Review: Joanna Brooks, “The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith”

Title: The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith
Author: Joanna Brooks
Publisher: Self published (but not for long…)
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2012
Pages: 204
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 9780615593449
Price: $11.99

Rumor has it Joanna Brooks’s self-published memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl has been picked up by Free Press/Simon & Schuster for national publication this August with an expanded chapter-and-a-half. We’ve seen a lot of chatter about her book online recently, so I thought I’d venture a review. I hope you’ll excuse my decision to kick things off with an observation based on personal experience. (The Book of Mormon Girl is, after all, a personal memoir!) My own undergraduate years were spent writing and editing articles for a variety of small Utah newspapers. I remember how daunting it felt to be assigned an article on a subject I knew next-to-nothing about, like computer animation, mechanical engineering, or say, feminism. Oh, how comforting to a journalist is that friendly, articulate insider willing to endure the inane questions of—and likely later misrepresentation by—the stammering cub reporter!

Of course, depending on the article—say, one about a gondola proposal in the city of Ogden—I could usually find a friendly public relations employee to provide talking points. While trying to decode such PR spin I quickly learned that a variety of sources was needed to even things out. How much more blessed, then, are those scrappy non-official sources who know how to translate insider jargon, provide context, and add personal spice to a story’s recipe! Sometimes reporters behave sort of like old school anthropologists without all the time for fieldwork. So in writing a story about a religious subject—something many journalists are ill-prepared to do—they might seek an unofficial inside native to help them navigate. What does my regard for such insiders have to do with Joanna Brooks and her new book? Well, she’s a journalist’s dream, an “ethnographic access point,” to use a bit of jargon.1

The present “Mormon moment” has seen the rise of a small (and usually little- or unpaid) cottage industry of such insider Mormons who can speak fluently and thoughtfully with journalists and other outsiders, and outsiders who know they need some help are grateful to find it. Joanna Brooks has emerged as one of the more prominent pundits. She holds a PhD and teaches American Lit at San Diego State University. She’s been featured in an impressive number of media outlets over the past year—CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, and a variety of national and local NPR interviews to name a few examples. (Remember that time she went after the New York Times in defense of Mitt Romney? That was sweet.) In 2011 Politico.com named her one of America’s top “50 politicos to watch.” She goes by the moniker “Mormon Girl” for her “Ask Mormon Girl” column at Religious Dispatches, and now she has a self-published book (the book of “Mormon Girl”). As you can see, Brooks has been quite busy. Her recent book tour (of sorts) demonstrates her versatility—going from an interview on Radio West to delivering the keynote address at Utah Valley University’s Mormon Studies conference, to performing at “The Porch,” a story-telling venue in Provo, Utah.

Perhaps this last venue, the story-telling venue, is where Brooks feels most at home, discussing her faith in a mixed audience. Her engaging voice frequently collapses the sacred and mundane to make Mormonism a bit more understandable especially to those outside the fold, and perhaps a bit less understandable to those inside. In fact, she manages to squeeze an impressive amount of Mormon culture into the first three pages of her book using the framing device of a Family Home Evening lesson when she was a little girl—readers are introduced to (or reminded of) the hand/glove-body/spirit object lesson, the spirit world, the veil, the first vision, genealogy, food storage, temples, family vans, tithes and offerings, priesthood blessings, the sacrament. Her prose? Poetic:

“This is how I came into this world, into this world of believing: an ancient spirit striving to remember the shape of eternity at the kitchen table, in a house where ancestors knew our names and stepped through the walls, my dreams filled with light, my head consecrated with oil, every Sunday morning white bread and tap water for sacrament, every Sunday evening the taste of a ripe glazed strawberry saying ‘grateful’ on my tongue” (5).

This idyllic scene from her youth shortly gives way to scary end-times-Cleon-Skousen-style warnings, creepy bishop interviews, late-night Girls Camp chats about eternal polygamy, rivalries with local evangelical anti-Mormons, and other not-so-flattering stories from her Southern California Mormon up-bringing. Of course, nit-pickers will question a few of her more-obvious slips, like labeling the “iron rod” of Lehi/Nephi’s vision as “Mormonism” rather than “the word of God” (6), getting the baptismal prayer wrong (10), attributing a Halloween mask ban to prophets (20), flubbing a lyric in a Saturday’s Warrior tune (it’s “rising in their might,” Joanna! p. 47), mis-remembering the design of the Tabernacle’s baptismal font (160), and so forth.

You’re sure to hear a few such discordant notes as Brooks’s fingers glide up and down the scale, but to focus on such slips overlooks the book’s overall melody, the song of a Mormon girl whose nascent faith is challenged, lost, found, and refined by fire throughout. She’s the prodigal daughter telling only a little about years of riotous living, more about the faith of her youth and the re-visioned faith of her adulthood. Memoirs aren’t intended to tell a disconnected story of one’s life, but to invite readers into an intensely subjective world. The best memoirs aren’t written as how-to manuals (like the Marie Osmond brand beauty and fashion instructions Brooks read as an awkward, body-conscious young girl. You’re sure to laugh out loud as she spends a chapter pillorying such fluff). Instead, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, good memoirs awaken “a sense of what it might be like to be someone else or to live in another time or culture, and they tell us about ourselves, stretch our imagination, and enrich our experience.”2 American publisher William Sloan says readers of such works are not so much saying to the author “Tell me about you,” but rather “Tell me about me; as I use your book and life as a mirror.”

Brooks deftly wields the tool of personal narrative to create a sense of intimacy, but more importantly, to provide the opportunity for her “self-knowledge to be generalized, codified, and publicized as [our] social knowledge.”3 Mormon testimony-bearing works on similar principles, which raises the question: To what extent do our stories bind us together? This question suggests that the simple act of reading a memoir or listening to a testimony requires not only sympathetic eyes (imagination), but also discernment (critique). Before addressing that latter quality, I want to try on some sympathetic eyes while giving you the gist of Brooks’s story.

SYMPATHETIC EYES:
I’m separated from Brooks’s Mormon youth by time, space, and gender. I’ve never watched California wildfires while imaging end-times world melting, recalling my mother’s calm reflections on an impending nuclear winter which the righteous could avoid (35, 40). I never encountered object lessons in which my body was compared to a donut or a rose, to be delivered in pristine condition on some future wedding night. “You, your body, your sex—”, she imagines herself telling her sixteen-year-old self in a poignant scene, “you are not an object lesson” (121). But she also describes the potentially positive power of being an embodied object lesson through the eyes of her fifteen-year-old self. A hearty Young Women’s advisor urges her along during a difficult hike. “One foot in front of the other,” Sister Coombs tells the stragglers, and Brooks hears this as “the key to, well, everything”:

“It was difficult, sometimes, being a fifteen-year-old Mormon girl, with scrawny lungs, a bad perm, and wobbly ankles. But this was the very point of it, the very point of everything: our spirits had been sent to earth to persist against the weak and messy medium of our bodies, one foot in front of the other, until we reached higher places” (95).

From her early childhood on, Mormonism thoroughly infuses her cosmos and physical body. These chapters might provide a laudable challenge to youth leaders today who read with sympathetic eyes, who might benefit from considering the impact they make on our youth based on the examples they set and the stories they share.

Brooks grew up only to discover that many of the stories from her youth left her ill-prepared to face the challenges of a college education, no less at Brigham Young University in “Provo, Utah!” (this is the humorous way she spells it throughout the book, reflecting her childhood Provo-worship directed at the ikons of BYU, the possibility of being surrounded by multitudes of smiley-faced Mormons who can discern each others’ identities at a glance. She’s typographically aping Marie Osmond’s Guide to Beauty, Health and Style.). During orientation she listened as Professor Eugene England welcomed the students to the university using a verse from the Book of Mormon Brooks had read with her father as a little girl:

“He denieth none that come unto him,
black and white, bond and free, male and female…
and all are alike unto God”
(2 Nephi 26:33).

This verse would become her touchstone; a flood of light poured over her as her youthful “cosmic Mormon vision…colored by the dark tones of the end-times” gave way to a wider vision wherein “the glory of God was intelligence” (131-2). Physicists, psychology professors, feminists, and others “patiently listened to an eighteen-year-old girl unbend the limbs of her mind” (132). Until her joy was curtailed in May 1993 when Cecelia Konchar Farr, “a feminist literary critic and my mentor” was fired from BYU followed by the resignation of several other like-minded professors. Brooks doesn’t describe the exact nature of the firing, but she ties it to the excommunication of the “September Six” a few months later, several of whom having had some influence on her newfound understanding of Mormonism, an understanding she felt the Church was not living up to (136-7). At a small press conference Brooks symbolically returned her freshly-earned BYU diploma, moved back to California, and spent her “exile years” working on a PhD, occasionally slipping into the back of various church meetings, canning soup at the Church’s L.A. cannery, joining unspecified student protest marches, marrying a non-Mormon to the disappointment of her parents, and giving birth to two lively daughters to whom she would often sing “Come, Come Ye Saints” (139, 141-2).

“What do we do with ourselves when we find we have
failed to become the adults we dreamed as pious children?” (195).

Throughout the story Brooks expresses her fear and hurt (are church leaders watching her every word to scan for signs of apostasy? has she been declared an “enemy” of the church?) alongside glimpses of grace (an angelic Visiting Teacher encourages her to keep on, and a patient Jewish husband appreciates her intense passion for Pioneer Day). During her inactive days she reflected on the faith of her grandmother, great grandmother, great-great grandmother and on…strong women whose deep faith and harrowing sacrifices sustained them through struggles at the under-noticed outskirts of Mormon orthodoxy—one foot in front of the other (see especially 155-8, 161). Certainly the most touching scene occurs when she joins her active mother and sisters to dress her grandmother Pearl’s body for burial in her temple clothes (162-4). The experience sparks questions. “What will I leave my own daughters, my own granddaughters? What stories will accompany them across the miles they will travel in their lifetimes?” (164). Later she adds:

“My daughters are getting old enough now…to either grow or not to grow a living connection to Mormonism. And it has been—I count back—how many years since I have attended church myself? But I think of Ella and Rosa. How badly I want them to know what their grandmothers knew. How badly I want them to have a claim on the curious beauty and the power of this tradition. How badly I want them to make their own place in this Mormon world. My daughters embolden me with a renewed urgency to try again” (166).

No longer the “kind of Mormon girl I was when I was seven, eight, or eighteen years old,” she announces her return to the Church as “an unorthodox Mormon woman with a fierce and hungry faith” who insists: “I will not be disappeared from the faith of my ancestors” (168). Her return came at a somewhat inopportune time, a few months before the Church would dig deep into the issue of marriage equality in the battle over California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative. This is a major reason why her story is not the heart-warming transition from apostasy to activity or doubt to faith; one particular conflict runs like a thread throughout her story: a passionate desire to belong, and a deep sense of alienation that continues in Mormon girl’s Mormon present.

BELONGING:
Perhaps “belonging” is the most prominent theme throughout Brooks’s story. “I belonged. I belonged. And if I did not belong, what would become of me?” her young self cries (48). “No one should be left to believe that she is the only one” she pleads in a cryptic chapter called “The Sealed Portion” (150). “Ours may yet be a faith that is big enough for all of our stories…a table with room enough for everyone” her conclusion resounds with hope (196). As a rightfully self-styled intellectual,4 Brooks is familiar with a problem facing intellectuals in many social contexts, as described by Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski:

“Intellectuals are often…torn asunder between incompatible desires or attitudes. On the one hand, they are proud of their superiority and independence. On the other hand, this very feeling of independence they are so proud of produces in them a kind of uncertainty about where they belong. There is, of course, in every human being, a need to belong somewhere.”5

Such people, Kolakowski says, are often found rooting for the underdogs, and if gays and lesbians are some of the underdogs in the Mormon tradition, Brooks is doing her utmost to root for them.

DISCERNMENT:
Earlier in this review I mentioned the need to read memoirs with a sympathetic eye. As promised, I turn to the subject of discernment (in the sense of critique). Personal memoirs are tough for me to critique because they present a human being baring their soul in a selective fashion, just as all of our stories are heavily edited and massively under-annotated. Brooks shares some intimate and poignant memories, some of them disappointing to read. “I don’t want to blame anyone” Brooks says, for the heartache she and others have faced in the Church (196). But it’s clear she sees shortcomings in various imperfect members—including herself—and perhaps hopes her book can help provide some catharsis, or better yet, foster a healthier climate for all the people she includes in her own “unorthodox Mormon story” (199). A little friendly fire is unavoidable. In scholar/social critic Christopher Lasch’s “typology of intellectuals” he discusses the problem of “accusatory public testimony” using descriptors like “ideological,” “didactic,” “one-dimensional,” and “impoverished.” He suggests: “It is possible to be stirred by the basic complaint,” which I certainly am by many of Brooks’s, “and yet find oneself…raising the primitive and unavoidably ad hominem question of authenticity.” Brooks’s (again, still-important!) perspective can’t encompass a “fullness of absorbed private experience.”6 As with all of us, she offers a selective and carefully articulated story which glosses over other Mormon voices. This is the heart of my own love/hate relationship with memoirs, and also with Mormonism’s (still-important!) practice of testimony bearing. Brooks delivers a fuller understanding of women’s experience in the Church, but not the fullness. We all close some things off, even in the act of disclosure.

While Brooks’s youthful self early in the book can be excused for not distinguishing between Cleon Skousen’s bizarre anti-communist rants and the LDS standard works, or between Young Women’s church lessons and Marie Osmond’s beauty tips, her present self never returns to distinguish between such local Mormon cultural elements and the wider Mormon experience of her diverse generation. (See EmJen’s review for a similar impression.) This is why I still wondered a little, despite her touching stories about her ancestors, why Brooks wanted to come back to that church she’d described from her youth and later college days. I sensed this disconnect during a speech she recalls delivering at “Camp Courage,” a “weekend-long event where they train activists to tell our own stories about why equality matters, and to use our stories…to change the political landscape of California, one conversation at a time” (187-8). She feels terribly out of place there, knowing the attendees are highly-attuned to the Church’s contributions against a cause they all fight for. She stands before two hundred gay rights activists announcing “My name is Joanna, and I am a straight Mormon feminist.” As the crowd cheers she tells them of being “raised to believe in a loving, kind, and powerful God.” She speaks of the pain she felt after she left BYU, and when the Church later supported Proposition 8. “But I went back to church so that my daughters could know the same loving, kind, and powerful God I was raised to believe in…I am a Mormon. And I am not giving up” (189). No boos, but rather, “everyone shows Mormon girl the love” and her heart is lifted up (190). Of course, delivering a sympathetic message is usually met with applause, and she seems to recognize that problem as she alternatively attends church meetings as well as “No on 8” gatherings. Mormons tell her of stolen “Yes on 8” signs, dog feces left on porches, and chemicals thrown on peaceful demonstrators (181). Non-Mormons tell her of stolen “No on 8” signs, dog feces left on porches, and chemicals thrown on peaceful demonstrators (183). No wonder she wonders about belonging!

So if Brooks is an uncommon Mormon in her support of marriage equality for gays, she is perhaps an uncommon social activist, with her love of and activity within the Mormon tradition. Her faith and politics don’t simply clash, however—they intertwine. Brooks is not a secularist calling for a foundationless morality, or demanding the abolition of the “traditional” family, or proclaiming the death of God, or any such thing. Her morality is directed toward the sort of equality she believes God wishes—even commands—for humankind: “All are alike unto God” is her constant mantra (and “God is a Mother and a Father” she repeatedly adds; 134, 144). Hers is a thoroughly faith-grounded perspective; her God is real. So she might expect to catch some flak from those who feel any such negotiation with religion is dangerous at worst and simply complicit with oppressive power structures at best. On the other hand, she’s sure to hear it from some members of the Church who wonder how she can support gay marriage and remain an active member (“You’re not a real Mormon!” she reports one man shouting at her during a “No on 8” meeting; 183).

This brings me to what I understand to be the heart of the matter, especially for Mormon readers of Brooks’s book: the tension between personal and institutional revelation; or, questions of authority. It all boils down to a particularly Mormon tension.

PERSONAL AND INSTITUTIONAL AUTHORITY: 
Brooks’s book has sparked a lot of online discussions since it was first published. A two-part book review written by Ralph Hancock, a BYU Professor of political science, expressed concern that Brooks is advocating a “Mormonism Lite,” a watered down faith to accommodate wider cultural acceptance of things like marriage equality for gays.7 Hancock seems to completely miss the raw feelings Brooks labors so diligently to deliver throughout her book. As one friend suggested to me, her experience in the Church has been far from “lite.” It ain’t easy being a Mormon “liberal,” less because “the Gospel” isn’t compatible, more because the present dominant host culture makes things more comfortable for “conservatives” (scare quotes indicate I’m using these terms in the contemporary American sense of the words). It also ain’t easy to be consciously aware of holding unorthodox beliefs. And it certainly can’t be easy to be a Mormon girl who feels disconnected from a male-only institutional hierarchy who make the final decisions despite whatever input they receive from women.

Yet she’s still here.

In a follow-up response to his own review, Hancock reiterated his concern that Brooks’s political tail was wagging the religious dog: “What concerns me is a strong tendency for liberalism to migrate from politics and to penetrate and reshape religious understandings.”8 Of course, Hancock is unfairly and inaccurately stacking the deck by attributing this phenomenon only to “liberalism.” The underlying impulse he describes regards the extent to which our political and religious convictions inform each other. And to be sure, such admixture is a problem well-worth considering, although Brooks doesn’t take time in her memoir to do so and Hancock wrongly assumes he hasn’t done so. Arguing from an ostensible position of orthodoxy, Hancock concludes her book is incompatible with “the Gospel,” most especially because it is grounded in her personal experience—a memoir, a personal testimony:

“We are not — certainly not automatically and always — the supreme authorities on the meaning of our own experience. That is what religious authority is for – to help us get ourselves right and to let us know when we are wrong, even or especially wrong about ourselves.”9

The fault line between Brooks and Hancock runs along the tectonic plates of personal conscience and hierarchical instruction. “We believe in living prophets,” we Mormons say, and what good are prophets if you can dismiss anything they say that runs contrary to your current beliefs? On the other hand, what good is personal revelation if it only serves to rubber-stamp whatever church leaders have instructed? In my view, the crucial two-fold question which both of them maddeningly dance around without explicitly articulating is whether one’s personal conscience/personal revelation might ever run counter to the teachings of a church leader (Brooks implies yes, Hancock implies no), and what to do if such a circumstance arises. Hancock avoids the sticky question of whether church leaders are fallible, stating Mormons must simply follow the prophet because that is what “religious authority is for.” Conversely, Brooks avoids the sticky question about how much Mormons should yield their personal (and admittedly limited) views to such leaders—especially leaders who seem to make imperfect decisions, leaders who can’t always live up to the D&C mandate to exercise authority “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” Hancock would do well to consider why Joseph Smith wrote—to the Church—“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39-42).

Granted, there are a whole bunch of other questions I was left with as I closed the covers of a book I completed in one sitting due to its fluid and engaging prose. (How does she talk to her daughters about priesthood authority? What do they think about growing up in two distinct faith traditions? How does she feel about temple attendance? How did she go from delivering nervous speeches to small groups of activists to speaking on the national stage? What does she think changed between the early 90s when various intellectuals were excommunicated and today, when she and others speak out without much repercussion? etc. The trouble is, questions like this can be inappropriately raised as measures of orthodoxy, as tests unfairly seeking to determine one’s worthiness. To judge someone, in other words.) But I think the question about the tension she might feel between institutional allegiance and personal conscience might be the one I’d like to see her address most. It’s certainly a tension I wrestle with. I believe this is a conversation that deserves attention, particularly in the present atmosphere in which a variety of Mormon voices are being broadcast in the public square, each negotiating their understanding of what it means to be Mormon, each telling their Mormon story, each story being influenced by ever-multiplying stories.

BEGINNING:
I’m happy to see Brooks in the public sphere discussing her faith, and discussing our faith, and helping various stressed out journalists piece together stories about religion in the face of an increasingly interesting political campaign, or popping in and out of various podcast episodes. When we share our Mormon stories, as with the sharing of most stories, we demand something of each other, question each other, uplift each other, inspire each other, discomfit each other. The best stories tend to lure and invite us, rather than force. Brooks imperfectly but respectably walks this line. In this review I emphasized the need to read works like Brooks’s with sympathetic but discerning eyes. I tried to call attention to a few of the gaps I saw in her narrative, in addition to showing appreciation for some of her social criticism. (Another large underlying theme of her book is gender, something deserving of its own review. Who’s up for it?) Her obvious affection for the tradition helps me feel a little better about how she occasionally seems to trade in on her Mormon credentials to earn a bit of street cred. And on a personal note (for full disclosure and as a small gesture of gratitude), I need to point out that I consider Brooks a friend and a wonderful Latter-day Saint. She’s charitably taken time from her busy schedule to speak with my wife and me about massively difficult family health issues, and I’ll always be grateful for that. She walks the Christian walk–not a perfect walk; a faithful walk–and she’d like to walk it with as many as she can.

Her love of the Mormon past isn’t the love of a fairy tale, but of an ongoing faith saga, with all its triumphs and tragedies:

“These are the unspoken legacies we inherit when we belong to a people: not only luminous visions of eternal expanses of lovingkindness, but actual human histories of exclusion and rank prejudice. We inherit not only the glorious histories of our ancestors, but their human failings too, their kindness, their tenderness, and their satisfaction with easy contradictions; their wisdom as well as their ignorance, their arrogance, and their 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 the two” (30; see also 187).

Ultimately for Brooks, Mormonism is a combination of the sublime and the lowly, the holy and unholy—and like Jell-O powder and water, such elements can’t ever be entirely separated. So she places it in the fridge of grace and waits for it to set.

___________________________________________________

Footnotes:

1. From Domonic Boyer and Claudio Lomnitz, “Intellectuals and Nationalism: Anthropological Engagements,” Annual Review of Anthropology vol. 34 (2005), 107. I believe reading Brooks through the sort of “nationalist intellectual” lens proposed by these scholars would provide an illuminating comparison, given the communal quasi-ethnic structure of the LDS community.

2. Cited in Martin E. Marty, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011), 29. In context, Bonhoeffer was specifically referring to the Humanities, but his reflections occur in the context of a discussion about memoir, and I believe clearly informed his later personal writings as a religio-political prisoner in Nazi Germany.

3. Boyer and Lomnitz, Ibid., 113.

4. “Intellectual”; there’s a fraught word! A major problem with discussing intellectuals is that the discussion quickly becomes self-referential, like holding a microphone close to an amplifier causing feedback, drowning out voices. Roughly speaking for the purposes of my review, intellectuals are those who think, organize, and articulate. They help define and are defined by the culture in which they participate. We all do this in varying degrees, but intellectuals in a stricter sense specifically “engage in contests over different definitions of cultural value, competence, and authority; they strive to impose their definitions of value and to gain recognition for their version of social reality” (see Boyer and Lomnitz, Ibid., 109). Brooks’s self-identification as an intellectual Mormon feminist highlights an oft-assumed incongruity of the terms, which she embraces and hopes others will embrace.

5. “Superiority” need not be understood as a stab against Brooks. In this case she holds views about homosexuality which she views as morally superior to the views of many other Mormons. It should go without saying that we all tend to so favor our own views. From George Steiner, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Leszek Kolakowski, Robert Boyers, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals: A Discussion,” Salmagundi, No. 70/71 (1986), 164-5.

6. Christopher Lasch, “A Typology of Intellectuals,” Salmagundi No. 70/71 (1986), 32.

7. See Ralph C. Hancock, “Confessions of Joanna or Towards a Mormonism Lite,” Meridian Magazine, 13 March 2012. Part two is here. This initial review was quite polemical, and unfortunately was also republished in the Deseret News. Without offering a full response (since that horse has been somewhat beaten to death anyway), I’ll just say it was seeing his review there which prompted my own review.

8. Ralph C. Hancock, “Mormonism and Liberal Authenticity: A Reply to Critics,” johnadamscensure.com, 7 May 2012.

9. Ibid., emphasis in original.

Comments

  1. Loved this, Blair.

  2. ” On the other hand, what good is personal revelation if it only serves to rubber-stamp…”

    I realize the question is mostly rhetorical but it begs an answer.
    This is the difference between knowing about the answers and knowing through experience the answers. “What good” indeed it is to know through personal experience. Is that not a key ingredient that gives power to our faith? Personal revelation does not serve to rubber stamp, but to take someone else’s knowledge delivered to them from God and make it my own knowledge delivered personally to me from God. Though it was not revealed to me in the first instance it is now my own.

  3. Nicely done, Blair. One of the better reviews I’ve read of the book. Thanks.

  4. Kevin Christensen says:

    Nice work. Articulate and insightful.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  5. Brill!

  6. Thanks for the good cheer, folks.

    errin: “What good” indeed it is to know through personal experience. Is that not a key ingredient that gives power to our faith? Personal revelation does not serve to rubber stamp, but to take someone else’s knowledge delivered to them from God and make it my own knowledge delivered personally to me from God.

    Thanks for the response, errin. I too believe that personal revelation can confirm something I hear from someone else, something which has been revealed by God to someone else, which then makes that revelation my own. The problem I’m trying to draw attention to is whether or not personal revelation will invariably comport with everything our leaders teach us. It’s the question of prophetic infallibility, not the question of the importance of personal revelation.

  7. PS, an important addendum to my review:

    “It really goes without saying that the cover of the book, said to be the work of renowned artist Matt Page, is a true masterpiece. Reminiscent of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and other names which I lifted straight from the Wikipedia article on art criticism.”

  8. If only I’d known this was coming, I could have saved hours trying to figure out what the “Hancock fuss” was all about. At least I have something to point other people to now.

  9. Now THIS is how a book review should read. Thanks.

  10. Interesting. I grew up in South California within a year or two of Brooks. My dad is definitely an authoritarian conservative. It’s so interesting how very different what we remember and what we take from situations. How differently we see things.

    The challenge of a memoir is to accept that that’s how she experienced it. I immediately want to wonder what else she experienced…what positive gender experiences did she have in her youth? she must have learned to love her grandma as a child-what about that faith inspired her…was any of it gender specific? What good experiences did she have with the priesthood? I understand as a youth mistaking culture for gospel… I really do wish she had corrected that.

    It does make me wonder how I got to wear I did. I didn’t get my negative body messages from women but priesthood. I was blessed with a great YW experience…mostly from the hard work of my mother-not YW leader but she was the author and planner behind the many high sierra trips and canoe trips that made up my YW career. It is overwhelming to think of how much my experience was affected by my mother.

    It is interesting to consider how she connects faith in a loving God with this flawed institution…somehow despite all of it’s failings and all of the failings of the people…the church managed to give her an overriding concept of a loving God. How do we do that? What is necessary to instill that kind of faith? How much of these programs and practices that we sometimes detest or are annoyed by…how much of it is necessary? Interesting questions.

  11. she must have learned to love her grandma as a child-what about that faith inspired her

    She talks more of her grandmother, and the experiences of her ancestors more generally, than I had space to discuss. You should check out the book to see.

    What good experiences did she have with the priesthood?

    The way she recounts her baptism, and her story about how her dad read the Book of Mormon with her, is really moving. EmJen’s review which I linked to quotes from the baptism story, IIRC.

    I like the questions you ask at the end of your comment.

  12. Came here looking for a screed decrying (or lauding) how Brooks’ writing promotes (or validates) the concerns of modern progressivism, feminism, and gay rights. Instead, some guy just reviewed the book. BCC never fails to disappoint. :)

  13. I enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

  14. I’m glad she does. Thank you for replying. It’s just surreal to have someone put in a book what it’s like to grow up as a mormon girl in south california in the 70’s and have it not be me. It really is amazing how much I assume the rest of the world is like me. I know they aren’t. I know people have different backgrounds…but it is really hard to wrap your mind around it.

    I also wonder why I didn’t make the leaps she did. I was definitely quoted skousen, blessedly not too much Osmond…It really does make me wonder how did I turn out like I did? I do wonder how I got some things that she missed…and I definitely also wonder what am I missing that she got? I may actually read the book. I have been debating because I haven’t always appreciated Brooks.

  15. rameumptom says:

    As a conservative LDS who makes a big effort to have an open-mind (but after much thought is against gay marriage), I do appreciate what Joanna has done and is doing. Each of us has our struggles, some struggles are just more obvious than others. If hers were a serious sin, it would be dealt with quietly with her church leaders. However, her concerns are not the type to easily keep in the closet. I am glad that she’s active in the Church, and teaching her daughters about it. I’m glad she is an unofficial voice for the Church to the world. I consider her as much a Mormon as I am, knowing that we probably agree on at least 80% of the gospel. That we may disagree on 20% does not make us enemies.
    Unlike Ralph Hancock’s, who likely did not really read what Joanna wrote, but just decided to place enmity and contention in the pathway, Blair has provided an excellent and balanced review. BTW, I would also love to ask a bazillion questions of Joanna. She is a fascinating Latter-day Saint, and we should embrace what brings us all to Church, and work to overlook the things that keep us apart.

  16. Aw, that was really sweet, ram. Cheers.

  17. Just wanted to add – I love this review.
    I think personal experience is important, and colours who we are. I don’t think we should have to sit quiet if our views differ from mainstream thought.

  18. Blair–this is amazing work. What a great book review. And I thought your last line especially was simply beautiful.

    This was an informing read–well worth it. Thank you. I’m only a couple of chapters in to Brooks’ memoir myself, but I sure loved this review.

    PS: In response to Gary Bergera (comment 9), I consider that a huge compliment to Blair, because for the past few months I have been SO impressed by Gary’s own review (in the Journal of Mormon History) of Heidi Swinton’s Thomas S. Monson biography. THAT was a great book review too. Deserves its own kudos.

  19. #10

    “Mistaking culture for gospel…” One thing about Mormonism is that we kind of believe culture to some degree is gospel. At least the ideal of Zion as a lived experience implies that the end goal of the gospel is living together in a society which by definition has a culture.

    Anyway, as a children we especially learn through lived experience and absorb culture without all the critical faculties that can come later in life, something I think Brooke’s writing illustrates powerfully. No doubt though that a lot of culture is localized. In the Mormon context that is within our tight knit wards and also within our families. So I wouldn’t be surprised if your experience was different with Brooke’s. I would expect it to some degree.

    Finally, I find it curious how people want to discount her experience of a very political, Skounsian-inflected Mormonism. She was living in Orange County, one of the social and political centers of this particular movement. It isn’t surprising that her family and ward experience would be interwoven with this social and ideological strain. If her family was big into that then it could have easily come to define many of their friendships, contacts etc. Point is that of almost any place in the country where a young girl at that time could be heavily exposed to this particular strain of Mormonism it would be Orange County, CA.

  20. Uncommonly thoughtful and gracious review. Thanks, Blair.

  21. Reminds me a bit of this.
    There are “host of scriptural and historical incidents that illustrate how unwavering obedience is sometimes more flexible than deciding our own limits. The hazard of inflexible obedience is that we accept directives that are not from God; the risk of deciding our own limits is that we reject commandments that are of God. From Abraham to Heber C. Kimball and up through today, the Lord has had the unnerving habit of wrenching heartstrings and asking the preposterous. It seems that counting the cost is something the Lord expects from generals and architects, but dislikes in his disciples. The Abrahamic tests go beyond the bounds of rational theology, at least in the moment when decisions are made. To say “this cannot be of God,” “beyond here I will not go,” or “God would never ask this” is to run the risk of being too narrow, and almost certainly the demands of discipleship will press us until we shatter like glass.” “What Sunstone Means to People Like Me.” Sunstone, July 19811981.

  22. “Hancock would do well to consider why Joseph Smith wrote—to the Church—“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39-42).”

    Another sad experience from BCC. Brooks and others aspiring to the honors of men would also do well.

    “But I think the question about the tension she might feel between institutional allegiance and personal conscience might be the one I’d like to see her address most. It’s certainly a tension I wrestle with.”

    Elder Oaks already addressed this quite clearly: http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/10/two-lines-of-communication?lang=eng and Paul foresaw the fabrication of fables: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” (2 Tim. 4: 3)

  23. Hi lucy. It seems to me you think simply referring to Elder Oaks’s conference address, or porof-texting a Pauline epistle solves the problem. I’m not particularly interested in the “so-and-so said this, ergo, this is truth, full stop” approach. Can you quote specifically where Elder Oaks states that priesthood leaders will never be incorrect, or that personal revelation is intended particularly to verify priesthood instruction? All you’re doing is reaffirming Hancock’s de facto priesthood infallibility claim.

    But if proof-texting is what you prefer, I’ll simply refer to the “Approaching Mormon Doctrine” statement:

    Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church.

    http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine

    And please consider this letter from George Albert Smith:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/06/25/when-our-leaders-speak-the-thinking-has-been-done/

    Thanks.

  24. “Brooks and others aspiring to the honors of men…”

    Boy, that’s a telling statement.

  25. I’ve appreciated Brooks’ voice as an unofficial translator of Mormonism for the media. She is always articulate and insightful. She does a fantastic job. I did not plan to read her memoir however, until I read this review, but I just ordered it. Great job as always Blair. I must admit however my motives are not pure. I’ve been trying to collect as much of Matsby’s work as possible and my collection would not be complete without this. Thanks again for this review. It really could be used as a template for the art of how to write a review.

  26. That quote really stood out to me as well, Brad. So when your conscience–the Light of Christ–and the spirit and your reading of the scriptures lead you away from an interpretation of the gospel that matches lucy’s politics, then it wasn’t your conscience, the spirit or the scriptures that led you it was just a crass “aspiring to the honors of men.” Wow.

  27. Plus the gendered language is a bit, um, ironic.

  28. Craig M. says:

    This really was a good review.

    I don’t mean to open up the Mormon-name wars here, but while reading the review it has finally dawned on me what is, to me, so bothersome about Brooks, Dehlin, etc. trying to define “Mormon” as a tradition/ethnic group.

    As an East Coaster born to then-recent converts, I’ve always felt some resentment towards those who came from the West and talked about their pioneer ancestors and the Utah-Mormon culture as if either of those elements were essential parts of Mormonism – along with the gospel. To me, those elements weren’t critical, and to think otherwise was misguided and arrogant, valuing one’s regional culture (however deeply rooted) over the “church culture.” As the church grows worldwide, I’m sure there are increasingly more like me, to whom the idea of a “cultural Mormon” makes little sense. What Brooks and Dehlin want to do is to take only the arrogant aspects of mountain west Mormonism (pioneer ancestors, Utah-Mormon culture) and make it the only uniting feature of Mormonism. Perhaps this makes sense on a regional basis, but for the majority of the Mormon world it is senseless and offensive. Am I not Mormon, even though my ancestors weren’t pioneers? Have I, my family, and the entire international church membership merely been colonized?

  29. Thanks for a great review Blair.

  30. I read Brook’s book and Hodges’ review as an outsider who was once an insider who was always at heart a potential outsider because of personal inclinations toward the disempowered, including solidarity with my brother who was a missionary in Italy and who died, finally, of AIDS contracted as a homosexual in Houston in the years immediately preceding the discovery of the virus.
    I love “Book of Mormon Girl” and I admire the review.
    I love the memoir because it is open and honest and engaging. It is not doctrinal but narrative. It is the Mormon world as Brooks experienced it. It doesn’t claim to be anything else. It doesn’t tell Ralph (Bulwark) Hancock how to live. It is simply and powerfully personal.
    And the review makes sense and feels right because it is both heartfelt and thoughtful and even humble. It too is honest and engaging. It too is open and not defensive.
    Both works make me proud to have been a Mormon.

  31. Craig, does it have to be a zero-sum game where some people saying they still feel “Mormon” based on ancestral or cultural connections means that you aren’t a “Mormon” if you have some different connection? I’m not seeing that as a necessary implication of anything Joanna et al. have ever said. Why can’t different people have different kinds of connections?

    That said, I share your head-scratching reaction to Brooks and Dehlin seeming to latch onto those categories of connections, which I too find to be the most irritating aspects of Mormonism. I love the gospel in spite of the pioneer bonnets and green jello. That anyone would want to toss the gospel and hold on to the pioneer bonnets and green jello kind of baffles me. But there is a difference between being baffled by someone else liking something you don’t like, and thinking it is “senseless” or letting it “offend” me that they like it.

  32. wreddyornot says:

    Bravo! As a book review, a pièce de résistance.

  33. Wow, just an excellent review. Very well done, Blair.

  34. I agree with Craig’s point. I was born to pioneer stock on my mother’s side and a convert on my father’s side. I was an American raised completely Mormon but we lived outside of the US. It was very easy to see what was the gospel or the church and what was just culture. It is frustrating to me when people are so limited with their experience that they can’t separate them.
    Perhaps Cynthia L. is right and it doesn’t have to be all or nothing or the same for everyone. For me, being Mormon was 100% of my identity growing up as an outsider, and I have consistantly chosen Mormonism as my #1 identity my whole life. I feel for my sisters who left Mormonism and hearing Johanna Brooks’s story makes me wonder if my sisters truly ever can extract it all because they grew up in such a Mormon family. On the other hand it is almost frightening what they have managed to forget, or misremember. Memories are just not accurate, especially after years away. One sister is sure she read the whole Book of Mormon before baptism at age 8, even though I know she didn’t because of the “award” my grandparents gave when we completed it, and I was fully aware of when my older siblings did or did not achieve this great feat. My older brother was 12, I was lazy and didn’t do it until 17.

  35. Craig M. says:

    Cynthia L., I perhaps have gotten myself into a sticky situation by commenting because I don’t want to be a “culture warrior” for who gets called Mormon. I have a strong gut reaction against the redefinition, but it’s not that important to me, and when I take a step back I understand that those raised in a “Mormon environment” have had their lives highly impacted by the faith and there is something in common between me and them that probably deserves a common label.

    To perhaps further explain my comment above, I think that my frustration with this small movement to redefine “Mormonism” is that the movement is to some extent merely a reflection of the insular upbringings that its proponents often bemoan. The narratives of Brooks, as described here, and others often include aspects that are baffling to me – apocalyptic extremism, wariness of non-Mormons, extreme pride in linage, heavy doses of folklore, etc. I’m not saying that those things didn’t exist by any means, but for many like me (worldwide, I believe, a majority of Mormons) those aren’t essential parts of the Mormon experience. So I have a strong resistance to defining a “people” in terms of an insular view that is not shared by the majority of Mormons. For all of Brooks and Dehlin’s purported liberality, they seem to actually reinforce the arrogant view that Mormonism as practiced by those from Utah (or having strong ties thereto) is the “true” Mormonism, while others must therefore be just following along.

  36. “The narratives of Brooks, as described here, and others often include aspects that are baffling to me – apocalyptic extremism, wariness of non-Mormons, extreme pride in linage, heavy doses of folklore, etc.” I think this is an excellent point.

  37. annegb5298 says:

    David, you made me smile. A lot of this discussion is over my head, as usual. I bought two copies of Joanna’s book and gave one to a friend. I enjoy memoirs and was looking forward to a voyeuristic look into a Mormon upbringing, not having had one myself. I had a hard time getting through it, however. It wasn’t enough of a memoir to keep my interest there and while her feelings about the gospel, pro and con, were beautifully and poetically written, they didn’t feel fleshed out. I wasn’t quite sure what she was trying to say or do in her book. I actually kind of skimmed through it and ended up giving it to my daughter (don’t know if she read it). I did relate to some things she wrote about—experiences with evangelicals in southern California, for instance. Boy did they pray over me when I was baptized! I thought her mom sounded a bit mentally ill and obsessive and I felt really sorry for her kids. Couldn’t relate to Joanna’s obsession with Marie Osmond at all—that just wasn’t part of my consciousness. I can’t believe they gave out her book to the Young Women. Anyway, I did feel much of the reservations Joanna expressed, but I think maybe her book has been given a false importance because it’s about Mormonism in a time when people are interested in Mormonism. I devoured Claudia Bushman’s book. I also believe there is a difference in the sociological experience of Mormons in Utah and those out of Utah. There’s more hypocrisy in Utah, but on the other hand, I don’t know many people who approach that level of attempted total (and obsessive?) obedience that Joanna reports in her parents.

  38. annegb5298 says:

    I called my daughter and she said she didn’t finish her book because she was bored by it. But then, she loves Elna Baker. She said she wasn’t sure what Joanna was trying to say.

  39. I support Craig M.’s #35, especially the line quoted by SC Taysom in #36. Joanna Brooks’s description of her Mormon childhood seems more like a fun-house mirror version of the childhood I experienced than a shared reality. I recognize all those elements, but — in my experience — building a vision of a Mormon childhood with those elements is — to me — equivalent to the old Soviet description of Girl Scouts as “door-to-door cookie salesmen” or defining Western culture in terms of Halloween and April Fool’s Day: yes, those elements are there, but it’s hardly a full or even fair representation. It’s focusing on the few bizarre highlights and overlooking the solid, stable foundation. I do not mean to denigrate Joanna’s experience if that is how she lived and/or remembers her childhood, and I certainly don’t mean to drum her out of the Mormon corps, but what she describes is alien to me, and everything that grew out of that alien beginning seems off-kilter and distorted.

    Thank you for this professional review, BHodges. I’ve avoided joining in any of the earlier chapters of this conversation, but this post is reasonable enough, with a generous enough and non-polemical tone, to draw me in.

  40. “Another sad experience from BCC.”

    I used to have lots of those. Prozac has helped a ton.

  41. well said Ardis.

  42. Another long read but well worth it. I have heard lots about this book and the Hancock saga of course. I have also read several of Brooks’ posts and heard some podcasts, and I have inevitably become fan because what she shares reflects so much on my own (sh*tty) experience with the seemingly loving but in reality more of a strangely hostile, largely un-Christian, somewhat cultish, highly judgmental, passively elitist, and brutally unwelcoming world of Mormonsim. The commiseration I feel in her writings is overwhelming.

    After reading this review, I am convinced I must not wait any longer and get my hands on this book.

    I can see in the critique and in the comments the usual Mormon anxiety to reduce the raw and place a veil of doubt over someone’s experiences-especially when those experiences seem to violate the reality of their own experiences.

    Experiences however, cannot be reduced to events that simply happened, but how those events affected a person in particular–emotionally, spiritually, physically, and even intellectually. The same event can result in different experiences to two people sitting side by side and living through that same event. A myriad of factors will come into play resulting in two absolutely different experiences by two unique individuals. Neither of two is less significant than the other.

    It is only natural to be tempted to say “I was there and that is not how I remember it,” or “these things seem baffling to me,” or “it is alien to me,” Well, that simply shows the failure to open up to how others experienced those same or similar events. I hope these readers can get out of their shell and give themselves a chance to live the experience through someone else’s eyes, even if they feel uncomfortable.

    I however, lived many similar things as a young Mexican convert to Mormonism in the Mormons Colonies of Northern Mexico, where being Caucasian and the word “heritage” can mean light years of difference in how you are going to experience the religion.

    Trust me, I could not have more people drill into my young head how my black hair clearly showed my lesser spiritual character in the pre-exustance (in comparison to blond or auburn hair), how my patriarchal blessing was a written certificate of that lesser spiritual character and how my pale skin showed that there was still hope… Her experiences don’t sound baffling at all. They sound awfully familiar.

    I think this is an excellent and provocative review, and it also shows the challenges of reviewing a memoir. And the discussion shows the troublesome aspect of that dense sh*t that cannot be easily washed off Mormon culture.

  43. Manuel, I think what I’m about to point out ought to go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway because you made a few points I’ve seen floated elsewhere and I’d like to push back a bit on them.

    First you say this:

    the seemingly loving but in reality more of a strangely hostile, largely un-Christian, somewhat cultish, highly judgmental, passively elitist, and brutally unwelcoming world of Mormonsim.

    And you say you appreciate Joanna’s writing because this is what you hear her to be communicating. Then you say this:

    the usual Mormon anxiety to reduce the raw and place a veil of doubt over someone’s experiences-especially when those experiences seem to violate the reality of their own experiences.

    What’s strange is, you seem to be doing precisely that which you’re criticizing the “world of Mormonism” for doing. Namely: you’re discounting the positive experiences of various Mormons, in fact even denying them, because they “seem to violate the reality of [your] own experience.” In other words, you do unto others what you feel others have done unto you. That someone told you your hair color was the sign of lesser spiritual character is simply wrong and sad to me. Clearly you’ve been hurt by Mormons, I get that, and don’t like that, I’d do whatever I can to resist or prevent that. Perhaps some LDS onlookers will see your complaints and resolve to do better, or to speak up if they hear such things amongst other Mormons. To the extent that your complaining serves to help anyone change I guess it can serve the dual purpose of letting you get some of the hate out of your system and also encourage others not to perpetuate it. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair of you to discount the experiences of other Mormons simply on the grounds that they didn’t have your exact experience. Isn’t that what’s bothering you about what other people are doing?

  44. Moroni 10: (4) And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. (5) And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

    I would like to think that verse 5 indicates that each person can obtain the truth of all things as fast as they can absorb it. The president and other leaders of the Church do not have to be the fence and limit of the truth we can obtain. It may even be that our perception and understanding finds a moral position which cannot be sustained by the Church as a whole. We do, after all, believe in greater and lesser laws.

    As a kindred spirit of Joanna’s, I can appreciate her odd feeling of belonging and estrangement. Some of us have to be figurative martyrs in our own faith at the hands of our brothers and sisters for a greater good. It seems that there can be no moral progress without a commensurate sacrifice.

  45. Thank you, BHodges. It is posts like this that keep me coming back to BCC. Just a great job. As is typical, Ardis (in #39), has summed up my feelings better than I can.

  46. G. Dundas says:

    An excellent review…including the reference to Christopher Lasch, one of the great independent minds of our era.

  47. Excellent review, Blair. It’s commentary like this (non-polemic and a real attempt at undersatnding) and discussion like this that make this whole discussion worth having.

    On the other hand, it’s the common slide straight into judgmentalism (not just on one side) and dismissiveness (not just on one side) in most comment threads about Joanna that makes too many discussions not worth having.

    I appreciate this particular post and discussion being worth having.

  48. BHodges (Re: 43)

    I am sorry that I came across that way. I do not intend to discount any positive experiences by any Mormon (I have many of my own). I don’t understand how the line you are quoting from my post can possibly be represented as discounting positive experiences of other Mormons. That was my experience and I fully acknowledge other experiences. I am sure my blonde blue eyed classmates of the time had a great time learning the same things, and it was very reassuring for them to grow up with a great spiritual self-esteem and a sense that they were God’s choicest. And I am sure that has a great impact in their approach to life and their approach to their religion. I’m sure to them the Church was a warm and welcoming place. I am not invalidating their experiences, I am stating mine, and I was making a point that Joanna’s struggles help me feel commiseration because I have also had many unfortunate experiences in the church.

    But if these blonde and blue eyed classmates came back to me and said to me what I share is “alien to them,” I would say the same thing I stated above. Of course it is “alien” to you. That is why I am stating how it was for me, so you know. Duh.

    To use positive experiences to say… “what he or she is saying sounds out of this world to me because I have not experienced that, I personally had a great time etc etc etc” simply denotes an unwillingness to see through the other person’s eyes. Therefore, what I was trying to communicate. Exactly the opposite you are accusing me of doing. I never intended to invalidate these people’s experiences, rather I was being critical of the dismissive attitude they have towards Brooks’.

    Yes, we all have many good experiences, and yes, others’ experiences may be “alien” to us: that is the point! To know how SOMEONE ELSE experienced something. I am sorry you didn’t get what I was trying to say.

    And by the way, I don’t have “hate” that I need to let out of my system. But I do have experiences that I like holders of the “All is well in Zion” banners to hear and understand. I am very happy if the world of Mormonism was a good medium for you to become all you can be, and to provide uplifting, nourishing and foundation forming experiences. Can you accept that did not happen for some of us?

  49. For what it’s worth, Manuel, my experiences within Mormonism have made me more, not less, eager to step outside of my white American male background to better consider the ways God loves all people, black and white, bond and free, male and female, and you know the rest. I’m not very good at it, I know, but I do what I can. You do realize there are a few “blonde and blue eyed” people out there who don’t look down on you based on your skin or hair or nationality, right?

    You ask: “Can you accept that did not happen for some of us?”

    As I tried to make as plain as possible in my previous comment: “That someone told you your hair color was the sign of lesser spiritual character is simply wrong and sad to me. Clearly you’ve been hurt by Mormons, I get that, and don’t like that, I’d do whatever I can to resist or prevent that.”

    RW, Ray, G. Dundas, Joey, thanks for the kind words.

  50. I do Blair. And good for you, you are the better man.

  51. rumor has it i still wet the bed sometimes

  52. Depends.

  53. “… you are the better man.”

    Manuel,

    I have yet to meet a man better than BHodges. I doubt that I ever will.

  54. I just read the link at the side…the article written by Joanna Brooks titled “What Mormon women want”. This is exactly the kind of this I don’t appreciate about Joanna Brooks. Her article doesn’t represent ME…a mormon woman, but presumably not the right kind. The title is poorly chosen. I appreciate that she is honest about the challenges in church history. I appreciate that she gets her opinion out there. I appreciate that she is a strong Mormon woman. I just don’t understand her pretending to represent ALL mormon women. It would never occur to me to approve a title for anything I wrote that implied I knew what mormon women want. She knows she’s doesn’t represent a majority of mormon women…so why does she say she does?

    I feel similarly about the title of her book…why not say “A Book of Mormon girl” She is not THE girl. Her experience is unique to her…as mine is to me. I don’t begrudge her her opinion or her experiences…I do begrudge her the right to assume they are mine.

  55. LNO, I don’t like the over-representative title of that article, or the way she seems to gloss a good deal of Mormons with whom she disagrees more or less.

    On the title of the book, though, keep in mind she goes by the moniker “Mormon Girl” for her column, and this memoir is the book of said Mormon Girl. She’s not claiming to be The Book of Mormon girl, she is presenting her memoir as The Book of “Mormon Girl.” I don’t think she intended a double meaning to declare herself representative. If she did I’d say she’s representative in the sense that any individual is, in our own idiosyncratic ways, but not in the particular viewpoints she describes.

  56. Kristine says:

    She’s likely also not responsible for the headline in the WaPo, and she notes in the piece that she’s talking about “progressive” Mormon women. I do think it would have been good to note that that is probably a vanishingly small fraction of Mormon women.

  57. Well put, yes. Not that you need my affirmation of your well-putness. Just want to be added as a signatory to that sentiment.

  58. I am progressive, I am Mormon, and I am a woman but I am not sure if I am a Progressive Mormon Woman because I am unsure what it entails. Can anyone point me to an overview?

  59. Well, the PMW manual, last I heard, is still getting the thrice-over from Correlation so I don’t expect it to make an appearance for a while yet.

  60. Bhodges–it strains credulity that she didn’t notice that the book of MORMON GIRL…also reads The Book of Mormon girl. I assume Joanna Brooks is not that stupid. She may not have meant it as THE Book of Mormon girl…but surely she noticed.

    EOR–I’m pretty sure Joanna Brooks just told you what you want. Aren’t you satisfied?

    I understand she may not always get to choose titles. I generally appreciate her voice…I just don’t appreciate the assumption that it is THE voice. I do think some Mormon women feel the way she does. Great. viva la difference.

  61. I think it strains credulity a bit further to suppose that Brooks thinks she represents all Mormon girls. She clearly doesn’t. Perhaps what is bothersome is any indication that she thinks her perspective should be representative of all Mormon girls, but we’re simply back to the problem I tried to describe in the review regarding who speaks for whom, etc, a problem which I can appreciate.

  62. Mommie Dearest says:

    Brooks is more [insert term of choice signifying politics here] than I am. (I’m more traditional than I admit) I’m not bothered by her public writing, mainly because I fiercely allow all Mormon women their individuality — “progressive,” traditional, or whatever — and I don’t expect that any of them should necessarily represent me. Brooks or anyone else should not be held responsible for the unfortunate reality that often, people will stereotype based on a single example. To a more thoughtful reader, she shows that we can be a diverse group of women.

  63. Kristine says:

    I wonder if this is more of a problem when Mormon women speak because Mormons are not used to hearing women speak in any public way about or for the church. Are there any public affairs spokes_women_? Certainly no one senior or frequently visible.

    I got hammered after that C-SPAN thing for supposedly not being representative, even though I made no claim (and wouldn’t ever suppose) that I was typical or speaking for anyone but myself. We’re used to men with different voices, different accents, different professions talking about Mormon-y things in a correlated and approved way, but we are not at all used to a variety of women’s viewpoints.

  64. I would like to see more women’s viewpoints. Even if they are saying the same things the men do. The more women who speak out I think the better off we all are.

  65. There was a spokeswoman with LDS Public Affairs, whatshername, she used to be heard from a lot in the last few years. She responded to news about blacks and the priesthood around the time of the commemoration a few years ago I think. crud. But yes, it would be fantastic to have more women voices, in church, in conference, in the public, etc.

    I think what people want, typically, is at least a single clear-cut disclaimer that one does not speak on behalf of all Mormons or the church. It should go without saying, and the more one becomes familiar with the polyphonic discussion going on the less it is needed, I think.

  66. Mommie Dearest says:

    I know full well that my attitude that each woman’s voice represents her as an individual, unless there’s a fairly explicit indicator that she’s speaking for a group, is outside the norm for women in our culture, and especially for Mormon women. That’s why I am fierce about it.

  67. Kristine says:

    “I think what people want, typically, is at least a single clear-cut disclaimer that one does not speak on behalf of all Mormons or the church.”

    But why would we expect that? When you hear a Catholic do you assume that she is speaking for all Catholic women? Do we assume that when a Chinese man says something about China he is speaking on behalf of the Chinese government or all Chinese people?

    I don’t think people _outside_ the Church expect one person to represent the church. It’s weird that Mormons would make that presumption.

  68. It’s not peculiar to Mormons. I had a lot of conversations last semester with Catholic classmates who commiserated with me about Santorum, and they made it a point to ensure me, without my ever assuming such, that Santorum does not represent all Catholics, etc. I think it’s common to think people will extrapolate ideas from figureheads they hear onto those they don’t hear, no matter the group in question.

  69. Chris Gordon says:

    Pardon my interjection, but while I felt like I would feel similarly to the way you feel (just went cross-eyed), this strikes me as a typical media problem. No one wants to read an article entitled, “what one somewhat-famous-insofar-as-unofficial-Mormon-voices-can-be-famous self-declared progressive Mormon woman opines what Mormon women want from the Romney presidency.”

    The good thing is that intelligent people recognize the difference between one individual voice and its limitations when expressing the viewpoint of many. The bad thing is that there are fewer intelligent people than we need out there.

  70. I think the media does push this kind of thing. I do think it’s more common with women because there are so few women out there still. I don’t think it’s peculiar to women. I do think we have to recognize it and proactively work against it-by specifically reminding people of this. I thought Khristine did a good job in that marathon interview thing of representing herself and recognizing there were other viewpoints within mormonism. No she didn’t represent my view perfectly…but I couldn’t represent her view perfectly either.

  71. Just wanted say how much I appreciate this review. I’ve read many and feel this one is fair and complete. I read and loved the book. While I have no Mormon pioneer heritage, I have a heritage, and can related easily to Brooks. I resent anyone questioning her faith as hers is the tested survivor’s faith that I am working toward. No she does not represent all LDS women, but I’m grateful she speaks!

    Had to laugh at your comment, Cynthia “I share your head-scratching reaction to Brooks and Dehlin seeming to latch onto those categories of connections, which I too find to be the most irritating aspects of Mormonism.” I wholeheartedly agree. But in many ways Joanna Brooks fond and poetic recollections helped me see why anyone would enjoy such quaint (and to me, foreign) traditions. For once, I was able to truly empathize in my husbands upbringing, culture and heritage. I’m a Jewish convert, my husband is “pioneer stock.” So it’s easy to see how I would relate so well to Brooks beautiful and important memoir. :)

  72. Ruth, am I reading you correctly in that you’re an LDS convert from Judaism, and your husband has/had attachments to various cultural peculiarities which Brooks’s book helped you better understand the roots of? If so, you represent part of an interesting audience for Brooks’s book that I didn’t reflect on in the review, but I am interested in. Thanks for the comment.

  73. Yep! You read it correctly (and well done, I can be difficult to follow). :) My husband and I read the book aloud to each other in two consequtive nights. I started reading it to myself, but it was written so beautifully, that I started sharing bit here and there and finally neither one of us could put It down. (LOL, I actually got the book because of Cynthia’s post in support of Brooks after Hancock’s review, I am still baffled by his reaction, how could he not feel her pain and amazing strength and faith?) We discussed it at length, every time a passage brought up memories. I really had no idea how entrenched my husband was in the culture, he didnt grow up anywhere near the Mormon belt. But her love for the tradition reminded me that Judaism was MY my tougue, and would always be. We laughed heartily, and cried our eyeballs out. It was a tremendous bonding experience–very uplifting and spiritual. We felt such a connection, not only to each other but to the author and her family. There is so much more to this memoir than meets the eye. Like all good work or art, it provides something new to look at or another layer of thought at each reading.

    My husband and I also both recognized immediately in Brooks account of her developing sexuality, that she had been victimized during childhood, which she confirmed vaguely later in the book. Leaders often mishandle these delicate, but quite common cases (one in three women, and one in five men are sexually abused before the age of 18). While she only glazed over the subject, it was enough for those who have been there.

    Brooks exile was also an area we related to. She never made it exactly clear what her turning point was, but we had a definitive catalyst that completely restructured our relationship with the Church. “The Seales Portion” was particularly poignant. It needs to be discussed, shouted from the mountaintops! We have been there, we know. My husband is still there. But with the help of mostly strangers, we are crawling out. In her words:

    “No one says: When my family treated me as a stranger, I preferred the company of strangers, and I walked among strangers and what did I find but God in every one of their faces”

  74. Everywhere I look it is either out of stock or $115! Anyone have any ideas where I can get it from for the 11.99 price either in paperback or for kindle?

  75. Thanks, Ruth, I’m glad to hear your perspective.

    EOR: you’ll have to wait until the fall when the book is released by a national publisher. It was self-published but it has been picked up, so you’ll be able to snag it later.

  76. Rats!

  77. BHodges…did I say too much?

    oh, that’s tough! Sorry for that EOR, It is such a great book!

  78. Ruth: Not at all, no irony/sarcasm/dismissal intended. Just happy to hear real reader reflections to a book I’ve also been digesting.

  79. :)

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