The 39th Child

“I am my mother’s fourth child and my father’s thirty-ninth.” So begins The Sound of Gravel, a riveting coming-of-age memoir by Ruth Wariner. Equal parts harrowing and heart-wrenching, Wariner offers an unsparing account of her childhood in Colonia LeBaron, a polygamous Mormon community in northern Mexico.

A rival murders Wariner’s father, the colony’s founding “prophet,” when she is just 3 months old. Her mother, Kathy, remarries, becoming the second wife of Lane, the man whom Wariner and her siblings come to abhor as a neglectful, ruthlessly abusive stepfather.

Their life of bleak poverty is further scarred by jealousy among competing wives and the prevalence of abuse. Men are often absent, rotating among wives or scrounging for odd jobs in the United States. The women and children are left to scrape by.

At age 6, Wariner glimpses “normal life” when her mother brings the children to stay with their grandparents in California, only to be lured back to Lane and the colony’s radically fundamentalist beliefs with devastating consequences.

Despite often despairing circumstances, Wariner finds strength and beauty in her love for her siblings and mother — and the courage to chart a course out of the remnants of one unforgettable night.

At age 15, Wariner flees with three younger sisters to California; eventually earns a GED; puts herself through college and graduate school, and becomes a high school Spanish teacher.

Now happily married and living in Portland, Ore., Wariner shares her remarkable journey of resilience and healing in her first book, The Sound of Gravel. In a recent conversation, Wariner offers a deeper look into the life that led to her memoir.

Can you tell us about the title?
Without giving away a key scene, the title refers to that pivotal point at age 14 when I realized my life was going to totally change. Though I couldn’t articulate what that was going to be, I
knew from that moment on that everything would change and that it was within me to change it.

It hurts to read about your relationship with your mother: She was responsible for so much of your pain, yet your love never wavers.
To this day, I don’t understand the choices she made. When my mom went back to my stepfather, it was my first real broken heart. I started to doubt myself as a human being and my own sense of value in the world. It was crushing. But in that kind of polygamous community, the mother is everything. My mother didn’t have a lot to work with, but she was able to create a lot with little. Despite her bad choices, she was a loving mother, a really kind and generous and fun person.

How did you — even as a very young child — come to question the LeBaron belief system?
When I first came to the States to live with my grandmother and grandfather, I was 6 and in first grade, and I could see there were kind people all around me. I loved my teacher, the other students and my grandparents, and I saw a better way of life. It was hard to go back to that lifestyle [in LeBaron] and to see my mom suffer so much. Because I now had something to compare it to, I knew I did not want that life.

What prompted you to start writing the book and share it publicly?
I was in my early 20s, raising my sisters who were 8, 10 and 12 at the time, and they were asking about our mom. Because I had been in survival mode, trying to do the best I could in a very tough situation, I hadn’t realized that they didn’t know their mother. I knew that I needed to write down our history for my family— my brothers, too — so they would have a better understanding of why we had to leave LeBaron. As I started writing, I realized that I was finding my own understanding of what happened and learning to be more at peace with that.

What do your siblings think of the book and your decision?
All of my siblings have felt that the book is very healing and that they have gotten to understand my mother better. I realized [the story] could be healing for others, too. I’ve always been so inspired by other people’s stories and their own journeys; so after I got the green light from [my siblings], it was time to share mine.

What has helped you make such a successful journey of healing?
Years of therapy … have helped me reflect on myself and understand what other people have suffered in their own lives, and that’s really helped me let go of the resentment and to forgive. I’ve spent a lot of time in meditation and in prayers that inspire me. Getting an education was so important, too.

Can you tell us more about that?
I was taken out of school when I was 14. After leaving the colony and as I got older, I knew I wanted something better for our lives. I loved going to [my sisters’] classrooms and seeing the light go on in children’s eyes as they learned, so I went back to school to become a teacher. I
didn’t want to be imprisoned by the oppressive thinking that I grew up with. I wanted to be free of that, and my education lit that flame. I realized that I had a choice in what I believed, in how I lived my life.

What do you hope readers take away from The Sound of Gravel?
I hope my story will help readers, especially those who’ve been through similar situations of abuse and neglect, recognize their own resiliency — that the part of me that was strong exists in all of us. [Psychologist] Brené Brown says shame grows in silence, but if you talk about your abuse and acknowledge how it affected you, you give yourself the chance to heal. I hope my story inspires readers to reflect on their own ability to succeed, to thrive and to survive, to have gratitude for their life, and to start the process of healing.

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