According to an old feminist adage, “the personal is political.” This is certainly the case for Professor Joanna Brooks. Her narrative is, on the one hand, a touching and intimate account of one girl’s, and then one woman’s, deeply personal experience. Precisely because this experience is authentically individual and personal, many LDS readers will identify with at least some aspects of Brooks’ account of the blessings and challenges of growing up Mormon. And all perceptive readers, even those unfamiliar with the Latter-day Saint experience, will resonate with Joanna’s personal encounter with such universal human concerns as family, sexuality and religion.
To be sure, this book will have special meaning for women, since this is a deeply feminine tale; but it will also touch men who love women as their sisters, wives, and daughters, and who know that no man’s understanding of life and its meaning can be full unless a man opens himself to the distinctive experience and wisdom of womanhood.
But this tale is also deeply, pervasively political. Joanna Brooks has a political agenda – or, to be more precise, a political-religious agenda, since her outlook on what is true and good is profoundly conditioned by a progressive-liberal-feminist political project, and since this project requires a fundamental re-interpretation of the religion her parents taught her.
In fact it seems that the first draft of this book was written as an explicitly political act and according to the instructions of activist political leaders. Joanna Brooks’ story first emerged as an assignment at “Camp Courage, … a week-long event where they train activists to tell our own stories about why equality matters and to use our stories” as part of a grassroots strategy. The version of her story she told at this camp provides a fair synopsis of The Book of Mormon Girl, at least in its most political dimension:
My name is Joanna, I say. And I am a straight Mormon feminist.
(Cheers. The crowd cheers.)
I grew up in the orange groves of Republican Orange County. I was raised to believe in a loving, kind, and powerful God. …
In 1993, one of the leaders of my church declared feminists, intellectuals, and gays and lesbians enemies.
I felt as if someone had thrown my heart to the concrete and dropped a cinderblock on it.
In 1997, my church started giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to the anti-gay marriage initiatives.
I felt as if someone had thrown my heart to the concrete and dropped a cinderblock on it.
…But I went back to church so that my daughters could know the same loving, kind, and powerful God I was raised to believe in.
Just a few months later, my Church mobilized a huge campaign for Proposition 8.
And again I felt as if someone had thrown my heart to the concrete and dropped a cinderblock on it.
I did what I could. It wasn’t enough. But I am a Mormon. And I am not giving up.
No one boos. No one makes me feel ashamed. Everyone shows Mormon girls the love…
I do not want Joanna to give up. I do not want her to give up on her quest to reconcile her personal understanding of life’s meaning with the LDS heritage she does not want to forsake. I do, wonder, though, whether this quest might not bring her more peace and more growth if she learned to bracket her political agenda for a while, to distinguish her commitments as a certain kind of feminist and homosexual rights activist from her understanding of “a loving, kind, and powerful God.”
And, beyond my sympathy for Joanna Brooks’ courageous personal quest, I think it is important to warn other Latter-day Saints who may be confused by her political agenda against confusing love and kindness with acceptance of an extreme political agenda and against re-interpreting Mormonism to suit this agenda.
Coming to Terms with Womanhood
But let us turn now to a few of the more critical and poignant moments of Joanna’s story; and let us consider them, first, as far as possible, in abstraction from the political agenda that tends to frame the whole book in order to appreciate them as personal stories and to learn what we can from them.
As the young Joanna began to come to terms with her emerging womanhood, she was acutely aware that “our whole Mormon world was organized into domains of the male and female.” But she seems to have experienced this difference negatively: “We saw that women did not hold the priesthood, prepare, bless or pass the sacrament, preside in meetings where men are present, etc. … The actual work of being in charge, receiving revelations, and presiding over home and church belonged exclusively to men.”
I will leave it to women among Brooks’ readers to assess how common is this girls’ negative response to role differentiation between men and women in the Church. An anthropologist considering Mormon practices might point out that the education and socialization of boys and girls is sexually differentiated in all traditional societies, and that this difference can be seen as answering social and psychological needs related to real sexual differences.
Those who are not simply content with accepting the Church’s authority on such matters might thus consider the possibility that Priesthood responsibilities and rites of passage serve purposes particularly appropriate to the making of boys into men and to the effective and wholesome definition of manhood. It is not clear, in other words, that the well-known formula, “we had motherhood; men had priesthood” is ridiculous on its face, as Brooks seems to assume – though it is surely not the whole truth. It may be, that is, that, on the whole, women are more immediately or naturally in touch with the meaning of their womanhood than men are with their manhood, and thus that boys need certain social structures and incentives that differentiate them from girls and women.
Whatever may be true in general of education to manhood and to womanhood, however, there is no reason to question Brooks’ report of her own personal difficulties in coming to terms with her own womanhood, and particularly (as we saw already in Part I) with her own female body. She notes with regret that “no special ceremony marked the onset of my procreative powers,” and that “nowhere in the scriptures was there any special mapping of the spiritual domain of women.”
She recounts an experience in which she recoiled “in horror and awe” at the realization that eight “big-boned” children had issued from the body of her Young Women’s leader. What some might contemplate with grateful wonder as a blessed natural process and divine gift, Brooks regarded (and still regards?) as a distasteful bodily reality, and one that gives her little reason to look forward to a heavenly “reward” characterized by “eternal pregnancy in the company of plural pregnant wives.
Such earthy and fleshly realities Joanna Brooks associates with “the feeling of being in the backseat, never driving, always driven, headed for destinations not of my choosing and vast beyond my control.” Joanna longs to be in control, to be in the driver’s seat, and this seems to her incompatible with the complete and natural functioning of the female body.
Certain early and unfortunate sexual experiences clearly seem to have contributed to Joanna Brooks’ anxiety about controlling her own body. She somehow felt that she “could not help but fail” to keep her promise to wait for a certain missionary, and that absently allowing another young man to touch her chest showed that “I was not capable of keeping promises…”
“As specified by the rules,” Joanna then dutifully reported the infraction to her bishop, who seems to have given her some sensible advice about avoiding such situations. But no one who knows anything about confession, repentance and forgiveness will be surprised to learn that her mechanical gesture yielded unsatisfactory results: “Nothing inside me felt any better for confessing. In fact, what I felt in his office was what I felt in the backseat of the car that August night: nothing, nothing at all.”
Later Brooks came to understand her sense of absence from the “inert matter” of her own body and lack of responsibility for sexual problems (which seemed to “always come uninvited”) as traceable to some “dim memories” of abuse which I will not detail here. Suffice it to say that certain incidents of abuse contributed to Joanna’s alienation from her own body. Thus, she says, “I began to understand why my body felt like cold luggage, not at all like a pearl on a golden chain but rather more like a millstone, a constant reminder that my fate was to be drowned.”
What a pity that Joanna associates this view of the body as a cold burden with her LDS upbringing. I want to be clear that I respect and have learned from Joanna Brooks’ report of her struggles to embrace her womanhood. I mean to leave open the question of the root of the difficulties that many girls clearly face in embracing the full scope of their womanhood. (And this can only mean, of course, that boys are also having difficulty understanding their relation to womanhood, and thus becoming men.)
Can parents and Church leaders and teachers do more to praise womanhood in its full dimensions? Certainly. In my view, however, what generally passes for “feminism” in fact tends to posit the interchangeability of the sexes (“the social construction of gender,” as Joanna’s feminist teachers at BYU would have it) and thus in effect to undermine the distinctive value of womanhood.
Happily, further on Joanna Brooks reports a later reconciliation with her body and her sexuality. In the light of her earlier experience of absence from her body, it is perhaps understandable that she interprets this reconciliation as a matter of being in control, being in the driver’s seat, “driving in a muscle car, with shiny orange paint, and an eight-cylinder engine.” Happily, “after many years of confusion,” she now comes home to a man “she chose herself, a man whose body does not menace, a man who does not dream of owning her. She will share a bed with him.” Understandably for a woman anxious about control, “she will go to bed wearing her own name.”[i]
The reader cannot help but share the author’s happiness. What a pity, though, that she interprets her alienation from her body as somehow a product of Mormon teachings and practices, when in fact the Restored Gospel offers the deepest possible grounding for the spiritual significance of the body, of sexuality, and, more generally, of the belonging-together that Brooks seems to long for, but that she still associates with loss of control.
For reasons we will probably never fathom but for which she has given us some clues, young Joanna Brooks was never completely comfortable with her feminine body. No doubt the increasing atomization and mechanization of our modern society, and the empty and abstract idea of equality that drives extreme individualism, together perhaps with a perfectionist strain in contemporary Mormonism, make it harder than it used to be to feel at home in our bodies, a difficulty that will always weigh more heavily on women, whose wombs are our first homes.
The tragedy, as we will see, is that, just at the moment when, at BYU, she might have encountered a richer understanding of the Gospel and of the great destiny of womanhood and of our male and female bodiliness, she rushed right into the arms of a modern feminism based upon power over our physical natures (“social construction,” “I own my own body,” etc.), a feminism that did not question but rather reinforced her alienation. Conceptually, at least, the body remained cold and inert, but now she claimed to be its master and possessor – equal in power or control to any many, but still not quite at home with womanhood.
Arrival at BYU and Change in the Narrative
Joanna Brooks’ arrival at BYU as a new student marks a remarkable rupture in the narrative. Even before classes began, as part of an orientation program, she found herself in a classroom facing well-known English professor Eugene England. Already in his manner and dress Prof. England seemed to her atypical of Mormon men (although it surely was not rare for a BYU professor to wear a denim shirt and khaki pants rather than a suit and tie), and the words from the Book of Mormon he wrote on the chalkboard had an immediate and deep affect upon Joanna: “He denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembreth the heathen; and all are alike undo God, both Jew and Gentile.”
Although Joanna had first read the Book of Mormon when she was eight years old, this passage somehow struck her as a new revelation that allowed her to break abruptly with the teachings of her youth.
But whereas before my cosmic Mormon vision had been colored by the dark tones of the end-times, I now saw it anew here in this basement classroom in the BYU Humanities building: “the glory of God was intelligence,” as Joseph Smith wrote, “or, in other words, light and truth.” I felt the universe unfurl in fractals of possibility, justice, and love, like the fronds of a great primeval fern. This thinking, this feeling-this was what we had been made for. That fall and in the years that followed, I met other BYU professors who modeled for me what had yet been the great unmapped possibilities of Mormonism: a life of searching inquiry, fearless because we knew all truths pointed finally to the glory of God.
This is indeed a stirring response to some beautiful LDS teachings. But what is puzzling is that Brooks reacts as if she is hearing these things for the first time, and that she understands these “great unmapped possibilities of Mormonism” as opposing the “dark tones” of the doctrine she had learned in her youth.
The unfortunate result of this Manichean dichotomy between the darkness of what she believes to be the conventional Mormonism she is leaving behind and the new “liberal” Mormonism she is embracing is that her “life of searching inquiry” settles immediately on some rather faddish intellectual trends represented by some of her professors, and on “feminism” in particular: “So it happened that I was there at Brigham Young University just in time to witness a remarkable upwelling of Mormon feminism, a feminism that started very simply in basement classrooms with the idea that all were alike unto God.”
It must be said that there is never a moment, according to her own account, in Joanna Brooks’ “life of searching inquiry” when it occurs to her to question the authority of the feminism that she embraced so enthusiastically as a young BYU student. Her unblemished heroes are those “Mormon women who had studied feminism and, finding nothing at its core incompatible with a just and loving God, dared to make it their own.” From this point on, she will not only assume the compatibility of all things feminist with some true, if elusive, core of Mormonism, but she will in fact strive tirelessly to interpret Mormonism according to the absolute and unquestioned truth of feminism.
The unfortunate result of Brooks’ apparent incapacity to apply her “searching inquiry” to the foundations of contemporary feminism is that she can tell us very little of what “feminism” means, except that she assumes it to be a fulfillment of the idea of equality before God. Just how this equality was violated or left in darkness by traditional Mormon teaching is never explained, except that it is implied that any differentiation between male and female roles (pertaining to the Priesthood, for example), is an obvious affront to the doctrine of equality.
How a “feminism” that associates equality with sameness is to be squared with the church’s teaching in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” is not clear. Likewise, it is hard to see how the academic and political “feminism” that Brooks embraces so unreservedly can be reconciled with the differentiation between the responsibility of fathers and that of mothers that is so clearly set forth in the same Proclamation. But no doubt Brooks would question the compatibility of this Proclamation with the single pure source of all religious and moral truth as she understands it, namely the ideal of equality that she finds in the words “all are alike unto God.” No doubt “progress” in the Church is expected to reduce the Family Proclamation to discarded folklore before too long.
Attachment to All Things Feminist
Given Brooks’ unquestioned attachment to all things feminist, the various and particular difficulties some feminists encountered in their academic careers at BYU can only appear as episodes in the single great conflict between light and darkness that takes over her narrative at this point. The affectingly personal, often poetic, and sometimes almost nuanced descriptions and evocations that graced and enlivened her earlier stories now give way to egregiously purple prose relating a simplistic, cartoon-like tale of good and evil: the noble and pure truth-seeking “feminists” and “liberals” are ruthlessly hunted down by the evil BYU and Church authorities.
Needless to say, the story of feminism at BYU in the early 90s is in fact considerably more complicated, though it is not possible to give an alternative account here. Let me just note that it is not quite the case that, as Brooks writes, that “in June 1993, Brigham Young University fired Cecilia Konchar Farr, a feminist literary critic and my mentor,” clearly implying that Farr was fired simply because she was a feminist.
In fact, Farr was not fired but was not retained following an unsuccessful routine third-year review of her continuing candidacy for eventual tenure. Like almost all such decisions, arguments can no doubt be offered on one side and the other of the case. Farr’s slim record of publications made her vulnerable to legitimate criticism, and an already divided and contentious department meant that she was sure to have detractors.
In any case, Brooks does not even consider the university’s argument concerning its legitimate interest in the content of the teaching of its employees. But let no one understand this reference of mine to the university’s legitimate interest as reinforcing the impression that Brooks gives that there was some wholesale “purge” of feminists and liberals at BYU, since many such have taught there both before and after the supposed purge. (Gloria Cronin and Susan Howe are two clear examples of outspoken feminists in the English department; they were there before Konchar Farr, and they are still there.)
As for liberals, they were then and are still surely a significant and uncontroversial presence throughout the university, and no doubt an actual majority in a number of departments. As for the Church’s supposed campaign to excommunicate noble truth-seekers (the legendary “September 6” whose mythical fame Brooks enthusiastically echoes), clearly most if not all those who were excommunicated openly courted excommunication, eager to add the luster of martyrdom to their dissident campaigns. In any case, who can argue with the right of the Church, or of any voluntary association, to determine the qualifications of membership in that association? A Church equally open to all teachings would have nothing to teach.
Joanna Brooks’ story of her later feminist travails reflects the same one-dimensional and Manichean vision that she embraced as a BYU student.
During this decade, Mormons like me found ourselves in the grip of a terrible turn in Mormon history, in the grips of a fear provoked in part by the strength of our Mormon feminist vision: a fear of the full, glorious, strange, and difficult humanity of our Mormon past; a fear of women who openly claimed the power of a Heavenly Mother; a fear of mothers and fathers who refused to sacrifice their children to protect the public image of the Church; a fear of our own gay and lesbian relatives who refused the confines of the closet. Exile.
Because some of her favorite teachers were not retained at BYU, and because some people she liked, or whose writings she liked, were excommunicated, she says that she felt threatened, under surveillance, targeted: “The Church I was born into, baptized into, raised up in, the Church of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers, the Church I had attended as many as twelve hours a week every week of my life, and tithed to, my Church had declared me a double enemy.”
This sounds a little melodramatic to me, because I know the Church is not eager to excommunicate members who want to stay in the Church, but I am willing to credit Sister Brooks’ report of her own feelings. Perhaps at the heart of her struggle and her anxiety was a question she had to answer herself: the question whether in fact she wanted to be excommunicated, or perhaps simply to leave the Church behind altogether. She does fling a taunting challenge right in the face of the Church’s authority: “I broke rules, I broke rules, I broke all the rules.
That one. And that one. And that one too. Yes. I did.” This is not my idea of contrition, mind you, but then it’s not clear what rules she’s talking about. Elsewhere, still supposedly braving excommunication, she states her challenge to orthodoxy in the form of what she takes to be a bold little credo:
All are alike unto God: male and female, black and white, gay and straight.
God is a Mother and a Father.
Mormon women matter.
Go ahead, excommunicate me for this! she dares Church leaders. Of course this is clearly not a pronouncement that could provide grounds for excommunication in any unit of the Church with which I am familiar; in fact, with the exception of the provision concerning homosexuality (to which we must return), one would be more likely to get excommunicated for persistently and publicly denying the points of Joanna’s credo. (“Mormon women matter”!? Now there’s a bravely controversial proposition!)
Fortunately, Joanna does not go all the way in courting excommunication, and neither does she leave the Church altogether, even in her time of “exile.” She drops in for church meetings at foreign-language congregations “unpenetrated by the purge,” and welcomes casseroles and listening ears offered by Visiting Teachers. At the same time, she is not slacking off on her liberal-progressive duties, joining protestors and strikers whenever she gets the chance, sitting down in solidarity with the proletariet in L.A. intersections, inviting arrest, but always as an exiled Mormon. (Protesting for what? Striking for what? The content does not matter, apparently. Protest is good in itself.)
Eventually, though, Joanna does leave the Church for a season. But her grandmother’s death (and her assisting in the temple-dressing of her body, movingly recounted) and her interest in her two daughter’s souls brings her back – on her own terms, of course, that is, as an “unorthodox Mormon” who claims the (symbolic and generalized) faith of her pioneer ancestors, the faith of her grandmothers, as she often writes (and not that of her parents).
Her grandmothers lived in an age when orthodoxy mattered less, an age when, for example, perfectly good Mormons could drink coffee. (It seems a bit of a stretch, though, to imply that her grandmothers would approve Brooks’ all-out sexual liberationist agenda.) Unfortunately for her, however, Brooks timed her return just at the moment when the Proposition 8 campaign was about to burst forth. Needless to say, she abominates the Church’s vigorous and well-organized effort to defend traditional marriage, an effort she is perfectly sure is reducible to the now oft-diagnosed syndrome of “homophobia”: “I feel as if my heart has been thrown to the concrete and a cinderblock dropped on it.”
Here again Brooks’ capacity for “searching enquiry” meets its limits; she is perfectly confident that all arguments against same-sex marriage are mindless propaganda, and that concerns about threats to religious freedom are “a blatant falsehood.” The skepticism Brooks applies to religious orthodoxy and to the Church’s political concerns is nowhere to be found when the subject is her own liberal-progressive political orthodoxy.
Foregone Something Important
Beneath the bluster, however, the reader can perceive in Brooks’ autobiographical account moments of self-doubt and thus of openness to a truth above her own passionate political commitments. The teachings of Joanna’s parents have not lost all their force. “‘You’ll be fine,’ Sister Bryson [Visiting Teacher] would say, sensing my fear that I had done it all wrong, read wrong, thought wrong, loved wrong, married wrong, lost my way.” Clearly Joanna Brooks is sensitive to the possibility that she has foregone some immense eternal possibilities by rejecting “orthodoxy,” by choosing to marry out of the Church and by raising her daughters as “Mormon-Jewish”:
We married; yes, I married him, though it broke my parents’ hearts and though our names did not go onto the sacred records of the church to be vouchsafed for the eternities. When my bridegroom crushed the glass under his heel, I felt something give way inside of me, and I said to God, “Now, do with me what you will.”
This is powerful indeed, and the “orthodox” LDS reader can only second this prayer, for Joanna’s sake as well as for that of her husband, her parents, and her children – we can only join this prayer that God will have his way with Joanna, and that she will let him.
What seems to stand in Joanna’s way is an unshakeable faith in “liberalism” and “feminism,” in the radical forms in which these are now understood by her generation. Here I will be accused (and not for the first time) of being eager to draw lines of exclusion around “orthodox” Mormonism. But I am not the one drawing the lines; Joanna is very free, as a “national voice of Mormonism,” in leveling strident ethical criticism at “orthodox” Mormons, and especially Church authorities.
Equality and Non-discrimination
From her early days at BYU, Joanna has been powerfully attracted by the possibility of a Mormonism that would be fully compatible with a practically limitless application of the idea of equality or non-discrimination. She has hoped that the line from 2 Nephi 26 that “all are alike unto God” might become by itself the touchstone of all religious and political truth, thus making it possible to avoid the choice between, on the one hand, accepting the Lord’s invitation “to come unto him and partake of his goodness” and, on the other, seeing herself as an exceptional “liberal intellectual” and receiving the adulation of so many progressive admirers.
Her strategy is particularly seductive for both LDS and non-LDS readers, and especially for many caught in between, because, following the great model of all modern confessors, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, she avoids providing a definite alternative (which would be vulnerable to rational critique), but proceeds rather by laying bare the pains and the failings of her own personal journey, and thus evoking our pity or compassion as we identify with the travails of her heart.
But Rousseau can only lead us so far; his confessional arousal of compassion or pity issues into the doctrine of the natural goodness of man, and into the idea that all evils are a result of “society” and therefore that the solution to our deepest problems is not personal and religious but political. The Lord invites us to accept responsibility for our sins and to offer up the sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. He requires us to accept his moral laws, including limitations on “sexual expression” that seem so obsolete in a world shaped by humanistic “compassion.” Tolerance, as Elder Oaks has explained so clearly, can never be detached from Truth, or else it becomes destructive relativism, an ideology of the “equality” of all “lifestyles” that excuses selfishness and immorality.
Joanna Brooks’ attempt to model a new “unorthodox” or “Reform” Mormonism is clearly vulnerable to this relativism, if it is not simply identical with it: “ours may yet be a faith that is big enough for all of our stories.
” The gospel is most certainly is big enough, , but only, I would caution Sister Brooks, on condition that we not insist that He accept our authorship of our own “stories of consciously choosing a life of dignity and fulfillment,” but rather that we accept his invitation to make our story a part of His, to freely accept his Plan for reaching “dignity and fulfillment.” There is a world of difference between the world’s conception of freedom as individual autonomy, a conception increasingly propagated and hardened by extreme liberal ideology, and the gift of moral agency that is inseparable from acceptance of the Atonement on the Lord’s terms.
Each of these alternative ideas of personal dignity and fulfillment (humanistic autonomy // redeemed moral agency) corresponds to its own idea and practice of compassion. According to the first idea, which Joanna Brooks as a progressive-liberal-feminist activist favors, we show compassion by endorsing and facilitating a person’s liberation from all traditional moral norms governing sexuality and the understanding of marriage. On the latter, we show compassion by inviting others to accept God’s laws, which of course means repenting. And we show it ourselves, too, by repenting of our own trespasses and forgiving those who may have offended us.
About fifty years ago a profound Catholic novelist discerned with crystalline clarity the danger inherent in modern, relativistic “compassion.” The author was a woman, Flannery O’Connor, though probably not among the female authors taught by Joanna Brooks’ feminist professors or colleagues:
In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.[ii]
If the concluding reference to “terror” is opaque to today’s readers (evoking as it does the radical phase of the French Revolution and its murderous heirs in the 20th Century), then I suggest substituting this formulation: “When compassion is detached from the source of compassion, its logical outcome is state-enforced relativism and the end of religious liberty.”
Joanna Brooks’ conflicted confession is important precisely because it clarifies for us a choice we all must face, and a choice that is becoming starker and more urgent for the rising generation. This is the choice between (1) a politicized, “unorthodox” Mormonism Lite, a Mormonism streamlined in order to remove any obstacle to the increasingly ascendant secular ethic of boundless individual autonomy, and (2) the Restored Gospel, with its wondrous teaching concerning our eternal destiny as males and females, and its clearly marked path of obedience to laws and ordinances.
The Book of Mormon Girl risks confusing or skirting this choice, but it also provides us the opportunity to clarify it. Apart from the intrinsic appeal of an authentic personal story, and the opportunity to learn from an author whose personal experience can supplement my own, this is the reason I have thought it important to address (in these pages and elsewhere) this book and other writings of Joanna Brooks, when I might have profited more from advancing my own professional work in political philosophy. I bear her not the slightest ill will, and willingly honor her talents as a writer and the courage she has displayed in her personal quest.
I am happy to observe that this quest is by no means complete, any more than any of our quests. Brooks said as much in an engaging interview she gave here
I recommend the interview for all who want to experience Brooks’ easy charm, generous personality, and winning sense of humor. I was heartened to find her a happier and less ideologically-driven person in this interview than in many parts, at least, of her book. It is easy to see why she is a well-liked person and a popular speaker. And I couldn’t help thinking, as I enjoyed her disarming ingenuousness — if I may speak… generationally – I couldn’t help seeing her for a moment from her parent’s standpoint (they being no doubt just a few years older than I, she just older than my oldest son), and understanding their love for their bright and fierce and vulnerable Joanna, and joining their hopes and prayers on her behalf.
In the interview Brooks describes herself as “unorthodox,” a “non-literal believer.” Of course I would wish her to be a little more orthodox and “literal” on some points, though I recognize many areas of legitimate disagreement and have no interest in drawing unnecessary lines of exclusion.
Mostly I wonder how she can be so confident of representing Mormons in so many fora and media when she acknowledges that she is not completely “with the program.” A little further on the interviewer (a likeable and ingenuous post-Baptist himself), after learning from Brooks some general and basic information regarding the purposes of the temple, ventures to ask her if she participates in temple worship. No, we learn, she doesn’t, by choice. She is not that orthodox. Then the interviewer ventures a step further: “but then are you eligible for the highest Mormon heaven, for receiving an eternal A’ grade?” (Earlier Joanna has suggested classifying the Kingdoms of Glory as “A” “B” and “C” grades – there being no “Fs,” no hell, except for maybe half a dozen sons of perdition.)
Joanna appears a little jarred by such a searching and momentous question, but she maintains her charming poise and acknowledges that in fact, as things stand now, without the blessings of the temple and full acceptance of the laws and ordinances associated with it, she is a “B” or maybe just a “C.” (Of course none of us can give himself/herself an “A” grade either.) In a lovely moment the interviewer then generously responds that she’s got to be at least a “B+.”
At least! I heard myself agreeing. “But life is long – who knows?” she added, in perhaps the most poignantly hopeful words I have ever heard or read from Joanna Brooks. I wish her long life. Long life, and an A+, I wish for her.
[i] Unsurprisingly, the young Joanna had difficulty coming to terms with the Church’s early practice of plural marriage and with the question of the status of this practice in eternity. Interestingly, her mother, unlike a number of her peers who were Joanna’s teachers, proved to be quite intransigent on this subject. In one of the few mother-daughter conversations reported in the book, Joanna remembers her mother “terse and final” dismissal of the practice: “Your father … will not do that to me.” On this point the young Joanna was apparently, at some point at least, more open-minded than her mother:
If God was indeed merciful, I thought, I would not spend the eternities living in second-fiddle misery.
But if it were indeed the rule that you had to be married to go to heaven, and if there were (as all appearances suggested) so many more righteous women than men in the world, would I refuse to share my husband, even if it meant keeping a sister out of heaven… Perhaps none of us entered the eternities alone, but with our souls all hooked together, multiply, through and across the generations, a kind of eternal belonging the grammar of companionate marriage could never capture. Up in the Sierras, my mind could begin to encompass such an idea.