Joanna Brooks is the author of the new book The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories of an American Faith.
According to her own self-description, “Joanna Brooks is a national voice on Mormon life and politics and an award-winning scholar of religion and American culture. The author of The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith, she is a senior correspondent for the on-line magazine ReligionDispatches.org and has been named one of 50 Politicos to Watch‘ by Politico.com. A twenty-year veteran of the Mormon feminist movement, she was the subject of an extensive CNN.com profile: “Crossing the Plains and Kicking up Dirt: A New Mormon Pioneer” at CNN.com (February 5, 2012) and of the acclaimed American Public Media show On Being‘s “Mormon Demystified” show (October 20, 2011).
She has also been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, BBC’s Americana, Interfaith Voices, and Radio West, as well as on PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, Al-Jazeera English and Estonian national television. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Killing the Buddha, and Michigan Quarterly Review and she has been utilized as a source on contemporary Mormonism by the New York Times, Reuters, Salt Lake Tribune, Associated Press, Washington Post, Salon, New America Media, Pittsburgh Gazette-Post, The Tennessean, Headline News Network, Fox News, the Boston Globe, Newsweek, and the Deseret News.
Brooks is also writing about Mormonism and public life for the Future of Religion in America book series (Columbia University Press) and writes a regular column at Askmormongirl.com…”
Professor Brooks is thus an increasingly influential writer with a flair for publicity whom many in the media – and, she hopes, many Latter-day Saints – are looking to as an attractively liberal and “open-minded” alternative to the conservatism of ordinary Mormons. She thus proposes a beguiling vision of Mormonism as reconciled to a liberal secular culture, an increasingly prominent vision that readers of Meridian Magazine should be aware of.
Like St. Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great models of the intimate personal confession as a genre for communicating an understanding of life’s meaning, Joanna Brooks seeks to indicate a path towards illumination and authenticity through a narration of her own life. This life is a decidedly, distinctly Mormon life, beginning with a thoroughly, almost archetypal Mormon childhood; but, it is finally, to be sure, a Mormon life with a difference.
This is no ordinary Mormon life – not your mother’s (nor indeed Joanna’s mother’s) Mormon life, but what is proposed as a new and exciting way of being Mormon. Since Ms. Brooks appeals to our sensibilities and seeks to open up new practical possibilities through the form of a personal narrative that is often quite intimate, we are obliged to address her ideas or her vision by addressing her personal story.
Just as Rousseau employed a creative presentation of his own intimate and checkered life to convert hearts and minds to his idea of humanity’s natural goodness, so Joanna Brooks uses what appears to be a quite unguarded autobiography to make the case for a new Mormonism, a faith unhindered by any orthodoxy and fully open to an ethic of liberalism. Thus the present reflection, in the form of a book review, necessarily touches on personal matters that normally would be considered irrelevant in intellectual exchange.
It is true that Sister Brooks does not ask all to follow what she considers her challenging path; she is content to accept the more conservative beliefs and practices of more ordinary Mormons, or is at least reconciled to the probability that many will continue to cling to more traditional ways. But any who have more progressive ears to hear are clearly invited to break through the barriers of tradition and orthodoxy and breathe the exhilarating air of the wide-open vistas of a post-orthodox Mormonism. To evaluate this invitation we are obliged to evaluate this life, or what the author tells us of it.
Joanna Brooks is in many ways a Mormon Garrison Keillor. Just as the gifted raconteur of “Prairie Home Companion” fame (National Public Radio) charms us with his more or less plausible tales of Lake Wobegone, Minnesota, she draws us into scenes from her early life as a Mormon Girl in Orange County, California, with vivid depictions of quaint and curious manners and practices. As with Keillor, there seems to be much affection in the voice of the narrator, but also considerable ironic distance from the attitudes and worldview of the subjects. But unlike Keillor, whose rhetorical genius consists in never allowing the irony to overbalance the affection and thus to show its face as disdain (except in edgy political obiter dicta separate from his Wobegone tales), our Mormon Girl’s childhood scenes are eventually subjected to withering ideological critique from the standpoint of Brave New Mormon Woman. Any charm the childhood stories might have held risks being spoiled when the author makes them weapons or fodder in her political-theological project.
(This First Part of our review will focus on Joanna Brooks’ depiction of her quintessentially Mormon childhood; a consideration of her rebellion as a BYU student, her years in “exile,” and her more recent and ambiguous return to the fold will follow.)
Many of Joanna Brooks’ early memories will be recognized as very familiar to those of us who were raised Mormon in the American West in the latter part of the twentieth century. She touchingly relates her parents’ teaching her about the plan of salvation, about the Prophet Joseph’s first vision, and about the closeness of pioneer ancestors.
This was a girl who prayed with simple faith to a Heavenly Father she knew was listening, and who even spoke to her in dreams.
The Brooks were a very Mormon family indeed, with Family Home Evenings on Monday, daily prayers and scripture readings and monthly fasts, a vegetable garden supplying food for emergency storage, service projects, a fund-raising Bazaar, the obligatory jello salads, friends with names like Brigham or Nephi, refusal of R-rated movies and Sabbath recreation, CTR rings, a Bishop father costumed in the proverbial polyester of the period, a father with whom she read the Book of Mormon in preparation for her baptism at age 8. There are also the odder but often recognizable encounters with strange EFY (BYU summer camp) instruction and exotic folklore involving such characters as Bigfoot-Cain and the Three Nephites.
Joanna had indeed been born to “goodly parents,” a mother and father who seem to have spared no effort to prepare their bright daughter for a good life, apparently in every respect a model Mormon family. And yet a note of insecurity and defensiveness emerges early in Brooks’ account.
Clinging to the symbolic rod of iron, she and her father both live under the shadow of a “terrible danger,” “huddled together” and surrounded by “mocking crowds like faceless laugh-tracks of sit-com television threatening oblivion.” The Brooks were certainly good Mormons, but not, at least in Joanna’s account, very happy Mormons. Their belonging together is always set against a hostile background and informed by a keen, almost desperate sense of being “the only people who believed as we believed.”
In such a highly-charged environment, what might be considered minor matters take on great symbolic importance: thus young Joanna proves her ability to discipline her appetites by assuring that no caffeinated beverage ever touches her lips– lest she offend against “the God who commanded us to keep our bodies clean by abstaining from Coca-Cola.” The family, moreover, is depicted as unusually pre-occupied with eschatological scenarios reinforced by Cleon Skousen’s tracts, as they “rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed the great stories of destruction,” ready and even eager to brave the cataclysms of the end times (interpreted through the prism of Cold War anxieties as “the convergence of so many great and terrible narratives”), in order to have done with the daily pressure of being different from regular people.
Huddled with her family in what she depicts as their desperately Mormon home, Joanna experiences the outside world as a “dark aimlessness ebbing at the edges of [her] life,” a swirl of “powerful forces … that I myself had little hope of directing,” and against which her family’s faith seemed to offer the only hope against destruction, “for who else would teach me how to do the actual work of surviving.” No wonder, then, that, against the background of the dominant narrative of destruction, the only stories told among the Brooks’ were simple stories with straightforwardly happy endings: “the wayfarer restored, the sick healed, the lost keys found, a singular truth confirmed.” Such stories, she avers were “the only kind … I ever wanted to be able to tell.”
But other kinds of stories lay hidden in “a suitcase of family secrets” – shameful stories of polygamy, disreputable doctrines surrounding race, and of “sacrifices we refuse to believe God would ask of us.” Joanna Brooks’ story seems to hinge on the fearful suppression of these stories in her childhood and on an adult life centered on the struggle to come to terms with them, to “inherit all the ways in which our ancestors and parents and teachers were wrong, as well as the ways they were right.”
What a relief it was, then, when Donny and Marie Osmond appeared on the TV screen, and Joanna could emerge from her family’s fearful huddle to commune with the thousands of Mormons who were at the very same moment proudly watching their beautiful and talented fellow-Mormons open their hearts in song confidently to the whole world! Marie’s splendid, confident example comforts Joanna in her loneliness and validates her Mormon difference. It is Marie, through her Guide to Beauty, Health and Style who “initiate[s]” young Joanna “into … womanhood.”
Joanna Brooks pictures herself embracing Marie’s celebrity to the point of confusing eternal life with cosmetic propriety, “not only set on getting to the celestial kingdom … but on arriving there without split ends or blemishes,” and in the right outfit, hairdo, accessories, make-up etc., meticulously detailed in page after page of a rendering that seems still to reflect stubborn, bitter-sweet vestiges of the 12-year-old Joanna’s obsessive fascination.
Marie is said to have kept “fit and slender” through dance rehearsals and touch football, and Joanna strives to emulate her through her own carefully planned program of diet and exercise. At this point in the narrative, Brooks recalls a song (Julie de Azevedo’s “A Window to His Love,” I have learned) that expresses the wish to be “so pure and clear / that you won’t even know I’m here,” to “fade away” or “disappear” as a perfectly transparent “window to His love.” This melodic distillation of what might be called a pure theology of grace and self-abnegation conspires, paradoxically, in Brooks’ adolescent psychology, with a pure theology of works.
Rejecting the saving efficacy of sacraments as a “bamboozle” of “apostate Christendom,” Brooks understands Mormonism to teach “that our works must carry us there, that our works would make us perfect enough for God to finally recognize us as worthy of His love.” This understanding of perfection as a kind of absolute and self-produced self-overcoming issues unsurprisingly into an unhealthy and perhaps compulsive pre-occupation with overcoming bodily imperfections, a dissatisfaction with “the small but burdensome body [she] freighted about in these middling years.”
With Marie, then, Joanna finds herself “wrestling the dark energies of childhood depressions and nascent eating disorders,” which for her are “dark impulses we could only describe as religious.” This discomfort with the human body is associated with an understandable adolescent feminine apprehension regarding “the unimaginable member of the adult male body” – an encounter which she almost hopes might be avoided by the hastening of the Second Coming, which intervention Joanna imagines might allow an early passage to an eternity “as chaste as ministering angels.” (It is interesting, in this connection, that Joanna seems to have been much closer to her father, whom she mentions more frequently and with whom she shared her intensely religious dreams, than to her mother, who remains a more one-dimensional figure in the narrative.)
In any case, it appears that, for the young Joanna Brooks, a strangely dualistic understanding of the gospel, in which disembodied “holiest inner selves” make war (by pure human effort or “works” alone) on the body or “the traitorous flesh” leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with diet and discipline as central to a quest for religious purity.
Or might the reverse possibly be the case? Might Joanna be seeing the gospel through the lens of her Marie-Osmond reinforced and anxiety-ridden preoccupation with her adolescent body? It is notable, in any case, that even in her presentation of the Plan of Salvation in the first pages of her book we find a strangely dualistic and world-renouncing vision of Mormonism.
She remembers her father teaching her that the spirit’s separation from the body at death leaves behind only an “inert heap;” and she describes herself from her earliest years as on familiar terms with death and convinced of the “illusoriness of this life….
a moment of forgetfulness on a long, long thread of being.” Whatever her parents might have actually tried to teach her, Brooks’ understanding of the Plan is strangely otherworldly and disembodied; awaking from a dream she is “disappointed to be back on the forgetful side of the veil.” Further on she associated the sin of vanity in the film “Man’s Search For Happiness,” not only with sinful desires and pursuits, but with “the hollow pleasures of the spooky carnival of earthlife” itself.
It is as if for Joanna the soul’s journey ends with the spirit’s escape from the body; there is nothing said about the spirit’s glorious reunion with the body, or about the distinctive and powerful teaching of the restored gospel concerning the ultimate integration of body and spirit. There is no mention of the teaching of the Doctrine and Covenants (93:33) that “spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy.” – 93:33. Joanna Brooks evinces no awareness of the distinctive genius of the Restored Gospel concerning the eternal dignity of the body and of practical, temporal endeavors. She seems to be completely oblivious or tone deaf to what most stirred Truman Madsen, to take a notable and eloquent example, in the Prophet Joseph’s understanding of God’s plan:
The Prophet taught that the body is the product of righteousness. We will look upon the temporary essence of our spirits from our bodies as bondage, not as freedom. (See D&C 45:17) … only when the spirit and body are “inseparably connected” or resurrected, in a celestial condition, will we receive a fullness of glory and thus a fullness of Joy. (See D&C 84, 88, 93.) … Our mental and spiritual powers will ultimately be enhanced by the body. Thus: “And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things. (D&C 88:67)
I have been describing Brooks’ account of her understanding of the gospel as a child and an adolescent. Still, I attribute this understanding to the mature author of The Book of Mormon Girl, since nowhere in her book does she suggest that her youthful understanding of LDS teaching might have been incomplete, not to say distorted. The reader familiar with a richer Mormon teaching is left to conclude that the thin, even caricatural understanding of doctrine presented here, the dangerous mixture of pure selflessness and pure self-discipline she will soon rebel against, remains the author’s understanding of “mainstream” or un-“reformed” Mormonism still today, as Joanna Brooks steps forward in this “Mormon moment” as a kind of media celebrity and self-styled “national voice” for Mormonism.
(Coming soon, Joanna’s participation in conflict over radical feminism and other controversies at BYU, her complete alienation from the Church over Proposition 8 in California, and her recent return – on her own terms – and ascent as a national representative of a new “Reform” Mormonism.)
Ralph Hancock has his Ph.D in political science from Harvard University and is a professor at Brigham Young University.
Ralph C. Hancock (PhD 1983, Harvard) is Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University, where he teaches the history of political philosophy as well as contemporary political theory. He is also the President of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His most recent book is The Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age.