Jana Riess: New memoir unpacks what Latter-day Saint girls are taught about marriage

An initial patriarchal blessing thrilled Rachel Rueckert, author of the new memoir “East Winds,” with its promises of education and world travels, but a “second” one, sadly, omitted those points.

(Courtesy) Rachel Rueckert, author of “East Winds: A Global Quest to Reckon With Marriage."

When Rachel Rueckert was growing up as a Latter-day Saint girl in Davis County, her mother prayed every day that Rachel and her sister would one day get married in the temple and that her brothers would serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Marriage, it seemed, was the end-all for girls, the ultimate achievement. Meanwhile, boys could get married and have adventures and careers. Even as young as age 10, Rueckert couldn’t help feeling she’d gotten the short end of the stick.

Her soul longed for more, especially when she began to see that the marriage-and-motherhood narrative hadn’t worked out entirely happily for either her mother or her stepmother. In her newly released memoir, “East Winds: A Global Quest to Reckon With Marriage,” the 33-year-old Rueckert reflects powerfully on the messages she received about what her adult life “should” look like.

Like the time her friend turned 14 and received for her birthday a few teen-appropriate gifts, but also a vacuum cleaner and, bizarrely, some queen-size furniture. The girl’s parents wanted her to be thinking ahead — of the family she would have in the not-too-distant future.

“What scares me about it now is how I reacted at the time, because I thought, ‘What a great idea!’” Rueckert told Religion News Service in a Zoom interview.

Or there was the time, also in Rueckert’s teen years, when she received her patriarchal blessing. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime rite of passage in which Latter-day Saints visit a specially called male priesthood leader for what the church considers “inspired direction from the Lord.” According to the church’s website, a patriarchal blessing “contains personal revelation and instructions from Heavenly Father, who knows our strengths, weaknesses and eternal potential. Patriarchal blessings may contain promises, admonitions and warnings.”

Rueckert’s blessing was a powerful experience. It described her getting a meaningful education and traveling the world — two dreams she hoped to fulfill and was thrilled to hear were part of God’s plan for her life. The blessing said she would be “free from fear.”

It also stated she would marry in the temple, become a mother to sons and daughters, and belonged to the tribe of Ephraim — all of which was more typical content than the parts about travel and education.

When the blessing ended, she was ready to be on her way. But then the patriarch stopped her and said: “Wait just a moment. I don’t think the blessing recorded.”

So he sat her down again in the chair, placed his hands on her head and performed the ritual all over again, this time with the recorder working.

Unfortunately, the second time around, the blessing included the standard things like marriage and motherhood but omitted the elements Rueckert felt were more personal and directed to her, like travel and education.

“I left feeling confused. I jotted down on a piece of paper that first blessing, all the bullet points that I could remember. That blessing was important to me; it was still mine.”

That desire for “both/and” rather than “either/or” illuminates Rueckert’s absorbing memoir. In ways that will feel recognizable to many young Latter-day Saint women, she chronicles her attempts to remain faithful to her religious roots while also spreading her wings beyond the scripts her culture gave her. She did marry in the temple at age 25. But then she and her husband embarked on a yearlong honeymoon in South America, Asia and Europe, where Rueckert did a deep dive into marriage customs and wisdom around the world while coming to terms with her lifelong wanderlust.

She also confronted the fallout of a troubled relationship with her mother, who suffered from a delusional disorder that grew gradually worse during Rueckert’s adolescence. Part of those delusions involved believing Rueckert had committed sins she hadn’t actually done, and telling others in the tightknit community about the girl’s alleged rebellion. Rueckert had to leave home and live with her father.

“That’s a central tension in this book, feeling like I have this restless energy, but I’m also craving rootedness as well,” she said. “I’m constantly craving this belonging, looking for markers that would connect me to this sense of home that I had lost. I feel like home for me now is in such a place of liminal unease — that the unease itself is home.”

Today, Rueckert is a professional writer and editor-in-chief of Exponent II, a Mormon feminist magazine that has been active since the 1970s. She and her husband, Austin, live in Cambridge, Mass., where she balances her love of travel with her growing appreciation for marriage — on her own terms.

“I’ve grown a lot as a person through learning from Austin. He just takes it for granted that the marriage is the foundation. There is something beautiful about that faith in forever, and I’ve benefited from being with someone who sees the world in that way.”

The Latter-day Saint community is perhaps less supportive of her continuing love of adventure. For several years, Rueckert worked for an international education company that required her to travel to Africa several times a year. In contrast, one of her male Latter-day Saint friends had climbed Mount Everest, spending a lot of money to scale the peak and leaving his family behind. “No one asked him ‘What about your own children? Is this what you should be doing right now?’” Instead, church leaders invited him to give inspirational firesides about his experiences.

The gender role discrepancies are obvious, but Rueckert has come to celebrate her uniqueness and being true to herself.

“This has also been a journey to accepting who I am, and to give it space,” she said. “Maybe no one is going to ask me to give a fireside about my travels, but I don’t need their permission.”

Upcoming author appearances:

• Nov. 21 in Cambridge, Mass.

• Nov. 29 in Provo.

• Nov. 30 in Salt Lake City.

• Nov. 30 in Layton.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)