Mormon girl stories: Writing another chapter of LDS literature
When Joanna Brooks sat down to write The Book of Mormon Girl, she was stung by a publisher's rejection of her previous manuscript about the interfaith family life she shared with her Jewish husband and two daughters.
"He said it was too weird because it's Mormon. It won't sell," Brooks said by phone from her San Diego home. "I laughed. If a Mormon story still seems weird to mainstream America in the 21st century, then there's lots of room for Mormons to write our own stories."
Raised by rock-solid Mormon parents in Southern California, Brooks details the community and security of her religious upbringing in her passionate prose. Her journey hits turbulent waters at Brigham Young University, where dissonance over church positions on intellectuals, feminism and gay rights compels her to return her diploma. In the end, she chooses to keep her place in the faith she loves, where she might "hold my tongue," she writes, "but â¦ also hold my seat."
Mormonism was grand enough, strong enough and big enough to hold a different voice, Brooks resolved.
By the time Emily Pearson, daughter of renowned LDS poet Carol Lynn Pearson, sat down to write Dancing With Crazy, her life was nearing its highest threshold for pain.
"It was screaming at me," said Pearson, a 43-year-old actor and entertainment producer living in Salt Lake City. "It took me 10 years to write, on and off, processing and moving through it."
Opening her writer's vein, and in reckless prose turning every tight corner on two wheels, Pearson chronicles the pain of dual allegiances to a church she loved as a girl and a gay father she adored.
Once Pearson's prose has turned the corner, it comes crashing down on all four wheels. She walks San Francisco's gay Castro District on weekdays, attends LDS church on Sundays and gets stoned with her father's friends at a Bette Midler concert. Her father succumbs to AIDS. She grows up and falls in love, only to watch her sweetheart die of cancer. Then, in a last-ditch attempt to reconcile "unfinished business," Pearson marries a gay man in the Salt Lake Temple.
Crashing on the shore of divorce as a single mother, she resolves never to let another person or religious institution direct her life. "We ex-Mormons have to go back and, in many very specific ways, grow up all over again," she writes.
Both self-published books tell diverging stories with different storytelling aims. Brooks, with her doctorate-level education, writes with a literary voice. Pearson's never-say-die narrative veers toward therapy. Yet both true stories share the trait of being fed on the blood of their own aching hearts, while mapping unexplored territory of female stories within Mormonism.
Losing my religion • From St. Augustine's Confessions in the third century to contemporary publishing, biographies and memoirs pinned around spiritual questions and faith aren't new. In the 1990s, memoirs such as Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss and Mary Karr's The Liars' Club turned the genre into one of publishing's most lucrative cottage industries.
Aside from marking religion's return to the form, memoirs written by Mormons carry the classic signs of most American stories, said Brooks, a professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State University. Mormons, who exist somewhere between the marginal and the mainstream, retain an outsider status that sharpens their observations, Brooks believes.
In her case, a Mormon holding faith and personal conscience in balance, that same precarious condition is replicated inside the faith. Brooks' book explores the distance she feels from her born-again friends who dismiss her religion as a cult, along with the iciness of having to confess a minor sexual transgression to her stake president.
The book's riskiest chapter the most difficult to write, Brooks said follows her heartbreak over the LDS Church campaign to pass California's Proposition 8 banning legal recognition of gay marriage. The reader's heart races over her decision to return campaign materials taken from her childhood wardhouse.
"Who belongs and who doesn't is still a question our nation is wrestling with," Brooks said. "Telling my own story through a book that's orthodox in its early pages, and less so in later pages, marks my hunger to expand the sense of who belongs in Mormon culture."
From ages 30 to 37, Brooks remained "inactive" in the faith, but returned soon after the birth of her two daughters, Ella and Rosa, to whom the book is dedicated.
Her dedication to shine the truest light on her faith extends outside her family as well. Her first book, 2003's American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African-American and Native American Literatures, was published by Oxford University Press and won important scholarly prizes.
With Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential bid in full gear, she's become the media's go-to source for explaining Mormonism, quoted often in the national press, as well as writing articles for ReligionDispatches.org and with a more personal touch on her website askmormongirl.com.
Brooks wrote her memoir, she said, for as wide an audience as possible: for herself, Mormons who feel alienated from the church and those puzzled by the faith's enduring appeal.
"From childhood we're taught as Mormons to be young missionaries and always put our best face on," Brooks said. "It's been my experience that when we write candidly about who we are, it helps non-Mormons see us as people. I've had so many non-Mormons say to me after reading it, 'I get it now; why this faith means so much to you.' "
Searching for rhythm amid insanity • Common to memoirs written by other women, both authors explore their sexual coming-of-age, complicated by the conservative nature of LDS teachings about sex. Both books relate Sunday School lessons of how they're taught to distrust sexual feelings when teachers compare a woman's body to chewed gum, a doughnut with smeared frosting or, most violent of all, a stabbed orange or board hammered full of nails.
Pearson's book is a catalog of confused feelings, "a circusworthy juggling act I mastered to perfection." When her father comes out as gay, he asks her never to call him father again, but by his first name, Gerald. She belonged to a church she felt discounted the voice of women and was the daughter of a man who wasn't attracted to women. Her confusion was later compounded by her own attraction to a man who reminded her of the father she adored.
Pearson's ex-husband, Steven Fales, made headlines with "Confessions of a Mormon Boy," his one-man show about growing up gay in the LDS Church, which won theater-world acclaim at the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival. Pearson said she felt discounted yet again to learn Fales' show barely mentioned the turmoil of their marriage.
She lauds her mother's influence by book's end, but throughout the book describes a church, a father and a temple marriage ill-equipped to acknowledge her, or mounting feelings she was ritually, sexually abused as a child. All three, she concludes, were narcissistic forces intent on ignoring her.
"Nothing exists except to serve that person," Pearson said. "It's the same when you belong to a demanding church. If your thoughts aren't in alignment with the church, you get down on your knees until you get the right answer."
Pearson said she found her own answer by finally asking questions and learning to live life at ease even when answers aren't forthcoming.
"There are so many people too terrified to check in with themselves to figure out what they believe for themselves," she said. "I hope anyone who reads the book realizes they can do what they want and that everyone has compass for what's right. It's not scary. It's a glorious thing."
Same story, different endings • Unlike Pearson's, Brooks' story ends in a journey back to where it began, back in the arms of the church of her childhood. Like a family, Brooks believes, all faiths have their flaws, but that doesn't mean you leave them.
Neither Brooks nor Pearson has read the other's book, but both say they appreciate other accounts.
"One LDS woman said my book didn't offend her at all, because for her it did not describe the church she knew," Pearson said. "I really liked hearing that. But for people who don't know how to leave and don't want to be there, I hope [Dancing With Crazy] gives them courage."
Brooks said she hopes for a time when all Mormon stories, good and bad, find a home and patient ear.
"I don't think we can be whole as a people I'm not criticizing the church here until everyone's story counts," she said.
Facebook.com/nowsaltlake The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith
Queen Bee Press
Pages • 216
Price • $11.99
Dancing With Crazy: A Memoir
Pages • 322
Price • $14.95