Reclaiming Our Stories

This is the presentation I gave for the panel Who gets to say what former Mormons are like? which I organized at the 2012 Sunstone Symposium.

I could see that she didn’t know what she was talking about just by the description of this book!

Author needs to do her research first!

I have only read the description of this book and I realize that I might not really understand the content, but the Mormon church is not like what is being described.

The author does not have the least bit of correct knowledge of the Mormon religion. Her portrayal could not have been more grossly inaccurate.

If you would like to know what the Mormon church, (correctly named The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints*) believes in and stands for, this book is NOT the source to choose. Visit Mormon.org or talk to a Mormon you may know.

All of these are quotes from online reviews of someone’s personal memoirs. The book is not billed as anything other than one person’s life experiences — certainly not as a source-book on Mormonism.

I know, you can find anything on the Internet. But still, it’s interesting to see several people confidently post that they are more qualified than the author judge the accuracy of her recounting of her own life, simply because her experience with Mormonism was largely (but not entirely) negative.

The advice to “talk to a Mormon you may know” is perhaps the most poignant part because of the unspoken assumptions it carries: That obviously the author can’t be considered “Mormon” if she’s no longer a believing, practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that if she’s not “Mormon” by the CoJCoL-dS’s standards, then she has no business talking about Mormonism at all. Even experiences from her own life — it’s as though she has no right to claim them anymore.

If you dont want anything to do with the LDS faith, then why allocate so much of your time talking about it??

That’s our “Frequently Asked Question” on the community blog Main Street Plaza. No other question comes close in frequency.

I try to be patient with this question because — no matter how many times I’ve answered it — it’s new to each new person who comes by to ask.

It’s not a malicious question. It’s that the CoJCoL-dS teaches that “apostates” are miserable and bitter, and have no further connection with anything Mormon — except to angrily try to tear the church down. And if you’re surrounded by people who believe that, it’s not unusual to have simply never questioned that claim. I’m glad to have the opportunity to expose people to a new and unfamiliar perspective.

The truth is that if you were raised Mormon or have practiced Mormonism for a significant amount of time, that experience is part of what shapes the person you are. That component of your life doesn’t suddenly become invalid or irrelevant the day you stop believing in the truth claims of the CoJCoL-dS. That’s why our book distribution co-op is called the “Mormon Alumni Association” (see here for the origin of the name).

Former Mormons typically have strong mixed feelings about Mormonism. Some negative opinions, naturally, but also lots of positive associations and memories as well. Rarely indifference.

It’s normal for former Mormons to want to join in discussions about Mormonism. It’s normal that those who feel inspired to write stories include Mormon characters and Mormon themes, as I did in my novel ExMormon. You write what you know. And if you look at our book collection, you’ll see that our portraits of Mormonism are complex and varied — not one-note diatribes. For some of our stories Mormonism isn’t even the central point at all, it’s more background scenery.

In his March 15 Washington Post column Michael Otterson argued that journalists are not really qualified to cover Mormon-related stories unless they:

Drop into our services, talk to our people**, have dinner with a local leader, spend a family home evening with a family, be present when a young soon-to-be missionary opens his or her call letter and learns where they will be spending the next couple of years. Join with us on a service project. And then, when you have scratched the surface in this way, closely observe the transformation of peoples lives outside the church as missionaries teach them and they go through the conversion process. Watch those who transition from attitudes of hopelessness to lives of purpose and meaning and learn new ways to follow Jesus Christ. Talk to a Mormon bishop –our version of the local pastor, but who is unpaid for their volunteer work –as he helps people grapple with problems of addiction or shaky marriages or unemployment.

He also gives a list of publications that are extremely laudatory towards the CoJCoL-dS as examples of good journalism.

Michael Otterson (the managing director of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is the intellectual leader behind the new mantra “If you have any questions, go to lds.org!” Any time a news story diverges one iota from the party line found on lds.org and the LDS Newsroom website, the church PR machine exclaims that the journalists didn’t do their research properly. This includes interviewing faithful Mormons like BYU Professor Randy Bott.

I wish faithful Mormons would be willing to apply the same standards to themselves, and realize that Sunday School lessons like Beware the Bitter Fruits of Apostasy represent tearing other people down — real live people like you and me — whose lives the faithful Mormons aren’t qualified to describe.

One positive aspect of the “Mormon Moment” is that it might help people like Otterson get the message that it’s not reasonable to expect journalists to quote exclusively from your company’s official spokespeople and press releases, and not seek any other sources. But even if it doesn’t, we former Mormons can find our own voices through blogs and books, etc., and reclaim our own stories.

* Unless the reviewer mistakenly thought the memoir was about growing up in the Strangite branch, the correct name is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” not “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”.

** I imagine Otterson means to exclude people like me in the category “our people.”

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chanson

C. L. Hanson is the friendly American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! See "letters from a broad" and the novel ExMormon for further adventures!!

8 thoughts on “Reclaiming Our Stories

  1. I think that this happens on both sides of the “church rolls.” I think forums for current members and alumni, have a forum to talk to and about ourselves and each other. It is part of why I try to go beyond group blogs with multiple authors, and read the personal blogs of authors and people commenting.

    What people say on their personal blogs make them more real, and gives a more balanced idea of the lives of those I exchange ideas with, in larger forums. Ironically, a lot of the time I respect the person a lot more, but occasionally reading a personal blogs makes me not only lose respect for someone, but also takes away all desire to respond to them.

    I have to say that I very much prefer when I find new friends by reading personal blogs and exchanging comments on things in our lives not related to our religions, or at least not directly.

    Julia
    Findingmywaysoftly.blogspot.com

  2. Nothing frustrates me more, I think, than talking or writing about my expereinces when I was Mormon and then having someone (usually Mormon, but not always) dismiss what I lived through with “that couldn’t have happened to you; it never happened to me” or “the Mormons I know would never have done that/said that/treated you like that; you must be exaggerating your experience or lying about it.”

    It is as if they believe they know more about my experience than I do. I’ve even had people tell me, quite directly and without embarassment, “That didn’t happen to you,” when I’ve related particular experiences. A couple of times when this has happened, I’ve tried to express to them that they could not possibly know my experience, and the result was astonishing. In those cases, even when I tried to explain to them that I was there and they weren’t when my experiences happened to me, those people continued to insist (often with the Mormon “I know…”) that I was wrong, they were right, and I didn’t know what I was talking about.

    I don’t bother to even get into it with people like this any more. It is just to frustrating and infuriating.

    Elaine

  3. @4 Exactly. One person’s experience doesn’t have to invalidate another person’s experience, but sometimes people have difficulty grasping that people’s experiences can be different.

  4. It was a great panel. I especially enjoyed the discussion about anger, and how it can be an acceptable and at some times appropriate reaction. Good job, chanson.

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