Earlier this month I had a birthday. My in-laws gave me a lovely card, which included a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble. With the closing of Borders it had been quite a while since I had had occasion to find myself in a bookstore, so I went to the local B&N with the gift card burning a hole in my pocket. The first thing I decided to pick up was Arabic for Dummies and an Arabic dictionary. I kind of enjoy going through the basics of a language, even if my knowledge of that language remains superficial. I’ve done it with German, and Russian, and most recently French, and at some point I’d like to take a run at Arabic, as daunting as that alphabet looks to be.
Near the foreign language shelves is the new biography section, and there I see a display featuring a book by Nicole Hardy, Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin. I immediately knew this was some woman’s Mormon memoir, and it rang a faint bell with me. Only later did I make the connection that Nicole Hardy had been the author of that New York Times “Modern Love” piece, “Single, Female, Mormon, Alone,” about her visit to Planned Parenthood, which resulted in a lengthy thread of commentary over at Times and Seasons. The book is kind of an elaborated version of that article, and indeed it ends with the joyous news that the article has been accepted for publication (plus a sort of epilogue chapter).
I just this moment finished reading it. I quite enjoyed it. SPOILER ALERTS: Yes, she does eventually lose that darned virginity, at age 36. And yes, she does leave the Church. I realize many Mormon readers will be disappointed with that kind of a story arc, but it didn’t bother me. I’m a realist about this sort of thing, and it’s just not natural to remain a virgin your entire life. I wouldn’t blame any 36-year old for whom marriage is not a realistic option for making that choice. Were I in that particular boat, I suspect I would make the same choice.
The book follows the arc of her personal development and decisions: she gives up teaching for waitressing, since she can make the same money for fewer hours and none of the headaches, she pursues graduate work in writing, she spends time working a low-level job in an island paradise so she can pursue her passion for diving.
The main series of story arcs revolves around the different men she tries to have relationships with, and the elephant in the room her commitment to her virginity is. First we meet a long-distance LDS guy, who really wants to make it work with Nicole, but it’s just not there. She tries hard, including stints on ldssingles.com, to find LDS guys to date, since the no-sex thing is such a stumbling block with non-LDS guys, but it just doesn’t work, and so she ends up dating a series of non-Mormon men.
One is a big, goofy bear of a man, who sounded to me like a lot of fun. He was Catholic and therefore understanding and patient about the whole virginity thing. Eventually she lets him go, allowing him to have the impression that his unwillingness to convert is the deal breaker, whereas in fact she realizes she simply doesn’t love him. She dates a handful of men meaningfully; at the end of the book, she is still dating a non-LDS, divorced pilot, although she doesn’t expect the relationship to last.
One thought I had was she was very naive about men, and very lucky that the men she went out with were willing to abide by her stop signs. She invites an old dancing partner to come diving with her in the islands, and plans on them (chastely) sharing the same bed. for two weeks Hint: don’t try this at home, kids. It worked out ok in her case because the guy respected her boundaries, but eventually he began to resent it and this sort of thing simply torpedoed the friendship. Another time she let a man she barely knew go much further than she should have if her plan was to pull out a stop sign. Again, when she finally said they could go no further, the man wordlessly left. Please tell your daughters that putting such faith in such respect for boundaries with men you barely know is not a good idea, even if it worked out ok in Nicole’s case.
I asked Santa Claus last Christmas for the then recent John Turner biography of Brigham Young. For some reason, Old Saint Nick didn’t come through with that title, so I still don’t own it and have not yet read it. (I know, there goes my Mormon studies geek cred…) One critique I saw in multiple reviews of the book is that Turner paints such an unremittingly negative view of Young that it’s hard to see why anyone would ever follow him in the first place. There was a gap there that a reader could not fill in from a reading of the book alone.
I suspect some readers of Nicole’s book may have a somewhat similar reaction to her angst over wanting to remain in the Church and keep its standards. The reader may well be thinking, “Why?” While Nicole lays the angst out there, you never really get a sense of what it was she found valuable and fulfilling in the first place about her Mormonism. Now I personally didn’t feel that lack, because as a committed and faithful Mormon, I naturally filled in that lacuna on my own. I knew what she meant, what went unexpressed. I’m just guessing that for many readers who are less familiar with Mormonism, her reticence to (finally) abandon it will be puzzling.
In any event, I enjoyed the book. Her story is a Mormon cliche, engagingly told. I wish we had a better answer for how to better integrate singles into the Church, how to treat them as fully adult rather than as overgrown children, how to respect them, how to make use of their talents in our wards, how to integrate them more fully in our social beehives. I wish there was some answer for those singles who age out of the young singles wards, who want nothing more than to find a faithful, LDS mate to marry in the temple, but for whom it’s just not happening for any of a myriad of reasons. I wish I knew what the answers were, what policy steps the Church could take to stem the tide of our losing so many of our singles. Maybe there are no good answers. But if I were a Church policy maker, I would find this book to be a window into what it’s like to be in that position as an aging Mormon single in such a family-oriented faith.