In 2011, Seattle writer Nicole Hardy touched a nerve with her searingly honest New York Times essay about her plight as a single Mormon woman and a 35-year-old virgin.
In her mid-30s, Hardy felt choosing to remain celibate, as required by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ law of chastity, caused her to feel like she was “a child in a woman’s body.”
“Virginity brought with it arrested development on the level of a handicapping condition, like the Russian orphans I’d read about whose lack of physical contact altered their neurobiology and prevented them from forming emotional bonds,” she wrote in “Single, Female, Mormon, Alone,” published in the newspaper’s popular “Modern Love” column. “Similarly, it felt as if celibacy was stunting my growth; it wasn’t just sex I lacked but relationships with men entirely. Too independent for Mormon men, and too much a virgin for the other set, I felt trapped in adolescence.”
The essay catapulted forward Hardy’s writing career, helping the poet/waitress with an MFA from Bennington College earn a book contract with a six-figure advance, as well as prompting heated conversations about sexuality locally and nationally.
“It was a surprise to me that there were agents and editors who thought there would be a large enough audience for my book,” says Hardy, who graduated with an English literature degree from Brigham Young University in 1995. “When I was living through that time, I really felt I was the only person living through those experiences.”
The writer, now 41, will read from “Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin” at The King’s English bookstore in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 17.
Beyond not having sex, one of the layered themes of Hardy’s book is about identity and individuating from the family she loves in a culture that believes in being linked together on Earth and in heaven. “ ‘Sex isn’t everything,’ my mother says lightly, from the kitchen of my new condo,” Hardy writes. “She means to be encouraging. But I stiffen reflexively against her words, as if to defend myself. I’ve heard it too many times from too many people — that sentence, so reductive it’s offensive.”
Hardy’s book joins a short shelf of contemporary memoirs about Mormon topics, ranging from Carol Lynn Pearson’s 1986 “Goodbye, I Love You” to Terry Tempest Williams’ 1991 “Refuge” and last year’s “When Women Were Birds” to Elna Baker’s 2009 “The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance” and Joanna Brooks’ 2012 “Book of Mormon Girl.” Such stories are beginning to trace outlines of the wide range of experience of what it means to be Mormon and female, and are a long time coming to national attention in a genre that has embraced books about being female in the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim faiths.
“It’s not just Mormon virgins,” Hardy says in a phone interview, referring to notes she’s received from Baptists, Muslims, gay Christians and others. “So many people are walking around feeling like their concerns aren’t valid in their communities.” Of course, she’s also received notes from plenty of readers who are eager to call a woman who writes about her sexuality a “whore,” “slut” or “sell-out.”
What was the hardest part of writing ‘Confessions?’
Really, the hardest part for me was to learn how to write prose while I was writing the book. I trained as a poet, and I knew how to write beautiful paragraphs, but I had a lot to learn in terms of building a narrative arc. Equally hard was dredging up all the emotional pieces I had set aside and worked through. It was a difficult year, artistically and emotionally.
Were you prepared for the notoriety that has come with being a poster child for later virgins?
I think other people might have a perception of me that I don’t necessarily feel. It’s lovely to be receiving emails from women and men of all different faiths saying that they felt acknowledged by my book and my story. That’s what every writer aspires to.
Beyond the Bible Belt, this might be the only place where your experience as a 35-year-old virgin isn’t that unusual. What are you expecting from the Salt Lake City audience?
The idea I have in my head: An incredible surge of empathy and also an incredible surge of judgment. There’s a knee-jerk reaction among those who are devout to say that someone in my situation was never a believer or doesn’t understand the gospel or is simply weak. I hope people will read the book and find that the story is a little bit deeper than that.
How do you respond to people who might judge your choice to leave the church, which might include some readers who have decided to stay?
I wrote my story because I’m a writer. I don’t have advice for anybody. All I have is a recounting of my experience in all the ways that were devastating and all the ways it was redemptive and beautiful.
Is there anything you miss about being a believing Mormon?
I was happy in the church for a really long time, and I think that’s the reason it was so devastating when that felt apart. My book is not about being angry. I think certain readers, certain reviewers, were disappointed I wasn’t angrier. To me, it’s a book about loss. It’s a book about grief, and trying to navigate your life when you’re not going to have the life that you planned for yourself.
In some ways, writing about sex seems more easily accepted in the contemporary literary world than writing about being a person of faith. What has been your experience in trying to explain why you believed for so long?
The sex part is difficult to write about. The verbs are terrible, and the nouns are worse. But the emotional act of writing about faith is difficult, more exposing. Anyone who has had a positive experience in any religion understands the ways that faith can be a buoy and a comfort and a joy. But it is sometimes hard to explain the exact feelings you have when you’re having a sexual experience.
You mentioned in an interview that you prepared a special copy for your dad, cutting out sections.
Even if your father isn’t a religious man, there are certain things he just doesn’t want or need to know about his daughter. I tried to preserve a little privacy for him. My father appreciated the fact that I gave him a copy of the book that he didn’t have to be scared of. I really appreciate he was willing to read it and willing to consider my thoughts and feelings and experiences.
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‘Confessions’ of not having sex (until she does)
P Seattle writer Nicole Hardy reads from her book, “Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin,” in Salt Lake City.
When • Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where • The King’s English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • Free