Will it ever become what it could have been?
The hidden cost of Mormonism.
NOTE: I was finishing up this essay when I got the news that Heather Armstrong died on May 9th. Devastating. I had been reading her blog for years when I first met Heather at her home in Salt Lake City in 2009, the year her second child and my first were born. I interviewed her and her then husband Jon about the wild success of Dooce.com for a couple stories I produced at the local news station where I worked. We hit it off, she invited me to dinner at her place where, among other things, we talked about the perils of online writing and leaving Mormonism. She was fascinated by my story of resigning from the church, wanted every detail of how it went down, bishop knocking on my front door with a letter and all, and mentioned she was planning to do the same.
Sometime later, I got into a public battle of sorts with the LDS church after one of its leaders compared the backlash Mormons received for supporting an anti-gay marriage ordinance to the Black struggle for civil rights in the South. I could have been fired from my job as a producer. The LDS church suggested as much when they called my news director to complain about my perspective. A local reporter - who is Mormon - subsequently questioned my journalistic integrity, wondering whether, as a former Mormon, my negative feelings about the church would affect my ability to report objectively. I asked if his membership and positive feelings about the church would affect his ability to report objectively. He declined to answer. Throughout the entire ordeal Heather and I emailed behind the scenes. She encouraged me when I felt overwhelmed, retweeted my tweets, amplified my voice to hundreds of thousands of people, and offered much-needed support during a very, scary time.
We continued to stay in contact over the years. We emailed and messaged periodically about Mormonism, the brutal side of sharing your life online, including but not limited to pages and pages of hateful commentary on certain websites dedicated to trashing our writing, physical appearances, children, marriages, and eventual divorces. We talked about trying to ignore the hate or address it, how to address it but not take it personally. Some online writers I know couldn’t give two fucks what people say about them and I love them for it. Heather and I were never like that. The hate was always very painful and personal even if we pretended otherwise in public.
Our sporadic communication fizzled several years ago but I have always kept tabs on her.
This morning while I walked I put on a song called Demons by The National - it was one of her favorites - and vibed a “Thank you, Heather” into the universe. That I was struggling to write this particular post when I learned of her death feels important, somehow.
Heather Armstrong was first. Those of us who write memoir essays about our personal lives, and there are so many of us now, are indebted to her for laying herself bare over and over and over again. She pioneered confessional, conversational writing with courageousness, honesty, hilarity, and style. There was no one like her.
She was a fucking force.
I still remember specific turns of phrases within her essays over the years that left me breathless, jealous, or laughing out loud. Not only did she write openly about depression, motherhood, and alcoholism, Heather was the very first person I read who dared to write honestly about leaving the LDS church.
Maybe you don’t know how brave it was for her to do that but it was. Especially then, when the internet was just learning how to walk. The church is scary. It is a billion-dollar juggernaut and they do not like when former members speak out. So, yeah. BRAVE. Especially when you’ve been taught from birth to obey without question or face existential consequences.
Heather wrote irreverently about an oppressive religion that wields reverence and obedience as a means of control, especially over women. She wrote so I could. Her writing, her perspective, and her bravery was foundational for me, for my writing, for my womanhood, motherhood and my journey away from Mormonism.
Thank you for showing me how it’s done, Heather. This one’s for you.
“Sharing personal stories has ALWAYS been as integral to our survival as shelter. Especially for the women who have been force-fed abusive narratives from the books of patriarchy. So many women — mothers — friends of mine — were able to deconstruct the lives that were harming them and rebuild new paradigms in their place for themselves AND THEIR CHILDREN — BECAUSE of the stories they found here.” - Rebecca Woolf, The Braid
A few weeks shy of my 28th birthday in March, my then-husband and I double-parked a moving truck in front of a skinny, brick apartment building on Berry Street in Brooklyn, the sunny yellow truck a stark contrast to the deepening purple twilight. The big truck’s headlights illuminated bullets of whirling snow angrily hammering anything in their path and we unloaded our things in what felt like a shaken snow globe. Confused snowflakes blowing in all directions, icy wind whipping off the East River, and roaring the three blocks to assault us as we tiredly moved, numb-fingered, between the truck and the apartment building.
The apartment was a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom all in a row, railroad style. The living room maybe ten feet wide. You could sit on the couch lining one wall, reach forward and change the channel of the TV on the opposite wall with your hand, no remote needed.
One of the couches we brought from my condo in Utah didn’t fit. We had nowhere to put it so it spent several months hulking dejectedly in the large hall of a friend’s apartment building in an old, converted warehouse I was told Peter Dinklage lived in at one point, long before his stellar turn as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. I think someone in the building eventually absorbed it into their apartment, as often happens in NYC.
In New York City, anything feels possible. The air crackles with energy, the sidewalks vibrating with the reverberations of hopeful footsteps of millions from around the world looking for their new start.
Perfect for the girl who desperately longed to be anyone besides Monica Butler from Utah. Like so many before me, I wanted my tangled past to evaporate like the steam rising from street grates, needed the city to accept me as one of its adopted children.
Still, 28 felt late to be moving to NYC in the grand scheme of a life. Don’t get me wrong, if you can move to the city at any age, you should absolutely go for it. I’ve always thought everyone should live in New York City at least once in their lives. Like college, it’s an educational stint you’ll carry with you always.
But closing in on thirty, I felt late. I had missed living in the city as an experimenting college student, a would-be novelist, painter, musician. Even the potential of trying on the personality of twenty-something yuppie-type, drowning my work sorrows in alcohol well past midnight after a hellish 9 to 5 felt foolish at 28. Although I was surrounded by artists of all kinds, constantly worried about paying the bills, I felt like I needed to get serious about the business of living. I was already at the age people regularly inquire when you’re going to have a baby. It’s not so much that way now - more and more people are pushing back parenthood or side-stepping it all together - but that’s the way it was then.
Looking back, I realize how young I was. A 28-year-old newlywed? A baby! But, at the time, coming from Mormonism and Utah, where most childhood friends had already been married for years and were busily expanding the church’s membership with children already in elementary school, nearly 30 seemed like a late start to what felt like the beginning of my “real life.” A life I had long dreamed of away from an existence in Utah that, like hand-me-downs from an older sibling, never fit quite right.
Years later I finally understand that the beginning of your “real life” isn’t a state on the map, it’s a state of mind. And so, in many ways, as I map my mind in therapy and begin to understand why I’m me and be ok with that, my real life is just beginning now. Talk about late.
Recovering from Mormonism has been a decades-long, exhausting, mindfuck. A lifetime of work in addition to the usual childhood-induced trauma from which we all spend our adult lives attempting to recover. I now understand I will never feel totally “normal.” But shit. Does anyone? I’ve leveled up so many times during my life and just when I think I’ve finally transcended the Mormon madness it taps me on the shoulder then punches me in the face. Or maybe it’s just that as my awareness grows, I am better able to recognize the insidiousness of the indoctrination that continues to carve on my insides?
Things were taught to me and things happened to me to provoke a shadowy shame that has spread through my body, multiplying over the years like a malignant tumor. Overcoming that isn’t easy. You can know a thing intellectually but, as they say, the body keeps score and getting your body to understand what your brain knows is another matter entirely.
I was recently texting with a guy I knew in junior high and high school. Back then, he was very Mormon or I perceived him that way, anyway. After graduating, he went on a mission for the church and got married in the temple. So yeah. Very Mormon. He didn’t leave the church until his thirties. When he finally did, it necessitated the end of a marriage already more than a decade old because, of course, he had married very young.
Tragic stuff, honestly. Loving a person who no longer believes what you do. The kind of intense heartbreak the church specializes in; disallowing nonmembers from seeing their loved ones get married, causing parents to disown gay children or submit them for conversion therapy, counseling women to stay with abusive husbands, training little girls to be obedient wives etc.
We haven’t spoken in thirty years but after I stumbled onto one of his social media pages and realized he is no longer Mormon I decided to send him a message. Not a usual move for me. Typically, reaching out to people from my past doesn’t go well. Over the past decade I have swung from being a profoundly nostalgic person to feeling intensely dubious when it comes to connecting with people from Utah.
Against my better judgment, I felt compelled to at least shoot him a hello and see where he landed all these years later. It’s exhilerating to see someone you once knew as a devout Mormon out in the world operating on their own volition instead of a life spent on autopilot, studiously checking off all the boxes the church carefully lays out for you at birth.
Get baptised at 8 - Check!
Serve mission at 18 - Check!
Marriage in the temple - Check!
Kid 1 - Check!
Kid 2 - Check!
Kid 3 - Check!
Baptize your kids and prepare them for missions to perpetuate the church’s existence - Check!
My friend replied, we got to messaging and he is a delight! A brilliant, artistic, liberated delight! We spent some time comparing church exit/recovery stories. I told him that even though I haven’t set foot in a church in decades, it still messes with my head. All the time.
My responses to life circumstances and my attitude toward myself don’t always feel like mine. They feel programmed, deeply embedded in my DNA, and if I’m not practicing deliberate awareness I can default to a kind of Mormon autopilot in which I feel inexplicably judgmental of the actions of myself, others as well as the usual shame and self-hatred.
The indoctrination and brainwashing run deep when you are a child and a teen. You don’t know any better, have no frame of reference. I never "let" the Mormon church do anything to me. It was done to me before I knew what was happening. They had me from birth, just as they had my parents, my grandparents, their parents… I never had a chance. I was singing Sunday School songs at age 2 and parroting “I know Joseph Smith was a true prophet” before I could make bunny ears out of my shoelaces.
It’s hard to rid your body of the cancer. Often, it feels like a futile fight because probably more than half my life is over and it has already affected every crucial aspect; sex, love, relationships, sexuality, gender roles, and shame.
My friend texted me, “As I get older, I’m starting to feel like I’ve been ripped off. So much time wasted trying to cope with my mind. Will it ever become what it could’ve been?”
The text broke my heart a little. We moved on to other reminiscings but his question lingered, stuck with me.
Will it ever be what it could’ve been?
I sensed anguish behind his words. Within a handful of years, we will both be in our fifties and we’re still tweezing through our brains, trying to pluck out the programming that sent us down a path of shame, guilt, sadness, and anger over what was lost. Or never gained.
Because of where I live and who I surround myself with these days, Mormonism feels very far away. But it isn’t, really. It’s stuck in there, in the moldering basement of my brain, where I shove all the things I want to forget. The trauma echoes across the decades, sinisterly whispering in my ear trying to shape my thoughts and actions all these years later.
At this point, I’m uninterested in pointing out the obvious fallacies and blatant lies the church is built around or debating those issues with anyone. I’d rather eat a cereal bowl of fresh scabs for breakfast, as I believe Heather Armstrong once phrased it. That debate is for other, different minds. I’m far more focused on reconciling time lost and cutting away the Mormonism that has spread through my heart and mind and tossing it in the trash like an excised tumor.
I don’t think it will ever really go away. But it feels so good to talk it out with another victim, to understand I am also a victim and the shame I regularly feel well up inside me like unshed tears is conjured from decades of intense brainwashing and is nothing I deserve.
The fact that I made it out still feels like a miracle. Have you ever had a close call with death? A car almost hit you or you nearly slid off a steep mountain while hiking? It feels like that. Goosebumps and terror over what came so close to happening.
What if I didn’t make it? What if I spent my entire life in that world? The panic-inducing notion makes the rare talks with childhood friend who also made it out incredibly exhilarating. Hey! Hi! We made it! How old were you when you realized it? What about you? When did you know?Your family still in it? Yeah, every single one. You’re the only one who’s out? Yeah. That’s tough. Sorry.
There is so much unprocessed trauma floating around my system and it sneak attacks at strange moments. Like last year when Cory and I began watching Under The Banner of Heaven on Hulu. It takes place in the area I grew up in at the time I was growing up. There’s a scene in one of the first couple episodes where the character played by Andrew Garfield’s 8-year-old daughter has an interview with her bishop so he can make sure she’s worthy of baptism. In a full body clench, I watched the conversation between the grown man and the little girl, realized I had been holding my breath then burst into tears.
The girl was so young. Way too young to understand what was happening. “How could good parents subject their children to this, I sobbed to Cory. In my forties, mom to my own sweet 8-year-old, I was finally able to clearly see how young and innocent I was when I experienced those same baptism conversations with teachers and bishops and started feeling not good enough and then bad. Bad, bad, bad.
Despite infrequent moments like that, I feel like I’ve hit a new level in recovery. Mostly, the culture of my childhood feels like a creepy Jordan Peele movie. Every now and again, I’ll search for old friends on the socials. Their feeds are filled with vibrant Easter Sunday photos #heisrisen or baby-faced young men leaving and returning from missions #soblessed or weddings portraits of beaming brides and grooms on temple steps #templewedding and all the other milestones righteous Mormons mark on the journey toward everlasting life and love in the “Celestial Kingdom.”
I scroll and scroll and feel something close to vertigo, like Joanna from The Stepford Wives as she observes the Stepford women obediently going about their wifely, womanly tasks. No questions asked. Or like Leah Remini in one of those Scientology documentaries on A&E. What happened? What is happening? How is this happening? Millions of people caught in this web of lies. Over and over again. It seems unfathomable.
I remember such good times with these people. Dozens of beautiful personalities from my past lost to Mormonism. Why not still be friends, you might think. Because Mormonism is all-encompassing. It’s not just a belief. It’s a lifestyle. You can maintain acquaintances but the relationships rarely feel substantive in any meaningful way. The beliefs the church espouses label you an apostate: one who once believed and has turned away from the principles of the gospel. In Mormon minds, the very worst kind of sinner. Bridging the gap between apostate and devout believer is backbreaking work, even during basic conversation because, within Mormonism, all roads eventually lead to church talk.
These days, I look around at co-workers, my kids, even Cory - all these people who know me now and I think, You have NO idea. No concept of what my life was like before you. Who I was. How insular and bizarre it was to grow up in that bubble. No matter how much or how hard I try to explain, you’ll never really get it.
There’s this vibe I try to articulate to Cory about the strangeness of having grown up with people - family members and best friends - who were my entire world during my most formative years and now the most I can do is gaze at them quizzically from my side of the massive canyon that runs between our lives like an exposed fault line and try to figure out how to have a comfortable conversation. Or whether I should engage at all. The entire conversation will be singed with an awkward weirdness and it often feels easier to step back and watch the relationship burn like a house on fire. Maybe the awkwardness is on me. But the disconnection, that hum of disapproval I perceive, taints every interaction.
It’s like finding out someone voted for Trump. Hey! Clint from engineering is super cool! He helped me with my flat tire in the parking lot last week. Also, he flies a Confederate flag from his front porch and beats up the gays when he gets a chance because god created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve! Hardy har barf.
Similarly, believing in the church’s bullshit is indicative of so many other interconnected beliefs and opinions that sicken me. Mormonism is a lifestyle choice that informs almost all of a person’s opinions and actions. So it can be very difficult to maintain a relationship with someone, even if they’re the kindest, loveliest human being. Especially when the thing they so desperately believe in completely fucked up your life.
These people from my childhood; family members, friends, boyfriends, their parents, and school teachers are all a part of me and I will love them from afar forever and simultaneously mourn the loss of the people they could have been, the lives they could have experienced, even though they would consider this entire paragraph condescending and offensive. “One day you’ll know The Truth, Monica.” I can hear their scripture-laden brains whir with guileless concern. “I pray for you.”
Shit yeah! Pray your ass off, girl. I’ll take all the positivity I can get in the form of meditation vibes from your yoga mat to the universe at large or offered in an arm folded prayer elevatored straight up to the blue-eyed Mormon Heavenly Father hovering omniciently in the blue sky clouds.
In the end, it’s all the same. We’re all the same. It’s only the man-made - emphasis on man - social constructs we fall into or are forced into that make us feel different.
I don’t get angry anymore. Mostly, I just feel sad. And I feel compassion for the people still caught in the web even though I know they feel the same way about me, the apostate, almost certainly bound for Outer Darkness. .
THEM: I feel bad for you.
ME: No, I feel bad for youuu.
THEM: No, youuuu.
It’s in overcoming the tough stuff that we level up in life and so, all things considered, being born Mormon made me who I am today. I understand this but, like my sweet friend who also made it out, I wonder who I could have been without all the lies and trauma inflicted on me as a child. It’s pointless, the what-if game. Our past means nothing. It’s just a story we tell ourselves that fucks up our now.
Still, I can’t help but wonder.
I don’t live in New York City anymore and haven’t for a long time. I visit often and take my kids there several times a year. They’ve stood in front of the little red brick apartment building I shared with their dad and my beloved dog Max, they’ve walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, roamed through Central Park, and visited museums, restaurants and Times Square.
Even though it felt late at the time, I am immensely grateful for the years I spent living in the city in my twenties. A part of me was born there, lives inside me still, and I’m passing that electricity to my kids. That hungry yearning for something besides what what is presented to us as kids and teenagers, the crucial ability to always question the answers.
In moving to New York City I thought I was escaping my past in the wild Mormon frontier of the west and finally beginning my “real life.” Turns out, you can take the girl out of the Mormons but you can’t take the Mormon out of the girl. And maybe that’s exactly how it was supposed to be. We’re a work in progress until we die. Every time we level up our awareness and consciousness a new “real life” begins.
For a long time Mormonism was my real life and then it wasn’t.
I look forward to all the new “real lifes” ahead of me.
“No looking back. Life goes one way only and whatever opinions you have about the past have nothing to do with anything but your own damn weakness. Nothing changes what already happened. It will always have happened. You either let it break you down or you don’t. A simple enough lesson but hard to learn.” - Charles Frazier, Nightwoods
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