By Meili Stokes
When I was eleven I wanted to own something wild. On a humming desktop computer, I discovered the Bengal cat, and set into motion the long torture of my mother. I grew obsessed. These cats were wilderness descendants, sun freckled. In online pictures, they swam. Their owners slipped them into harnesses and walked them on a leash. They scaled buildings with the elegance of a full-sized jungle cat. A new breed, collectors found wild Leopard Cats in South East Asia, plucked them from their vanishing habitats, and bred them with house cats until they became slender, half-domesticated hybrids. In other words, Bengals were a Magical Animal Companion like those I read about it books.
Now I know the somber fantasy of a fat, aged stray brooding in his cage. I know how many bush kittens die by injection because rescue facilities can’t afford around the clock care. I haven’t stopped imagining animals as more than they are: only the elite institutions breeding them as luxury items. But back then, the Bengal stood in my mind as the only creature on earth that might offer me the adventures I read about in books. I saved up a hundred dollars. My parents contacted a breeder, and discovered a cheap, three year old Queen failure. All three of her litters died folded up in her belly, behind a line of swollen nipples.
She came erratic, dagger clawed, and too anxious for me to hold her. She slept behind my knees and vomited exclusively on the carpet. Nobody liked her but me. I tried to come up with names that matched her beauty: Sea Foam, Savannah, Leonardo. Instead, her name rose colloquially, by slow consensus of everyone who knew her. “Meow Meow.” She was loud.
The birth of my resistance is not unique in Utah. My story is just another hammer stroke. It has been told and told. In “Until All are Free: Black Feminism, Anarchism, and Interlocking Oppression,” Hilary Lazar offers the metaphor of a tangled knot. “There are countless strands in this knot, each one representing a different expression of domination, and all tightly bound together.” She uses this metaphor to reconcile the performative division of ally politics, and the erasure of difference that comes with calls for a united struggle. Yes, complete liberation comes from loosening the entire knot, but each strand requires it’s individual tug. Some strands require more immediate attention than others. “Each must be attended to both as an individual strand and as part of the collective struggle.”
I’m afraid that when we as Utahns talk about resisting the LDS church, we prioritize what is already the most explored and resisted dominant structure in Utah. We blind ourselves to other faces of resistance relevant to this area. We tug hard at only one tangled string. It feels productive, but does not unravel the knot. And yet, it is my story. It is so many of our stories. It is a genesis. To write about it is indulgent, cathartic. Around here, rejecting the patriarchal religious structure that dominated the narration of our childhoods feels delicious.
I remember the thrilling nakedness of exposing my shoulders for the first time. It was in a basketball stadium, in front of thousands of witnesses. Now, sleeves feel smothering. I rip them off most of my shirts. I let my armpits breathe.
I remember when I first allowed myself to feel, whole and aching, my love for genders other than men. I took a dance class with many of my LDS friends, and moved into a joyful ownership of my body, on my own terms. I saw the bodies of my classmates away from the gaze of patriarchy, modesty, or commodification. I experienced my queer attraction separate from the dialogue of sin. We were wild, mediocre dancers, out of breathe and in love with ourselves.
I remember when coffee became my sacrament. While visiting family in California, I snuck off whenever possible for a coffee. The solitude, the disobedience, and the caffeine stimulant moved through my body and out my arm. I wrote. I fell into writing. I ensnared myself. I felt like god—a woman—spoke through me. I did the same at the beach. I bought coffee in sandy sea-grey shacks from ragged, surf-strong women. I ran, stimulated and rebellious, along the ocean lip. I rejoiced, delirious, at the pain when I stepped on a stinging piece of seastuff. Aliveness flowered inside me. I rode a bike, alone, over sea port wood clatter. I felt anonymous and newborn in the world. I took my coffee black and paranoid. I drank fast in case a family member stumbled on me. I chewed gum to not smell bitter.
My mother drove around Mapleton one summer just to catch me with a bland gas station sixteen ounce coffee. She raged. It climaxed all her suspicions about me, about her own failure as an LDS mother. I did not think I could bear the rejection of all the mundane wildness I’d discovered in myself. I did not think I could bear responsibility for my mother’s sense of complete failure and powerlessness. How many mothers feel this way? I’ve spoken with so many of their children, caught in the conclusion of this distinctive Utah rebellion. We all share this twist in the tangled knot. This is the soil of our resistance.
Now, with the very worst times between my mother and I in the distance, I can’t stop thinking about Meow Meow. When I left for college, she stayed behind with the vitriol of my mother who never liked her. My mom kept her outside where she shed what little domestication remained in her thin bones. Few ever got close enough to pet her, but she became known in my hometown as the sexiest cat alive. She lived to be sixteen years old. She roamed her world of several blocks, a sheep containment, and the alfalfa field behind our back fence. I think of her taught muscles. Her leap. Her bluegrey eyes rimmed in umber black markings. Her skiddishness. Her scream. How, dying, she stumbled to the other side of the neighborhood to confront a dog who twice held her in his jaws. Who, with her last steps, fell from my lap and tottered away, always away, then collapsed beneath a small plastic Christmas tree. How my mom, who hated her but loved me, drove us to the vet and bought a B-vitamin jell that might give her one more good day. While we drove back home, the cat lay listless on a towel against me. My mom spoke.
“Meow Meow never wanted to be an indoor cat. She’s too close to wild.” We drove up the highway, past the dairy.
“She’s always needed to wander far. Her breeder told us to never let her outside, but it was just impossible.” We both looked out the window, away from each other. “All she ever wanted was freedom. And eventually I had to just let her live the life she was born for.”
As an exmormon I’ve felt rejection, but I’ve never feared for my life. Many queer and trans Utahns are not so lucky, or privileged. As a “middle class” white person, my resistance against the LDS church can be insular, self-centered, limited. At the same time, it is the essential groundwork of self-confidence that allows me to resist in bigger ways. The selfless ways. Commandment breaking can become law breaking. Exmormon bitterness towards homophobia and a disturbing church history can evolve into affinity groups bound in ideas of queer liberation and a suspicion of all the narratives fed to us from structures that would like to keep us exploited. The church lied to us, yes, but so did our country. So did our economic system. A look at the whole tangled knot began with feeling the tug of one string. It began with self-liberation. It began with mundane actions: a tank top shoulder breeze, a double shot americano with soy, being loud and bitchy in a conversation usually occupied by loud and bitchy men. This is a form of resistance, or the start of resistance. A beginning. A coming into the self. A comfort with being the screaming, ugly, clawed creature that once felt her power, her creativity, die in her belly. It began with an ugliness a mother can’t love so easily.
As Meow Meow died, we bedded her in the basement utility room with canned food, a litter box, towels, and our other cat. She tried, into the night, in a state of lethargic defiance, to scratch her way out. In the morning, I found the two cats snuggled. She took a long, long, time to wake up. I wonder now if she would have died that way—in peace—if I hadn’t opened the door.
Instead she died hours later, on the vet table. The vet muttered robotic apologies. He shaved and injected her in the inner thigh with lethal levels of tranquilizer. The thin vein burst. He tried the other thigh. It, too, ruptured.
“These are the hardest,” the vet said. Then he thought to add, “Sometimes, after their heart stops, and they’re dead, their body gasps. They are not alive when this happens. I just don’t want you to be shocked.”
The third shot he stuck through her chest, into her heart. When he let go of the syringe we watched it jerk with her heartbeat. He pushed the liquid in. She vomited. She did not die.
“Strange,” said the vet. “She now has three times the lethal dose. Her heart is still beating. I’ve never seen this before.”
He left the room. I cried. He came back with a fourth syringe. It broke through her chest cavity. Her heart surrendered. She died. Her body gasped three times. Her face stiffened into a hideous grimace, brown with vomit, eyes wide. I buried her out back, between the fence and the alfalfa field.
“She always wanted to be outside, from the very beginning,” my mom said again, pretending she’d loved the cat, pretending for my sake.
I want to write about other forms of resistance. I want to allow a fixation on that part of my past to die. But I guess it is a trauma, and a triumph, I haven’t yet learned enough from. I can’t walk away just yet. But I write with a knowledge that one day I will need to live a life that leads me to insights outside of this oppression. Many people resist the hierarchy of the LDS church, and stop there. It’s frightening to realize that behind the temple spires lurk even bigger enemies. Some structures benefit the exmormon self, but harm others. I want to spend my life as an accomplice, pulling at other strings in the tangled knot. But to write about resistance, I still have to reach back to the ways I resisted my LDS upbringing. For most of my life, it made up my whole vocabulary. It is my first place of self-liberation. The place of epiphanies. The place I first recognized patriarchy, silencing, sexual shame, and the ways even an oppressive institution is riddled with moments of nuance, of contradiction.
My mormon childhood and my adult radicalization are the source of my own biggest contradictions. One weekend, only 22 years old, I betrayed much of what I believe about coercion, relationships and the history of marriage, by marrying my best friend. I love him, but I can’t lie. I got married, in part, to pass an LDS barrier into adulthood. I wanted to relinquish my mother of her feeling of responsibility for my development. I did it knowing that the illusion of separation came not with independence but with legal ties to a man. A week later, I sat in a holding cell for an act of environmental resistance.
To my shock, my mother reacted positively to my participation in both weekends. She saw my words and art work about the direct action in a story on UPR. She forwarded the story to my dad and called me. Her words were apolitical, and sleuth-like. It wasn’t long before she changed the subject. But when she complimented my artwork, I heard a proud smile in her voice.