At the end of last post, we were exploring a scintillating dialogue between a young girl named Agnes, and her older (and wiser) sister, Iris. The two girls were discussing responsibility. Agnes wanted to make her own decisions, and Iris was explaining that only a fool would want to make her own decisions, because making decisions means responsibility for the outcomes of those decisions, and no one in their right mind wants that.
This is the common scams run by Conservative Mennonites, or, as we are pleased to called them, ConMen. They would have you believe that they have no desire to be in charge, because of the heavy responsibility it lays on their shoulders. They groan and travail under the pressing weight.
But just try suggesting that one of them lays down the right to make decisions for others. Do you think that they will take you up on that, with a profound sense of relief? They will not.
And try suggesting that they are responsible for the results of the actions that they have taken? Do you think that they
take responsibility? They do not.
So we end up with a situation of power without responsibility, and everyone stands by shocked when things go predictably, badly wrong.
"Well, I think I could make some pretty good decisions," Agnes said with a laugh. "Right now, I wouldn't be peeling peaches to put in the freezer. I'd have gone to town with Anna Marie and to her house to work on the rug she is hooking. Then she hoped her mother would let us go..."
"I knew you were going to say 'go,' Iris interrupted Agnes pleasantly. "Anna Marie is never satisfied unless she is going. I pity her husband, if she ever has one. He'll never know if his wife is going to be home, going somewhere, or gone when he gets there. Or whether she will have a meal cooked, or clean clothes for him to wear."
Analyzing this paragraph is a little bit like arm wrestling an octopus. You have no idea what you should grab first, but there's no shortage of options.
Of course, Agnes's decision making is immature and self-centered. Instead of helping her family with a project, she wants to leave and go do something fun. Anyone reading this paragraph is going to agree that Agnes would not be making a good decision here. The sneaky point being made here is that all the decisions that Agnes, or the girl reading this book, would make are equally selfish and short-sighted. So they should just leave them to the more capable people in the room. This is basically a story version of the straw man fallacy, but it is more insidious, because it is not directly stated.
Why the attack on Anna Marie? Her Mother is making decisions for her, so Anna Marie isn't responsible for them, right?
Of course, there's that lovely slur about "if she ever gets a husband." That's truly the only thing that gives a woman value. If you can't land a man, it's because you didn't measure up. And without a man, you are worth about as much as a dirt clod, but with fewer options.
If you press these people on the point, they will tell you that it isn't God's will for everyone to get married. And that it's totally OK to be single. (It's just that it's more likely to be God's will for you to be married if you do what we say.) This last part is unspoken, but very much believed.
So, Anna Marie likes to get out and go places. And hook rugs. And this grave sin will condemn her to a life of bitter loneliness. Rather than see the error of her ways, she will stew in self-pity and grow hard and bitter, until she eventually goes BMA and takes up writing a blog about the errors of Conservative Mennonite dogma. Or something.
And God forbid that a woman should be able to leave the house, if she is married. And God doubly forbid that she be away working on a project, and her husband has to put left-overs in the microwave oven. Poor MAN!
But this diatribe gets Agnes thinking...
"Well, after she is married, she will surely settle down and make a good wife," Agnes protested.
And here is another fun little Mennonite belief.
The Holy Grail of Marriage is supposed to solve all your problems.
If a man has "moral failings," getting married may be just what he needs to sort them all out.
And if it works so well for the men, shouldn't it work just as well for the women?
Sorry, Agnes. No.
Somehow men are able to get someone to marry them even when they are perverts. But if you like hooking rugs instead of peeling peaches, (neither of those are metaphors, by the way) you will probably find yourself single. Which just goes to show what a hot commodity men are in these circles.
"I doubt it," Iris returned. "Look at Elsie Fisher."
"Well, Elsie is different. She never learned to work. And her mother was a poor housekeeper before her."
The casual judgmentalism is positively infuriating.
It's like these people have a Rolodex of everyone's faults to trot out.
And we're just casually smearing a whole family here. Without a trace of guilt. Because they deserve it.
This is modeled as normal behavior. After all, as the Good Book says, "Poor housekeepers shall not inherit the Kingdom of God."
"Do you think Anna Marie has learned to work?" Iris asked kindly. "Really and truly now? Which of the home responsibilities could she carry well if her mother suddenly got sick and she had to take over?"
"Why, she can cook and,..." Agnes began with firm conviction, but then she hesitated as she recalled that most of Anna Marie's cooking experience was limited to toasting cheese sandwiches, making hot chocolate, and baking cookies.
There are so many assumptions being made here.
First off, how does she know that that is all that Anna Marie knows how to cook? It might be the only thing Anna Marie feels comfortable cooking when Iris and Agnes come around, and with how judgmental they are, I can't really blame her.
Also, maybe Anna Marie is an absolute toasted cheese sandwich fiend.
I know I am. I could happily eat toasted cheese sandwiches every day for several weeks or more. Because they are very tasty. And if Anna Marie knows how to do them right, then she knows something about cooking.
Because a good toasted cheese sandwich is an art form that few have mastered. I suspect that Iris and Agnes are a tad jealous of the golden perfection of Anna Marie's toasted cheese sandwiches.
And as far as baking cookies goes, that's all Mother does in most Rod and Staff literature. Every single time the
kids children come home from school, Mother is pulling a tray of cookies out of the oven. So between perfect grilled cheese sandwiches, and daily cookies, I'd say Anna Marie is doing OK.
And if the road to a man's heart is through his stomach, Anna Marie's got a good shot at paving that road with cheesy gold.
Picture By Maggie Hoffman - Tomato Soup Grilled Cheese, CC BY 2.0
And now I'm hungry for a grilled cheese.
Her mother did most of the cleaning, with Anna Marie merely dusting and arranging things attractively. Agnes could not recall that Anna Marie had ever washed or ironed. And although she did wash and wipe dishes regularly, Agnes vividly recalled how Anna Marie had stated, with a grimace, how much she detested the job.
I'm just trying to figure out how these two girls know so much about what Anna Marie is up to, and whether or not she cooks, cleans, irons, sews, or runs an Etsy store.
She doesn't do the last one, of course, because that would require the use of the Internet.
Actually, to be honest, it's an intriguing theory, because it explains so much.
It explains why Anna Marie spends so much time hooking rugs.
It explains why Anna Marie's mother allows her to go places all the time. Undoubtedly, Anna Marie is using the Internet at the library to list her rugs on for sale on Etsy, and other places.
It also explains why her mother allows her to do all those things, rather than cook and clean and iron. The money that Anna Marie is bringing in is too good to let go.
Of course, Anna Marie, having a good head on her shoulders, has never let Agnes and Iris in on her secret, because they would rat her out to the ministers for using Internet. Or at the very least, they would be jealous of her income, just like they are jealous of her grilled cheese sandwiches.
It makes a lot of sense. And since I have learned from this author to assume facts that are not in evidence, I am going to say with certainty that that is what is going on here.
"But I do think," Agnes finished rather lamely, "that if she has a home of her own she would take care of it. She would have to settle down then."
And what a beautiful testimony that would be!
A young girl snared in the pits of rug-hooking and running to town. But at last, she sees the light, and decides to stop living on the wild side of life and settle down.
"To a certain extent, you are right," Iris agreed. "But she would not be happy. She would be the complaining, self-pitying kind. And I doubt she would ever be a good housekeeper and a good manager of her children and home.
Any young girl who does not discipline herself to do the things she should will never make a good manager of a home and children.
If she doesn't know how to discipline herself, she will do a poor job disciplining others."
And NOW the other shoe drops. Because Iris has now informed us that young girls are responsible for their actions and choices.
And this is the cognitive dissonance at the heart of radical authoritarian Anabaptism.
On one hand, we are told "You need to just listen to the leadership and the church do what you're told. This will keep you safe. You aren't responsible for what happens if you just meekly obey."
On the other hand, we are told, "It is up to you to do what is right. You are ultimately responsible."
But the personal responsibility is always divorced from group-think. It has to be. Otherwise people will ask uncomfortable questions.
"If I am responsible for my actions, then I am responsible for the outcomes. So why not cut out the middle man?"
Why do I need a authoritarian superstructure over me to "be responsible for me," if I am ultimately responsible for myself?
The Controllers appeal to the conscience to bring about compliance. Then they erode the value of the individual conscience in favor of the group. It's a delicate balance. And the cognitive dissonance destroys people.
"I like Anna Marie," Iris continued. "I think she is pleasant company, but there is something about her that I hope doesn't rub off on you by your being with her as much as you are."
"What's that?" Agnes asked agreeably as she reached for another peach.
"I don't know how to label it exactly," Iris hesitated. "But her spirit seems to be too independent for her to fill her place well as a girl and woman."
I must apologize for any cracked phone screens you might have experienced after reading that last paragraph. But you really should have saved your throwing arm for what is coming next.
"I believe that that is what I like best about her," Agnes returned frankly. "I know what you are talking about. She seems so free. She thinks for herself. She's good at making plans and getting things done that she has planned."
Here is a good tip for you. If you are reading a Mennonite book, and the book uses the word "free," it is never in a good context. Except if it is talking about being free from sin, of course.
Freedom, in the sense of self-determination, is actually bondage. True freedom is the freedom to be OK with sitting down and shutting up and doing what you are told. It's classic 1984 Big Brother stuff.
So Anna Marie thinks she is free, but we need to make clear that that kind of freedom is the Wrong Kind.
"That can be both good and bad," Iris told her. "For Anna Marie, it will be bad if she doesn't learn submission and to discipline herself to do what she should be doing instead of following her latest plan and project, at the sacrifice of a greater responsibility."
There are several key things to notice here.
1) Iris doesn't explain how it can be good. Only how it is bad.
2) Take note of the importance placed on submission, defined as "doing what others want you to do." Notice that those who preach submission seldom identify times when they themselves should submit. No one ever suggests that perhaps those around Anna Marie could submit to what she would like. That would never fly.
What's truly weird about this is that the good guys and bad guys change, completely based on point of view. The main character ALWAYS has to submit to others. Example: Girls are deciding what kind of flowers to plant. If Julia is the main character, she should give way and submit to Janie. But if Janie is the main character, Julia gets her way.
And, no one ever is in the right for standing up to a bully.
3) There is some serious conflation in this passage. There is a confusion of the issue of irresponsibility and selfishness (doing what you feel like doing at the moment regardless of what you should be doing. and the issue of submission (women should do what they are told.) The implication being, of course, that independent women are being irresponsible and are neglecting their duties.
Iris then launches into a long, tedious dialogue about how no one is ever free to do as they please, because of laws of God and man, and even if you were ignoring those, you are listening to Satan. I'd quote it for you, but it's pretty standard fare for this type of literature, and there are far bigger fish to fry in this book.
Then, we come to this creepy passage.
"The happiest place of all is to be in the perfect will of God. This is pure contentment. I am perfectly happy. I am not chafing to be somewhere else doing something else. I'm not even thinking about it. All I want to know is what I should be doing now, today. Then I am perfectly content."
This is the ultimate goal. Disassociation. Emotional detachment. Don't feel anything or want anything. Complete and total compliance. Just doing whatever I'm told to do without any personal desires of my own.
And, of course, when you have achieved this mental state, you are prepared to be a good wife, as depicted in this next section.
The woman has the privilege and responsibility to help the man. She does not seek her own happiness first, nor does she attempt to satisfy her own needs and desires.
Rather, her place is to be a helpful worker and companion for man. This place she will realize most fully in a marriage relationship, but in the meantime, she is learning this submission and helpfulness to man in her home with her family.
The perpetual astonishment with which I read this book is exhausting.
There are a number of mind-blowing claims here.
I have no problem with the idea that wives should put their husbands first. Husbands should also put their wives first. That's how relationships work, by both taking care of the other one.
But she says that wives should not attempt to satisfy their own needs or desires. Period. I don't even have words.
The second unbelievable claim is that unmarried girls and women are also subject to men, and that the family life revolves around women serving men in the home.
I'm not much for labels and buzzwords, but I think that's what the cool kids these days are calling "toxic masculinity." (And I think this once, they might be right.)