Joanna Brooks is the Chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. She is the author of several books, most recently The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith (2012). The book is available at Amazon and at the author’s website. A short couple of hundred pages, the book is at various turns both enjoyable and troubling, as the author recounts growing up LDS in Southern California, informally leaving the LDS Church then returning to activity, then rather suddenly emerging as a leading voice of what might be termed the progressive Mormon agenda which takes issue with traditional Mormon positions on race and gender. As such, she is on her way to becoming controversial (not generally a compliment in Mormon circles), so I need to start out with a couple of disclaimers.
First, this is a book review, not an endorsement of the author’s life or views. If it turns out I say some nice things about the book, that doesn’t mean I think students who go to BYU should, upon graduation, return their diplomas, go inactive, and wander off to California to get a PhD. If it turns out I don’t devote a paragraph to loudly rejecting Brooks’ progressive political views, that doesn’t mean I endorse them. The book isn’t about about life paths for college students or political statements, it is primarily about the author’s complicated and, for most LDS readers, rather interesting relationship with Mormonism. This has led to her becoming, within just the last year or so, a widely quoted public voice on LDS current affairs, informed and in general sympathetic, yet critical of the prevailing LDS position on some issues. That’s why the book is so interesting — if Brooks was just another professor you had never heard of, there wouldn’t be much of a reason to read her book.
Second, this is a memoir, not a biography. Biographies are comprehensive reports of a person’s life, with commentary about the subject’s character, achievements, and influence. Memoirs are self-authored selective surveys of a person’s life with wide-ranging reflections on events and issues related to that life. Here’s the key difference: while memoirs recount some of the events of the writer’s life, they are actually about something else. So William Manchester wrote a biography of Douglas MacArthur, and he also wrote a memoir of his own experience as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II, Goodbye Darkness. The biography was about MacArthur, but the memoir was not really about Manchester. It was about the gritty life of a soldier in combat, about the ordeal of toughing it out on Guadalcanal and what that does to a man, about the gut-wrenching moment of killing another human being. LDS writing offers both biographies and memoirs. If you’re David O. McKay, you get a biography. If you’re Leonard Arrington, you write Adventures of a Church Historian, a memoir in which Arrington recounts his attempt (ultimately successful) to professionalize the production of LDS history.
There are some things missing in The Book of Mormon Girl that I would like to have read about. For example, there’s almost nothing about the impact that literature and writing (and all the other stuff English majors do to get a PhD) had on Brooks. English profs don’t just punch the time card at five o’clock and go home to watch television — for them, books and the ideas they convey are the focus of their life. There is almost no discussion of what role her reading or study had in forming her beliefs or modifying her view of Mormonism. That’s something I would really like to know about. But this is a memoir, not a biography, so not covering those details (and others you or I might like to know about) is not a fair criticism of the book. The author gets to pick and choose what events from her life to recount as she sidles up to the real issues of the book.
So if the book is not about Joanna Brooks, what is it about? Two topics, I think. First, why would a person who has largely put Mormonism behind her decide to return to activity and raise her daughters as Latter-day Saints? Second, why would someone who chooses to be or remain actively Mormon nevertheless energetically pursue a progressive political agenda that puts her at odds with most other Mormons and possibly with LDS leadership?
Growing Up Mormon
Before addressing those two issues in the second half of the book, Brooks recounts in the first half of the book her experience growing up Mormon in the California of the 70s and the 80s. Some readers will identify with Brooks’ experience more than others, of course. Most readers will relate to large bins of food storage wheat that parents stashed in the basement (Chapter 3, Signs of the Times) and conversations with high school classmates who think that as a Mormon you are part of Satan’s clever plan to deceive the elect (Chapter 5, Mormons vs. Born-Agains). The experience of growing up Mormon seems to leave an indelible psychic mark, like a near-death experience or going through boot camp. Whether you later view that mark as a gift or a curse, it’s there nonetheless. So if you grew up Mormon, Brooks’ story of growing up is in some sense your story.
It’s not my story. I joined the Church when I was almost sixteen. Like any bright and curious teenager, I sought out additional information about the Mormons while taking the missionary discussions: I went to the public library and checked out Kingdom of the Cults. I read it carefully and concluded it was largely trash. I suppose that experience “immunized” me against most writing critical of the Church. I was an Internet Mormon before there was an Internet. For me, reading Brooks’ account of growing up Mormon is a window on what I, as a teenage convert, never really experienced.
Leaving the Church and Coming Back
The narrative gets serious when Brooks enrolls at BYU, moving into Helaman Halls as a freshman. The highlight of orientation week was a presentation to her group by Eugene England, who showed them that not all BYU profs wear suits and ties, then wrote on the board:
He denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
That passage may yet redeem us, but the wave of feminism that swept through BYU during Brooks’ time there showed there are still deep fault lines in the LDS psyche. Brooks recounts the events of the mid-90s — now typically glossed by catch-phrases like the September Six, the Mormon Alliance, and the Strengthening Church Members Committee (“SCMC”) — and the lasting effect they had on her. She writes, thinking of her own SCMC file no doubt tucked away in some LDS bureaucrat’s filing cabinet or server:
I think of the minor exposés and navel-gazing essays I published in the underground student newspaper at Brigham Young University, and the raw feminist poetry that leaked from me in my college years. I think of the speech I gave when I returned my diploma at a press conference after Cecelia’s [Cecelia Konchar Farr] firing in May 1993. I don’t think I have a transcript, but that’s okay: it’s probably there in my file.
So she went back to California and lived the life of a graduate student while largely avoiding mainstream Mormonism but lingering on the fringes: reading LDS journals, writing a piece here or there, sneaking into the back of LDS meetings now and then. She ended up with a PhD, a happy marriage, two daughters, and little or no contact with the Church. Then, as they say, something happened that the Ring did not expect: she returned to activity in the Church and brought her daughters with her. Why?
I’m not sure the narrative gives a complete answer to that question. Does any person really fully understand why he or she joins, rejoins, or leaves the Church? Brooks’ writing suggests that she, as a sensitive but alienated Mormon, still had a deep, if hidden, connection to the Church, probably deeper than most active, churchgoing Mormons do. She writes movingly of the women who are her LDS ancestors; she writes of bringing her daughters back to church so they, too, can feel that connection and be part of that ongoing generational story. There is no suggestion that any concern with immediate family caused her to return; it is obviously not LDS doctrine or politics that she missed. “LDS culture” or even “LDS heritage” doesn’t seem to capture what drew her back. Toward the end of the book, she explains, “I went back to church so that my daughters could know the same loving, kind, and powerful God I was raised to believe in.” Or, as she recalls explaining years ago to a friend who was puzzled by the odd persistence of her Mormon-ness, “it is my first language, my mother tongue, my family, my people, my home; it is my heart.”
Well, if that’s how you talk about your sort-of ex-church, you’ll probably head back too at some point. Whatever the reason, I count her return as a small victory. Given the increasing numbers of young Mormons leaving the Church and the amount of bad press we’ve been getting lately, we should all be grateful for such small victories. Yet there are people out there saying there’s no room in the LDS Church for people like Brooks, describing her position favoring gay marriage as “irreconcilable with the church,” and generally trying to make Brooks and others like her feel unwelcome (although still “want[ing] her to remain Mormon”).
There’s a phrase that describes this smaller-is-better view of the ideal church: The Church of Jesus Christ of People Just Like Me. This view seems to flourish inside the Provo bubble, where everyone you meet might actually be just like you, a place where people like Professor Bott (another supporter of the Church of People Just Like Me) can flourish for decades. The people who embrace this sort of thinking and the rash public statements they make if given access to the media are more of a danger to the Church than those who dream progressive dreams, give speeches to a few dozen sympathizers, and write essays and poetry in journals that few Mormons even know exist. In the unjust calculus of public relations, one dumb statement by an LDS official or employee does much more harm than a dozen speeches, essays, or poems by folks like Brooks. I wish the SCMC had a dumb statements file, but I doubt the committee is paying any attention to that danger.
A Progressive Mormon
A second issue raised by the narrative is why someone who chooses to reactivate themselves or remain Mormon would nevertheless actively pursue a progressive Mormon agenda, which generally creates a certain degree of conflict with one’s fellow Mormons and with LDS leaders. On the one hand, this isn’t 1993. The Church has apparently learned that pursuing discipline against Latter-day Saints who make public statements that are out of harmony with Church norms is generally counterproductive. On the other hand, those SCMC files have not been boxed up and shipped off to the archives. There are anecdotal stories of Mormons in California being called in for disciplinary chats over their political activity opposing Proposition 8. No Mormon who publicly advocates the progressive Mormon agenda does so without some awareness of potential consequences. The decision to speak is not taken lightly. So why speak?
The short answer was supplied by Brooks’ father, who upon reading the text of a speech she wrote opposing Prop 8 said, “You have wanted a more just and loving world since you were a little girl.” And Brooks wants it enough to actually do something about it. Personally, I like to think that political views are opinions on which reasonable people can differ, but that may be a minority view these days. I don’t get the sense that Brooks sees political opinions that differ from hers as potentially reasonable. There are certainly plenty of Mormon conservatives who reciprocate. Would reading the chapter on Prop 8 in Brooks’ book detailing how that experience looked and felt to her change their mind? No, but it might help them inch toward my view that there is room for reasonable disagreement in politics. The alternative, magnifying political disagreements into religious disagreements, is poison to the Church. Doesn’t really matter what brand the poison is.
After taking a break from church during the Prop 8 campaign and its aftermath, Brooks went back to church. The first Relief Society lesson she attended started off in standard form, but quickly moved to Prop 8 themes. When you fight that hard, it’s hard to let go. Brooks’ conclusion: “The campaign has taken a toll on every one of us.” Yes, I think so. On those who voted yes, those who voted no, and those who didn’t vote. On those who spoke, on those who didn’t.
To paraphrase William Faulkner, the Mormon past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past. Prop 8 is still with us. The events of 1993 are still with us. Mormon Doctrine is still with us. Polygamy, Mormon pioneers crossing the plains, Joseph and Hyrum in jail at Carthage, it’s all still with us, the collective analogue to how the family stories of six generations of LDS women are still with Joanna Brooks. Since we can’t erase or escape our Mormon history, we’d better at least understand it. The Book of Mormon Girl is a window into contemporary Mormon history, told from the minority view, what I’ve termed “progressive Mormonism.” Progress or not, it is helpful to understand that view, so this is a book worth reading whether you agree with the author’s views or not.
By discussing the main issues, I’ve probably overstated conflict and disagreement. There are positive reflections in the book as well, which is certainly to be expected given how often Brooks publicly objects to mischaracterizations of LDS beliefs and unfair criticism of LDS views. Consider this short conclusion to a discussion of LDS genealogy work that supports proxy baptisms in LDS temples:
What is to stop a people who have sized up the infinite forest of human souls tangled and uprooted by the avalanche of time, and said, cheerfully, yes, we will sort it all out and have it stacked as neatly as cordwood by sundown.
What is to stop such a people?
Recall the subtitle to the book, “Stories From an American Faith.” That’s a pleasantly inclusive subtitle for a book recounting so much anxiety and distress over differences and disagreements. It brings to mind Jefferson’s political statement of the American faith, that all men are created equal, and the Book of Mormon’s religious statement of the American faith quoted earlier, that all are alike unto God, black and white, bond and free, male and female. A fitting note to end on.