Warning: This story series contains descriptions of physical abuse.
by Tess Willoughby
Nate says what happened from Christmas of 1999 through summer of 2000 was this: I condoned his affair with Angel.
I guess Nate should know, because “condone” is a legal term and he’s a lawyer. That’s not the way I remember it. I remember two things: being very ill and being very angry. After the lingeré bonfire, Nate kept his sickly, irate wife very busy listening to his sermons on forgiveness, doing unpaid paralegal work (he set up his new firm at home with the clients stolen from his former boss), getting through Christmas on a shoestring, overhauling our finances, and going to marriage counseling with pastors Mike and Randy.
All this was going on in my last six weeks of pregnancy. The financial overhaul alone was tiring and overwhelming. Nate planned another home birth for me, increased my life insurance, and made me sign for credit cards in my name to reduce our interest rates. Then he rolled all our debt onto the cards, charged law office supplies to them, and locked the cards in the file cabinet. I wasn’t sure how increasing my life insurance saved us any money—after all, it cost more—but Nate insisted that I wouldn’t understand even if he explained it to me. I couldn’t even balance a checkbook, so if I would just trust him and sign here, here, and there already, he would take care of it all. It was futile to ask questions, I would just be even more worn out with Nate’s thousand-word answers, excuses, and insults.
Marriage counseling was also futile—it didn’t help matters at all. Nate was enraged for two reasons: I had great respect for Mike and Randy, and Mike and Randy were very hard on Nate. Randy made one remark during counseling that hit me like a stun gun.
Randy said, “Nate, in your heart you have rejected God.”
My brain began to blink to life. The broken mirror pieces in my mind fused into one big mirror, still picturing Nate, but he was ugly—uglier than the portrait of Dorian Gray. Ugly as sin.
Nate’s “theology,” no matter how complicated, was a substitute for faith, not evidence of faith. I knew it in that instant.
Nate’s retribution was swift, his diversion brilliant. He accused me of being in love with Randy and Randy of being in love with me. We could continue to go to the church and to marriage counseling, Nate decreed, but I was not allowed to speak to Randy unless Nate was present. Nate spread ugly innuendo about us throughout the congregation. In private, Nate assured me that the only thing I was guilty of was “spiritual adultery” so far—of putting another man in Nate’s place of spiritual head and God-mediator. I needed to watch myself, though, he argued, or I’d be in bed with Randy next.
I hated Nate with every ounce of my strength. Randy’s wife was very pregnant too, and it hurt to see the pain and doubt cross her face. Randy’s marriage held tight, though, and his wife was soon beaming again.
As the controversy blew over, I focused on the imminent birth of my sixth child. I had to lie down a lot. The cramps were breathtaking. I had legal research to conduct. I had my children to educate. Plus, Nate had one last theological curve ball to pitch. Nate had begged my forgiveness for Angel. He had repented in tears, and agreed to the marriage counseling. Now, in the wake of my alleged “spiritual adultery,” Nate was backtracking. Could a convinced polygamist, Nate asked me, ever commit adultery? Nate said, “Maybe only women can commit adultery.” As he explained to Mike and Randy, he was “looking at six months” of no sex while I carried Abi, and what better time to look for a second wife? (A little wrinkle: Though only 21, Angel was married. Her husband was in the Navy and deployed at sea.)
Suddenly I was the adulteress, and I wasn’t buying a ticket for this guilt trip. Nate and I had one heated argument after another, and, as long as we were arguing, I hotly denied that I needed God to speak to me through Nate or any man.
By the final two weeks of pregnancy, I was too uncomfortable to argue any more. The pressure on my pelvic floor was so intense that I wished I could simply hang from the ceiling via a system of big elastic belts between the legs and under the belly, attached to straps, affixed to wheels on tracks. Then, I fantasized, I could push off with my swollen feet and glide from room to room. Nate responded to my weakness and discomfort by threatening to exercise his “right” to polygamy on a permanent basis and move another woman into the house, if I couldn’t figure out a way to carry babies and have sex simultaneously. If I left him or reported him to the authorities for practicing polygamy, Nate said, he would use the courts to take the children and everything we owned. No other man would ever want me with six kids.
I told Nate that I wouldn’t abide another woman in my house, although I secretly wondered whether, in addition to taking over my sexual burden, prospective Wife #2 would also change diapers, wash dishes, and talk about something besides law and theology. There was no jealousy. I hated Nate’s guts by now. This was territorial.
Abi’s home birth in late winter 2000 was grueling. It didn’t help that I went into labor already feeble and anxious from all of the trauma and stress during the pregnancy. With the help of a midwife, I finally got Abi safely out of my body—but that night, I woke up in pain and horribly dizzy. The hallway was a swirl of colors as Nate helped me to the bathroom. I was pouring blood and passing blood clots bigger than my fist. Several huge clots hit the floor before I was able to get onto the toilet. Nate stood in the doorway while I bled into the toilet, then watched as I struggled to put on a mammoth maxi-pad and crawled around on the floor with toilet paper, scooping up clots and wiping up blood.
Without a word, Nate helped me up from the bathroom floor and put me to bed. I soaked the pad and a 4’x2’ section of mattress with blood. I blacked out. Sometime during the night, I regained consciousness and murmured, “Nate, I feel really sick. Can you open the window?”
“Sure,” said Nate, pushing it open.
I survived. Two weeks went by before I could walk from one side of the house to the other. Doctor visits were not an option—we “couldn’t afford them.” The baby didn’t seem to get enough milk.
One of Nate’s house rules was that he got homemade pancakes every Saturday morning. The Saturday morning after I had Abi, and for several Saturday mornings thereafter, I sat on the kitchen floor. Stood and mixed the batter. Became too weak to stand. Sat down. Got up and poured the batter. Sat. Got up and flipped the pancakes. Cursed Nate wordlessly and called him from the internet to his breakfast.
I didn’t want pancakes. I wanted crushed ice. The kids’ play-dough also tasted good.
Spring and summer came, and I recovered some strength. The old arguments between Nate and I resurfaced, along with some new one. He was still seeing Angel, for one, and naming her as a “second wife” candidate, and had decided that he was a slave to Virginia’s ungodly bigamy laws. I said this was idiotic, and that he just made this theology/law crap up as he went along, depending on what he wanted next. Nate couldn’t use my feelings for him to control me, and he couldn’t use the Bible now that I’d determined he was a faithless hypocrite. He was afraid to resort to force with Mike and Randy just a phone call away, so he used the children against me and threatened to cut off my allowance ($20 a month), confiscate the minivan keys, and ground me like an unruly teenager. Our arguments grew longer and louder until our house was a war zone.
You know what happened next. Nate sat in judgment on me with five little kids as a mock jury, and ordered me to leave, but what he really wanted was for me to get back in line and submit and obey. Instead, he came home from work and all seven of us were gone. Nate was outraged, but he had already made a few financial preparations. He would try religious and economic means of persuasion first. If that failed, he could always turn to the law.