Tuesday, January 29, 2013

No Story Left Behind (or: My Thoughts on The Book of Mormon Girl)

I know it's a bit early to call, but The Book of Mormon Girl by Joanna Brooks may be one of my favorite reads of 2013.

The book is honest.  That's really what it comes down to.  What makes it even more applicable to me is that, well, it is so freaking applicable to me.  If I read an honest book on Islamic culture, I'm sure I would appreciate the sincerity there, but there's just not much for me to relate to, for obvious reasons (I'm not a Muslim).  I am, however, a Mormon.  In fact, I'm a liberal, progressive, feminist* Mormon, which seemed to be a key demographic of the book's audience.  The Book of Mormon Girl was particularly refreshing to me because it was being so honest about things that I craved to discuss honestly.  Making sense, much?

The book essentially chronicles Ms. Brooks' childhood as a "root beer" in a land of "cokes"--an adequate metaphor for growing up as a Mormon in a land of people who aren't Mormon--and then goes on to relate her experience with the LDS church as a feminist, intellectual, and progressive liberal.  Her assessment of the culture and overall feel of "growing up Mormon," with CTR rings and pioneer ancestors and relatives in Utah and the Osmonds and everything is uncannily accurate.  She gives special attention to her own faith throughout the book, talking about doubt, about how her faith was sometimes shaken or undermined, and about how, despite all of these things, she never quite lost faith in and love for Mormonism.

And she went through some pretty trying times.  As a middle-class white Mormon guy, just the perspective of growing up female in the LDS Church was eye-opening.  There were issues I never considered, growing up, that all of my Mormon friends-who-were-girls had to deal with.  I like to think that I've begun to be more aware of those issues in the last few years, and hopefully in many ways I have, but this book proved that I (and the LDS membership as a whole) still have a great deal to learn in that arena.

It was fascinating to read about her perspective on the "September Six" and the events surrounding that little controversy.  In the early 1990s, BYU fired a handful of professors.  Many of those professors, along with a few other liberal feminists in the Church, were also excommunicated.  I remembered hearing about the infamous "purging of the English department" during my undergraduate and graduate degrees, in whispered corners from other students and off-hand allusions from professors, but was always very frustrated at everyone's (including my own) inability to talk about the controversy openly.

Hearing Ms. Brooks discuss her association with the experience was eye-opening and fascinating.  She didn't receive any specific Church discipline for her progressive beliefs (at least not that she specifies in the book), but rather felt a constant worry that she might lose her membership in the Church she had grown up in, the religion she had loved, simply for voicing her own beliefs:
Mormons like me found ourselves in the grip of a terrible turn in Mormon history, in the grip of a fear provoked in part by the strength of our Mormon feminist vision:  a fear of the full, glorious, strange, and difficult humanity of our Mormon past. . . . It took a decade to come to terms with the fact that the Church we loved had declared us its enemies.
She imposed on herself an exile of sorts, during which time she stayed away from the LDS Church, mostly, it seems, out of fear of being shunned (if not excommunicated) for her unorthodox beliefs.

Ms. Brooks doesn't pull any punches when it comes to discussing LDS history.  Many Mormons might find the way she discusses Mormonism offensive; I don't believe that's true.  She says it best herself:
These are the unspoken legacies we inherit when we belong to a people:  not only luminous visions of eternal expanses of loving-kindness, but actual human histories of exclusion and rank prejudice.  We inherit not only the glorious histories of our ancestors, but their human failings too, their kindness, their tenderness, and their satisfaction with easy contradictions. . . . We inherit all the ways in which our ancestors and parents and teachers were wrong, as well as the ways they were right:  their sparkling differences, and their human failings.  There is no unmixing the two.
The LDS Church is made up of people, and people, as a general rule, screw up.  Often.  All the time, in fact.  Ms. Brooks is simply honest and up front about that fact.  And as honest as she is about Mormonism's dark times, she's just as honest about it's bright points, both of history and of doctrine.

Lest I paint the book a little too brightly, let me be clear:  I didn't think it was perfect.  Her raw, unrefined but truthy writing style was certainly atypical.  (Actually I really appreciated her writing style as well...again, refreshing.)  Oh, here's a critique:  I was never quite clear what the situation was with her exile.  It seemed self-imposed, but I wasn't sure if there were other factors behind it (other than her association with some of the September Six and some of the LDS Church's declarations around that time period).  I would have appreciated a bit more clarity on how she got to the point where she considered exile, as well as how she decided to come out of it.**

But really I don't have many bad things to say about this book.  And I think, again, it comes back to honesty.  "I grew up in a world," she says,
where all the stories I heard arrived 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 be able to tell.
But these are not the kinds of stories life has given me.
Every Mormon carries with them a bundle of stories like a suitcase of family secrets. . . . Sacrifices we refuse to believe God would ask of us.  Stories of loss that do not end neatly with restoration and stories of leaving that do not conclude with the return home.
In the world I grew up in it was not okay to tell unorthodox stories.  We did not hear them in church.  We did not read them in scripture.  But sooner or later they break through to the surface in every Mormon life, in every human life, in every life of faith.  I am not afraid of them.  Because this is the story life has given me to tell.
After two and a half decades of trying to decide what to do with these types of stories in my own life, I'm finally learning to not be afraid of them, either.   That's one particular lesson I hope I never stop learning, and one that I pray the membership of the LDS Church picks up on, as well.  We need those unconventional stories about Mormons.  We need to hear that people aren't perfect, that they screw up, and that sometimes they come back from that, but sometimes they don't.  Those stories are in our scripture, but they seem to have lost their way into our culture.  But books like this one --and hopefully many more things like it--are helping to bring those stories back.

One final caveat:  while this is a great book, I don't think its the most informative source to learn about mormonism.  Mormon.org, or the Book of Mormon itself (the actual book, not the musical), would probably be the best references for something along those lines.  But, if you're looking for one person's experience with the LDS religion and culture (especially if you're interested in how progressivism, liberalism, and feminism could possibly have a place in said culture), I highly recommend The Book of Mormon Girl.***

*  Or pro-feminist, depending on your particular brand of feminism.

**  Of course, some of these experiences of hers may be of a sort that she doesn't feel comfortable to share publicly (perhaps they're too sacred, perhaps they're too embarrassing, perhaps...who knows).  But even if that's the case, I would have appreciated some hints in that direction.

***  Also, if you're interested in more about Joanna Brooks, I recommend one of her sites, Ask Mormon Girl.  It's a fascinating advice blog that attempts to answer some of those difficult questions--at least from one woman's perspective :-).

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