The terror and agony faced by four-year old Jessica Mast as her parents and another couple beat her every day for two weeks in the name of “godly discipline” is unimaginable to most people – except for survivors of religions that embed submission and obedience to the “will of the father” into daily practices for women and girls, reinforced with bodily terrorism if necessary. Jessica will never be one of those survivors because in the end, after yet another beating with her father’s belt, her little head was held beneath the icy water of a pond. She was dragged to the bank and left there to freeze.
You might be tempted to write this off as mental illness of the murderers, or to a horrific and unexplainable anomaly. Please don’t. While mental illness may be in play here and most cases of child abuse do not end in death – what happened here was years in the making, as the adults who killed her, while also beating her two-year-old sister and at times, her mother – were products of a conservative Plain culture where physical abuse of children to break their will is broadly accepted. The church all four adults attended, unsurprisingly, has distanced itself from any responsibility for this child’s death. According to the Sheriff, the actions leading to her death are “not condoned” by the church.
They do not call it abuse, of course, but use terms like spanking and discipline. Let us be clear: removing a little girl’s clothing and beating her bare buttocks with a belt, wooden spoon, or some other implement is a form of sexual terrorism. What else does one call it when a private and sexual part of the body is exposed and subjected to humiliating and severe pain?
The social media world of conservative Plain survivors of child sexual abuse exploded with anguished cries and an outpouring of stories from those who suffered assaults like Jessica’s as news of her murder became known a few days before Christmas. Stories of being stripped and beaten by their fathers poured forth as women (and some men) recounted being assaulted by the same fathers who then asserted their patriarchal privilege to sexually abuse them. (See A Better Way Facebook page for several examples; see also Splash4Ripples for some backstory. Both are run by Plain survivors.)
Little Jessica was also punished by being sexually violated by adults as others watched. Convinced that she had her mother’s evil within her, these adults were determined to save her soul by breaking her will through terrorizing her body. Despite two weeks of torture, this small child still must have had some spark of life in her eyes, and her will was not sufficiently broken. One of the adults recounted how she ran around the table, trying to escape her father’s belt. For this, they killed her.
Our work to end child sexual abuse has multiple intersections. One of the most critical is changing a patriarchal culture that elevates male leadership and normalizes using power and severe abusive processes to maintain a hierarchy of supremacy and control. Ground zero for maintaining this culture through generations is asserting dominance over children by subjecting them to severe physical pain, thereby teaching them that obedience and submission to power is valued over any semblance of consent and bodily integrity.
When a small girl is divested of her clothes and beaten by a powerful adult in her life – and this is condoned by her culture as normal - is it much of a stretch to imagine she would have even an inkling that rape is also not condoned?
Consider this: A small girl is ordered to remove her clothes and expose herself to be beaten on what we teach children is a “private part” (the area covered by your bathing suit) by a powerful adult. Everyone within the family or church can hear her screams (and yes, some conservative churches have rooms for “disciplining” children, and unless they are sound proofed, everyone knows what is happening). When it is over, everyone acts like nothing has happened. So, when that same influential adult (or another person in charge) pulls that girl into a room and uses her for sexual gratification, do you really think she is going to believe it is not condoned by everyone around her?
She will likely keep quiet, and suffer in the coming years with depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, perhaps PTSD. She may become so emotionally numb by the time she is a mother; she will be unable to comfort her own daughter who one day comes back from the barn claiming her brother or uncle touched her. She will probably tell her child to dry her tears and advise “that’s just how things are”.
If we refuse to protect the integrity of children’s bodies legally and socially, there will be tens of thousands more survivors of childhood trauma, many of whom will go on to reenact their own experiences with their children. Inevitably, a good number of them will vigorously defend all forms of corporal punishments to children to force obedience, even when discussing stories like little Jessica’s. Their claims of being “just fine” despite having been subjected to bodily harm in the name of discipline are (sadly) refuted by their lack of capacity for empathy with the beaten children.
As a survivor of sexual and physical abuse in a religious family which I recount in my book “The Deepest Wound” (2001, Writers’ Showcase) I have some idea of the pure terror Jessica must have felt as she desperately and futilely tried to protect her small body from the mind-crushing pain. Anguish like that is so huge it swallows you up, takes you into a different world, and if the gods are merciful, removes you from your body for a time.
I can only pray the gods were benevolent to Jessica and before her last breath, she was swept up into that other world and at the end - she felt no pain.
Various news sources have reported on this story; few links are noted below: