Terrible, Thanks for Asking

Jenell - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled “Jenell.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.

I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”

A note on today. We don’t usually do this, but here is a content warning. Because this episode mentions suicide, mentions sexual trauma, eating disorders… I’m not trying to spoil anything, but if you’re listening with your kid or even with yourself and you’re sensitive, maybe be aware of that.

Today, we’re talking to Jenell. Jenell is a church person. That’s how she grew up. She grew up going to a Pentecostal church in California with her mom and her brother. Her home life was... it was complicated. It was rocky. Her dad struggled with addiction. He struggled with racial trauma. But church was always safe. It was always warm. It was always welcoming.

Jenell: It was a very strong sense of home, a very strong sense of belonging and welcoming. I knew where everything was in the church. I knew every room. I had memories associated with every room, every event that happened in every room in the sanctuary or in children's church. And I was also a volunteer for those events. So walking in felt like it the way that it would feel walking into my house or walking into my kitchen. A very strong sense of familiarity and belonging and welcoming.

When Jenell was 12, her family moved to New Mexico, leaving behind that church home and trying to find another one like it in their new state, which took some time. It was years church hopping — trying out new places. And then, they found the one that fit. 

Jenell: So when I first started attending, I was part of the youth group, and I did that for about maybe like a year or so. And then the pastors noticed some gifts that they saw in me, some skills, some potential that they thought would be helpful for me and for the church to utilize. So I became a small group leader, which was basically helping to lead all of the high school girls and kind of disciple them in their faith, putting events together for them, meeting with them once a week and checking in with them how they're doing, how they can grow in their faith.

For those of our listeners who don’t know what youth group is, it is a very Christian, American youth thing. Maybe they have it in other places, but it feels very, very specifically American to me. Probably because I’m an American, and I think the whole world revolves around me. It varies by denomination and church, but you can rely on three constants: weird old couches, pizza, church basements — okay that’s three. Four constants: and repressed sexuality.

Jenell:  So youth group is...I guess it depends on your church. But I would say in the vast majority of Christian denominations, it's about middle school age to high school age. We would call them students, but essentially they're just adolescents and most are in high school. And you meet about once a week. You have some type of sermon from the youth pastor, from the lead pastor that's pertaining to what they believe are the most, like, prominent issues going on in the spirituality of adolescents. So a lot of sex talks, relationship talks, self-esteem talks, choosing your friends wisely-types of talks...

Nora: Oh, God. I mean, and by sex talks we mean “don't have sex” talk. 

Jenell: Exactly. Right. Like if you want to have sex, prepare to die unless you're married. 

Nora: Right. Like, people would be like, “And remember, sex is a sin.” [both laugh] “Remember, your body is a wonderland — only for Jesus.”

Jenell: Right. [laughs]

But Jenell loves church. She’s admired, and people see her talent and they appreciate it. It’s this respite from a traumatic and chaotic family life, but that trauma and chaos still shows up. Because it always does.

Jenell: As I reached probably around the age of 15 or 16, I started struggling very severely with my mental health. I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I had pretty severe social anxiety. I was developing an eating disorder. And all of this just came up, like, within maybe two years’ time. Like, I was diagnosed with all of these things. I was put on medication, put into therapy. And the church that I attended was what is called prosperity gospel church, or like health and wealth-type of church. So we were taught that when Jesus died on the cross, he died for us to live abundantly, as scripture says. So as I started struggling with my mental health, I specifically remember mentors in my life telling me, “Well you just are not praying hard enough, or you're not having enough faith when you pray that God will take away your depression or your anxiety.”  Or they would, like, prescribe me a list of affirmations to speak over myself in the morning, like, “I am happy, I am joyous. I have everything that I need. I don't have any reason to feel sad. I don't have depression in the name of Jesus. I don't have anxiety in the name of Jesus.”

So pretty early on, I was starting to associate myself with this identity as somebody who struggled with her mental health, but my leaders were stripping me of that identity and saying, “That's now not who you are. And you need to declare and proclaim that's not who you are.” So I immediately started to lose that sense of welcoming and belonging, because I felt like first I was accepted as the leader in my church and I was accepted as somebody that can contribute to my church as long as I did not associate myself with these things. But then secondly, I felt as though, well, maybe I'm not really a Christian, or maybe God doesn't love me.

The affirmations she was given don’t cure her anxiety or her depression. Shock. And Jenell’s self-esteem and mental health and body image gets worse and worse.

Jenell: In high school, I lost about 70 pounds, and it actually started off because we did a series at the church about, like, eating and about, like, taking care of your body. And your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. And, you know, you want to create a comfortable place for the Holy Spirit to reside. And so you should take care of your body. Which at the time, I was severely overweight, and it inspired me to start taking care of my body. And I had this healthy spiritual motivation to take care of myself and eat healthy. And about halfway through, it just spiraled out of control to like: I was not eating. I was religiously working out. I was having panic attacks if I gained one pound on my period. Like, it was ridiculous. And my spiritual leaders kind of propagated it to the church as... “Well, look at Jenell. She's done such an amazing job because she listened to the sermon and she said took it to heart and now she's lost weight.” But deep down it was, like, no… I'm making myself throw up every day, and it's not spiritual anymore. 

Even though the church makes Jenell feel like she’s the problem with her mental health problems, it’s still better than home.

Jenell: My dad was very abusive. He was also on prescription drugs at the time. While we were at the church, he got cancer, and then he overcame it, and then he was in remission. And in that process, he became addicted to prescription drugs. His behavior became very violent, very unpredictable. He, like I said, was really upset with our involvement with the church. Really upset that we were giving so much money and so much of our time and energy to the church. And when we became more and more involved in the church, which was predominantly white, and all my friends were white, All my mom's friends were white, all of our spiritual leaders were white, the ones that were walking us through this difficult time of my father's abuse were white, and so that triggered a lot of trauma for him and thinking we were, like, choosing the white man over my dad. 

The more erratic her dad was, the more time Jenell spent at the church. She understands that he had bad experiences with white people when he was young. And she also kind of thinks he’s overreacting. Because these people are nice to her! Like Jeff. He’s not white,  but he is white-passing. He was about 15 years older than Jenell. And he’s not a pastor, but he is a part of the worship team.

Jenell: So he was, like, leading worship every Sunday. Later on, the church put together, like, started putting together a worship album. He was singing on that, playing drums on that. Playing guitar on that. So he was very, very involved in the music ministry at the church. 

Jenell was getting involved in music ministry, too. She had started doing spoken word, and the pastors had asked her to incorporate it into the service. 

Jenell: So in doing that, I was working a lot with the worship team, which Jeff was in, and working really closely with them to put together these events. What kind of poems should I be writing? How long do you want the poem to be? What music do we want in the background? And... I was really searching for kind of anything that I could do that would be a healthy vice to me, dealing with what was happening with my home life.  And during that time, I had expressed to him that I was interested in learning how to play the drums. And he was like, “Oh, I'll teach you, like, I'd love to teach you how to play the drums.” And that was probably when our relationship for the first time got closer, and we built a very strong bond with one another at that point. Like, we connected on so many things that me and my father connected on.

Nora: What are some of those things? 

Jenell: The biggest one was Motown music, actually. My dad loved Motown music, and he raised me on Motown since, like, I could speak — like probably before I knew how to spell my own name, I knew Motown. And some of my favorite memories of my dad were sitting in our living room for hours, like listening to these records over and over and over. And my dad talking to me about how significant these records were for Black people, for music, for the revolution of R&B or soul or blues. And those were some of the safest moments of my childhood, was when my dad was stable and sober-minded and just sitting and drinking coffee with me and talking about music. And when I started getting close to Jeff, he collected, like, Motown on vinyl. And I remember visiting his home, and he was showing me all of these, like, classic, like, Motown Records on vinyl. And that was a moment for me where... that was like a bond that I have never had with anybody other than my dad. 

Jenell and this replacement dad see each other a lot. And you know what? At 19, a person who is 15 years older than you, who is in a different place in life entirely, who has a wife and kids… they can absolutely feel like a parent. And for sure a mentor, which was Jeff’s role with Jenell in the church. He’s not a pastor, but he’s a part of the worship team, which basically means, like, he’s on the altar with a bunch of other people. And, you know, he contributes to the overall church service. But he’s not, like, the head guy in charge. He’s just there to, like, play music, church band. Stuff like that.

Jenell: We would either meet for, like, worship team practice if I was doing some type of event, or spoken word for a service that we were having. I would come to the worship team preparations. And so we would be there for hours on end, like from six o'clock till, like, midnight, just either setting the first few hours preparing for the service and then all of us just spending time with one another. And he also was a part of the young adult ministry that I was volunteering in, so we are seeing each other for hours and hours on end every week.

So… the first breakthrough moment of that was: I remember he was teaching me how to play the drums, and we were in the drum cage before service, and he was just kind of, like, teaching me some stuff. And afterwards we went to the church patio and, like, sat with the other people on the worship team. And I think I was wearing a skirt or, like, some type of high skirt that was showing my legs. And we went and sat on the patio, and I think I brought my legs back.. and put my feet on the… on the seat of the chair. And I saw him strike some type of look at me. And he got up very quickly and left the table, like, without a word. And he just got up and left. And... I could tell, like, he was avoiding me for some time, like in between— this was, like, in between services, and I could see him, like, avoiding me.

So we were about to do a service. And… like, I was preparing for my poem and he was preparing in the drum cage to do worship. And I walk into the drum cage like a few minutes before service started. And I just said, “Listen, I'm really sorry if I said something that offended you. I promise, like, I didn't mean anything by it.” And he said, like, “It's not that it's… it's not that, like, just leave it alone. It's not that.” And I said, “If I did something wrong, I would want to know.” And he basically just word vomited and said, “I'm just very attracted to you. Like, when you moved your legs up onto the chair, it just made me feel some type of way, and I just needed to get out of the situation. And I've been having a lot of sexual dreams about you, and I've been feeling very tempted and having, like, a lot of lust towards you. And I just needed to remove myself from the situation.”

So this was, like, right before a service was about to start. So I was bombarded with this information, like... and then, like, five minutes later having to perform, like, on stage and not having any nuance to the information that he was presenting to me. And assuming, like... he was like my dad, and I was like a daughter to him, and then for him to just say, like, I've been having these dreams about you and I've been tempted in my marriage, and I've been, like, struggling with lust and needed to remove myself, was the first kind of instance where I realized this is not this is not like a father-daughter type of relationship anymore. 

We’ll be right back.

We’re back. And the guy Jenell thought of as a father figure has just told her that he feels tempted around her. That he’s having sexual dreams about her. And that the way she sat in that chair in that skirt? It triggered lust. And worship is about to start.

Jenell: I mean, I was shocked because I... my mind had never even gone there with him. And I in many ways felt betrayed because he was this, like, safe space for me during what was the most, like, difficult and traumatic time of my life. And immediately it was like I could viscerally, like, feel... that safety just shatter and, like, fall on the floor around me. And I knew instantly things were never going to be the same, and our relationship was going to severely change if not just end immediately, because he didn't feel... like he was spiritually safe around me because he was struggling with lust. And then bearing in mind, too, I was friends with his wife, very close with his wife. He had two daughters that he had when he was a teenager who were in the youth group that I was leading. So I was very, very involved with his entire family. 

Nora: This is also, like, this person is at the center of the way that you live your life. There's like just so many ways that your lives are connected and intertwined. And also the wording of, like, I am being tempted, like, does that make you feel bad about yourself? Does it make you feel, like, guilty? Or just frightened that you are going to lose this relationship?

Jenell: It absolutely made me feel guilty. I remember that. And I was body dysmorphic, so I was very modest at the time, like button-ups and sweaters every day. People had never seen my legs before. And at the time, I think people respected it. Like, oh she's chaste, and she's, you know, like it's like, no, I hate myself. And that's, like, why I don't like to show my body off. So, I mean... there was a part of me that felt, like, guilty, like what have I… what could I have possibly have done to make this happen when I don't even feel confident in the way that I look. And I don't present myself as confident to other people. But then I can't lie in saying... being as impressionable as I was and being so young, part of me was like, maybe I'm not as terrible looking as I think. Like, maybe... the world is not as disgusted with how I look as I am. So it was very, like, convoluted to have to juggle feeling guilty about his temptations towards me, but being flattered and appreciating that somebody saw something in me that I had never seen in myself, and then feeling guilty about being flattered by that. Very confusing. 

All these feelings are swirling around in Jenell’s head during worship — while she performs next to this guy, while she listens to the sermon, when everyone leaves goes on with their Sunday.

Jenell: And I remember I was in the car with my mom leaving, and he texted me. And I think he said something like, “I'm sorry, I shouldn’t have said it, I shouldn't have brought it up with you, like, are you okay? This makes things really weird.” And I told him I mean, “I just never knew that that's how you would feel. I'm sorry if I did something wrong to make you think that. And I just never thought that that would be something that you would feel for me.” And he said, like, “Well, of course I would. Like, you're so beautiful and you're so talented.” And he started comparing me to his wife, like, “My wife doesn't, like, appreciate music the way that you do. My wife doesn't appreciate, like, my art the way that you do.” And immediately, like, kind of those feelings of, like, flattery started coming again and again. Like, wow, like… that's true. Like, I do have something to bring to the table. I am talented. And maybe there's kind of, like, more to me than I think there is. 

And I think that was the first time ever that I saw myself as something that somebody else would want. And that was a very complicated feeling to have to process, especially in line with knowing, like, I had done something wrong, clearly, because this man is married and he's tempted by me. So I villainized myself. But then at the same time, it felt strangely good to be desired. And I can weigh that against a lot of the doctrine that I was taught that, you know, sex is bad, and it's terrible until you're married and once you're married, it's great. Like this… kind of like there's no in between. And instead of being taught this is a wonderful thing. And it's good that somebody is sexually attracted to you. And it's not something to feel guilty about when you're especially attracted to somebody else. We just believe that this is reserved for marriage. I think if that was taught to me when I was younger, I would have been more capable to process those feelings with the tools that I had. But because I did not have those tools, it immediately felt villainous, and then because of that, in my own kind of of confused rebellion, it also immediately felt really good at the same time. 

And I remember him asking, “Have you felt the same way?” And... I told him, “I connect with you in a way that I've never connected with anybody else, besides my dad, who's not in the picture anymore.” And I said, like, “There's no denying that. That you're my best friend at this point. You're the closest person in my life. And I feel safe with you.” And at that point, he said, like, “You know what? Yeah. I don't want to ruin that place of safety for you. I think, like, we have something really good. I just want to continue and act like this never happened. But I still want us to be friends. So let's just kind of, like, act like it never happened.” And so I was like, OK. 

Okay, right? She’s drawn a boundary. She’s made it clear how she feels about him.  And yes, as a woman in my 30s I want to yell, THIS GUY IS A FRICKEN CREEP! GO TELL YOUR PASTOR! GET HIS BUTT FIRED! But of course she doesn’t. She’s 19. This man is the safest place she has. And he knows that.

Jenell: And as we continued working with one another in ministry, he continued to bring up, like, “Oh, I'm feeling tempted again. I'm having the thoughts again,” or like, “You looked really beautiful today. And it made me think this.” Whatever. 

Nora: He would just keep saying these things to you? 

Jenell: Yes. He would act really weird in person. And then we would leave the church or leave whatever event and he would text me and say like, “I was feeling this, like, I'm sorry. The reason I act this way is because, like, you look really beautiful and I'm feeling really tempted and I'm trying to get over what I'm feeling.” And so it immediately became more about his attraction to me and him trying to stifle his feelings for me than it did us being able to just move on and continue with our friendship like nothing happened. And I think as I recognized how much he wanted me, it made me want him… but it made me want the love that he was offering me, or what I perceived as love that he was offering me. And I wanted to feel safe and protected and valued. And I also recognize that there was so much trauma going on with my family life and my home life, and I didn't feel seen, and I didn't feel as though my struggles were valid because there are clearly so many struggles that were hugely more invasive than the struggles that I have, like my dad threatening the lives of my family is clearly a bigger issue than my self-esteem. So having someone give me that attention and act as if I was the sole focus of their life at the moment made me feel important. And that was when that bond started to form. And as he was more honest about what he was feeling, I in the same way was honest about me feeling grateful that somebody was paying attention to me, and that someone saw me as beautiful when I didn't see myself as beautiful. 

And I was living in an apartment at the time that was right near the church and I had stayed home from class one day and I was like, very depressed. And he and I were messaging like every day at this point, and I had told him, like, I was feeling really depressed that day, so I didn't go to class. And he said, like, oh, well, let me stop by on my lunch and, like, talk to you. 

At this point, Jenell is a sophomore in college. And this guy is telling her he’s attracted to her. He’s making her feel bad about it, and he’s flirting with her. He’s in his 30s. He’s a married dad whose daughters are closer to Jenell’s age than he is. He’s in a leadership position in the church that is the center of her world, and he’s offering to come over to her personal home, where she is alone… just to check on her. “As a friend” Riiiiight.

Jenell: And he came over and that was the first time that we had sex.

Nora: So just... flirting to sex. 

Jenell: Right. Almost immediately.

Nora: Is this your first time?

Jenell: It was not. 

Nora: Oh thank God. Okay.

Jenell: Actually, I'd only had sex once before, and it was with a boyfriend that I was with, and it was my first time being naked in front of somebody with the guy that I was with before him. And he said... I had asked him, like, I needed, like, affirmation, because I was body dysmorphic. And he said, like, “I'm not going to lie. But I see now why you're so insecure.” And that was my first sexual experience, was my boyfriend at the time telling me... “I mean, I get it. I get why you don't like your body. It makes sense now.” Like. Right. Like when he had seen me naked. Whereas Jeff responded with... “I can't keep my eyes off of you. Like, you're the most tempting thing in the world to me.” So it was a complete contrast. And when he came over that day, I remember, like, talking to him about, like, my insecurities, like how I was feeling. And he mentioned, like, “You're like, you have no idea how beautiful you are. You are the most beautiful person I've ever seen.” And from there, one thing led to another. And we were, like, making out with each other. And then... we had sex. And then he went back to the church where he worked. 

Like, he just goes right back to church. Pretty much right away. There’s no talking about what just happened, there’s no unpacking it. There’s no checking on her.

Jenell: I remember he was having to rush out... because he had, like, lost track of time. And he just said, like, I'll talk to you later. I'll text you later. And he messaged me and he said, “Like, this can never happen again. Like, I just made the biggest mistake of my life. This can never happen again. I don't know what we got ourselves into. I just couldn't keep myself away from you. And I should never have gone over there. And that has to be the first and last time, like, this can ever happen again.”

And... I think at that point, in combination with everything that was happening in my life, I felt very numb. And I think I was just seeking anything to numb whatever type of insecurity or pain I was feeling with my family life. And I mean, clearly, because of all of my mental health issues and the way that the church was talking to me about my mental health, my identity at this point was one hundred percent invisible to me. I didn't know who I was. I didn't know where I belonged. I didn't know, like, am I, like, a dirty, filthy sinner for making somebody feel this way? And I very much so remember thinking I am the only person in the world that has ever done something like this. And like, I'm never... I'm a fake, I'm a phony. I probably was, never was, I never was a Christian to begin with. God is never going to accept me. The church is never going to accept me once they know, so I might as well enjoy what I have now in ministry and kind of wait for my imminent doom until this comes out. Like I really felt like my relationship with the church, my relationship with God... I felt like I had made a decision that permanently threw that away and that I would never be able to get that back.

We’ll be right back.

And we’re back. A senior member of Jenell’s church — who is much older than her, whom she thought of as a dad — came over to “comfort her” and instead they had sex. Then he left, and guess what? 

Jenell: He had been messaging me about, like, “Nobody can know. We can't tell anybody, that can ever happen again.” Yada, yada, yada. And I was like, OK, like, it will never happen again. I'm sorry for putting you in that position. And then I saw him at church, and there was one moment where I was sitting alone, and he walked up to me and he found a moment where my family wasn't around and nobody was around. And he said... “Gosh, all I could think about is how you laid out on your back in your bed that day or whatever.” Like at church. And this was, like, right after he had told me, like, we need to act like this never happened, you know? So imagine my confusion when in my head I'm trying to even forget it happened, get over it, act like it didn't just for the sake of keeping whatever type of relationship I have with him and with the church, and then at church, like at a church meeting, when I'm not around anybody, he comes up to me and says, like, “Gosh, I can't stop thinking about how you look laid on your back.”

Nora: How did it feel to hear that?

Jenell: I think there was a part of me that felt violated. And then that like, lingering sense of, like, flattery or like rebellion was there as well. And that's why that whole season of my life is muddled with so much confusion. Because there was a part of me that definitely felt guilty. But then there also was a part of me that felt like, “Okay, maybe I have found something that will numb what's going on in my life and at least something that I can focus my attention on besides how my life is falling apart, and my home life is falling apart.” And then also just it kind of in many ways, like, revived that, like, I didn't need to be body dysmorphic, because here I was thinking that I was this revolting human being. And then somebody tells me, like, you've literally been on my mind all day and you're the most tempting thing in the world to me. You know? 

That day in her apartment was not the only time. They kept seeing each other. They kept having sex. Jenell developed feelings for Jeff, and he claimed to love her.

Jenell: As my relationship with him deepened and became much more intense and much more was kind of on the line, and we’re putting a lot at stake for the sake of maintaining our relationship, my feelings for him deepene, and then my feelings for God and for the church and my love for the church disappeared completely. And in many ways, I was like a robot giving poems to church members on that stage. Like every week, my pastor would tell me, like, “Hey, we want you to do this,” and I'd be like, “Okay, what... what topic do you want the poem to be about?” And he'd tell me, and then I'd write it and perform it. And it was, like, robotic. Very, very much so on autopilot. And the love and acceptance that I wanted to receive from the church I was receiving from him. And so the church didn't matter anymore. There was essentially no use for the church in my life. And I just kept going for the sake of keeping routine, and not concerning my family and keeping the peace. But then at the same time, I kept going because the church was where he was. He was involved with the church, and if I continued my relationship with the church, then I would continue my relationship with him.

And I lived with my brother and with my mom, who both worked on the opposite side of town. So they were out of the house by, like, six. And he would leave his house and tell his wife, “Oh I have to get there early to open,” and he would wait until my family left the parking lot of our apartment. And then he would just park and pull right in and he would spend the morning with me until he had to be at the church. Many days, literally, where I would see him in the morning and we would sleep together, and that night he would be leading worship for a church service. And I would be doing a poem or leading a small group that same night, with him, like, in the room. So that sense of rebellion and that sense of spite towards the church became very, very prevalent for me. And I in many ways, like, felt myself, sensing to the church, like, well, I mean, this is what the church gets for not like paying attention to me. And they can make a fool of themselves by, like, promoting me as this amazing poet and this amazing leader in the church. And they don't know that the same guy that is, like, on stage leading worship and the same girl that’s doing these poems every week, they're sleeping together. And it built my spite for the church significantly. And in many ways it made me resentful, because I knew that the closer that me and Jeff got together, I became more and more depressed, more and more anxious. My relationship with God depleted. I felt like I had no need for a relationship with God. In many ways I was falling apart at the seams and nobody noticed. 

Jenell’s family life was still not great. Things with her dad were stressful. Things with her mom were stressful. And before the relationship turned sexual, Jeff and his whole family had been a safe place for Jenell. His whole family! So at the heart of her many many conflicting feelings about all of this is her relationship with Jeff’s family, which has NOT changed with her relationship with Jeff. He is not the only one leading a double life.

Jenell: I became closer to his family, literally to the point where I was, like, spending nights at his house with his family when my dad flipped out or when I just didn't want to be at home where there was drama at home. I would spend the night at their house, and I would sit and have dinner with his wife, and he would leave and run an errand or go to bed or whatever, and she would stay up late and cry with me about how her marriage was falling apart. And she felt like she wasn't enough for him and how she felt like over the last few months he was becoming more and more distant from her. And that was a dagger to my heart, because I knew... I knew that I was the reason why that was happening. And if I didn't feel any type of conviction about anything else when it came to the church and what I was supposed to do as, like, a woman and how I'm supposed to carry myself as a woman, just as a human being, I felt deep-rooted conviction and shame about how I was manipulating his family and how at one point in time his wife called me her best friend, and she had no idea what was happening. 

Nora: What was she saying about... about the marriage? Like from her point of view, what was wrong? 

Jenell: So she blamed him for a lot of it. And she said that he didn't prioritize her or that he was just interested in things that she wasn't interested in, and that it wasn't her fault that she wasn't interested. And she would very often in front of me — just because they felt comfortable because I spent so much time with that family — she would talk down to him or in many ways, like, mother him in front of me. So in doing that in front of me, she felt like she was in some ways, like, proving to me, “See, this is why my marriage is failing... failing,” as her friend. While at the same time, Jeff was proving to me, “This is why I need you, because she treats me like this.”

Nora: And meanwhile, by the way, you're 19. 

Jenell: Yes, 19. 

She’s 19. And even when she wants to end this relationship, she just doesn’t feel like she can.

Jenell: I had several moments throughout that relationship where I would tell him, “We can't do this anymore. I cannot keep going back and forth. Just like as a human, I cannot present myself as something that I'm not, especially in front of all of these, like, young girls who look at me as, like, a spiritual leader to them.” And. these other members of our church who would tell me, like, gosh, I hope that my son marries somebody like you, you're… you're such an amazing woman of God and you have, you know, been such a great example to my kids. And they don't know what I'm doing behind the scenes. 

And I would bring that up with him. And he would say, “If we broke up, I would kill myself,” and “My life would end the moment that you broke up with me.” And that's where the relationship became the most unhealthy that it ever was, was when both of us were extremely suicidal. We felt like we couldn't live without each other. But then we felt like we were giving up our salvation, essentially, by being together. And he would always tell me, “If you jump, I jump.” And he meant “If you chose to kill yourself, then I would immediately kill myself because I can't live without you. And then if you broke up with me, I would kill myself too because I can't live without you.” 

Now, you might be thinking this is some serious manipulation: using a line from “Titanic” on a 19-year-old. And it is. But it’s worse than you think, because at 19, she’s TOO YOUNG to have seen “Titanic.” So he’s passing off a cultural reference from his adolescence as his own thought! Which works! Until Jenell is at his house with him and his family watching “Titanic” for the first time.

Jenell: And that scene came on, of, "If you jump, I jump,” and he just shot me a look from across the room. And that was his way of telling me, “Here's what I mean, when I say that,” or whatever. And I very vividly remember being like, are you fricking kidding me? Like, I was not impressed in the slightest. And I was not as, like, flattered or as impressed with him, especially as both of our mental... the both of us felt our mental health started to decline. And he knew that I was very suicidal, and I knew that he was suicidal, and he would say things along the lines of “Like, well, it looks different for me if I kill myself, because I have a wife and two kids and like, are we going to leave my kids without a dad?” Like, it would be my fault if he chose to end his life, and that I would have to live with the guilt for the rest of my life of leaving these two young girls without a father… which was textbook manipulation, but nothing that I was able to pick up on at that time. 

Jenells family is starting to notice things. Not just that she’s suicidal, but that whenever something goes wrong at home, Jeff comes to pick her up. The staying at his house stuff was okay at first, but now it seems… off. Jenell’s always texting with Jeff. That seems off. And eEvery time Mom brings it up...

Jenell: I would deny it and deny it and deny it and say, “There's nothing going on. He's just like a dad to me. You should just be happy that I found a safe place,” and she knew, I mean, a mother knows when something is going on. 

My mom told me, like, “I'm calling his wife and I'm telling her.” And I was like, “She will tell you, there's nothing going on.” And... gosh, this is like heart-wrenching to admit out loud. But they had had me over and invited me to come over. And I was sitting in her bedroom... talking with her. And she was like, “You know, your mom called me and tried to convince me that you two were sleeping together or that something was going on.” And she, like, laughed... like she was like, “That's so absurd. Like, your family really is struggling huh, for your mom to believe that something like that is happening.” Like she used that as ammunition to... to taint, like, my family's home life and to try to nurture me and tell me, like, I can see how ridiculous it is for you to live at home because your mom is acting like this. And I, of course, did not have the strength to admit what was happening. And so I told her, “Yeah, I'm so sorry that my mom would do that.”

Nora: Oh my God, does a part of you want to just, like, spill your guts? 

Jenell: Of course. And every moment that I felt like I wanted to, or I just… I wanted to put it out there, I heard in my head, "Do you want to leave my kids without a dad?" And I... I couldn't. Like I said, I'd rather just live the rest of my life miserable and make sure that he stays here for the sake of his kids, than to free myself and risk living with that guilt for the rest of my life. And his wife told me, like, “I know you would never do that to me, and I'm sorry that things are how they are at home.”

It’s about a year since Jeff came to her apartment and they had sex. A year and a half of sneaking around. Of Jenell’s anxiety and depression growing. It’s Sunday, and like they do every Sunday, Jenell and Jeff arrive early for church.

Jenell: The worship team got to church early to pray, prepare for the service. And I think about maybe halfway through, like, the set, the practice, our worship pastor pulls him out and brings him to his office to talk. I didn't think anything of it because they were very close. They were like best friends at the time, but I started to get suspicious when, like, the next service was about to start, and he still was nowhere to be found. And they were still in the office. And I was sitting in the church lobby, and I saw him come out of the office, and he looked at me and then he just walked out of the side door of the church and, like, went walking off, like, into the mesa. And that was the moment that I knew something was off. 

He came back like right before service was about to start. Like maybe like a couple minutes before. And he looked at me, and he just walked right past me, like… didn't even acknowledge that I was there. And I walked up to him and I said, “Hello, what's going on? Are you gonna talk to me?” And in a very theatrical way, he just said, “It's over.” And... I said, “What do you mean? What are you talking about?” Because at this point, I still think this is all my fault. I don't think that I'm being manipulated. I don't think I'm being gaslit or groomed. I think at this point, like, I was a seductive temptress and I seduced him, and this is all my fault. So I expressed to him, “Why would I ever tell anybody when, like, this is my fault. And it's not your fault.” And he said, “No, you told someone. And it's out, and I'm never going to speak to you again.”

Just like the first time he said he was attracted to her, Jenell has to go through an entire service with all of this anxiety existing only in her head. The church is filled with people who see him as a leader, who see her as talented and chaste and gracious. With people signing along to the music that they’re making together, people who have no idea. And then, worship is over.

Jenell: After service, our worship pastor comes up to me, and he said, “The lead pastor and I need to speak with you.” And he said we're gonna do it after... I think like the last service or whatever. After all the guests leave the lobby. So it was very dramatic. Like everybody everybody's leaving, I'm just sitting, waiting to meet with my pastors. And he came out and said, “All right, we're ready for you.” And I started walking to the office, and as I walked into the office, Jeff's wife was walking out. And her face was red, like ugly crying. And she just looked in my eyes and she just didn't say anything.

And so I walked in. And Jeff was sitting there. My lead pastor was sitting at his desk. And my worship pastor, like, pulled out a chair and told me, "You can sit down." And my lead pastor looks at me and he says, "So what are we going to do about this?" And I didn't say anything. I stayed silent. And he said, “He told me everything that happened, and we have some decisions to make.” He never asked me, “What is your side of the story?” To this day, he has never asked me. He never said like... “Tell me if something happened and, like you didn't mean for this to happen, if you felt like you were coerced, tell me and I will advocate for you.” And… I believe my lead pastor said, “Do you have anything to say?” And I said no, because the space was already kind of geared as though I was the villain. And Jeff was the victim, like, “Do you have anything to say for yourself as far as why you would do this?” It wasn't like, “I'm here to listen to your story. Please tell me.” It was just like, “Are you going to try to defend yourself or not?” And so I said, no. And Jeff said, “I need to say something. You and I both know I never wanted to hurt you. I just wanted to be there for you when you were going through a dark time. And I only ever wanted to love you and support you and be a safe place for you. And I just hope that you know that and that you remember that.”

And his tone was very... like, he was kind of shaming me. Like, this is your fault. All my intentions were good, and now this is your fault that this happened. And my lead pastor just kind of said something along the lines of, “We're all going to pray and think about how to move forward. And you'll hear from me when you hear from me.” And so I left, and my family was waiting in the car because we came to church together. And I had told them I had to meet with the pastors and Jeff. And after seeing that everybody in the church was gone and it was just us. I remember we drove home in, like, complete silence. And my mom just knew. She didn't have to ask me. She knew exactly what had happened. 

For weeks, Jenell waits. There’s no word from the pastor. She doesn’t go to church. How could she? Everyone probably knows. And then...

Jenell: Jeff had a heart attack and was in the hospital. And his mom was calling me one day and leaving me a voicemail, like, “This is your fault. You're a home wrecker and now he's about to die because of you. And I hope you're happy with yourself.” And then another day, she'll leave me a voicemail, like, “Please call me like he needs you. He needs you more than ever during this time.” It was very theatrical. Very theatrical. And of course, that only made me want to hurt myself even more, because... he said, like, I can't live without you. And now he's like, he had a heart attack. He's literally in the hospital.

The worship pastor’s wife — who has been kind of a mentor to Jenell — tells her not to worry. It’ll be fine. And eventually, she texts Jenell and says, “Lead Pastor would like to meet with you.” Why the pastor can’t do his own texting, I don’t know. Why she refers to him as pastor instead of “my husband,” I could not possibly tell you. But Jenell goes back to church. Back to the place where everything had, at one point, felt safe. Felt like home. And this time…

Jenell: That sense of welcoming and belonging was gone. And now, all of the memories associated with the rooms were memories of me and Jeff sneaking around, or him coming on to me behind closed doors when people weren't around. So that sense of home and safety was now replaced with a sense of rebellion, and sin, and shame, guilt and now it was, like, feeling as though like I needed to walk in and immediately wash my hands. Like I felt filthy. And also acknowledging like this is supposed to be, like, a place where, like, the presence of God was there. And I walked in and felt like I was dragging mud across the floor just by being who I was in that church. And I walked into the office and this time it was just the lead pastor and his wife. My worship pastor wasn't there and Jeff was not there. And my mom, I remember, asked to come to the meeting. And we walked in and my lead pastor basically said, “We want you to know we prayed about it and we sought counsel, and we're going to have to ask you to leave the church.”

My mom immediately flipped out. She said something like, “So I'm assuming then that Jeff is leaving the church as well.” And he said, “Well, we can't have him leave the church because he has a wife and kids who come to the church. And it's not fair that they be punished for something that was not their fault. And my mom was kind of like, “Well, you can have Jeff leave and let his family stay, like, why is he not being punished?” And they kind of said, “We made our decision. We prayed about it. And we're not changing our minds.”

And I didn't say anything. I just said, “OK.” And they said, like, that means, like, you can't be a member anymore. You can't visit anymore. And this is essentially going to be, like, the last time you step foot in the church. 

That was the last time she set foot in the church, but not the last time she saw Jeff. She blocked him on Facebook and on her cell phone, but he’d make fake profiles and message her anyway. 

Nora: I don't think what you had was an affair. I think that somebody exploited you. 

Jenell: Yes. Yes. And you know what? Like, I'm engaged now to somebody who has been on staff as a youth director at a church for, like, a few years. And he has in the same way presented it as, like, “You were groomed, like you were manipulated. You didn't, like, seduce somebody and then you guys had an affair. Like, you were young and he was older, and he took advantage of an opportunity that he had to act out on his impulses,” you know? So I think that that's like coming to light to me more too in the last few years as well. 

A lot has come into the light for Jenell the last few years. Time has a way of doing that, of shifting things into focus, of illuminating what we just couldn’t see before. 

Jenell: I found out that that was not the first time that that happened with somebody who was in leadership at the church, and that other men in leadership have slept with other women. And, ironically, like... the time that it had happened before me, the man who was in leadership was asked to leave, and then the other woman who was also in leadership was asked to stay. And the man that was asked to leave was African-American. So clearly, like, that triggered its own response in me, thinking like, “Oh, well, every time this has happened, the Black people have had to leave.” And I've had to, like, walk through that myself in recognizing that there is some validity to the deep wounds that my dad has, like, just like as a Black man who has tried to exist in these predominantly white churches. And as far as, like, double standards, clearly like... there was a very unbridled freedom for everybody in leadership to exercise the power that they had in whatever way that they saw fit. And there was no regulation or as… I mean, as people in, like, my faith community would call it, like discipleship of people in leadership. But there was no type of monitoring of people who were in leadership. Nobody was shepherding them. Nobody was monitoring, like, hey, how are you doing, like, in your faith? Like, how is your marriage going? How's your family life going? How can I be here to encourage you? Or noticing things in people's lives that needed to be corrected… like, nobody was there to correct them, either. 

For a long time, Jenell couldn’t go to church. Couldn’t call herself religious. What happened with Jeff seemed to have killed her relationship with God, with faith, with the thing that had given her community and safety. And when she and I speak, sometimes it sounds like it’s in her very distant past. But it’s not. She’s 23 when I interview her. She’s talking about her very recent history. A very traumatic part of her recent history. And yes, she’s engaged. And yes, she has even found faith again. She studied different religions and philosophies. She met different people. She built a community that gave her love and security, that home. She has everything she wanted, everything she always deserved, everything she thought she had lost forever that was never Jeff’s to take. 

 This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”

I’m Nora McInerny. Our senior producer is Marcel Malekebu. Production help from Hannah Meacock Ross and Jeyca Maldonado-Medina. Our digital producer is Jordan Turgeon. Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson. Our editor is Phyllis Fletcher — we adore her. She’s fantastic. Tracy Mumford… I don’t think she worked on this episode but we like her too. She’s great. She’s wonderful.

We are a production of American Public Media, APM.

You can find us online at ttfa.org, or you can sign up to donate and support our show or submit your own story. We’re on Instagram at @ttfapodcast, and you can find me online as @noraborealis or at noraborealis.com. Also I’ve written a ton of books. You can go buy one of my books. I wouldn’t hate it. It would probably help. We’ve got four kids who… at least 50 percent of them look like college material. Okay, bye!