What doesn’t kill you makes you… what?

All this talk of Ordain Women has brought an interesting memory bubbling to the surface:

It was the last summer my family went to Camp Many Point — probably 1989, the summer before I set off for BYU. I loved going to that camp. It was a beautiful tract of pristine forest surrounding a clear lake with hiking, sailing, swimming, fishing, a climbing tower — you name it! And I had the opportunity to go there every summer as a teen (to the “family camp”, for families of scout leaders) because my father was the Scout Master while my brothers were in Boy Scouts.

I especially liked sitting out on a sandy point (one of the many points of Many Point Lake), staring at the rippling water and thinking.

That summer, I had just met a boy I was hoping to have a summer romance with before setting off for BYU. I even wrote a song for him (though I’d only spoken to him a couple of times). I think his name was Peter. (That was the name of the song: “I Think his Name Was Peter.”)

So there I reclined, in this gorgeous setting, fantasizing about all of the clever things I would say to Peter as soon as I got back to town. My train of thought traveled to all sorts of random musings about life; politics, philosophy, etc., — stuff that had nothing to do with this random guy I was hoping to attract — but it continued in the form of an imaginary dialog with him.

Then I caught myself.


I noticed that I always wanted to focus on this or that boy; on when I would see him again and what I would say to him. The old philosophical question about a tree falling in the woods came to mind. If a girl has an idea, and never tells it to a male who can appreciate it, does it even exist? It was a question I shouldn’t have had to ask myself.

Of course I liked talking with women and girls. But at church — which was a big part of my world — everyone and everything would point to the boys and say, “See our wonderful, bright future!” And we’d look up to the men on the stands and see the respected leaders that the male youth around us would someday become. I didn’t have to be told to fill my journals with tales of the boys I liked — they were all that I wanted to write about. They were exciting! I had internalized the message that the most interesting thing about me was the boy who might be interested in me.

At BYU, I didn’t fit in (to put it mildly) and couldn’t help but start learning to chart my own path. Then when I went to grad school in New Jersey, something kind of magical happened. here’s how I described it in the fictionalization:

It looks so small from a distance. When you’re immersed in it — living in Utah or in an LDS household — Mormonism is like a cage with one small clouded lens to look out through that distorts your every view of the world.

Then one day you step out. You leave home, or you leave the Mormon corridor of Arizona, Utah, and Idaho, and suddenly it’s as if it’s hardly even there. It’s this tiny, unimportant thing that you can forget about for days, weeks, months, even years at a time. You can take it out of your pocket and show people if you like, as an amusing conversation piece at parties. Or you can just not even bother with it at all.

Over time I grew to realize that I have a voice and that people are interested in what I have to say. I’m even interested in what I have to say.

My narrative with respect to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is essentially one of “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The role the church played was that of the obstacle that was just challenging enough for me to learn my own strength by surmounting it. (That’s essentially the theme throughout my novel ExMormon.)

However, I’m well aware that the old adage doesn’t always work. Sometimes stuff that doesn’t kill you actually hurts you a lot more than it ever helps you. Personally, I really don’t feel angry towards the church — from my perspective here in Europe, it looks like such an insignificant (even fragile) thing that I mostly just feel curious about what it will do next, and I feel a warm connection with the handful of people in this world who have shared the peculiar experience of Mormonism with me. But lots of people have very legitimate reasons not to see the CoJCoL-dS that way. If the church plays a different role in your narrative than it does in mine, that doesn’t mean that my life story is right and yours is wrong (or vice-versa).

This really hit home to me as I was listening to my brother describe his childhood in a podcast. As he described the joy of being the golden child who impressed the whole ward — to the point where the leaders would take him along to speak in conferences in other wards to show how clever he was — I couldn’t help but be struck by how different his Mormon experience was from mine (especially considering that we grew up in the same family, less than two years apart in age). His narrative about the CoJCoL-dS was a tale of this awesome thing he had, and when he started to recognize the problems with the CoJCoL-dS as a young adult, the awesome thing was broken. Then joining the Community of Christ was his solution that fixed the broken parts.

As I said in the baby and the bathwater, differing narratives can lead to misunderstandings. Listening to his joyful tales of finding the solution that fixes the problems, my first reaction was kind of a bewildered, “What? Fixed what? Why??” But that’s OK. His journey is his and my journey is mine — they don’t need to be the same.

Reading Petra’s Every Bloggernacle Argument About Feminism, As Told in GIFs, I laughed out loud when she got to this part:

The angry ex-Mormon and the angry TBM each independently insist that the author of the OP should just leave the Church

I laughed because it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that that’s the solution that would make your life a whole lot simpler and less frustrating if you’re a Mormon feminist. I read all the exmo blogs, and she’s right that this is a question that is sincerely bewildering for typical ex-Mormons: If the CoJCoL-dS (members as well as leaders) keep heaping abuse on you, why do you keep coming back for more?

But I think it’s not that simple. Humans are complicated. Mormonism is complicated. People’s relationships with the church, with their families, with their own childhood experiences — they’re complicated.

Personally, when I read some of the stuff that comes out of the COB and General Conference, I’m pretty damn happy that I don’t have to take it seriously or feel conflicted by a belief that those guys are speaking from a position of some sort of special, supernatural insight. (Perhaps many of you reading this feel the same way.) But I don’t speak for those who care about being a part of the CoJCoL-dS and want to try to fix it. I don’t want to simplistically dismiss their position and tell them that all they need to do is dump their own narratives and adopt mine instead. Their journeys are their own. And I have to admit that I am itching with curiosity to see what the folks of Ordain Women will do next!!


C. L. Hanson is the friendly Swiss-French-American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! Follow me on mastadon at @chanson@social.linux.pizza or see "letters from a broad" for further adventures!!

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7 Responses

  1. Parker says:

    I think it is interesting to think that one’s life journey can be thought of as a narrative that both describes and influences that journey. I have come to think of the influencing part as the story (often I refer to it as the myth) we live by. One of the things that seems apparent is how hard people work to keep their story intact. I, like you, chose not to live by the Mormon story. As I read the extreme effort that many go to find solid footing, to make all the elements fit, and to keep the story needle always pointing toward truth, it causes me to reexamine my own myth/story to make sure I’m not doing the same thing. That means my story doesn’t contain many “I believe” components that I must adhere to for some future status, or that must be true for the story to hang together.

    It is also interesting, but I suspect unanswerable, as to how we chose to live by a particular story. Even those that seem completely fanciful still have their adherents.

  2. Holly says:

    I’m even interested in what I have to say.

    That is a marvelous discovery, isn’t it? and one women so often aren’t given any encouragement or help in making–we’re just supposed to be, as you point out, sounding boards for men.

    And I’m also interested in what you have to say. 🙂

  3. chanson says:

    @1 That is so true!

    It’s hard (if not impossible) to look back on your life and see a string of random events. There is an irresistible inclination to make sense of it by crafting it into a narrative. And that affects which parts you remember, which parts you emphasize, and which parts you forget. And memory is malleable enough that people can end up changing their own memories of past events to fit their narrative. I think that being aware of this process (and keeping an eye on it) can help up keep it real. 😉

    And I agree it’s interesting to contemplate where these stories come from.

    @2 Thanks!

  4. Just Jill says:

    chanson it would be fun to have coffee sometime and share memories. I love hearing what you have to say and I’m glad we have a platform to come together in thought and the written word now and again.

    Raising my coffee to you and saying ‘cheers’.

  5. chanson says:

    @4 Thanks — I’d love to get together with you for coffee!!

    Any chance you’ll be in Switzerland any time soon?

  6. aerin says:

    I had internalized the message that the most interesting thing about me was the boy who might be interested in me.

    This. Some people never understand why this would be an issue.

    But this is misogyny at its core – but also race and class tie into it as well. Groups of people who are systematically excluded from opportunity. And it’s insidious, because sometimes the people don’t even realize what’s going on, and don’t see the underlying subtext that’s also going on.

  7. chanson says:

    @6 Exactly. It’s easy to be OK with injustice if you can hardly imagine how things could be different. For people who are raised from the cradle with systematic exclusion, it’s tough to grasp the idea that they don’t deserve to be treated that way, and that things could have been different…

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