Dave Jenkins is a screenwriter and IT product manager living in Salem, Oregon. He was 43 years old when I interviewed him in Eugene on July 30th, 2014. Dave was also the first person to ever agree to participating in the project, way back in 2010. He ended up being the 91st person I interviewed for Live Through This. I'm including unedited audio of his interview below.
August 2, 2008 was my day. A lot of things had been happening in my life that led me up to that moment. I can’t remember what was the trigger on the actual day. It was a [Sunday] morning, but I had been leading up to that moment. I knew I wasn’t happy with where my life had ended up. I knew that I thought I had been a failure. I had failed expectations as a husband, as a provider, the patriarch of my family—and I really thought my wife and kids deserved better than me. I thought that I was hindering them from having the life that they deserved. At that time, I had been out of work for roughly two years. We had kind of been going through our own little economic depression well before the country did. So, the summer of ’08, that’s when all hell broke loose. We had been struggling and trying to get by.
I was raised Mormon. My wife and I both go back six generations in the church. The mental thinking is that you know more than the average Joe. You have gifts and talents that God has given you to make a difference in the Earth. It's really about self-respect, or as far as self-responsibility, I mean, I served in mission. I was on a mission in Sweden. I did everything I was supposed to: we got married in a temple, we had kids, we were active in the church, we went to the temple regularly, we did church callings, we paid our tithing. Paying tithing on 10% of your unemployment compensation is a huge sacrifice. I look back on that and go, "What was I thinking?" But we did it because that’s what good Mormons do. If you do that, God will bless you.
When you have that mindset and you're faced with long-term unemployment, you're kind of like, "Okay, I've been told my whole life that if you do A, B, and C, then you will have this result," you know? Like, God will hear and answer your prayers. He can do anything. When it doesn't happen, you start wondering, "Why? What's wrong with me? What am I doing wrong? What is it about David Jenkins that God isn't seeing fit to reward my good intentions?"
It starts to eat at you. It really starts to eat at you. You hate yourself. You hate everything about yourself. You look at yourself in the mirror and you're like, “There's something wrong in my DNA.”
I used to tell people that I was Pig-Pen. I had this dirty, dusty cloud following me, and I think people could physically see it. They didn't want to be around me. It was almost like I was a leper, you know? I would often tell people, “If someone has cancer, you're diagnosed. You go and get a second opinion. Then you go to experts who can put up a treatment plan. You have a goal to work towards, and you have people working towards you. But when you're faced with long term unemployment and you can't get a job to save your life, you're kind of on your own." And yet, at that time before the economy had tanked, no one could understand that.
Like my bishop in church. I would meet with him and he just couldn't fathom that. He would tell me, "Hey, I would never be out of work for two years. I would be pushing a broom or something."
At the same time I was thinking, "You know what? Screw you. You have no idea what I've had to do to support my family. You have no idea how hard this has been. For you to sit across the desk from me and just say, "Hey, I’d be pushing a broom." I've been applying to every job I can think of. Night shift jobs, janitor supervisor jobs. I’ve been applying to everything, and I can't get a job. I can't get a job."
I always used to pride myself that, if I could get in a room—if they would oversee the gaps in my resume, if they could get me in the room—I could sell myself. What’s funny is that I was always the runner up. I interviewed countless times. It was always between me and someone else, and they went with the other person who was the sure bet. When you're doing that, you go through every interview process, and the whole time faith is renewed. You're like, "Okay, God's working his magic." You tell your family. Your family’s excited. You tell your friends and the church, and they're like, "Hey, this is it!" Then it doesn't come.
It got to the point where I stopped telling my parents whenever I got a job interview because I knew I would have to let them down. I knew that I was a disappointment to them. I knew that because my life did not mimic the pattern that they were taught: if you do this, you will have this result... if you're a good person. That’s what kind of ate away at me.
I started selling personal things, things that meant something to me, things that I had been holding onto. I sold a first edition of Harvard classics. It's all thirty-four, mint condition. I always wanted that, you know? I sold that. I sold a beautiful medium format Rolleiflex camera from the fifties. I was selling everything that I had because we were trying to make our mortgage. We had never missed our mortgage, we weren't in danger of defaulting, but we were at the very end of our rope.
During that time, my youngest son had been diagnosed with autism. He was nonverbal at the time. My older son had been diagnosed years before, so this was kind of deja vu for us. So, dealing with an autistic son who’s nonverbal, then dealing with the stress of the economy, it created a terrible home environment where I felt like it was almost toxic. And it was because of me.
The day before, I guess it was the first of August, I went up to interview for a company in Hillsboro. I had worked for them in the nineties. I thought I was a shoo-in. I remember thinking at the time, "What would a job entail like that where you're traveling an hour and a half each way?" You know, you're thinking about the commute.
I was worried about the home environment, because I had been home for so long as a stay-at-home dad helping my wife, our youngest son took to me instead of her. He didn't want to be nurtured by her, he wanted me. That created this whole new dynamic of stress in our lives because, in Mormon culture, the mom is the stay-at-home and the nurturer, and the dad is the patriarch and the provider. They have the Family Proclamation, which spells that out: women belong at home and men are the workers. The stress of that, of our youngest son who needed help because he was autistic, and not understanding mom and those roles, it created lots of stress in our lives.
I was nervous, like, "How is my son going to react if I'm all of a sudden working again?" I remember calling my wife after the interview, and I said, "How did things go?"
She was like, "Today was great! [He] was completely fine. We've had one of the best days we've ever had!"
On the way home, I started thinking, "The reason why they had the greatest day is because I wasn't around." Maybe this idea of Pig-Pen—this dark cloud following me—had created a toxic environment for my wife and kids and they could feel it. Maybe I was the reason for all of our bad luck. That night, I kept on thinking that.
I remember, in the morning—Saturday morning—I woke up and my son had a nonverbal autistic fit, because he was back to, "Who do I go to? Mom or dad?" I thought back to what my wife had said the day before, that it was a great day. For half of that day, I wasn't there, so I thought, "I have to do something."
I got my car keys, my wallet, and my phone, and I left. I walked out. At the time I thought, "Okay I don't have a suicide note. I'm a writer and I don't have a note. That’s not really good planning. People are going to expect some kind of a suicide note."
As a screenwriter, I don't know what you do. What do you do? Do you, like...
How does a screenwriter do a suicide note?
...I had no planning at all. This was just a spur of the moment, "I'm doing it." Each time I left the house, I went to our car, I hit the remote for the garage, the garage lifted. Each time, I kept thinking, "God has been void in my life. He's this absentee dad who went out for cigarettes and never came back."
I kept on thinking, "Okay, if God's real, He's going to manifest Himself at some point. Someone's going to come out of the house and stop me—my wife, my child." I remember walking into the garage thinking that, and no one came out. So I kept on walking. I went to the back of our garage where there was a freezer. Behind the freezer, I reached in and grabbed a rifle bag. I walked back to the car. I kept on thinking, "At any moment, God's going to show up and say, "Hey Dave, don't do this."" There was only silence. I got in the car and I drove away...
So, I was going to drive to Walmart to buy [ammunition]. This was a Saturday morning.
It was funny. The whole time I'm driving, I'm thinking, "I'm not going to know who wins the election," which is the oddest thing to think at that time, but I grew up in a very, ultra conservative house. I mean, my parents were members of the John Bird society in the sixties. Very, very conservative, very Republican family. As life changed for me, my political leanings shifted. We were Democrats in a very Republican church. We felt completely alone. So, at that time, that election really meant something to us. I remember thinking, driving to Walmart to get [ammunition], "Damn it, I'm not going to know who wins." At that time, that was the only hope we really had—that something good would happen, that something could change, the economy would change or something.
So, I get to Walmart, and I go inside. They keep the shotgun shells behind the counter. And they have the world's longest line at the counter at the sporting goods section, which was really weird. I always tell people, "It must have been a bad day in sales because there were so many people trying to buy bullets." But, there was this long line of people, so I waited in the end, in the back, and I was shaking. I was like, "I can't believe I'm actually doing this. I had thought about it for so long, and I'm actually doing this."
It took forever to go through the line. At that time, the thought occurred to me, "I don't have a note. I don't have anything poetic or kind to say. I'm leaving my kids…” At that time, they were very young. This was 2008, so my oldest son was 7. I had a daughter who was 6, and I had a little boy who was 3. I thought, "If I'm going to do this, I should probably buy some sort of a gift or token or a toy for them," so I turned left and I walked toward the toy section. I'm looking through the toy aisle, and I'm looking at little toys—we couldn't afford anything, you know—so, I pick out three small toys for my kids. While I'm there it hits me, "Why am I doing this? I might not be the greatest dad in the world. I might suck in every area of fatherhood, but if I leave them like this, that’s going to ruin them. They're going to feel the ripples of this moment for generations. If I go through with this, they're destined to have their lives ruined. As bad of a father as I may think I am, they don't deserve that."
It made me think of my wife. I mean, my wife does not deserve to be left with three kids, two of them autistic, one of them nonverbal. My wife doesn't deserve that. Then I felt like, “I gotta get the hell out of here.”
I hate Walmart. Walmart is a terrible place. I still get that pit in my stomach if I'm ever back there.
I took the three toys, paid for them on a credit card that hadn't maxed out, and I walked back to the car. Then I got in the car and I saw the rifle bag next to me in the passenger's seat. I remember driving home like it was staring at me, almost like it was mocking me. Like, "Look how close I came to just ruining everything." I wanted to throw it out of the window. I remember thinking and hoping, "God, I hope my wife doesn't see me come home with this. If I drive up and I get out of the car holding this, what is she going to think? What are the kids going to think? I don't want her to see that." So, I got home real quickly, opened the garage, ran back into the garage, hid the gun behind the wall, and went in and gave them the toys.
But at that time, my wife knew I was at that point. She knew I had shaved my head months earlier. She had seen me selling things that meant stuff, like selling a guitar that was meant for my son when he turned sixteen. I sold that and an amp because we needed money. All the signs were there, but we never talked about it.
When I came home with those three gifts, I could tell she had been crying. I think she was just relieved that I hadn't left her with these three kids. Later we joked that, if I had killed myself, she would have killed herself, just to go back to the next life to kick my ass, because she would have been so mad at me. But I didn't tell her. I told her a few days later.
It was at night. The kids were in bed. I was worried at first; I didn't know what she would think. I was worried. I didn't want her to think, “Well, you don't love me..." She handled it beautifully. She wasn't afraid. She knew, but hearing me say how close it came... She took the gun. She took whatever we had and she hid it.
It wasn’t until months later where I realized my quest in trying to find God and the answers to life led me to this destructive moment. I always tell myself there’s only two rationales—either God has a sick sense of humor, or he's an asshole. Then I started thinking to myself there might be a different reason. I thought, "Maybe God doesn't exist. Maybe he doesn't exist the way I was led to believe my whole life. Maybe it's not really a 'He,' maybe it's a 'She,' maybe it's an 'It.' Maybe it has no control over anything, and life just happens, and we have to make the best out of it as we can."
I guess it was November 2nd—the Sunday before the Election—I was sitting in church feeling like I had lost complete faith in God. I didn't believe in the Mormon view of God, and we walked away. We walked away from the faith, because I felt that it was better for me to be alive outside of the church than dead in it. Everyone around us couldn't understand. We were branded as apostates. If you look at Brigham Young and read his writings, apostates should have their throats slit. If you look at Mormonism, it's not exact shunning like in other churches, but having the truth and walking away from it... they don't take that lightly. That's a big thing. Then to have two immediate families who were very, very involved in it, and we're the only people to do this... it's uncharted territory for us.
But, once I did that, I found mental clarity. It was so easy to blame all my problems on God. He was the whipping boy, the scapegoat. Like, “He's such a dick for doing this to me. Why is he giving me all these trials? I'm tired of trying to grow and learn, I just want life to be easy again.” That mental state almost destroyed me. I think I was testing the concept of a God like, "Hey, I'm going to try to kill myself unless you do this," or, like, "Where are you? This family's struggling here."
What's so crazy is that right after we stopped going, my wife got a job. She got a job for about a year, and I was the stay-at-home dad, which is the exact opposite of Mormon culture. And we survived; we got through that. Yet, at that time, it was so, like, “I'm the one who needs to work. My wife needs to be at home. Those are the laws of God that He's established for years.” The moment that we stopped believing in it and walked away, we looked at opportunities different. I guess it was kind of like, “I can't wait for God to solve my problems. We have to solve them ourselves. What can we do to solve this problem?”
Mormonism works for some people. It's not the end-all. Even when I was a Mormon, there were always things that I didn't understand. Didn't understand Prop 8. Did not understand Prop 22. Didn't understand polygamy. Didn't understand the blacks being denied the priesthoods until 1978. Didn't understand the role of women. So, you put those on a shelf: someday this will make sense, whether this life or the next. We'll have the answers for everything. But, when you lose faith in God, which is the head of everything, that shelf seems meaningless. If you don't believe in God, or their view of God, then everything else just seems like a big waste of time. A big headache. And it kinda was.
I know people don't understand that. I know that my mom cries every day that we've left, and her three grandchildren haven't been baptized. I know that they think that we made covenants in the Temple that we've broken, and I know that deep down inside they hope that we'll come back some day.
I really, really hope no one thinks this in my family or friends, but the mentality is that God and the church is above all else. If me living meant taking my wife and kids away from the faith, in some small way, I believe there's people who probably think it would have been better for me to have died. Because that would have saved my wife and my kids. That's the mentality that you live with, and that's how toxic extremism can be. Now, no one's ever said that to me. I really hope they don't think that, but I do believe that there's probably some people who knew us who think their belief system makes them feel that the church is above all else. If one aspect was gonna lead a family away, it's better to cut that aspect off to keep the rest of the family unit in the church. I hope that that isn't the case, but I know that's what the mentality is because I lived it. I lived it for 37 years. I left at 37 and a half.
Any time you have any trials after that—like if you go through another stint of unemployment or if you go through any hardship, even if it is medical—in the back of their head they're thinking, "That's God working to humble him, to get them to come back." So, being an ex-Mormon, there's a balancing act where you want to prove to them, "Hey, I'm still a good person, I'm still the boy you raised. I'm still honest. I'm a good person. My kids are being raised with good morals; I don't need a religion to define me." That's where my relationship with my parents is probably better now than it's ever been in my entire life, and I think it's because they love me. I know what I've done has hurt them deeply. I was the good son. I mean, I never tasted alcohol until I was thirty-eight and a half. I was a good Mormon kid. I didn't taste coffee until I was thirty-eight and a half. I think, in private moments, their minds are blown that we walked away, and that I walked away. I know that they love me, I know that they accept me, and I appreciate that, but when I was active in the church, I had so much anger.
I was angry at everyone. I was angry at God. I mean, being an active Mormon and having a prayer where you say, "Fuck you," to God? That's a wake up call. I had real anger. I had real anger towards everyone around me: my family, my parents. You start to look at your life and other people and say, "What makes these people so great, and why does everything work out for them? Why are things so hard for me?"
Once I gave up that magical thinking, you kind of realize, "Hey, life is life. Shit happens. If you let it destroy you and eat at you, you're gonna die," and that's why, when I talk about my suicide story, it's hand-in-hand with my faith at that time. Because it was my faith, and grasping at anything, that led me to that path.
I'm so glad I'm out. I'm so glad that I can raise my kids to view all people as humans, regardless of race, sexual orientation, of nationality—that they can respect and love all people—that they can look at the role of women, that women have just as much to offer as a man. There is no sexism. I don't have to worry about how my daughter will be viewed in the whole slut-shaming culture that exists with the modesty. You know, that someone's immodest, that if you get raped, you were asking for it. That whole rape culture that exists in that society of patriarchy. I don't have to worry about that now; I don't have to worry about how that's going to affect them.
There's only been a couple of times where I felt suicidal. The early times in my life it's really just, you know, being a Smiths fan, being celibate and Mormon and lonely, and wanting a girlfriend. That whole mentality. I think that's why most Mormon boys grew up being fans of the Smiths, because they could understand Morrissey's whole celibate thing. "I'm celibate and no one loves me," that whole type of concept, but that was just being a teen. That was just teenage depression.
It wasn't until I really thought about [suicide] as an adult, as a way of ending a problem that couldn't end. It's not until you get older, until you really re-examine your family lineage and see where there is, in your DNA, examples of mental abuse, substance abuse, physical abuse, abandonment, suicide, and how it's generational. And how I almost fell victim to that. I just want to raise my kids in an environment where I'm aware of it, where I can help them when I can see it and not be ashamed of talking about it or sweeping it under the rug, because I do believe genetics plays a role in a lot of that stuff.
Sorry. It got more into religion that I intended it to be, but it plays a part with mental state. There's a deprogramming that you have to go through, which is astronomical...
It's a religion of convenience. That's what drives you nuts, because they have an answer for everything, but then they don't, because it all comes down to faith. You're required to do mental gymnastics to make things work. And when they don't work, you just say it's faith.
I have a much simpler approach now. I used to think I knew everything. I think, in some ways, I was a prideful person. I thought I was better than other people. I thought I knew everything. I thought I was chosen. Having that mentality is demeaning to other people around you, because you think you're better than them. I thought I knew everything. I mean, I was a 19 year old kid running around Sweden thinking I knew everything. Someday I'm gonna write a book that basically is an apology to Sweden, to say, "I am so sorry for the two years I did of knocking on doors, disturbing people when they were watching television or having sex or drinking and getting in their face and thinking I knew everything. I apologize for that. Because I clearly did not know anything at the time. I was just a young kid."
That's the big question people ask me when they find out that I don't believe anymore. They want to know, "Well, what do you believe? What have you found that has replaced this thing that's so awesome?"
I think that the three most powerful words in the world are not, "I love you." The three most powerful words are, "I don't know." There is so much strength and humility and honesty in admitting, "I don't know. I don't know anything; I don't what happens after this life. I don't know if there's a god." I tell people I'm an optimistic agnostic. It would be great if there's a meaning to everything, but I don't know. And I don't care. All I know is what's in front of me. I'm more of a humanist. I believe in people. I believe that people are inherently good, if given an opportunity. I believe in being honest. I believe in the love of my wife and kids, and that's my religion. And it works for us. It's very simple. People might laugh at it, but that's my religion now.
It's improved my relationships tremendously with everyone around me—my family, everyone—because I view everyone equally. It's not member/non-member, you know? Everyone's the same. We're all in this together. It's almost elementary in how simple it is. That's why people can make fun of it, because it's so simplistic, but I think that's the great secret of life. And I think I finally figured that out, for at least me. That's why I'm still here. If I hadn't made that mental shift, I wouldn't be here right now. I know for a fact it would have driven me to finally end it. No one could understand that. They can't.
Suicide used to be a big deal in the Mormon church. It was basically murdering yourself, and if you were a murderer, you went to the lowest kingdom. There's the Celestial Kingdom, Terrestrial, and Telestial. The Telestial Kingdom is the lowest of the kingdoms. If you kill yourself, that's murder, and that's where you would go. Now, they kind of broaden that to say, "Well, mental illness plays a role in suicide, so if someone kills themselves, there's no way of knowing what their mental state was. We'll let God be the judge." So, in some ways, it's not as harsh as the Catholic view of death and suicide, but it's still hugely frowned upon. Rightfully so.
Des: Talk to me about your view on mental illness. Does it exist? Is it relevant?
Dave: I believe mental illness does exist. I've seen it personally, up front, in my family. I believe it's treated like a dirty word. If you mention it, you're like, "Don't want to touch that person. They’re dirty. They're tainted. They're gonna get it on me."
I think, to a certain degree, all of us have it. We always talk about baggage of life—that we all have baggage—and to a certain extent, I believe that mental illness is baggage that we carry with us: how we were raised, moments in our life. I mean, I'm barely even just scratching the surface of how I was raised, or things that I faced by being raised a certain way, but I do believe it's real, and not enough is done about it.
Des: Do you still have suicidal thoughts at all?
Dave: No, I haven't. That moment scared the shit out of me.
I'll go back and I’ll look at photographs of my children at that time. I'll see how young they were. To a certain extent, you're ashamed that you put yourself in that situation of doing something so drastic. Having my kids save me, having my wife save me—if I had been completely alone, it might have been a different story. Knowing that I mattered to them, even though I had faults up the yin-yang—I've never really felt like I've given them the life they deserve, and I still hope to be able to do that—but me being here is still better than me not. Me leaving [them in] such a tragic way was basically giving them the death sentence or giving them a prison sentence: "You're in prison for the rest of your life because of something your dad did. Deal with it."
That’s where I see pictures of my kids from August of 2008 and I start shaking. I feel nauseous. I feel like throwing up. Even going back to that same Walmart makes my skin crawl. So, I haven't. I haven't at all.
What’s crazy is, after Resuscitate was made (ed. note: Dave wrote the screenplay for the short film), it played at the Eugene Film Festival. I brought my two older kids there to see it. The younger one wouldn't have handled it. We got him a babysitter. Afterwards, they had a Q&A, and I told the audience straight-up, "I mean, it's fictional—the shop girl is fictional—but the story is true. It's my story." So, my wife and two older kids were there. My oldest son was old enough to realize what the story was about: that Dad almost killed himself with a shotgun.
A few days later, he talked to me. He said, "Hey, you didn't kill yourself because mom hid the gun and hid the bullets."
I said, "No. I always knew where they were. Your mom is a lousy hider of things." I said, "I didn't kill myself because of you…and your mom, and your brother and sister. That’s why I didn't kill myself."
He had this little smirk on his face. That he meant something. Almost like it put value into him. Like I had valued him so much that that's the reason why I'm still here. Like, “It wasn't something as simple as hiding the gun and bullets so Dad can't hurt himself. It's now me, personally. I played a part in keeping my dad here."
So, no, I never thought about it. I think about this moment that scares me and how close I came, but I don't think about ever doing it again. I think I'm lucky. Not everyone has that. Some people are plagued by [those thoughts] for a lifetime. And I have a really good safety net with my wife and kids, so I'm very fortunate in that regard.
Des: [You mentioned struggling with Prop 22]. Tell me about that.
Dave: Prop 22 was a proposition for defensive marriage. It came out, what…2000? In California. At the time, my wife and I were married. We didn't have kids, we were trying to get pregnant. We were going through fertility [treatment]. I was a counselor in the elders quorum of the Santa Clara ward. The elders quorum is a body of priests. It's just before the high priest. Basically, when you're a missionary, up until maybe you're fifty, you're an elder. I was in the presidency. I was a counselor. That's a leadership calling.
Prop 22 came up. The church was pressuring members to go door-to-door, pass out fliers and yard signs, to donate to it, work in the phone bank, and things like that. I was hugely conflicted about it. I had gay friends. I had gay friends at work. I think serving the mission in Sweden opened me up to a progressive social democracy, where I could see the benefits of it. It kind of converted me more than I converted them. At that time, I felt hugely conflicted, so we would just stay in the back of the church and avoid the people that were assigned to get people involved. This woman came up to us and basically gave us yard signs to put in our yard and give to our neighbors, and we had lesbians just down the street, but we felt forced to put a yard sign up and give them to our neighbors, so we weren't that... If we're going to be bigoted, we might as well have more people next to us who were bigoted.
I was at church midweek, doing something there on a church assignment, and the bishop came up to me. I was in the ward library, printing something out or something, and the bishop said, "Hey, the church really wants us to get involved with Prop 22 and they're asking for donations."
I said, "Oh, I feel really conflicted about this. This is a political cause. Why is the church getting involved with politics?"
He said, “No, it's not a political cause. It's a moral cause. It's different."
He said, "The church is advising people to pay 10% of what their yearly tithe would be," so if your yearly tithe was five grand, you would pay $500.
Because I was in a leadership position, and because the bishop asked me, we gave $500 to Prop 22. Then we went door-to-door one Saturday, me and the other sworn president. Everyone that was opposed to it was kind. They were sympathetic. They were like, "Hey, I disagree with what you're doing, but good luck!"
I was really nervous because I knew deep down inside, "I don't agree with this. I don't agree with this at all." We believe in celestial marriage. We believe in temple marriages. Only a very small percentage of heterosexual people get married in the temple. We don't even believe in traditional marriage, so why do we care who gets married and who doesn't?
The people who were for [Prop 22] were the most bigoted, angry, white trash people I've ever met in my life. They were like "Oh yeah, I hate fags! Yeah, don't vote for that!"
And we're like, "No, no, no, that's not what we're doing, that's not—"
They're like, "No, I can't stand them. I hate them queers." They're throwing every type of slang, and I started thinking, "What am I doing? I'm clearly on the wrong side of this issue."
Then you start looking at church history, like, "Okay, the church was wrong with blacks and the priests, they were wrong with the RA movement. They've been wrong on every freaking social issue there is. There’s been polygamy. They've been wrong on everything. Why would gay marriage be any different?”
During that time, I met a young man by the name of Stuart Matis, who lived in Santa Clara, who went to our meetinghouse. He was at a different ward. He was gay. He was a returned missionary. He could not reconcile his faith and being gay, because his faith told him, "You're like you were born with a disability. It sucks, but you're born with a disability—you have to be celibate the rest of your life. If you act out on this, you're excommunicated, or you're not obeying the church." He could not reconcile what he felt and what he saw the church doing to tear down the people who were like him, so one morning he drove to our stake center in Los Altos [and took his life].
It hit the news everywhere. It made national news. I knew his family, I knew people who knew him, and I felt like I had pushed him there. My involvement in something that I wasn't really behind had made him feel completely lost and alone in a culture that should have embraced and loved him. That was the most un-Christ-like thing I could have ever done, and I blamed myself. Even though I didn't push him to that, I felt I had played a part in that.
After that happened, that changed me. I said, "I will never do that again. I will never do that again. We don't know why people are born a certain way, but this is who they are. We have to love them. Don't just say, "You have to be celibate your whole life," because that’s bullshit. Even the old woman who never gets married still has a chance in Mormon theology because they believe she will be married in her next life. The gay person? No. They're shit out of luck."
That changed me, and that was back in 2000. When we moved to Oregon, I was glad that they didn't have anything on the ballot, and that the church wasn't involved because had it been, I would have been conflicted.
People who are outspoken for gay rights are generally ostracized, and now they're being disciplined. They're being openly either excommunicated or dis-fellowshipped if they post anything online that says they support gay rights and gay marriage, because that’s contrary to what the church says. People are doing screenshots of Facebook posts that members make, turning them in to the bishop and saying, "Look what this person said." That person is then brought into the bishop, and that person then loses their temple recommend. The Mormon church is going through a major purging right now. They're getting rid of really good, honest people who want to see the church improve. The whole Ordain Women movement, and gay rights movement, they're being open and honest about their history, and about things that they have white-washed over years, and they're being punished for it because it's basically just a bunch of rich, old, white men who run the church. It's a corporation, and they're afraid of losing power.
I used to wish Mormonism was broad enough to be more like Judaism. They have orthodox, and they have more progressive. With Mormonism, it's all or nothing. Your experience is limited to location, your address determines where you go. You can't say, "Oh, this congregation across town has a nice bishop. I think I'll go there!" No, you're limited to location. You have to go where you live.
Stuart Matis's death changed me. Affirmation.org is a website for gay and lesbian Mormons, and they have a section of people who have [died by] suicide, like a memory board. He's there. You'll see his picture, you'll see his letters that he wrote, you'll see that he struggled with it. He couldn't live and be who he wanted, so he killed himself. That changed me.
When Prop 8 came around in 2008... I didn't leave Mormonism because of Prop 8, but it played a part. Being a progressive in the faith of something that is so orthodox and so conservative... being a democrat, you're ostracized. We had people say, "Hey, you're voting for a baby killer." I worked for the Obama [campaign]. I was a volunteer there. People did not like that. We kept our politics to ourselves, but that and the culmination of my mental state and instability of suicide... that's why November 2nd. It was the Sunday before the election, and that was the last day.
It was a fast and testimony meeting. I had already lost faith in God. I was just going through the motions. The fast and testimony meeting, it's one Sunday a month where people fast, and it's basically open mic, where a member can get up and say what their convictions are—prepare their testimony. The whole meeting was political. It was all politically motivated. People were coming up weeping because they were worried about a black person becoming president. They didn't say that, but they were crying, saying, "I'm so worried about this country. I'm worried about what could happen to this country.” You know, like, "God loves this country, and this country is going to go down the wrong path." You know exactly what they're saying, but that was the message.
I remember thinking to myself, "If it wasn't for the fact that we were all Mormon, I would not be friends with any of these people. We have absolutely nothing in common. We are so different politically minded, we don't have anything in common." Then, when you do some soul searching, you realize that Glenn Beck and I share the same faith. You're like, "What the hell? How is that possible?" Then you kind of realize, "If I don't believe in God, what am I doing?"
I went to my bishop after sacrament reading and I said, "I'd like a release. I want to be released from my call, I want for my wife to be released, and I want to be left alone."
He looked at me and kind of laughed, then said, "What do you hope that achieves?"
I said, "Clarity. Right now it's just a big headache. Sundays are three hours, and the worst day of my life.” Three hours was the worst. Three hours of church with two kids who are autistic and one who is nonverbal, and you're outside most of the time because you're disrupting the spirit of the meeting. It was hell trying to do that.
No one really liked us. No one knew what to say to us. People used to come up to me and ask, "Hey, did you get a job?"
I'd be like, "No, not yet."
They would be shocked, like, "What the fuck is wrong with you?" But they wouldn't say that to you, they would just look at you like, "Wow, that's not how it's supposed to work."
After a while, that kind of wears on your soul.
Every time I had an interview, I would call and let my parents know, and they would be like, "Oh, we put your name in this temple and this temple and this temple to have your name prayed upon." As if having your name prayed upon by complete strangers in a Mormon temple is somehow better than just having someone do the prayer themselves. But they kept on doing that. I would have to call them later and say I didn't get the job, and they were floored like, "How is that possible?" It came down to the point where my own bishop was the hiring manager for a position that I interviewed for and I didn't get the job, so it was kind of like, "Wow, God really hates me!" That's where my mental state was.
But that was Stuart Matis. Look him up. That’s a really, really heartbreaking story. The missionaries in that area were supposed to have a meeting the morning that they found his body. They cleaned it up real quick because they were worried how it would make the church look. The bishop of the ward at the time knew the family. They have since left the church because they were so insulted about how his death was just brushed under the carpet, how it was like, "Oh, he was just depressed. It had nothing to do with Prop 22. It had nothing to do with it. He was just a depressed, gay kid who killed himself, which is unfortunate, but it had nothing to do with the church's involvement in Prop 22,” which is utter bullshit.
That's where anger comes in. You realize, "I was on the other team. I gave $500. I was guilted and shamed by a vision on church property into giving money to a cause I did not believe in." We get conservative mailers in the mail, still, to this day, because we gave that donation 14 years ago. I got put on a list because they knew I gave money at one time, and that's something I'm ashamed of. That's not me today, but it makes me realize how far I’ve come. I was a complete idiot.
Des: If you were going to address a person reading your story, what would you say to them?
Dave: Take a walk. It doesn't help to jump in a car and drive off. In that moment, you don't know where to go. There have been times where I wanted to drive off a bridge or something. If you can remove yourself from the situation by just walking and breathing, maybe during that walk, you'll see something beautiful to remind you that there is beauty in life. When you're in a car, it moves too fast. All you know is that you're in a vehicle. You're moving fast. You can hurt yourself, or hurt someone else.
Problems don't go away. Problems don't get resolved instantly. There is no magic pill. There is no magic cure. There is just layers of understanding.
That's why I look at death with dignity. I've done research on it, and the vast majority of people never take the medicine to end their life. The vast majority die of natural causes because they know that, on their night stand, there’s something there that can end the pain. They take their life from being set into weeks or days, hours or minutes, and say, "Can I last one more day? Yeah, maybe I can. Can I last another day? Yeah, maybe I can."
I think mental illness, depression—I think that's the same way. Don't look at the big picture, but look at the small, little steps. It goes a long way of getting through. A lot of what our life has been is just getting by, day by day. If you're able to do that, and not be crushed by the weight of something bigger, you'll be able to live with it and move on.
There’s a wonderful line in Hannah and her Sisters by Woody Allen. At the very end, he says, "The heart is a very, very resilient little muscle." Our hearts are. There are times when our hearts break, and you think that you can't live, you can't move beyond this moment, but the heart is incredibly resilient at healing, at moving on...
If you're hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can't feel it—and you are worth your life.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you don't like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting START to 741741. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Thanks to Molly Shannon and Sarah Fleming for providing the transcription to Dave's interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing. Thanks also to The Barn Light in Eugene for hosting us.
Live Through This is made possible by donations from incredible humans like you (and my own pocket). If you'd like to make a single donation, click here. If you'd like to support LTT on a more regular basis, there's also the option of becoming a patron via Patreon. Click below.
Keywords: faith, Mormon