Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Hunger Games Thanksgiving


          Last weekend I went to the movies and saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Now, on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, as I come off a turkey and stuffing induced coma, I find myself a little disconcerted by the juxtaposition of a gluttony-fueled holiday and a movie about starving kids killing each other.
          I first read the The Hunger Games Trilogy about a month before the first movie came out. Although I had heard a lot of people talk about the Hunger Games, I was initially quite opposed to reading the books; the concept of kids killing each other in a reality-show format did not seem like something that I wanted to read. Then I was lent a copy of the book and I ended up getting hooked, primarily because of the strength of the main character Katniss. So I finished the series and went to the movies. And although I enjoyed both the books and the movies, I find some of the media sensation around the series to be a little off-putting. 
           The Hunger Games is a story about the divide between the upper-classes and lower-classes, with the upper-classes being represented by the opulent and decadent Capitol residents. And yet, the predominant advertising that I see around me is CoverGirl’s Capitol Beauty Line.  According to CoverGirl, the Capitol residents, who cheer on the contestants and glamorize the ‘fight-to-the-death’ brutality of the Hunger Games, are the trendsetters I should be emulating.  
          Add into that the craziness of Black Friday shopping, the massive quantities of Thanksgiving leftovers that I am still consuming, and I find the result to be a little unsettling. Perhaps I’ll forget about all of this strangeness as I head into the holiday season, distracted by the holiday deals around me and by the bustle that marks this season. Maybe I’ll buy the sparkly nail polish, eat the Hunger Games inspired Subway offering, and fork over money for merchandise, all in the name of capitalism. 

          Or shall I say Capitol-ism?

Saturday, November 9, 2013


“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Maya Angelou

          In the course of my lifetime, I have failed many times. I’ve changed career paths multiple times, lost friendships, burnt bridges, and failed to meet deadlines.
          Right now I am in the beginning months of a new job as a high school teacher, with a teaching-load that seems almost insurmountable. Everyday, I have to teach three classes of anatomy and physiology, two classes of AP Biology, and one research class. I am responsible for planning lessons, coming up with activities, and grading. In short, I am overworked and overwhelmed, to the point that simply doing a mediocre job is leaving me on the verge of burn-out. Perhaps, in time, I will become a good teacher. But for now, I am not. I am, quite simply, a mediocre teacher, perhaps even a teacher edging into failure. 
          I see a similar parallel in some of my own students. I teach AP Biology to a group of very high-achieving tenth-graders, many of whom have spent their lives getting A’s and being told they are special. I am required to teach biology at a college level, which means that I have to cover the material at a faster and more detailed pace than what my students are used to. At their age, my class represents my student's first real foray into the demands of college-level work. 
          Some of my students have risen to the challenge while others are struggling to keep up. Unfortunately, some of the struggling students are starting to lash out at me. And although I remind my students that hard work is essential to success, some of them simply aren’t putting in the necessary time, instead creating flimsy excuses for their poor performance. 
          Failure – and our response to failure – is what defines us. Failure is what spurs us to move on, to try harder, and to change. Failure is the point at which we adapt and become stronger. Or rather, failure is an opportunity to adapt and become stronger. 
          I wish that I could tell my students the importance of learning to fail. Even if I did, I am not sure that they would listen. I suppose that is a lesson that they will have to learn on their own. 
          Even if learning that lesson requires failing first.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fake It Til You Make It, Anatomy Style


Recently, I started a new job teaching anatomy and physiology.  I have a pretty comprehensive background in developmental biology – I can lecture for hours on the development of the heart, brain, and muscular system.  I can talk about the structure of the cell and how structure lends itself to function.  I can trace the genetic pathways and give the structure of many of the mature organs. 

But the anatomy of the adult human body?  I’m a little lost.  I teach within the context of health science and I simply don’t have the medical background required.  And so I find myself falling back on an old Mormon adage: “fake it til you make it.” 
        In the Mormon context, “fake it til you make it” means claiming that you believe in Mormonism until you find yourself actually believing in Mormonism.  Every month we would have testimony meetings, where members were encouraged to share their belief in the truth of the Gospel.  We were told that the best way to gain a testimony is by bearing it.  And so every month we would be surrounded by members who all claimed to believe, who all claimed to know.  As to who was an actual believer, I am not sure. 
         Now, in my new job, faking it until you make it means not admitting that I’ve never dissected a cat before.  It means comforting students who are nervous about the up-coming cat dissections, telling them that it isn’t as scary as it sounds, when in reality I’ve never dissected a cat before.  I have dissected other things – I am a master of dissecting embryonic and new-born mice – but never a full-grown cat.  I can only hope that my constant reassurance of students hold true for me as well. 
          Last week I lectured on skin conditions.  Most of the knowledge I presented I had learned just a few days before.  For the lecture, I had to draw on my background in biology and I also had to research a lot of conditions beforehand.  Even so, there were a lot of questions I could not answer.

          The difference?  When I didn’t know something, I said so.  I didn’t try to lie and I didn’t pretend to knowledge that I didn’t have.  I hope that the students understand that their teacher isn’t all-knowing.  If they can’t or won’t understand this fact, that is none of my concern.  For me, I am simply trying to be the best teacher that I can, within the context of my limitations.  


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Book Review: False Prophet

Satire (noun): the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose or criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

Sometimes the truth can be strangest of all.  In her book "False Prophet," author Donna Banta once again draws on her skills as a satirist to expose the weird, sometimes odd, almost always heart-breaking realities of being a Mormon.  In “The Girls From Fourth Ward,” the story was about how far Mormon girls would go to get into BYU.  In “False Prophet,” the story centers around Ryan and the very sweet but over-worked Carrie Zimmerman, who finds herself repeating the refrain “I love being a Mormon,” in order to cope with the exhausting and mind-numbing realities of being the bishop’s wife.           
          “False Prophet,” picks up again with Lieutenant Matt Ryan, who is burnt-out and disillusioned from his last run-in with the Mormons, who had foiled his investigation at every turn, ultimately leaving the murder unsolved.  When he discovers another murdered man clutching a blue and gold embossed Book of Mormon, his reaction is, quite simply, to close his eyes and whisper “Jesus Christ.  Not again.”
 This time, the murder victim, Brother Sid Dooley, was a lonely widower who embraced Mormonism with zeal after the death of his wife and only daughter.  Brother Dooley is the eccentric character that is found in every Mormon congregation (ward), a lonely man who walks around claiming to see angels and talk with God.  When he turns up murdered, having ranted about a false prophet shortly before his death, the only suspect that the police can come up with is Bishop Zimmerman, who had spoken to Dooley shortly before his death and was the one to discover his body. 
The story is a real who-dunit, an adventure that keeps you guessing at every turn.  There is the familiar cast of characters from the first book, with an increased focus on the sweet but exhausted bishop’s wife Carrie Zimmerman, who is nine months pregnant and stressed about balancing her family’s meager finances with her ever-increasing frustration over her narrowing life.  “I love being a Mormon,” she whispers at every turn, while the realities of having a husband falsely arrested for murder pushes her to make choices that aren’t quite Mormon in nature. 


Sunday, October 6, 2013


If you look at my face, I have a faint scar that crosses my forehead.  It doesn’t look like much, just a simple scar that goes across the right side of my forehead and then disappears along my brow-line.  The only hint as to the severity of the scar happens when I raise my eyebrows; my right eyebrow just doesn’t lift as high as the left one.
I got the scar on my forehead in an accident.  I was hit by an elderly driver while walking to work.  My head shattered the windshield and as a result, the flap of skin above my right eye was peeled down to the bone.  Thanks to the work of an excellent plastic surgeon, this injury looks like nothing more than an innocuous scar, one that merits only a passing notice, if at all.  For me, the only memory of this injury is the scar and the perpetual numbness of that area. 
I am twenty-eight years old.  I have been out of the Mormon Church for twelve years.  Most of the time, when I am going about my daily life, I don’t really think about the past much.  Time is the ultimate healer and for me, it has healed a lot.  Growing up Mormon is a hard burden to bear – I spent my childhood and teenage years feeling insufficient and fearing my doubts.  The process of leaving Mormonism, given the misconceptions surrounding people who leave, is also a hard burden to bear.  The experience has left its own kind of scar, one that is not visible.

I could get surgery to fix the scar on my forehead.  There isn’t much that can be done about the nerve damage but I could have the scar lightened, even removed.  But every time I think about the options, I find myself hesitating.  The truth is, scars are often a reminder of what we have survived.  I survived getting hit by a car.  I survived Mormonism.  And so I will wear these marks as a reminder of what I have survived. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Book Review: Into The Jungle - Great Adventures In The Search For Evolution

          The process of doing science makes for some wonderful stories. In his book, “Into The Jungle: Great Adventures in the Search of Evolution,” renowned scientist Sean B. Carroll tells some of the stories behind great discoveries in evolution. The most famous story of all, the story of Charles Darwin, involved a five-year journey around the world, during which Darwin collected and observed plants, animals, and fossils from all places of the world. After going home again, Darwin then spent twenty years categorizing his discoveries, eventually publishing “The Origin of Species,” in which he laid out a truly revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection. Charles Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle is the most famous story of evolutionary biology. But there are others. Some of these stories include that of Alfred Russell Wallace, who spent years in the jungles of the Amazon River Basin and the Malay archipelago, collecting and observing. He too formed a theory of evolution that was similar to Charles Darwin, a fact that spurred Darwin to finally publish his theory.

          All told, the book “Into The Jungle” tells the story behind the science. We get to see Darwin as a bright curious boy with an inability to pay attention. We get to see Darwin as he is traveling around the world, seeing some of the oddities that later spurred him to develop his particular theory of evolution. We get to see Wallace in the jungle, collecting specimens and coming up with his idea of “survival of the fittest.” So too do we get to see some of the smaller forgotten stories – Roy Chapman Andrews launching a massive expedition that uncovered dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer discovering the living remains of a fish long thought to be extinct, and the father-son team of Walter and Luis Alvarez teaming together to uncover evidence of a massive extinction event that lead to the extinction of the dinosaurs. All told, there are nine stories. 
          “Into The Jungle” is not a textbook. It is a book that will teach you something but it is not a book that assumes you have a background in biology. Instead, it is a book that shows the human side of research – the struggles and triumphs that are at the root every great discovery.

Friday, September 13, 2013

One Step At A Time

          I started writing in college, while taking a creative writing course.  The lecturer, a woman who had just received her MFA in creative writing, was a very gentle about introducing us to the beauty of stories and languages.  I enjoyed her class and even after the class ended, her love for language stuck with me.
          Over the years, I kept at it, in a pretty haphazard fashion.  Then, a couple years ago, I began writing regularly.  Writing slowly turned into a daily habit.  Little snippets of writing, bigger essays, stories.  Little by little, I became acquainted with the use of language.
          I get frustrated easily.  I also psych myself out.  In the beginning I am enthusiastic.  Then the doubts usually creep in.  But something about writing - the slow accumulation of ideas and phrases - keeps me going.  And here's the thing - most of what I write doesn't get used.  At least not when I write it.  But the longer I've kept at writing, the more I find myself using phrases and ideas that, when I first came up with them, weren't useful.  Then, as time goes on and I expand my database, some of these ideas and phrases take on new uses.  
         In some ways, the process of learning how to write has taught me to keep going.  To have patience with myself.  And to take things, one step at a time, one piece at a time, until you reach a point at which things start to come together.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Post-Mormon Forgiveness

          Growing up Mormon, there were a lot of stories about forgiveness. In many of the stories, the happy ending involved the wronged party forgiving the perpetrator, with everyone living happily ever after. As with many of the other moralistic stories I grew up with, these narratives now strike me as being highly contorted and artificial. 
          I should say that I do believe in forgiveness. However, I feel like the forgiveness narratives that I grew up with ended up putting too much pressure on the victim to forgive the perpetrator, in many situations at the cost of the victim. Nowadays, my views on forgiveness are very different. In an ideal world, people learn from mistakes. They grow up, move on, and in the process, become a better and wiser person. However, this world is far from ideal and the reality is that many people just don’t change. Either way, the past can never be undone. As a result, I am much more careful about who I forgive and who I choose to trust. 
          Two and a half years ago I was hit by a car while walking to school. The driver was an elderly man who hit three pedestrians. This accident was, in so many ways, the result of negligence on the part of the driver – I just had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, this twist of fate ended up derailing my life in ways both physical and emotional. 
          And so that brings me to an issue of forgiveness. In this particular case, what does forgiveness look like? The truth is, I don’t harbor a whole lot of ill-will towards the driver. I hope that he understands the impact of what he did. I also sincerely hope that he never drives again. But the attitude and actions of the driver is outside my control. I am no longer seeking an external form of forgiveness. 
          If I wanted, I could have reached out to the driver. After the accident, I was given the driver’s information, including his home address. I suppose, if I wanted to, I could have arranged to meet him. But the simple truth is: I don’t want to meet the driver. Perhaps he feels sorry for what he did. Perhaps he doesn’t. Perhaps he has stopped driving. Perhaps he hasn’t. Either way, I have had to struggle with the consequences of this driver’s mistake. As a result, I just don’t want to depend on someone else’s actions in order to move on. 
          I hope that the driver is doing well. I hope that he can forgive himself. But that is his own personal journey, not mine.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Blessed Language

“We’ve been pretty blessed.”
         On the way home from a writer’s workshop in New York, the first leg of my trip found me sitting next to a couple with a small baby.  I started talking to them, mostly because I figured that when the baby started crying (which they almost always do on plane flights), having a face and a story to the crying would help alleviate my impatience.  So I struck up a conversation with the couple, who looked to be in their mid to late twenties and had the exhausted yet happy look of new parents.  I asked if their daughter was sleeping through the night yet. 
The wife’s reply was “We’ve been pretty blessed – she’s been sleeping well from the first month.”
        The use of the word “blessed” stuck in my mind.  It’s not a word I use much anymore, although at one time it was.  Time was when I would talk about being “blessed”, as though whatever happened in my life was a gift from someone.  Nowadays, my word choice includes terms like “fortunate” and “lucky.”  A small change – and not a very noticeable one – but still a change.  As my life has slanted towards secularism, I find myself using fewer and fewer of the terms associated with religious belief.  Perhaps this change in vocabulary reflects a change in thinking or perhaps it just reflects the fact that I don’t spend much time in church anymore. 
However, all of this got me thinking about some of the smaller marks that we carry with us.  In this case, the mark of language: the words that we use every day that often give indicators as to who we are and what we do.  For example – I have a background in developmental biology.  As a result, many of my word choices are a reflection of this training.  When I talk about terms like fate, lineage, and specification, I am thinking of some very specific processes that happen during the development of an organism, rather than some of the broader definitions used by society at large. 

Has anyone else noticed a shift in language as your life – and environment – has changed?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Economics of Ex-Mormons Speaking Out

Blogger has an analytics section that tracks how people find this particular blog.  As a numbers/factoid geek, I like to keep an eye on these statistics.  Most of what I see is not surprising – most of the hits from this website are coming from ex-Mormon community forums. 
Other people find this blog through web-engine search queries.  The top search term that brings people to this blog is the search phrase “ex Mormons speak out”, followed by “feminist Mormon housewives”, and, more recently, the search term “ex Mormon blogs”. 
        A couple months ago, I noticed that I was getting a lot of hits from a particular website called  As far as I can tell, this is a site that runs analytics on websites, positioning themselves as a way to keep track of the competition.  If you type in the address of a specific blog/website, you can access data on the search engine queries that bring in traffic. 
Being the inquisitive person that I am, I typed in my domain –  The results were both a surprise and not a surprise.  The top search queries that bring people to my blog are terms like “ex Mormon blogs”, “ex Mormons speak out”, “feminist Mormon housewives”, and “post Mormon”.  No surprise there.  According to this website, last month there were 206 entry points into this blog from search engine queries alone. 
But the surprising – and perhaps not so surprising – result was the amount of money spent on advertising for these search queries.  Every time you type a search query into Google, at the very top of the page is a yellow box with links inside.  These are the paid advertisements.  Depending on the specific search term, companies can either pay a little or a lot of money to have their links appear in that little yellow box. 

If I were to pay advertising fees in order to get those 206 entry points from search engine queries, the price-tag for that was quoted as $658.  That is a lot of money.  

At first, that number shocked me.  Then I thought about it and I realized that the top search queries that bring people to this blog are search terms like “ex Mormons speak out” and “ex Mormon blogs”.  Those are pretty loaded search queries.  There is also a very well-financed organization that really doesn’t want people thinking along those lines and is willing to pay a lot of money in order to put up competing links. 
What is the specific price of these advertisements?  The price for advertising on google through the search query “feminist Mormon housewives” is actually pretty low – only $0.10 per click.  On the other hand, the price-per-click for “ex Mormons speak out” – which is the number one search query that brings people to this blog – is quoted as $9.39.  The advertising rate for “ex Mormon blogs” is a staggering $11.44 per click, while “post Mormon” is a more modest $8.56 per click. 
I guess I was both surprised and not surprised by these results.  On some level, I knew that advertising, especially advertising for ex-Mormon related search queries, was probably coming at a stiff price.  I just never realized how stiff of a price it is. 
Looking at these results – at the sheer amount of money that is spent on pulling people away from my blog – I can’t help but think about the strange symbiosis that is going on here.  Friends and family members that I grew up with are paying tithing money into a system that is then turning around and running a heavily-financed advertising campaign that is, in part, paying a lot of money in order to cover up the results of search queries such as “ex Mormons speak out”, “post Mormon”, and “ex Mormon blogs”.  It's enough to make my head explode.  

Are my stories really that worrisome?  

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Master's Call

       I am not a fan of religious music.  Neither am I a fan of country music.  I attribute this distaste to the bland insipid quality of Mormon hymns and the tendency of modern country music to sound whiny and nasal.  I want my music to challenge me, to force me to accept some truth about myself.  
One glaring exception to my aversion to country/religious music is my fondness Don Edwards, who is an old troubadour-style musician who sings about the lives of cowboys.  One of his most famous songs – and one that I listen to quite regularly – is called “The Masters Call” and is a narrative about a religious conversion.  “The Master’s Call” is an ballad-style song about a teenager who runs away from home and gets caught up in a cattle-rustling band.  Then, one night, a thunder-storm comes up and a cattle stampede starts.  The crux of the song is about the narrator’s near-death experience, which causes a religious conversion.  
I don’t listen to this kind of music very often and yet I can’t seem to stop listening.  I am not sure why I like this song so much.  I suppose part of it is simply that Don Edwards is a consummate musician.  His music is a blend of story-telling and instrumentals; his music is an understated exercise in showing rather than telling.  Listen to his music enough and you will understand that as a musician, he is willing to confront the parts about us that most people don't want to think about.  
I don't understand the lives of cowboys - but I do understand the deeper troubles that we all face and that Don Edwards confronts in his music.  And for that reason, I have a huge love for the stories that Don Edwards has to tell.

Check Don Edwards out.  You’ll be happy you did.  J

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ex-Mormon Metallica


          I first heard Metallica back in the days when I was trying my hardest to be a good little Mormon girl. The music sounded illicit, almost forbidden, especially in an environment where all the leaders seemed pre-occupied by how sinful and worldly everything was. But still – I couldn’t quite shake off the few songs I did hear. The music was addictive and in a way that somehow felt right. 
          And then I left Mormonism and during my freshman year of college, one of my dorm-mates gave me a copy of Metallica’s S&M performance*. I was hooked. I listened to that recording on repeat. I still have that album, along with many other recordings. Over the years, I find myself returning to these albums again and again. 
      Part of me wonders why I like Metallica so much. And the closest answer I can give is this: this is a band that doesn’t give a fuck. This is a band that writes songs like “God That Failed” and “Seek and Destroy”, a band that wore the nickname Alcoholica with pride, and a band that sued their own fans, shutting down Napster in the process.  

        For a girl who grew up in an environment where I was expected to care about everything – and learned to internalize the blame – sometimes I wish that I didn’t give a fuck either. But I do – sometimes too much – and so for that, there is always Metallica.

*It's ironic that my first Metallica recording was a burned copy.  But I did end up buying a legitimate copy later.  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Book Review: The Universe Within

          In his book "Your Inner Fish", paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin probed some of the deep connections between our bodies and the bodies of distant creatures. As one of the paleontologists that discovered the Tiktaalik, a fishlike creature that lived 375 million years ago and is considered to be at the brink of the transition from the sea to land, Shubin is in a position to offer unique insights about the shared connections found in different species.
          In his book The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People, Shubin goes one step further; he examines the world around us and asks how the events of the universe impacted the formation of our own bodies. Humans were not created in a vacuum – there were millions of different factors that lead to our existence. There was a big bang that lead to the formation of different elements that lead to the formation of different galaxies that lead to the formation of different planets that lead to formation of our own planet, which possessed the unique combination of factors able to sustain life. In this book, Shubin traces the timeline of the universe, attempting to show the common history of the events of the universe and human beings.  
          This book was, to be blunt, an ambitious under-taking. I enjoyed “Your Inner Fish” for Shubin’s ability to explain concepts in an engaging manner while also providing a glimpse into the life of a working scientist. These same strengths are also found in “The Universe Within”. However, this was a far-reaching book. I ended up reading it over a course of several weeks, individual chapter by individual chapter. I enjoyed reading the individual chapters – there was a wealth of interesting information, which Shubin explains well – but as an entire book, I felt like the scope of this book was just a little too big and the concepts just a little too distant. 

For more information about this book in the author's own words, I would recommend watching his interview on the Colbert Report

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Mormon Chastity Lessons: Elizabeth Smart

          As a teenager, I attended a self-defense class. Our group was made up of Mormon girls between the ages of 12 and 18. The instructor, also a Mormon, chose to end the presentation by telling us “The greater the number of earrings in your ear, the more revealing your clothing, the more you expose yourself to the possibility of sexual assault.” I nodded along with his words; I grew up believing that a woman must dress modestly at all times. I attended a number of lessons in my youth during which the boys – my peers – pointed to the immodest dress of women as a trigger for impure thoughts.
          A couple days ago Elizabeth Smart gave an interview during which she pointed to chastity lessons as contributing to her captivity. Smart, who was held captive for eight months by a self-proclaimed prophet, talked about a lesson she had as a teenager in which her virginity was compared to a piece of gum. In Smart’s words

“I remember in school one time I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence, and she said, imagine, you’re a stick of gum and when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed, and if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who’s going to want you after that? Well that’s terrible, nobody should ever say that, but for me, I thought, I’m that chewed up piece of gum. Nobody rechews a piece of gum, you throw it away. That’s how easily it is to feel that you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out?”

          Chastity object lessons are very common in within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly referred to as the Mormon Church. Sometimes it is the piece of gum, which, once chewed, nobody else wants to chew. Other times it is the cupcake, which, once licked, is once disgusting to anyone else. Other times it is the rose, which, once passed around and handled by multiple people, turns brown and wilted. There is no un-chewing of the gum, no un-licking of the cupcake, no un-wilting of the rose.
          In the book “The Miracle of Forgiveness” the previous Mormon leader, Spencer W Kimball, wrote

“It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.”

          Earlier this year, Elaine Dalton, the leader of the Young Women’s program and one of the few females in a visible position of leadership within the Mormon Church, said in a world-wide broadcast to young Mormon girls everywhere

“Cherish virtue. Your personal purity is one of your greatest sources of power.”

          This is what chastity is within Mormonism; something that, once it is gone, can never be regained and the loss of which forever diminishes a person’s worth.
          In the light of these teachings, I suppose that if I had been assaulted while wearing a tank top or extra earrings, I would have blamed myself for the attack. I would have blamed myself for my tight clothing or my two earrings or for not fighting enough or for not being faithful enough. And so I am grateful to Elizabeth Smart for having the courage to speak out against these harmful lessons. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Ex-Mormon, Post-Mormon, and Letting Go Of Anger

“I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain. “

                James Baldwin, Notes of A Native Son

         I alternate between using the terms ex-Mormon and post-Mormon. My use of these two terms is deliberate; I consider ex-Mormon to be an active recovery stage and post-Mormon as an indicator of a past history. Personally I alternate between being an ex-Mormon and a post-Mormon. Most of the time I am at peace with my Mormon past: in other words, I call myself a post-Mormon. Other times my Mormon past is a source of pain and anger: that’s when I call myself an ex-Mormon.
         These past few weeks I have been firmly in the ex-Mormon camp. I don’t want to go into details, other than to say that I grew up in a pretty toxic family environment. Some of my family dysfunction I see echoed on a larger scale within Mormon culture. Other aspects I suspect are simply my own family’s dysfunction. Either way, the legacy into which I was born is not always an easy burden to bear. To be frank, sometimes it is a huge source of pain.
          When I am struggling, my first emotional response is usually anger. Hanging on to anger is easier than dealing with the pain that comes after letting go of anger. On an intellectual level, I know I need to find a way to move past this recent flare-up of anger. Emotionally I don’t when or how that will happen. I suppose the path to recovery is different for everyone; I am still charting my own way.
          One day this will pass. Even now, I recognize this fact. I am not my family. I am not a Mormon. I am not doomed to repeat the past. My path in life is my own to create.
          I am still searching for resolution. One day I hope to find it. Until then, I suppose the most I can do is to try and get past this. And really, as ex-Mormons, that’s all we can do – search for resolution and in the meantime, live the best life we can. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Post-Mormon Guide To Coffee

Coffee is my favorite part of the morning - hot, fragrant, and flavorful, a warm cup puts me in the right mood for the rest of my day.  Over the years, I have developed a few key principles that allow me to consistently brew good coffee using my trusty French press. 

These principles are:

1) Fresh coffee - the best coffee beans have been roasted within the last two weeks and are ground just before using.  This particular bag I discovered through a sample subscription service; I liked this particular brand so much that I ordered the full-size bag.  I am also a huge fan of Gimme Coffee, which originated in my hometown and then expanded to New York City.  

2) Filtered water.  Tap water in my city tastes pretty bad.  Bad tasting water results in bad-tasting coffee.

3) Proper measurement.  Sounds simple but I have messed up many pots of coffee because I failed to measure.  Right now, I use five heaping tablespoons for one full French press of coffee.  

4) Use water that is just off the boil.  Water that is too hot will result in bitter coffee, water that is too cool will result in a sour coffee.  Coffee needs to steep for four minutes.  

5) After letting the coffee steep for four minutes, press down the plunger and enjoy!  

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Growing Fruit In A City

          I grew up in the country and live in a city.  Growing up, we had blueberry, raspberry, and elderberry bushes, along with four gnarled old apple trees.  Moving to a large city, what I missed most about home was all of the green - the trees, the flowers, and the fruit trees.  
          Several years ago, I was lucky enough to move into an old bungalow on a modest city lot.  The previous owners had planted an orange tree; the fruit that comes off that particular tree is unbelievably sweet.  So, needing to improve the landscaping, which was composed primarily of strewn rock and sad-looking grass, we hired a company to plant fruit trees.  Most of the trees and bushes planted were unfamiliar to my Northern sensibilities - pomegranates, grumichamas, Cherry of the Rio Grande, lychee, and passion fruit.  A few of them remind me of home - blueberries and blackberries.  Either way, with the advent of spring, these trees are starting to bear fruit and I am starting to feel like less of a stranger to the city.  

Blueberry bushes, with small green fruits

Flowering blackberry bushes

The very showy passion-fruit flower

Flowering pomegranate

Friday, April 12, 2013

Grant Palmer Statement: Facts versus Faith

          Recently a statement, written by the historian and author Grant Palmer, has been making its rounds in the ex-Mormon communities. In this statement, which has been posted to MormonThink, Palmer describes several interviews with two anonymous higher-up leaders within the Mormon Church. These individuals claim that the Mormon leaders know the foundational claim of the Mormon Church is false but continue anyway because they believe the people need the church in their lives.
          Now, this is a statement that describes anonymous interviews that make a lot of unfounded claims. For this reason, although I do respect Grant Palmer’s writings, I am going to take all of this with a huge pinch of salt. For an excellent overview of the credibility of this controversy, I would suggest reading David Twede’s post “Rumor, Rumor, Every Where, Nor Any Fact To Think?” 

          As murky as this controversy is, I do think it raises an important issue: facts or faith?

          The Mormon Church is in a bit of a tight fix; its legitimacy rests on the shoulders of its founder, Joseph Smith, who lived in a recent enough era that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he was not the man he claimed to be. The most notable example is the discrepancies between the numerous First Vision accounts. The official version states that Joseph Smith, as a fourteen year old boy, entered the woods to pray and was visited by Heavenly Father and Jesus, who told him that none of the churches were true and that he was destined to restore the one true gospel to the earth. This is the official version, which was written towards the end of Smith’s life. However, there are multiple versions, written by Smith, that vary in details such as his age at the time of his vision, who appeared to him in the vision, and what the message was. For such a keystone event – and an event that I would assume is unforgettable – Smith seems quite uncertain on the details.
          Most of the Mormons I have met who know the full version of Mormon history justify their belief on faith. Some point to the church as being a good institution. Others have the faith that all will be made clear in time. In contrast, ex-Mormons tend to point towards the facts: the inconsistencies in the origins of Mormonism and the lack of archaeological and genetic evidence for the Book of Mormon. These two mindsets go a long way in explaining why Mormon/ex-Mormon arguments are never very fruitful – people have different values.
          Personally, I am curious as to how all of this will pan out. Perhaps people will come forward and verify the allegations. Perhaps the controversy will die down. As it stands, right now this is a situation where people are trying to decide between the facts of the situation and their faith in Grant Palmer.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Caffeine Controversy: When Even The Insiders Can't Explain Doctrine


“Mormons don’t drink coffee or tea because caffeine is a mind-altering substance, right?  That’s what I was told.”

          I was sitting with a group of students waiting for class to begin; we were talking about our different obsessions.  I brought up my coffee obsession – I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about brewing methods and roast qualities.  This discussion then segued into the Mormon taboo against coffee and tea. 
          My classmate’s statement was entirely right – at least, correct according to the interpretation I grew up with. 
         “I grew up thinking that it was the caffeine in coffee and tea that you needed to avoid – we were also told to avoid caffeinated sodas,” I said.  “But now caffeinated soda is OK.” 
          The proscription against coffee and tea owes to the Word of Wisdom, which proscribes against the consumption of hot drinks.  I said as much to my classmates.
          “So no hot chocolate?” said another classmate.
          “We-e-ell…no, hot chocolate is OK.” 
          Mormonism is confusing, even to people who grew up in it.  The reason that Mormonism is so confusing is because it changes all the time and once it changes, there is a collective denial that the policies were ever any different.  A more serious example would be the priesthood ban on blacks; until 1978 black men were banned from holding the priesthood, a policy that effectively barred them from the majority of church life.  Church officials have never offered an apology or explanation for the ban.  Nor have they refuted the words of earlier leaders, who taught some truly reprehensible teachings on race in the name of God.  There is just a collective denial.  
         While conducting research for this post, I came across a commentary in the Deseret News about the caffeinated sodacontroversy.  The author began by saying that everyone knows what the stance is on Coca-Cola, that the Word of Wisdom doesn’t specifically mention Coca-Cola.  She then tells an anecdote from her childhood where her mother poured caffeine-free Coca-Cola down the drain, to “avoid the appearance of evil.”  The author’s conclusion was that she would still avoid Coca-Cola.  Reading this article brought back memories of a youth camp counselor who told our group of girls that she would not marry a man who had touched a cup of coffee.  All of this must seem very silly to outsiders but following the Word of Wisdom – whatever the current interpretation may be – is a serious issue within Mormon circles. 
         I grew up thinking that caffeinated soda was bad, a teaching that was echoed by the members around me.  In her memoir “Book of Mormon Girl,” author Joanna Brooks writes that she felt like a “root beer among colas.”  Brooks was raised to avoid caffeinated sodas; she writes about being a child at non-Mormon birthday parties, worrying about finding the root beer among cola drinks. 
Then, somewhere along the way, caffeinated sodas became acceptable.  Perhaps it was the Monson effect - the current church president drinks a lot of Pepsi.  Perhaps people became used to the idea of caffeinated sodas.  But all of this was unofficial.  Then, last summer, the Mormon Newsroom released a statement saying the Word of Wisdom only applied to coffee and tea, creating a huge controversy within Mormon circles.  
          As a Mormon, I was a pretty anxious personality.  Now, based on the fact that I can’t even explain the rationale behind a policy that is so integral to Mormonism, I am beginning to understand why I was so anxious.  We were raised to take this all very seriously.  We were promised that Mormon doctrine was infinite and unchanging.  But whatever it was that we were supposed to do and why, we really didn’t know.  Or rather, we did know, at least until someone came along and told us we were wrong. 
         We just knew we had to follow no matter what.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ted Talks: Julia Sweeney

I found this video a couple weeks ago and loved it.  The comedian Julia Sweeney was raised Catholic.   I hadn't realized that Catholics also have an age of accountability but her realization on the subject was uncannily similar to my fears about baptism.  (There is also a fantastic anecdote about meeting with the Mormon missionaries!)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Marriage Just Makes Things Easier

“Marriage just makes things easier.” 

          My husband and I were visiting with an old friend, a physicist who was getting serious with a woman, when he made that statement. In this particular context about marriage, our friend was talking about health insurance and child custody. He was serious about the relationship – and a person can always argue that marriage is just a piece of paper – but in this society, practicality dictates that two people who are committed to each other are better off formalizing their union by marrying. My husband and I nodded at what our friend was saying – marriage, the legal contract between two people, does make everything easier. Health insurance, child custody, property laws, immigration - these are some of the very tangible benefits that come when two people sign a marriage contract.
          My husband is a foreign national. He came to the U.S. for graduate school and stayed afterwards, working first as a post-doc, then as an engineer for a large company. Although he has always had a visa, there are certain hassles that are inherent to holding a work visa in this country. Several years ago, one of our friends, who was on an H1B non-profit visa, lost the funding for his position. He was given several months in which he could find a job or else he had return to India. Luckily, he found another position and was able to remain. But if he hadn’t, once his visa expired he would have been required to leave the country immediately, leaving all traces of his life behind.
          For me, marriage means that even if my husband loses his job and cannot find another one immediately, he will not be forced to leave this country. Marriage also means that we can share health insurance, which, in light of a serious accident I had several years ago, is a precious thing indeed.  I can always say that my relationship isn’t defined by a piece of paper.  Emotionally, it isn’t. But practically speaking, marriage allows us a certain protection, one that is barred to many other couples simply because of their sexual orientation. 
          It would be selfish for me to argue that other couples, who are also committed to a future together, cannot enjoy the same privileges that I take for granted.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Book Review: Elders

          The book “Elders”, written by Ryan McIlvain, features two LDS (Mormon) missionaries as they go about proseletyzing in the town of Carinha, Brazil. Elder McLeod is an American who is burnt out after eighteen months of proselytizing; he refuses to cater to the politics within the mission field and as a result, is characterized as difficult and unruly. Elder Passos, a Brazilian who joined the LDS church after the death of his mother, struggles to balance his faith with his identity. This story takes place against the backdrop of the 9/11 attacks and the American invasion of Iraq, a tension that is reflected in the hostiles attitudes towards Elder McLeod. Elder McLeod and Elder Passos are companions; the strict missionary rules require them to spend every moment together, a fact that results in a tenuous friendship between two unlikely people. These characters are boys that are turning into men, with all of the uncertainty that marks such a transition.
          Elder Passos is devout, overly-serious, ambitious about the future, and uncertain about his place in the world. He studies English in his spare time, hoping to attend BYU. Perhaps the most poignant moment came at a time when the entire country is watching Brazil play in the final match of the Latin American Football Championships on a Sunday, at the same time as church. The mission president, an American, has insisted that church cannot be canceled, rescheduled, or skipped. Looking at the mission president, Elder Passos sees “a man who could look at an entire culture and see a game, merely, who could look at a country-wide communion and see a crowd.” As a Mormon, Passos possesses a simple, sincere faith: he believes, with all his heart, that the teachings of the LDS Church are true.
          The conflict in this story centers on an investigator Josefina and her husband Leandro. For Passos and McLeod, the stakes are high regarding these potential converts: in them, the two missionaries see the chance to resolve their internal conflicts. McLeod seeks ‘faith as a principle in action’: to learn faith through the action of teaching others. Passos is seeks the potential convert, the ‘one star in a million, a golden elect’, as a way of changing lives, just as his own life was changed after the death of his mother.
          Most stories written about Mormons tend to go for the dramatic: all in or all out. Good versus bad. This is not one of those stories. Rather, this is a book that focuses on the small: the little gestures of friendship that are often misinterpreted or over-looked, the simmering doubts that never come to a full boil, the nagging worries and insecurities that accompany faith. The result was something quite beautiful, a story that lingered in the mind long after reading.

Friday, March 22, 2013

An Outsider's Perspective Of Mormonism

          I am guilty, even now, of assuming that never-Mormons can never fully understand Mormon culture. Some of this attitude is a result of some of the questions and assumptions I have heard over the years. For example, a couple weeks ago, I had someone ask me if Mormons were allowed to celebrate Halloween. But, as with many things, I have been unduly harsh in my judgment. It is true that Mormon culture is confusing, with a lot of Mormon-specific terminology and beliefs. However, sometimes outsiders can see things that insiders, with their limited perspective, cannot.
          Last week I wrote about re-reading the book “Under The Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer. This is a book that centers on a religiously-motivated murder; the Lafferty brothers, who were raised in a strict Mormon home, ultimately went back to a more fundamentalist interpretation of Mormonism that included polygamy, prophecy, and blood atonement. Krakauer used this example – and examples from other modern fundamentalist groups – to draw a connection between the actions of fundamentalists and the origins of their beliefs in early Mormon teachings. The first time I read “Under The Banner of Heaven” I missed a lot of details, owing to my limited insider’s point of view. Fast forward a decade, during which my perspective on the Mormon faith shifted more towards an outsider’s point of view, and I began to see things I had been unable to see before.
          I grew up with a highly white-washed, saccharine view of Mormon origins. Everything was painted in black and white: Mormons and non-Mormons, good and evil. The good Mormons and the mob that persecuted the Mormons. But life is more complicated than that. Instead of black and white, most of life is painted in varying shades of complexity. People are a mixture of good and bad intentions, a fact that seems to be reflected in an outsider’s view of Mormon history. Mormons (and ex-Mormons) have something to prove about their history. Never-Mormons do not, which allows them a valuable impartiality.
          And so that brings me to my main question: can outsiders truly understand Mormon culture? It appears to me that the answer is yes, that outsiders can see things about Mormon culture that, as insiders, we don’t see. The more I travel out of Mormonism, the more I begin to see my past struggles with a clearer eye. I never had to struggle with balancing my faith with unsavory Mormon history; I only discovered the alternate history after leaving. I did, however, struggle to make sense of the rationale behind the priesthood ban on blacks. I remember struggling with the idea that access to Heaven is only granted as a result of Mormon temple rituals and that only by getting married and having children would I be allowed into Heaven. Specific rituals and beliefs struck me as being an arbitrary requirement that had nothing to do with how good or bad a person's heart was.  I remember struggling with the idea that faith in the Mormon Church was the only way to truly be happy, when the reality was that it made me miserable. Now that I am out, I am recognizing the mental gymnastics that I had to put myself through in order to align my own personal convictions with the teachings of Mormonism.
          Yes, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about Mormonism. But the truth is that the outsiders who take the time to listen and research end up coming away with a far more complete assessment of Mormon culture than many insiders, with their limited perspective, can manage.
          Myself included.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


          This past week I had the good fortune of going to Big Bend National Park, where I was able to stock up on some much-needed nature and solitude. Big Bend is located in a remote area of western Texas and borders the Rio Grande. With its combination of desert terrain and mountains, it has a wide sampling of ecological diversity. While at Big Bend, I saw hares and javelinas, cactus and creosote. 

The Rio Grande - the opposite side of the river is Mexico

The view from the Pinnacles trail

          I really enjoy the music of Don Edwards, who sings about the lives of cowboys. Traveling through the flat empty plains of west Texas - and hiking some of the trails around Big Bend - I began to understand his music a little better. One of Don Edwards' songs, called Coyotes, has the phrase

                Sit out under the stars of the Milky Way 
                And listen while the coyotes howl

          With the dark skies of Big Bend, I was fortunate enough to see the clustering of stars, with the characteristic dark band of clouds, that comprises the Milky Way. 
          And that night, the coyotes howled. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Re-reading Under The Banner of Heaven

          I have stated multiple times that I was in my mid-twenties when I found out that Joseph Smith had married multiple women, including teenagers and women who already had husbands. Although this is technically true, I find that my story of enlightenment about Mormon history is considerably more complex than I had realized. It is true that I did not learn these facts in church. While re-reading Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
, I discovered that these facts were hidden in plain sight, if only I had taken the time to look. 
          The first time I read “Under The Banner of Heaven”, I was in college and only a few years out of Mormonism. I remember reading the gory details of this book – the tangled messes of polygamous families, the horrible downslide of the Lafferty brothers, and the devastating murders of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter – and dismissing them as having nothing to do with the mainstream Mormon church that I grew up in. My primary reflex was to dismiss anything to do with polygamy as being not-really-Mormon. My secondary reflex was to dismiss any account of Mormon history written by a non-Mormon. These reflexes were there in spite of the fact that by that time I was an atheist who had made the conscious decision to leave the Mormon Church.
          On page 5, Jon Krakaeur states

“The religious literature handed out by the earnest young missionaries in Temple Square makes no mention of the fact that Joseph Smith – still the religion’s focal personage – married at least thirty-three women and probably as many as forty-eight. Nor does it mention that the youngest of these wives was just fourteen years old when Joseph explained to her that God had commanded that she marry him or face eternal damnation.”

          I did read this book when I was younger and yet the details about Mormon history, including Joseph Smith’s polygamous past and some of the more violent aspects of the early teachings, went straight over my head. There were a lot of details that I missed the first time around – the full import of the early teachings about polygamy, the more unsavory aspects of the early leaders, the connection between the early teachings about polygamy and modern Mormon fundamentalists, and the brutality of the blood atonement taught by Brigham Young. The first time reading this book, I ignored the history because it didn't agree with the lessons I grew up with. I also think that I ignored the history because I needed to protect myself. It is not an easy task to examine the short-comings of the religion you grew up with.
          The truth is, reading this book was an uncomfortable experience. There was a lot that was familiar, even within the story of the Lafferty boys. I was raised with a pretty literal interpretation of Mormonism; my father is the type of person who takes the words of the leaders at face value. The visions and revelations of the fundamentalists described in this book are eerily similar to the visions and revelations described by the early leaders. Within this book are the stories of people that took the words of the early Mormon leaders in a very literal sense and twisted them into a violent conclusion.
          I too was raised to take the words of the leaders at face value; to recognize that commonality, no matter how different I may be, is a profoundly uncomfortable feeling.
          Nowadays, the Mormon leaders are very careful about what history they do and do not teach. The majority of Mormons, including the ones I grew up with, are just people that are trying to live a good life according to the standards expected of them. The majority of them will live decent, upstanding lives. No one talks about polygamy anymore and the more radical teachings of the early leaders are being buried under a carefully constructed amnesia. But the words of the leaders are, according to the Mormon teachings, the words of God himself. This is the lesson I learned. This is also the lesson that the Lafferty boys learned.