Book Review—Courage To Be You, by Gail Miller

I’m Larry’s wife.”

That’s how Gail Miller constantly introduced herself during the mid-eighties as Larry H. Miller’s business was on the rise. His name was plastered on successful car dealerships. He’d saved the Utah Jazz basketball team. He’d expand to movie theaters and baseball teams. Through it all, he’d frequently relied on his wife Gail’s input; she was even a partner in the business. But as a stay-at-home mom with no formal higher education she noticed how seldom she referred to herself, her interests, her desires. And in not referring to them, she began to forget what they were.

“I was living in a shadow that grew every single day…I felt completely invisible,” she writes in the candid new book Courage to Be You (149-150).

Counseling, she says, “saved me, my marriage, and a lot more…I had lost my voice and my confidence. It was time to find them again…Slowly I became a person again, with an identity that was my own and wasn’t dependent on my husband or kids” (151). Nothing she writes devalues those relationships, but she recognizes that there are seasons in people’s lives, that no single relationship completely defines anyone, and that there are better and worse ways to give of yourself.

The book is part memoir, part self-help, and part cultural intervention—”I worry that too many women have had some of the same negative experiences I’ve had. I’ve found that women in the Church are terribly hard on themselves” (155). She invites them to develop their own hobbies and talents, to find or enhance their voice, and to use it with courage. That’s the core of Courage To Be.

Gail Miller’s is a deep, rich, and also pragmatic faith. When she and Larry returned to Church services after a period of inactivity she became the type of mother who would occasionally bribe her children to come along by swinging by McDonald’s on the way home (4). She quickly realized their life couldn’t slot so easily into prescribed church programs. “I convinced Larry that we needed another approach [to Family Home Evening],” for instance, “and it might not look like what we saw in Church magazines” (11). That wasn’t a temporary approach. Even today, with her children grown and while negotiating a new marriage following Larry’s death, “My spiritual routines don’t necessarily look like something you’d see in the Ensign or a video on the Church website. But for us, it works” (17).

Church publications, General Conference addresses, and Sunday school lessons frequently address difficulties and trials, but specifics are in short supply. By contrast, Gail speaks somewhat frankly about her courtship, marriage, relationship, and family life with Larry Miller (“he was a man, not [just] a brand” she reminds readers, p. 10). Larry comes across as often disconnected from the family; neck deep in business and community pursuits. This made him a wonderful provider, being the hardest working person she knew, but “his emotional intelligence wasn’t as well developed” and although he loved his children he didn’t always take time to cultivate that love with them (26).

Gail resented having to carry the emotional weight of the entire family, feeling responsible to buffer the children against their father, to help keep them “from having regrets or harboring bitterness” (27). She doesn’t believe her experience is unusual. “For men, work is someplace they go. For women, work is something we do that begins the moment we open our eyes in the morning” (47). She speaks of feeling guilt about snatching five minutes of alone time away from her kids here and there. To those who relate, she offers the thought that God “doesn’t build mothers as machines. He created us as human beings…with thoughts, feeling, needs, desires, and ambitions” (48).

Would she do it all over again? She unequivocally answers “no,” but also says she has no regrets about it (27). Gail also consistently acknowledges that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to the problems Mormons encounter in marriage, family, and life in general. Whether people are happily married, unhappily married, divorced, remarried, single, dealing with infertility—”no matter the circumstances, the Lord is equally aware of every single one of us” (31).

One of the most striking things about the book is how Gail repeatedly makes it clear that her love for family and friends is not contingent on their relationship to the LDS Church. The Miller’s have five children, 35 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren (and counting, she says). “Some are active in the Church, some aren’t. Nevertheless, they all know that to me, there’s nothing like the gospel. But they also know there are other ways to live a good life that are connected to gospel principles…I want them to feel loved and accepted in my home no matter what they believe, where they worship, or whom they date. The Savior would never lock a door on us, so we shouldn’t lock Him out of our lives either” (12-13).

She treats readers with that same loving, approachable, but assertive ethic. “I didn’t want [this book] to be full of heavy-handed advice or trite invitations”—and she almost completely pulls it off (17). Readers of different temperaments and religious sensibilities might tense up at a line or two, as when she apologetically asserts that “whenever possible, it’s good to have one parent working and one in the home when raising children” (133). And her advice on divorce—that it can be a viable and healthy option, and that she and Larry each considered divorce at various times (perhaps avoiding it only because they were never simultaneously on the same page about it!)—could rankle others. She credits personal and couples counseling with saving her identity and her relationship. How refreshing for a Deseret Book publication to include such fervent advice:

“I beg anyone who will listen to get counseling if the thought has crossed his or her mind for even a moment. If you’ve ever wondered whether you need it, you do. It’s not easy…but if you stick with it, the results are almost universally positive” (153).

She credits Larry with treating her as an equal partner in the company and recalls his frequent public acknowledgements of her contributions. By being solicitous of Gail’s opinion he helped pave the way for her being able to take over after his death (23). Her transition from overseeing the family home to overseeing “one of the two hundred largest privately owned businesses in the country” and being “president of more than eighty companies” isn’t laid out in close detail, but the threads of the remarkable transition are woven through the book in ways that people who are just trying to finish grad school or move up in their own workplace can appreciate and relate to (146). Despite all of her success, she remains focused on finding ways to give back through philanthropic efforts (see the Joseph Smith Papers Project, addressing homelessness in Utah, not to mention many other initiatives Gail is involved in), but also through the kind of service that practically anyone can perform—helping a neighbor after a house fire, scrubbing floors, entertaining grandchildren, saying the right thing at a funeral, making a hat from an oatmeal box for the Primary program.

Given Gail’s stature in the LDS community and the business world, and given the cultural buy-in many Mormons grant to Deseret Book titles by virtue of its connection to the church, Courage To Be You has the potential to help many Latter-day Saints approach their faith, their loved ones, and themselves in healthier, more sustainable ways. With an eye toward a Mormon tendency to judge others harshly, or also the tendency to worry about measuring up to cultural expectations, she reminds readers that “success for you might look different than success for your neighbor” (134). God loves you either way.

It may seem counterintuitive, but at the very heart of Gail’s book about courage is vulnerability: “I don’t believe you can really be loved without being vulnerable” (23). The corollary is that loving also requires vulnerability; an openness that can forge strong bonds but also receive deep wounds. She doesn’t celebrate pain or suffering for the sake of it, or praise those who endure it as though it is an end in itself. She urges us to seek help when we need it, and to help others when we can. And if vulnerability is a hallmark of love, as Gail suggests, Courage To Be You was written in a spirit of love, considering all of the personal vulnerabilities she manifests there.

P.S. As a gigantic Utah Jazz fan, perhaps the biggest in all the Bloggernacle, I was thrilled to read her guarantee: “When we win a title, and we will, we’ll do it the right way!” Not by pushing off, like Jordan did.

(OK, the MJ point is from me, not Gail. But she did guarantee a championship!) 

Review of Gail Miller with Jason F. Wright, Courage To Be You (Deseret Book, 2018), 160 pp.

Comments

  1. I’m impressed. I am 100% certain that without this review I would never pick up the book. Partly because I have no interest in Larry Miller or the Jazz, and partly because I would make some false assumptions about the book. But now Gail Miller herself is interesting, with or without the great-grandchildren, with or without the 80 companies, with or without the Jazz.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    That’s a pretty forthright answer to the “would you do it all over again” question. Looks like an interesting read.

  3. It would be interesting to hear the answer our spouse would give if asked the same question…or maybe not.

  4. This shows me again how American centric our church is. I’m not American and have no idea who Larry Miller was and who Gail MIller is. Looks like an interesting read, even if one isn’t starstruck by these people.

  5. Jack Hughes says:

    theparentingvillage, I would say it’s more Utah-centrism than America-centrism. I’ll wager that most American Mormons outside of Utah have no idea who Larry H. Miller was. I certainly didn’t until after he died. Whenever I hear his name, I still confuse him with Larry H. Parker, a Southern California personal injury lawyer and fixture of cheesy daytime television commercials in L.A for as long as I can remember.

    When I went to college (it was my first exposure to large concentrations of Utah Mormons) people in church would occasionally name-drop the wealthy and powerful Mormon families they were supposedly connected to. Their efforts to impress didn’t work on me, because I was totally unfamiliar with those Mormon dynasties. This is where I learned to just roll my eyes and say “it’s another ridiculous Utah thing” which, many years later, I continue to do from time to time.

    The book sounds interesting nonetheless.

  6. BHodges says:

    theparentingvillage, great point, and I should’ve done more to account for that in my review. To the extent that the Joseph Smith Papers impacts the global church, the Miller legacy will matter to the global church, if not any of the other Utah endeavors.

  7. wow, this looks like a really good and important book. Great review, too!

  8. Great review, Blair.

  9. Tiberius says:

    “The Savior would never lock a door on us….” I wish I knew Jesus better. On the one hand, I hope Gail is right. On the other hand, the NT is chock full of counter examples. Matt 25:11-12 (half of the ten virgins locked out) and Matt 7:21-23 (“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven”) are two references off the top of my head.

    In any case, any effort to show and praise variety beyond the “ensign” family is probably a good thing.