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.

The garden?

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?

Donna Banta

My novels, "Seer Stone," "Mormon Erotica," "False Prophet" and "The Girls From Fourth Ward," are available on Amazon.

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12 Responses

  1. Julia says:

    It is interesting to me that this happens in LDS families, and is accepted, whether all of the siblings are “believing” or not. A lot can be attributed to bad family dynamics or difficulties understanding relationships from a variety of types of abuse. I think that there are parts of LDS doctrine though, that make it easier to justify cutting off someone who isn’t making the same exact choices you are. The blinders that tend to happen once someone is sealed to their spouse, and family is redefined as the “new” unit, make it easy to cut ties with people who aren’t what you want your kids to be, even if they are siblings or cousins.

    I had a rare chance to have a conversations with the spouse of one of my siblings, without my sibling there. That brother-in-law admitted to me that he didn’t really think that it was right for my siblings to essentially cut me off, but that there wasn’t anything he could say to get his wife to even talk about it, since all of the siblings had decided that it was better for all of their children to be told not to have any contact with me or my family.

    The cousins do occasionally see each other when my parents have time with their grandkids, minus the adults, but the whole family is never invited to spend time together. Of course there are some events that are too big to completely exclude all of us. I doubt that my nieces and nephews would be quite so interested in having “casual” contact when they are pretty sure their parents aren’t looking. I have had a recurring dream (a vision, or just intuition?) of two of my nieces, at different times, coming to my door as teenagers, asking me if they can stay with me until they figure out what to do next.

    In the conversation with my brother-in-law I got the chance to ask the question that I wondered most. Did he want his children to treat each other the way that my siblings had chosen to treat me and my family? No, but he suspected that if his children started feeling anything that wasn’t completely orthodox or in-line with their mother’s view of the world, that they would have been taught all too well what would happen to them. They would know that they would end up being ~me~ and not accepted.

    I asked him what he wanted most for his kids. He told me that he wanted his children to be as close as he was to his siblings, but he suspected that if there were problems, I would be the one all of the nieces and nephews went to, since I am the only one that they see as a safe person to be imperfect around. He looked up at me at that point and said “I am (your sister’s) husband, and I love her and support her in the way she is raising our children, but if any of my kids do end up at your house, would you mind letting me know that they are safe?” The only answer I could give him was, “I hope so, but only if it feels right. I am not going to alienate anyone who comes to me for safety.” He said that was good enough for him.

    That was several years ago when none of children were even in grade school. The silence has become so deafening that none of the children can ignore it. I sometimes wonder when I will get a call or a knock on my door. It will be at least another 6-7 years, and maybe it won’t ever come, but I don’t really believe that. I know someday I will open the door to a niece or a nephew who is looking for their “bad” aunt to help them figure out how to live with being imperfect, in a familiy that prefers pretending perfection to loving each other.

  2. Donna Banta says:

    Wow, Julia. Amazing that you were able to have that talk with your BIL. There’s alot to be said for having a person in your life that you don’t have to be perfect around. I wish you luck with your efforts to connect with your siblings’ kids.

  3. Julia says:

    I won’t give the details of how the conversation, since if I don’t it leaves five possibilities, without any more info to go hunting with. 😉

    It was a very singular experience though. I have always liked this brother-in-law, although we haven’t really had a chance to talk one-on-one before that conversation. Several siblings were in college at BYU at the same time, but other than that we would only see each other at familiy events. Now some of the siblings see each other seperately, but we only see them if they are visiting my parents.

    In some ways I think he had started to see how different his family and mine were, and he had stopped believing that the differences were just because of me. I know that he had “caught” his daughter asking me to show her where the bathroom was, and then having his wife freak out after we came back from the bathroom. I suspect that he saw the longing in his daughter’s eyes to just sit and talk to me, and knew that his wife was creating a “dark horse hero” through her actions. To my sister they seemed perfectly appropriate, and any of my siblings would agree with her.

    As time goes on, more of my in-laws seem to be realizing that this is more than just an older sister who was always “off'” or BAD! The ones who came from more stable families, seem especially confused about how blame was assigned for things. (Did you know I can make five year olds want dresses without sleeves simply by existing?) Taking the “long view” of 20 years (nevermind eternity) I really don’t worry that I won’t know my nieces and nephews, I may just get to know them as teenagers or adults. I like young kids, but would much rather have the chance to help a confused teenager than compete with the uber-popular craft blogs that show them as “perfect toddlers.”

  4. Donna Banta says:

    LOL, got to watch out for those sleazy 5 year olds!

  5. Julia says:

    I have been tempted to accidentally post a picture of a completely naked sibling showing off the bandaid on her knee, but someone might remember that I still have a log in.

  6. John Banta says:

    If you cannot defend your faith against all comers there is a problem with your faith.

  7. Donna Banta says:

    I agree, John.

  8. @John – so true. And unfortunately, we are the collateral damage of that insecurity.

  9. Julia says:

    @ John, Donna and Postmormongirl –

    Or, you need to be sure enough of your faith to let your life be your argument.

    I will share my life and experiences, my thoughts and even my feelings, but faith isn’t something that I need to defend. I don’t think anyone else needs to defend their faith either. Respectful discussions where both sides are curious, interested, and where listening is more important than talking; those are the times to share my faith because those who are asking want to understand, not to debate.

    The best way to get me to disengage is to start an argument. My general response to a person who wants to debate is to ask the person to share how the thing they are talking about has impacted them personally. Personal thoughts and experiences are the place to discuss and understand each other, but if you aren’t interested in a discussion between two people, and instead want a Lincoln Douglas style debate, I am not that person. I did my last round of debate in high school.

    Faith is way too important and precious for me to turn it into a target of ridicule or of self congratulations. If your life isn’t the testimony of you faith, than it is useless to anyone.

  10. Julia: Very good way of phrasing that. Show not tell. 🙂

  11. You know you’re on top when your critics resort to ad hominem. Your SIL must feel personally threatened by your rejection of her faith. What a striking contrast to your lovely friend who shared her condo.

  12. Donna Banta says:

    Thanks, CD. It’s frustrating that we can’t spend what little time we have with some family in an enjoyable manner.

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