Thursday, August 23, 2012

Book Review: Book Of Mormon Girl

          In the first chapter of her book, Joanna Brooks writes
          "I grew up in a world where all the stories I heard arrive at the same conclusions: the wayfarer restored, the sick healed, the lost keys found, a singular truth confirmed. And an orthodox Mormon story is the only kind of story I ever wanted to tell.
          But these are not the kinds of story life has given me."
          I bought this book because I was curious. My life story is an echo of Joanna's -- I was raised in a staunch Mormon family, the youngest of seven children.  I bought this book because I wanted to understand the perspective of someone who is similar to me yet chose a very different path in life.  I wanted to understand how the author balances her personal beliefs with the beliefs of her family's faith. I too struggle to balance the love I have for my family with my reservations concerning the Mormon Church’s actions.
          Joanna devotes a lot of time to her childhood and the security she felt growing up in such a strong religious tradition.  Joanna grew up in the cozy cocoon of California Mormonism, with parents that were strict but loving.  As a child, she thought of herself as a root beer among cokes - a reference to the Mormon practice of avoiding caffeinated sodas.  There are hints of the turmoil that would come later, hints of dissonance between her personal convictions and the teachings of the Mormon church. But mostly, she concentrates on the happy memories. There is a saccharine quality to her recounting, a need to present her childhood as being the orthodox Mormon story.
          Then she very abruptly shifts to a period of turmoil. There isn't much segue from her recounting of a happy childhood to the disillusionment of adulthood. Her recounting of the excommunications of prominent intellectuals --- the September Six --- came across as very rote. There was a lot of heartache bundled up into just a few terse pages. Her battle with the controversy surrounding Prop 8 was more vivid, although there was still only a limited explanation of how the author dealt with the turmoil.
          At the end of reading this book, my questions were still unanswered -- I still don't understand how the author deals with the dissonance between her faith and her personal convictions. The author displays an enormous amount of pride in her Mormon heritage, which is something I understand.  However, she is hesitant to tackle the full issues; I still don't understand how the author has managed to reconcile her convictions with the actions of the Mormon church.  
          I read this book about six months ago and ever since reading it, I have thought a lot about what this book is trying to accomplish and what the ramifications may be.  I find that my thoughts on this book are bittersweet.  My mother is a Democrat Mormon, similar to Joanna.  My mother is very quiet about her convictions; since my mother doesn’t speak up, her open-minded and tolerant approach to religion remains unheard.  I am grateful to women like Joanna who have the courage to speak up and say that they don’t support some of the actions of the Mormon Church.  
          There is also the very pressing reality of the Mormon Church’s actions.  Prop 8 hurt a lot of innocent people who didn’t deserve to have their rights taken away from them.  Mormon authorities has also taken strict disciplinary action against non-conformists within the church.  During Joanna’s time at BYU, Mormon authorities excommunicated six prominent Mormon intellectuals, known as the September Six.  Now we are at a point where mainstream America is focusing on Mormonism.  The Mormon Church has responded by running an expensive ad campaign that highlights groups of people that are often marginalized at church - the minorities, the liberals, the career women.  The cynic in me thinks that Joanna Brooks is allowed to remain within the confines of Mormonism because she provides good PR at a time when the Mormon Church is desperate for a better image.  The true test of the Mormon Church will come after the spotlight is removed - will this new tolerance continue or not?  
          In spite of these reservations, I do think this book serves an important role.  This book is a reminder that there are a lot of good-hearted Mormons out there who don’t agree with everything the authorities say.  My suspicion is that there are more of these members than we realize.  One day, I hope these people feel comfortable speaking up.  I am grateful that Joanna has shown the courage to speak up.  
          I would recommend reading this book; however, the reader should understand that this story only scratches the surface.

Note: This review is of the first edition of this book.  When I contacted the author about any relevant changes, her answer was that the main narrative is the same, however, there have been about two chapters added, including one at the end.  


  1. I keep going back and forth with whether I should read this. I have had so many people tell me I HAVE to read it, that the book reminds them so much of me. I am not sure how I feel about five different people telling me that Joanna reminds them of me. I saw her on The Daily Show, I occasionally read her blog, and I hear people talk about both general and specifics of her life. Maybe I need to read it to understand, but so much of my life is intimately mine. I don't know if I am ready to see what others see, as the similarities between us.

    So, I am not ready to read it yet, but I am sure that Powell's will have a used copy when I am ready.

    1. That sounds like a good way to approach it - sometimes, if reading a book feels like a chore or a duty, then you shouldn't be reading it. So when the time comes and you feel ready to read it, then that will be the right time. :)

  2. Very interesting!! Would you consider please reposting this to MSP? I don't think we have a review of Joanna's book yet, and it's a bit of a glaring omission... ;)

    1. Just did - thanks for pointing that out!

  3. Brooks' wrestles with her faith in the same way that many religious feminists and progressives wrestle with their traditions, it seems. I don't know if there's any satisfying way to fully reconcile noble convictions with these faiths, but such people make a noble effort.


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