Elna Baker‘s new memoir, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, is billed as a coming of age story of a Mormon girl in New York, a virginal Mormon girl in the face of Carrie Bradshaw’s (surprisingly STD-free) City. But her feelings of deep faith mixed with nagging doubts and her commitment to chastity while simultaneously wanting to have sex, are feelings any LDS girl or boy will know immediately as their own, even at (any one of) the BYU(s). And that’s why I think you’ll like this book, because it’s so frank and familiar. Also, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
There are, of course, the uniquely New York stories. Fortune cookie subway moments, an out-and-proud freshman roommate that regularly leaves a sex toy on the counter, a whole story about a celebrity “Warren Beatty” that, even if you ran into Peter Breinholt in a Cafe Rio, would never happen in Provo. But she tells her stories, the ones known to any single Mormon and the ones particular to New York, with an honesty that is disarming.
Truth be told, though I loved the Nubbins story on This American Life , a lot of her comedy sketches and story-telling weren’t very convincing to me. Most of the ones I’d seen clips of on the internet centered around her terrible dating life, how she couldn’t get or keep a boyfriend, that she was extraordinarily awkward and unwanted. But she’s gorgeous. Tall, thin, blond. And I would look at her and think you’re kind of funny, but I don’t believe you. I don’t believe that your dating life is as bad as you say it is, as bad as it is for all non-tall, non-thin, non-blond, non-gorgeous, single Mormon girls over the age of 25.
In her memoir however, you learn that she was, until the end of college, a big girl. The big girl that guys will be friends with but never date. You see her awkwardness in a story about her running in the woods with the high school senior of her dreams when she trips on a log and breaks her head open. Blood is gushing everywhere and said high school senior of her dreams offers to carry her back to the car. But see, she’s a big girl and “when you’re fat, you never let people try to carry you. They think they can, but they can’t.” So to keep him from trying to pick her up, she pulls a maxi pad out of her pocket to absorb the blood. Faced with romantic moment of cute boy carrying helpless girl back to safety, Baker chooses a maxi pad because she’s fat. This is awkwardness that I understand. The maxi pad made me believe her.
After her transformation from a size 20 to a size 6, she is, suddenly, understandably, very desirable in New York City. Strangers want to meet her, and this puts her in all kinds of situations that have never happened to her before. She’s confronted with wanting to feel sexy and now being able to buy something off the rack and actually be sexy. It means having to say no even more than she ever used to. She makes some missteps (not misjumps, don’t get too worried about reading this). And she’s very open about these. They’re missteps that would make any Mormon mother and all your Young Women’s leaders a little bit worried. Her dedication (in Theric Jepson’s #2) for the book acknowledges that her candor will make a lot of good Mormons, including her family, uncomfortable. In the tradition of Mormon stories about chastity, from the anti versions which find the idea of chastity completely laughable and ridiculous and report all sex anytime is good, to the pro versions which describe premarital sex as already chewed gum or the vilest of sins which made someone’s life utterly miserable and hellish til they forsook and repented and lived in sex-free happiness and sunshine, I find Baker’s take,which is neither anti nor pro, very refreshing.
It is Baker’s authenticity in dealing with the difficulty of chastity and her doubts about some other churchy things that actually make me believe the fervency of her testimony. When she admits that she put on a sexy slip to try and seduce the atheist she’s madly in love with, then I believe her when she tells me she also can’t quit blurting out that he needs to pray and ask God if He is real (which it turns out is not at all seductive). When she tells me about God’s power in her life, I believe her because I’ve also felt her questions. When she presents her fight to be chaste and believing, to be true to her skepticism, to her sense of humor, then I believe that her fight is, in fact, earnest.
I definitely recommend the book–Baker persuaded me that she is both devoted and conflicted, making her memoir an engaging read. While I think her writing style is too young and too conversational, and that she’s too self-indulgent sometimes even for a memoir, her stories are wonderful, authentic and touching. And she is really funny. Elna Baker reminded me how sacred and profane Mormon single life can be.