Quarantine Diary Day 68: Coronavirus Postscript

It took over a decade for me to fall out of love with my church. I’m an ex-Mormon and my exit narrative is not one of escape. The church was where I was from and where I was going, my home and my promised land, my mother and my father, my sibling and my cherished friend, my first language and the only one I wanted to learn. For ten years I moved from ward to ward and my religious beliefs morphed with me. I was young and impossibly idealistic. I wanted to be an intellectual, a radical, a revolutionary, and I wanted the bohemian lifestyle that came with, and I wanted it all as a Mormon girl. Mormonism was such a part of me, and I was so wrapped up in the fold, that I saw no conflict, though I had to be careful with my beliefs, shape them just right so that they I could fit them neatly in the body of the church and hold them close to my body at the same time. Remake something malleable enough times eventually it becomes formless. That’s what happened to my beliefs. I prayed and read my scriptures and paid my tithing and sat in the pews and took the Sacrament and taught Sunday School and did my visiting teaching and made an honest effort to try to live the life of an active member of the church, but I dared not let another Latter-Day Saint peek into my head for fear they wouldn’t recognize what they saw: universalism, skepticism, a great big formless god.

When I decided to leave the church it was all at once. On November 5, 2015, a few short months after the Supreme Court of the United States recognized marriage as a fundamental right belonging to all God’s children, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints declared same-sex marriage to be apostasy–so anathema to the teachings of the church as to be tantamount to a total renunciation of the religion. The church barred the children of married gay parents from baptism absent special permission from the church president in Salt Lake City and  denouncement by the child of her parents’ marriage. I went to church on November 8, 2015 to register with my bishop my disagreement with the policy and walked out never to set foot in the building again.

The November Policy has since been walked back, but I haven’t.

I clung to the trappings of Mormonism in the days and weeks after I left. I read the Book of Mormon and saw myself in the prophet Moroni, the last of his kind who foretold and witnessed the destruction of his people, who wrote their stories and carried them with him to the bitter end. In my grief in the wake of the November Policy, I cried out to God and felt peace in my heart. I prayed for direction and felt the spirit telling me to go. That surprised me. I didn’t expect to hear God outside Mormonism’s brick walls.

I followed this revelation into other churches. I worshipped with the Unitarian Universalists. I liked their spare sanctuary, their earnest intentions, their white take on world music, and their mind-bending sermons, but they didn’t like me, a messy woman with a wiggly toddler, both of us crying in the back row. A woman told me to take my daughter out, because she was distracting, so I did and never went back. I wondered if leaving churches would become my new thing.

I found my way into a United Methodist Church. I trusted the rainbow flag out front and was heartened to see activity bags for children hanging on a coat rack outside the chapel but I was wary of putting my family and my heart on the line again. I kept my emotional distance but brought my body and my daughter’s back week after week month after month until the years piled up and I knew we were safe.

I spent thousands of hours in church basements fortifying myself against the demons that had been threatening to wrest me away from love since I was a teen.

Mormonism became just another place I used to live, an interesting story to tell. I trotted it out at second step meetings. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. “You think you’ve got religious baggage because you grew up an alcoholic Catholic family on Chicago’s west side? Let me tell you about a story that starts in Utah.” I dusted if off when the United Methodists faced their own moral reckoning, threatened to split down the middle over gay marriage. “You think your religion has it out for gay people? Let me tell you a story about Proposition 8.” or “You think it’s hard to feel betrayed by your religion? You’re right. It’s the hardest thing there is.”

By the time I told my stories they’d been drained of all their emotional weight, but I still identified as a Mormon. People asked why I didn’t leave the church for real, pull my name from the records in Salt Lake. I didn’t see any reason to leave. The church stopped hurting me the moment I stopped offering myself up to it. The grief and rage died when I left and my world kept turning. You need love to keep a fire burning. In the after I felt nothing for the church but relief that I was no longer part of it.

I am nothing if not thorough, though, so when I worked the fourth step I dredged up all my old resentments against the church and wrote them down. Prop 8. The November Policy. A lifetime and an eternity of subservience to men. By twelve step logic, my list of fourth step list of resentments I nurtured automatically populated a separate eighth step list of people I’d harmed. I needed to make amends. As I worked to clean up my side of the street, I had to admit I had not been a perfect Mormon. I judged the church for judging me. I picked fights about everything from politics to policy, culture to theology. I insisted I knew better and blew up when people disagreed. I refused to see the forest–shelter and sustenance for millions of people–for the copse of diseased trees poisoning me. I saw that there were other reasons not to leave. The church gave me my family, and my membership meant something to my parents. I might have been a lost sheep but I was still part of the fold. I might be destined for outer darkness but there was a chance we’d be together in heaven. Besides, what could it possibly cost me to keep my name on the rolls of an exclusive heaven I no longer believed in?

A little over two years after I started worshiping with the United Methodists, I decided to finally, formally join the congregation. Early on I’d been nervous about commiting to a new church, but I’d been attending long enough for the church to feel like a safe second home. I was already raising my daughter there. When I realized I was already living out the membership vows–upholding my local congregation with my daily prayers, my weekly presence at services, my gifts of dollars and time, my service to the children’s program, and my witness of God somehow at work in this church, too–I figured I had nothing to lose. It was well past time for me to start checking “member” instead of “visitor” on the sheet inside the welcome folder at the end of each pew. I emailed Mary, the membership coordinator and the first person who’d ever greeted me at church, excited to make it official. Mary’s response was tactful but the message was not. Due to differences in beliefs about the nature of God, Jesus, and salvation, the United Methodist Church does not recognize Mormon baptisms. To join the congregation, I would need to be re-baptized first. To avoid the apparently dire consequences of double counting, UMC strongly urged me to initiate my formal removal from LDS membership rolls.

I couldn’t believe it! I thought my baptism was good. I’d gone all the way under, like Jesus, at eight years old. The idea of denouncing my Mormon baptism, I was surprised to discover, crushed me. The sensation of finding myself severed from the body of Christ a second time was akin to shock from blood loss. I was pissed, too. The hypocrisy coming from a church that serves communion at an open table–one where all are welcome without regard to age, race or ethnicity, gender identification or sex orientation, without regard even to membership in the United Methodist Church–made me want to scream.

My sorrow and anger told me I’d fallen in love with this new church. “I need some time,” I told Mary, “to think and pray over how I want to proceed. Of course I will still be attending services. I look forward to deepening my involvement with the church and community in whatever form that takes.” Unlike Mormonism, official membership in the United Methodist Church didn’t seem to come with any special privileges, so I decided to stay and act as if I were a member. I wore a nametag, served on committees, showed up early for Sunday School and stayed late for fellowship, volunteered to teach the kids, washed coffee mugs, tithed a portion of my income, put my daughter in the children’s choir and the Christmas Pageant, and went to all the services, even the unpopular weekday ones during Lent. I became a regular church lady and my heart only broke fourteen times a year: on the semi-annual new member Sundays and the first Sunday of every month when the pastor led communion with her open table spiel. People asked why I didn’t join the church for real, put my name on the records as a member. I explained that I couldn’t without cancelling my Mormon baptism, they understood and agreed. Besides, I lied. I don’t see any reason to join.

That I didn’t leave either church is a testament to my twelve-step work. Sobriety taught me to show up for my life and to take responsibility for it too. Inside the church basements I discovered other character defects–festering insecurity, deep-seated fear, and a mean perfectionistic that made parenting terrifically difficult–and worked tirelessly to address them. There was no problem in my life that I couldn’t resolve by taking a long hard look at myself and fixing up what I saw.

I clung to this maxim until January 2020, when a particularly sustained and severe winter depressive episode, when I was scratching tiny frowny faces into the calendar at the front of my planner more days than not, made me admit that I needed to call in reinforcements. I called the number on the back of my insurance card and a week later perched carefully on the edge of my new therapist’s couch. Not sure where to start, I offered that I was sad, deeply, unspeakably, unshakably sad. Not all the time, I told her, but much of the time it felt like I was living in a dark room. My new therapist thumbed around the bruise, trying to find where it hurt the most. I confessed that I was tired of fighting with my husband about our roles, about my job and everything he does at home. I was tired of snapping and screaming in front of my daughter and hating myself after. I was afraid I’d done irreparable damage with our explosive fights with my ruinous temper. I’d ruined so much already. Haltingly, I told her I thought my family was better off without me. Before I left, she told me about suicidal ideation.

In that first session, we honed in on my family relationships, my greatest gift and biggest priority, as a trigger point for all my pain. The problem was with my expectations of my marriage and myself as a mother. They were too high, and when I fell short I went down hard and fast. I mentioned the church only briefly, by way of background. “I left the Mormon church four years ago. They have a few ideas about marriage and family. That might be where some of this is coming from.”

In later sessions, I told my therapist about the church’s teachings about the “ideal” family. My therapist visibly reacted to that word, with a sharp inhale and a straightening up in her chair, but she regained her professional composure quickly and I went on. The ideal family is made up of a husband and wife who have been married in an LDS temple and their children, born and raised in wedlock. In an ideal family, the husband presides over the family and provides for them, while the wife nurtures their children. Not all Latter-Day Saint families are ideal, but they should all strive to be.

My family is not ideal. My husband is not Mormon. I’m not anymore, either, but he never was. We did not marry in the temple. I work and he stays at home. We only have one daughter. We tried to have more but it didn’t happen and we decided not to pursue fertility treatments.

I told my therapist I didn’t believe those teachings anymore, but that I was still convinced my marriage was doomed to end in divorce and that my daughter had no chance at a good life. I was still convinced that families with more than one child were happier than mine. I was convinced that every family was happier than mine.

We talked about the same things week after week after week. Our sessions moved to the phone and then to video when the pandemic hit and I was grateful I’d found a therapist before the world shut down. I was especially grateful for the timing because the pandemic put my most tender hurts on display. On my endless walks around the block I saw so many happy families, so many kids playing together in front yards, so many couples riding bikes together, so many driveways chalked with rainbows and hearts. In our house, all I saw was a tangle of mental health issues, a husband and a wife getting on each others’ last nerves trying to share the same small space all day, and a sad, lonely, and scared little girl. Intellectually, I knew other families were struggling too, that other kids had nightmares, that other moms felt like they were failing, but I couldn’t feel my way out of the lie that mine had it worse, and it was all my fault. On my walks, I started averting my eyes from the happiest looking houses and crossing the street to avoid other families even when it wasn’t strictly necessary to maintain social distance. I pretended not to see my neighbors who were stay-at-home moms. I was walking in the light of day but living in a shadow, hiding in plain sight.

It was on a weekday walk in mid-May, when the sun was starting to shine with a little more warmth and the dogwoods were out in full bloom, that my mind turned off in a darker direction. I was sunk deep in an audiobook and the narrator introduced a new character as a writer, a therapist, and a mom. My ears perked up, as they always do when I hear about working moms who are described in ways that make them sound happy, rather than harried, and I thought “Hey, I’m a mom and a writer! I wonder what she writes about?” Immediately, my brain turned on me, attacking the comparison. “She’s probably a real mom. Not like you.” 

What in the world? I’d had some practicing fact-checking the voices in my head from therapy and this particular thought was so blatantly untrue stacked up against the physical evidence of my parenthood–the scar on my pelvis, my daughter watching Puppy Dog Pals at home, the thousands of insurance dollars going to therapy so I could figure out how to be a better mom–that I tested it. What distinction between me and this unknown woman could I possibly have seized upon to feed the idea that I was not, in fact, a mom? My mind supplied the answer in seconds. “She probably has more than one kid. She probably works part time. She’s probably home with her kids right now and you’re out wandering around the neighborhood talking to yourself.” Well then. I had me there. I gave up the fight and walked home, head hung impossibly low. 

Back at home, I climbed onto the couch with my daughter and curled up behind her. I held her as the clock ticked past nine, nine-fifteen, nine-thirty. I was supposed to go downstairs and start working, but I stayed by her side until my husband came down from his own appointment ready to start another day of at-home school. Downstairs in my makeshift office I prepared to start by workday, but there was one thing I needed to do first. I pulled out a notebook and made a list of the lessons from Mormonism I thought I’d left behind. Having a family is the most important thing a person can do. God wants parents to have as many children as they can. Raising children is the most important thing a woman can do. Big families are more righteous. Small families are selfish. Women who work are selfish. Fathers who don’t work are lazy. Children whose mothers’ work will suffer.   

This is the soil that grew me up, the dirt in which I laid the seeds for my own family. I might have stopped paying tithing but my church membership was not free.

I registered for an account at quitmormon.com that day and filled in the forms to have my names removed from the records of the church. I was dismayed when I realized that the process wasn’t automatic. I got the completed forms back in my email inbox. I’d have to print them, get them notarized, and mail them off to church headquarters in Salt Lake City myself. I looked up the closest notary public. Illinois was still shut down except for essential business, but the UPS store downtown was open. I weighed the risks of possible exposure to the novel against continued exposure to the virus that had already made me sick. I hadn’t been inside a building other than my own home in two months. There had to be a better way. I looked at the forms again and noticed that they’d been prepared for a law firm. I’m a lawyer, too. It occurred to me that I shouldn’t need a lawyer to leave my church. I dug up an email address for the bishop of my old ward and shot him off a note. “I’m writing to tell you that I’d like to end my membership in the church and have my name removed from the church’s records. Please let me know what I need to do to facilitate this process.”  

I fell out of love with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on November 4, 2015. On May 20, 2020 I decided to leave. I had my bishop on the phone within a day and a week later I had in my hand a letter dated May 22, 2020. “Per your request, your membership resignation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been accepted and processed. Should you desire to become a member of the Church in the future, the local bishop or branch president in your area will be happy to help you.”

I didn’t have to leave my house to leave the church but I would have if the bishop hadn’t helped me out. If I wanted a chance at sticking around to love the family I made, I needed to start hacking at the roots of the weed threatening to choke off our tree. 

A few weeks after I left, I saw on Facebook that the pastor of the United Methodist Church had performed her first pandemic baptism with a garden hose in someone’s front yard. It occurred to me that I was finally eligible to join the congregation I’d been part of for the past four years. I thought about sending off another email, but decided to keep scrolling. Now that I know what essential looks like I know that joining another church is not. I think I’ll just shelter in place.

All Saints

I’ve turned the corner into my fourth year with the United Methodist Church, so surely I’ve been in attendence on All Saints’ Day before, but I have no clear memory of it. There is something about a bell, but it’s vague. The church calendar, it seems, takes some time getting used to. Or, more likely, it takes the body longer to acclimate to the pace of Christian life than the mind (wrestling with the new theology from day one) and tongue (learning the new language on the fly). Who knows where my heart is in this transition. Miles ahead or years behind, I’m sure. So today is All Saints’ Sunday and I’m a foreigner to this quality of grief. I’ve lost hardly anyone that wasn’t supposed to go. So I’m quiet in Sunday School, so quiet A asks if I’m okay, but I am more than okay, I feel terrific, just listening and learning from people who know more about death than I. The services are as usual, though the choir director brought saxaphones in for the day, and they are loud and jazzy. The children come back to the group for communion and gather on the steps in front of the sanctuary, which is different. I see D in her shiny winter hat watching Pastor Grace bless and break the bread intently. She serves the children first. I approach the table–it’s an open table, which means it’s okay that I’m not technically a member of this church, okay that the church for whatever stupid pedantic reason does not recognize my Mormon baptism–and take the bread, dip the bread, eat the bread sweet with Welch’s grape juice, walk down the stairs. I find D and we head into the courtyard, join the congregation huddled around the labyrinth. It was cold this morning and still is, but the sun is shining. D’s hat looks like a disco ball. We stand with my friend J and her daughter L in the fluffy hot pink earmuffs. The pastors take turns reading the names out loud, the names of everyone lost from our congregation this year, and it guts me because I knew some of them, but none well enough. I know enough to feel that some of them should be here still. After each name, a clear bell, the silence. The pastors move onto the names of those that the members of our congregation have lost, the parents, and grandparents, and brothers, and sisters, and children, and friends. There are more bells. J weeps. And then we sing in Latin, a three-part round. D learned the words in choir so she sings too. Something about peace. We file inside, upstairs to retrieve the electric tea light all the kids got today from the children’s chapel room upstairs. I try to hug J, but we are both walking, and it’s awkward. We go back downstairs into the Great Hall for fellowship. D brings me a handful of broccoli, “all the broccoli they had” and instead of chiding her, I eat it. We pack sack lunches for the soup kitchen. D and L run to the stage to play. J and I lean against the stage, drinking coffee, talking about her brother, talking about our husbands, talkimg about our kids. We are all saints.

Redeemed

I thought that marrying the boy would make up for sleeping with him.

I thought converting my husband would make up for marrying outside the church.

I thought that having a baby would make up for out-earning my husband.

I thought that hating my job and changing my job and still hating my job and changing my job again would make up for being a working mom.

I thought that quitting drinking would make up for being a bad Mormon.

I thought that finding God in the rooms would make up for leaving the church.

I thought that writing my life like it was a story would make it all make sense.

What if I never had to do any of that?

What if I was already redeemed?

What if I’m still glad I tried?

Rough

Stumbling onto Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling on my parents bookshelves years ago, before I left the church, before Ordain Women, before Pants to Church, was like finding contraband. I only knew about the book from borderline apostate podcasts, I knew it had a questionable reputation amongst the most orthodox Mormons, and my parents were true blue. I grabbed it off the shelves, like I grasped at anything that looked like clarity in those days, ambivalent as to whether I hoped it would lead further into or out of the church, and shuttled it back to Chicago in the bowels of my duffle bag.

I never did read it, though I did let it live on my nightstand for a number of years. It’s a really long book.

My workouts are long, too, though, and so is my commute, so I am finally listening to the audio version of the book. It feels like a long time coming. It also feels less dangerous. It’s not like I can leave the church again. The biggest risk is that I’ll gain back a testimony of the Book of Mormon, of Joseph Smith, of the Priesthood, of the restored gospel, which, now that I think of it, would really fuck up my shit, so I hope that doesn’t happen.

I see how it could though. I’m only a few chapters in and can’t stop relating to the Smiths. Not just Joseph Jr. but his firebrand mom Lucy Mack, his wayward family man dad Joseph Sr., his skeptic uncles, his brilliant wife Emma, his children, all those sick sons and daughters.

Am I a seeker because I was raised in the religion Joseph Smith created to justify and redeem his wandering, wondering family? Do I quest because they questioned? Or was I Mormon because I was a seeker? Was I Mormon unthinkingly, because my parents and my parents’ parents were Mormon, or did I last as long as I did because I inherited their yearning?

When I left did I get free, or did I follow Joseph Smith’s finger pointing to the moon, my grandpa’s righteous desires, my dad’s big brain, and my mama’s bleeding heart to something more true?

Maundy Thursday…

Is apparently a real day, a day of note during Holy Week, a week of numerous notable days. (The first time I heard it mentioned I thought the pastor was saying “Monday Thursday” and I thought what kind of boring backassward holiday is that?) Maundy Thursday is today! My daughter joined the children’s choir this year and the wonderful, charitable, brilliant choir director lets the children’s choir lead precisely two services, the Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday family services, which I gather are the most sparsley attended services of the year. This, of course, is how I found myself at church on a Thursday evening taking my assignment as greeter entirely too seriously as I threw open the church’s heavy wooden doors against the wind, thrust programs into the hands of other weekday worshippers, mostly parents of other small children, and enthusiastically welcoming everyone to Maundy Thursday! Before I had anybody to greet, Pastor Grace saw me standing by the door with nothing but a fistfull of programs and an expectant look and gave me a job, not realizing I already had one, I think. First, she asked me if I knew where the communion goblets were, a question that stumped me on many levels. How would I? Why would I? Where would I even look? This church is huge. Would I know them if I saw them? Should I check with the office, I wondered? The basement? The other greeter peered at me curiously and suggested the kitchen and cleverly offered to assume that task. Pastor Grace told me she had another job, if I would wash my hands. I trotted off to the kitchen to wash up, vaguely worried that people would enter the chapel ungreeted and programless but powerless to say no to our new charismatic leader. I just want her to like me! When I returned, cleansed, she gestured to the front of the chapel told me to find two loaves of bread and put them in two baskets. I found the loaves in a cabinet! And the baskets were in plain sight on top! I couldn’t remember if the loaves went on top of or underneath the linen napkins in he baskets and decided to wrap them because that seemed right. My husband, watching from the pew stage whispered something snarky about my bare hands. “I WASHED,” I hissed back. I blinked back heavy, happy tears. Never did I ever prepare the sacrament in all my thirty years as a Mormon, not because I wasn’t worthy but because I was a girl. Here I am, not even a member of the UMC, not even baptized in the eyes of that church, brand new to the very existence of a whole Holy Week, let alone freaky deaky sounding Maundy Thursday and they are letting me handle the body of Christ? Later, when I was back at my post, waiting for stragglers to greet, Pastor Grace told me I was doing an excellent job. She smiled winkingly and motioned to my hands and told me I was now officially authorized to carry holy things.

The Unpeeling OR How To Leave The Mormon Church When You Don’t Really Want To OR That One Clash Song Even Your Mom Knows

Stay

Everybody leaves. At least, that’s how it feels when you are a progressive Mormon trying to make it work in the church. You are defensive of your Mormon identity and hopeful you can be the change you want to see, but it’s hard to do either when it feels like everybody who thinks like you stops coming around and a good chunk of the people who don’t think like you want you gone. You worry that 2012-2013 was high tide for unorthodox Mormons. You envision a time that you will look around the chapel and wonder, where have all the feminists gone? You know your daughter will leave. You know it will be because of what you teach her about her worth and about God, about how He or She or They or It love everyone the same.

Even way back when, at the very beginning of my journey into the Mormon hinterland, before the decade-plus I spent traversing the boundary, meandering the liminal space–in and out and in again–I was always envious of the people who came and went easily.

  • The boy who found Bud Heavy and decided right away that a life with beer was better than one of deprivation.
  • The girl who shacked up with her college boyfriend and wondered what was so bad about living in sin, anyway.
  • The Jack Mormons who realized they could ditch the moniker altogether, the first part and the last, and move through their lives like normal people, not transgressive, not special, but also not Other, no longer marked at all.

Go

I liked booze and boys as much as the next mostly straight teenage girl and didn’t even feel guilty about it. (Shame would come later on, when I tried to quit drinking and found I couldn’t, when I fell in love with an atheist and found I couldn’t fall out.) I liked them enough that I understood why people left. I entertained the idea myself. I wanted to want to leave. What I didn’t understand was how people who were raised in the church could just…go. Like it was nothing. Like it never meant anything at all.

As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t leave Mormonism alone. I would show up at church high or hungover, reeking of sweat and sex and booze and sit in the pew and try to focus on the ceiling while the room pitched and lurched around me in an effort not to hurl. The wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling of chapels crisscrossing the country from Tucson to New Orleans to Seattle to Ann Arbor looked like the hull of a great ship and I’d be carried away in visions of myself as the brother of Jared, rocking around in an ark bound for the promised land.

Why did I keep going? I guess I just believed.

That pissed me off, by the way. Making bad decisions on Friday is much less fun when you spend Sunday worrying about how to be good.

Stay

Years passed and I kicked the drugs and cut back on the drinking and married the atheist and went back to church. I couldn’t ignore the pull I felt toward Mormonism. We were tethered, naval to pulsing, bloody mass. It wasn’t perfect or anywhere near, but I put together a life that looked Mormon enough. I went to church most weeks. I taught a Sunday School class. I visited the women in my congregation that I was assigned to visit and shared uplifting messages about Jesus. I gave people rides. I tithed thousands of dollars to the church. I read the Book of Mormon every day. I read church magazines. I listened to General Conference twice a year. I prayed constantly. Mormonism made me happy, much happier than I’d been before.

But I still tracked the people who left, and wondered how they did it.

  • The husband who read mysterious things about the church on the Internet and decided that while he had spent the last thirty years perfectly content to believe Joseph Smith translated gold plates using a pair of spectacles and a breastplate, the notion of the boy sticking his face in a hat to read words flashing across a rock was a bridge too far.
  • The young man fresh off his mission who discovered the number–and the ages–of Joseph’s wives and couldn’t wrap his head around this sordid new information about the prophet he revered.
  • The woman who lifted her veil and saw for the first time where she fell in the hierarchy of woman, man, and God.
  • Entire families that passed out fliers supporting Prop 8 but freaked out when the church invested in a mall in downtown SLC.

I’d spent so long trying and failing at being a good Mormon it never occurred to me that I might not want the church I came back to.

Go

Of course the red flags had been there all along. Once, when I was still very precarious in regard to the church, only sporadically attending a student ward at university, a Sunday School teacher, a woman, college-aged and educated, made the bizarre pronouncement in the middle of a lesson that the Big Bang Theory was “stupid.” I didn’t know church was a place I could disagree yet, so I spent the rest of class silently fuming and called my mom in a rage as soon as it was over. On the surface, I was angry because literal, biblical, six-day Creationism is not even required Mormon doctrine. Sure, some Mormons believe that stuff, but the official party line is that religion and science work together. Mormons aren’t the kind of fundamentalists who tear pages out of biology textbooks. My anger was defensive, on account of my membership in the group. Mormons are already so weird; who did this woman think she was, putting our cultural relevance in further jeopardy by perpetuating backward anti-science gobbledygook without anybody even saying she had to?

On a deeper level, I was hurt and baffled. Here I was, at church, during the Sunday school class that meets at the end of a three-hour worship service no less, for the first time in who know how long, desperately trying to inject some spirituality into a life that felt poisonous, and this woman, who was supposedly called by God, who was supposed to be leading the class by inspiration, was using her platform to engage a culture war that had been out of date for decades? A war that was never ours to fight in the first place? Church was a hospital and I was dying and this was the first time I sensed that I might show up and get something that made the hurt worse.

Stay

So, yes, I came back to church with questions. How could I not, having been blessed with a brain that works and a family that told me to use it? How could I not, having been raised in a church that taught me that all are alike before God, black and white, bond and free, male and female? How could I not, after years of living and studying and working alongside women with astonishing resumes, men who treated me like an equal, atheists who were kinder than any Christian I’d ever known? Of course I came back with questions. The fact that I’d already come back once, that I’d come back at all, after living through my own approximation of hell, stilled the part of me that wanted to abandon the faith altogether. Even so, I had enough questions to understand why other people did.

What I didn’t understand was how people could do it so quickly, with so much certainty. Like it was so black and white.

Like many people, I found information that challenged my faith online. It started with the mixed-orientation marriage forums. I found my way there looking for resources for people in mixed-faith relationships after I decided to marry my non-LDS boyfriend. I needed reassurance that we could make it, in spite of our religious differences. What I found–lots of women trying to stay in marriages to gay men–was neither especially relevant to my situation, not especially comforting. How had all these men ended up married to women anyway? What were they going to do, faced as they were with choosing between the deepest longings of their hearts and the church they lived and a family hanging in jeopardy in the middle? I couldn’t fathom the difficulty and thanked God I didn’t have to choose.

Next came the blogs. I devoured a secret personal blog by a closeted gay Mormon man. He was married to a woman and they had four children. He kept writing that he wanted to stay, with his wife, in the church, but when he wrote about blossoming friendships with other men, about exploring intimacy outside the confines of his marriage, I thought it was painfully obvious that wasn’t exactly the case.

I couldn’t relate to anything this man was experiencing but I was fascinated by this glimpse into the mind of another tortured Mormon soul.

A friend from law school turned me onto Feminist Mormon Housewives. He was giving a presentation on Proposition 8 in our Critical Legal Theory class and he was careful to mention that not all Mormons are socially conservative, glancing over at me, and citing FMH as proof. I’d never heard of the website and ran home to type the words into my web browser. I was gobsmacked. It was a group blog run by Mormon women and the tagline in the header read, “angry activists with diapers to change.” Who were these ladies, writing about canning jam and fighting the patriarchy? They were simultaneously eerily regressive (absolute piles of children) and wildly radical (there’s a Heavenly…Mother?). Post after post challenged fundamental Mormon beliefs and practices. They questioned the idea that God told the early Mormons to practice polygamy. They suggested that Mormon women once held a version of the priesthood and perhaps the day would come when they would again. They aired horrific accounts of ecclesiastical abuse. They talked in circles around temple ceremonies that broke their hearts they were so inequitable.

This was the most absorbing content I’d ever read. I felt like I’d walked into a conversation I’d spent my whole life wanting to have.

FMH led me to the semi-Mormon Mommy Bloggers, Mormon women with personal websites that were snarky, and funny, and intellectual, and irreverent. I hadn’t realized that Mormon women could be smart and cool. Chalk it up to internalized misogyny or to me not ever giving Mormon women a real chance, I was willing to atone. I had finally found my people.

After the blogs came the podcasts. Hungry for stories about other Mormon misfits, I tore through the archives of Mormon Stories and Mormon Expressions and Mormon Matters, honing in on women’s stories. Dark as they often were, with self harm and loss and painful encounters with religious authority, these were the stories of women steeped in the same tradition as me making it work, often after watching their religious world disintegrate around them.

  • Claudia Bushman forced out of publishing the Exponent II after her husband became stake president.
  • Sonia Johnson excommunicated after pushing for the ERA.
  • Maxine Hanks and Lavina Fielding Anderson and Margaret Toscano and others excommunicated after writing and editing books about the history and theology of Mormon women.

In addition to the giants of Mormon feminism, I discovered dozens of women with far less storied histories sharing about the personal undoing they experienced when they caught onto a loose thread of inequality and followed it into the rich and tangled web of unorthodox Mormonism. Often, this undoing was followed by a re-weaving of their lives into the Mormon whole, by which I mean: they kept going to church. Theirs were stories of betrayal, loss, and redemption.

After years of ambivalence around the church, torn between feeling like I should be a better Mormon despite not really wanting to be Mormon, it was the Mormon feminists that drew me in, and it was the Mormon feminists who would show me how to stay.

As I read more and more accounts of people who disaffected from Mormon orthodoxy, I noticed that my experience diverged from the typical story in one major way: none of the information I was learning about Mormonism shocked me.

Among the many gifts my parents gave me is a Mormonism that is malleable. A Mormonism that, when I was a teenager, easily accommodated bikinis and short shorts and protest songs. A Mormonism that opposed the Iraq invasion. A Mormonism that drew back in horror when, that same year, the ward choir director announced that the Easter program would shock and awe us, in an obvious reference to the campaign in the Middle East, but loved that choir director just the same. A Mormon community that smiled, bemused, at my hot pink hair in college and applauded when I graduated from law school before getting married.

This kind of Mormonism would readily expand to make room for fallible prophets and bishops behaving badly and confusing and incomplete doctrines about women, people of color, and gay people when the time came. This kind of Mormonism not only tolerated but welcomed big questions. Why does God let bad things happen to good people? What do we do when people claiming to be God’s servants get it seriously wrong.

Make no mistake: I had a healthy fear of “anti-Mormon literature,” which is what my Mormon parents called books and websites that were critical of the church in the 1990s and early aughts. I fretted when my non-LDS boyfriend read things about the church online, worried he’d stumble into something so profoundly ugly that it would ruin any chances of him ever joining the church. Well into my twenties, when I was Hoovering in stories of people who had doubts about the veracity of the church’s teachings, who had had negative experiences in the church, and who, whether as a result of their particular makeup or their unique history, were on their way out, I nervously avoided seeking out information about the church that wasn’t filtered through the lens of a personal story.

Vacuum cleaner that I was, I picked up the bad news anyway. Bad news like:

  • Anachronisms in the Book of Mormon–e.g., references to horses and coins when there is no archaeological record of such things having existed in the Americas during the time periods covered by the Book of Mormon. For some people, this is all the proof they need that Joseph Smith faked the whole thing–the One True Church is a scam. It made me want to learn more about the art of translation and how a translator’s worldview impacts the subject text.  
  • DNA studies–e.g., evidence that ancestors of American Indians migrated from Central Asia and not, as it happens, ancient Israel. For some people, this information undermines everything they thought they knew about the origins of the Americas as told in the Book of Mormon. I couldn’t get through more than 30 minutes of academic discussion on the subject, because it’s dry as hell. Also, everybody gets killed off at the end of that book; it made sense to me that they wouldn’t have left a significant genetic record.  
  • The Mountain Meadows Massacre–e.g., that time (1857) when a band of Mormon settlers murdered 120 men, women, and children emigrating by wagon from Arkansas to California. This one threw me a little more than the others. I honestly had no idea my people were capable of that. On further thought, though, it is tragic but not senseless. The Mormons were isolated and hysterical, persecution memories were fresh, and tensions were high. Plus, there is evidence that Brigham Young helped orchestrate the attack, and Mormons are nothing if not obedient. History is a bloody mess and I was a natural apologist.

Because nothing shocked me, there was no turning point, no clear demarcation between then and now. I learned something new and it was like I’d always known it. I polished off the whole apple without realizing I’d even taken a bite. I did everything short of walking out of the garden.

My Mormonism was, in addition to being malleable, porous. Teachings that made no sense slid along the membrane and slipped right out. So Joseph Smith married a 15-year-old. My qualms with wrapping my head around the idea of a prophet fucking up to such a monumental degree were few. But I was not about to twist my conscience up in knots pretending that God told him to do that. Or that God just changed his mind about black people in 1978. Or that God cries anything but tears of joy when two men, or two women, fall in love and decide to be family.

Each new, unpleasant pebble of church history dissolved smoothly into the bubble of my belief, as though I had always known it. Those that didn’t passed through. The new information did not rock my faith so much as change the composition and the shape of it, slightly, over time. If anything, these revelations made me more attached to the church. A moody, complicated faith suited my rebellious nature. I knew I’d stick around longer if I could fight for something within the faith, even while I defended it on the outside.   

What I didn’t expect is that the church would fight me back.  

Go

The first shots rang out in 2012, when I marched with a contingent of LDS supporters of gay marriage in the Chicago Pride Parade. The men wore white shirts and ties and the women wore pioneer dresses and we walked quietly with the other religious groups armed with rainbow flags and signs announcing our allyship. The event organizers were generous enough to put all us Jesus freaks at the front of the parade, and the moment I went from grinning my face off waving at drag queens to rounding a bend and being booed by the Westboro Baptist Church remains one of the most powerful of my life. Humans built bridges that day and God was pleased. A month later, a friend and former law school classmate called me to repentance. He told me that I couldn’t hide my sin by slapping a progressive label on it. He told me that my dissent made me something other than a real Mormon.  

The firestorm came later that year, when a ragtag band of Mormon feminists organized Wear Pants to Church Day. What started off as a day for us to show solidarity and raise awareness by wearing pants instead of the customary skirts or dresses to church blew up into an international event with press coverage in major outlets from the New York Times to the Huffington Post to NPR. I got emails from other Mormons, strangers, condemning me.

  • Anyone who supports this protest is revealing more about your feeling jipped for being born a woman than it is showing you are proud of womanhood.
  • I have you to thank for the hate that is overcoming my facebook today. You incited a verbal riot. Is this what you intended? If not, please remove your event.
  • If you wanted to create contention with your page, you have succeeded marvelously. What does the scripture say, “Contention is of the devil”. I wonder what you thought you would accomplish with this. If it was anything other than dividing the membership of the church, you were sadly mistaken.
  • Shame on you for trying to make a place of worship, and women in the church feel even more divided and making an issue out of one that really shouldn’t be there. Church leaders have said nothing about wearing pants. This distracts from Christ and being united. It’s not right. People should not be judging others for wearing pants if necessary, as well as those who choose to wear skirts. This idea and day to wear pants is just wrong. Are you truly following Christ and uniting and loving, or are you like the great divider….you decide.

Stephanie L., the woman who started the movement, received a death threat. My mom accused me, with hurt and fear in her voice, of wanting the priesthood–the ability to act in God’s name with God’s power, a privilege available to all Mormon men but only to Mormon men–for myself. I responded to every email graciously, practically begging the question, “What would Jesus do?” I quoted liberally from the Book of Mormon, determined to show them I was the better Christian.

I was besieged in 2013, after I had my baby. I dutifully took her to church on Sundays, alone, desperate for support and reassurance that I was making the right choices as a mother, that I wasn’t doing permanent damage to my daughter by going back to work while my husband stayed home, that I hadn’t already screwed her up royally by marrying outside of the church in the first place. What I got was people asking me when I was going to quit my job, was leaders reminding me that a woman’s job is to nurture and a man’s to provide, that women and men are different but equal.

In the spring of that year, Kate Kelly launched her website advocating for the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Mormon church and members pushed back. Feminists tried to attend the all-male priesthood session of the church’s semiannual general conference in the fall and were turned away at the door. I quietly posted a profile on ordainwomen.org and didn’t share it with anybody because I didn’t want my family to be ashamed.

The war waged in 2014, when the church excommunicated Kelly for her role in pushing for ordination. I wrote about being crippled after watching the body of Christ self-amputate, draining good women like so much lost blood. Up to this point, I’d been crawling along the boundary of what was acceptable in Mormonism, pushing against it and enjoying the way it flexed and stretched. There was always more room, it seemed, for me and for the people I loved. In 2014, the skin snapped back. The pores clogged. My once airy bubble sealed shut, in the world but not of it, a place unto itself. At church, I watched my daughter watch the deacons pass the sacrament. Those twelve-year-old boys had more power in the church than she would ever have. I lived six days a week as a human and went to church on the seventh a failed mom. I could not breathe.

I started drinking again. I got high.

People have been leaving the church for as long as there’s been a church to leave but in 2014 my people started leaving in droves. My friends in Chicago. The women I planned Wear Pants to Church Day with. Women I’d admired from afar. For the first time since I’d come back to the church in my twenties, I wanted out.

Why did I keep going? It wasn’t because I got a thrill out of being an iconoclast. I mean, I did, but it’s not the life I would have chosen for myself. I went because I still believed.

But what did I believe? That the church was “true,” whatever that means? In my heart of hearts, I’d been a universalist for years. I had to be. I was married to a non-believer. My grandmother is an atheist. I had too many friends who would never join the Mormon church in large part because of the irredeemable positions it took on social issues. I had to believe that things would work out for these people or I’d have drunk myself to death years ago over the tragedy of it all.

My belief system was big and slippery, but only for other people. When it came to my own salvation, I was certain that I would live and die in the Mormon bubble. I remembered what my life had been like without the church, how lucky I was to have survived addiction, depression, and insanity, and knew I couldn’t go back. I remembered the experiences that had led me back to the church, the angels that lined my path, the voice of God in my head, and knew I couldn’t discard their power. Mormonism was the only place, the only language, God had ever spoken to me and so I believed it was the only place God would. I believed Mormonism was where and who I was supposed to be. My God was as big as my mind was small.

The irony is that, although it was the church’s rejection of the movement to ordain women to the priesthood that was pushing me to the edge, I never wanted to be a priest. How could I? The notion of a woman acting with authority in the church, in any church, was beyond my wildest imagination. Plus, submitting to the laying on of hands would mean giving up my spot in the cheap seats and my identity a fringe Mormon.

Some months after Kelly’s excommunication, I had a vision of myself in robes. It was during my morning commute. I rode the red line from my neighborhood on the north side. My mind, at that point, was a minefield of anxiety, alcoholism, and fear. The train descended from the elevated tracks to the tunnels below. I couldn’t think of work or family or church without tripping the wire that told me I was failing, that I was falling apart, across the board. The doors slid open and I pushed out into the dark. A comedian’s voice buzzed in my ears; I’d taken to listening to podcasts to muffle the noises in my head, to blunt the existential dread. The escalator closest to my office was under repair so I took the long way to the stairs at the other end of the tunnel and emerged blinking in the bright morning light. I couldn’t get myself to and from work without courting disaster. I stepped off the curb ready to cross State Street, ready to walk out of my life, when it happened. I saw myself standing shin-deep in the water, draped in white, with an embroidered stole. My arms waved, beckoning somebody to join me. I didn’t need more context to know that I was not being baptized into another church; I was doing the baptizing.

Something clicked into place and the pressure in my chest released, breathing life into my cramped vision of how women relate to God. As a Mormon woman, I had been fighting for something that women of other faiths already have. I’d spent so long convinced that, for me, the options were Mormon or nothing, and vacillated wildly between the two. In a moment, I saw that could go somewhere else, and that that place would be filled with light, and that my passions and talents and questions would not just be tolerated, but received.

Is revelation ever easy to take? The vision dissolved into the bubble with every other unsettling thought I’d ever had. Like Jonah, I fled and spent the next year in the belly of the beast.

In November 2015, the LDS church updated its handbooks to include a new policy. Per the policy, members of the church in same-sex marriages were apostates subject to excommunication from the church. Children of same-sex couples were forbidden from being blessed as babies and baptized into the church as children. Instead, they had to wait until they turned eighteen, moved out of their parents’ homes, disavowed gay marriage, and obtained approval from First Presidency–the prophet and his two counselors, the highest leaders in the church.

The policy came as a shock after half a decade during which many progressive Mormons perceived the church as softening its stance toward gay and lesbian members and the larger LGBTQ community. The effects were immediately devastating. Church members across the spectrum expressed bewilderment, hurt, and sorrow, online, at family members. Thousands gathered in Salt Lake City to submit letters resigning their membership in the church. Many more just stopped going. Those committed to the church circled the wagons. Straight people reached out to their gay friends to tell them they were welcome. Bishops and other church leaders offered to meet with their congregants to answer their questions. Ward members invited people into their homes, to hold each other, and to talk. I drank rye whiskey from the bottle and wept.

As with most people, it was the aspect of the policy that barred children from being baptized that hit me hardest. I knew the church sometimes made people leave. I’d seen it in my own lifetime, with Kelly, and others. This was the first time I’d known the church, my church, a young and eager church, a proselytizing church, turn people away who, against all odds, actually wanted to join. The policy dangled the possibility of baptism at a later date, and some kids will probably grab for that chance, but others won’t. I was baptized when I was eight years old. It was an easy choice. Back then, thinking about the church was like wrapping myself in a warm blanket. By the time I was eighteen, all I wanted to do was to get high–I never would have gotten baptized at that point. The new policy told me that the church was okay with losing kids like me. The policy told me that the baptismal covenant wasn’t the essential, life-saving ordinance the church proclaimed it to be. The policy told me that, for some of us, a life inside the church was negligible.

Word of the policy spread like a contagion, and I had an appointment with my bishop within days. He struggled to put into words the reasons for church’s new position. “The church respects families,” he said. “We don’t want to put children in the confusing position of receiving conflicting messages about the sacred doctrine of marriage at church and at home. We don’t want to undermine the parents of those families.”

“But that’s my family. I married outside the faith, outside the temple. And my husband and I believe that people have the right to marry whoever they want and we are teaching our daughter to do the same. How are we different?”

He looked at me with compassion and concern and a profound inability to answer my question. “I want you to know that you and your family are always welcome in our ward.”

But I wasn’t looking for permission to stay. I didn’t need that. Mormonism was my birthright. I’d rejected it and gotten it back and now my heart and my mind were a mess with it. Nobody could take Mormonism from me. I was looking for permission to go, and in the policy I finally had it, from the mouth of the Lord’s anointed.

Gone

A few days later, I went for an early morning run outside. It was warm for November. The sidewalks were wet with rain from the night before and the sun was coming up gold over Lake Michigan. I was glad nobody was up yet because every few blocks my face would crumple and I’d let out a horrific barking sob. My relationship with Mormonism had been an agonizing intellectual head game for so long it was bizarre to hear my body finally emit the grief. I needed to get away from where people might be so I ran to Lake Michigan and followed the trail out to a little peninsula with a dock that looks south to the city. I dropped to my knees and traced the shoreline past all the neighborhoods I lived before, untethered from them all. A vee of geese knifed through the sky. It seemed late for them to be leaving, but when I looked it up later, I learned that the migrations are nothing to set your watch by. Canada Geese pass through Chicago most of the winter and, thanks to warmer winters and urban feeding, some never leave it all.

These days, I don’t know what to call myself. I don’t go to church anymore, but it’s different than before, when I was still a Mormon living in the land of should. Ex-Mormon is too harsh, Post-Mormon too smug. I still envy the people who know how to rip the Band-aid off. I could never be so rash. My relationship with Mormonism was a long, slow unpeeling. Mormonism wasn’t adhesive. It was epidermis and it pulled the follicles of my faith up and out one by one. Once I called Mormonism my whole heart, but that was wrong. Mormonism was skin. I can live without it, but I will be raw for years.