A popular speaker to LDS youth and women around the world, Barbara Barrington Jones shares the events and lessons of her life that have allowed her to touch so many in her 24 years of public speaking. After a career as a ballet dancer and twelve years in an abusive marriage, Barbara married a much older man with whom she found the Church. With her trademark faith, strength and wit, Barbara tells her remarkable story and shares her pearls of wisdom.
Would you tell me your personal history? Let’s start with your interest in dancing.
As a young girl, I wanted to be a ballerina. I was born and raised in the border town of El Paso, TX, and my mother’s heritage was Latin. There was something in me – a passion – that drove me to dance as a child. You wonder as the years go on and your mom has to take you to ballet lessons every day if this is really what you should be doing. Everyone was saying I should be going to college, but deep inside me there was a passion to dance.
Many years later, when I’d had pain in my hips for years and went to a doctor yet again, the doctor put my xrays up and he said, “You were a ballerina, weren’t you?” I said, “How did you know that?” And he answered, “Because these hips show me you were predestined to dance.” And I burst into tears because it was a confirmation that it wasn’t just me who had forced my mom to take me to ballet all those years. It was Heavenly Father who had built my body in a way that I was predestined to become a dancer. I was driven in that direction.
The discipline of dancing spilled over into everything I did. I had good grades, I became detailed oriented, I could memorize quickly. After my third hip surgery, my doctor asked me, “Would you do the whole thing over again?” And I said, “In a heartbeat! There’s nothing that could compare with dancing.”
But of course there is a downside. I was raised a Catholic. I lived in a convent when I went to New York to dance at age sixteen. I went to Mass every single day. But the downside was that I became unhealthy in my eating. I was told, like many other dancers, that I had to lose weight if I wanted to be a professional and you can imagine what that does to a seventeen-year-old. So I quit eating. I could go three days without eating. I had to go home to Texas; I went into a depression. I thought my life was over. There are many famous dancers who end up abusing drugs because it’s a tough life, it’s a disciplined life.
Would you tell me how you got involved with your first husband?
I married my boyfriend’s best friend. My boyfriend and I were going to get married on December 2nd, and it was canceled the week before which was very sad for me because I loved him very much. I instead married his best friend, John Barrington, and I lived through twelve years of an abusive marriage. Physically and emotionally. I was held at gunpoint three times. He dragged me off stage one night, into his car, during the middle of a performance of Sleeping Beauty. We sped off into the desert, he reached into the backseat and pulled out a sawed off shotgun. He put it on my knees and said, “I’ll blow your legs off so you can never dance again.” I’d lived in a convent, gone to mass every day, but I didn’t really know my Father in Heaven. But in that moment, when I saw my life passing in front of me, I reached out to my Father from the depths of my being and asked, “God, are you there?” I felt peace. It didn’t matter to me if John pulled the trigger or not.
Was there a crisis of faith that accompanied that prayer? You’d been so devout. Did you ask, Why me?
When you go away from home at a young age like I did, there is nobody there for you. But I always knew there was a God. And in those crisis situations I knew He was there. As I tell this story to youth at Especially For Youth (EFY) and such, they always ask me “Why didn’t you leave?” I say there’s something that happens to most women – when you’re stuck in a bad marriage – that makes you fearful. We don’t know how we’re going to make ends meet, take care of our children. We don’t know how we’ll work and have our own lives. We stay out of fear. I had a little boy, a year and a half old, when my husband put the shotgun on my knees. I had to think of him. When I came home from that dreadful night, sitting in my living room with my robe on, I said, “I don’t care who I have to pray to, I just want out of this.” I didn’t know what a Mormon was at that time, but I did know what “the powers of darkness” felt like. When I read about the strength of the powers of darkness after I joined the LDS church, I thought, “I know what those powers feel like.” There was an evil fog in that living room that night.
So I ran away. I joined the Atlanta Ballet Company and left my son with my mother, who didn’t know the extent of what was going on with my husband. But eventually I missed my son too much, and returned to Texas.
Did things improve after you moved home?
There was something of a reconciliation and my husband transferred his job to Atlanta so I could keep dancing. But things went downhill again quickly. One night, I had to be accompanied at the theater by armed guards because my husband came with a gun to take my son back.
For years, I had a dream that I was carrying my son, running away. I left again, I ran away to Canada but I could only get a job as an understudy in a ballet company there and that doesn’t pay anything. It was freezing cold!
I became very fearful of what life would be like. I was living in a tenement house sharing a bathroom with five other families. No money. I had to go back. There was no other way out. As I talk to women now around the world who keep going back to abusive husbands, as I did, I ask, “Why? Why?” It’s fear! They don’t know what to do. We just keep thinking it will be all right.
I went back and got pregnant right away and then John thought it wasn’t his child. When she was born well after 9 months, there was no question.
Was your husband ever officially diagnosed with a mental illness?
You know, there was no such thing as “manic depression” in the 1960s. I believe if he had been on medication he would have been very different. But I don’t know.
I went back and stayed five more years. Living in sheer terror every night because he would have a gun in the closet, or the windowsill. He drank at this time too, although he hadn’t before. He had his own computer company that did well, and I started directing Barbizon schools [modeling and fashion merchandising schools] in Paso & Dallas so I was able to make some money as well. I would pay my part of our bills.
I had my daughter, Wendy, who was of course my husband’s, despite his suspicions. She and my son are the joys of my life. They keep me going.
One day my husband picked a fight with me – I can see it now, I was sitting in a blue wing-backed chair – and of course I took the bait and he dragged me up the stairs to the bathroom where he had me stand in the tub. He took out a 44 Magnum revolver and put it to my head and said, “I’m going to kill you, and then I’m going to kill myself.” So, for the third time, I reached out to my Father in Heaven, although I didn’t know then to call Him “Father”. Just “God, are you there?” And again, I felt peace, even with tears streaming down my face. Therapists have told me that if I had struggled at all, he would have shot me. But instead, he dropped the gun and left the house and shortly after he killed himself. We had been married for twelve years, from.
What about your faith during those five years after you got back from Canada?
I still had faith. I was not going to Mass everyday, I wasn’t as devout, but I still prayed all the time. We were Catholic, we didn’t get divorces. My parents were married for 50 years.
What was your reaction when you heard he took his life?
I was relieved because I knew it would be difficult for my children to keep living that kind of life. Being afraid, see their dad in bars and threatening us. In that way, I was relieved. But then there was guilt. I went through a whole cycle: anger, hopelessness, depression. Guilty that it was my fault. That I could have stopped him. I totally thought it was my fault.
At this time, you were professionally teaching young girls poise and confidence and self-esteem through Barbizon. Was there a correlation between what you were teaching at this time and they way you viewed yourself?
I don’t think I could have done anything in this life without my faith. Nothing. I’m still on my knees every day thanking God: Thank you for trials. Thank you for those years. And I tell women, “Your trial is your greatest treasure. Go out and share it with other women. Somehow this trial will be for your benefit. You know there is a god. You know why we are here.” It seems very trite and we hear it all the time, but it’s so true.
Your greatest trial is your greatest treasure. We spend our lives treasure-hunting. There are all kinds of abuse. There are husbands who won’t give their wives cash or checking accounts or credit cards. That’s financial abuse! But faith will get you through it.
How did you meet your second husband?
I met my second husband, Hal Jones, at a Modeling Association of America convention in San Francisco, where he lived. My husband was 26 years older than I was. He had already had a successful career. He worked in heavy construction, roads and bridges. I met him in an elevator in the St. Francis Hotel and I was with some other directors of modeling schools. We were all dressed up. I was dressed in a yellow coat dress, a yellow hat with a pheasant feather, yellow gloves, and I carried a walking stick! He leaned down and said, “You’re from Texas, aren’t you?” And I said, “Yes, how did you know? “ “Because you look like the yellow rose of Texas!”
He invited me and my modeling friends to dinner, but I wouldn’t go. I was there to learn and work! So I went to a wrinkle cream seminar instead. And just when all my friends came back from dinner with this gentleman, there I was the wrinkle cream seminar with half my face covered in something like Elmer’s Glue and egg whites, pulled so tightly I could hardly speak and looking like Godzilla’s Mother! Then the seminar people took the cream off me which was even worse because now I had no makeup on and they put a chair in front of me and invited anyone who wanted to come feel the side of my face that had the cream on it and feel the difference! All my lady friends encouraged Hal to touch my face too. There he was like a duck out of water, but he put one hand on one cheek and his other hand on my other cheek, and it was instant chemistry. He wasn’t handsome, but we were soul mates from the day we met.
As the seminar ended, he asked if he could show me San Francisco the next day. We courted for two years, me in Dallas and him in San Francisco. He’d been married before and had three daughters near to my age! Ouch. But we were married for nearly 30 years. Being a stepmother is a story in itself.
I took care of him for 13 years while he was sick, in and out of the hospital. We just adored each other.
How did you discover the Church?
Hal was Catholic like I was, and he read the Bible every day. I didn’t even do that. It was very unusual among Catholics at that time, to actually read the Bible to yourself. When I married Hal, he asked me to read the scriptures everyday too.
I kept feeling like there was something we were missing, there was more to spiritual life than what we knew. I started attending a local Bible study class with women from all sorts of other denominations. None LDS though. It was there I learned about Jesus. They told me Jesus wanted to be my friend. Jesus wanted a relationship with me. Jesus hadn’t been a strong factor in my religious experience before. I knew he was part of the Trinity, and of course there were the crucifixes and statues of him with Mary and Joseph. But He was always part of the Trinity… you would never talk to Jesus or be with Jesus.
Now I was being told that Jesus wanted to be my friend. What did that mean? I could talk to him myself. These other people had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and I wanted that too. I would do crazy things as I looked for Jesus. I had lunch everyday at a little deli near my kids’ school, and I would sit by myself and pretend I was talking to Jesus. I’d say, “This is my problem today, this is what I’m thinking about…” I kept thinking I’d get some sort of sign, but I did that prayer for five years and there was nothing. “Jesus, who are you? Where are you? I’m told you want to be my friend, but I need to know what that means.”
In the summer of 1979, my husband and I hiked in Montana, and when we finished, he was going to go back to San Francisco and I was going to El Paso to visit my father. But we had a layover together in Salt Lake City. I’d never been there before and when we got off the plane I said to the stewardess, “What is this place? It’s hot like a pizza oven! Who ever comes here?”
We checked in at a hotel near the airport, and my husband said, “I have an idea! Let’s go for a hike!” I can just hear Hal saying it in his booming voice. We put on our hiking gear and started walking up North Temple. We walked from the airport to Temple Square. We got to Temple Square, and he said, “Look, it’s the Mormon Temple! Would you like to go in?” I’d never been another church! “Look at it as a historical landmark!” he encouraged. So I said to the missionaries on the grounds, “We’ve come to go into your temple.” Instead, we were directed into the Visitors’ Center which I thought must be a chapel. But there were no crucifixes. Where were Mary, Joseph and Jesus?
Instead, we were sat down in a movie theater. “Mormons are weird,” I thought. “They watch movies in church.” I was rolling my eyes with every new thing. And the movie started: there was a boy and he saw God and angels… Now, my husband was hard of hearing … “What is that angel’s name? Macaroni?” Everyone around us was laughing. “What?” The story goes on, the boy finds gold plates… Totally weird.
Then, the last picture on the screen was a picture of Jesus, a picture I had never seen in my entire life. Jesus in the Catholic Church usually wore camel colored robes with a rope around his waist. But here was Jesus like I had never known before: he was in white with a red sash, and he had angels all around him. His arms were outstretched. He said in the darkness to me, “Barbara, here I am. Come follow me.” I sat there in the dark movie theater, sobbing. I didn’t have to have the discussions, I didn’t have to read the Book of Mormon. I had wanted Him to be a part of my life for five years, and here He was. Little did I know that day that His invitation would take me to Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, China, Korea, Central America, Canada, South America, England, Etc. It was an invitation that changed my life forever.
It took my husband three years and ten pairs of missionaries, and I thought he would never be baptized. He adored the missionaries, but he was too staunch a Catholic. He always lectured the missionaries: “Now son, when you go back into the world, you have to work hard to succeed. Come earlier, stay later, outwork your competitors….”
One of the young elders said, “Mr. Jones, do you think I would give up two years of my life for something I don’t truly believe?” And my husband put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and said, “No, son, I don’t. I believe it is right for you, but I’m an older man now and I will never join a Church where I have to sit for three hours!” I thought, What kind of a criteria is that?!
Well, my husband adored my daughter. She had him wrapped around her little finger. She loved church. The children had been going with me and they had friends there and she wanted to be baptized. She was 11, and she came downstairs the morning after the missionaries were there. She’s very dramatic. Where could she have gotten that? – she put her hand on her hip and said, “Well, dad. I’ve made a decision. I’ve decided that since we are not going to be baptized, that I’m going to smoke and drink.” And she waltzed out of the room. Hal twirled around in his chair to face me and said, “We will be baptized this Saturday.” He knew she meant business. Well, she almost did all those things anyway! But if he were here now, he’d tell you it was the greatest decision we made in our lives, but he gives the credit to my daughter.
I was asked to be a visiting teacher. What was that? I had no idea. I was assigned to visit the Stake Relief Society president, but my companion made it very clear that she was not going to give the lesson. I didn’t even know we were supposed to share a lesson. “Oh, you can just tell about your conversion,” my companion said. So we went to the Stake Relief Society president’s home and she served us hot wassail and I thought, “Oh isn’t this nice and cozy,” and she said, “Tell me about your life.”
Well, what was I supposed to do? I told her. And when I was done, she said, “How would you like to share that story with a few of our Relief Society women?” You don’t mind sharing the story that you know, it’s not like I had to prepare much. But of course I had no idea what I was getting into: she wanted me to speak at a Stake Relief Society meeting with hundreds of women there! I thought I would die. I had been a performer, but as a ballerina, we don’t talk. We make lots of pretty gestures, but we don’t talk!
Since your baptism, you’ve spoken all over the world to groups of women. So many women have been touched by your message. What do you get from the women?
I travel so much. Last year, I lived out of a suitcase from January 7th to August 20th. I was so completely exhausted! I would think to myself, “I just can’t get on another plane.” But then I would get there and there is something about the spirit of sisterhood that is so powerful. I don’t think we know exactly what that does to us. We roll our eyes: “Oh, we have to go to Relief Society and those cultural refinement meetings. We have to learn how to make crafty items” But there is something that is magic about the sisterhood, and the more I travel and the more I listen to women, the more glean from their spirits. I’ve been through so much of what these women have – married an older man? Check. Husband who’s abusive? Check. I can relate. My patriarchal blessing says I will speak to many women. I said to my husband when I got my blessing, “What does that old man with the white hair know about me?” After every weekend Relief Society conference. I feel so buoyed up by the spirit that I don’t need a plane in which to fly home. Jesus is the wind beneath my wings.
What do you hope most that they get from your message?
I’ve written in my books, “There is no earthly force greater than the divine power within a woman determined to rise.” Determined to rise above anything: above abuse, neglect, incest or any trial. We have that power within us. You lose your self esteem, your testimony goes down, you feel disconnected from Heavenly Father. But He had come to me in the most horrible times, and I knew He was with me. Every woman has that divine power.
Look what Heavenly Father gives to us. I used to look at men and think, They get to preside, provide and protect. Women only have nurturing. But now I’m astounded at how much that encompasses. We are the leaders of love, of beauty, of femininity. You get out into the world and it is an aggressive world. I did a national radio talk show in South Africa, and they wanted to know what I thought was the difference between men and women. I answered that I thought it is our femininity that allows us to be powerful. Look at the impact of our softness, our “feminine wiles”. Look at what we can do with love, with faith. Once women realize who they really are, that Young Women phrase that is often so trite – “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us…” – gains tremendous depth and power. We have scars, we have earned our queenly crowns. We are strong beyond measure.
In your 24 years of talking to women, what’s the most encouraging development you’ve seen among the women of the Church?
I think we are getting closer to having the self-respect that we deserve. LDS women have to navigate a patriarchal culture and women in many other countries struggle with huge domestic violence statistics, and worldwide there is still oppression that makes women feel lesser. When I encourage women to “take care of themselves,” I’ve heard the same stories for 25 years: “How can I do that? I’m a human taxicab. I run kids around and take care of sick parents and buy food…. “ The number one problem I hear is: I’m overwhelmed, I have too much to do, and I’m exhausted. Let me tell you my answer: “If you got a call right now saying your child or husband is in the hospital in intensive care, but you still had to run carpool or go to the grocery store or whatever it is, what would you do? You’d drop everything and go to the bedside of person you love. You’d sit there and love them and be there for them.”
We choose to take on too much as women. We need to follow the admonishment of dear sister Marjorie Hinckley, “Simplify your life.” I know this is not easy. I’ve just gone through this process myself at this late stage of life. Here’s what I said: “I’m going to die, and all those incredibly wonderful ladies I lectured to all my life, will they be at my funeral? No. But my family will be there.” That needs to be my priority.
But it’s a fine line, because after your children leave home, most women just feel lost. We also need to find the right time to say, “I love you, but you’re on your own right now. You’ll be fine. But I’m going to go do something I feel passionately about right now.” Every woman needs to find that balance for herself. Think about it: The oxygen mask comes down in the plane and you put it on yourself first, then on your child. It doesn’t have to be much. If you take a tiny thread for 365 days, doing a little something for yourself every day, you have a rope. You must learn that life is not just living through storms, it’s learning to dance in the rain while holding tightly to the hand of Christ.
At A Glance
Barbara Barrington Jones
Location: San Francisco, CA
Marital status: Widow of the late Hal Jones
Children: John (3 children), Wendy Adamson (3 children)
Occupation: CEO Barbara Barrington Jones Family Foundation
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “As I Have Loved You”
On The Web: www.barbarabarringtonjones.com
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.
At A Glance