Jana Riess: ‘I don’t want to be here’ — bestselling novelist explains why she left Mormonism

Once a “true believer,” the former Utahn has no regrets about leaving her childhood faith.

(Amazon) Kiersten White's latest book is an adult horror novel set in Utah. White has left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Kiersten White had a happy, protected childhood. Growing up in Highland, Utah, the award-winning novelist attended a high school that was 96% Latter-day Saint. She descended from pioneers who crossed the Plains in the 1800s to live out their religion. Every part of her life was informed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I was a true believer,” she said in a Zoom interview. “Absolutely with my whole heart, I believed everything, and tried to live everything to exact standards.” For her, that meant going to school at church-owned Brigham Young University, where she met her future spouse the first week. They married in a Latter-day Saint temple two weeks after her 19th birthday and had their first child just before she turned 21.

But last month, White, now 40, outed herself as a nonbeliever in a New York Times feature story about Latter-day Saint YA writers. The Times began doing interviews in early 2023 about why so many young adult fantasy and science fiction novelists are Latter-day Saints. The reporter assigned to the piece discovered to her surprise that six of the authors she contacted for the story responded that they were no longer active members, including White.

White told Religion News Service the decision to leave Mormonism took many years and had several root causes. Even when she was at BYU and 100% fully believing, she chafed at the church’s expectations for girls and women.

“Growing up as a girl in Utah County was an exercise in learning to split myself into smaller pieces,” she said. “I was really ambitious and competitive. I realized those were things that I was not supposed to be, and so I hid those. You learn to perform femininity in a way that is acceptable.”

She also had experiences she didn’t realize were abusive until later.

“When I was going to get my temple recommend as an 18-year-old to get married, the stake presidency member [a regional lay leader] asked me sexually explicit questions in depth and in detail.” He went beyond the standard chastity question to ask specific follow-ups. Had she ever engaged in oral sex? How about heavy petting? Manual stimulation?

“As an 18-year-old, I hadn’t even kissed with tongue,” White said. “I was so embarrassed to be asked those questions. And it’s not OK for an 18-year-old girl to be alone in a room with a 40-something-year-old man who has the power to say whether she’s going to be able to get married in the temple. But at the time, I didn’t question any of it, and I didn’t talk to anyone about it. It was only later that I realized that he should not have done any of that.”

The experience caused White to realize that, for women in the church, “your value is your body. It’s sexual purity before marriage, and it’s having babies after. I was really lucky in that I married a person who valued me and did not have that sort of toxic masculinity that can be so prevalent in very patriarchal religions.”

California, here they come

After graduation, she and her husband moved to California, where White saw firsthand what people’s lives looked like outside the church. “That was a really big culture shock for me, because I had never lived anywhere that wasn’t Mormon. We had a great ward [congregation]here. But when I started getting into writing, I made friends for the first time in my life who were not Mormon.”

As she began to see that people could be happy outside the church as well as in it, she also started to question what church leaders were teaching about the family. She witnessed events firsthand when the faith did a full-on campaign to defeat same-sex marriage in California in 2008.

“For the first time, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be here (at church). I don’t even want to be associated with this because I know what they’re saying is wrong.’” White had LGBTQ friends and family members. Still, she stayed active in the church, in part because she felt like she was making a difference in her ward.

“I did the whole thing,” she said, “where ‘If everyone who feels like me leaves, then nothing will ever change.’”

Years passed, and her writing career took off. Her novels sold hundreds of thousands of copies and hit the bestseller lists for The New York Times, USA Today and Publishers Weekly. She became known not just as a great YA novelist, but as a “Mormon” YA novelist.

But in November 2015 she reached a breaking point with her faith. That was when the church instituted an exclusion policy in which the children of same-sex-married parents were deemed ineligible to be baptized or blessed in the church.

“I still remember the day that came out, going into the hallway so my kids wouldn’t see me,” he said. “I couldn’t stop crying because it felt like a death. It was the end of my emotional relationship with the church, the end of my connection to it.”

She didn’t cut ties right away. She and her husband began weighing every aspect of their church activity, methodically testing and dismantling items one by one. They stopped paying tithes to the church, but for the next couple of years, they continued to hold callings (“I got relegated to the library,” she says with a laugh). They began attending sacrament meeting less often.

Gone for good

In 2017, when one of their kids reached an age that’s an important milestone in the church, they contacted the bishop to thank him for being a good friend to their family and also let him know that they were done.

She was still on the ward email list and noticed that when an email blast went out asking congregants to bake cookies for inactive members, her family received a plate of cookies on the doorstep. “And the cookies had nuts, which our kids are deathly allergic to,” she said. “So, it’s like Mormonism is still trying to kill us.”

But she understands what she calls “the clumsy attempts to re-fellowship us,” because she used to do that for other people when she was an active member. “I understand why people are doing it, and it doesn’t offend me.”

There hasn’t been much tension about it in her extended family. Several family members have also left the church, while others have stayed. White hasn’t joined another faith community since leaving.

For several years, she stayed publicly quiet about the decision to leave. She had been taught “a very specific narrative” about why people leave the church and what tends to happen to them afterward: Their families fall apart and their anger consumes them.

But more recently, she’s decided to open up.

“A couple of years ago I realized the leadership of the church — these men who I had decided no longer got to tell me what to think or feel or say or do — were still determining what I was thinking and feeling and saying and doing,” she said.

“I was determined not to fall into any of the ex-Mormon stereotypes, but the thing is, those stereotypes exist for a reason. It’s because we were raised in a church that demanded to be in every part of our lives and to control every aspect of who we were. And so when we leave, of course we had big feelings about it. Of course we’re angry, of course we’re sad, of course we’re upset. And by not allowing myself to have those feelings, I was still giving it power over me.”

One way White has reasserted that power is through her writing. Her most recent book, “Mister Magic”, is an adult horror novel set in Utah. The main characters are the cast of a children’s television program that ended abruptly and tragically 30 years before. As they sort through their different memories of what happened, they face dangers that are both supernatural and all too human.

While the story is not overtly about Mormonism, careful readers will see its signature everywhere, including in pieces of Primary-esque songs and the “Standin’ Tall” cassettes White’s family listened to when she was little.

“Writing the novel gave me the chance to dive into this idea we have of what childhood should be,” White said. “A lot of conservative religions teach this sort of ownership over children’s lives and minds and hearts — that they are there for us to mold, to make into our version of the ideal girl or boy. But it’s a kind of violence, superimposing our ideal of who our children should be and ignoring who they actually are.”

White’s forays into adult fiction have been exciting for her as a writer, giving her the chance to explore themes and characters she couldn’t as a Latter-day Saint. Audiences are responding. Her novel “Hide” is currently in development with Universal Television. All told, her more than two dozen novels have sold over a million copies around the world.

Professionally and personally, White is thriving. And, she says, there is “some small, petty part” of her that takes pride in that, since “when you leave the church, people are watching and they’re waiting. They’re waiting for you to get divorced. They’re waiting for you to become addicted or an alcoholic or for your kids to go off the deep end. That’s what we’re taught, right? That the church is the only thing holding us back from absolute moral and physical destruction. And that is just not the case. There’s no part of me that regrets the choices that we made in leaving the church.”

Upcoming author appearancesKiersten White will appear at the Las Vegas Book Festival on Oct. 21 and a signing at the Encinitas, Calif., Barnes & Noble on Oct. 28 at 6 p.m.

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