Saturday, January 5, 2013

Looking Ahead (And Writer's Block)

          There comes a time in every person’s exit out of Mormonism where the past begins to lose its painful edge and the future begins to fill up with promise. For some, this journey takes longer than others. Sooner or later, we all reach this point. For a post-Mormon, Mormonism will always be a part of the past. For most of us, Mormon culture also infuses the present in the form of friends and family. There is no middle ground within Mormonism, a fact that has caused many of us to struggle along the way.
          I chose to name this blog “A Post-Mormon Life” because, for me, as well as many others, the life I have gone on to live has exceeded my wildest expectations. I don’t have to lead a life that feels hollow; I am free to shape the future to fit the person I am. I don’t have to fake happiness or belief anymore. I don’t need to struggle to believe something that always felt hollow to me. I am free to explore who I am and to arrive at my own conclusions. I am also free to accept my own limitations and to accept myself for who I am, even if the person that I am is not considered worthy by Mormon standards. This freedom, bewildering at first, has given me the rare opportunity to dig deep and search for understanding, a freedom for which I am forever grateful.
          This past year, much of my writing has focused on my Mormon past and the struggles I faced growing up. These stories are not yet finished; there will always be time for reflecting on the past. But as I look to the year ahead, I find myself wondering about the direction of this blog. 
          The truth is, I've been a little stuck for the past couple months; I have been starting pieces, only to have them either stretch into unwieldy essays or to discard them as inappropriate.  As a writer and as a post-Mormon, I think the time has come for my little blog to expand into new territories.
          I have not yet decided on what direction I want this blog to take – whether to expand by including the voices of other post-Mormons or by focusing more on the life I live now. I have been mulling over this issue for a while now. What I do know is that the time has come to dig a little deeper.  

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ushering In The New Year: A Look Back at 2012

          Every once in a while, it is wise to stop and take note of where you have been and where you are headed.  I rang in 2012 in a pretty dark place; 2011 had been a year of crumbling apart, of watching as my dreams slipped away from me.  In late 2010, I was in an auto-pedestrian accident; the resulting anxiety forced me to quit grad school.  I began to spiral downward in a maelstrom of anger, depression, anxiety, and grief.  I grew angry; angry at the past, angry about the accident, angry about being forced to give up on a dream that was once precious to me.
          Mormonism is not an easy religion to either live or leave.  But I left and I worked hard to overcome my childhood and create the life that I wanted.  I had faith that work would lead to a better future, a faith that I was able to sustain by denying the past.  I dealt with my issues by stuffing them into a little box and burying the box with a big heap of denial.
          Then, on the verge of arriving at a settled place in life, I was hit by a car while walking across the street, in the type of freak accident that people hear about on the news but never imagine will happen to them.  I always believed that hard work would yield results.  But sometimes something will come along and smash your life into a million little pieces.  In my case, literally.  My life slid downwards in a spiral of anger, anxiety, and depression as I questioned why this had happened.  I lost my faith that hard work would yield a better life. 
          There was sufficient cause to be angry, both from the accident and from life.  But anger is only healthy in small doses; in large doses, anger quickly becomes dangerous.  A hearth-fire warms the house; a raging inferno threatens to burn down everything in its path. 
          And so 2012 was a year about picking up the pieces and putting them back together.  I was lost and confused for a very long time; without a clearly defined goal in front of me, I lost my bearings and my ambition.  But slowly, in fits, starts, and bursts of writing, I began to regain a sense of self.  Writing provided clarity of mind and gave me the courage to start focusing on what I wanted out of life.
          This blog, which developed as an offshoot of my writing ventures, has helped me find my footing again.  I am grateful, in a thousand ways both big and small, for all of the comments, e-mails, and goodwill I have received since going public with my story.  I look forward to writing – and reading – many more stories. 
          At the verge of 2013, I am scheduled to start school again.  I have re-applied to graduate school for the fall semester.  Maybe the path I have mapped out for myself will come to fruition.  Perhaps it won’t; perhaps something else will come along.  Either way, I am at a point where I feel hope for the future.  I have faith that I am strong enough to handle whatever life throws at me.  And so, I will welcome 2013 with the optimism that I have the strength and resourcefulness to meet whatever challenges may come my way.  

Monday, December 24, 2012

Book Review: The 19th Wife

         The "19th Wife", by David Ebershoff, is a novel that alternates between the narrative of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, and Jordan Scott, a “lost boy” that was born to a 19th wife in a modern-day polygamous community. 
          Ann Eliza Young was famous for divorcing Brigham Young and then going on to crusade against polygamy. During her crusade, she wrote an autobiography of her life, titled "Wife No 19". In re-writing Ann Eliza Young’s story as a work of fiction, Ebershoff goes one step further by providing the narratives of others, including her family members and Brigham Young. Some of the narratives didn’t come across as authentic – they felt too clean, too self-aware for the rough-hewn pioneer characters they portrayed. Nevertheless, by including these alternative voices, the author created a more nuanced portrayal of 19th-century polygamy.
          The other part of the novel is comprised of the story of Jordan Scott, a lost boy who was kicked out of his polygamous community at the age of fourteen. After fleeing Utah, he returns home when his mother is arrested for his father’s murder. Believing his mother to be innocent, Jordan sets out to uncover the truth. The story that unfolds is a complex narrative of modern-day polygamy, with ties to the original Mormon faith that fostered the practice. The story alternated between the two time periods with relative ease; this was a book that I started reading and couldn’t put down.
          The author did an excellent job at untangling some of the complex emotions that happen when one man is married to multiple women, as well as portraying the religious significance of polygamy in early Mormon history. Overall, this was a very engaging work of historical fiction.

This book has been out a while – I picked up my copy at a used book-store. For history buffs, Ann Eliza Young’s book "Wife No. 19" is also available as an e-bookon Amazon for a reasonable price.

Friday, December 21, 2012

My Mother-In-Law, the Drug Dealer

          The last time my mother-in-law (Amma) visited, I gave her a bottle of melatonin pills to take back to India with her. The pills helped her recover from her jet lag, and, now that she has settled back into her daily rhythm, help her deal with her chronic insomnia. For the first time in years, Amma can sleep through the night.
          Always a selfless woman, Amma has decided to share her melatonin supply with the other women in her apartment complex. Now, late at night, Amma will sometimes hear a soft knock. When she opens the door, she finds one of the neighborhood ladies standing there, asking for one of Amma’s “magic pills”. She then hands out a couple pills, wrapped up in a twist of wax paper, saying “Here. This will help you sleep better.”
          My husband and I are under strict orders to bring a large supply of melatonin with us the next time we go to India. After all, there are a lot of sleepless women in India depending on Amma’s magic pills.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Woman Who Wore Pants To Church

          This Sunday, December 16th, a group of Mormon women are planning a peaceful demonstration called “Wear Pants To Church Sunday”. This demonstration is only significant within the context of Mormon culture, which has very strong expectations for women to wear skirts to church. Pants aren’t forbidden; if a woman chooses to wear pants to Sunday service, no formal disciplinary action will be taken. From the outside, there seems to be no issue surrounding women wearing pants to church.
          As the organizers of the “Wear Pants To Church Sunday” event are discovering, there is a deep antagonism within Mormonism against the idea of women wearing pants to church. Some of the comments from the event’s Facebook page include:

“I cannot support an event that seeks to question divinely inspired doctrine about the roles of men and women. We are not meant to be the same. I can't believe how many women are listening to the Worldly view and Instead of celebrating their divine attributes and differences they want to change who God created them to be so they can be like their male counterparts.”

“ In 1993 president packer said one of the greatest threats to the church is feminism within the church itself, looks like that revelation is starting to come to pass right before our eyes, way to bring more negative attention to the church ladies”

“While you're at it why not shave your head, have your breasts removed and get your tubes tied? that'll show em”

          One of the women in my childhood congregation wore pantsuits to church every Sunday. She was the only woman brave enough to wear pants; members dismissed her actions by saying – “Oh, that’s just Carla*, she does whatever she wants.” Carla’s husband had served as bishop and came from a respectable Mormon family; no one dared to suggest that her pantsuits were a sign of apostasy.

          Carla was an outspoken matriarch, a woman that many people feared, myself included. My first memory of Carla was as a five-year old girl returning to the chapel from the bathroom. I walked into the chapel and sat down next to my mother. Or at least, I sat next to the woman that looked like my mother from the back. I slipped into the church-pew and snuggled up to the woman I thought was my mother, only to look up at the face of Carla. I started crying – loud,anxious tears that scandalized my mother. Seeing my confusion, Carla put her arms around me and told me that I was welcome to sit next to her. I shook my head and ran back to my mother, who was sitting a couple pews behind. 
          Most of the people in our ward feared Carla. She was the organist and in charge of all of the musical activities. She possessed an efficiency and take-charge attitude that, as a child, I feared, and as an adult, I envy. Carla was the real deal, a woman who raised eight children on a professor’s salary, ran the church music service, and still had the guts to speak her mind. Over the years, Carla, with her usual blunt manner, has asked me if I was anorexic (all ballet dancers are anorexic!), why I dyed my hair red (people spend lots of money to get the blonde hair you already have!),and trotted me around her daughter’s bridal shower with the triumphant news that I had finished my first year of college with straight-A’s. Straight-A’s! she said. That’s something to be proud of! I had been doubting my achievements; Carla's praise made me proud again. 
          Carla was outspoken, which made many of the members uncomfortable, as there is an unwritten rule against dissent. Carla was also honest. She served as the Relief Society president when I was in high school; those were the years that my mother enjoyed Relief Society. After church, my mother recounted tales of Carla presiding over lessons – listing virtues, preaching values – only for Carla to end the lesson by saying – “Well, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t actually met anyone that can fulfill these criteria.” Carla was a rare flash of honesty in the sea of the Prozac-fueled “happy, happy, happy” denial that is Mormon culture. My mother was too quiet to wear pantsuits or to speak her dissenting opinions; Carla was the woman that gave voice to my mother’s unease. 
          My father didn’t like Carla much; he complained that she was too bossy, too opinionated, too controlling. Carla was in charge of directing the music and my father was a musician; the two of them had many battles concerning the musical numbers. Carla was the rare woman with the courage to contradict my father. 
          Carla also wore pantsuits every Sunday, an act of independence that no one dared to speak about. I am not sure why she chose to wear pantsuits; I don’t think she wore them to make a statement or to create controversy. I never questioned Carla’s pantsuits; I also never questioned the fact that no other women wore pants. I too dismissed Carla’s pantsuits as just an eccentricity. 
          I never really understood Carla. As a Mormon, I thought she was too outspoken. As an ex-Mormon,I didn’t understand why she stayed within Mormonism. Now that I have a deeper understanding of the courage required to defy Mormon conventions, I realize that I dismissed her too easily. There isn’t a lot of room within Mormon culture for women like Carla; there are strong expectations for women to be soft-spoken and submissive. Carla was none of these; the fact that she was able to be herself in a culture that was stacked against her is a testament to her strength of will. Carla was a path-breaker, the type of woman that walked to the beat of her own drum. 
          Carla was the woman that wore pants to church. 

*Name has been changed

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

This Is Not Progress: Mormons, Gays, And Feminists

          There have been a few changes within Mormonism this past year.  First, the General Authorities announced a change in missionary policy, lowering the age for both men and women.  Men are allowed to serve at the age of eighteen, women at the age of nineteen.  Previously, men went out at nineteen; women were allowed to serve at twenty-one, if they were still unmarried.  The service time remains the same – two years for men, eighteen months for women.  When asked why the change in policy didn’t erase the differences between men and women completely, Thomas S. Monson’s reply was “one miracle at a time”.
          Women can now serve missions at nineteen.  This sounds like progress – except that women are still not granted any authority in church matters.  Within the mission field, only the male missionaries will be allowed to fulfill leadership positions.  Any investigator that a sister missionary teaches will be baptized by a male missionary, who will receive the credit for conversion.  I view this change in the policy regarding sister missionaries as a minor concession granted, with no real change in sight.  Authority – and the ability to effect change – remains firmly in the hands of an all-male leadership. 
          Every position within the Mormon Church that is filled by a woman is ultimately presided over by men.  Mormon authorities point to the Relief Society – an all-female organization – as proof that women are equal.  What they don’t mention is that any decision made by the Relief Society leaders can be over-ruled at any time by the male authorities.  As a teenager, I attended a church girls’ camp in the summer.  Our leaders were responsible, capable women.  This was not enough; church policy required that each ward provide a male chaperone, usually the bishop or one of his counselors.  I left Mormonism while I was still in high school; had I stayed, this dynamic would have followed me through my entire life, as all-female gatherings within Mormonism are subject to male authorities attending.  All of the pretty talk about respecting women is pointless when church culture is based on the assumption that women are not capable or trustworthy. 
          The second big change has been in the form of a website titled “Mormons and Gays” that is being touted as a new era in Mormon-gay relations.  The Church’s official stance on homosexuality is at the top of the page and reads:

“The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

          In other words – it’s okay to be gay, it’s just not okay to be gay. 
          This is not progress.  I define progress as moving towards a new future.  What I see is a church that is being dragged into the future kicking and screaming.  Granting token gestures towards marginalized groups, in a manner that suggests the underlying attitudes are still intact, is not progress.  There is now a website that says Mormons should love gays, with the acknowledgment that being gay might be inherent.  Accompanying this gesture is a huge asterisk, in the form of a statement: “There is no change in the Church’s position of what is morally right.”  In other words, there has been lip service paid to the idea of change, without any significant revision of the underlying attitudes. 
          What about this can be labeled progress? 
           The Mormon Church has a long history of being forced into tolerance by the surrounding society.  There is now a satire website called “Mormons and Negroes”, which draws on quotes from former leaders of the Mormon Church.  As this website illustrates, the Mormon Church also has a very unsavory history with race relations.  Black men weren't allowed to hold the priesthood until 1978.  Receiving the priesthood is a rite of passage granted to twelve-year boys and is necessary for a full life as a Mormon male.  Lifting the priesthood ban was heralded as a monumental step forward.  However, the reversal of the priesthood ban was prompted more by the threat of legal sanctions rather than genuine tolerance.  Perhaps this would be okay; no matter the reason, the ban was lifted.  However, the Mormon authorities have never retracted their previous teachings or apologized for the ban.  As a result, attitudes regarding race have changed in a slow and uneven manner, with a significant number of members repeating the older teachings as truth.  After all, the men that made these statements are considered prophets of God – what argument can be made that these teachings are in error?  The only answer is to forget or deny the past.  As a teenager in the late 90s/early 00s, I learned that black people were descendants of Cain, cursed with dark skin for Cain’s murder of Abel.  I also learned that Native Americans had been cursed with dark skin for similar reasons.  Even in the post-civil rights era of my teenage years, these archaic and damaging teachings were far from dead. 
          Earlier this year, Randy Bott, a very popular BYU professor, re-hashed some of the attitudes surrounding Mormon race relations in a Washington Post interview.  After public outcry, the Mormon Newsroom released the following statement. 

"For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding."

          There was no attempt by Mormon authorities to address the past.  There was no attempt to clarify that the earlier teachings – which Bott had repeated in a national interview – were not of God.  Instead, the Mormon PR machine tried to sweep the whole issue under a rug.  
          This is not progress.  These are the actions of a church that is unwilling or unable to change. 
          Change is only effective if done willingly and with a full heart.  I see evidence of change among the members; Prop 8 was a source of heartache to many faithful Mormons.  Most members have also moved past the racist teachings of the previous leaders.  These are the people that give me hope for a better future.  What I don’t see is any hint of change among the authorities or even an avenue for change to occur. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

When Mormons Leave

          When I came home from my first semester of college, my sister-in-law asked me about college and if I liked the people at church. I looked at her, puzzled, until I realized she didn’t know. “I haven’t attended church in over a year.” I told her.
          My sister-in-law looked shocked and then, looking around her, lowered her voice – “Don’t tell my children about this.” I have honored my sister-in-law’s request – I do not discuss my reasons for leaving in front of her children. I do not want to be the trouble-maker.
          When Mormons leave, an odd thing happens. Mormons refuse to talk about the issue, creating a cocoon of denial around a person’s decision to leave. There is an almost universal desire among Mormons to ignore the fact of apostasy. I was never asked about my reasons for leaving, although there were a lot of people who tried to convince me to go back to church. Apostates are branded as angry, sinful, or deluded. The Mormons that love you don’t want to believe that you have joined the ranks of apostate – so they don’t ask, preferring to think that you are simply confused. The Mormons that don’t know you also refuse to ask, assuming that your apostasy was for the stereotypical reasons. A member’s inactivity is viewed as a temporary lapse of sanity, one that can be gently corrected by the faithful.
          Ex-Mormons don’t talk about leaving because doing so will be a spark of anger in an already tense situation. If we talk about the issues within Mormonism that caused us to leave, then we are branded as the stereotypical angry apostate. Faithful members fear that we will corrupt their children or shake their belief in Mormonism. My family does not want to hear why I left and I do not want to force my opinions on an un-willing audience. There is a communication chasm between Mormon and ex-Mormon that cannot be breached.
          An unfortunate effect of this impasse is that ex-Mormons have a difficult time finding each other. We cannot speak about our doubts in public and few Mormons will acknowledge our apostasy, creating a shroud of secrecy around the existence of ex-Mormons.
          A couple months ago, I discovered that one of my brothers is inactive. His church attendance has been wavering for a long time, with periods of activity followed by inactivity. I am ashamed to admit that I did not know this, in spite of the fact that this has been going on for years. My brother is thirteen years elder to me; he moved to Utah when I was four. Other than a couple of years spent living near my parents when I was eight, my brother has spent the majority of his life living in the Utah/Idaho region. This was happening in my own family – and I never knew. No one told me and I didn’t think to ask. The cocoon of silence surrounding ex-Mormons runs deep, even within families.
          The reason I heard about my brother’s inactivity is because my family is making a concerted effort to get him to go back to church. A couple months ago, when I was talking to my brother on the phone, he had to hang up because the bishop had arrived.
          “The bishop’s here - he’s going to try and convince me to come back to church.” my brother said, sounding gloomy about the prospect.
          Wait, he’s not going to church? I thought. I knew that my brother is responsible for driving his children to seminary and that his eldest son is preparing to leave for a mission – this is the gossip I have heard within the family circles. The fact that my brother was no longer attending was not part of the family narrative.
          “Oh, I’ve been there before.” I said. I wanted to talk more but my brother had to hang up. I sent him an e-mail, letting him know that if he ever wanted to talk, I was happy to listen. He has not replied. I am silent because I do not want to cause a rift in my brother’s family or be labeled as the corrupting apostate influence. I assume my brother is quiet for similar reasons; I am the baby, the little sister he doesn’t know well enough to trust. Even within my own family, we are doomed to isolation because we fear the retaliation that results from speaking against Mormonism.