Even at the grocery meat counter, freh pain will sneak up on her, sweeping from head to foot in a wave that swells, then recedes. She says it feels like sickness, like the first day of flu.
An antidote: 'You just think of all the sweet, wonderful things you've lost," she says. "You just call them up, and let them march before you. The more I do that, the less power they have to pain me. Desensitization, I think they call it."
Mid-morning, midweek at the home of Sonia Johnson, the Mormon Church's most celebrated ex-communicant. The two youngest kids are home from school, sick and squirmy. "Honey, I really do wish you'd go lie down and get a blanket on you," she calls to one of them.
The house, in dusty disarray and minus significant pieces of livingroom furniture, is 55 degrees. Outside, under the first touch of spring in rural Loudoun County, the air is actually warmer than inside the red brick home Sonia Johnson once kep immaculate. Now she goes on speaking tours, the fruit of her shattered life.
In early December, she was excommunicated from the Mormon Church for her near-militant support of the ERA. A week later, her husband of 20 years said he wanted out. Now her oldest son has moved to Utah, the seat of the church that shuns her, away from the family holocaust. Her father has prostate cancer, her mother the public embarrassment of a daughter the church calls a liar.
Only the phone, tying one catastrophe to another, rings on as a fragile constant. Soon she expects it to bring her news of a decision on her excommunication appeal, now before a church leader in McLean. She assumes the news will be bad.
"It feels terrible." she says. "You know, terrible rejection. I'd just been rejected by the church. And by Rick. But oh . . . I don't know . . . " She trails off. "Now . . . life looks good." It is a thought that seems to assure more than assess.
Her husband is here for the day, waiting for the furnace people. "He owns half the house, you know," explains his wife."When they come, he has to fix the nozzle pump."
She mentions this offhandedly, as if the presence of a husband who left her two months ago, a husband who is now intensely involved with another woman, is as normal as men who come and fix furnaces. Maybe she means it. Or mayble it's just another piece of new chaos she has learned to accept as routine.
She is 43, a fifth-generation Mormon and daughter of a former Utah seminary leader. This morning her face, though fresh from a shower and given some spark by pink blush, looks taut.
She wears blue slacks, a soft plaid blouse, a maroon V-neck sweater with an ERA pin she attaches just prior to the interview. She sits by a livingroom window that faces the warm trees of Broad Run Drive, quickly arranging herself.
There's an organ in the corner she once played daily but hasn't touched in weeks, now cluttered with stuff like stale holiday mints. Her husband, in faded jeans, wanders in and out of the room, watching for the furnace people.
He stays with the kids when Sonia is out of town. In a day she'll be gone again, to New York for preliminary talks with a publisher about a book on her life. She's also been approached about a made-for-television movie. So far, it's just talk, but she's receptive. The idea is to get it on the air before the ERA deadline two years from now.
Her impending divorce, something she didn't want and still doesn't understand, has now become amunition for the women who oppose her work as co-founder of Mormons for ERA. Proof, they say, that this proposed and faltering addition to the Constitution will smash marriages.
"Anybody trying to use that as a weapon," responds Sonia Johnson, "is in the first place just full of nonsense and in the second place, just crass. You know, it's really hitting below the belt. On both sides of any issue, marriages are just precarious."
Her husband, 45 and still a friend echoes his support. "The ERA was one of the few things we agreed on," he says, speaking later by phone from a Holiday Inn in Richmond, one of the cities where he teaches college night classes now. "I suspect that it might have happened earlier except that the ERA kept us together."
Neither of the Johnson will talk in specifics about the break-up, although both seem to accept it as a private agony inevitable entwined with the public one.
"It's hard for me to say something without hurting Sonia -- and without hurting the ERA," says Rick, a Baptist turned Mormon after his marriage to the Utah State grad in 1959. "you know, a good friend said to me, 'It's not really good timing.' And I said, 'What is good timing in a divorce?"
Of the breakup, Sonia says, "I just don't understand. That's the truth. I don't know. I didn't want it to end, and I felt the same way I always had. It happened to him. I can't even talk intelligently about it.
"I'm in good health and I have beautiful children. I have just mobs of loving friends and I have a whole half of life out there that's just going to be all new. I have just everything that I can think of going for me.
"It wasn't that it was easy. It's just that I'm beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Grief about things that you've lost comes in waves. At first the waves are very high and very close together. Now, about once a week, I have maybe a half-day when I have a lot of sadness, a lot of sorrow. You just feel this sickening. . . ."
Her hands flow up along her body. "And now, as I think of it . . . "
The tears come, big and fat. She lowers her head in one hand. "Don't take a picture of this," she tells the photograher. "This is not . . . I'm surprised.
The photographer goes for a Kleenex. "There's one on my desk," she calls to him. Then more quietly, about the tears that come at bad moments: "I think it's just healthy when you have those times," she says, "to go where you can and just bawl your head out." Poetry to Politics
Two years ago, she taught college English and cooked and raised her family. She played the organ in the church choir and taught a Mormon women's auxiliary class. If there was little in her terribly organized schedule to storm about, then there was little to cry about either.
"I just had a happy, peaceful life," she says now. "What it would be like is that I would have one class and then I wrote a lot of poetry and I did a lot of reading and I kept the house spotless and made good meals and the days were long and peaceful and I just enjoyed life a lot."
The words jumble together before she has a chance to finish them with a rapid "and I enjoy it now too, but it sure is a whole different thing."
It was in April 1978, in church, that she heard about a special meeting to tell the congregation about the Mormon opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment.
"I expected to be against it," she remembers. "I'd never gone contrary to the church on anything before. So I went and the man read the thing and I loved it. I just loved it. That was the beginning."
She began to read voraciously, abandoning Dickens for Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, and all she could find about women and religion.
"She was sort of politicized overnight," says Hazel Rigby, a friend of 20 years who witnessed the change. "She was ripe for it, I guess. She couldn't believe that the church she had belonged to, whose principles she had adhered to, was doing this."
That summer, Sonia and a group of 10 or so Mormons, including her children and husband Rick, marched in an ERA parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. They carried a banner that said "Mormons for ERA," a banner that caught the attention of either Sen. Birch Bayh or one of his staffers.
Soon after, the Indiana Democrat asked her to testify for a Senate religious panel. She was petrified.
"I would wake up in the middle of the night and my heart would be just pounding," she remembers. "I hadn't done anything so openly to be interpreted as anti-church before. But as I was writing that last paragraph of the testimony about the early Mormon women and wondering what to say, I felt as if they were there in the room. And from that moment on, I just knew clearly what I had to do."
In the early winter of 1979, she cofounded Mormons for ERA. The membership numbered four women friends who shared anger and coffee.
Sonia provided the inspiration. "She was the one who kept encouraging us," says Hazel Rigby. "She was in there saying 'We've got to do these things.'"
She was colorful, too. Once she hired a plane to drag a "Mormons for ERA" pennant over Salt Lake City during a church meeting. She gave speeches, wrote letters, made calls.
In November of 1979, on a night when she was reading bedtime stories to her children, two men knocked on her door with a church summons to trials. The charges were given, later, as spreading false doctrine and working against church leadership. They were not, church leaders have said, directed against her support of the ERA but what they call her attack on church leaders and her misrepresentation of their stand against the ERA.
Less than a month later, after a closed-door trial, she was officially severed from the church she says she still loves.
"No decree," she has written, "can keep me from caring deeply about the church that gave me so much happiness for so long."
Excommuniation is an especially serious punishment for a Mormon. The Johnsons had followed the church's strong recommendation that they tithe their income to the church. They also believe that if Sonia doesn't repent and get rebaptized, she will be eternally separated in the afterlife from her family. Sonia replies that she has nothing to repent of.
She worries about the church. "Its decisive crossing-over into anti-ERA politics," she has written, "has eroded in most members' minds the crucial distinction between church and state. . . The Mormon Church, it seems to me, is in a serious moral crisis." Point of History
Sonia Johnson dabs a red-rimmed eyes with her Kleenex. She brightens when the conversation takes another tack, her fight for the ERA. That's easy.
Then, when it comes around to the plans for the book and the TV movie and the suggestion that maybe she's using the excommunication to push for the ERA, it gets even easier. She gets good and mad and happy.
"I'll use it as much as I can," she says. "That's the politics of this thing I'm in. They just handed it to me on a silver platter. There's no reason not to get the best good out of that miserable experience that can possibly come. If they think it's exploitation, perhaps it is."
Not that exploitation did any good for the ERA in the Virginia Senate, where it failed again this month. "I didn't really expect it to do otherwise, actually," she says quietly. "But that never cheers you up a lot."
She laughs ruefully. Noel 6, runny-nosed and watery-eyed, rummages around in his pajamas, poking at a plant across the empty living room. He continues to cry regularly, she shushing him with a distracted "Oh, honey, stop that."
"Have you read 'Chesapeake'?" she asks suddenly, recounting a scene between Benjamin Franklin and a colonist telling him they would never win the war against England.
"And Franklin said," she says, "I can't see any way that we can do it, but I know that we will and we must, because history is at a point where this is going to happen.'"
She comes alive. "Well, that's exactly how I feel about the ERA.We can't see it budging anywhere and all 15 states just look like they're not going to do it -- ever. On the other hand, when I read that, I thought 'Why not?' There comes a time in history when it is the time."
But what happens to her beyond the ERA, beyond the deadline two years and a few months from now?
"I don't sit and make plans," she says. Earlier, she had said that "circumstances make a hero of practically anybody.
"As it happens, it will happen. I feel as if I've just stepped into a stream and it's taking me."