“If your book club is looking for a startling memoir, look no further than The Sound of Gravel.”
—Real Simple’s Best Book Club Books
Ruth Answers Readers’ Questions
Note from the author
SPOILER ALERT: Some of my responses here discuss events described in The Sound of Gravel. I recommend you finish reading the book before reading through this Q&A. Thank you and please don’t hesitate to contact me to share your thoughts or pose further questions. I love hearing from readers! –Ruth Wariner
1. The Sound of Gravel ends with you and your siblings making your way to California to live with your grandmother. What happened next?
Aaron, Leah, Holly, Elena and I lived with my grandmother for a few weeks. Lane showed up looking for my sisters and me, and at that point, we went to stay with a cousin in Southern Oregon where Lane wouldn’t be able to find us. We stayed in hiding there for several weeks while my grandmother applied for custody with the state of California.
When my siblings and I returned to live with our grandmother, Lane showed up again and went to the police claiming that my grandmother and I had kidnapped his kids. When the police showed up at the door, we explained the situation. At that point we became wards of the state. My siblings and I testified against Lane in court and Lane’s wife Susan had several documents notarized and signed stating that Lane never supported us and that he was a known pedophile in LeBaron. On the day the judge was to issue his ruling on custody, Lane didn’t show up to court so legal custody automatically went to my grandmother and her youngest daughter, my aunt Kim who lived nearby in California.
My brother, Luke, stayed with Kim and her husband Ron. They had four young children at the time. Aaron, Leah, Holly, Elena, and I stayed with my grandmother most of the time, but we spent a lot of time with Kim and Ron as well. I took home study courses to help take care of my siblings and earned my GED.
2. How long did you live with your grandmother? Did you have help from anyone else?
We had cousins who I had never met, my mom’s cousins, take my siblings and me to Disneyland and to their cabin in Tahoe a few times. We spent a few weeks with them at their homes in different parts of California, too. We also spent summers with my brother Matt, his wife and their growing family.
During the four-year period we lived with my grandmother, Kim and Ron moved to Oregon, and because my grandmother’s health was failing, we all followed my aunt and uncle to Grants Pass, Oregon. At that point, I was nineteen years old so I moved into a home on my own with my three little sisters and Aaron. I started taking classes to become a teacher at the local community college. When I completed that coursework, I eventually enrolled at Southern Oregon University. I attended college there for my undergraduate and graduate degrees—all while I was raising my sisters. I got my first job out of college teaching high school Spanish on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.
3. Did you ever see Audrey again?
When I lived with my grandmother, Audrey was living in a state hospital a few miles from our house in California. I visited her regularly then. When I moved to Oregon and was raising my sisters and going to college, I didn’t have the financial means to go and see her as often as I wanted to. I remained in touch with the hospital where she lived, and she was eventually moved into a home for women in that same area, not far from where my grandparents are buried. She has caretakers who watch her closely and she’s doing better than ever, on less medication and very healthy. I have visited her there but the honest answer is that I don’t visit as much as I’d like to or as much as I probably should.
4. What was it like to be fifteen years old and to be responsible for your three younger sisters? How did you do it?
I wouldn’t have been able to do take care of my sisters without my grandmother’s, uncle’s and aunt’s help. It really does take a village. The situation was heartbreaking beyond words. My grandmother wasn’t in good health, and having us all move in with her was very hard on her, even though I stayed home from school to help her. My aunt and uncle had four young children of their own, and it was hard for them, too. We had cousins who had offered to take one child each, but I really didn’t want to separate my family. Looking back now, I realize that I actually didn’t want them to be separated from me. It was extremely difficult to leave my childhood behind at such a young age. The hardest part was letting go of any kind of social life and moving to a place where I had no friends and really didn’t know anyone. For me, it would only have been worth it if I could make sure my mother’s children were well cared for.
I moved out on my own with my three sisters when I was nineteen. My brother Aaron moved in with us a year later. He was a teenager at the time and he helped with the babysitting, housecleaning, errand running, etc. My mom’s cousins, women I had never met before because our family’s religion had been kept a secret from them, offered to take one child each, but I didn’t want us to be separated. I was on welfare, I took out student loans, and I worked part-time jobs to support us. Financially, it was a huge struggle, and I ended with a lot of debt after my siblings moved out. It took years, but eventually, I was able to pay off all my loans and I am debt free now. I’m every bit as close to my family now as I ever was, and for me, my strong bond and my relationships with them were worth the effort.
5. When did you first start writing this book?
I started taking memoir and creative nonfiction writing classes not long after I finished graduate school and began teaching Spanish. I started working with specific scenes back then, but didn’t really start writing seriously until 2009. I was in my mid thirties. Ultimately, it took me about five years to finish writing on a part time bases.
6. In the epilogue to The Sound of Gravel, you say that your siblings were “the bridge from pain to healing, from past to future.” Can you tell us in a little more detail what work you had to do to make peace with your past?
I learned a lot about myself when I was a single parent. Raising children and wanting a better life for all of us had a way of giving me a sense of purpose. I wanted better for all of us and I had to figure out how to be my best self. That desire to improve, to make my life and myself better was an amazing gift that my sisters gave me.
That might be a long way of saying that I am basically a self-help junkie. I had suffered so much and I wanted more than anything to heal. I knew I needed to let go of so much of the pain from my past. If a book has “forgiveness” or “letting go” in its title, you can bet I’ve read it and bought the journal or workbook that went along with it and filled up every page.
I’ve followed many of the spiritual writers who have appeared on the Oprah Show and I have really found that their stories of overcoming heartbreak and suffering have helped me to heal. That is part of the reason I decided to write my memoir: in the hopes that my story might help readers in the same way that others’ stories have helped me.
My education also really helped me heal. Going to college was something I never, ever imagined myself doing when I was growing up in LeBaron. I started classes at a community college when I was twenty-one and I took as many philosophy and religious studies and world religion classes that I could. I loved being introduced to new ways of thinking. I recognized goodness and truth in so many different traditions. In a way, understanding that I had a choice about what I believed set me free from the dogmatic and rigid way of thinking from my past. You can’t imagine the weight that lifted from my shoulders when I realized that my Creator would love me and I had a chance of going to Heaven even if I didn’t live polygamy and have several children. Being able to let go of the belief that I needed to live a life like my mother’s really set me free.
When I started my career as a full time teacher, I also had access to mental health benefits that I was anxious to take advantage of. It took me a few weeks to find the right therapist, and when I finally did, her counseling proved to be an invaluable part of my healing and growth journey. I started one-on-one therapy sessions with her and added on group grief counseling. It was an important time of learning about myself and how my past had affected me. That part of my life was characterized by a lot of personal growth, learning to forgive others, letting go, and ultimately of moving forward.
7. Do you consider yourself to be religious today? Are you a Mormon?
As I’ve said, developing my own spiritual beliefs and practices really helped me to heal. I believe in God and have always been inspired by teachings and traditions that emphasize the importance of having a personal connection to that Divine Spirit within all of us. I start each day with a morning prayer, a quiet meditation, and journaling. It’s in these quiet moments that I’ve experienced the most healing—when I’ve sat still and let my emotions wash over me. I struggle with organized religion in general, though, and I tend to see religion and God as two completely separate things.
I know a lot of wonderful, kind and loving Mormon people, but I no longer consider myself Mormon—fundamentalist or current day LDS.
8. You also mention your wedding and your husband, Alan. How did you two meet? How did you tell him about your upbringing? What was his reaction?
Alan and I met on the top floor of the U.S. Bancorp Tour building in downtown Portland, Oregon, at a fundraising event for Portland Monthly, our local city magazine. I attended with a group of friends, and we met Alan and two of his friends while waiting in a very long line for a glass of wine. I left the party early but ended up running into Alan again in my own neighborhood, which was nowhere near downtown. It turned out that he lived right up the street from my apartment. Initially, we started meeting up just as friends for local happy hours because we were both single and didn’t like cooking at home by ourselves. Once we got to know each other better, we both had so much respect for each other and the paths we’d chosen for our lives and the care of our families. That’s when I started telling him about raising my sisters, and every time I told him more of my story, the more his face would light up. He was always inspired by my life. I didn’t tell him anything about polygamy until we had been dating for a few months, and he was blown away. He’d never met anyone from that kind of community. He couldn’t believe I was so “normal.” Fortunately, he had already gotten to know me pretty well, and he could tell that I had let go of so much from my childhood and was no longer connected to that way of life. I was thirty-four years old and hadn’t been back to the colony in several years.
9. On the last page of the book, you include a photograph of your siblings. Are you still close to them? Are you still in touch with anyone else from your childhood? Have you been back to visit Colonia LeBaron?
I have been back to LeBaron three times in the twenty-eight years since I left, and each time I’ve been back, I’ve loved seeing my family, but it is also a little traumatic. The first time I went back, I saw Lane driving around town in his pick up truck with little girls in his front seat. I was so angry and upset by that. My trips back to LeBaron always felt hostile and I would return home exhausted.
My brother Matt still lives in LeBaron with his most recent wife and children, and he is openly disappointed that my younger siblings and I don’t visit him there. But I remind him that his family is always welcome in my home. We meet up in the States anytime we can. My younger siblings and I all live in the Pacific Northwest, and we are a very close and supportive family.
10. Your brother Matt practices polygamy. What is that like for you?
After I left LeBaron, I didn’t have a lot of contact with my family there. My younger siblings and I stayed away to keep my sisters protected from Lane. But Matt was a newlywed and he was busy working in construction in Southern California. He was working with many of our relatives from Mexico. He wasn’t separated from the church and LeBaron the way we were. About five years after we left, Matt started to talk about our dad. Matt became interested in our father’s teachings and expressed a desire to live polygamy and date other women. I was shocked and heartbroken.
I was nineteen or twenty years old at the time and was trying to put our lives in LeBaron behind us. It was hard for me to understand that Matt—because he had always been working with so many people from our community—never really moved on from that way of life. I began having nightmares about finding Matt drowning in the ditches on our old farm in LeBaron. I’d wake up breathless and certain that it meant my big brother was in danger. I had the dream a few times, and it terrified me.
As time passed, and Matt grew more and more involved with the church, I came to understand that my dreams were not about Matt dying physically; they were about how the person he had been was transforming into someone else, someone completely different than the person I grew up with. Because he was changing, so was our relationship. Subconsciously, I was mourning the loss of who he and I had been in a family together. It was a very challenging time for me, but I imagine, a necessary part of my growing up. These days, Matt has fourteen kids and is still an avid believer. I have reached a peaceful acceptance of his choices and lifestyle, and we have agreed not to talk about religion. I see him at least once a year.
11. So much of The Sound of Gravel is about your relationship with your mother and your struggle to balance your love for her with your doubts about the choices she made. When you think of her now, what thoughts come to mind? Are there ways in which the two of you are similar?
I always remember my mom as her kind and loving self, and I like to believe that that part of her would have prevailed had she survived. I definitely inherited those qualities from her. My mother and I probably wouldn’t agree on anything philosophically, but I like to think that we would have been able to agree to disagree—as I have done with most of my family from LeBaron.
Of course, I feel like I’d give anything to know my mom and to be close to her again. To have just a few moments to say goodbye and to tell her that I loved her would have provided a kind of closure for me that I haven’t been able to find on my own. Had my mom lived and left my stepfather like all of his other wives eventually did, I think I would have been close to her after I grew up and benefited from therapy. As with any parent, I think there are parts of my life that she would not only approve have, but would also be very proud of.
I always imagine that my mom and I would have been friends. I think that her beliefs about herself and religion limited her in a way that I haven’t let mine limit me. I am both my mother and father’s daughter, and from what I knew of my father, I inherited from him a confidence and boldness that my mother never had.
12. What do you want readers to take away from The Sound of Gravel?
I’m sure each reader will have their own insights according to their own life experience. I’ve been surprised at the diverse comments and perceptions readers have shared with me thus far, some that I would never have thought of myself. Ultimately, I’d like my memoir to inspire readers to reflect on their own lives, to find gratitude for their blessings and the choices they’ve been able to make. If I could grow stronger than my circumstances, anyone can. I’d also like readers to recognize the importance and power of their own family bonds in spite of how crazy and difficult circumstances might be. To me, there is nothing more important than the profound connection between siblings.