Thursday, January 08, 2009

Ideas Man and the Mormons Act V, scene iii (In which Ideas Man spends too much time talking about Hegel and Ideas Girl has an accident)

Scene iii (mostly scenery and background, in the manner of Tennessee Williams.  A little plot at the end)

After I sent my letter leaving the Church, I spent a few days shopping it as an op-ed piece to papers in California and Utah.  With no interested parties, I set it aside and kind of forgot about it.  The qualification is crucial though.  

I've mentioned at other points in this blog (or maybe it's on my facebook status updates, which play an increasingly large role in my writing life) that, although my sense of my history as a Mormon has remained important, the sorts of concerns that occupy many Mormons have become increasingly distant to me (this plays a big role in the "detattched familiarity" that I talked about in my previous post).  

It's hard to express any more precisely what I mean by this (although I recognize that this is far from clear) --- let me try one other way of phrasing this.  For most of my adolescence and my undergrad years (during all of which I was questioning the doctrine of the church), questions that pertain to religion, broadly construed,  occupied a lot of my intellectual attention.  This was probably also true during my first few years of graduate school, during which time (with the exception of my first year) I'd left the fold entirely --- but it became increasingly less true, and such questions were pretty much entirely unimportant to me while I was working on my dissertation, and even less important still in the post-grad days.  In other words, all in the space of forming opinions which I still pretty much hold, I've managed to go from being obsessed with certain questions to struggling to understand why anyone would be interested (I was genuinely puzzled recently to learn that only 9% of Americans are atheists or agnostics . . .)

But that only concerns propositional questions about religion.  Mormonism tends to be a pretty non-doctrinal religion --- it doesn't place nearly as big an emphasis on beliefs as it does on actions --- although exactly what "action" means here won't necessarily be intuitively obvious, and I would say it places an even bigger emphasis on belonging (group cohesion here being defined first in terms of shared history and secondly in terms of collective action).  And if assent to certain doctrines isn't necessarily the biggest deal, faith of another sort --- faith in the truthfulness of the church (which isn't a propositional kind of thing) --- is.  And here's the thing about that:  when I so myself as very much part of the fold, very committed but doubting and questioning made me experience a real disconnect from this faith and this disconnect bled into that sense of being part of the group.  In other words, at the time of my life when I was intensely engaged with Mormonism on an intellectual level, I very much experienced my belonging to it as a wholly negative thing (I don't mean negative here as a value judgment but in a dialectical way). 

Externally, this was because it alienated me from the very conservative milieu of the extremely, comfortably, affluently Mormon high school that I went to:  not necessarily by the answers I was coming to, because I didn't really have answers, but by the fact of having questions at all (the very act of questioning --- even a non-skeptical inquiry into the meaning of things --- implies a lack of faith in the church --- I have been sitting on a novel involving this point for about 12 years. . .)  Internally, I experienced this alienation as let's say a crisis in that faith:  were they right?  Did I not belong?  But I certainly felt like I belonged.  Why else would I devote myself to these questions?

When I stopped devoting myself to such questions, the crisis simply dropped.  Of course, I didn't have any faith in the church, but that also meant that I was able to come back to my shared history and cultural background in a more positive way.

Let me come back to the notion of action here:  there's a certain archetype of the non-practicing Mormon that prevails in Mormons' --- and many ex-Mormons' --- consciousness of themselves:  the so-called Jack Mormon.  I'm told the meaning of the term is changing to just mean anyone who was once Mormon but isn't any more, but it used to have a more precise meaning:  it denoted somebody who wasn't a practicing Mormon, somebody who drank (alcohol, but also coffee, which is a no-no, too) and smoked and swore and didn't go to church on Sunday but who sort of felt like they should live by the rules; someone who wasn't exactly a believer but certainly wasn't a disbeliever either.  You can be a Jack Mormon and still belong to the church in a very real way.  A friend of mine, whose beliefs were much more interesting than the outline of the Jack Mormon I've given above but who was willing to play the part, did quite well for himself occupying that niche in the neighborhood I grew up in --- he gave the men of the neighborhood an excuse to feel good about themselves when they went to play golf or tennis with him (they were doing the Lord's work).

To return to the subject of action, I would also say that the Jack Mormon's actions can only fall so far outside of the norms of Mormon behavior to remain a Jack Mormon, and this is one of the reasons why the precision of the term is disappearing.  The behavior of the Jack Mormon, although quite scandalous to a Mormon, would probably strike anyone outside of the Mormon Church as quite moderate, conservative even (I mean neither of these terms in their political senses, obviously).  Contrast this with, let's say (although the names here are less precise and more a matter of convenience) --- the fallen Mormon or the bad kid.  Now, although the Jack Mormon is allowed in the community, it wouldn't do to make it too obvious to youngsters that they are as a matter of course, so you need to draw a clear line in the ideological sand (to conceal the actual, far murkier line).  When youngsters cross that line, as many of them inevitably will, they experience a certain vertigo.  Lots of them mistake a minor drop off from the straight-and-narrow road into a little ditch for an abyss:  and so they plunge into it.  With the difference between the Jack Mormon and the Fallen Mormon, we're talking about the difference between the kid who drinks on the weekends and the kid who does hard drugs:  the kid who fools around with her boyfriend, and the slut.  Because the official party line that gets enforced is that there is no difference between the two, the one quickly turns into the other.  The fallen Mormon or the bad kid is like the Jack Mormon in that they still have faith in the church, but their actions have fallen too far outside of the norm to continue to (obviously) belong to it.  Of course, such actions still do belong to the norm, but their re-patriation will inevitably be more violent.

I didn't really fit into either of these categories.  My behavior was probably pretty close to that of a Jack Mormon, but you never would have guessed it.  The high school that I went to was preppy enough to have a two-niche system:  the football players/cheerleaders were one upper-echelon niche, of course, but a certain brand of the honors/college prep kids were pretty close to equally "in" --- there was, of course, a lot of overlap, and to be really cool you probably had to fit into both cliques.  But, as a rough rule, it's fair to say that there were more bad and Jack Mormons in the football/cheerleader crowd (by which I mean that there were a few --- it was marginally exceptable) than in the college prep crowd (where there were none --- it was totally unacceptable).  Since I hung out with the squeakiest of the squeaky clean, where I like to think that I occupied a niche that I pretty much created, my perception was that my survival depended upon seeming to be equally shiny.

And, the truth of the matter is that that way of approaching the world shaped me a lot.  I still lead (and pretty much always have led) a very conservative life.  Although there have been some "funny" misunderstandings between myself and various Mormons close to me as to what constitutes a conservative lifestyle , when it comes right down to it, my daily life isn't much different than that of the people I grew up with (as the facebook attests to) --- most centrally from the perspective of Mormon ideology, my family life is both at the center of my daily life and very traditional (not at all patriarchal, but even among Mormons the meaning of patriarchy is slowly changing).  I don't buy into the family-values ideology at all, but it continues to define the kind of family that by both habit and personal inclination I actually have ended up having.

And after I had congitively dissociated myself from the church, I was far more comfortable seeing the way I lived as having been positively shaped by my Mormonism.

What does this long aside have to do with our place here in Act V, scene iii?

It defines the sense in which I could only kind of forget about the letter I had written.

What I'm trying to make clear is that although on a daily basis I hardly ever think about issues relating to my Mormon upbringing, in either my personal or intellectual life, it nonetheless shapes me in ways that are difficult to define.  Prior to asking to leave the church, I would have admitted this cognitively, but I don't think that I would have had as good of a sense of what it meant.

One other bit of personal/family/cultural history to explain the present moment:  something that I allude to in my letter (see scene ii).  I come from a big extended and immediate family:  my mom is one of 8 and my dad is one of 6.  Adding in their spouses, I have 24 uncles and aunts, all of whom are (or were) Mormon.  Of those, 3 have been excommunicated from the Mormon church, as has my mother.  My mom, one of her sisters and that sister's husband were all excommunicated for writings and speeches, and all of these were to varying extents, let's call them "public" or "event" excommunications.  Another one of my uncles was excommunicated in lets say a "private" or "ordinary" excommunication:  he was excommunicated for cheating on his then-wife.  One of these 4 folks is back in the church as a good and faithful member (one of these 4 excommunications didn't really challenge Mormon morality):  any guesses?  The other 3 remain excommunicated, and they have all coped with it in different ways.

The reason I bring this up is that when my uncle whose excommunication was "public" tried to describe the feeling, he said that it felt like a sword had passed clean through him and then been (equally cleanly) pulled out.

That's not a bad description of how I felt, except of course, I had done this to myself (a cynic could remark that although my relatives hadn't done it to themselves they might have asked for it.  That's a different question...)

I felt exactly as I had before I sent my letter out.  I felt the same.  I was equally happy with Obama's victory.  I was moved by the aftermath of his victory, by the palpable sense of disbelief and hope that the country was changing, and by the inability of the folks on NPR to pretend not to be ecstatic.  I was delighted that Stevens lost even it was close and was able to occupy myself by following the Minnesota recount.

But all of this proceeded with another part of my self seeming fundamentally altered in a way that is difficult to describe.  I didn't dwell on it (I didn't have the time), but it nonetheless dwelt within me, this change.

Of course, I'm enough of a Hegelian to know that the interior always wants to express itself but enough of a Kierkegaardian to think that the way it expresses itself might not resemble its interior life.

So, one evening I was out later than usual (let's say 8ish, which is the dead of night as far as I'm concerned).  I had just finished the graduate seminar I taught and was at a reception for a visiting scholar at one of my colleague's houses when I got a call from Ideas Woman, Esq. who was holding down the Ideas Fort.  She asked if I could come home early b/c the kids had been shaken by an odd incident.

A few minutes earlier, Ideas Woman had been putting Ideas Boy, B.A.(B.Y.) to sleep when she thought she heard something outside.  Now, Toledo is apparently ungodly windy and we have some rather large trees near our windows, so we often get branches tapping on our windows, and she though that that was what this was.

But Ideas Girl (who insists on being in the hallway right outside the nursery door if no one else is home when one of us is putting Ideas Boy to sleep) opened up the door and said:

"I'm scared.  Someone's outside."

"It's just the wind."

But with the door open, Ideas Woman could hear more clearly and she could definitely tell that someone was knocking on our door (did I mention that our doorbell doesn't work?)

"I'm sure they'll go away."


After making herself presentable (Ideas Boy isn't yet weaned) she went downstairs,  grabbed the phone, and hit 911 (but didn't hit send) -- unless you think she's paranoid keep in mind that they had been out there for some time at this point --- also we only had one car at the time and no lights would have been on up front so it wouldn't have looked like anyone was home).  Ideas Boy was now wide awake and Ideas Girl was trailing behind her (although she was supposed to be "winding down" before she went to bed.)

It was --- you've guessed it --- the Mormons.

It wasn't just the missionaries, who we occasionally get, but an older man also --- this has happened before also (perhaps we'll get into that in scene iv).

"Didn't you hear us knocking?"

"What were you doing?  Can't you see I was putting the kids to sleep?"


Pause. Pause.

Ideas Woman:  "Ok, bye."

She takes the kids back upstairs.  Ideas Boy, B.A.B.Y is wide awake and Ideas Woman turns her attention to Ideas Girl.

"Um, Mommy . . . I had an accident."

That's right, the Mormons had made Ideas Girl pee her pants.  So much for family values.

(coming up in scene iv --- more letters in which Ideas Man is informed of what a terrible mistake he's made).


DOCTOR J said...

Wow, what a great story... though the title is a bit misleading, since it suggests that YOU were actually the person who caused Ideas Girl to have an accident.

If I haven't said this already, I think you should seriously consider writing a short memoir with some of your reflections as an ex-Mormon. For most of the non-Mormon world, the LDS are a bit of a mystery, and your first-person accounts as an insider/outsider are incredibly revealing (and instructive).

I also love the figure of "Jack Mormon." I'm quite sure we had a similar figure function in a similar way in the church(es) I grew up in, though he certainly didn't have a proper name like that. Or, wait... maybe we called him "Jack Mormon", too...

DOCTOR J said...

Also, just out of curiosity, did the Mormons who came to your house that night know that you were an ex-Mormon? Is there any possibility that your letter caused someone higher up the chain to send out the troops to your place?

Or do they really bang on people's doors after dark like that? Scary.

Heather said...

I will answer Leigh's question by explaining what happened when I answered the door. (Let me also add that when I heard the pounding on the door, my stomach leapt into my heart even as Elena burst through the door and leapt into my arms. Thus the grabbing of the phone to dial 911- it was upstairs, thankfully- before going to the door). I wasn't going to answer the door, even after the pounding, except that it became clear that Elena wasn't going to calm down until we found out who it was. (This along with my thought that if the knockers were robbers, they may have just been establishing that no one was home so they could break in (or, actually, walk in, because we never - before that - locked our doors)). We have a window at the top of our front door and the stairs lead right to the door, so as we came down stairs, I could see out the window: but not the figures of the knockers- since the outside light wasn't on - but the frame of the screen door, ajar and moving slightly, indicating that someone was holding it open. (another heart/stomach leap, and probably a gulp). I turned on the outside light and saw the two figures turning back toward the door - apparently they had just then given up their campaign of knocking terror. I saw the signature black nametag as I opened the door. One of them said, "didn't you hear us knocking?" (which is a really rude way to begin a conversation with someone you've never met), to which I replied "yes, but I'm not required to answer the door. I was putting the kids to sleep and you scared them half to death." Man: "Oh, I'm so sorry. . . . Is Ammon home?" Me: "no, you'll have to come back another time." (not sure why I said that other than maybe I thought it would make them more likely to leave, based on other experiences with knocking mormons). THEN the awkward pause and the "Ok, bye."

Ammon tends to skip over the important parts. Because the answer is not only did they know he was a soon-to-be ex-mormon, they came precisely because of his letter. It was about 3 days later that we got a letter from mormon HQ in the mail (I assume this is act iv), which meant I could finally rest easy at night, knowing they weren't going to come a-knockin'.

DOCTOR J said...

Thanks, Heather. Seriously, you should edit Ideas Man's posts... how did he leave out that little tidbit of information??!!

Now I am impatiently awaiting Scene iv.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Dr. J.,

I have thought about trying to write out my whole experience in some coherent narrative, but haven't figured out how it would really work and whether I have the self-honesty to do it...

And I totally had forgotten that they asked for me specifically! But they did show up occasionally wherever we lived --- they have "Membership Locators" who keep track of where inactive people live and once they know you are assigned to the local ward (like a congregation or parish) which then is supposed to "fellowship" you. . . so it didn't occur me until I was in the car on my way home that they had actually shown up because of my letter.

And yes, Heather and Dr. J., the letter from the Mormon HQ is coming up in scene iv.

Chet said...

A very interesting story, particularly, in light of the way that you have found yourself shaped by LDS, regardless of your own desires, and are pleased with yourself, and so being out of the fold, can appreciate LDS for that. In other words, Mormon values have made you into the person you are, despite your own growing distance, and so you can accept that. In so far as I understand this--I think I do, but it does seem a bit abstract sometimes--I feel the same way about my own incipient experiences with Christianity.

My greatest surprise/realization, was in discovering around the age of 10 that there were actual people who betrayed the principles of Christianity. I remember in particular being asked if I wanted some "chaw" at a baseball game and saying no, meaning no, but being a bit disappointed in the person that offered it to me.

I am very curious about some of these questions you had. The only problem with what you have written, right now, for me, is that I want to know concretely what those questions and concerns are. I suspect it has to do both with theological sort questions, but also, and importantly, with issues of daily practice/behavior.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...


Thanks. Both of your suspicions are correct, but the longer version would require a lot more time to flesh out. I'll think about how it might be done.