Laura Stone (stoney321) wrote,
Laura Stone

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A sort-of book review and a lame-ass explanation for why I can't always "Let it go."

There's a book that has been on my radar to read since I divorced my first husband and left Utah, back in late '97. The book only came out 5 years ago, but her story? Well, everyone that lived in Utah "knew" her story and knew a book was coming. But good hell, the conditioning was deep and I thought I already knew the answers, which was the point of her book. I just read it last night. Leaving The Saints, by Martha Nibley Beck. Heads up about the book: she claims sexual abuse and talks to other abuse survivors in detail, so if that's upsetting to you, there's your fair warning. I'll refer to her claims in the end of the post, but there won't be any deep discussion about abuse, mm'kay?

[ETA] I just realized that I failed to mention why this book was on my radar. I was in college at the time of the "September Six" - when intellectuals were being fired from BYU for daring to have opinions that contradicted the leaders of the LDS Church. Martha Beck and her husband were both professors at the time and were the only ones that would talk to the news about the situation - everyone else was afraid for their jobs. I worked for the teachers at my college, and this was all they talked about. When Martha spoke to the women of the Mormon church about being abused, well, her fate was sealed. The rumor mill got to her first, though - she was lying about her claims. Ok. Carry on. :)

I know there are some of you (including my husband, sisters, a few good friends) that get very eye-rolly any time I bring up Mormonism and my journey out of it. And part of me wants to roll my eyes back at them because none of those people were devout Mormons or Mormon at all, so they can't know what I've experienced over the years. In some cases (my younger sister) it's meant to help me heal, and I know that. However. It's not unlike a person coming out, or leaving an abusive relationship, which I also did, something that is also brushed under the rug with some of those same people. I'm still angry with my older sister for constantly trying to belittle my religious experiences and knowledge, when that sister also was never more than a casual church goer as a teen and only that because she was forced to attend by our father, and then stopped participating in any way when she was 15. It's apples to oranges, and the scoffing is just insulting.

In a way, it's like being called a liar, which - head's up - is my biggest trigger to rage. And one of the reasons I'm so vehement about speaking out against the LDS church is because it's based on so many lies. Lies that I not only believed to the marrow of my bones, but lost friendships over when they wouldn't accept those lies as their own truth. Lies that cost me boyfriends, respect from non-members, a social life growing up. Lies that felt like a slap across the face when I finally accepted that I'd been raised to believe things that were laughably untrue.

Yeah, so my [former] religion is not like your religion. Unless you were also Mormon. Or maybe a Jehovah's Witness. Or grew up in a secluded commune in the jungle, led by a charismatic leader who instilled fear of the unknown as a way to control your every thought, action and deed. EVERYONE you associate with is in on it. Everyone. Like, most of them know he's mixing the Kool-Aid, but believe its To Be and don't mind giving it to their babies. It's not like living in a Baptist town in Alabama. Maybe more like living in a town of 50 in the Ozarks where you're all a part of a very Pentecostal sect and you only do business with one another, you only date one another, and you only read books that your leader tells you you're allowed to. Also, you have a huge painting of him in your house, like everyone else, and you have a family tree of his Priesthood outlined back to Jesus on your wall, and all of the conversations you have are circuitous where you pretend to analyze things your Dear Leader has said and then look for ways to prove it is pure and true. See? Look at all of that intellectual discussion - you're so smart and so open to other thought and yet you just feel in your bones that the Dear Leader is really who he claims. Now get on your knees and pray for him to help you understand more of His wisdom.

So yeah. Being a devout Mormon is a lot like living in North Korea, I suppose, more so than a Chick-Tract pusher from the deep south. If that doesn't look like your religious experience, read that again. That was mine. For about 30 years. And when something that all-encompassing is your whole life, it's not so easy to just jump ship and hand-wave, "Ho hum, what a charming and storied past I had! I shall now move forward with nothing but a smile in my heart and a song on my lips, tally ho!" There's a huge amount of shame involved. First, the shame is because you've been conditioned your entire existence to know that leaving The Fold is Death. Literally. I was taught that I was literally going to cease to exist for leaving the church, and I believed that to my bones. It's called Outer Darkness, the Mormon version of Hell. You cease to exist, your soul, that is, when your body dies. Not even roasting over an open flame like a human marshmallow is in your future. It's really hard to not give in to that fear, because that fear has been so perfectly cultivated in your psyche. And everyone you associate with believes it, too.

The other avenue of shame, and this is the one I'm still struggling with on occasion - er, like right now - is that I'm a smart[ish] woman. I'm a smart woman that was married to an abusive man, which is another whole shame game, but we'll leave that for another time, and I left that abusive man because I quit being stupid. And yet I stayed in an abusive religious relationship afterward for years! How did I allow myself to be so hoodwinked? Because let's face it, it's being hoodwinked. This man? This wonderful man who is idolized more than Jesus (it's true) that raped 14 year old girls? He's the greatest human that's ever been on earth? That's an actual belief of Mormons, Joseph Smith is the greatest human, save Jesus, that ever walked the earth. Verbatim. I bought that BS? I was taught - and I believed - that Joseph Smith was tarred and feathered one night (leading to his poor wife to have a miscarriage again, what a long-suffering lovely woman!) because he was bringing the Truth to the world. That's why an angry mob broke in, grabbed him, poured hot tar over him, ripped up his bedclothes and dumped their contents all over him, leaving him in the chilly night air to die.

But the REAL truth, not the LDS sanctioned truth, is actually easy to find because it was in the papers and in recorded journals of the local townsfolk. Joseph Smith seduced and deflowered the mob leader's 15 year old daughter. So he decided to take matters into his own hands, namely, by wounding the man that attacked his daughter. This is one of HUNDREDS of lies I believed. And you believe it, because any sort of questioning is met not with just stony silence, but with out and out shunning. Those sweet smiles you used to share with your neighbors and relatives are now scowls because you're ruining the "spirit." If you actually live in Utah, you're as good as dead if you don't toe the line. I've had many acquaintances leave the state once any questioning about their "faith" hit the rumor mill. Can you imagine this right now: look at your home. Think of your job. If you have a spouse and/or kids, imagine their daily life. Now, imagine that they are being ridiculed to their face, denied service at the donut shop they frequent every morning, the oil change shop, the grocery store, the hair salon, kids won't play with your kids anymore because they're "tainted," and even teachers tell the other kids to not play with your children because of their lack of faith. You're cut off. You have no choice but to recant (and know you're living a lie) or leave.

In the book I'm still writing, I describe it as being at a great house party, you're surrounded with friends and family, it's warm and cozy, there is laughter and shared stories and events, and loads of "Mormon Champagne" (apple juice + ginger ale, lol) and nut cups a'plenty. There are board games, people are playing the "toilet paper game" or whatever is the current fun activity that is in vogue in Utah. You go outside for just a moment because you heard something. And as you turn back to the door, it's locked. And you can see everyone in the window, and they can see you out in the dark and cold, but they won't let you back in. They even turn off the porch light as you stand there. And you can hear the party going on, and even though it's lame, you want back into the warmth and camaraderie. But there's no way to get back in.

So, about that book of Martha Beck's. (Lol.) For those of you who aren't familiar with the inner layers of Mormonism (read: almost all of you) another of the bigger lies is that we were taught to believe that "The lord is no respecter of persons." Translation, you're not hot shit, you're just a schlub like the rest of us, we're all equal in His eyes. Except for how Mormons are total worshippers of people. But only certain ones, and only the higher ups. Just being in proximity lends its own cache. If you're a part of an "important LDS family" then YOU are important. More important than the dude in Peru that got converted, more important that the guy at the gas station that is LDS but has no important job for the church, more important than most of the people in your congregation. But you wear your awesomeness with humility, of course. ...yeah.

Martha Beck is the daughter of THE Mormon Intellectual [jumbo shrimp, military intelligence, oxymoron etc. etc.] Hugh Nibley. There aren't many Mormons that I outright loathe, but he's one of them. Mostly because I respect true scholarship, true scientific inquiry, and he was the bomb squad sent in to blow the IED up and say that you didn't see the explosion, what you really saw was a Greek metaphor cloaked in ancient Sanskrit with a dash of Old Testament quotation and random fact about Judaism in 400 BCE. [But, I saw the bomb go boom? NO YOU DIDN'T.] Oh, but he was so SMART! He spoke 12 languages! He had the most amazing command of memory for everything he ever read! He could out quote anyone! Being able to call a quote to your fore brain is a HUGE part of the LDS life. Daily scripture study for teens involves memorizing key scripture to counter any attack from outsiders. So he's the Michael Jordan of recall, is what I'm saying. That made him a super star.

In my world, that's called a savant. Just because someone can look at a picture of the Sistine Chapel and then draw it with 100% accuracy doesn't denote intelligence, doesn't mean they have an understanding behind the metaphors and stories of the paintings, the politicization behind the paintings, an understanding of Michelangelo's homosexuality, the Roman Catholic Church's smear campaign against Jews, etc. etc. They just have an uncanny knack of recall. That's it. Hey-o, computers do that, too, but so far they've not gained sentience - and thank goodness, because John Connor isn't here to save us from the Terminators. (Remember to stock pile magnets: that's how you defeat robots, duh. That and stairs. And water.)

And when you actually read anything Hugh Nibley wrote/said, it's utter nonsense. He was a word and quote tornado exploding on the page. It's a flurry of disjointed quotations, failed logic, and utter subterfuge meant to bombard you with things that don't make sense in order to make you feel like you're just not smart enough to understand what the hell he's talking about. And that's what people said in admiration about him, "It would take ten of me to understand what you've said!" UM. Perfect time to insert Occam's Razor here, by the way. Oh, and he sexually abused his daughter, which doesn't mean he didn't earn his degrees, it just means he's a shit heel of a human.

BUT. Because he's a shining star in the LDS sky, he didn't abuse her. Because he couldn't have, because he's clearly on a different plane with God, so it's impossible for him to have done anything wrong. And clearly she's a liar, because we all know that if there's one thing we gals like to do for funsies, it's blame our daddies for sexually abusing us. It's as fun as the make up counter in Neiman's, I won't lie. People just love to praise women who talk about their sexual abuse, don't they? They want to admire them, think of how clean and unsullied they are... Translation: she was ostracized by her entire community, insulted, berated, received DEATH THREATS FROM CHURCH MEMBERS, and had to leave the state and her family. And we all know this isn't an isolated incident, not in this religion or any other.

But the "respecter of Man" thing... It's the Man part that's important. Men are always right, always know more, always are more connected to the Truth in the Mormon world because they have the Priesthood. Their having a Y chromosome trumps any knowledge a woman might have. Period. So they know that she's a liar. And even if she wasn't, they know that her words are damaging to the Great And Powerful Oz LDS Church and therefore cannot be allowed. At her dad's funeral (about the time her book came out, actually) one of the men I hate the most in the Church, Dallin H. Oaks, said that Hugh Nibley was an important man who did important things, and gave a stern look to the huge crowd gathered. And in the paper, people commented on this with, "Well, that should solve the Martha problem." A Powerful Man said another man was important, so let's all stop talking about his sexual abuse, thanks. And they DID. That, my friends, is power over a congregation. A congregation of MILLIONS.

I have my issues with Martha, though. I do think she wrote disingenuously about some things - things that weren't ultimately important to her story, and I do think that she sensationalized some events to make for a better book. But that doesn't take away from the fact that I believe her when she says she was abused. And I believe her when she talks about the loneliness of being the child of an Important Man with Important Thoughts which meant his focus wasn't on his family, it was on the Church. Because that's MY dad. Hell, that's most dads in the LDS church. They're so busy being Important Men that they've checked out of being an engaged father. And any questions that I felt brave enough to ask my dad (to his credit, he did encourage discussion about religion) were usually answered with, "Well, you gotta understand...." because I can't, of course. I couldn't understand unless a Priesthood holder explained it to me and used words carefully chosen by the Brethren to shut people up.

One of my dad's oldest friends wrote The Book on Polygamy (Mormon Polygamy is the title, and if you read the reviews, note where the only negative reviews come from: LDS members) which of course my dad gulped down. But I wasn't allowed to read it because it would "hurt my testimony [faith.]" To learn that Joseph Smith lured his wife's teen aged maid into the barn to "spiritually marry her" would somehow shake my faith in the church. Imagine that, what nonsense, he was the most important man, save Jesus, to ever walk the earth! (And for funsies, go back to any of my Mormon/twilight posts and see all of the anonymous Mormons that commented about how stupid and hateful I am for perpetuating the MYTH that Mormons were ever polygamous. WOW. That's some blind leading the deaf and blind, right there.) I wasn't allowed to really explore my faith because my father was in charge of my stream of knowledge. This is not unusual in the LDS world.

This link is to a "review" of Martha's book. When you get to the part that reads "My father has said that..." come on back. Most of my religious understanding came from my father. The information came from church-approved materials, but it was my father, as my priesthood-holder, that had the responsibility of insuring I adhered to the principles of the church. My dad is a lot like Nibley, reads everything he can get his hands on about Mormon doctrine, reads apologetic works that favor the church's standpoints, argues the points in the "black sheep publications" like Sunstone (a magazine that caters to the murmurers against the Church that still remain LDS, and want to keep it that way) and uses circular logic to explain why things are the way the church says they are. If my sister is reading this, she'll know immediate that I'm talking about "What you gotta understand is..."

What you gotta understand is that:

* Joseph Smith was just a man, flawed. But he still acted in good faith, ergo we should forgive him his transgressions and focus on what he brought to Mankind, which is the Ultimate Truth.
* the Book of Mormon was written by a man, er, translated by a man, and there were spelling errors, continuity errors, etc. But that doesn't take away from the truthfulness of it. Not even that there were horses, flocks of geese and ducks, and steel used in Pre-Columbian America and there is not one shred of evidence to support it. It's about faith, Laura.
* even though I [my dad] may not believe in most of the religious tenets, the community of the church is unparalleled and worth sticking around for. And it's all I know. {That last sentence is my addendum.}

And so on. That last one was only revealed to me as I told him about my choice to leave the faith. And honestly, the community is the one thing I miss. There are days (like last night, reading the book) that I get so completely overwhelmed with loneliness. Some days I want to go to church just to sing hymns with the congregation. I was constantly involved with life, with my community, with [I believed] my God. You are constantly busy as a Mormon. It's not a Sunday religion. There are lessons to prepare for (Sunday service, Sunday evening Firesides, Monday's Family Home Evening, Wednesdays' youth gatherings, Saturday's Primary [young kids] gatherings) there is your daily personal scripture study and the prayer that must accompany it. There is your daily family scripture study and the prayer that must accompany it. The morning prayer of your own, the group prayer as you leave for your day - and I'm not joking, my roommates and I knelt together every morning and prayed together, ditto for night time and when we read scriptures together. And when you live in Utah, everyone around you (for the most part) is LDS, so you're constantly bombarded with the culture/religion. And I'm here to tell you that it's the same thing. Which means that if you leave the religion, you leave your culture.

I had so much fun with my LDS friends. I constantly had companionship. It was warm, and loving, stifling, all encompassing, frightening, judgmental, and steady. Better the devil you know, right? And when you leave that behind... It's like waking up to discover you're stranded on a deserted island. Even more so because I don't have any contemporaries that get it, that know that when I talk about leaving my church, I'm talking about leaving my family, my friends, my lifestyle. Or did, since it was years back. My husband just wants me to get over it, like he did being Episcopalian. Because those are the same. My sisters want me to get over it because it wasn't as big a deal as I'm making it out to be, or that I "need to let my anger go" or whatever. And it's not that I'm angry (and I am, but it's not all about that) it's about how I was duped. It's about the frustration with knowing that the entire religion is based on really harmful lies that still radiate their pain and control over the members and beyond and that people I love dearly, as much as my own flesh and blood in many cases, are still being duped.

It's like the age old question: if you know someone's being harmed, do you clue them in/get involved? If I suspect a child is being abused in any way, I step in. I'm a jump in feet-first type of person, which has led me to having egg on my face at times. I'm ok with that because the alternative isn't acceptable to me. l have LDS friends that are so wonderful, so loving, so important to me. And they're also so smart. And yet. Finding the truth was the most freeing experience of my life. It's allowed me to finally start really looking at myself, my life, my choices. I'm finally learning - really learning - how to live. Martha Beck describes her LDS life as living behind a plate of glass. That's it precisely. And I think a lot of these friends of mine are doing the same thing. I know it's not my place to "show them the light," but man, that's hard.

This is why I continue to talk about my experiences. Because I never would have investigated further if I hadn't talked to former LDS members about their experiences (and my intentions at the time had been to try and bring them back into the fold.) Hearing their version of "the truth" led me to looking it up to prove them wrong and finding the opposite to be true. It's not that I'm filled with anger, it's not that I'm constantly trying to "bring down the church" as I've been accused (you know, with all of that spare time I have) it's that I have major problems with intellectual dishonesty. This book about the most intellectually dishonest man in the LDS church (in my opinion) has just brought all of this to the foreground for me.

While I applaud Martha's coming forward about something that had to be excruciating to deal with, I did find some aspects of her book to be... forced for writerly tension. It doesn't take away much from the story, but it does leave room for detractors to say, "See? She said their house was blue, and it was green! Ergo, we cannot believe any of her lies!" She presents conversations with fellow Mormons as if she doesn't know some of the arcane beliefs. Her father was the leading "expert" on those beliefs, AND she was a professor at BYU AND from one of the older LDS families. That bugged me. If anything, it's making me go back over my own manuscript and make sure I'm being completely truthful, and when I'm being purposely obtuse for comedic effect, it's obvious. Her book is the first of all of the ex-Mormon books I've read that doesn't sound like Testimony meeting, however. There are a handful of you that know what I mean by that. :) She still does, but her writing doesn't, if that makes sense. (By that I mean her "overwhelming love" for her father, the way she still bows to him as her patriarch even though he was an abuser and poor excuse for a father to her and her 7 siblings. That's pure Mormon culture.)

Guys, I wish I could just let it all go and forget that this was ever a part of my life. But it made me who I am, and it's not all bad. My crochet and canning skills and my apocalypse pantry are proof of that. :)
Tags: books, essays, mormons, navel gazing, oh my heck!, religion
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