Trespassing Journal

Ex-Actly as I Thought: Failure and the Unbecoming Mormon Man

Paul Walker

[Abstract]-[pdf]

I am having sex for the first time, in a roadside Comfort Inn on our way back to New York City after a long weekend in Salem, Massachusetts. My girlfriend and I had been close to doing this many times, but here I am underneath her, lying diagonally on the king bed, with the floral bed cover hanging off the end. I feel the exquisite pleasure of this act that I had waited too long to engage in, but hadn’t because I believed it was morally wrong. The (im)morality of our act is no different this time, and despite the immediate pleasure and my deep love and desire for this woman, I would feel guilty each time we repeat it until we married and it instantly became “right.”

I am(not) ex-Mormon. At times I think I am post-Mormon, for I am post-scripted, I stand posted against/beside Mormonism, it is posted around me, and I am attached to its post(s), though I am not pulling so hard anymore. Yet the (post-) label is insufficient and unsatisfying, for it contains too much finality in its explanatory pretense. But ex-Mormon I surely can(not) be, because I will never ex-tricate myself from every vestige of my enculturation with the faith. I mean, at the most mundane moments, I find myself humming Mormon hymns, and I still feel a little jolt of remarkability not attending church on Sundays. Nor, and perhaps more importantly, can I ex-clude Mormonism’s continued presence, whether I like it or not, in my present and post-present life. Escaping the peculiar grasp of one enveloping identity to the unbecoming peculiarity of a(not)her, I find I am still straddling a (non)identifiable body of unfinishing perplexity. Or, as Nietzsche said in The Gay Science, “You were always a different person” (246).

I am dressed in white, head to toe, not only wearing a white shirt, pants, socks and shoes, but draped in a white coverlet, white cap, and white sash tied at the waist, all symbolic attire in this temple, where I stand before a “veil” of thin fabric, which has symbols and small openings; through one of these openings I hold the hand of an unseen man in a secret handshake, and through another my other arm extends so my hand rests on his shoulder – and he does the same. In this position I speak “sacred” memorized words in order to pass through the veil into the heaven-like “celestial room,” finishing the ritual that I have repeated numerous times vicariously for others who have died already.

My memory, my thoughts; they ex-ude. My past is (un)familiar yet I know that it was me, me who lived, and now remembers (some)things done and said by me, another version of me that remains, yet doesn’t. These foreign/familiar thoughts betray the hoax of memory, caused to some degree by the tyranny of our institutions, to borrow from Michael Cobb, who draws on Hannah Arendt, in saying that the totalitarianism of our social structures preys upon those who perceive themselves as powerless in the face of normativity. The drive for normativity requires salving the chaotic strafings in the mind, flattening the narrative’s bumps and mounds and holes, making it sensible – or sensical – so we can function as some sort of person, some uniquely conformed sort of person, who is actually somebody who has lived something that can be labeled as a life. And in the ex-planation of that life, we want, or need, coherence if not cohesiveness. At least that is what I thought for a long time.

In the Mormon culture, there is a life clearly defined and all things point to the fantasy of peacefully settling into its comforts. On the surface, this envisioned life is the same as most of the world: individuals are incomplete and are fulfilled by divine sacrifice and/or benevolence, as well as service to and being served by others. Completeness also comes through true love, which truly ex-ists, and this love must be ex-pressed appropriately to one opposite-sex person sexually and to the rest of the world (un)conditionally. Of course, within the culture there are numerous people who aren’t “blessed”with one true love, but who are given the comfort that God’s eternal plan will somehow reward them eventually. Nonetheless, messages are normalized to reflect that one’s life always and should include others, officially and eternally bound to you – parents, spouse, children. My achievement of my bound status as a husband and father was fairly smooth – no great bouts with loneliness, just a few instances here and there until things worked out, sinfully veering but not too far outside the proscribed path to prevent returning to it. But the normalcy, the pathway recommended – it hides things, its straightness and ease distracts one from noticing things, and I was unable or unwilling to see past or around it until I connected pieces of its perniciousness here and there, and until those pieces (in)cohered to critically challenge my thinking – yet even then, years went by before I attempted to disentangle my body from what my mind had already let go.

I am praying to God in the fall of an election year, incommensurably requesting that the democratic candidate would be elected. My sense in that moment is that if the God I considered for continued belief existed, and actually led the Mormon church, then here is a measure for that “truth” – a clear difference between the candidates in essential Christian concern for humanity. Yet I know at the same time the vast majority of Mormons are praying for the exact opposite result. As the LDS leaders subtly clarify their political endorsement over the next few months, this prayer marks itself as the last prayer I ever say with any fraction of efficacious belief.

In my interactions with people of various faiths, especially those people who have “lost faith” or distanced themselves from the religion of their youth, the effect of that leaving most discussed is the inevitable parental disappointment. The disappointment of parents may ex-tend in some form for years – brought up at holiday gatherings or at various low points in life that remind the believer of the assurance belief brings. Obviously, I have not observed firsthand the numerous narratives of religious failure throughout the world and its history, but I say this to illustrate a possible contrast with my own religious ex-odus – not to privilege my ex-perience, but to perhaps illustrateless-known cultural binds tied tightly by religious dogma. As for me, I am in a continual state of hesitation, not knowing ex-actly how to continue or reflect on my upbringing, my status as former church leader, my previous missionary efforts, raising my children – the past, present, future congealing and coinciding with living life and the theory in my head.

I am a Boy Scout on a week-long summer camp with 50 or 60 other Scouts and adults. Our region is in a drought – very little snowfall in the mountains and no spring rain. Campfires are banned. The head leader of the camp invites all of us to fast (go without meals) for one day and pray for rain. We do it. The next afternoon, a rain cloud the same size as our camp surrounds us and it begins to rain. Later, a huge storm followed, soaking everything enough that the Forest Service allowed us to have campfires the rest of the week.

As the idea for this essay swirled around in my brain, as I wrote down distinct episodic memories, as I struggled with how to ex-plain myself, my memory’s present/presence consistently challenged me. My presence and present acts are always already occurring in my attempt to forget and forge lives I live(d). I recognize my late emergence from a culture and way of thinking, and I am disconcerted by it, finding it difficult to discuss it openly while actively giving the impression, to everyone ex-cept my closest friends, that such a past never ex-isted. But I really believed for many years in the Mormon doctrine. I believed in what I don’t believe in now, fervently, able to recognize the ironies, mysteries, and uncertainties but also able to shake them off, dismiss them, ignore them, and carry on without feeling disrespect from others who did not believe. On occasion, friends did ask about my belief in such a way that I felt their teetering (dis)respect. These conversations forced that past to rise up inside me, in its final ex-asperated effort to defend me, to save itself, but it was too late – the ex-ision had begun, for I could feel the mutual dissatisfaction of my ex-planations and rationalizations.

“Memory is what you are now, not what you think you were in the past,” as Daniela Schiller puts it. “When you change the story you created, you change your life.” Many researchers posit that our memories are usually inaccurate, confirming what Schiller suggests. We are who we are now and our memory is filtered through our current self – “You were always this person.” Our current self decides now how to filter the memory, and what to think about the memory when it arrives, or as George Santayana said, “memory itself, which we explain by a reference to the past, is a peculiar complication of present consciousness” (201). My memories of myself, 10, 15, or 30 years ago at this writing are filtered only through my current state of mind and sense of myself. But how, for example, are my memories filtered through my experience at the end of a recent concert I attended alone, where a woman I did not know said into my ear, “You are so hot, I want to make out with you right now,” and then left to join her friends or maybe husband? I have no definitive answer, and don’t want to, just as I wonder without need for satisfaction how my life and memories to this point situate with my love for my gay best friend, with whom I share more preferences and inclinations than I can name, and yet our semi-decipherable different, but deep, love for each other occasionally tears us apart. Or how another potent, intense friendship with a married woman, whose culturally curious, ironic, and diaphanously presence in my life (un)made our perceived improper connection. Otherwise, I am newly divorced and have three daughters. I am charged by the eye contact, held an extra second, with an attractive stranger in passing. I am open to novelty, possibilities, and resist self-governing according to proscribed conceptions, and yet am polite, smiling, and reticent in situations where such conceptions dominate. I enjoy sex but at times past have found its motions and climaxes similar, known, a pleasure akin to a memorable conversation with great friends, being engulfed in a novel, or making and drinking pour-over coffee with fresh roasted beans – which, in fact, has on some days been the most inspiring thing to get me out of bed in the morning.

These aspects of the now-me influence this writing, this revision, and yet I am still somewhat incomprehensible to myself, susceptible to unexpected life turnings. But I am more incomprehensible to others, especially my parents and siblings – and to my ex-wife.

I am sitting in an office in an LDS chapel, sitting on the other side of the desk from the stake president, Kevin. The stake president “presides” over a stake, which is a geographical organization of wards, or congregations of Mormons. Kevin has recently called a new bishop for our ward, and the new bishop requested that I serve as one of two bishop’s counselors. I am telling Kevin that I shouldn’t be considered, partly because I have serious concerns about the church central leaders’ recent actions opposing Proposition 8[2] in California. Kevin says he understands, noting his concerns before 1978 when the church (finally) allowed African-American men to hold the priesthood. I think to myself, “Not exactly the same.”

When I told her I no longer believe in the truth offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my mother reacted by telling me she mourned me as if I had died. My parents’ disappointment in my voluntary severance from the family reflects the Mormon belief that the bloodline is supplanted by the religious and cultural and spiritual bond that is believed to last forever. Perhaps this is inevitable and common in families of strong faith of any kind.But the ramifications of my leaving are not, to those of my family who still believe, a matter of mere sorrow or dismay. Nor was it the prospect of losing me for eternity – Mormons believe that adherent members will live after death in a beautiful place forever with their families. Despite the certainty of Mormon metaphysics, their compassion allows for unusually complex after-death degrees of glory for all but the most horrific humans – and those who achieve higher glories can always go to lower glories, presumably lounging on cloud sofas with gold piping while visiting one’s less worthy relatives.

No, the consternation of my leaving for my parents, siblings, wife, and church friends has less to do with the spiritual state and destiny of my soul than the material reality of my body and specifically, my male body. Without fully understanding it, their real anxiety stems from my failure as a man.

I am sitting outside the office of the bishop, waiting for my girlfriend to come out from her “interview.” We have decided to “be good” – to repent of our premarital sex so we could marry in the LDS temple. I already had my meeting with the authorities; I have been disfellowshipped, which means my membership is on serious probation, and would be excommunicated if I sinned this way again. She is not disfellowshipped, as I am told when we are both called into the office together; she does not have the status (man), experience (a two-year mission), and responsibility (priesthood) I have, which means she is not deserving of the graver punishment.

From the very beginning of religious enculturation in the LDS church, males are affirmed as chosen leaders [1].Sitting in sacrament meeting, which is the main Sunday service at wards – congregations – all over the world, men sit on the raised dais, a man “conducts” the meeting, young men 16-18 years old bless the bread and water that represent the communion, or body and blood of Christ, while younger men 12-14 years of age pass the now broken-into-pieces bread and water around in small trays. Although women are asked to give prepared “talks” during the main meeting, all of it is under the direction of the presiding leader, or bishop, who is a man. Sitting in the pews as a young child, often with only my mother there to manage the six children sitting with her because my father was at various times a counselor to the bishop and therefore sitting on the dais, it would be impossible not to notice that men were in charge, always. From an early age, all of us were taught that men have “the priesthood,” which gives them the authority to act in God’s name. Come the time when I turned 12, I was old enough for the priesthood to be bestowed on me by my father. It was a lower “Aaronic” priesthood, a tighty-whitey priesthood meant to prepare teenage boys for the more powerful “Melchezidek” priesthood that most of their fathers held. In fact, having the priesthood bestowed on me provided me a “line of authority” traced all the way back to Jesus himself. The key juncture in that line, of course, depends on Joseph Smith’s claim that the resurrected apostles Peter, James, and John actually visited him in the 1820s and bestowed on him the priesthood, but after that, all the people doing the bestowing on subsequent generations are unquestionably material/living men. I was too old for what became “a thing” in Utah during the 1990s for teenage boys and even young adult men to carry around a miniature laminated card showing this line of authority – an authoritative proof of authority, a ex-hibit of humble symbolism marking one’s raised standing in the world, a signifier of one’s maleness in a male-dominated culture of faith. But I do have a non-wallet-size copy (Figure 1).

http://trespassingjournal.com/Issue5/img/Fig1-Walker.png

Figure 1: The author’s “line of authority,” representing a priesthood lineage back to Jesus Christ.

I am in my living room, guided by the hand by my daughters to the sofa to sit and witness them dutifully re-enact the Mormon church meeting ritual of blessing and distributing the sacrament. They say the rote prayer over the broken pieces of bread, and pray again over the water placed in small child cups (Mormons haven’t used wine for 150 years), then pass each around for us to partake. In my head I am cringing and cheering at the same time, seeing them miss-take control of this ritual strictly reserved for teenage and older males who hold the priesthood. I wonder what my wife thinks as she remains quiet, not correcting them in their taking of this ritualistic power. Our girls will likely never officially administer this ritual at church; they are limited to the simulation of it, which, despite the priesthood’s insistence on its proper authorization, does not lack power.

The cliché “knowledge is power” is generally accompanied by feel-good justification that the more we know, the more we can contribute to a world that is deficient and corrupt – or at least full of deception. The more we know about money matters, for ex-ample, the better we can prevent ourselves being taken advantage of. But in religious circles, more knowledge is treated with suspicion, for it poses a threat to faithby raising questions, which could lead to doubt. Such simplistic suspicion dares not consider the more subversive danger and sustenance of knowledge, in what Michel Foucault’s twist of the cliché indicates: “power/knowledge” means that knowledge is always combined with power. Knowledge doesn’t fight other power, nor does it give power. Instead, knowledge is always already filtered through power – and the conduit of knowledge is authority.

I am visiting friends – my wife and I are staying at their home – and the husband invites me to go on a walk. As we talk about several things, he informs me that when he was last at our home, when he used my computer, he checked the browser history and noticed that I had viewed some porn websites. In a friendly but firm way, he encourages me to get help to overcome this “problem.”

The male-domination in the church doctrine pervaded my home growing up, albeit ostensibly gently reflected through my father’s refrained personality. His male power and authority bestows through the filters of knowledge and routine, not physicality.On the surface, when both he and my mother were with us at the dinner table, it was my father who designated someone to say grace. Otherwise, I assume that other family decisions such as to not watch television on Sunday, arise a bit early to read the Book of Mormon as a family, or to devote Monday evenings to a family activities were all discussed between my parents and mutually decided how to carry them out. On the other hand, the (un)ex-ceptional fact that my dad left home to work while my mom stayed home reaffirmed the man-in-charge home encouraged by the religious teachings dividing the divine “roles” of men and women. First as a boy, then as a teenager, my destiny as an entitled leader was reiterated every day at home and at least every Sunday at church. Once I received the priesthood at 12, I engaged in duties that my sister never did – I accompanied my dad “home teaching,” which involved visiting particular families monthly. I remember these visits in this way: perfunctory pleasantries, asking about how things were going, asking if they needed anything (and hoping for the most common answer, which was “no,” meaning I wouldn’t be asked to shovel snow or chop wood or any other work teenagers hate), and then sharing an inspirational message – a message provided by the church leadership in Salt Lake City. The home teaching program’s stated intention is to ensure that every household is checked on (by men) and “spiritually fed” (by men) at least monthly, and the men are reminded and harangued to collectively visit 100% of their households in the ward each month, though it never happens. The LDS women have their own official version – “visiting teaching” – but the “visiting” occurs among women only, not families and definitely not with the “head-of-household” man in the room.

I am sitting on the tailgate of a U.S. Forest Service pickup truck somewhere in central Utah, waiting for another group of firefighters to join us before we convoy north to Idaho. Next to me, likewise dressed in fire-resistant green pants and yellow shirts, sits Dave. As we shoot the shit, he asks about my religion, which leads to him telling me how many of his friends love being Mormon, even though the church abandoned and betrayed them for being gay. Dave asks me to promise that when I am in a position of church leadership, that I will remember him, and accept gay Mormons in ways they haven’t ever been accepted.

Just as the “visiting teaching” is a soft and pale reflection of the male-charged “home teaching,” Mormon women are very much less visible, less accountable, but told constantly of their constancy, spiritual strength, and importance to the work of the church, though this importance is forbidden to ex-pand beyond official gendered “freedom” to perform in roles best suited for “them.” In this sense, women are ex-pected to support the men, comfort each other, and primarily beholden to rearing the next generation of male leaders and supportive females. What I know of their stories is gleaned from the life of my mother, my sister, my ex-wife, and various other women who are acquaintances or friends. But my mother’s life is the most relevant to what I am saying here. Her life revolves around and ex-ists within the LDS doctrine and culture. Her hobbies throughout her life rarely ex-tend beyond activities that are not encouraged by the enrichment committees of the women’s organization within the church – the Relief Society – and those connected to her children: quilting, canning, gardening, Cub Scouts, organizing fundraising rummage sales, crafting, scrapbooking, collecting supplies for humanitarian aid. All of these can be valuable and satisfying activities; none are unique to Mormonism. Yet collectively they represent a narrow worldview, one completely enfolded by a specific role she was educated to play in life. Her priorities were shaped by the mission she believed herself to be (ful)filling, and if I could write what is unwritten at the top of that priority list it would be: Preserve my family –for eternity. From seasonal canning to books of remembrance, preserve seems the key word of my mother and her generation of Mormon women. Complicit, perhaps, but more likely culturally browbeaten, these women also pre/serve the sex roles within the church, teaching children from a young age the ex-pectations for boys and girls. And when someone like me fails to live up to them, not only do the full glories of heaven close to me, but my Mormon masculinity is suspect. The outward me, the construction of the perceived me: my fashion choice to wear skinny jeans and fitted shirts, sweaters, and jackets reflect a commitment to my body, to maintaining its shape, to rejecting the practicality and comfort of most men’s clothing, which means to care meticulously how I appear in contrast to the stereotypical male apathy about fashion. I like to cook, to spend time in the kitchen, and find little appeal in sports (now). More insidious, however, is the characterization of my inward features: First, my fatherhood responsibilities to protect and guide children; second, my status as husband, provider, priesthoodly lord of the manor; and third, my capability to lead by righteous ex-ample. A Mormon man does these things; a Mormon man does not indulge in worldly manly masculinity – strip clubs, alcohol, cigars, male-gaze masturbation, and unashamed promiscuity. But stepping too far away from the religious patriarchal manliness – inward or outward – is to give up not only the right to righteously refuse the “base” desires of the so-called “natural man,” but also by so doing to give up on the rights to rule the household as a Mormon, god(ly) man.

I am sitting at my breakfast table. My 5-year-old daughter approaches me thoughtfully, and asks, “Do you remember heaven, Dad?” “No,” I reply. “Me neither.” And she runs off.

Despite the modern period’s western secularity, many, many young people are raised in a religious tradition. Most people believe in a God, even those not actively connected to a religion. Conventional wisdom assumes that young people will question and doubt those traditions as they approach adulthood and more often leave them behind if not before, then during their university years. Some probably return once they commit to conventional marriage and children. I didn’t follow that line – I stayed an active member of the LDS church into my 30s. I had numerous questions and doubts, but no crisis of faith, so to speak – primarily because the need to maintain proximate facility with my children, my wife, and our respective families seemed to justify a continuance despite increasing discomfort with the ideas and culture. There was no sudden revelation for me – if I can point to anything specifically it would be a concern about the growing fundamentalist and anti-intellectual tendencies within the church – something I hadn’t recognized as strongly prevalent in my formative years, though it was there. I found solace, not reconciliation, in essays by “liberal” Mormons, in the voices of women and men working for change from within. But the spiritual comfort failed the growing intellect, and reconciliation ever seemed farther afield. The concerns remained, growing stronger. Finally, fundamentally, the church’s active role in California’s Proposition 82 became an ostensible reason to post my formal ex-it.

I am on a stage inside the church building in New York City, performing with my three roommates in a talent show in our singles ward. We are lip synching “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate and imitating the stripper dance scene from The Full Monty. Our friends and acquaintances, especially the women, are screaming and cheering at our performance. We have beige bodysuits underneath our clothing, but when we get to the part where we tear our trousers off simultaneously, everyone sees we are also wearing matching red thongs. The crowd, as they say, goes wild.

I do not consider myself impetuous. I was deeply entrenched in the church, which meant that as the doubts piled up, my ex-it began before I acted – it remained inside my head for quite some time. Twice in my adult life I have been asked to and served as one of two bishop’s counselors, or assistant. In the second case, I did not hide my thoughts – I ex-pressed concern about his choice of me, but ultimately I accepted, for similar reasons that had kept me going, that mostly had to do with avoiding conflict, or at least avoiding the discomfort that would inevitably result if I left, and I felt some responsibility for keeping people around me comfortable and happy. And honestly, I was a good bishop’s counselor – it was arguably true what another friend who was of a similar (dis)position kept saying to me – “the church needs people like you and me.” I refused to follow the traditional trope of believing every decision needed inspiration from God to be confirmed, and rather advised based on the situation and people involved. In this way I refused to comply with the common practice regarding what are known in the LDS church as “callings:” volunteer positions such as teaching Sunday School, administering various areas of a congregation, working with children or youth, etc. These uncompensated callings involve time and effort, sometimes travel, and often with little help. The culture taught that one should never turn down a calling because God inspired the bishop to ask you specifically to do this at this time. Although I remember believing this in my past, and in fact finding ways to rationalize its truth by acting as if it was God-given, as a counselor I counseled firmly against appointing men into positions that required a lot of time and would infringe on their equal responsibility in caring for their families. And on the other side, I counseled against putting women in the position of feeling obligated to accept a calling “from God” if they ex-pressed or even did not ex-press any overwhelming burden of managing babies and small children and work with a husband who preferred hunting or golf to helping her out. I am not flattening the complexity of every family’s life or ambitions, and I am overwhelmingly aware of the institutionalized power imbalance in “asking” people to serve in various ways, but it became remarkable to me how ingrained among leaders an attitude of “anyone can do anything with God’s help” affected the casual imposing of callings on people who accepted (sometimes with ambiguous tears in their eyes) because they were taught to believe and not doubt God’s assistance in overcoming the obvious constraints of life’s actual demands on their time.

I am walking home to my East Village apartment with my roommate, Chris, after seeing Chasing Amy[3]at the movie theater. Chris wonders aloud whether he is gay. I let him talk, thinking I understand his reticence within the Mormon culture, even the New York City liberal Mormon culture, liberated now by the film to discuss this openly. Even so, I am surprised, but I don’t know if it is because of his “revelation” or because he is willing to talk to me about it.

My counsel as counselor was often followed, and I felt that especially in my second sojourn as counselor that our team – the bishop, myself, and the other counselor – created a balance of ideas that made a difference in the equitable sharing of responsibility within the congregation. However, during that period any shred of belief I was holding onto disappeared. On the outside, I more frequently did the things that I had refused to do for a long time on the basis of being taught they were wrong and dangerous, and I enjoyed them. I discovered my liking for the most basic and ancient of all pastimes: spending time with people over coffee and drinks, a pastime poorly imitated by gatherings of Mormons, whose purposefulness impedes the very appeal of spontaneous, connective conversation enabled and altered by social lubricants, which help us word-dance with a looseness of profundity, laughter, and insight – or simply connection. So I was very much leading a double life, revealing what I could to my wife, slowly, which was a struggle for both of us, and in retrospect not enough of an ex-planation for her. Eventually, after about a year as a counselor, I ex-plained to the bishop that I could no longer serve in that way because it was too much of an internal struggle. He dissuaded me for a few months, because he valued my advice despite my disbelief. Or maybe he thought not “allowing” my ex-it would help my belief return. Nevertheless, after a couple more months I insisted and I was out. I decided to still attend church to assist my wife with our restive young children during the main service, but I no longer took any kind of leadership or priesthood role. No one besides the bishop knew for some time, but eventually people would ask and I would share with them the truth – that I no longer believed. Word got around, and interactions with me became a bit stilted, because people were unused to speaking with someone who had made a conscious choice to leave the paradigm while still keeping one compassionate foot in. In this way I stood against the church – beside it, attuned to different voices elsewhere, but nonetheless maintaining a connection that I could not avoid nor refuse to be around.

I am at our local Dairy Queen with my wife and three children. I order something not even on the menu – a baby cone – that consists of maybe three bites of ice cream. As we linger beneath the awning enjoying our treats, a family we know from the LDS church arrives and are in line, waiting to order. The husband makes fun of my choice, asking me with a smile, “What kind of man orders a baby cone?”

In the middle of all of this, an important church event approached for my oldest daughter – her proscribed baptism at age 8. My parents, my wife’s parents, and my brother and his wife traveled 2000 miles to attend this event. The bishop, again, for reasons I believe had to do with his belief that I could be influenced by the “spirit” if I would act in certain proscribed traditional male/priesthood ways, suggested I baptize my daughter because the father traditionally and authoritatively baptizes his own children. But he at the same time did not allow me to do the ordinance that follows the baptism – the “confirmation” because it, unlike the baptism ordinance, requires the “higher” priesthood and is thus more bound by worthiness. In my head this seemed a fair arrangement – I wouldn’t have to disappoint my daughter or try to ex-plain the (un)cosmic complexity, nor would I feel any guilt at conducting an ordinance for which I was “unworthy” because I no longer believed in the thing that would cause and punish the act for which I would have previously felt guilt. However, this arrangement also meant that I would have to inform my hitherto uninformed parents as to my disbelief because worthy fathers also traditionally do the confirmation as well. I waited until the day of the baptism, and when I told them, my mother reacted, as I figured, with her own disbelief and shock. Although she couldn’t find words initially, she later told me that finding this out caused her to mourn for my former life, which, in the paradigm that she lived in, was legitimate – the life that she envisioned preserving for her family for eternity would not, could not, happen – we are now unpreserved as an entire family, the jar broken, the future sustenance of security threatened by me, the bad apple or faulty seal.

Dying eternally is to fail Mormon life. But to fail in Mormon masculinity is to relinquish its eternal power to govern life in order to overcome death. Failing as a Mormon man means rejecting a good and better life that a Mormon man is entitled to have, and one that is, as such, appealing to the Mormon woman. The Ordain Women movement within the LDS Church, by pushing for priesthood ordination for women, acknowledges the power and authority of priesthood, and actively seeks it. My rejection of the priesthood, my failure of it, is not an affirmation of their efforts – I am not just questioning patriarchal rights to priesthood authority or of God’s timing of granting those rights. I am rejecting the priesthood power and its underpinnings and effects altogether. Yet I am sympathetic to their cause, knowing that when one ex-ists in a paradigm of priesthood miracles and orderly spiritual comfort, it is difficult and harrowing to imagine the priesthood as powerless. The dilemma for active Mormon feminists stems from the limited options available if they retain a belief in the paradigm of God being in charge and humans having authority to act in God’s name: either they envision and offer an alternate paradigm of religious power, which maintains, obviously, the problems of power that have led to the current situation; or they insist on masculinizing themselves, assimilated into a patriarchal form of power that (already) adopts the very disadvantages of gendered authority.

I am conducting a sacrament meeting. Our stake president, who is visiting that day, hands me a letter from the LDS church headquarters. The letter disturbs me – it invites members to pray for one of the church leaders attending an ecumenical meeting in Washington DC in support of the Defense of Marriage Act. I announce this letter to the congregation, as instructed, saying something about how the Act is designed to prevent gay marriage. When I sit down, the stake president says to me, “The letter never mentions gay marriage.” I respond, “I just thought it would be better to let people know the truth.”

Within the Mormon culture, the (godly) manliness of men is conflated with priesthood authority. The LDS church clearly delineates that the priesthood as used by men is not to be an abuse of power – not “unrighteous dominion” or the Lording over others – but as a means to benefit others, and if an enculturated woman is to satisfy her desire for a man, then one who is (con)strained in loyalty, love, and service is likely ideal. But one does not have to be too inquisitive to see where this line of (il)logic leads: men need the priesthood to be able to love, and to be motivated to stay with and serve others; women are in need of no assistance to remain, to serve and care for other people. If the priesthood is truly the power of God in humans, then men are deficient while women are sufficiently power-full and essentially motivated to serve others. Church leaders reassuredly acknowledge this sensibility in women, assuaging any question of women “needing” the priesthood. Yet such massaging of feminine ethos ignores the very power from which this knowledge emerges, the power that refuses to consent to women’s supposed superior sufficiency in ex-ercising authority. The apparent God(dess)-like power innate in Mormon women remains always already insufficient to act as a conduit of God’s inspiration for anyone else, which is a right that only men in leadership positions have through the priesthood.

I am playing basketball in the New York City church gym (all Mormon churches have a gym or “multi-purpose room”) with a bunch of guys who meet every Wednesday evening to play. One guy looked familiar from the start, but it takes a while for me to place him. And then it hits me – he portrays the character of Adam in the movie that makes up a portion of the two-hour Mormon temple ceremony, which I had participated inscores of times. And I wonder, what is it like for him when he participates in the ceremony and sees himself?

This right, this “responsibility” of men – who are innately deficient without the priesthood – fulfills their masculinity reflected in God’s masculinity – a man is visibly in charge, despite the women around him who are portrayed as his spiritual superior. Spirituality is reified as feminine, with men declaring theirs through leaderly authority – being coerced into caring – to retain their charged masculinity. To give up that ex-ertion of control is to give up the insensitive, bumbling maleness that pre/serves their masculine standing in and out of the church. The public rejection of temptations of the “natural man” nevertheless provides Mormon priesthood holders legitimized and titillating access to the sexuality of all members’ bodies. From early on, procedural “interviews” facilitate the reporting one’s sexual life to amale priesthood holder, who by which determines one’s standing and becomes the currency by which young and old members ex-cel or fail.

When I was a Mormon man, my sense of manliness coincided with the priesthood – its ex-istence, its dictates, and its advice constantly reiterated in me what it means to be a man. Alternatively, a woman in the church measures her femininity in relation to the lack of priesthood, or the lack of the (lacking) qualities of men who hold the priesthood. When I relinquished the priesthood authority, I feminized myself, forfeiting the power, position, and particular privilege promised by my penis, but not in favor of the feminized spirituality that finds solace in submission, nor in the manner of shame from disappointing God or those in charge. The pride that Mormons are warned against, the masculine pride of asserting self-authority and autonomy, conflates shame with piety – for shame in this sense is indecipherable from contrition, which is portrayed inaccurately as genderless, for it is required for all as are pentant defense against pride in one’s self over submission to God. I rejected that contrition which formerly masked my priesthood’s gentle-seeming power, and thus could openly be labeled as prideful, despite the humility and femininization inherent in retreating from the still masculine doctrinal arrogance of certainty and the presiding man-at-the-pulpit’s authoritative influence. My former priesthood masculinity influenced my wife’s measured femininity and defined her role in the circle of church members: while there is a stated sensitivity to the non-coupled church members, heterosexual coupledom provides the basis, language, and context for every program and policy – thus the doctrinal and logistical conundrum of gay (non)members. Outside the couple, men can be close to other men and women can be close to other women but otherwise, one should be couple-friends to have friendly interactions with the opposite sex. My wife’s role is doctrinally restricted to a wife-mother, and the fact that she has a profession and job raises hackles; it is accepted but not encouraged as a point of conversation, let alone as a point of her personhood. Rather, her very character, including her own masculine desire to identify and control her life, is questioned by her self-construction of a wife-mother-physician assistant, which impinges on her devotion to spiritually higher purposes of life (re: children – like the Child, as Lee Edelman problematizes as a representation of society’s sacrosanct “reproductive futurity”).

My rescinding of my half of the “couple working toward eternal salvation” – my failure as a Mormon man – caused my wife to have a crisis of perceived failure – she felt the pressure to believe she failed to support my masculinity sufficiently, to sufficiently place herself in the submissive position in relation to the priesthood authority, but communicated in the most banal, gendered way: she was failing to make me happy. The narrative for her is limited; to retreat with me is to fail to live up to her motherly spiritual role, but to retain her belief pulls at her wifely role, which manifested itself in her accommodating my unbelief: buying me non-Mormon underwear or telling me how much she enjoyed our sex when I drank. In contrast to my increased interest in alternative views via esoteric academic theory, queer sensibility, and nonconventional friendships, she had less compulsion to make choices outside the limited narrative, despite her liberal alignment with me, for I was both intentionally and unintentionally offering her only bits and pieces that emerged from my fuller revolt beyond even mainstream liberality. Rather than curiosity, she understandably felt threatened, which turned into her ex-pressing her own failure, frequently asking me what she could do to make me happy, all the while passively asking for me to stand still in my rush to the barricades to let her catch her breath, to do things that make her happy as well – except those things she asked from me were mostly tied to the traditional structure of coupledom.

But she didnot fail. In fact, her resistance to be a Mormon-woman stereotype was a large factor in our initial attraction and love because it fit with the ironic sensibility within my belief, and this mutuality assisted my eventual choice to ex-tricate. But in the culture of Mormon couples, in which men and women become “one,” power must be ex-hibited in a zero-sum manner. So, in some part because of me, the unstated but felt perception of her by her family and church friends is that our failure in coupledom is also her failure to be the Mormon woman she never really intended to be, but was corralled into by cultural and religious cowpokes. The underlying and overwhelming power of the cultural narrative and its limitations, despite her actionable desire to buck it or fuck it, led to a crisis of failure as a parent, as a friend, as a wife – and as a professional with a career and salary. Within the paradigm of the Mormon culture, there is no resolution, no alternate narrative in which one can take comfort or ex-ist in that provides comfort or absolves this perceived failure.

I am sitting in the bishop’s office in the church building with three other men. I am a clerk, allowed only to document the proceedings of a disciplinary council for a teenage girl who is pregnant. She is not present, choosing not to attend. After the girl’s mother has spoken about her daughter and then asked to leave the room, the three members of the bishopric discuss the options for disciplinary action. Rather than follow normal procedure, the bishop asks me what I think. I respond at length that the entire council is inappropriate and not in any way in the spirit of concern and kindness for this young woman, because she is being disciplined only because her “sin” is visible, not because she came forward with the desire to repent. The bishop thanks me, moves on to conclude that the young woman be disfellowshipped, and then asks me to say the closing prayer of the council. I refuse.

Outside the paradigm, my failure breaks a few chains but strengthens others. The shedding of the masculine authority of priesthood power does not remove all my masculine privilege, for it provides a different kind of power and privilege – the power to not conform and to do what I want in the face of nervousness and anxiety of those who witnessed my failure and who no longer have a way to ex-plain me. But this is not a comfortable, relaxing, satisfying power; rather, it is a power that might shift the paradigm and might alter the reality, which is a relinquishment of religious (straight, white) male privilege insistent on its own(ing) efficacy and necessity. The enticement of others looking askance at me is still fraught, still dangerous in some ways, and difficult to frame in any sort of categorical wisdom that might seem to help someone else in a similar position, or even to assist me as I look at the future.

With a male God believed to be (perfectly) in charge, men holding (his) broad authority to conduct a church meeting or impose disciplinary actions on church members make sense. The message can be reduced to women members need to just accept God’s will in this. Thus, I am ultimately puzzled by the effort of LDS women to gain that priesthood; within the paradigm of belief, if God is (currently) in charge, he obviously doesn’t think women need or deserve the priesthood and no changes will happen. Outside the paradigm of belief, the nonexistent (god) isn’t in charge, and the men of the church are simply using God as a means to maintain a patriarchal power that is petty – no money is gained, status is limited, fame is rare. The household is their kingdom, the church service the shared reification of their power and glory. Seemingly not malicious, though implicitly so because of the strict exclusionary tenets and policing, the men of the church are gently supportive, skilled at spiritual comfort and dispensing distraction from fundamental contradictions within the doctrinal superstition. And believing women are enculturated to measure and value their femininity and divinely attributed submissive, child-rearing role against the controlling masculinity of the priesthood, asserting an inassertive power that likewise reifies the men and their standing-in as God: for decades, my mother has refused to ex-it the car on her own, remaining seated until my father or one of her sons opens her car door.

I am in a psychologist’s office, spurred by a desire to finally overcome my spiritual weakness of masturbating to porn (are both wrong exclusively?). After hiding it for years, believing I am gravely sinning, failing and failing to find another way to ex-humee-xcess sexual energy, feeling guilty and implicated each time I succumbed, it was time to fix what I had been told ex-plicitly since puberty was immoral. I had come clean with my wife, assured her that our sex life’s ebbs and flows were not at fault, that a lack of desire for her was not a factor, and here I sit with a trained counselor who is Mormon, a leader of several wards, and who graciously invited me to therapy. After a few sessions, the one thing that sticks with me is his advice that “feeling guilty is a waste of time.” Not long after I began seeing him, we move to another town, and he never knows how his advice turned out– I expunged my guilt and since masturbate without qualms.

Failure, in J. Jack Halberstam’s terms, produces a space of multiple emotions, not limited to negative or positive attitudes. In Christianity and Mormonism, the overwhelming mantra is that “trials” make us stronger, smarter, and improve our character. The trials are neither our fault nor the fault of the system nor the fault of culture. They are allowed of God. That is difficult knowledge to swallow, given the horrors of life. But believing in an orderly universe overseen by God, who “knows more than we do,” is easier than viewing those horrors and less horrible trials as dumb luck or personal inadequacy or random violence. But if I erase God, accept his (peaceful) death, and find that God is not testing us by giving us trials; then I can afford failure as something that is part of me, something I can own and integrate into my dynamic memory and identity, not something only to be overcome or strengthened – because I recognize success as not ultimate. Rather, success becomes continuous (un)becoming, searching for satisfying ways to live or work, rejecting labels and fixed identities, reveling in the truth that no true answer will ever appear in my or anyone else’s lifetime. Or another (better) lifetime. My type of failure, failure to try to overcome failure, is antithetical and unbearable to the orderly policing of sin, guilt, and repentance that the male/masculine patriarchy mechanizes to pre/serve itself. The priesthood insists on banking this currency, taking its right and access to bodies, while promising the investiture of continuous (eternal) living the ordered life on which it centers, steeple-like, phallus-like, pointing upwards and penetratingly ex-cising everything else. But it is everything else that interests me. I am not ex-act; I live as a(not)her (un)becoming.

I am in the living room of an ill, elderly widower. It is late evening, dark outside. I am 20, a missionary for the church in north Florida. My missionary “companion” of the same age and I will shortly administer a “blessing” on him, which is one of the more common comforting rituals of the priesthood – that laying hands on a person’s head and invoking God’s power through the priesthood will have greater power than an individual prayer. Just before we place our hands on his head to administer the blessing, the frail man sternly admonishes me, “Don’t bless me to live!” I didn’t. He died the next morning.

Notes

[1] Information on church structure, doctrine, and related doctrinal justifications are available at official sources (lds.org and mormon.org) or numerous unofficial online sources. But briefly regarding its structure, the LDS church policies, procedures, and curricula are developed and disseminated to all congregations from its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the President of the church presides, with assistance from two “counselors” and 12 apostles – all male and all considered by membership as having the gift of prophecy for administering and clarifying the doctrine and practices. Much like Catholic administration, the LDS world is divided into geographical jurisdictions, presided over by area authorities, who preside over several stakes (similar to dioceses), which are led by stake presidents, who preside over several wards, which are local congregations led by bishops. Stake presidents and bishops are volunteer lay ministers, asked to serve for a time period of 5-9 years. But within wards and stakes there are numerous priesthood offices held by men who assist in local church administration and practices. A smaller number of “callings” are held by women, but these are always under the direction of men who have presiding authority in decisions made by women who hold these positions, which are generally limited to the ward’s women’s Relief Society and children’s Primary organizations. Doctrinally, LDS basic beliefs include voluntary adherence to a living prophet who continues to receive revelation from God, which leads to the stated belief that the LDS church is the only church with the full, living truth; the Godhead consists of Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ (both resurrected, glorified beings), and the Holy Ghost (unembodied); Earth life is a blip on the eternal spectrum of spiritual life – our spirits lived before earth and will continue eternally after we die; and the Book of Mormon, translated by founder and first prophet Joseph Smith, offers the world an additional testament to the divinity and wisdom of Jesus Christ, told via peoples who allegedly lived on the South and North American continents from 600 BCE to 400 CE. Most additional doctrinal tenets stem from or closely relate to these core beliefs.

[2] Proposed in 2008 on California’s ballot, this law would limit marriage to opposite sex partnerships. The proposition narrowly passed, but was successfully challenged and overturned later, prior to the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationally.

[3] Chasing Amy, a 1997 American film directed by Kevin Smith, tells the story of a man who becomes friends with and then falls in love with a lesbian.

Works Cited

Cobb, Michael. “Lonely.” After Sex: On Writing Since Queer Theory. Durham: Duke UP,

  1. 207-220. Print.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage,

  1. Print.

Halberstam, J. Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

Nietszche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001 (1882). Print.

Santayana, George. The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of Aesthetic Theory. New

York: Dover, 1955 (1896). Print.

Schiller, Daniela. “Partial Recall.” The New Yorker 19 May 2014. Web.

Suggested Citation bibtex

Walker, Paul. “Ex-Actly as I Thought: Failure and the Unbecoming Mormon Man.” Trespassing Journal: an online journal of trespassing art, science, and philosophy 5 (Fall 2015). Web. ISSN: 2147-2734

Paul Walker is an associate professor of English at Murray State University, where he teaches courses in rhetoric, environmental literature, and technical writing. His work has been published in Rhetoric Review, Writing on the Edge, Composition Studies and other academic journals. His book, Writing in Context: Composition in First-Year Learning Communities, was published in 2013 by Hampton Press.