My Utah Show and Tell
Every writer must remind herself to show not tell. Dont waste 500 words telling your reader that your character is a nincompoop. Instead show it. Have him mistake the London Underground for a political movement, or fill an entire evening with praises to his patroness, Lady Catherine DeBourgh, or sketch his favorite animal, the liger. And so on.
In a Mormon context that might mean that instead of standing in testimony meeting and telling the ward about your Christian tolerance for your friends and relations who left the LDS Church, you instead show your tolerance by actually mixing with the above friends and relations. I had the opportunity to mix with many such believing Mormons at the recent Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City. The Mormons at Sunstone didnt need to boast that they tolerated their ex-Mormon friends; by including us they showed it.
Then theres my former BYU roommate and best friend of over 30 years. She is an active, believing Mormon who knows that Ive left the church and am sometimes critical of it. Nevertheless, Ive been invited to every graduation, missionary farewell and wedding reception. (No actual weddings, of course. But I cant fault her there. Its not her call.) Last week she and her husband loaned us their condo in the church owned high-rise next to City Creek Center.
Her actions show her tolerance. But they also show something about the strength and confidence of her faith.
When we were in Salt Lake City we also visited Marks family. As usual, my mother-in-law arranged a family dinner on Sunday. Everyone was there except Marks one believing sister, her husband, and their youngest child. This was no surprise. For some years now my sister-in-law and her husband have gone out of their way to shield their daughter from evil influences. Among these evil influences are her Uncle Mark and I, some of her cousins, and one of her siblings.
Then on Monday our daughter and her boyfriend, who live in Berlin, flew into Salt Lake for a couple of days. We spent our time visiting almost all of the family. Marks believing sister, brother-in-law and niece were again indisposed. Since our daughter moved to Europe in 2007, she has visited Salt Lake 3 times. On none of those occasions was she permitted to see her cousin.
–I should mention that while we were staying at her condo, my best friends son was staying at our place in San Francisco, a household complete with a coffee pot, well stocked wine refrigerator, and a library of non-church-approved books. (Including my own.) If this bothered my girlfriend, she didnt show it.
Thursday morning our daughter and boyfriend flew to Minnesota to attend a wedding. Once again, she missed seeing her cousin. That afternoon Marks uncle and aunt drove into town from their home near Denver. We were anxious to see them, as our last meeting was in December 2001. Marks uncle is a retired physicist who quit the LDS Church in his 20s while attending graduate school. His wife has never been Mormon.
We arrived at Marks folks home at 6PM, greeted his uncle and aunt, and sat around the family room making small talk. Then the most amazing thing happened. My believing sister-in-law and beautiful niece walked in the front door. Ive no idea what inspired this appearance. The cynical voice in my head told me that my mother-in-law had guilted her into coming. There I went again, relying on telling not showing. What showed was that they were there.
Unfortunately, any change of heart my sister-in-law may have had was quickly reversed. Almost immediately after the blessing on the food, Marks uncle asked me what I was doing with my time.
Ive written a book, I replied. Also I volunteer at a garden.
He nodded his head vigorously. Really? Tell me about that.
NO! Your book!
Um, well, its just a little book. . .
Mark, my biggest fan, reached for the copy of The Girls From Fourth Ward he had given his mother and handed it to his uncle.
Mormon girls committing murder to get into BYU? Thats marvelous! Uncle boomed.
From there things quickly unwound. But not in the bombastically loud and hilarious way they did in the Archie Bunker household. It was more in the manner of a painfully awkward scene in a Zoe Heller novel, or an exchange in the drawing room at Rosings Park.
My sister-in-law weighed in on my accomplishment by noting the brevity of my author bio, reminding me that I wasnt exactly Stephen King, sarcastically speculating on the millions in royalties I would earn, and gently conveying how sad she was that I didnt have more of a life.
And so the evening went on, shifting from pleasantries to meanness then back to pleasantries.
As believing Mormons I am sure that Marks sister and brother-in-law tell people that they know the LDS Church is true. But thats just telling. When they shun and belittle family in order to keep their daughter active in the faith, they show a far less confident attitude toward their church and its claims.
At Sunstone believers and non-believers eagerly browsed the Mormon Alumni Association book table. Nobody seemed threatened, and there were no snide remarks. Likewise, when I told my best friend that Id finally published my book, she hugged and congratulated me. I dont know if shell read it or not. But if she does, I doubt it will shatter her faith. If she doesnt, it wont be for fear that it might.
As for our niece, she showed no signs of damage from her exposure to us. She spoke proudly about her recent internship at The New Era, and well she should. Her original poem is to be published in an upcoming edition of that magazine.
Will my husbands sister and brother-in-law see this and loosen their grip on her? Hard to say. Cognitive dissonance can be a mighty thick blindfold. Or as Groucho Marx put it, Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?