“Deirdre’s Secret,” New Era, Feb. 1998, 41
It was Wednesday night—and it was snowing, a rare occurrence in our mid-Texas town. I stood at the door to the church, watching as snowflakes tumbled to the ground, changing the asphalt outside into a field of white. The youth in our ward were in high spirits as they streamed in for Mutual. Their laughter bounced along the hallways and reminded me of music.
Tonight I didn’t follow them into opening exercises. The draw of the snowstorm was too strong, and I remained at the window. I smiled as I remembered the snowball fights and igloo-building contests of my girlhood in Salt Lake. Back then, snow wasn’t cold; it was pure fun.
I was lost in these thoughts when Jack, a priest, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Sister Shaw, we’re ready to begin.”
I nodded. “Coming,” I said as I turned to take one last look at the snow.
That’s when I caught sight of Deirdre. She cut through the shrubbery that lined the church property and ran across the parking lot towards the building. Her brown hair, wet from the snow, flapped stiffly behind her. As she approached the lighted church, I saw that her hands were pulled deep inside the sleeves of her sweatshirt. She reached for the door, but the handle slipped from her grasp. I leaned forward and pushed the door open for her. Her breath came out in a wild fog before my eyes as she scampered inside.
She looked around, her teeth chattering uncontrollably.
“Deirdre?” I asked.
She looked at me like I was a complete stranger. And I might as well have been. Although I had been her Primary teacher six years ago when she was baptized, I hadn’t seen her since that time. No wonder she didn’t remember me.
But I remembered her. What an exciting year that had been for Deirdre! Not only was she baptized, but her mother had remarried. They moved into a beautiful home just outside the city. Her stepfather was soon called to a position of leadership, and her mother served as a Sunbeam teacher.
Then things began changing. Deirdre, usually talkative in class, seemed to withdraw from her peers. Next, her family stopped attending church, but no one knew why. Back then, I reasoned that this newly formed family was having some adjustment problems that, in time, would straighten themselves out.
I was wrong.
Several months ago, our Young Women presidency attempted to visit Deirdre at home, but like every home and visiting teacher before us, we were politely refused at the door by her parents. Needless to say, I was astonished to see Deirdre at Mutual.
“I’m Sister Shaw,” I said, smiling at her. I taught you in Primary a long time ago. I’m the Young Women president now.”
She looked at me blankly as chills shook her body. She was a petite girl, barely five feet tall.
“Come with me,” I said, putting my arm around her tiny shoulders. “I’ll introduce you to everyone. Do you remember Stephanie? You two were little chatterboxes in my class! She’s the Mia Maid class president.”
Deirdre nodded as we walked into opening exercises together. But before I could make any introductions, Stephanie rushed toward us. “Deirdre!” she called enthusiastically.
The two girls hugged, then Stephanie introduced her to everyone. Although Deirdre appeared shy at first, she warmed up to the others quickly and was soon drinking hot chocolate in the kitchen with them.
As Mutual ended, I handed Deirdre a Personal Progress book and asked her to look it over. “Next week we’ll set some goals for you. Will you be here?”
“Of course she will,” Stephanie chimed in. “Now that I’ve found her, I won’t let her go!”
Deirdre’s face shone as the two girls left the building, their feet making tracks in the new snow. I watched Stephanie open the door of her mother’s van for Deirdre. I felt certain we’d be seeing more of her.
But Deirdre didn’t come the next Wednesday. Stephanie said she and her mother had stopped at her house to pick her up, but no one had come to the door. I asked if Stephanie was certain Deirdre had planned to come.
“Yes. We talked on the phone, and both times she said she wanted to come to Mutual.”
“I wonder what happened.”
“I don’t know, Sister Shaw,” Stephanie remarked, “but I don’t think her stepfather wanted her to come. The second time we talked, he picked up the other line and demanded to know who I was and how I knew his daughter. When I told him, he got real quiet, and then got off the line. A few moments later Deirdre said she had to hang up. And she did. I mean, she hung up on me.”
I didn’t like the sound of that.
I tried paying a visit to Deirdre’s home that week. Although I could hear people inside, no one answered the door. I called several times during the week, but the phone rang and rang, like a timer with no one free to answer it.
We saw Deirdre sporadically over the next few months. It seemed that each time she did come to Mutual, she was reluctant to go home. She’d linger at the drinking fountain or in the cultural hall. Deirdre was always the last one out of the building.
Eventually Deirdre began spending weekends at Stephanie’s and attending sacrament meeting. I wondered what Deirdre’s family would think if they could see the tears that silently slipped from her eyes each time the sacrament was passed.
Finally, I arranged to speak privately with Stephanie concerning Deirdre. The next Wednesday that Deirdre didn’t attend Mutual, we met alone in a classroom. I said, “I’m worried about Deirdre.”
Stephanie nodded. “You’re not alone.”
I smiled. “Lots of people care very much about her—but she doesn’t seem happy.”
“Do you know why? I want so much to help her, but she doesn’t open up with me. Is there a problem at home?”
Stephanie shrugged. “Sometimes I think she’s afraid of her stepfather.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, she and her mother try to keep him from knowing some of the things she does. He doesn’t know she’s with me as much as she is. Or that she comes to church. I think they’re afraid he’ll stop her from coming.”
“That must be awful for her.”
“Yeah,” Stephanie continued thoughtfully, “but she never really tells me what she feels about it. In fact, she never really talks to me about anything personal—just shopping and movies and stuff like that.” Stephanie sighed and looked at the floor. “Sometimes Deirdre seems so closed up, like a locked room—and I don’t know how to get inside to see who she is.” She paused, looking up at me. “Does that make sense?”
I nodded. My heart ached. I knew exactly what Stephanie meant. Every time Deirdre came to Mutual, she and I sat together to discuss her Personal Progress. Our conversations were always superficial. Even though I’d open my heart to her, she never expressed any deep feelings or thoughts to me, either.
Stephanie tucked her feet beneath her chair, “Sometimes I don’t think being Deirdre’s friend is enough.”
I nodded. “That may be true,” I said, “but friendship is all any of us has to offer her right now. At least until Deirdre offers us something in return—her trust.”
One night in April, I was called home from Mutual early because my two-year-old was having an asthma attack. My child recovered after receiving medical treatment, but, as I prayed at my bedside that night, I felt impressed to return to Mutual. Looking at the clock, I realized that Mutual would be well over by now. I ignored the feeling and got into bed. About three minutes later, I remembered that I had left my purse on a chair as I hurried away. I decided I better follow the prompting and retrieve my purse. Explaining to my husband, I dressed and headed out.
After unlocking the church door and letting myself in, I was able to quickly find my purse. As I turned to leave, I noticed that the light in the chapel was on. I pushed open the double doors and reached for the light switch.
A chill crept up my back when I heard the distinct sound of heavy breathing inside the chapel, yet I could see no one.
My voice trembling, I called, “Is someone here?”
No answer. Repeating myself, I walked forward, my eyes scanning each pew. The breathing became louder as I moved toward the front. “Who’s here?” I repeated.
A slight movement made me whirl to my right.
And there she was. Deirdre. Sound asleep on the fourth pew, center aisle, on her side, her left arm under her head, her right strewn across her ears. I let out a long sigh of relief.
“Deirdre,” I said softly, moving toward her. My mind was reeling with questions. Why was she sleeping here? Was she all right? Did her parents know where she was? Why hadn’t she gone home?
“Deirdre, wake—” and then I stopped and stared at her arm where her sleeve had pulled high, revealing a series of deep purple marks—bruises. I looked closer. Some of the welts looked like they had been made by someone’s fingers. Others were too large for that. My heart fell.
I sat beside Deirdre and gently called her name as I took her hand.
Like a snapped rubber band, Deirdre jerked away from me, automatically curling into a protective ball, her back to me.
“Deirdre,” I said softly, “it’s me. Sister Shaw.”
Turning, she muttered sheepishly, “How embarrassing.”
I reached for her again, this time pulling her closer. With one arm around her shoulder and the other holding her hand, I hugged her. Tears filled my eyes, and I looked from her wounds up to the brass pipes of the organ. In a voice barely above a whisper, I asked, “Are you being hurt at home?”
I felt a singular nod against my shoulder. I wanted to tell her everything would be all right, but I couldn’t. Instead, I told her I loved her. Stephanie loved her. Heavenly Father loved her.
“Deirdre,” I said, “we will help you. We can get you help. I’m going to call the bishop right now.”
Deirdre surprised me by pulling back. “No,” she said emphatically through her tears.
“But he knows better than I do what—”
“No,” she repeated, wiping her eyes. “I don’t need to talk to the bishop.”
“But—” I stopped when she whirled and pounded her fist against the pew.
“No!” she shouted. “I don’t have anything to talk to the bishop about! It’s not my fault. I didn’t do anything wrong. He makes me—” Her voice shriveled up, but she didn’t have to say another word. Suddenly I understood that the wounds this young woman had suffered were much deeper than the bruises on her arms.
The air in the chapel stilled as I asked, “Your stepfather?”
She groaned as her head nodded. “But it’s not my fault …”
Again I hugged her and we wept together. “No,” I murmured, “it’s not your fault. You did nothing wrong.” Never in my life had I spoken truer words.
Ten years have passed since I made that telephone call to the bishop, with Deirdre’s permission. He met us in his office within 30 minutes. Although I cannot say Deirdre’s pain ended that night, I can say that her healing began. I know she has shed many tears over the years, but each tear that has fallen from her eyes has chipped away at the ache and anger in her soul.
Today, I am once again watching as Deirdre’s eyes fill with tears. But my arms are not the arms which will hold her today. It is not my hands which clasp hers as she kneels across the altar, dressed in a gown of sparkling white, with a young man who is promising before God in His most holy house to cherish her in the way heaven intended, as a wonderful, worthy daughter of God.
If you or someone you know is living in an abusive situation, trying to figure out what to do about it can be difficult and frightening. Every situation is different, but one thing is certain in all cases of abuse: both the person being abused and the abuser need help. The best way to get that help is to tell a caring adult what is going on. Remember, keeping abuse a secret won’t make it go away. So whom do you tell? If you can tell your parents, they are probably the best choice. If that won’t work, tell your bishop, your youth adviser, a school teacher, or any other adult you know and trust.