Not In My House (Forthcoming Memoir)

First Place Winner of the 2017 Original Utah Writing AwardFifth East Green Edit

Susanna Barlow, the 23rd of 46 children, grew up with one father and six mothers. But unlike many other children who grew up inside polygamy, Susanna was not raised in an isolated compound, far from public view, but in a tall, white house right in the heart of Salt Lake City. Hidden in plain sight, her sprawling family of more than forty people lived and hid behind heavy drapes and layers of lies. From the age of six Susanna’s life was defined by long hours spent scrubbing floors and washing stacks of dishes or feeding one of the many babies that sat in a long row of highchairs against the kitchen wall. Work was the only constant, and it was never ending in the house on Fifth East.

With a 7-11 on the corner, a high school a few blocks away and a busy bus stop across the street from their house, Susanna’s polygamist family was desperate to keep their lifestyle a secret and she was taught to be fearful of outsiders. Like many of her siblings, she had never been to a doctor, ridden a bus or spent a single day in a public school. She lived in constant fear of discovery: one slip of the tongue, an eager child talking to the mailman or even kids yelling too loudly in the backyard could bring the police crashing down the front door, tearing her family apart.

But her family was hiding more than polygamy. Mother Kay, the much younger third wife, ran their home with an iron fist. It wasn’t Susanna’s father who abused her; it was Mother Kay, calmly and methodically swinging the white piece of pvc pipe that she used to beat the youngest children to the older teenagers, for any imagined crime. When Susanna screamed too loud or not loud enough, she simply beat her harder and longer, promising that she was doing it all for her own good, teaching her obedience to both parents and to God. The other adults in Susanna’s house didn’t stop the abuse, even her own mother stood silent, looking helpless, before turning on the vacuum to drown out her cries.

By the time she was nine years old, Susanna was grateful for the long sleeves and heavy clothing that hid the many black bruises covering her body. Like the other children, Susanna was homeschooled and often locked into the small schoolroom for days when she didn’t finish her homework. For several years, five of the school-aged children endured periods of slow starvation, eating sheets of computer paper while the rest of the family sat down to dinner. When the snow fell, Susanna learned to reach out the broken schoolroom window and scrape it from the roof, eating it before it melted. Alone at night, Susanna would curl her body around the water heater in the closet for warmth. She never spoke to anyone about the abuse, even the other kids in the house. It wasn’t just the fear of beatings or starvation that kept Susanna silent, it was the deeper humiliation and shame she felt about the abuse. The whole family had learned to keep silent, as they lived in greater fear of the enemy within, than from the enemy without.

When Susanna married an upstanding young man from the polygamist community she hoped the cycle of abuse would end. But silence had burrowed deep into her family core and the seeds of violence had already been planted. She learned that surviving an abuser is one thing but not becoming an abuser is something else. As she raised her own children she tried to become the mother she never had, but she struggled with crippling depression, PTSD, and bouts of uncontrollable rage. At the same time she was trying to break from the polygamist religion and the culture of plural marriage. In order to be strong enough to destroy the pattern of abuse she realized that her long years of silence would have to break, and not just her silence, but that of her entire family.

Years after leaving home and under the threat of her parent’s polygamous lifestyle being exposed, Susanna is forced to organize a family meeting. All the children were invited to sit down together to confront their parents, in the hope that naming the physical, emotional and sexual abuse they had endured would end the family silence, once and for all.

In the end, Susanna discovers that facing down her abuser is not the hardest thing she has to do. She must also confront her own mother, forcing her to answer for why she chose not to protect them; testing the strength of courage and the boundaries of forgiveness.

Susanna now lives in a happy household with six children and one loving husband. She is a writer and teacher and has chosen an intentionally non-polygamous lifestyle even as she is surrounded by neighbors, friends and family who have chosen polygamy for themselves. This book is about survival, strength, tolerance and the real work of overcoming abuse to create healthy families, one voice at a time.