In 1962, a young scholar from Saskatchewan by the name of Rudy Wiebe caused outrage and scandal in Mennonite communities throughout North America when he published his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many. The title, taken from a verse in the Book of Daniel, encapsulated the contention of the novel – that pacifism and non-conflict, core tenets of the Mennonite faith, may in fact be sources of violence and conflict, all the more damaging because unacknowledged or denied.
Although the book was published two years before I was born, I can remember my parents discussing it at the kitchen table, conspiratorially, as if the topic was in itself dangerous. My mother would later tell me that she had driven herself to the city, Winnipeg, the day it was made available in stores – it would never have been sold in my little conservative Mennonite town – to find out what all the fuss was about. By the time I was buying books myself, I had learned to think of this novelist named Rudy Wiebe as controversial and heroic, as an intellectual whose work was groundbreaking and revolutionary. These were exciting words to me.
All the fuss was about the challenging questions posed by the novel’s central character, Thom Wiens, an earnest young farmer living in a small isolated community in Saskatchewan (much like the community Rudy Wiebe grew up in). It is 1944, wartime, and the local men have either gone to conscientious objector work camps around Canada, or stayed behind to tend the crops and raise livestock. Wiens begins to wonder whether the Mennonite opposition to war may be self-serving. How can Mennonites stand aside while others are dying to protect the freedoms they enjoy? How can Mennonites justify selling their produce to the Canadian army, at a profit no less, and continue to preach peace and love for one’s enemies?
Rudy Wiebe hadn’t intended to stir things up with his novel. He was no Mennonite provocateur or self-appointed rabble-rouser. He wanted to write honestly and philosophically about the conflicts that arise from non-conflict. He also wanted to raise questions of sexuality and racism, and to test the established perception of Mennonites as a people ‘in the world but not of the world’.
At the time, Wiebe was a devout Christian and respected member of the Mennonite establishment. After the book was published he was fired from his job as the editor of a Mennonite newspaper and denounced, by some, as a liar, an upstart and a traitor. Even worse, an atheist. Others, like my parents, were supportive, secretly though, as was and is the custom among dissenting Mennonites. When my mother said, ‘Rudy Wiebe has aired our dirty laundry and it’s about time,’ she whispered. It was important to keep the peace in all matters, including the matter of Peace Shall Destroy Many.
‘I guess it was a kind of bombshell,’ Wiebe told an interviewer in 1972, ‘because it was the first realistic novel ever written about Mennonites in western Canada. A lot of people had no clue how to read it. They got angry. I was talking from the inside and exposing things that shouldn’t be exposed.’
Shouldn’t be exposed. These are telling words. The conviction that certain realities shouldn’t be exposed is what lurks behind the time-honoured Mennonite practice of avoiding conflict and refusing engagement. Everyday life in these remote towns and colonies is punctuated by conflicts, big and small – just like anywhere else – but Mennonites have a number of distinctive methods for dealing with them. You can, for example, whisper about them with your spouse late at night in bed and hope he or she doesn’t betray you to the elders. Pray for resolution. Ask for guidance from your church pastor, who may also be the source of the conflict. Turn the other cheek, according to the words of Jesus. And, if it’s bad enough, freeze out the individual creating the problem until they cease to exist in your thoughts, or even better, have that person shunned. (Shunning happens by order of the elders. It involves a complete denial of the individual’s existence. It is a method of conflict avoidance that maintains the righteousness of the community while preventing any resolution or possibility of justice. It is murder without killing and it creates deep-seated wells of rage that find no release.)
War is hell, it’s true. Shouldn’t be exposed is another hell. Shouldn’t be exposed stifles and silences and violates. Shouldn’t be exposed refuses and ignores and shames. Shouldn’t be exposed shields bullies and tyrants. I have seen it in my own life.
When my sister was ten years old, she was grabbed off the street, driven around for a while by a group of teenage boys unknown to her or any of our family, doused in some brown, toxic liquid and dropped back off in front of our home. The white furry hat that she’d just received as a Christmas present was ruined and had to be thrown into the garbage. That’s all I know about that. I don’t know what else happened in the car. Police weren’t called, nobody was called, it had happened and then there was silence and over time it seemed as though it might not have happened after all.
My grandmother, my father’s mother, was a secret alcoholic. Our community was dry, drinking was a sin, but she shoplifted bottles of vanilla extract from the local grocer and drank them one by one alone in the darkness of her small apartment. My parents would let themselves in with a key that they kept, pick her up, clean her up and put her to bed. My mother had mentioned to me that she suspected that my grandmother had been assaulted by a group of local men when she was a young woman, but it was never spoken of, never investigated. Every few weeks, the owner of the grocery store where my grandmother stole vanilla would call my father and tell him the sum total of the missing bottles – he never confronted my grandmother directly – and my father would write him a cheque and that was that, until the next time, when the same process would be repeated.
My other grandmother, my mother’s mother, was stood up at the altar twice by my grandfather until finally, on the third try, they were married. She had thirteen children, buried six of them as babies and spent a great deal of time praying. She would never even have suggested to my grandfather that his sexual desire was becoming an inconvenience. In fact, it was killing her, each pregnancy posing another threat to her life. At the onset of menopause and with the blessed end of pregnancies clearly in sight, she dropped dead of high blood pressure.
My father had a nervous breakdown at the age of seventeen and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, then called manic depression. His family never spoke of it except to berate him for being weak and effeminate and not devout enough a Christian, even though he attended church relentlessly, taught Sunday school, prayed his heart out for relief and never missed a sermon.
When I was twelve, the car dealership next door wanted to expand their parking lot and they put pressure on my father to sell our house. My father didn’t want to sell the house he had built himself for his new bride and the offspring that followed, and my mother encouraged him to fight, but he didn’t once argue or put up any kind of resistance. Business was next to godliness in our town and if my father refused to sell his house and beautiful yard filled with chokecherry trees and Saskatoon trees and petunias and tiger lilies and home-made birdhouses painted with cheerful colours then he truly was a sinner. He sold the house for cheap and mourned his loss quietly. I remember my mother slinging her arm around my father’s broad shoulders and whispering, ‘Defend yourself, man,’ and my father smiling mysteriously, with no words attached.
My mother’s cousin received a Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford and just a few months into the first term he died there, mysteriously, under suspicious circumstances, or according to God’s will, in which case what was there to do about it? His parents chose not to hear any details of an investigation or an autopsy. What if their son had died from a drug overdose, or sexual misadventure, or suicide? If they don’t know, then they don’t feel obligated to condemn him as a sinner, and they can imagine their bright, young, beloved son in heaven.
My son’s girlfriend told me a story about an Italian friend of hers. This Italian friend had an aunt who was absolutely furious with her brother for something they’ve all since forgotten. In order for her brother to know the extent of her rage she dragged a dead and bloodied deer carcass (I’m not sure where she got it from) onto his driveway for him to discover in the morning. That dead deer carcass said, ‘Don’t Fuck With Me!’ Her brother got the message. He apologized. She made him prove he meant it. He convinced her of his contrition. They laughed. They clinked shot glasses of grappa and drank to peace. Basta! Well, I don’t know exactly how it all went down but I’ve been so envious of this Italian brother and sister duo ever since my son’s girlfriend told me the story.
During my twenty-year marriage, which ultimately ended in divorce and a tsunami of agony and madness and guilt for thinking that I had destroyed my innocent family out of pure selfishness and conceit, and with the thought that I should probably destroy myself before I could cause more damage, I would sometimes air my complaints to my husband after he’d been drinking and when he was just about to fall asleep. I knew that he wouldn’t remember what I had said but at least I would have gotten it off my chest. It was a perfect arrangement. I could speak up but it wouldn’t turn into a huge blowout. I would talk about mundane things, mostly, how it bugged me that we always had to have supper at 6 p.m. sharp, for instance, or that he didn’t seem enthusiastic about my decision to join the Dakar Desert Rally, but I’d often get into bigger issues too; fundamental questions about our happiness and our compatibility. He would nod and smile, his eyes closed, and tell me we’d work it all out, he had to sleep, sorry. In the morning he’d have no memory of the conversation. In true Mennonite fashion, I had managed to take the edge off my disappointment and dissatisfaction (by saying a kind of prayer, pretending that someone was listening), without exposing myself, without provoking a big, ugly fight, and without changing a thing.
Between 2005 and 2009, in a very isolated Mennonite colony in Bolivia, 130 women and girls between the ages of three and sixty were raped by what many in the community believed to be ghosts, or Satan, as punishment for their sins. These girls and women were waking up in the morning sore, in pain, and often bleeding. These mysterious attacks went on for years. If the women complained they weren’t believed and their stories were chalked up to ‘wild female imagination’.
Finally, it was revealed that the women had been telling the truth. Two men from the community were caught in the middle of the night as they were climbing into a neighbour’s bedroom window. The men were forced into a confession. They and seven other locals would spray an animal anaesthetic created by a local veterinarian through the screen windows of a house, knocking unconscious all occupants. They would climb in, rape the victims, and get out.
These Mennonite colonies are self-policed, except in cases of murder. The bishop and the elders came up with a solution to the problem of how to punish the offenders. They locked all nine men into sheds and basements, and the idea was that they would stay there for decades. Also, they would instruct these men to ask for forgiveness from the women. If the women refused to forgive these men then God would not forgive the women. If the women did not accept the men’s apology they would have to leave the colony for the outside world, of which they knew nothing.
Eventually, this outside world was made aware of the Mennonite ‘ghost rapes’ and the perpetrators were arrested by the Bolivian police and put on trial by the Bolivian criminal court. According to sources within the community, the rapes have continued and no offers of counselling have been accepted by the elders on behalf of the women and girls. One explanation they made for refusing help was that, because the victims were sedated during the attacks, they couldn’t possibly be suffering from psychological trauma.
Abe Warkentin, founder of Die Mennonitische Poste, the most widely read Mennonite newspaper across North and South America and whose headquarters are located in my home town, has called the Mennonites ‘a broken people’. He has said that in our communities there continues to resound a ‘deafening silence’ when it comes to these crimes and issues, and he describes the scandal as ‘little more than an enlargement of social problems, in which more energy is put into hiding them than confronting and solving them’.
My father, after politely inquiring as to when the next freight train was scheduled to pass through the tiny village he had walked to, killed himself by kneeling in front of it. Blank pieces of paper were found scattered next to his body. My sister killed herself twelve years later in an identical fashion. Earlier she had left a note that listed the many people she had loved and had added a plea for forgiveness and the hope that God would accept her into His kingdom. When I was a teenager my sister put her hands on my shoulders, as though knighting me, and told me that I was a ‘survivor’. What does that mean? What does that require?
In 2008, I met Rudy Wiebe for the first time. A book tour had been arranged for the two of us in Germany. We would travel together from one small Mennonite village to the next, reading from our work and answering questions from audiences. A tall long-haired Lithuanian Mennonite living in Bonn drove us around from colony to colony and acted as our cultural attaché. He and Rudy Wiebe sat in the front seat of the car and told each other hilarious stories in Plautdietsch, the unwritten language of the Mennonites, and I sat in the back seat amazed that I was on a book tour with the guy who everybody had whispered about – the myth himself !
Rudy Wiebe was the same age my father would have been. They had a similar body type: tall, slightly stooped. He was formal and polite, like my father, with a way of looking up at things suddenly from a bowed head, so that in that instant, when he looked up or at you, his eyes were wide and his forehead was creased. He was a sort of folk hero in these communities, no longer condemned as a renegade traitor but sweetly embraced by these conservative Mennonites as a famous writer they could call their own, a prodigal son who spoke their language and who was no longer as harsh a critic of their culture as he’d been in his youth.
Rudy and I spent a week together on the road and had come to our last event in a tiny Mennonite town whose name I can’t remember. Once again, the audience was overjoyed to hear Rudy speak and mostly puzzled or just indifferent when it was my turn. I don’t speak Plautdietsch so a translator had to help me out when there were questions from the audience. I was reading from my novel, A Complicated Kindness, which is about a sixteen-year-old girl whose Mennonite family is torn apart by fundamentalism. My reading didn’t leave a great taste in the mouths of these German Mennonites. Afterwards, an angry-looking woman stood up and asked to be given the microphone. Her question was directed at me. It went on for a long time, in Plautdietsch, and when she was finished the translator faltered, a bit reluctant to tell me what the woman had said. Rudy Wiebe had understood it all and was busy making notes on a pad of paper. The translator told me that the woman had said my book was filthy and that my characters’ mockery of Menno Simons, the man who started the Mennonites in Holland five hundred years ago, was sacrilegious and sinful. She said that if she had a sixteen-year-old daughter she would not allow her to read my book. As the translator translated I smiled and nodded politely. When he was finished I thanked the woman for her comments. I was at a loss as to what to say next. Rudy Wiebe motioned for me to hand over the microphone. He walked to the edge of the stage and spoke directly to this woman in her language. After a minute or two, the woman stormed out of the room, dragging her mortified husband along with her. Rudy continued to talk for a while and then handed the microphone to the translator who translated everything back into English for me and the few other English speakers in the room.
Rudy had defended me. He had told this woman, ‘No. You’re wrong.’ He said that the reaction to my book had reminded him of the Mennonite reaction to his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many. He told the people in the room that however they might feel about the swearing in the book, it was at least an honest book, and that the conversations it had generated were important ones and that it, in its way, was advocating for necessary change within our culture; it was holding us accountable as Mennonites to our humanity, our human-ness; it was asking us to be self-critical, to accept reality, and to love better. He may have said other things that weren’t translated, I don’t know.
What I’ll remember is that on that day Rudy Wiebe stood up in front of a Mennonite ‘congregation’ and fought for me. My father would have approved. He may not have been able to do it himself but I know he would have appreciated the scene, this long-ago subversive hero defending his very own daughter.
Rudy and I took a train to Frankfurt the next day, where we were catching different flights home to Canada. The train was packed and, with the exception of one seat, there was standing room only. Rudy gestured for me to take the seat, but I hesitated. He looked tired and I knew the week had been hard on him. Again he reminded me of my father before he died, smiling valiantly, sadness in his eyes. I shook my head and gestured for him to take the seat. I was happy to stand, no problem. The train was moving fast and things, life, on the outside became a blur. I watched him as he gazed through the window out at the German countryside, pensive. Soon he was asleep and the train ticket he held in his hand slipped from his fingers and fell to the floor.
Photograph © Mark Makela / Reuters