The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith - Joanna Brooks: Quickie Review

FYI: Joanna Brooks will be reading from her memoir at Weller Book Works this Thursday, August 23 at 7 P.M! It's a small space with room for fifty, so get there early and save a seat for me! If you didn't catch her interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, check it out here and here

Copious Thoughts otherwise known as Quick Thoughts:
There is a lot of talk that Mitt Romney running for President of the United States, is the Mormon Moment, (and I suppose if he is elected, the talk will be that it is now a post-religious America).

With all the dissembling and mean-spiritedness inherent in political elections, Joanna Brook's speaking her truth and speaking truth to power in her fearless memoir, just may turn out to be the dark horse Mormon Moment.  

From what we know about the major historical movements of the United States, it is always the voices on the margins that change the course of history. The majority of our leaders rarely introduce any type of radical change to the status quo, but look for a popular movement and run like hell to get in front of it and proclaim themselves its leader.

Think about this: a handful of Quakers, on the fringe of society and considered fanatics and not allowed to hold public office, opposed slavery, which to simplify, led to the formation of the Abolitionist Movement, which led to the Civil War, and eventually the Emancipation Proclamation.

Women's Suffrage, The Civil Rights Movement, The Women's Movement, The LGBT Movement, the Occupy Movement, both tea parties, all began on the margins with a handful of committed individuals who dared to imagine a better, more inclusive democracy.

Try to silence or dismiss an idea, an entire gender or population, and listen to the quiet swell of voices rising to a deafening cry for justice.

Instead of silencing voices that tell a story outside of accepted narratives, these unorthodox, questioning, dissenting voices may lead to the realization that the Mormon religion is not so weird, that it isn't scary or a cult. Mormons may have their own book and prophet, but they also have the Bible and Jesus. Rather than being threatened by the voices on the margin of the Church, a greater transparency may lead to the realization that this church has more in common with world religions than differences.

Joanna Brooks is an unorthodox Mormon woman who loves her faith, yet could not keep silent, nor find a place for herself within the Church. She is a woman who refuses to be silenced. And for this, I am grateful. There are many stories about this dynamic, complex, industrious, flawed, and very young American faith, that need to be told. 

Book of Mormon Girl is a personal accounting of Brook's experience. It is her Mormon story, but it is not the definitive story. Hers is only one story. There are a million plus more.  

There is room for all the stories, for all the voices. All of them. America needs them. The world needs them.  To my surprise, I need them. 

I found myself in these pages. There were brief phrases and passages where I found that I literally couldn't breathe. There were a few times I had to put the book down and walk away. I cried and raged. A lot. I will never, ever, lend my copy of the book out because of the nature of the commentary I wrote in the margins.  

I find it remarkable that Joanna Brooks is so deeply committed to her faith, and although she could not find a way to remain active and true to herself, she is an unorthodox advocate for a religion in which she is considered a dissident. Some call her an apostate, which implies a dangerous enemy, but in reality, is a person who renounces or abandons a belief, religious or political. Brooks has neither renounced, nor abandoned her faith, her religion.

Brooks unflinching account of her experiences resonated, and in the process of a few hours of reading, unlocked the door I had closed, nearly three decades ago.

As a very young child, I loved Primary. I loved the songs, the activities. I remember the thought of how lucky I was to be born a Mormon and in Utah! I really believed the Earth was seven-thousand years old.  I read the Book of Mormon, and although I didn't receive the burning testimony everyone else was claiming to have experienced, I had an intense desire to create my own versions of the Golden Plates. I wrapped an old brick with tinfoil, wrote on it, and then buried it under the tree in the pasture behind the house. When I dreamed about the Church, Michelangelo's Moses was always a menacing presence, horned hair and angry eyes enough to keep my restless self in check. As a young girl, I loved girl's camp: hiking, canoeing, swimming in the lake and the horror or leeches; hobo dinners around the campfire, crafts, huge assembly-like breakfasts, sack lunches, and starchy dinners. I loved the skits and programs. The program when the Lamanites turned white because they were so faithful was always popular, even if it was weird, and of course in retrospect, condescending and racist. I hated all the praying, probably because it went on too long, and the person giving the prayer usually cried or their voice quavered. I came to dread the last day of camp because there was an unspoken expectation to bear one's testimony. Each year as we sat in our groups around the fire, when it was my turn, I remained silent until the girl next to me finally got the hint and spoke up. I wasn't being defiant. I refused to bear testimony because I had doubts. I couldn't pretend something I didn't feel. I knew I had forced an invisible wedge between myself and other girls. Of course I got in trouble. I was always getting in trouble. I asked a lot of questions. I needed answers. 

I was livid that boys got the priesthood. Livid! And that boys that I knew who were totally unworthy were blessing the sacrament. I refused to take the sacrament in protest. I got in so much trouble! Later, I refused to be baptized for the dead because I thought the living made their choices and I hated it when anyone made decisions for me, and, who was I to go against the living or dead's wishes?  I was not allowed to refuse the trip to the temple, but once there, I refused to do anything but sit on a bench and wait for the girls to finish. I don't remember the drive home. It goes without saying I got in trouble. I do remember I never had to go for baptisms again. I didn't refuse Seminary. I enjoyed it my Sophomore and Junior year, especially the scripture study and memorization contests. We got a new teacher Senior year that moralized on proper conduct for girls and boys, mostly girls, and made examples of modesty infractions. I started wearing tank tops and mini skirts. I remember he told me that, football was my god. I had no idea what he was talking about. I still don't. I know he was earnest and well-meaning. I also know the only life he saw for me was very limited.

I remember the thought that as soon as it was legal to leave, I was out. Legal meant 18 and moved out of my childhood home. I had tried very, very hard to stay, but there was no place for me. I knew it was my right to be a full partner, not a helpmate. I asked questions and kept asking and wouldn't accept vague answers. Once I was legal, I made a great show of slamming the door, but eventually grew up and gently closed the door for good, and just forgot about it, and wondered every now and then what all that distant knocking was. What I am slowly learning is that locked doors shift and unhinge with time and demand to be opened.  Demand validation and resolution.

Reading Book of Mormon Girl also prompted the thought, lose one woman and you have lost countless generations.

I respect the religion of my youth. I do not regret that I walked away. I credit the Church with a lot my core strengths.  I see the joy of community, of belonging, the comfort of belief and faith in lives of my neighbors, friends and family. And I see the struggle, the quiet desperation of silent questioning. I have made a community and belief system of my own. It is a work in progress. By walking away, I have had to find my own path. And my own light.

Lose one woman and you have lost countless generations. I haven't been to church, unless it was to support a family member's baptism or blessing or primary program. I have not spoken against, nor in favor of the religion of my youth, to my children. All three children chose to be baptized, but none are currently active. Two of my children now have young children of their own. They did not have them blessed. If recent history serves, these grandchildren may chose to be baptized. Time will tell if they will remain active participants.

It could have been different. I chose to leave. I chose to listen to my own voice, telling me I needed a safer place, where my voice could be heard, where it was possible for me to lead, rather than follow. The faith of my youth has lost far too many women. I know great inroads have been made, are being made, to rectify this. Even so, by walking away, I found I have walked back to myself.

First Sentence:
"On Monday nights, my father and mother gathered their four children around the kitchen table in our tract house on the edge of the orange groves and taught us how the universe worked."

Favorite Parts:
p. 11 "In the world I grew up in, it was not okay to tell unorthodox stories. We did not hear them in church. We did not read them in scripture. But sooner or later they break through to the surface in every Mormon life, in every human life, in every life of faith. I am not afraid of them. Because this is the story life has given me to tell."

p. 26 "When I was eight years old, I could not yet see the shadows in my world of sparkling difference, the hard edges of the lines we drew to distinguish ourselves from others."

p. 28 "These are the unspoken legacies we inherit when we belong to a people: not only luminous visions of eternal expanses of loving-kindness, but actual human histories of exclusions and rank prejudice. We inherit not only the glorious histories of our ancestors, but their satisfactions with easy contradictions; their wisdom as well as their ignorance, arrogance, and presumption, as our own. we inherit all the ways in which our ancestors and parents and teachers were wrong, as well as the ways they were right: their sparkling differences, and their human failings. There is no unmixing of the two."

P. 36 "I learned that if the United States of America adopted into its Constitution the statement that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex," these words would in fact not correct long-standing gender inequities but rather endanger our families, demean the special and sacred roles of women, and harm the nation."

p. 43 "We grew up always ready to abandon this world, to take out small backpacks of bottled water, freeze-dried food, first-aid kits, and candles, and simply walk away, walk as far as Missouri if we had to, if that was where the New Jerusalem would be built."

p. 47 "The year we all turned twelve, the boys in my Sunday School class received the priesthood; the spiritual authority to lead, bless, and baptized, passed from Mormon father to Mormon son by the laying on of hands... I got Marie Osmond's Guide to Beauty, Health & Style."

p. 64 "You and me, Marie, wrestling the dark energies of childhood depressions and nascent eating disorders. You and me, with visions of self-harm, dark impulses we could only describe as religious."

p. 74 "Threatening? Us? Mormons?"

p. 84 "We waved our pom-poms for Utah, for pioneer grandmothers, for wheat sealed in tins against the apocalypse...I waved my pom-poms because I was not afraid of polygamy, sacred underwear, or the idea of eternal godhood..."

p. 98 "...I tried to get used to the feeling of being in the backseat, never driving, always driven, headed for destinations not of my choosing and vast beyond my control."

p. 111 "You, your body, your self---you are not an object lesson."

--- "How badly I want her to know that after many years of confusion, she will come home to a house she chose herself, with a man she chose herself, a man whose body does not menace, a man who does not dream of owning her."

p. 115 "What is to stop a people who have sized up the infinite forest of human souls tangled and uprooted by the avalanche of time, and said, cheerfully, yes, we will sort it all out and have it stacked as neatly as a cordwood by sundown."

p. 122 "So it happened that I was there at Brigham Young University just in time to witness a remarkable upwelling in Mormon feminism, a feminism that started very simply in basement classrooms with the idea that all were alike unto God."

p. 130 "I graduated from BYU, without a husband, returned my diploma in protest, and left Utah for a PhD program in Los Angeles."

p. 132 "Though I spoke very few words about it to the people with whom I shared my everyday life, during this decade, Mormons like me found ourselves in the grip of a terrible turn in Mormon history, in the grip of a fear provoked in part by the strength of our Mormon feminist vision: a fear of the full, glorious, strange, and difficult humanity of our Mormon past; a fear of women who openly claimed the power of a Heavenly Mother; a fear of mothers and fathers who refused to sacrifice their children to protect the public image of the Church; a fear of our own gay and lesbian relatives who refused the confines of the closet."

p. 136 "To my family, my choosing to marry David would mean that I was choosing not to be with them in heaven. But for me, choosing David meant placing my trust in a God bigger than doctrine."

p. 144 "No one should be left to believe that she is the only Mormon girl who walked alone into the dark. No one should be left to feel like she is the only one broken and seeking."

p. 150 "Forced to choose between my nostalgia for the faith of my childhood and my dignity as an adult, I... drove away."

p. 156 "What will I leave my own daughters, my own granddaughters? What stories will accompany them across the miles they will travel in their lifetimes? For their sakes, finally, I decide to stop feeling like a bad daughter in my own tradition. For their sakes, I decide I must make and tell my own version of the Mormon story."

p. 160 "I am not an orthodox Mormon woman like my mother. I am an unorthodox Mormon woman with a fierce and hungry faith... I need to remember all the risks being forgotten in a Mormonism where telling unorthodox versions of our story is sometimes viewed as the work of enemies and apostates.

I am not an enemy, and I will not be disappeared from the faith of my ancestors. I am a descendant of the Mormon pioneers."

p. 168 "I stare at a wooden Jesus on the cross suspended above the altar. It is an unfamiliar sight: this Jesus, arms outstretched and bound, on a cross, suspended in the chapel. Mormons do not have crucifixes in our chapels."

p. 171 "The Church as said that it respects the rights of its members with dissenting opinions. Still, as I write my speech, terror sits on my chest. I wrestle with the specter of excommunication that haunts every dissenting Mormon who writes or speak in public."

p. 177 "I hold my tongue, but I also hold my seat. This is a church inhabited by people willing to give up their own children for being gay. This is also a church of Millie Watts and the church of my grandmothers. This is a church of tenderness and arrogance, of sparkling differences and human feelings. There is no unmixing of the two."

p. 179 "My name is Joanna," I say. "And I am a straight Mormon feminist."

p. 181 "Sometimes the world does split apart, but writing can help but it back together."

p. 183 "As I wrote, I brought myself back from my own exile, the silent excommunication I subjected myself to when I was convinced Mormonism was not safe for women like me."

p. 186 "I am a believing Mormon woman, and I'm worried that the church seems to be losing so many women."

p. 188 "There is no way forward, I believe, but to tell our whole story. Not the made-for-television version, but the entire very imperfect story, the one that reveals the human flaws of the ones who came before us."

p. 189 "An orthodox story is nothing to be ashamed of. It is something that deserves to be shared."

Author Bio:
Joanna Brooks is a national voice on faith in American life and an award-winning scholar of religion and American culture. The author of The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith (Free Press), she is a senior correspondent for the on-line magazine and has been named one of “50 Politicos to Watch” by and one of “13 Religious Women to Watch” by the Center for American Progress. She is the recipient of the 2012 Eve Award from the Mormon Women’s Forum. She lives in San Diego with her husband and two children.

Best Reviews:
Publisher's Weekly - Book of Mormon Girl
The New Yorker - I, Nephi
By Common Consent - The Book of Mormon Girl

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