Our Man Paul

An offhand comment of mine on the recent Word of Wisdom thread prompted a request from a BCC reader for more on Paul H. Dunn. No problem—I can whip up a good Paul Dunn story on the spot! But seriously, does anyone else miss him? Can you think of a Conference session you’ve seen in the last ten years that wouldn’t have been given a badly needed shot in the arm by a talk from a storyteller-entertainer like Elder Dunn?

First, some links for those of you saying “Paul who?” Here is a short bio of Paul H. Dunn. It includes his 1991 open letter of apology to the Church. For a mercifully short summary of the messy details about Elder Dunn’s penchant for enhancing his own personal stories well beyond poetic license, see here. It’s worth remembering that he didn’t rob banks, do drugs, or run off with a secretary. He just got carried away telling stories and let his narrative outrun his facts. In public. For many years.

Benefitting from Elder Dunn’s unfortunate experience, LDS leaders seem to have tightened up their citation and attribution habits in published talks and speeches. Even Ensign articles give sources in footnotes now. This appears to be Elder Dunn’s positive legacy to the Church: an expectation that cited statistics and illustrative stories have sources and references. Those making public statements are more careful about what they say, I think, than was once the case. Elder Dunn has made the Church a better place.

What else can we learn? The Dunn experience shows how little good humor there is in extended Mormon circles. Most commentators could express nothing but horror that Dunn would tell tall tales about his adventures during WWII or in sports. Some people are just too damn serious. What kind of war stories do they expect? Real war is hell; there are no entertaining stories. Go watch Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan. It won’t take long to figure out why Dunn enhanced his stories.

Shall we chuck out stories altogether? Is that solution preferable to the risk that storytellers exaggerate? Shall we make all talks a mix of scripture quotes, moral exhortation, and teary testimonials? We’re almost there now and it gets dull fast. It makes me pine for the lost era of great LDS storytellers, of whom Paul H. Dunn was one of the giants. No doubt he’ll have some great stories to tell about Purgatory when we all get together in the hereafter.

Comments

  1. Aaron Brown says:

    I’m a firm believer in the idea that storytellers should be as accurate as possible when they tell their tales. I think exaggeration and artificial embellishment are a big no-no. I’m not going to go into the details, but my family has recently been through a hellish, multi-year drama that was driven, at least in part, by exaggerated tales told by certain individuals who thought that spicing up their narratives was a good idea. It wasn’t. Alas, I can’t get into the details.

    Some might find this ironic coming from me, given my own propensity for storytelling. I am occasionally accused of embellishing my own tales, or of having had way too many bizarre experiences for one lifetime. All I can say is that my detractors are wrong. I always strive for complete accuracy.

    Of course, memory can be fallible, and all of us (except me, of course) are perhaps prone to remembering things differently than they actually were. But that’s really a different issue.

    As to Paul H. Dunn, I agree that his indiscretions need to be kept in perspective. It’s not like he was an axe-murderer, a crystal meth dealer, a denier of the sacred claim that the Word of Wisdom was ahead of its time (Gasp!) or a thrower of pre-teen slumber parties at the Neverland ranch. However, what always struck me most about the Paul H. Dunn incident was the reaction of some of Dunn’s defenders. I remember so many fellow members who insisted that he’d done nothing wrong. To even acknowledge that he’d erred was more than some members could handle. This was pathetic, in my view, and the whole incident and the reactions it spawned probably revealed as much about certain Church members and their propensity for denial as it did about Dunn and the propensity of the leadership to get too creative with their anecdotes.

    Aaron B

  2. I think that embellishing stories, or going into flights of fancy are best left to writers of various forms of fiction. However, like Aaron, said, folks within our Church need to lighten up a bit too, and develop a sense of humor, and not take everything so literally.

  3. Time seems to be healing all wounds; but remember that he took a while to come clean. There is a man in my ward who wrote him when this came out, and Paul sent him a letter back saying that it was all fabrication, and that he most certainly didn’t lie about his stories.

  4. I’m just surprised he hasn’t come up on the historicity thread.

  5. We believe in being honest. Do we believe in being accurate?

  6. Um, maybe I’m missing something here, but what is the difference between making up stories that never happened and leading people to believe the stories are in fact true and lying?

    Paul H. Dunn is a liar. He didn’t just forget a few minor details of his stories, he intentionally fabricated people and events that never existed or happened. Sure, he told a great story, but these stories were lies!

  7. For me, what was disturbing about Paul H. Dunn’s stories was not just that he fabricated a lot but that the fabrications were often about making him personally look good rather than enhancing some moral conclusion to the story. Of course, I could be exaggerating my recollection of that because I am so annoyed by the self-aggrandizing tendencies of some failed ball players, but I’ll take the chance that no one is going to check me on that.

    BTW, speaking of this episode, does anyone know whatever happened to (where is he now) Lynn Packer, Boyd K. Packer’s journalist nephew who did the expose on Paul H. Dunn?

  8. It’s regrettable that the scandal is what remains most prominent regarding Paul Dunn.

  9. N Miller says:

    Aren’t we glad our dirty laundry isn’t aired out in public. I wonder how people would react to find out things that I did. What if people found out about what you did?

  10. President Monson still tells some good stories. But are they any more verifiable than Paul Dunn’s?

    I can’t say that I have vivid memories of early Primary teachers (let alone their names) or elderly widowed neighbors. I don’t have vivid memories of, say, Sister Mildred Afghan, the loving elderly widow who taught my Star A class, or Mrs. Ima Grouch, the stern, miserly woman next door who routinely grabbed any of my baseballs that accidently landed on her lawn but who taught me the meaning of service. Maybe my memory of my early years is not what it should be.

    BTW, Lynn Packer is now a Utah trial consultant specializing in the use of technology. Court Consult

  11. john fowles says:

    Why are you acting like Dunn has been treated unfairly somehow, Dave? He lied to the body of the Church. It wasn’t just exaggeration in storytelling. It was a bad thing to do. It has absolutely nothing to do with the sense of humor of the body of the Church. We expect honesty from Church leaders.

    This really is surprising, Dave, that you of all people are criticizing the Church for its reaction to a lying Church leader. It wrests the history a little to say that Dunn should actually be praised b/c his lies caused better citation and attribution methods.

    If this is your approach to Dunn, when are you finally going to post a thread exonerating McConkie?

  12. I know people in the church who still read his books because they are fun to read. As John C. refrenced in his comment, I really am surpised there hasn’t been much talk of this in the Historicity debate. I’m too young to remember, but I amgine that many were inspired and/or moved (by the spirit?) by his talks.

  13. Nevertheless, the cartoons which came out about him were pretty funny.

    Go here:http://www.sunstoneonline.com/magazine/mag-cartoons.asp#

    and select the Sep. 1991 issue

  14. Did Jonah really live inside a fish for three days? Did Noah actually build an ark big enough for two of every living thing (except for McKonkie’s Dinosaurs) and was the entire earth actually covered with water? If the “truth” about Dunn’s stories had never surfaced, would we continue to hear those stories retold in church? Very certainly, what we see in The Temple, that did not happen as shown; it’s symbolic, right? And symbols, by definition, are lies.

    Personally, I think the contempt members show toward Dunn is an expression of their own anger at being so successfully duped. “How dare he trick us into strenghtening our faith and testimony and inspiring us to be better people! The Horror!”

  15. We have confidence and faith in our leaders not to lie to us. I guess we can separate out “white lies” from insidious lies, and Paul H. Dunn’s lies definitely fall into the first category, but deception is deception – no matter what you call it.

    And it’s decidedly worse when a leader of the church deceives us. I have many skeletons in my closet that I’d be embarrassed about if anyone found out about them, but I’m not thrusting myself into the limelight and telling lies to make myself look good, either (well, at least I don’t make a habit of it, anyway).

  16. John F (and others who are taking the high road of total honesty), the problem is that if you want to condemn Paul Dunn on the principle that lying is a terrible thing for a Church leader to do, what do you do with Joseph Smith, who lied about the practice of polygamy to his wife, his fellow leaders, and to the Church as a whole? What do you do with a modern LDS leader who advocates teaching “faithful” history rather than full and honest history? Is it only junior GAs who we hold accountable?

    I’m not going overboard defending Elder Dunn, just suggesting that a reasonable sense of perspective is called for.

  17. N Miller says:

    Dave –

    Lying about polygamy? Explain. In the sense that he didn’t want to do it or what?

  18. N Miller, I’d rather not deflect the thread along that path. Let’s stick with the general idea that it is a problem to apply a standard of harsh honesty to Paul Dunn and but selectively excuse or rationalize examples of such behavior (or advocacy of such a practice) by others.

  19. A reasonable assumption of “Secret Teaching”, can be made in the case of Joseph. Whle this does not temper the disturbing nature of it, the same cannot be said of with Dunn.

  20. Sorry for the tangent Dave, I posted after you and didn’t read your last comment.

  21. john fowles says:

    Dave, aren’t you the one applying an inconsistent standard, shrugging off Dunn’s lies and even saying they were good for the Church while elsewhere and constantly criticizing or questioning the Church’s honesty? If Dunn’s lies are no big deal (and the reaction is merely attributable to a lack of sense of humor by the body of the Church), then what’s the problem with the Church insisting that the First Vision happened the way it teaches if you, for example, happen to be one that thinks it is an invention? Is criticism of the Church’s official version of the First Vision, or any other matter relating to its own origins and/or claims to authority that someone might claim is a lie merely a function of a lack of sense of humor on the part of the criticizers?

  22. I’m not particularly adept at straw men identification. However, my meter is twitching at both Dave and John Fowles.

  23. Mark B. says:

    I don’t know if the exaggerated stories that Elder Dunn told were the core of the problem. It was his regrettable lack of good judgment in some of his business dealings. My (admittedly fuzzy) recollection is that he lent his name to some of the familiar Utah “get rich quick” scams–you know, where they promise 20% annual returns on your money, endorsed by a high councilor or a former mission president or E. Dunn, but the only people who get rich (temporarily) are the promoters of the scheme, who then go to the Point of the Mountain for 1-10 and leave their wives home with the 11 kids and no money.

    And then there was the time his son-in-law (or some similar relation) opened a carwash in Provo. The Grand Opening ad said: Come, get your car washed, meet Paul Dunn and get a copy of his latest book, autographed.”

    But as to his stories: the only difference between them and the parables is that he put himself into the middle of them and thus made us think that they were historical. As I recall (again, through the fog) he used his stories to entertain, to teach, to exhort.

  24. To ease your pain a bit, John, those who complained most vociferously about Elder Dunn’s indiscretions were outside the Church or out on the fringes. That is the “extended Mormon circle” to which I was referring.

    I’m not shrugging off Dunn’s storytelling excesses. If I use elliptical phrases (such as “his narrative outrun[ning] his facts” rather than something direct like “lies, lies, and more lies”) that’s just to be polite, which does have its place, even online. Even so, I find your sense of moral outrage at his conduct overdone.

  25. And symbols, by definition, are lies.

    Huh?

  26. Mark N. says:

    Was the world really created by Elohim, Jehovah and Michael, or was this something just made up by Brigham Young?

  27. I’m confused here. Dave – are implying that lying by our church leaders is to be expected? Or excused?

  28. What Mark N. said

    Double huh! What in the blue blazes does that have to do with anything?

  29. What John C. said.

  30. Odd dynamic going on here. I post comments defending Paul Dunn, and the orthodox faithful commenters think that in so doing I am somehow implying that LDS leaders should lie? Or habitually do lie? I’ll try and refocus the discussion by outlining my points from the original post:

    1. Dunn’s storytelling exaggerations were wrong.
    2. Dunn’s faults were not, on balance, as serious as other moral transgressions such as embezzling funds or having an affair.
    3. The reaction to the revelations of his storytelling exaggerations (or outright fabrications) seems extreme compared to the nature of the fault.
    4. Dunn certainly isn’t the only LDS leader to misstate facts, but no one who is appalled with Dunn seems to care about other examples of such conduct. Is false storytelling wrong but false history commendable?
    5. As a matter of human nature, most people exaggerate or misrepresent themselves. Some may consider that lying, others some intermediate form of shading the truth, but it is naive to display actual surprise that a leader (whether political, corporate, or religious) has made intentional misstatements.
    6. Dunn’s misstatements shouldn’t displace the fact that he was an entertaining and engaging speaker.
    7. The Church could sure use a few good speakers, ones who can mix some entertainment in with their exhortations and rebukes.

  31. “Dunn certainly isn’t the only LDS leader to misstate facts, but no one who is appalled with Dunn seems to care about other examples of such conduct.”

    I think this is why I was so confused about your post, because this last statement is a huge overstatement. Of course people are appalled when their leaders lie to them! I think the problem is that not many Mormons even realize the past issues with “lying for the Church”, since these instances are carefully excised from “real” history to produce a manufactured “faithful” history.

    Given your other posts on these issues, I found it confusing that you were defending Dunn. Yeah, his lying about his wartime buddies dying in his arms is no big deal when compared to Joseph Smith lying to his wife and people he trusted about the fact that he had married (and had sex with) other women, but Dunn’s actions were still wrong, and yes, appalling. We expect honesty from our leaders, and even if this expectation is misplaced, it’s like a slap in the face to learn that we’ve been lied to. And, yes, it’s also embarrassing to be made a fool of, which is probably why many people were so outraged.

  32. That fellow Nephi lied to Zoram, too. Toss the bum out!

  33. Ack!! This is driving me crazy! Is this a joke? I think I must have stumbled into some sort of weird Bizzaro blog land today, because I can’t understand this post at all.

    What happened to all the indignant outrage at moral relativism? Now we’re laughing amusedly at this silly, harmless old man who liked to make up stories (um, LIES!!!) to impress people? Sure, it’s funny, but this man was a General Authority!! You know, the guys who are fond of saying that the Lord would never let them lead the Church astray?!! Is this just a bunch of hooey? Man, I’ve got to stop reading these blogs – I’m getting all turned around. Next thing you know, I’ll find out that Mormons believe that it actually IS okay to cheat on your wife and lie about it.

  34. I have no dog in the big fights happening here, but a small query:

    Dave, I agree that it seems like Paul Dunn’s fabrications are nowhere near as bad as having an affair. But then something makes me wonder– he didn’t just tell stories to his buddies, but to the church. Isn’t sinning against the entire church, from a position of authority, an aggravating circumstance? At some point, it seems like a small sin against the Lord’s church could become equivalent to a large sin against yourself and your spouse. Or maybe not. But it’s interesting to ponder.

  35. danithew says:
  36. Here’s my favorite scriptural reference on the matter:

    Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness

    I think it’s in Exodus somewhere. Along with nine other suggestions/self-help tips.

  37. GA’s have an agenda and that is to get us to listen, be inspired and repent. Sometimes these motives can lead to compromises in truth claims. This is the whole point of the conflict between faithful history and the new mormon history. It’s okay to inspire people, but if accuracy is sacrificed let’s not call it history. Thus GA’s talks in conference probably not be considered to be the least biased on historical accounts. I guess how bad this really is will depend on the person.

  38. Can I point out that everyone involved believes that lying is bad and prompt the conversation to move on from the obvious?

  39. danithew says:

    Is lying always bad? Muahahaha!

  40. Lying is bad. Unless you are “lying for the Lord”, which apparently applies to fabricating inspirational stories about playing major league baseball.

  41. HL Rogers says:

    What the Church could really use are some ex-pro athletes in the upper echelons. I mean, we all love them, they become folk heros, but they never seem to be able to crack the top. Danny Ainge, Steve Young, Dale Murphy…

  42. N Miller says:

    Dale Murphy was mission president for a while and Steve Young is just getting into the age that he could be called into similar duty. Even Ainge is relatively young for GA status. Give them all a few more years.

  43. Tess, it seems like you are repeating superficial, stereotypical positions that you have heard elsewhere rather than what people are actually saying on this thread. The only person here who has said “lying is bad, but lying for the Lord is good” is you, and I assume you are criticizing that position rather than endorsing it.

    What we are saying is that lying is, as a general rule, bad (no matter why you are lying) but that some misstatements, misrepresentations, or intentionally false statements are worse than others; that such misleading statements are more prevalent than is generally held out in public discourse; and that in the specific case here, it is curious everyone unloads on Paul Dunn when other examples of misleading statements get conveniently ignored. [Well, that's what I'm saying; others have offered variations on that theme.]

    Besides your apparent surprise that the world is not populated with adult Boy Scouts (which is not, by the way, a realistic ideal type for an adult who must navigate the challenges of the real world), what is your real position?

  44. I remember coming home from a stake conference when I was little. In the car, my father, a war veteran, and bishopric member, was ranting about what b** sh*** Elder Dunn’s talk, which we had just heard, had been. My father said that no one who had been in combat would believe the stories. I wonder how many other people who heard the stories realized that they weren’t true, and thought less of Paul Dunn as a leader because of them. I’ve heard it said that Elder Dunn didn’t really hurt anyone with the stories– but I disagree.

    What about the folks who had relatives die in WWII? They had to listen to those madeup stories aggrandizing PHD and his spirituality– making their own loved ones look less worthy in comparison.

    What about the boys my age– old enough to be drafted in Vietnam? Those stories were always held up to our generation as the epitome of faith and valor– making boys my age who didn’t want to go to Viet Nam seem less faithful and courageous– if only they were so spiritually in tune as Elder Dunn, they’d not protest going to Vietnam.

    It was absolutely wrong to present those stories as true, even if they were entertaining, because of way they affected other people.

    And, someone asked about Elder Monson’s stories. I personally know someone who was mentioned by name in one of them in general conference– and that person says that the story was greatly exaggerated.

  45. My grandmother said that anyone who listened to Dunn knew that so much stuff would never happen to one person–and that she at least understood that he was merely illustrating his points with stories.

  46. My position is that lies are bad. Boy scouts or not, people are responsible for what they say to others. As an extreme example, think of Mark Hacking. The lies he told about his life destroyed him and his wife.

    The LDS Church and its leaders have a somewhat checkered past in telling the “truth”. Paul H. Dunn aside, lies perpetrated by Church leaders have hurt many people (and have also destroyed lives). But, ultimately, my position is that there should not be two standards for telling the truth – one for the leaders who choose when to be honest, and another standard for the members, who are condemned by the leaders for not being completely honest at all times.

  47. “Lies are bad.” That’s awfully general, Tess. Of course, your full position is that lies are bad, but lies by LDS leaders are especially bad. That kind of selective, targeted griping is sort of a signal that your thinking is being driven by a hidden agenda. You’re not arguing principle, you’re just griping about a group you don’t like. Nothing wrong with griping, but if you’re going to do it publicly on my thread, I’ve got a right to ask what’s really driving your argument.

    If Boy Scout/Girl Scout honesty is your operative standard, maybe you can come clean as to what issue is really motivating your complaints. It’s obviously not Paul Dunn (who died seven years ago and whose exaggerated storytelling was exposed years before that).

  48. “You’re not arguing principle, you’re just griping about a group you don’t like.”

    I’m not sure where you’re getting this from my comments. The principle is that leaders of the Church have a much greater responsibility to be truthful than the members. And Paul H. Dunn failed spectacularly in this responsibility (as did former President Bill Clinton).

    And you’re right that I don’t like the “group” of Church leaders who lie to the members, so let’s be clear – I have no hidden agenda – I don’t like Church leaders who lie to the members.

    Also, why are you singling me out for “griping”? That’s fine if you disagree with me, but my comments don’t singularly deserve to be ridiculed and dismissed as “gripes”.

  49. Nate Oman says:

    “You’re not arguing principle, you’re just griping about a group you don’t like.”

    Dave, this is an excellent description of about 90 percent of the conversations that we have in the bloggernacle!

  50. “President Monson still tells some good stories. But are they any more verifiable than Paul Dunn’s?

    I can’t say that I have vivid memories of early Primary teachers (let alone their names) or elderly widowed neighbors.”

    I once heard that Monson has an idetic memory, aka a “photographic” memory. That would explain some of his abilities. What amazes me is the sheer number of stories he has–a seemingly inexhaustible supply. My dad, OTOH, has about three stories, which I have heard over and over for the past 30+ years.

    Minor threadjack: did anyone else find really disturbing Monson’s story at the last GC about the paperboy who committed suicide?

  51. Aaron Brown says:

    Yes.

  52. Mark N. says:

    What in the blue blazes does that have to do with anything?

    The story of the Good Samaritan was, in the end, just a story, right? There really was no Samaritan as good as Jesus painted this one to be in his story. He preached the ideal, but I don’t think he was telling a story about an actual Jew who was fixed up by an actual Samaritan after being passed up and left for dead by two other actual Jews.

    How many members of the Church believe that it was a retelling of an actual event? Quite a few, I’d be willing to bet. Are they mislead?

  53. A parable is a bit different than self-aggrandizement. PD stories bordered on the pathologic. Ask any veteran what they think about people who make up stories about their military service.

  54. The sad thing about Paul Dunn is he gave some very wise counsel that will probably be lost in his dishonesty.

    He came to our stake once and gave a wonderful talk to the women. He had a question and answer session after and one woman asked about limiting the number of children. He said that he thought a lot of marriages would have been a lot happier if they’d had less children. Then he said Joseph F. Smith had 10 kids and Harold B. Lee had one and asked us to decide who was more righteous.

    Later another sister said somebody had told her ten year old son the facts of life and what should she do now that her child knew these very sensitive things. He leaned forward on his arms, looked her straight in the eye, and said, “Madam, if you have waited until now to tell your child the facts of life, you have waited too long.” I loved it because it was my child who had told her child.

    So he did a bad. Who among us is without sin? It doesn’t negate the good he did.

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