Joanna Brooks wrote a bittersweet memoir of her early devout-Mormon years in Southern California, and how her faith was affected by the feminist-clean-out at BYU in the early 90s, and then by the Proposition 8 campaign in California a decade later. I enjoyed the book with a nervous anticipation of what she was exposing about our culture and our doctrine. Her writing was beautiful. I could not only visualize her Girl’s Camp week and her talks with her grandmother, I could taste them and feel them. She paid attention to details that are rich, unobserved background for everyone else. She also had a very satisfying circular rhythm to her stories, bringing ideas back to the beginning reference with much more meaning the second time around. I enjoyed reading it.
The tone of the book is interesting. At first her sweet growing-up experiences seemed almost tongue-in-cheek mocking the more curious and “peculiar” parts of our doctrine. She talked about her mother’s genealogical research early each morning and how she felt her ancestors helping her work along–as well as the dark forces that were holding her back. Stuff like that is in every Mormon’s mind and it doesn’t bother us, but seeing it written on the page really made me think: “Hmmm. That’s weird. Isn’t it.” But as her stories went on, I discovered that she wasn’t editorializing the Mormon experience. No didactic passages dedicated to instructing non-Mormons about how it all makes sense, nor any defense for the peculiarity of our culture and doctrine. We are left to feel it out for ourselves; and I noticed that when I started feeling uncomfortable and unwilling to own the distinctive parts of the religion, I had to examine what I hold as true. Even if it looks weird on the page. When she was talking about polygamy in heaven to her camp leaders as a teenager, I simply gave up being defensive and said, “Yep. It’s crossed our minds. No apologies.”
And so, my review is: it is a worthwhile read. It goes by quickly and there is no malice or meanness in it. It certainly exposes our underbelly with our cultural failings, which I think is important to recognize. When I started this blog, I meant to speak out in defense of womanhood that I felt was being trampled on by feminists. And then, reading her story, I found that my heart was in the wrong place. Whatever our differences, we must always love each other. Seek to understand each other. Not criticize someone because you don’t know their story, or their heart. Sister Brooks is one of many people I know who were crushed by the oppressive mono-culture of Utah County. The cultural attitude of “I am absolutely right because I am a Mormon (even if this has nothing to do with the doctrine of the Church)” is stifling. We ought to be forgiving, loving, humble and kind. That’s really all that is required of us. (Moses 7:32-34, John 13:34, Mosiah 4:15, D&C 88:123)
And now for my personal reaction to the story:
Sister Brooks left the church for several years, maybe a decade? Over the heat surrounding her dear professors and friends who defied Church leadership in connection with feminism and liberalism. It was personally painful for her to see her friends who were some of the best people she knew, at odds with the leadership of the church. I know how that feels; not to the same degree, but the confusion and the questions of “how can this person claim inspiration when they make such poor choices that affect other people’s salvation” have been part of my life these last five years. As I read the book, I wondered what other paths Sister Brooks could have chosen that would have brought more peace, more quickly. She carried around hurt and ache “I felt as if someone had thrown my heart to the concrete and dropped a cinder block on it”. She couldn’t go into a church building without breaking down. For years there was this magnetic pull to get back to the church, but a force field of hurt keeping her out. Writing her book helped her reconcile the two. Standing up for what she believed in also gave her a voice when she felt powerless.
The path I would have taken, hopefully, (because it is the path I have been taking for the past five years) is multifaceted and a bit jumbled in my head, so let me see if some bullet points will straighten it out coherently.
- Looking at it from the other person’s perspective helps me not feel so persecuted. Trying to find their reasoning and understanding their logic takes away the sting. In this case, Boyd K. Packer had been speaking to a group of church leaders and he identified the three greatest dangers to the Church were “the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement and the so-called scholars or intellectuals”. Sounds closed minded and rural. But look at where he is coming from. If they embrace any of those ideals, it turns the doctrine of the church over. They should love the people associated with the ideas, but they cannot sanction the ideas. Embracing same-loving people leads to same-sex temple marriages, which is never going to happen. I wish there was a way, but there isn’t. Letting in the kind of feminism that makes women bitter and unhappy to be mothers might be terribly liberating for the women, but it is terrible for the families. Being a mom is a sacrifice. But it is also a calling and a source of joy. The doctrine of the Church is that all are equal before God. Roles are not identical, but they weigh the same and are invaluable to society and the Kingdom of God. Many feminists believe that our roles ought to be identical, which “makes a wasteland of both manhood and womanhood”. Foreseeing this, the leadership of the church couldn’t adopt feminist theories, even the good ones (yay for education and suffrage!) because they carry a lot of untrue baggage. Scholars and intellectuals–I’m still trying to understand his aversion. Maybe the demand for scientific proof in a religion that is felt and experienced but not quantifiable. You simply cannot prove Mormonism right or wrong. You just have to feel it and see. Understanding that the church leaders must dig in on the absolute safe and right side of an issue for the protection of the doctrines and practices down the road helps lessen the sting of the personal confrontations that came out of it.
- Sister Brooks might have thought that the Brethren were oppressing her friends and teachers because they were feminists/scholars/intellectuals. But more likely, they were reprimanded because they made such a big deal out of the “Strengthening the Members Committee”. They told the Church leaders who were called by God that they weren’t doing things right. And they did it publicly. And if they had been to the temple, they knew that they were breaking an important covenant. Another way they could have approached it (instead of having a expose published about secret espionage in the LDS hierarchy) was to humbly ask one of the leaders to explain how the committee worked and what purpose it served. Seek for understanding.
- And maybe the leaders were just altogether wrong. One apostle’s words are not doctrine for the whole church unless they all unanimously declare it. Not that they don’t have valuable things to say, individually. But, in my case in the last five years, I don’t understand why the church leader has his calling. And so, I tell God: I am uncomfortable with this. I know things that I shouldn’t about him, I don’t know why he is in that position. Please tell me what to do. I will talk to the Stake President if that is a good idea, but I leave this in Thy hands. And then I get a feeling like “this isn’t your problem, you just need to keep your covenants. I’ll deal with him.” And so I keep following the leader because I have committed to following my leaders. I try to be humble. And I trust that everything will be made right in the end. I’m sure that Peter, James and John wondered about Jesus’ ability to receive inspiration when they had Judas Iscariot tagging along everywhere. “Can He not see what this man’s heart is?” But Judas needed to be there–someone had to betray Jesus. And maybe some of these benighted leaders (no, I’m not talking about any of the 15 Apostles, just the local ones) are serving a purpose that is specific to them–perhaps to their condemnation (like Judas). Perhaps to make them better saints (like Alma the younger). But it is all in God’s hands, and I leave it to Him to mete out justice.
I’m not criticizing Sister Brooks’ path. She made her way and learned immeasurably. I am taking this path and learning different things. I simply write this for those who are standing at the path wondering which way to go. There are as many paths as there are people in the world. Find the one that brings you peace.