While passing the Greek Streak during my walk home from junior high, I would close my eyes or look to my left, east, at the post office to avoid seeing the white plastic replica of the Venus Victrix that still, to my knowledge, is on display in the front windows of that restaurant for all the world to see. Sometimes I would simply walk on the other side of Carbon Avenue. After all, I knew that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her in his heart. In my pubescent heart, this was a no-go.
I mean by this to communicate in a way who I was at the time I was most religious, most faithful to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or as most people know as the Mormon Religion. This particular memory, I’m sure, is not uniquely Mormon. A few of my friends with less religious backgrounds have prodded me for stories about growing up in the church, wanting to hear stories of how I had been brainwashed. Brainwashing, I have concluded, is not the best word to describe my experience. My brain never needed to be washed of anything because I was raised in church. It was a matter of staying clean instead of becoming clean. Socialized is perhaps the better word, and the better question being how was I socialized to cement my faith in the church. What I experienced is undoubtedly similar to the experiences of others, but in writing of my experiences, I speak only for myself. Draw what conclusions you may, but know that I can only give a particular window into what it is to be Mormon.
© photograph by Peretz Partensky
Community and family define, I would say, what it is to be Mormon. For instance, God is most often referred to as Heavenly Father. Members often refer to each other as brother or sister. Salvation in the Mormon Mythology is be united with one’s family in Mormon heaven for eternity. In the Children’s Songbook, you’ll many family-centric and especially father-centric songs. The chorus of “Families Can Be Together Forever” is the most demonstrative of this:
Families can be together forever Through Heav’nly Father’s plan. I always want to be with my own family, And the Lord has shown me how I can. The Lord has shown me how I can.
Family is important to most. I mean to try to communicate the stakes inherent in this mythology. If the greatest salvation is found in eternal family, what does it mean for the family’s salvation should, say, a son not make it? Because of this question, the story of Eli haunted me when I was still a member. Eli, if you’re unfamiliar, appears in the first book of Samuel. He was one of the last judges of Israel. His sons were wicked priests, eating prime cuts from sacrifices, committing adultery. Eli doesn’t do enough to stop them, so God curses his lineage. His descendants will always die prematurely. Then his sons, Hophni and Phinehas, die in battle, and the Arc of the Covenant is taken by the Philistines. A soldier fled the battle and told Eli that his sons had died, that the Arc was lost. Then, in shock, Eli fell backwards on his chair, breaking his neck, dead at ninety-eight. What I wonder went through his mind as he fell? Shame, I have always imagined. As he fell, he thought of his sons in their youth and wondered where he could’ve done better. This story to me always seemed to confirm in a way that while we are all responsible for our own sins, parents would be held responsible for the misbehavior of their children. It was important that I behave, that I not look at the little plastic nipples of the Venus Victrix in the Greek Streak’s window. There was too much at stake.
This anxiety walked me through my junior-high days, but when I was younger, it didn’t worry me at all. It felt good to follow the guidelines provided by the church. There so many pats on the head as I sung the songs in the Children’s Songbook, as I would bare my testimony that I, a child, really really believed what I had been told. I might say that I was trained to do this, to believe in these things. Besides once attending a Catholic mass, I haven’t spent anytime learning of any other denominations of Christianity. However, a brief description of the average Mormon Sunday might help clarify why the word socialized seems a bit appropriate. The length of Mormon worship services seems to astound my friends who have different backgrounds. Services last three hours, split between a sacrament meeting, Sunday school, and then classes that are separated depending on sex and age. Children go to Primary School. At 18 months old, they participate in nursery, child care services really. At three years old, they begin to attend more formal classes. These children are called sunbeams. Then, similar to more regular school systems, they move up through classes as they grow older, learning different lessons, gaining responsibilities in the church. At twelve, boys and girls start moving to higher classes where they are slowly integrated more into the adult classes. Boys during this time, if considered worthy, gain the Aaronic and then Melchizedek priesthood. Each of these come with further responsibilities, further services the holders perform for the church. I, for instance, would help the church collect tithes after obtaining the Aaronic Priesthood, and I baptized my niece.
I’m sure Mormons would call this education, others perhaps brainwashing. I think most Mormons I’ve met in my life believe they are doing what they should. My problem, I suppose, is that living as I had been taught became a torment.
Perhaps, you are interested in how I lost my faith. Mormons would call it falling away. I would call it leaving. Falling is more an accident.
The brittle part was perhaps the most me, the human. As childhood’s following turned to the abstract dreams of a confused teenager, I drifted. I found myself twisted in odd places, compromising when nothing else fit. I wouldn’t look at the Venus Victrix, but when I was jogging behind the athletic girls in gym class, what was I to do? Ask them not to jog in front of me in those shorts? They, I would tell myself, are apart of the scenery, a sight as unavoidable as the book cliffs. However, I began to feel the hollowness of my testimony. When the elders gave me blessings, I no longer just felt the warmth of God descending on me. I wonder if it was just the warmth of their hands on my head. Looking for some advice, I asked my mom how to get a girl to love me. She told me that if I was nice and good and smart, I wouldn’t have to worry about it. To my astonishment, despite my goodness, no girls were particularly impressed with this smelly, scrawny boy who was ever eager to answer questions in class. I had been following the church’s schedule for my life up until that point, and as I approached my 16th birthday, the age at which young members are allowed and encouraged to date, girls’ lack of interest began to seem like proof that I had gone wrong somewhere.
This created a sort of hollowness. I blessed the sacrament but wondered at my worthiness. I bore my testimony but felt that I knew less than I said. The anxiety of failing, failing myself, failing God, and failing my family weighed on me. Other kids would tell me I spoke in monotone. I remember picking at bumps I thought I saw on my arms. Worried about what others saw in me, I isolated myself.
Then a girl named Kristi started harassing me. In ceramics class, she first asked me, Why are you always alone? Do you have no friends? Then, at lunch, she see me picking at the grass and ask, Dude, doesn’t anyone like you? Then she took it upon herself to keep me company. She dress all in black and swore. Her friends became my friends. Spending time with people outside the faith, I saw that, on the outside, people were still good and in certain ways, far more relaxed. Perhaps it was simply the rebellious nature of a teenager driving me, but I began to see my faith as more of a problem than I solution. I still attended church until I had my first job. I asked to be scheduled on Sunday, so I would have an excuse to skip church. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents, who are both faithful members of the church. However, free from what I felt was a toxic environment, I began to feel better, better about everything. Overtime, it became clear to my family that I didn’t care for the church anymore. Luckily, all five of my older siblings had left the church before me, softening up Mom and Dad a bit for me. My parents were still disappointed that I wouldn’t be going on a mission, but they took it better than I had feared. As it turned out, they love their children regardless.
Though I only speak for myself, there is some reason to believe that my experience in the church was not unique. Mental Health America ranked Utah the second worst state concerning the prevalence of mental illness and access to care. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Utah has the 5th highest suicide rate per capita, and suicide is the leading cause of death for ages 10-24 and the second for ages 25-44. It would be speculation to say that Utah’s mental health issues are driven up by Utah’s high Mormon population, around 60% of the total population. Doctor Curtis Canning, former president of the Utah Psychiatric Association, said of Utah’s mental health “Availability to resources, a lack of professionals and barriers to treatment, including the ability to pay all drive up instances of depression. But there is also — especially when it comes to women and girls — a cultural factor."
Nowadays there is little Mormon left in me. I’ve become bit more gregarious perhaps because meeting new people instigated shift away from the faith. Chatting with strangers is a favorite hobby of mine. For this reason, I’ve come to love going out to the bar, particularly quieter bars with a pool table or two. Often I find myself standing outside with the smokers, swapping stories, learning the names of people I’ll never meet again. There is something charming the way a person does their hair, the way they speak and gesticulate, and especially in the stories they tell. Maybe it was the sight out of the corner of my eye, the same charm, the charm of difference, of beautiful individuality that tempted me away from the church.
The "Weekly Journal" blog is updated every Sunday.