Monster in Our Midst, (Winter 1980)

Monster in Our Midst
Personal Essay
Cynthia Thorley Andreason

After long hours of consideration and investigation, I have decided that we are living with a monster in our midst. Should I describe this monster? It is large, has green scales, a long tail, a big belly and flared nostrils: a basic Walt Disney dragon – huge and frightening but a little bit comfortably familiar – comfortable enough, obviously, that we tolerate its presence with a minimal amount of complaint.

Who is this dragon, and where did it come from? I call it “The-Way-Things-Are-Supposed-To-Be,” and I think that we’ve collectively given birth to it over many years. As a teenager, I was fiercely determined not to be like all those other girls who were snagging boyfriends, fully determined to marry them either shortly before or after graduating from high school. Even so, on the eve of my twenty-third birthday I sat with my sympathetic roommates, wondering what had gone wrong – I was supposed-to-be-married. Then there was my friend, the new Relief Society president. Once quite vocal about the importance of molding programs to meet individual needs, she now extolled the virtues of the homemaking meetings she had previously refused to attend because they didn’t meet her needs, since that was what she was supposed-to-do. Or there was the ward I once lived in where everyone very, very impressively fulfilled charitable duties well into the second mile, but none of the women were close friends. By their own admission they were afraid to let people find out what they were really like – the inside just might not match the supposed-to-be.

For years, I wasn’t absolutely sure of the dragon’s existence. I only caught glimpses of its shadow and sometimes felt its fiery breath upon my neck. But one day, during a particularly trying period at school, feeling that awful presence strongly, I turned around very quickly and caught the dragon full face. Rather than relieving me at all, I was terrorized by my discovery. I became fully aware that something other than my own consciousness and feeling was governing my life. I became aware that I was essentially living two lives – the real me and the supposed-to-be me.

I felt for awhile that I was very alone, but as the problem of my dragon-terrorized life came to obsess me, I began to notice some interesting things. Other women also bore testimonies made up of a combination of stock phrases from the Church vocabulary. I heard others answer questions with the expected answers that didn’t quite ring true as having been cycled through their own hearts and minds. I began to suspect that other people were being intimidated by the dragon, too. A few exploratory ventures on my part into the world of saying-what-I-thought tended to confirm my suspicions – a few people would want to talk privately to me about what I said, while others were appalled to the point of speechlessness that anyone would say such things in public.

I immediately began looking around for some chauvinist or institution to blame, but could find no tangible culprit of widespread-enough influence to be responsible for the whole mess. I was not ready, however, to take full responsibility to any one individual. The dragon was hatched and growing large long before many of us were born. But it is still growing – it grows every time I let the dragon decide what I’m going to say or how I’ll act. It grows every time one woman encourages another, however subtly, to react the way she’s supposed to rather than the way she really feels.

When I described the dragon above, I referred to his Walt Disneyish appearance. I did that for a definite reason – that being that its comfortableness is part of the reason it hasn’t long since been banished from our midst. It is frightening to live without a structure to support us, and the dragon has provided the most readily available, if far from the most positive, support for many of us. It is also terrifying to hear someone truly express the depths of personal agonies and angers, and the dragon has successfully squelched in many the impulse to express these feelings.

The blame cannot, then, be placed on any one person or even any one source. I am not responsible entirely for that dragon’s existence in my life, and neither is any other person entirely responsible for its existence in his or her life, I am responsible, though, for the nourishment I provide it and for the acquiescence that I give to its existence. Every time I gush about the spirituality derived from a meeting that I traditionally daydream through or refer to my “good husband” in phrases that we hear over and over, I make it a little bit harder for someone to see around the dragon to the person – the soul – on the other side whom he would really like to communicate with.

I’m not sure that we can completely kill the dragon – I really don’t know. I’m not sure that enough of us want to yet. For me, the first step was realizing that it existed. From there it was easy to move to a conviction that it was not good for me. But to this day I’m awed b y the power and influence of the dragon and its ability to pull me again and again into its clutches.

I have learned, though, that inasmuch as I differentiate carefully between my feelings and those of the dragon, it is easier for me to consciously choose to act as I wish, rather than to react to the dragon’s ominous rumblings. I don’t know if it is entirely possible to eliminate the dragon, but I’m up for stopping the inadvertent feeding of this beast and for working towards relationships which are unfettered by this monster in our midst.