On Terry Tempest Williams

I believe I have read everything Terry Tempest Williams has written. I have followed her as she has contemplated and worked through the tangled relationship that exists between family and the LDS Church, and the heavy right leaning philosophy of both, as she has moved in an opposite direction. In the current issue of The Progressive (April 2011), she discusses her position on abortion and Republican politics in some of the strongest language I think I have seen her use. She says, The defunding of Planned Parenthood by the House of Representatives on February 18 cuts into the fabric of basic human rights and the dignity of each of us to follow the path of our own destiny. Continuing she says Irresponsible is the key word that makes my heart race as a woman watching this debate on the floor of Congress. She adds, Birth control is perhaps the only thing in my life where I have been utterly responsible. My husband and I chose not to become pregnant. We are childless by choice. I have never had an abortion, but I was always grateful I had that choice if I found myself in a situation where I need to make that decision. Who has the right to legislate a womans heart, she asks. For a man, especially a man we dont know, who thinks he has the right to tell us not only how we should feel, but what we should feel, and what is at stake is a hostile and aggressive act. But here we are, she says, having to endure a group of conservative men masquerading as caring about women, so much so that their pontifications within the halls of Congress are now putting five million low-income women at risk who get their contraception and reproductive health service from Planned Parenthood.

Williams titles this essay, The Moment I Became a Feminist. She describes that moment telling us that after she published Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, she was called in by a General Authority. She knew that she had cross some doctrinal lines, even telling that she and her mother had given one another blessings. None of those issues concerned this General authority. His concern was that she had declared that she wasnt going to have children. Among other things he said: Just as a mother bird has no choice whether or not she will lay her eggs, she must. God insists. So the eggs you possess, over which your husband presides, must also come forth. Will you choose to become a Mother of Zion, or will you allow your womb to become empty and barren, defying the faith of the women who came before you.

It was at that moment that Williams says she became a feminist. In that moment, I realized that to control a womans body and deny her the choice over her own reproductive health is to silence her individual voice and rob her of her innate power, which is the power to choose her own lifes path. To control women is another way of controlling nature. She concludes her essay by pleading, may Congress finally treat us as full human beings, women who refuse to be controlled as chattel, as cattle, as egg-laying birds.

While Terry Tempest Williams is addressing that final plea to Congress, is she addressing Church leaders as well? Is she too in danger of excommunication for her bold and strongly voiced position? Or is she too well known, and respected outside Utah and the Church? However the Church treats Ms. Williams, either ignoring her or taking some punitive action, you have to consider this woman who has systematically examined the prevailing beliefs that surrounded her and tested them against her own perceptions and experiences, and found those prevailing beliefs wanting, even though she is a staunch supporter of family and community bound by spiritual roots. But in the end she has the courage to listen and trust the still small voice, which always comes from within, never from without.

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14 Responses

  1. Seth R. says:

    Somehow, I think that if she hasn’t been excommunicated by now – she probably isn’t going to be.

    Honestly everyone… is it at least remotely possible that the whole “September Six” incident was a fluke, and not business-as-usual?

  2. Parker says:


    There are no flukes in the Church. Priesthood leaders act for God, and always do what Jesus would do if he were here. You know that.

  3. Seth R. says:

    Are you being ironic or something?

    Because I don’t believe the 100% track record theory. And I’m pretty sure you don’t believe in a track record at all (just guessing though).

  4. Kari says:

    Seth, I agree with your sentiment. However, I would disagree with the word “fluke.” It was “inspired” church leaders doing what they felt was right at the time. It is unlikely to happen again because these same, and subsequent, church leaders have realized what an unmitigated PR disaster it was, both in and out of the church.

  5. Seth R. says:

    I’m not sure that PR was the sole motivator. Or even the primary motivator.

    I sometimes think that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing in upper leadership. Like one or two apostles might run with an idea, but once it shows up on the radars of the other apostles, they start to say “now hold on a minute…” and start applying the brakes.

    My theory is that a single apostle has a certain wide latitude in his actions and agenda – until it becomes publicized. At which point all the other leadership take notice of it – then the individual apostle becomes more restrained by the input of others in his actions.

    So, for example, apostle A may have latitude to suggest disciplinary action to lower stake leadership who carry it out and the other apostles are unlikely to take much notice. But publicity will often bring it to their attention…

    Anyway, I’m rambling. But I think you get the idea.

  6. Seth R. says:

    One more thing…

    Why is it that people always list “PR” motivation as if it was a bad thing?

    There’s nothing inherently slimy or immoral about doing something for “PR reasons.”

    All it means is that you are listening to what the public is telling you. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that.

  7. Parker says:

    Seth, #5. You are correct in your assessment of leadership action, but that isn’t the story the Church wants told, since it undermines the primary story, which I mentioned above (not irony at all, as you thought). People are leaving the Church because the story told is undermined (as you just did in #5) by the story of what actually happens. It is the same with PR, which is quite slimy when it distorts the truth, or is for the sole purpose of manipulating perception. Why does the Church stand on the corner, for instance, thumping its chest while saying look how charitable we are?

  8. Seth R. says:

    I have no idea what you are referring to with that last sentence.

    I have a few problems with your mentioning a “story the Church wants told.”

    First problem is defining what the “Church” actually is. Is it the mid-level management in the Correlation Department? Is it the current prophet? Is it the most vocal apostle at any given moment? Is it really down at the stake and ward level?

    Where is this unified “will” that desires a certain message?

    And even if we locate it, how are we supposed to have confidence that we have really identified and understood what it is saying? Do the prejudices of the membership color or distort the message that is coming out? Is it a problem with the “buyers” as well as the “supplier?”

    I have never been much of an apologist for “The Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” I don’t hold much allegiance to it, nor do I see a lot of need to defend it vigorously. I’m not much for trademark protection, after all.

    But that doesn’t mean I uncritically accept every criticism of that corporation that pops up on the Internet either. I don’t see a clear cut case of dishonesty. I don’t see a unified message of prophetic infallibility. In fact, I see many indicators of a contrary message being put out by “Salt Lake” – a message which the lay membership doesn’t seem to be “getting.”

    I don’t see the trial and error involved in proper PR as dishonest. And I’m not convinced of the verdict that the LDS corporation is engaging in dishonest PR.

  9. Parker says:

    What I appreciate about you Seth is that I can always depend on you to present the official and orthodox view of the Church, and to defend the same. I need that reminder, because I sometimes forget since I’m not into official sermons so much any more. But what I would also find helpful is if you would make sure that you add your testimony to the truthfulness of the Church (even if you really don’t know exactly what constitutes the Church).

    But, having said that, I would like to hear responses regarding TTW’s strong opposition to the First Three and the next Fifteen’s position on abortion and women’s rights.

  10. Kari says:

    Seth, I didn’t mean to imply that PR is “evil.” However, all PR is dishonest to some degree or another; it’s called spin for a reason.

    Certainly all organizations want to be viewed in the best public light possible, I know I certainly want that for my business. That’s why “The September Six” episode was a PR disaster. It brought the church’s dirty laundry to the public eye. Church leadership learned a lesson, which is why we won’t see similar “flukes”. No more church courts for high profile individuals, or those that are likely to publicly air their grievances (i.e. Thomas Murphy). They’re just left to fade away and become “inactive” or resign.

  11. Seth R. says:

    Kari, that assumes that the “fluke” was definitive and representative of the core identity of the LDS Church to begin with, doesn’t it?

    Because, if it wasn’t, you could simply view the change as actually bringing the LDS Church more into line with what it really was to begin with.

    If that is the case (note the “if”), then it was the disciplinary courts that were a distortion of the Church identity and the subsequent PR moves were actually more honest and displayed more integrity than the previous position.

    And I simply disagree with your categorical assertion that “all PR is dishonest to some degree.” I don’t think that is true at all. In fact the best PR is merely making sure that the public has an accurate picture of what you are all about.

    Don’t forget, the LDS Church could go on 24-7 with all the negatives about the LDS Church, and likely they would be praised on websites like this for being “courageous and honest” if they did such a thing.

    But – doing that would actually be DISHONEST. Focusing only on your negatives is not an honest approach. The cynic is not an honest person. Focusing only on the negatives is misleading to the public. It fails to tell them who you really are. The job of PR is to get your desired message out. To sell yourself. And that does not have to be dishonest at all.

  12. Seth R. says:

    Parker, that’s the first time I’ve been called representative of the “orthodox” position. Jettboy just experienced a sudden unexplained chill, wherever he is.

    I’m agnostic on the public policy and legal arena of the abortion debate. Somewhat, anyway. I don’t really like attempts to legally prohibit abortion. I’m generally fine with the “trimester approach” of Roe vs. Wade.

    I dislike abortion as a moral matter. But I find it necessary in other circumstances. And above all, I am simply disinterested in the abortion debate. I find it to be a national red-herring distracting us from things that would actually be useful to talk about. Like consumer protection, health care reform, and job creation.

  13. Alan says:

    It’s annoying how conservatives twist abortion debates into “the right to kill a baby” when it’s actually about a women’s right to choose pregnancy or not, a battle that all women benefited from, liberal and conservative alike.

    I wonder, did the GA bring Williams’ husband into the conversation (since he didn’t want kids either)?

    I thought in the 1990s the Handbook of Instructions started telling members not to chastise other members for their family planning decisions. I guess this must have meant “don’t criticize people who choose to have few children.”

  14. chanson says:

    It’s interesting that the G.A. that called her in was more concerned about her decision not to reproduce than he was about her and her mother giving each other blessings.

    And a woman’s husband “presides” over the “eggs” that are in her ovaries…? I’d be very curious to hear what other Mormon women would make of that in terms of the debate over what the wordpresidemeans.

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