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.
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