A Mormon Liar’s Wild Ride: “Through His Eyes and Lies” by C. L. Jackson

eyes_lies_cover Through His Eyes and Lies is not an ex-Mormon novel or an anti-Mormon novel. It’s kind of a Mormon-adjacent novel. Though the majority of the book’s events take place in Provo, Utah and religion does play a role in the story that unfolds, Mormonism itself is more the setting than the central focus. The church is Middle-Earth, not the One Ring. For anyone hoping for a juicy attack on LDS values in a millennial coming-of-age format, you’re going to be disappointed. Otherwise, there’s plenty of meat on the bone here.

Though author C. L. Jackson does take a few subtle and less-than-subtle swipes at Mormon foibles here and there, the story itself is a character study of a pathological liar (who is also a borderline alcoholic) as he searches for love and a sense of purpose between Maryland and Utah. He bounces from one short-lived romance to the next and staggers from one liquor bottle to the next, never really having a good handle on what he wants or who he is—which should make this a painfully relatable struggle for many.

The narrator is well-drawn, managing to maintain a delicate balance between being sympathetic and being despicable. He’s flawed, and there were plenty of times he needed a good solid punch in the nose, but as the novel progresses, it becomes clearer that he’s a good-hearted person whose best qualities have been obscured by the loss of his identity. When he starts to find out who he is and who he wants to be, the urge to punch dissipates quickly.

My only real complaint about Through His Eyes and Lies is the abundance of sexual encounters. While each has significance to the progression of the story and the development of the characters, it’s astonishing how easily the narrator is able to entice women into what are often one-night stands. Perhaps I merely don’t possess his womanizing attitude (or his devastating good looks), but it begins to feel very unrealistic as he cuts through the inhibitions and the brainwashing with relative ease in order to sleep with a staggering number of women in, of all places, Provo.

The sex is still an essential part of the narrator’s experiences and growth, however. His character arc is agonizingly drawn out at some points, but this quality is the book’s most realistic representation of human nature—change takes time, and we tend learn at a speed that, to outside observers, is much too slow. If anything, this makes his progress in the end all the more rewarding and all the more satisfying.

Jackson also layers the text with a pervasive if understated sense of humor. All of the film references, for example (especially in the chapter titles), are a fun little treat to keep you perked up even when the hero is at his lowest points. And though the book appeals to a wider readership, those with experience in Mormonism should be able to deeply connect with the narrator’s quest for a new identity and a life of authenticity.

(Somewhat) New Ex-Mormon Books!

Hey everyone! I love writing book reviews, but I have been so busy with my comic book and my new job that I have really not had time to do it. So I’d like to at least gather up here a list of Mormon-related books that I’ve learned of lately:

Polygamys-Shadow-cover-201x300In Polygamy’s Shadow, by Maggie Rayner
Set in the 1950s and 60s on the West Coast of British Columbia, In Polygamy’s Shadow: From a Mormon Childhood to a Life of Choice chronicles Maggie’s personal struggle to keep herself from being devoured by the Mormon church and her parents’ unrelenting loyalty to it. She questions why her family eats food from a garbage dump while her father rises in the church hierarchy and her parents pay tithing on every dollar that comes into the household. She fears for her future when polygamists from Bountiful visit her congregation on the hunt for young brides.

rehabReligious Rehab: A memoir, by Todd Maxwell Preston
Finally, late one afternoon, I found myself down to my last dollar-fifty. That fact brought reality starkly into focus. Life needed to stop for me. I walked clumsily towards the bridge, crying, laughing, trying to hide my avalanche of pain. The sun beat on my back. I could feel perspiration trickling down my spine. The blasting of horns and the noisy traffic stopped. Everything slowed, like a giant hand had reached down and hit a switch, and my life unraveled across an imaginary screen. The giant steel beams blocked my vision – I looked down at the Hudson and could not make out a single ripple. But all I had to do was fall; I didn’t even need to jump. I just had to fall and falling was something I was good at. I closed my burning eyes and visualized my plunge and poetically felt justice in ending my life. It felt magical and ethereal, as though it was my destiny.

notaloneYou’re Not Alone: Exit Journeys of Former Mormons, by Jessica Bradshaw
It can be terrifying to acknowledge your doubts, let alone to confront the aftermath of discovering your religion was not what it claimed. Knowing that, the author reached out to a few other former Mormons and asked them to share their journeys in a “chicken-soup-for-the-ex-Mormon-soul”-style compilation. This collection of 23 exit stories represents those willing and eager to remind other brave, honest souls confronting their cognitive dissonance, fears, and doubts that they’re NOT alone, that others have been there, and we all think about, cope, and struggle with it in different ways.

weepingWeeping, Wailing, and Gnashing of Teeth, by Johnny Townsend
On Judgment Day, several Mormon apostates face being thrust into Outer Darkness for their sins. With all of humanity watching, they are forced to confess their stories of rejecting the witness of the Holy Ghost. As they tell the world what led them to abandon the Church, there is much “weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth,” as foretold by the prophets of old. But their punishment is so shocking that even the Devil himself is left speechless at the verdict.

mormonbitchMormon Bitch: Illusions of Hope: Book One, by Mollie Hope Stewart
Ordinary believers that trusted the Mormon Church until its lack of intellectual and spiritual freedom overwhelmed them. This first-hand fictional account deriving from twenty years of journals tells of the subtle brainwashing beginning in Mollie’s happy-go-lucky childhood; then of her learning to question superstition and dogma, and of her learning to trust science, evidence, and reason. And, as she describes it, of her eventually learning to think for herself, rather than always waiting to be told what to do.

wellfedThe All Important, Well-Fed, Giant White Man: A memoir. by Dan Pearce
Brought to you by the author of the widely-acclaimed Single Dad Laughing blog, The All-Important, Well-Fed, Giant White Man will make you laugh as often as it makes you squirm (in all the right ways) as Dan shares his sidesplitting life stories, moments of incredible stupidity, colossal mistakes, and the awesome (albeit sometimes strange) lessons learned through it all.

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If anyone would like to write a review of any of these books for Main Street Plaza, that would be great! Also, if you’ve read any of these books, feel free to give your impressions in comments and/or add your own book suggestions!

New Projects for Main Street Plaza and Mormon Alumni Association Books!

I have some exciting news for the readers of Main Street Plaza, Outer Blogness, and Mormon Alumni Association Books: We’re planning to become a publisher!! Our awesome first book should be appearing… at some date to be announced, hopefully not to far in the future.

In anticipation of this new project, I’m going to make a bit of a change in format here at Main Street Plaza: I will be posting my usual “Sunday in Outer Blogness” column only every other week, and the alternating weeks will feature new posts on Mormon-related topics. This is mostly because the discussion in blogspace has died down enough over the past few years that I’d be doing more of a service by starting new discussions than by rounding up the existing discussions. And now that I’ve gone such a long time without doing any serious blogging, I have a backlog of ideas to write about again!! So I will be presenting the following series:

What Makes the CoJCoL-dS Tick? Observations and Insights of a Longtime Insider/Outsider!

If you are interested in being a part of Mormon Alumni Association Books — or of contributing articles to Main Street Plaza, please email me: chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com.

Powerful Voices: “Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage,” edited by Holly Welker

baring_witnessEver wonder how those beaming brides posing outside the LDS temple really feel? Are they happy? Are they nervous? Are they resigned? All or none of the above? “Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage” provides some answers to those questions. Elegantly written and meticulously edited, Holly Welker’s new anthology gives voice to a diverse group of LDS women, all of whom felt compelled to fulfill the faith’s unyielding expectation that they become wives and mothers.

In choosing contributors who are straight, gay, single, married, divorced, ethnically dissimilar, and in various stages of belief, Welker avoids the trap of promoting an agenda, and instead presents a fascinating and objective view of Mormon marriage and culture, one that both reflects and resonates with the larger LDS community.

Finding herself single and in her 30’s, Naomi Watkins realizes she has no contingency plan. Only Plan A: “meet a returned missionary, date, fall in love, get married, have a basketball team of babies, and live happily ever after.” Still devout to the faith, she continues to pursue that plan, and hopes for the best, in spite of past disappointments.

Marie Brian exposes the Mormon practice of “creative dating,” describing carriage rides in her pajamas, messy spaghetti dinners (no forks allowed), even a pretend date with a dressed-up dummy she’d attached with a balloon head. “At the time, I didn’t think there was anything risqué about dating something you inflated with your own breath,” she recalls.

Brian’s gem of a story hit me close to home. As a student at BYU, I took part in a number of these elaborate stunts, once dressing up as “James, your chauffeur” for a formal gala at McDonald’s. Evidently, no wholesome Mormon courtship is complete without a cross-dressing activity, a public parade in one’s nightclothes, or the unwitting participation in some sexually themed role-play.

Another standout is Bernadette Echols’ concise and eloquent piece on Mormon divorce. “Our strained and stoic goodbye hung awkwardly in the air by the back door before joining the billowing clouds of dust he churned up as he went rumbling, storming, careening down the dirt driveway,” she begins.

Suddenly abandoned, Echols turns to her ward for sympathy where she finds none. “Were they too ashamed of what had happened to me to speak of it, or did they imagine I was?” she asks. Meanwhile, her cousin, a newly widowed LDS woman, is embraced and comforted by her ward family. Rejected by her own, Echols seeks support from a divorce recovery program at a Methodist Church. It is there that she learns that “one is a whole number.”

The stories continue, different Mormon women with different Mormon marriages: same-sex, mixed-race, inter-faith, and plural. Some succeed in their relationships. Some fail and try again. And some go on to “Plan B,” content with the knowledge that “one is a whole number.”

Filled with humor, pathos, and honesty, “Baring Witness” presents a powerful contribution to the body of Mormon prose, as well as a keen insight into the minds and hearts of those beaming brides posing outside the LDS temple.

Baring Witness

36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage

Edited by Holly Welker

275 pgs. University of Illinois Press $19.95

Serious Fun: “Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon” edited by Holly Welker and Marc Edward Shaw

book_of_mormon_musical_book Since its opening, the Book of Mormon musical has been surrounded by controversy over its degree of vulgarity, its treatment of Mormons, and various other issues. It has also been tremendously popular in the US and abroad, notably sweeping the Tony Awards. It’s natural to ask whether it’s just fluff appealing to the lowest common denominator or whether there’s some substance there — and if there’s substance, let’s tease it out and have a look.

Welker and Shaw’s book Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon does just that. They’ve collected a remarkable set of original essays by various authors analyzing every facet of the play including its treatment of Mormon culture and beliefs, its treatment of Africans and women, its messages about faith in general, its use of bawdy humor, its illustration of Joseph Smith’s techniques and trajectory through the character of Elder Cunningham, and many other points.

Even for those of us who have been following the online discussion of this musical, there are plenty of fascinating new ideas in this collection. In the discussions I’ve read online, the consensus has generally been that the errors in the portrayal of Mormonism are small and superficial, especially compared with the deeper cultural themes the play got right. Some essays in this book expand upon that point, but I think the book really shines when the authors go beyond the obvious question of “Is it fair to Mormons?” and start to tackle its treatment of other groups. Here’s a taste:

As Max Perry Mueller writes in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, “Say what you will about the accuracy of the ‘Africans’ depicted in The Lion King musical, at least ‘Hakuna Matata’ actually means something in Swahili.” “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is akin to a modern Broadway musical, set (for example) in China, including a number entitled “Ching Chong Bing Bong”—-an unthinkable occurrence. Yet, because this is Africa, this cultural appropriation receives a pass from its predominantly white audience.

and:

More shocking and upsetting still was seeing Nabulungi reduced to an accessory—not someone who assists in accomplishing an action, like an accessory to a crime, but in the sense of being an object that completes an outfit. Nabulungi does something that’s a punch line in “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”: she literally stands next to [Elder Cunningham] and watches.

One of the running jokes in the musical is the white Mormon missionaries’ ignorance about Africa — yet ironically the musical itself is just as ignorantly Eurocentric, treating Africa and Africans as cardboard cut-outs whose real-life counterparts are irrelevant and uninteresting to the (white) audience. As much as I want to love this play for how well it nailed so many aspects of Mormon culture that I remember from my Mormon upbringing, I can’t overlook its blind spots and treat them as minor issues. I’m glad to see that this book gives those questionable points some serious scrutiny.

I’d like to thank the editors and authors of this book for their insights. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys textual analysis and has an interest in the musical.

[disclosure note: I am listed in the acknowledgements of this book for having provided some feedback on one of the essays.]

The fine line between inspiration and madness: John Draper’s “A Danger to God Himself”

Mormons believe in a god that talks to people — a god that opens the heavens every now and then and picks a prophet to talk to. So, when a wise-cracking young missionary starts having visions, who’s to say whether or not they’re really from the Almighty…?

John Draper’s A Danger to God Himself is a lively story of a missionary whose new, green companion is just so strange, and, well, magical, that he turns the whole ward upside-down. Some want to help and befriend the visionary missionary, others want to use him — but no one’s life is quite the same after meeting him. And whatever it is that’s possessing him, it’s clear that it’s not doing him any favors.

John Draper has constructed a cast of fascinating characters who each have interesting story-arcs in their own right — including a congregation of Pentecostals, a black bishop who had converted to Mormonism while the priesthood ban was in force, and the racist former bishop he replaced. In order to allow the characters to give their own perspectives, Draper wrote the story as a first-person retrospective in which the main character claims to have later interviewed all of the principals about their experiences — so the reader gets to find out what they were all thinking at the time without wondering who’s narrating.

A Danger to God Himself is funny and tragic in turns, and is an unusual twist on the Mormon missionary narrative.

Mormon Mission Impossible: William Shunn’s “The Accidental Terrorist”

Funny thing about Mormon missions: even though they’re voluntary, you can’t leave. Even though Mormon missionaries are adult volunteers, they can’t just say, “Sorry, this isn’t working, I’m going home now.” Have you ever wondered what happens if you try to leave? It’s rather surprising.

In The Accidental Terrorist, William Shunn recounts the exciting tale of how the Mormon mission machine mobilizes when a missionary attempts to escape — and the lengths they’ll go to stop him.

I don’t want to give any spoilers because this is suspenseful book, but I’d like to discuss (in vague terms) what I felt was the most interesting theme of the book: Mormon mission ethics. The author portrays the mission as a sort of alternate reality in which the normal ethical rules don’t apply. Or rather, they mostly apply, but the imperative to do what’s best for the mission and for the church trumps everything else.

There’s a sort of amazing sequence in the middle of the book in which the Mission President and other church leaders blatantly lie to Elder Shunn and manipulate him. Not only do they do it unapologetically, it’s like it doesn’t even occur to them that there are limits to what it’s OK to do for the sake of their higher purpose. Elder Shunn apparently internalizes this lesson, and later commits a felony himself (on his own initiative, but with the intention of helping the mission), and the shocking thing is how the entire Mormon community closes ranks around him — using every means, ethical and unethical — to smooth his path through the criminal justice system and minimize his punishment.

The author interweaves the parallel tale of Joseph Smith’s life with the primary narrative to illustrate the early influences that led to the formation of this remarkable community.

The Accidental Terrorist is an enjoyable read — far more action-packed than the typical mission memoir. You can find out how to order it from the book’s website where you will also find information about the author’s Science Fiction books and awards and his podcast.

The true meaning of service: Scott Miller and Mark Hubble’s “The Book of a Mormon”

Like many young Mormon adults, Scott Miller set off on a mission largely because he had always planned to — but wasn’t really prepared for what he was getting himself into.

This mission memoir takes place in the late 70’s — earlier than most others I’ve read. Amusing 70’s-specific tidbits include Elder Miller trying to explain the racist priesthood/temple ban and later finding out about the end of the ban from a non-member who had read about it in the newspaper. Curiously timely stuff if you’re interested in learning from history.

He also got the fun of experiencing the missionary uniform back when hats were obligatory. (Today they’re forbidden.) Aside from that, the mission experience has stayed remarkably constant over the years. Notably, it was already painfully obvious back then that tracting is ineffective, and consequently demoralizing. I wonder how many more decades it will take before the inspired leaders of the CoJCoL-dS will figure it out.

The central theme of the story is the contrast between real service and what the missionaries are expected to do. Early on his mission, Elder Miller has an experience that profoundly impacts him — he meets a clergyman of another faith who treats him with kindness and who jumps up to help someone else in an emergency, while Elder Miller does nothing… and asks himself why.

This story featured probably the most tyrannical mission president I’ve ever read about: a man devoid of compassion, full of calls to repentance, and so enamored with petty rules that he wrote an annex to the “white bible” for his missionaries. This extreme example naturally backfires and instead teaches Elder Miller the value of flexibility. His willingness to put people before rules allows him to perform an act of real service for his companion and even earns him an accidental conversion.

The Book of a Mormon is a good story with a well-constructed story arc and lively characters. For anyone who doesn’t know what a Mormon mission is like and wants to learn, this book is a good choice. For those of us who already have the general idea, it leans perhaps a little too far in the direction of being a documentary on Mormon missions and on the culture of Sweden, yet it is still quite an enjoyable story.

Dare to Do Wrong: Alex Hansen’s “Their Works Shall Be in the Darkness”

Their Works Shall Be in the Dark What’s the fun of having a little power if you don’t abuse it? Especially if you’re a teenager.

If you’ve served in one of the youth presidencies in a Mormon ward, you probably think they don’t really have the authority to shape policy in any original or interesting way, but — as Alex Hansen demonstrates in his new novel Their Works Shall Be in the Dark — all you need is a little imagination, and perhaps a dash of foolhardiness.

The fictional priests’ quorum is led by Jacob, the cunning and charismatic son of a bishop. He’s not technically the quorum president because — for some bizarre historical reason — it’s LDS policy for the bishop to be the president of the priests’ quorum, and the teen who would be “president” is called “first assistant.” And to make this whole “presidency” thing even more of a joke, in smaller wards it’s common to have the majority of a given quorum serving in the presidency, as is the case in the story. But, unlike a typical “first assistant”, Jacob decides to try a novel experiment — to use his position of authority to command the priests’ quorum presidency to deliberately commit sins.

The story is highly entertaining and the character development is top-notch. It’s told in first person with each of the members of the quorum taking turns as narrator. I especially liked the way the various characters’ friendships — and their faith — evolve in response to their experiences. Their changes are quite natural without being predictable. The church itself provides the amusing setting without didactically serving as the source of all good or the source of all evil.

I found this book through the author’s Brodie-award-winning blog. It turns out that it’s not his first book, though it is his first book set in Mormondom. It’s a fun read — I highly recommend adding it to your summer reading list!

The latest from the marvelous pen of Johnny Townsend!

If you like short stories and you’re interested in the lives of Mormons, you should be following the work of Johnny Townsend.

Since he writes from an ex-Mormon perspective, believers often dismiss Townsend’s work as biased — or as a priori “an attack on the church” — but I think that’s a mistake. Johnny Townsend writes his characters with a great deal of compassion and empathy, whether they’re in the church or out… or somewhere in between. He demonstrates genuine interest in people and curiosity about their experiences and possibilities.

Although almost all of Townsend’s stories involve Mormons, Mormonism isn’t always center stage. He explores various possible life situations — in all their sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes surprising glory — within this milieu that he knows so well.

Here’s a taste of some of the books he’s written lately:

Behind the Zion Curtain Behind the Zion Curtain is a series of powerful vignettes in which people grapple with one of humanity’s most pressing questions: “What should I do with my life?” Mormonism provides extensive and detailed answers, but they’re not necessarily good or helpful answers, as we see in the story of a missionary whose mission president deliberately humiliates him as a condition of promotion and in the tale of a woman who discovers that she feels relieved and free upon learning of her husband’s death.

True to real life, the exmos aren’t portrayed as having an easy time with this question either, and often find themselves at a loss when trying to figure out what to do that would be worthwhile and make a difference.

Gayrabian Nights Gayrabian Nights is a short-story collection (various authors) whose premise is a riff on the classic One thousand and one Arabian Nights. In this case, the storyteller is a gay sex-worker who has been hired by a closeted-gay Mormon senator who is planning to vote in favor of a bill denying rights to same-sex couples. The young sex-worker decides to try to keep the senator up all night in hopes that he’ll miss the vote the next day — or maybe even have a change of heart.

Townsend portrays the hypocritical politician with sympathy, and even though each character starts the evening with an agenda, they grow to understand each other through the course of their magical night of wild-and-raunchy Mormon stories. It’s a refreshing story arc for our modern age of political and religious polarization.

Lying for the Lord Lying for the Lord is a short-story collection in which Johnny Townsend explores the places where relationships come into conflict with Mormon beliefs and practices. From the tale of a family who chooses to use Christmas as an intervention for an apostate family member to the story of a Mormon man whose wife refuses to follow the commandment to have children, the characters in this series are faced with interesting dilemmas that they handle in memorable ways.

Missionaries Make the Best Companions And — as if that weren’t already a lot to have published in 2014/2015 — Townsend has a new book coming out, Missionaries Make the Best Companions!!

Mormon lit fans, I hope you’ll enjoy this feast from Johnny Townsend!