What is Immortal for Quite Some Time, the book from Scott Abbott, the Professor of Integrated Studies, Philosophy and Humanities at UVU? Is it a memoir? Abbott explicitly disclaims this in a preface: “This is not a memoir,” he says, saying the book is a “fraternal meditation on the question, ‘Are we friends, my brother?'”. Yet even that descriptor is both incomplete and misleading, as I’ll discuss. Is the book a collection of Abbott’s pontifications on various LDS topics? Yes, it is that, but it is significantly more than this as well. If a meditation, the book is also incomplete, as Abbott’s book does not necessarily bring a level of mindfulness or self-reflection. Is it a history? It fails at that as well, leaving out key figures and telling us a partial view of major events. I believe that Immortal for Quite Some Time is best viewed as a mystery, in two senses: the author piecing together his brother’s life and what that fraternity means, but also the mystery of the author to himself and to the reader. It is the best book I read all year.
Abbott’s brother John died of AIDS in 1991 in a disheveled room in Boise. Summoned to the scene, Abbott witnesses his brother’s body (“his feet are livid”) and takes possession of artifacts from his brother’s life, from a Miller Genuine Draft clock to various notebooks. Memories of his brother are interwoven with those artifacts but also with present and past stories from siblings and importantly, their mother, a devout LDS woman. Abbott sketches his memories from 1950 through the present day, to reconstruct the image of his brother, to connect with some vestigial meaning of fraternal love.
At least, that’s what we’re led to believe. But Abbott’s book is mostly about the author himself. Yes, this is the nature of memoir, but not in such an unusually transparent way. Abbott goes so far as to include multiple internal voices within the text, correcting and self-correcting his own memories. We learn of Abbott’s own hopes, fears, failures and successes. Tied with his brother’s destiny, Abbott focuses on faith and his own exit from Mormonism, beginning with disaffection from church leadership, then consequences at BYU, then ultimately writing a letter to the COB to remove his name from the records. But this is not some typical story arc, and Abbott is no iconic hero. The humanity of the author transcends the text, as we learn that Abbott is both noble and loathsome, an ascetic obsessed with pleasure, a Mormon who does not believe. If you have experienced friends leaving the Church, you will revisit those feelings in Abbott’s book, even though his somewhat-public departure is decades-old.
And yet do not think this book is some bold truth-telling work. Yes, it tells truth, but it also tells lies. Abbott lies to himself consistently and repeatedly in his memories, about facts and people but also about himself and what he believes or expects. The reader knows how Abbott will end up, can for example see the arc of disaffection and apostasy, but Abbott himself does not see it (in fact, he actively refuses to see it and insists that he transcends that simplistic narrative). But this, too, is the nature of memoir — the reader perceives weaknesses with the author and interacts with the book as they would a person. I learned a fair bit about myself by reading Abbot’s book. It is a revealer.
I know this review is a bit vague. Let me give you an example. Early on Abbott finds a condom among his brother’s possessions. Thinking back to a gay colleague at Vanderbilt, Abbott reflects on the 80s-90s AIDS crisis, homosexuality and the church (emphases in original):
The irony of the condom among John’s things. How soon did her start using them? When I visited him in Houston during that watershed year for AIDS, prophylactics were primarily for heterosexuals. Without a sense for the dangers, John was defenseless.
Defenseless? The abstinence the church teaches would have protected him.
And it would have left him indescribably lonely.
I recall bad decisions of my own that didn’t lead to complications only because of dumb luck. We lean on accepted wisdom, trust to instinct, and hope for a little good fortune.
You can see how the inner voices work, three people talking to and against each other, battling for control over a narrative that is already set in stone. Yet even these inner voices are deceptive, deluded in their own way towards one bias or another. We do not know the truth of who John was, or who Abbott is. Mystery is the heart of this text, fundamentally a mystery about how well we know our families, and how well we know ourselves. Abbott’s mystery takes place against the backdrop of struggling for academic freedom at BYU during the early 90s, while good teachers like Gail Houston, Cecila Konchar Farr and David Knowlton are fired for expressing their (mostly innocuous) views. This series of events has a major impact on Abbott, serving as the catalyst for his final move away from BYU, from family, and from the church itself. We all must view our memories through the dark glasses of our current state. Viewing his past through this lens of a stifling environment and religious disaffection, how was Abbott ever to see who his brother really was, based on scraps of paper, relics and rumors? How are we to ever really understand our brothers and sisters — living or dead?
This is not an easy book for an active mormon to read. It is written by someone who no longer believes. There is alcohol. There is sexuality. There is skepticism and scorn for church leaders (Boyd K. Packer receives the bulk of this). Reading this book is like engaging with a friend who no longer believes and is leaving. How will you react to these people in your life? Immortal will test you.
I don’t mean to sound antagonistic to Abbott or this wonderful, frustrating, troubling, vitally important book. I believe the book shows us the divide in front of us when it comes to understanding other human beings. It shows us that in the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see, but more than this — in the heart is hidden joy, hidden faith, hidden struggle, hidden sexuality, hidden identity. Everything is hiding there.