Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Independence of Solitude

Editorial note: This was written first in 1991, then edited and revised in 2003. Some names and details have been changed. These thoughts and opinions are my own, and do not reflect the official policies or positions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or its members. Yes, I know the formatting is wonky, but after more than an hour of trying to fix it, my throat is killing me and I am going to bed. Try selecting all, then copying and pasting into an email. :) Took my own advice and emailed it to myself in the text of the email to strip it of its formatting. Should be mostly good now with a few weird punctuation issues. 

And Pengo, thanks for the follow ;)

This is also tl;dr. ;)

  My best friend Kara called me from Provo, Utah, during my first year of marriage to tell me that a close friend of hers from her mission had recently committed suicide.  My first inclination was to blame the Mormon Church, particularly the mission experience.  Elder Sidney Rex, 21, had recently completed a two-year mission in Thailand.  What other experience, I asked myself, could have influenced him so much in the two short months since his return?
      "Did he leave a note?
      "No.  And they can't find his journals, his scriptures, or his letters from his mission.  The only thing we know is that the same day he dropped all of his classes and added new ones."
      He had been attending Brigham Young University, the private institution governed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  The Mormons.
      I thought a lot about Sidney Rex's suicide, even though I never met him.  It is tragic to me on a humanitarian level; however, it also provides me with one more piece of artillery to use in my private war against the Mormon Church.
      "I went to the funeral," Kara told me.  "He looked so peaceful.  They did a really good job of putting him back together."
      "What do you mean they put him back together?  How did he do it?"
      "Pistol in the mouth.  
      The Mormon Church sews itself into every part of your life.  Trying to remove it can tear you apart.  I think I am experiencing a phenomenon fairly common to people my age.  College years are a time of flux and confusion.  The Mormon Church's leaders are very aware of this.  They react to it in three major ways.
      First, the Mormon Church hierarchy sends all Mormon nineteen-year-old boys on two-year missions.  On their missions, these boys devote 24 hours a day to the Lord.  They remain chaperoned, primarily by each other, at all times.  They cannot read anything unrelated to or not written by someone in the Church.  They cannot go to movies, watch television, listen to music (except hymns), or go swimming (because of the Danger of drowning, and modesty purposes).  They must wear suits, shave every day, and cut their hair every two weeks. Most importantly, they must never be alone with a member of the opposite sex, let alone touch one or date one.  The possibilities and facts of potential homosexuality never enter into the official equation.  Church leaders forbid it, so they pretend it never happens.  Funny, because when I told my Mormon friend Megan about Sidney Rex she said, "I bet he was gay.  Homosexual, Mormon, mission guilt."  It hadn't occurred to me before that conversation, but afterward, it seemed likely.
        Missionaries all pay for their own missions.  This creates what psychologists call a "Sunk Cost" effect.  If Mormons pay for two years of proselytizing, sometimes at extraordinary expense, and if they devote up to two years of their lives, they will not be able to afford not to believe in the Mormon Church.  It's supposed to be the best two years of your life, and if it's not, you must have done something wrong.  How can you sacrifice so much for something and then admit that you're wrong?
      All male Mormon missionaries are called "Elder."  Females are called "Sister."  It's one more way besides dressing them alike that the Church strips them of their identities.  It enhances obedience.  Make them look alike and sound alike; they are instruments in the hands of the Lord (or, more precisely, the elderly leaders in Salt Lake City).  If you can strip people of individual differences, they will soon be comfortable in their sameness and unlikely to want to risk being ostracized by questioning their religion.
                 *               *               *
      The second way Mormon Church leaders handle the confusion nonmembers feel when they are ages 18-28 is to aim nineteen-year-old missionaries at them; hopefully age similarities will provide fuel for trust.  I sat in a meeting last year with some missionaries and our minister.  The mission coordinator in Columbus, Ohio, had decided to target Ohio State and Ohio University campuses for proselytizing.  The coordinator planted several pairs of missionaries on the sidewalks of uptown Athens, Ohio.  They were instructed to stop college-age people and ask them to answer a few brief questions:
      Do you believe in God?
      What do you know about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints?
      Would you like to know more?
      If the answer to the last question was yes, they obtained the unsuspecting victim's phone number and plagued the poor soul for months.
      Do you want a Book of Mormon?
      May we come visit you?
      I sat in this meeting and listened to a missionary outline their strategy.
      "Most people this age are confused.  They are unsatisfied with their lives.  They are searching for something.  We have answers to give them.  Most of them are very receptive."
      "Yeah," I agreed, ╥but they'd also be very responsive to Buddhism and Catholicism.  I don't think you should target people who are obviously experimenting with different ideas.  They don't look at the Church as a serious commitment; it's all trial and error.  I've lived in this area for eleven years and I've seen a lot of people come and go."
      "That's not our problem.  We see them only to baptism."
      "But it is your problem because you deliberately seek these people out, meet with them for six brief discussions, and then pressure them to be baptized.  They aren't converting to the Church; they are responding to earnest, good-looking, clean cut young males who will be gone in two months.  You should try to teach people who are a little more established."
      "People who are more established don't want to listen.  They think they're satisfied with their lives."
      It is a futile argument.  The Mormon Church handles its proselytizing like an advertising campaign:  Make people feel that their lives are unsatisfactory, then offer them the product-- the true gospel of Jesus Christ.  Give them the answers to questions like
      Who Am I? (a child of God)
      Where Did I Come From? (the pre-existence)
      What Is My Purpose Here on Earth? (to gain a physical body and to overcome temptation in order to dwell again with God)
      Where Am I Going? (to a Spirit World where you will find out that the Mormon Church is true.  There are Mormons there now teaching all the spirits of all the people who die that the Mormon Church is true.  Everyone gets to join.)  The problem is, obviously, that first the Mormons have to convince people that something is wrong, and that only Mormonism can fix it.
      All of these wonderful answers.  But it's all just a little too pat.  For the answers the Mormons don't have, they either don't address the issues, or they argue that we aren't worthy enough for God to reveal the answers to us; we can't live with what He has revealed now.
      The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (as they prefer to be called, rather than Mormon) was established in 1830 by a man named Joseph Smith.  Smith, who claimed to be a prophet, said God and Jesus appeared to him and told him that none of the Churches on earth at that time were correct.  There had been a great apostasy after Jesus╒ disciples died; at that time, God had removed his true authority (called Priesthood by Mormons, and only bestowed upon males) from the earth.  God and Jesus now wanted to restore this authority to Joseph Smith through angels.  They showed him a place in a hillside where golden plates had lain for centuries.  Smith obtained the plates and translated them into the Book of Mormon.  They are the testimony of people who traveled to the Americas from the Middle East; Christ appeared to them here after his resurrection.  This Book is considered scripture and is the keystone of the Mormon religion; however, the golden plates have been mysteriously removed from the earth.  No one has actually seen that these plates exist.
      God also told Joseph Smith that everything a prophet says is modern day scripture.  That conveniently meant that every whim of Joseph Smith's must be God's will.  Part of God's will was to tell everyone on earth about God's Church.  He also outlined for people, through Smith, exactly how to detect His spirit: a burning in the bosom (means a yes when praying); a stupor of thought (meaning no, and designed to make you forget what you had been praying for); a peaceful feeling; and a still, small voice (psychologists call it conscience).  Even those shivers down your spine or goose bumps on your arm when you see a Mormon commercial are really the Spirit of God whispering to you that the Mormon Church is true.  The only problem is that these are also responses to kitsch and sentimentalism, and people often experience them during Hallmark commercials, too.
                     *               *               *
      The third way Mormon Church leaders handle the confusion young adults feel is to encourage females to get married the second they find anyone they are compatible with who is worthy to take them to the Temple.  They encourage young males to marry as soon as possible once they return from two years of proselytizing anywhere on the globe those old men in Salt Lake City see fit to send them.
       Leaders insist that age, education, and money should not get in the way of marriage.  And, of course, this means everyone is eligible.  Then, they tell you that no one who is not prepared to have children should get married.  This is a Catch-22: They have already established that everyone over the age of eighteen (except males who should complete a mission, at their own expense, first, which makes them twenty-one before they're ready) is ready for marriage (you'd be amazed how compatible two horny post-adolescents can be).  Therefore, it naturally (?) follows that you should put your trust in the Lord and start squeezing out kinds nine months after your wedding night (which, incidentally, should be the first time you french kiss, let alone do anything else).
      I can think of two reasons for the Church's policy on marriage and children.  First, the leaders insist that family is what this religion is all about.  Temples are sacred buildings that only worthy Church members can enter, after two interviews with Church officials. Once the Church is assured that: you are chaste; that you absolutely accept the old men in Salt Lake City (who are called General Authorities-- on what, I don't know.  It's general, so it must comprise everything) as the mouthpieces of God guiding your life; that you do not smoke, do drugs, or drink coffee, tea or alcohol; and that you give ten percent of your income to the Church; they will give you a tiny slip of sacred white paper called a Temple Recommend.  This is your ticket to heaven.  If you do not go to the Temple and swear you will live and die for the Mormon Church, and then marry in a ceremony they call Sealing for Time and All Eternity (it transcends death), then you can't go to heaven.  From all I've heard about the ceremony, it is not unlike pledging a fraternity or sorority, or, say, the Masonic rites.  General Authorities insist this is a coincidence.  Incidentally, Mormons are forbidden to speak of these ceremonies, even among each other, outside the Temple.  Mormons insist that these rituals are not secret, however; they are sacred.
      According to the Church, this Temple ceremony is the only way you can be with God, and to boot, it offers the irresistible: the opportunity to be with your family after you die- for eternity!  Once you have children, it becomes very difficult not only to turn your back on the idea of being with your children forever, but also to risk your children's salvation.  Having children sews people into the tapestry more firmly.
      Mormon doctrine says that according to other religions╒ ideas of heaven, you just sort of float around and never see your family and friends.  In fact, the Mormons incorporate even that idea into their concept of heaven; there are just three divisions of heaven. The goal is the highest division; it is only there that you can be with your family. This Mormon idea of exclusiveness does not explain, however, several non-Mormon people who have had near death experiences, and include in their accounts seeing their relatives and friends who have already died.  There is a joke Mormons like to tell:
       A man dies and goes to Heaven.  St. Paul greets him at the gate.  "Before I take you to your new home, would you care for a tour?"
       St. Paul takes the man into a neighborhood not unlike you would find in an American suburb.  There are neatly built houses separated by fences; an occasional swimming pool; cars parked in the drive.
       "This is the Catholic neighborhood," the Saint announces.
       They move on to another neighborhood and notice similar budding lawns; white linen hung to dry; children playing.
       "This is the Jewish neighborhood."
       The man nods, and they proceed to a third neighborhood, distinguishable as the third only because St. Paul again stops.
       "This is the Mormon neighborhood," he whispers.
       "I don't see how this neighborhood is any different from the others!" the man exclaims.
       "Shhhhh," St. Paul warns, ╥They think they're the only ones up here."
                  *                *               *
      The second reason I can see for church authorities to urge Mormons to have children immediately, and have lots of them, is to populate the earth with more Mormons.  I think this reason is valid.  (However, Mormons are allowed to use birth control). The plain and simple of it is that marriage and children ground people in responsibility.  If you are married, have a child, and are trying to support yourselves, you will be concerned with taking care of basic survival needs instead of wondering whether or not the Mormon Church is true.
      When I was at Brigham Young University, my best friend Kara and I used to say that if we ever found out that the Church wasn't true, we would have trouble believing in God.  Everything I believed about God, how I prayed, the answers I perceive, what I thought I knew about God's nature and what He looked like, I obtained from the Mormon Church.  Take the Mormon Church away, and I was left only with a vague memory of feeling as a child that I was loved by some higher power; this was before my introduction to the Mormon Church.
      I can only blame my association with the Church on myself.  I needed answers to questions; so my mother would drop my brother and I off at Church and pick us up when it was over.  She and my father had been inactive for some time.  My mother has since re-embraced the Church; I think it is therapy for her as she deals with middle age.
      I became active in my Church again after Gregory was removed, and taught the six, seven and eight year old children.  I was active for three reasons: my mother lived in the same town and would have tortured me with guilt if I had stopped going; Peter and I had several friends we "did dinner" with on a regular basis; and I loved the kids I was teaching.  Our relationships with our friends would have been considerably strained if we had left the Church then; we were only there for six months more.
      We left the Church after we left Athens, simply in the sense that we didn╒t start going again when we moved to Maryland. What my mother didn't know didn't hurt her.  I think she'd be able to deal with it in time, though.  Peter wanted to try going back to Catholic Church where he was raised.  I think I needed a break from organized religion; I wanted to try to develop a relationship with God, which was independent from what anyone else dictates to me.  I am still working on that.
      Peter didn't want to raise our children Mormon because he didn't want them to go through the same hell and confusion that I went through. The reason we decided to leave is because we thought we would be able to go through the motions and just be Mormon.  But we couldn't.  Our minister wouldn't let us go through the Temple ceremony because we didn't and wouldn't pay ten percent of our income to the Church.  He didn't understand because he used to put his five kids to bed hungry when he was in graduate school so he could pay it.  If attending Church, community service, and performing in Church callings weren't enough, if we had to PAY our way into heaven, we wouldn't stay with the Mormon Church.
      My feelings about the Church at that time can best be compared to when my boyfriend and I were breaking up with a boyfriend my sophomore year of college.  It was a long distance relationship, doomed from the start.  I can say that now, but it took me months to realize.  It started ending when I was at BYU and he told me he had slept with someone else.  I had deluded myself so much, I wanted him so much, that this was a complete, physical shock.  I cried uncontrollably.  I had diarrhea for two weeks.  I don't remember eating during those two weeks; I just remember standing in front of the refrigerator blankly. I know I drank gallons and gallons of Fresca and lemonade.  I woke up every day at 6:00 a.m. feeling like I'd had the wind knocked out of me.  I lost fifteen pounds.  Despite all of this, I still wanted him, and he kept me Dangling.  I fluctuated for three months between wanting him desperately and hating him.  Hating him finally conquered any desire I formerly had for him.
Mood Swings
      I went through similar mood swings towards the Mormon Church.  I love some of the people in it.  I love the sense of community.  I think some of the principles are very good.  However, everytime I started thinking this was something I could live with, I heard something which renews my venom.
      Jen, they handled it so cool.  They said that God won't look just at the suicide; God will see what a good life he led, and what a good person he was.  The suicide won't erase all of that.  God will forgive him."
      Talk about denial.  Suicide is the worst sin next to murder.  It is the complete rejection of God, Church, family, Temple covenants, and life. At least if you murder someone, they can put you on death row-- an eye for an eye kind of thing.  With suicide, there is no repentance.

[Ed. note: Twenty years later, my lack of compassion makes me cringe. This essay is NOT all I have to say on this topic. Oh no. I wrote a BOOK.]
      "Kara, are you even listening to yourself?  What the hell do you expect them to say at a funeral?  'Elder Rex is going to hell'?  Do you honestly believe that God would overlook SUICIDE because Elder Rex was a good person?  Kara, do you think God is going to say,"Gee, Elder Rex, you lived a good life; it's okay that you killed yourself.  But, you, Kara Stockton, you had the audacity to marry someone of a different faith because you loved him.  You're going to hell on a greased pole."  Kara, is that the kind of God you want to live with?"
      I did not understand why Kara, who was in love with  a Jewish boy, was willing to give up her happiness in this life in expectation of what may or may nor happen in the next.  Her opinion of the Church was not much better than mine at the time, but she buckled under family and Church peer pressure.
      I asked her, "Kara, suppose a space ship came down and captured your family and all your Mormon friends and whisked them away: Would you marry Kent?"
      "Yes, probably."
      Kara and I read Ayn Rand our sophomore year and were terribly impressed with her philosophy of selfishness (as sophomores in college tend to be), of trying to be happy regardless of what others think of you.  I have been trying to remind her of this.
      "Jen, I don't even care if it's true.  I just want to believe in something right now."
      I can relate to that.  I'd love to believe it was true.  To this day.  It sounds incredible.  Too good to be true.  I wish I had the simplicity of belief I had when I was eighteen.  I wish I could make all my doubts, my anger, my cynicism go away.  The Mormon Church has a response to my anger; my bitterness about Gregory Parker; my anger at all those men in Salt Lake City who I think are trying to manipulate people and control them through guilt.  Their response is as pat as all the others:
      The Church is true and perfect; the people in it aren't.
      That sounds great, but I don't buy it anymore.  How can they calmly sit there and tell me that and tell me that I should accept a man like Gregory Parker as my spiritual leader?  How can they say he was inspired by God?  I'm not angry at just what he did to me.  I don't think the man was competent to lead anyone, spiritually or otherwise. He once equated recycling with the devil saying that it was a distraction from our spiritual concerns; he said if people were living pure lives, the environment would take care of itself.  He said it was our duty to populate the earth with "white, middle-class, well-nurtured children to balance out all the minority children being born in the ghettos."  To me, these are not the words of an "imperfect" man; they are the rantings of a Nazi.  And Gregory Parker is pretty small potatoes; it terrifies me to think of what the men who really have power believe.  And yet, I am greeted constantly by the same programmed responses which come straight from the top:
      You shouldn't speak ill of the Lord's anointed.(What is this, a police state?  Yes, precisely.  They tell us what books not to read, not to see Jesus Christ Superstar  or The Last Temptation of Christ, or The Passion of the Christ, and what music not to listen to.)
      He must know what he's doing.  He's called of the Lord and can receive special inspiration.
      Maybe he's in that calling because there's something he needs to learn from it. (at whose expense?)
      There are good ministers and bad ministers.
      It was difficult for my nonmember friends, even my husband, to understand what I went through. They didn╒t understand the rage.  "If you don't believe it, just leave," they said.  But I felt as though I had been terribly, terribly betrayed by someone whom I loved, and thought loved me.  Someone who nurtured me as a child and comforted me and said, "Put all your faith in this; this is true."  And I believed in it, and put all my faith in it, and it wasn't true.  It made me feel scared and lonely.  The Mormon Church is like a big family.  Leaving it was terrifying; I mean, this is my soul's salvation I'm meddling with. But trying to stay with it while not believing was unbearable.
      Maybe it really is true. Maybe you just lack faith.  Maybe you are so sinful that the Spirit of God can't even reach you anymore.  Maybe Satan is just tempting you and you're submitting. Don't they say Satan tests the strong? Maybe this is your test and you're about to fail it.
      But maybe the test is really to see through all the bullshit.  And even if it is true, what if it has become so corrupt that it's not good?  Even if it is true, do I really want to associate with these kinds of people for eternity?
      But if it is true and if it is good and you're just being tempted, don't you want to know for sure?  How can you turn down truth?
      Sure, I do, but you can't ever know for sure.
      -Why don't you just ask God?  Doesn't He know the truth?
      Yeah, pray!  Okay, I'll pray, I have prayed, I'm praying. . .but wait! The Church has dictated to me what answers I'll get if I'll pray.  Even asking God has been tainted.  It isn't reliable.
      But do you really believe the Church leaders are capable of such a complete brainwashing?  Do you think they're that intelligent?
      How intelligent do you have to be?  If you know anything about human nature, and if people want to believe, you can do anything.  Sometimes I look at people I consider to be intelligent and ask myself, how can they really believe this?  Gregory Parker asked me once, "Do you think we're all just a bunch of Yahoos who believe this?"  But maybe a Ph.D. isn't a good indicator of intelligence.  And maybe all of these people don't really believe it- or maybe they've just invested too much into this not to believe it.
      So where can you turn if you can't turn to God?
      To myself. Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
      "It is easy in the world to follow the world's opinion.  It is easy in solitude to follow one's own.  But it is the great man who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps, with perfect sweetness, the independence of solitude."
      Right now I don't even have the independence of solitude, but maybe I can get it.
      But you're forgetting the truth.  Isn't the truth the most important thing?
      They've been programming me so long to believe that the Mormon Church is the true Church that I never stopped to question whether it is possible for there to be one truth that is the same for every living creature.  Lao Tse says to define something is to limit it.  Mormons define God everyday.  I think there can be a lot of forms and shapes and words for God.  And isn't prayer just a form of meditation and soul searching?  But I guess that's one more form of control; don't let them pause long enough to wonder about there even being a "truth." Just tell them what it is.
      When I ended that phone conversation with Kara that night, I curled up around Peter's back and cried and cried and cried while he slept.  I felt like I was mourning my childhood beliefs.  The Peter Pan syndrome.  I couldn't quite bring myself to break away completely; part of me was still clinging to the security and love for the Church I felt as a teenager.  The other part of me was lashing out at everyone who still sat and told me that it's true, everyone who had the audacity to instill in children from birth that the Mormon Church is everything.     
      I wanted God to come down and tell me personally what to do.  In trying to remove the Mormon thread from my life, I felt like I was being destroyed.  And to this day, eight years after I finally left the Church, and five years after I went through my first real crisis of faith, I must recreate my whole philosophy.


  1. You know, I think I'm one of the only people who doesn't have a love or hate relationship with the religion of their upbringing. Then again, I wasn't raised LDS or Catholic.

    It must have been such a raw experience to have that feeling of your faith being completely destroyed, in a way. I'm sorry it happened to you, but I think it says a lot about the kind of person you are, to have rejected it.

    10% tithing? Fuck, that's ridiculous.

  2. Wow, I was raised pentacostal. I thought *that* was weird.
    This was a very compelling read, I'm glad you told your story.