build the ship. In fact, if someone saw the shipbuilding without seeing the abuse that preceded it, the observer might have thought that this was a really great family working together to do something difficult and a little bit crazy.
In most abusive families, there are good times — the trip to Disneyland, the fun gift at Christmas, the time you thought Dad would hurt someone but he didn’t, the time your sister helped you or your brother said something not-mean. There are times that an observer would only see how well everything is going. If you try to talk to this observer about the abuse, he would likely think you were whining and blowing things out of proportion. After all, every family has some arguments, but look at how well this family works together! The good snapshots work to hide and minimize the abusive episodes.
Episodes that are clearly abuse do not have to happen every day for the relationship to be abusive. Even when no abuse is happening, the relationship is still not healthy.
You spot the rot when you try to talk out a problem. In a healthy relationship, both people can talk about stuff without fearing the other person’s reaction. The offender would admit what he did. He would take responsibility for it and apologize. The victim would feel heard and respected. He would forgive the offender. This is how problems in a healthy relationship are resolved. In an abusive relationship, the only thing that happens is the victim has to forgive. The victim does not talk out an abusive episode with the abuser because he is afraid that will set him off again. Instead, the victim just tries to be glad that nothing abusive is happening at the moment.
If an abuser does apologize, the apology is not focused on the victim’s feelings and healing the relationship. Instead, the apology will be focused entirely on the abuser, his remorse and his self-hatred, or perhaps on his rationalization for his behavior. You know you are listening to an abusive apology when the victim ends up comforting the abuser. Even the apology is focused on the abuser’s needs.
You can’t trust the snapshot. If you are in an abusive relationship, the existence of good snapshots does not mean that the abuse is minor or that it will not happen again.
After they finish building the ship, everyone boards it for the journey. I remember sitting in a Sunday School class once, listening to the teacher speak about how much faith it must have taken to set sail on a ship you’d built yourself. I remember thinking how much faith it must have taken to let Laman and Lemuel get on the ship with you. Nephi doesn’t record any other problems with his brethren after they threatened to throw him into the sea. In fact, he says his brethren “humble[d] themselves again before the Lord” when they saw how well the ship turned out (1 Nephi 18:4).
Once they’re aboard the ship and a few days from land, Nephi records “my brethren and the sons of Ishmael” began to have a party (1 Nephi 18:9). It’s interesting he lists his brothers (Laman, Lemuel and Sam) separately from his brothers-in-law in this episode. We know exactly who is taking which role later on.
Nephi is afraid that their irreverence will displease the Lord, so he tries to put a damper on the party. Rather than just ignore him, Laman and Lemuel (named specifically) tie Nephi up and treat him “with much harshness” (1 Nephi 18:11). They leave him tied up for three days, despite others on the ship begging Laman and Lemuel to let him go. The people begging for mercy are their parents, Lehi and Sariah, whose age and grief nearly kill them, and Nephi’s wife and young children. In previous episodes of abuse, Laman and Lemuel allowed their hearts to be softened when witnesses intervened. Not this time. In previous episodes of abuse, Nephi got some divine intervention to stop things. Not this time.
A storm rages for three days. Nephi sees the work of God in the storm, threatening everyone on the ship with destruction. It is this fear of death that eventually compels Nephi’s ‘brethren’ (Laman and Lemuel are not named here) to free him. Nephi says his wrists and ankles “had swollen exceedingly” and “great was the soreness thereof” (1 Nephi 18:15). Once Nephi is free, the storm ceases and they get the ship back on course.
There is one element of the abusive cycle missing from this story that has been present in almost every other story. The people who hurt Nephi do not repent or ask for his forgiveness. Nephi says it was Laman and Lemuel who tied him up, but it was his brethren who loosed him. I interpret that to mean that the men who freed him were not Laman and Lemuel. Laman and Lemuel have escalated the abuse and can no longer be talked down by witnesses, nor do they express any remorse.
Nephi Grieves and Escapes
They arrive in the Promised Land and start working on food and shelter. Nephi records some prophecies and a few events. He doesn’t record any other interactions with his brothers. As Lehi ages, he leaves a blessing on his separate sons. Lehi throws his support entirely with Nephi, and warns his other sons that they might be “cut off and destroyed forever” unless they repent (2 Nephi 1:14-32). Nephi doesn’t record any reaction to this speech.
After Lehi dies, Nephi speaks to his brothers without recording what he says. Laman, Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael are angry with him because of what he says (see 2 Nephi 4:13-14). This disagreement leads right into the verses that are sometimes called the Psalm of Nephi because they are so emotional and poetic.
Nephi pours out his fears, weaknesses, faith in God and despair in his own sinfulness. He starts talking about his enemies, begging the Lord for deliverance from them and pleading for escape (see 2 Nephi 4:16-35). At this point in his life, the only people Nephi knows anymore are his family. His enemies are his brothers and he isn’t calling them brothers anymore. He ends this plea by putting all his hope in God.
I’m going to guess that most victims in an abusive relationship who get out of the relationship have an episode like this. In my life, it looked like a sobbing breakdown involving a lot of prayer and journaling where I finally let myself grieve for my failure and accepted that there was no point in praying for reconciliation anymore. Nephi just wants to escape at this point; there isn’t a word in here about loving his enemies or trying again with them. Same, Nephi, same.
In the next chapter, Nephi says he is again being subjected to death threats. In previous episodes, the Lord has stopped the abuse. This time, the Lord tells Nephi to get out. Nephi takes everyone with him who will go with him and leaves (see 2 Nephi 5:1-7). He’s done.
A Few Observations About Victims
For an abuse survivor, Nephi is surprisingly healthy in his emotions and attitudes. The abuse Nephi suffered was straightforward and obvious, he wasn’t alone, the abuse wasn’t hidden and he never blamed himself for what was happening. In this, Nephi is fortunate because the abuse didn’t screw up his thinking.
Nephi isn’t dealing with any mind games. Laman and Lemuel’s behavior is wrong, and all the people important to Nephi know it. Nephi never excuses his brothers because they are having a bad day or because traveling in the wilderness is hard. Nephi never believes that if only he was a better brother his brothers would treat him decently. Their parents never blame the abuse on Nephi or suggest he’s being too sensitive. No one ever says, “Gee, Nephi, the problem here is that you’re so obnoxiously righteous that your brothers can’t stand it. Stop being so faithful and they’ll like you.” The abuse happens right out in the open where everyone can see for themselves what is happening; no one can tell Nephi he’s exaggerating or misinterpreting something. These episodes are not mutual fights in which Nephi is giving as good as he gets and everyone can see it.
The more the victim blames himself for the abuse, the more difficult the escape and recovery process. Nephi never blamed himself for what L&L did, and neither did anyone else.
A Few Observations About Abusers
Nephi was the younger brother, but that was the only power imbalance in this relationship. He described himself as being “large in stature” (1 Nephi 2:16). He was a man; he was as big as his abusers; he had his parents’ full support; God frequently intervened to stop the abuse while it was happening — Nephi had every possible advantage an abuse victim could have and it never healed the relationship.
Abusers don’t change. An abuser may exhibit some temporary remorse and may even make promises. It’s temporary and superficial. A victim may actually be able to insist that the abuser change some of the worst behavior, but it won’t change the underlying abusive dynamic of the relationship. I know a woman whose husband really did stop hitting her. But he ramped up the verbal/emotional abuse and sexual selfishness. The relationship did not become healthy; the abusive patterns just became less obvious.
Abusers enjoy abusing. That’s why abusers don’t change; you’re asking them to give up something they find emotionally gratifying. When Laman and Lemuel got frustrated and angry at anything, they released that emotional pressure by hurting Nephi. Releasing negative emotional pressure feels relaxing. Abuse is an endorphin release for the abuser. They aren’t going to give that up. [Some abusers who are willing to do the hard work necessary for change are able to change – see the books I list below for a description of what that process looks like]
Abusers hate the victim. You can tell how someone feels about you by the way they treat you. I did not know this growing up; I thought you had to believe someone loved you no matter what he said or did. Laman and Lemuel rejoiced when they hurt Nephi. Even when they could be persuaded to stop the abusive episode and free Nephi, there isn’t a word about Laman and Lemuel telling Nephi they love and respect him as a brother. Never once do we get an indication that Laman and Lemuel cared about how Nephi felt or cared about how their behavior affected him. Treating someone with contempt and cruelty and blame are signs of hatred. The times of non-aggression just mean the abuser is not in a bad mood, not that the abuser loves the victim. The abuser may need the victim, but needing someone and loving someone are different things. The abuser may occasionally feel bad that the victim is so weak he can’t handle getting what he deserves, but pitying someone and respecting someone are different things.
Abusers are not capable of seeing the victim as a human being who is entitled to love and respect. There is no equality in the relationship.
A Few Observations About Witnesses
The witnesses to the abuse in Nephi’s story had it easy. They could see for themselves what was going on. Laman was straightforward and open about trying to recruit others to his cause; he never tried to hide what he was doing. The physical abuse was clearly over the line of acceptable behavior. There was no moral ambiguity about what was happening and whether or not it was wrong. No one ever said, “Gee, Nephi, if you weren’t so righteous then maybe you wouldn’t annoy your brothers so much.” (I’ve heard that sentiment from Church members, actually. The non-abusive response to someone being “too righteous” is to go write a snippy blog post that the too-righteous person never even has to read, not to tie someone up and threaten to leave them to be eaten by wild animals. It’s entirely possible to be annoyed with someone and NOT abuse them.)
Abuse is rarely that clearcut. The witness may be in a difficult situation and have some tricky decisions to make about how to condemn the abuse and the abuser while supporting the victim. Nephi’s witnesses can teach a witness important lessons about how to respond to abuse.
The first lesson is to accept that the witness will not heal the relationship. The most that Nephi’s witnesses could do was speak up when something terrible was happening and stop the worst excesses. Nothing the witnesses said made any real change to the relationship between Laman and Nephi. You, as a witness, will not heal or change the abusive relationship. This is important to accept because a witness risks becoming an enabler if she tries to heal the relationship.
To illustrate how a witness becomes an enabler, let’s use an example of an abusive marriage. The wife is being abused by her husband and she confides in her sister. The sister doesn’t see the abuse because the husband is only abusive in private; she knows only what the wife tells her. The wife wants the abuse to stop. The sister tries to help. The effort is already doomed to failure because the sister’s connection is with the victim and the victim isn’t causing the abuse. The abuser is abusing because he enjoys doing it and feels entitled to continue. Nothing the victim says or does will change that once the patterns are set.
It’s vanishingly unlikely that the abuser is going to have a confidant trying to fix the relationship because the abuser doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with the relationship.
The well-meaning sister is going to become an enabler if she tries to encourage and coach the wife to give her husband the benefit of the doubt and reinterpret his abusive behavior as aberrations rather than being part of a pattern. The wife is probably already willing to find excuses for her husband’s abusive outbursts and the sister will encourage this. The wife should look for the good in her husband, and always find a trigger for what set him off. He had a bad day at work, or he wasn’t feeling well, or he’s been under a lot of stress. None of these reasons justify abuse, but this process trains the victim to rationalize and minimize the abuse and believe that the abuser is a good man no matter how he treats her.
The well-meaning sister will also encourage and praise the wife’s patience with her husband’s outbursts. She’s so loving and forgiving! If they’re Christian, this sort of enabling quickly becomes religious. Jesus Christ forgave the men who nailed him to the cross; the wife is just like Christ. Tolerating abuse becomes a sign of spiritual strength and the wife may develop a martyr complex. If the wife won’t consider leaving the relationship because no one else could possibly love and help the abusive husband, then you’ve got a victim martyr. Don’t encourage or praise martyrdom. It’s useless. The husband is never going to accept his victim’s love and help; he despises her.
The well-meaning sister may start to blame the wife. She must be doing something to set him off. The wife is already willing to take responsibility for the abuse in order to feel some sense of control about it. She’s willing to believe the lie that if she was a better wife, her husband would treat her better.
As a witness, don’t fall into the trap of becoming an enabler.
An effective witness simply bears witness. Speak the truth that the abuse is wrong. This is the most helpful thing a witness can do for a victim who confides in her about the abuse. Be clear and don’t agree with any excuses the victim offers. “I don’t care if he had a bad day, it is always wrong to hit you.” Or if the abuse is verbal or emotional, be clear about that. “He should treat you with respect when there’s a problem. What he did was immature and cruel.” In this way, the witness helps the victim stay sane and keeps the responsibility where it belongs, which is with the abuser.
Then let it go. If the victim wants help to get out of the relationship, offer help and appropriate resources. Victims, don’t expect witnesses to rescue your relationship. No amount of intervention or lecturing is going to make your abuser change. You can’t change him; don’t expect anyone else to do that either.
If the witness talks to the abuser, do not offer the abuser a shred of understanding or compassion. The abuser already thinks his actions are totally justified and the victim is getting what she deserves. The abuser is arrogant enough that if the witness says something like, “I understand you were frustrated,” all the abuser will hear is the acknowledgment that his feelings are normal. He won’t hear the rest of the sentence in which the witness says that no level of frustration can justify his behavior.
Watch out for that trap. Nice witnesses try to identify with people who are doing something wrong in order to be more compassionate to wrongdoers. The fact that you can identify with someone’s feelings does not condone their behavior. Abusers do not see that distinction because their thinking is so screwed up. Once the witness says she understands how he feels, the abuser hears that the witness agrees that his actions were justified.
Witnesses have to be very clear that no level of frustration or stress excuses the way the abuser is treating the victim.
- If the witness tries to see both sides of the situation, then she sides with the abuser. All the abuser needs is someone to say his feelings are rational and he can do the rest himself.
- If the witness encourages the victim to give the abuser a second chance, then she sides with the abuser. All the abuser needs is an endless string of second chances to solidify the patterns of abuse.
- If the witness is ‘deeply saddened’ by what is happening to both victim and abuser, then she sides with the abuser. The abuser loves the idea that he’s suffering too and he’s entitled to compassion and understanding while he continues to abuse his victim.
Don’t be impartial. Don’t consider both sides of the story. Don’t be deeply saddened. Be angry on the victim’s behalf and be clear about whose side you’re on or you will stop being a witness and become the abuser’s assistant and enabler.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that families can be together forever. It’s rather obsessive about insisting that life’s greatest joys come through family relationships. However, the only complete nuclear family (meaning the wife/mother has a name and speaks a few lines) in the Book of Mormon is Nephi’s family. It starts as abusive and ends in complete estrangement. This irony does not get much discussion.
Nephi’s story is instructive for anyone dealing with an abusive relationship. Nephi gave his abusers another chance every time his abusers apologized to him and repented before God. After the incident on the ship when they didn’t apologize or repent, Nephi quit trying. When God told him to leave, he left. The lesson is clear: victims do not have to stay in a bad relationship forever. Outside intervention won’t make lasting changes. Look at the abuser’s behavior. If he stops showing remorse (or has never shown remorse), it’s time to get out.
Books about abusive psychology:
Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. (Berkeley Books 2003).
Engel, Beverly. The Emotionally Abusive Relationship. (John Wiley & Sons 2002).
Spring, Janis A. How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive; The Freedom Not To. (Harper Paperbacks 2005).
When a post is this long, do you even read it all?
Have you ever been in a dysfunctional relationship? Or tried to help someone who was?
Do you think the word ‘abuse’ is overused or watered down?
Do you think Nephi’s experiences can help people understand abuse dynamics?
People get in abusive relationships and sometimes stay in them for years. This article seems to be more about getting out of them on your own and trying to change the parameters of the relationship. To me the problem comes when someone in authority, a Bishop for instance, who tells a woman to stay with her abusive husband and leaves her with no hope until she finally breaks and leaves. To often in the church there is support for the abuser and not for the abused.
I join Janey in issuing my strongest possible condemnation to abuse of any and every kind. Far more must be done by the Church to help those who have been abused.
A big part of the problem is that bishops and stake presidents do not receive adequate training on how to deal with abuse. Unless they come from a profession in which they have been trained, they essentially have no training on how to deal with abuse. The vast majority do not come from these professions. It is unrealistic to think that a bishop who spends his days repairing Soviet-era farm tractors will somehow have the skills to competently help victims of abuse.
The time is long past for claiming ignorance. The current system in which bishops turn to social media and YouTube for advice on how to deal with abuse is clearly inadequate. This has been known for a long time. The Chuch must either stop calling Dairy Queen managers as bishops, or it must put them through extensive training on how to handle abuse.
We can agree that there are lessons to be learned from the characters of the Book of Mormon. And that is true whether the BOM is a story of a literal group of people or whether the BOM is simply Joseph Smith’s inspired fiction.
Maybe there are members out there who look to the BOM as a guide for dealing with abuse in their families. I hope it’s not too many people. The BOM offers very little with respect to family relationships. It’s strange that the “most correct book” would be so light on family given that the Church’s most value proposition is “families can be together forever”. Is there anything in there about how to be a good father (other than “don’t cheat)? Is there anything about how to be a good mother, sibling, etc.? How do we deal with mental health issues within our families? What if we have an LGBTQ family member?
It’s a real stretch to demonstrate a link between BOM stories and family values.
Sometimes I still try to minimize the abuse that grew up with, but there were several things you said that hit pretty hard.
I usually focus on the sexual abuse because that is more recognizable than things like watching my father spank my big brother until he cried, and seeing the satisfaction on my father’s face and realizing that he enjoyed hurting us. Then vowing to myself that I would never again give him the satisfaction of making me cry and then being spanked harder and harder until my father just got tired, but I didn’t cry. I was 5.
Sometimes I remember things like being in primary and singing “I am a child of God” and knowing that I couldn’t be a child of God because the song didn’t apply to me. I was NOT given an earthly home with parents kind and dear, but I was given parents cruel and hateful.
I think it hit me pretty hard that my dad did enjoy hurting us.
Anyway, I need to reread and process.
But one thing I wanted to point out s that we are given the account written when Nephi was an adult. As a child, I bet he did blame himself and think if he was only a more loving brother then they wouldn’t be so mean. When you grow up with it, you kinda know it isn’t your fault, but still blame yourself. I mean, I saw my father’s cruelty to my brother and knew it was because my father was a mean nasty unloving person. But I still was the most loving and good child I could be and constantly tried to keep him happy and thought the whole problem was because I was unlovable. So, I don’t think the account we get in the Book of Mormon is how Nephi or any abused child felt as a child.
Nephi reacted the way he did and tolerated his brother’s abuse for so long because he was abused as a child and learned the pattern of self blame and excusing the abuse. As an adult writing about it, we just don’t get to hear his self blame and doubt and all the, “if only I was a better brother.” But, you know, it is there in his lament. He still feels like somehow he failed his brothers.
I can write about my family’s abuse now and put full responsibility for the abuse on my parents, but that doesn’t mean that I saw it that way at 10.
I tend to view the BoM as an anti-war book, but someone I love who’s trapped in an abusive marriage has told me many times that the BoM is about what a dysfunctional family looks like, and the long-term consequences of that degree of dysfunction.
Thanks for this careful description of abuse, Janey.
Excellent post. I mostly agree with it. However, defining abusers and victims in a black and white way is inaccurate.
Many people who engage in abusive behavior are also victimized by the abusive behavior of other people. Many people who are victimized by others also engage in abusive behavior.
We can only act in a way we have been taught and a way our brains have developed neurologically. I do appreciate that you note that those who abuse can change that behavior. Victims can also learn to clearly and firmly identify abusive behavior and set boundaries for their own behaviors in response.
These skills are important for a victim even if they escape the dynamic you describe and find other relationships. Any relationship can have elements of abuse in it. I believe it is absolutely necessary to speak and identify abuse and act in a way to stop it, the first time. Otherwise, it will be repeated and as you describe, become entrenched.
I have been married to the same man for 33 years. There are/have been dysfunctional elements between us as you describe. We attended counseling for several years. In recent years we have had quite a lot of peace.
Your description of some of the elements we have been through is dead on (others not so much).
Blaming others never helps. Nor does imagining you can change another’s behavior. Each of us control our own behaviors only.
Support persons for people going through abuse can indeed make it worse by encouraging a person to believe they are somehow responsible for their partner’s behavior. This idea is destructive. The biggest part of healing for our marriage was for me to believe I wasn’t responsible and say clearly and repeatedly something along these lines:
“I am sorry you feel bad. But that has nothing to do with me. It’s something happening in your head. You misunderstood me, but if you want to understand you have to listen and quit blaming me. ”
There can be love and abuse. It isn’t true that every abuser gets off on the pain of the victim. Some of us just don’t really know a better way to cope or behave. But we can learn.
That said, regardless, putting up with abuse silently will only make it worse. For anything to improve in the relationship, communication must go two ways, no matter how hard that can be for some people to accomplish.
Thank you for the gift of seeing Nephi from a different perspective.
It makes me ponder on the relationships in Joseph’s family as well as the relationship between the church and it’s members. Please keep on sharing this type of thing.
Lws329 is correct that it is not always this black and white. But Jane is totally correct in that nothing excuses abuse. So, while it is not black and white, yeah in another way it is pretty black and white. Yes, my father was abused by his own father and I have good reason to believe that his father also sexually abused the oldest daughter. It may be true that my father was repeating what he learned. But just as it is true that nothing going on in an abuser’s life justifies hitting another person, nothing that happens to them as a child justifies them hitting or sexually abusing another person. He knew what he was doing was wrong, which is why he was so careful to convince us not to tell. If he knew it was wrong, then he had a responsibility to get help, not just abuse his wife and children.
Also not all abusers enjoy seeing their victim in pain. Don’t know how common it is, but some abusers are honestly doing the best they know how. But then “doing the best you know how” stops when you cross the line into fearing you will get caught. My mother went to far with discipline, she was a perfectionist, she had gotten some poor parenting herself. But she was never knowingly abusive. One is forgivable, while I am not really sure the other is. She never did anything that could land her in prison either. And not all abusers hate or disrespect their victims. But the abuser who loves their victim will get help when they recognize there is a problem. They do better as soon as they know better.
But the Laman kind of abuser does exist. The unrepentant unless caught abuser does exist. And there is SO much denial that anyone is that bad. There is this kind of bleeding heart social worker view that every parent loves their children and really wants what s best for their child. There is this attitude that really, if the battering husband just realizes how his wife feels, then he would change his behavior. No, some of them will not, not ever.
This is what killed me about how the church treated my father, as oh, poor man. His self worth is in the gutter. We must love him and build up his self worth. Instead of holding him accountable, they coddled him. They held ME accountable for his go&$#+**(/=& feelings. Instead of holding him accountable for the damage he did to his family
I was thinking of the Haight murders in Enoch (https://www.ksl.com/article/50551641/southern-utah-man-kills-wife-5-children-and-mother-in-law-before-shooting-himself) when I was finishing up this post, but I thought it was already too long to make the current events connection. Two years ago, police responded to an abuse allegation but didn’t press charges. Apparently the wife thought that the incident was a wakeup call and the husband wouldn’t do it again (a physical attack on his oldest daughter). https://ksltv.com/518228/police-investigated-child-abuse-report-2-years-before-enoch-murders/
The Haight story took a bizarre turn when the shooter’s family published a glowing obituary of him, pointing out how he treasured each of his children and tried to spend time with them, and talking about his Church service. The obituary didn’t mention at all that he’d killed his wife, all five of his children, his mother-in-law, and then turned the gun on himself. (https://www.deseret.com/utah/2023/1/17/23559460/michael-haight-obituary-taken-down-newspaper-website-utah-family-murdered)
Tausha Haight, the wife and mother, had filed for divorce about two weeks before her husband killed the entire family.
Anna, I just want you to know I confirm your experiences of church leaders failing to make the husband accountable and blaming the wife. It happened to my husband and I. The bishop called him to be a high priest. I refused to attend his ordination because he was yelling at me so much recently (the thought of attending made me want to throw up). So he chose not to be ordained.
Other things involving this bishop were occurring and after praying about it our family took a break from church. After several weeks the bishop asked us to come see him with his counselors present so we could “pound it out”.
I refused to go. My husband attended and asked the counselors to stay home. Then he told the bishop that he gets verbally abuse with me and he wasn’t going to be ordained until he’s doing better. The bishop responded by saying “I am sure any problem is your wife’s fault.”
This could have seriously endangered our family because it leads right into the automatic way my husband thinks, blaming me for things that he had to learn to correct in counseling.
This is why it isn’t okay for only men to be bishops. The male only point of view leaves many families in danger. Women are not perfect either but full partnership in the structure of the church would at least bring more perspectives to decisions and eliminate some areas of blindness.
I (a male) spent 42 years in a caring, loving relationship that ended with her dying of cancer. Then I met a woman who seemed wonderful, she was exciting and caring and we had a wonderful time…except she would occasionally explode for an evening for no reason that I could understand. Finally after 5 years she exploded once again and it suddenly hit me: I am in an abusive relationship. That weekend which we spent apart, I analyzed what was happening and decided to wait and see if there was an apology. After 4 days she called, swore to change, to stop drinking, to be more caring. I understood that this had happened many times before with no change and realized there was only one way to change an abusive relationship and that is to RUN AS FAST AND AS FAR AS POSSIBLE. I informed her that it was over forever (fortunately we had not married). I felt a great weight lifted from my mind.
I am now in a new, caring relationship and very happy. If a person has the ability, take the opportunity to get out of the relationship. That is what Nephi did.
Lsw329, yes about the bishop’s supporting the husbands. I worked in a battered women’s shelter, and not once did a bishop support the battered wife. Not Once. Child with a broken arm. After years of abusing her, he hurt the child who tried to protect his mom. Well the agency reported it, but the bishop let the guy stay at his house in the spare bedroom (yes there were children in the bishop’s home) because the temple marriage destroying wife kicked him out of her house to protect her children. Woman hospitalized with broken ribs and internal injuries, and all the bishop talked about when he visited her was how sorry the guy was and how she should forgive him. Just some horrible horrible stories of abuse and the best of the bishop’s “refused to take sides” which really means supporting the abuser. I was embarrassed to admit to being Mormon for the first time in my life.
This is why we need professional, trained, both female and male clergy. Or we need to admit our clergy are not clergy at all but administrators.
Anna’s comment “This is why we need professional, trained, both female and male clergy. Or we need to admit our clergy are not clergy at all but administrators.” is spot on. We have administrators that we expect to perform as clergy. Not fair to anyone on either side of the desk.
Yes, Janey, read the entire post. Intriguing new take on the Nephi story. Thank you.
I now recognize that I have at times unwittingly “sided” with the abuser by attempting a way for him to save face while simultaneously acknowledging the abuse (perhaps as a vestige of learning how to not trigger explosive episodes in my past?) I now am better educated on that point. Again, thank you.
There has been relatively little discussion of the abuse and murder of Tausha Haight and her children. Thank you, Janey, for focusing on it and the wider problem of abuse that occurs in our society, and, sadly, too often within our church culture. I’ve heard that Michael Haight was a direct descendent of Isaac Haight who had a role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I don’t know if that is true. If so, could intergenerational trauma have played a role in this horrific crime? This question is not in any way an effort to excuse Michael Haight. I don’t even know if this is a reasonable question to bring up. Is this a stretch or is it appropriate to ponder the thought that directly examining the most horrible parts of our past, no matter how painful and embarrassing it might be, can help us to heal and move forward on a path toward wellness?
Not condoning the abuse in any way – no matter how or why it occurs, it’s unacceptable – but does anyone else here think that Nephi was a horrible, self-righteous person?
I thought the OP was excellent, thorough, and handled with restraint. Not an easy task. Some comments were helpful, some illuminated the problems we have identifying abuse and holding abusers accountable. I won’t single out anyone for scrutiny because it’s usually futile, and abusers love to see other people analyzing this stuff— it’s like curriculum on how to better hone their game, and they take a lot of mental notes.
I will point out that abusers exist on a continuum of sorts. The most extreme are the murderers. Is depressing how common they are. But there are many others who abuse their “loved” ones without committing crimes for which they risk being held accountable by the state. It’s not a crime to yell, criticize, and micromanage, and it’s depressing how many of these exist. However, there is another kind who perpetrate abuse as covertly as possible, and they do just as much damage as any other kind, but no one sees it , sometimes even the victim doesn’t see it for a long time after the damage begins. This type is all about their skills at manipulating everyone, and many of their family and peers see them as great people. Churches and community service organizations are where they hang out, because those orgs provide such terrific cover.
I don’t know if it’s been a subject for study, yet, but I think it’s reasonable to believe that any level of abuser can escalate into criminal damage when pushed by imminent accountability— when their victim(s) leave, prepare to leave, when they are being investigated, when they are facing exposure and are losing control of their carefully curated life.
There’s much more that is known about the psychology and methodology of abusers, but it’s not commonly known by the general public. If they keep their cool, they can do a ton of damage and never face accountability.
TC – I’m going to address your question about seeing Nephi as a horrible, self-righteous person.
No, I don’t think he was horrible and self-righteous. I think he was desperately trying to be righteous to make up for how wicked his brothers were and that knocked him way off-balance. I saw this dynamic in myself, and then when I joined a support group, I saw others who tried to compensate for the sins of those around them by being more righteous than anyone else. I ended up with an unhealthy dose of perfectionism and the certainty that I was a total failure, because if I was righteous enough, surely I would have been able to stop the bad things from happening.
As I’ve left my dysfunctional patterns in the past, I’ve found out that I did come across as self-righteous and holier-than-thou. I mean, I was trying to do everything right and keep up the good work. Admitting any sort of weakness would have crashed my facade. That rubbed some people the wrong way.
Over the years, I’ve learned that there are two different extremes that commonly (not always) arise in response to abusive situations. One extreme is the out-of-control rebel. Think the kid who gets arrested for vandalism and experiments with drugs and drops out of school. The other extreme is the kid who does everything right, all the time, without fail. Both are a complete mess and need help.
Anyway. I identify with Nephi. I tried to be as righteous as I could in response to the situation I was trying to save. I did come off as stuck-up and self-righteous, but I couldn’t relax or everything would fall apart. Everything fell apart anyway, but for a long time, I thought I was doing my part to keep it all together.
Nephi is my BFF, whether he’s real or not, he’d the person I’d pick to have lunch with if I could meet anyone. I think we’ve got a lot in common. I’d give him a big hug and tell him that I’m sorry he thought it was his job to be righteous enough to make up for his brothers. And then he’d say something similar to me and we’d both cry.