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“Mormon Girl” author on faith, justice, and a very special visiting teacher

{image_1} Last Saturday I chilled out on the steps of Columbia University’s library with blogger Joanna Brooks, feeding the pigeons and chatting about her new memoir, Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith, which just released last month. (Incidentally, if you ever had romantic notions about feeding pigeons on a sunny day in Manhattan, fugeddaboudit: NYC pigeons are intense and will totally hunt you down. So now you know.)


Joanna’s book is great. Here you’ll meet a woman with a profound story of “being found and lost and found again,” as I put it in an endorsement. Having grown up in a conservative Mormon family, Brooks initially found BYU a haven of inquiry and warmth, but found while she was there that the LDS Church was cracking down on feminists and gays. Grieved by injustice, she eventually left for many years. Now she’s back in the fold and writing as a progressive Mormon. My take: life is a lot richer for everyone when Joanna Brooks is around.

I loved your memoir. Why did you decide to write it?
A few years ago I wrote a manuscript about interfaith family life. And there was one publisher, a good publisher, that was quite interested, but the editor said to me, “Your book is too Mormon.” And I thought, “Clearly, if it’s still possible to say that in America, Mormon stories need to be better known.” When I reflected on how important various memoirs I read by other women writers were to me as I was coming of age and figuring out who I was, I couldn’t put my finger on a book that did that for Mormons. So I told my story.

Tell me about your childhood.
My book opens and lovingly details an observant LDS upbringing in southern California in 1970s and 80s. [It shows] the sense of belonging Mormons feel, the ways we think about ourselves and recognize each other, our food, our stories, our clothes, the subtle details that truly humanize and bring color to the Mormon story.

{image_2} When you were a kid, when did it become obvious to you that Mormons were different?
I was raised to think of myself as being different, and as having a different set of responsibilities. Because I grew up in southern California, I belonged to a very robust Mormon community, but we were definitely a small minority. I learned how to look around the room and find the other Mormons everywhere I went. And to think of my own life as being, as I detail in the book, an example to other people. I was taught that I needed to live as an example of my faith from the time I was small, probably six.

What did it feel like, being in a religious minority?
I think it definitely shaped my outlook on the world so that I sympathized and felt comfortable with other people with minority experience.

So, naturally, then you went to all-Mormon BYU!
[Laughs] I loved BYU. It was a place of destiny for me, no doubt! I was there from 1989 to 1993. I went there so excited to be among my own and hopefully to find my Mormon husband. But what I found instead was a wonderful challenge unfolding in my own life and in the tradition as a whole: how to have some rather unorthodox leadings, both political and personal, and yet remain true to the faith.

What were some of these unorthodox leadings?
I went to college and found out I was a liberal. I had no clue, no name for it, before then. I grew up in Orange County, which people call Republican Valhalla! It’s an old story: go to college and find out you’re a liberal. And it happens at BYU too. I was there during a time when the institutional culture of Mormonism expressed a great deal of concern and fear about liberal voices in the culture. So that made for some really intense experiences.

After graduating from BYU, you actually returned your diploma to the university.
It’s true. I was 21 years old, and I was really upset. Bryan Waterman’s book The Lord’s University covers some of that time at BYU. There was a moment of glasnost at BYU in the late 80s and early 90s, when the university really opened up to being a place where multicultural perspectives were valued and feminism was on the table as a topic for exploration. And while I was there, the backlash began. And at the end of my senior year, a significant number of progressive and feminist faculty left the university because it was very difficult to be there. I saw all of that as a 21-year-old.

There was a long period in your 20s and 30s when you left the church.
I don’t actually think about it as leaving the church. I wasn’t active, but I was always Mormon. It started in 1999, when I just stopped going to church. It was the anti-gay stuff and Proposition 22 that pushed me over. Something broke inside me at that point. I can’t explain why it mattered to me so much, but it really hurt inside. I couldn’t go to church without crying. Which is just embarrassing for everyone.

No it’s not! Lots of people cry at church. It’s almost required.
[laughs] Well, clearly something inside me was crying uncle. I had visiting teachers who I welcomed visits from, but I didn’t really attend church again until 2008.

That was one of the most beautiful moments in the book for me, when you describe the love you received from one visiting teacher.
Sister Bryson? So gentle. I vividly remember sitting on my couch in Austin, Texas, and breaking down crying. And she put her hand on mine and said, “It’s gonna be fine, because you’re looking for truth.”

Now you’re going to make me cry.
That was all I needed to hear, someone recognizing that I wasn’t trying to be bad. I was just wrestling with faith. I needed to hear someone from my tradition recognize that. It was very healing. As Mormons would say, I have a testimony of visiting teaching now, even though I’m not great at it. She was.

Lately you’ve been on the news, blogging even more than usual. What do you most wish to communicate about Mormonism?
This is an interesting and odd year to be a Mormon writer. There is a huge public curiosity about our faith. My main goal is to speak from my own experience candidly, in ways that reveal the humanity of the Mormon experience. And sometimes that means speaking candidly to topics and issues that Mormons feel conflicted and guarded about, like polygamy. Being open about our vulnerabilities is not familiar to Mormons, but I think we have a lot to gain from it.

Good luck with your book!


Author photo courtesy of Joanna Brooks.

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: ask mormon girl, flunking sainthood, jana riess, joanna brooks, religion dispatches, the book of mormon girl: stories from an american faith

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