Review: Joanna Brooks, “The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith”

May 17, 2012

Title: The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith
Author: Joanna Brooks
Publisher: Self published (but not for long…)
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2012
Pages: 204
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 9780615593449
Price: $11.99
Reviewed by Blair Hodges
Rumor has it Joanna Brooks’s self-published memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl has been picked up by Free Press/Simon & Schuster for national publication this August with an expanded chapter-and-a-half. We’ve seen a lot of chatter about her book online recently, so I thought I’d venture a review. I hope you’ll excuse my decision to kick things off with an observation based on personal experience. (The Book of Mormon Girl is, after all, a personal memoir!) My own undergraduate years were spent writing and editing articles for a variety of small Utah newspapers. I remember how daunting it felt to be assigned an article on a subject I knew next-to-nothing about, like computer animation, mechanical engineering, or say, feminism. Oh, how comforting to a journalist is that friendly, articulate insider willing to endure the inane questions of—and likely later misrepresentation by—the stammering cub reporter!
Of course, depending on the article—say, one about a gondola proposal in the city of Ogden—I could usually find a friendly public relations employee to provide talking points. While trying to decode such PR spin I quickly learned that a variety of sources was needed to even things out. How much more blessed, then, are those scrappy non-official sources who know how to translate insider jargon, provide context, and add personal spice to a story’s recipe! Sometimes reporters behave sort of like old school anthropologists without all the time for fieldwork. So in writing a story about a religious subject—something many journalists are ill-prepared to do—they might seek an unofficial inside native to help them navigate. What does my regard for such insiders have to do with Joanna Brooks and her new book? Well, she’s a journalist’s dream, an “ethnographic access point,” to use a bit of jargon.1
The present “Mormon moment” has seen the rise of a small (and usually little- or unpaid) cottage industry of such insider Mormons who can speak fluently and thoughtfully with journalists and other outsiders, and outsiders who know they need some help are grateful to find it. Joanna Brooks has emerged as one of the more prominent pundits. She holds a PhD and teaches American Lit at San Diego State University. She’s been featured in an impressive number of media outlets over the past year—CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, and a variety of national and local NPR interviews to name a few examples. (Remember that time she went after the New York Times in defense of Mitt Romney? That was sweet.) In 2011 named her one of America’s top “50 politicos to watch.” She goes by the moniker “Mormon Girl” for her “Ask Mormon Girl” column at Religious Dispatches, and now she has a self-published book (the book of “Mormon Girl”). As you can see, Brooks has been quite busy. Her recent book tour (of sorts) demonstrates her versatility—going from an interview on Radio West to delivering the keynote address at Utah Valley University’s Mormon Studies conference, to performing at “The Porch,” a story-telling venue in Provo, Utah.
Perhaps this last venue, the story-telling venue, is where Brooks feels most at home, discussing her faith in a mixed audience. Her engaging voice frequently collapses the sacred and mundane to make Mormonism a bit more understandable especially to those outside the fold, and perhaps a bit less understandable to those inside. In fact, she manages to squeeze an impressive amount of Mormon culture into the first three pages of her book using the framing device of a Family Home Evening lesson when she was a little girl—readers are introduced to (or reminded of) the hand/glove-body/spirit object lesson, the spirit world, the veil, the first vision, genealogy, food storage, temples, family vans, tithes and offerings, priesthood blessings, the sacrament. Her prose? Poetic:

“This is how I came into this world, into this world of believing: an ancient spirit striving to remember the shape of eternity at the kitchen table, in a house where ancestors knew our names and stepped through the walls, my dreams filled with light, my head consecrated with oil, every Sunday morning white bread and tap water for sacrament, every Sunday evening the taste of a ripe glazed strawberry saying ‘grateful’ on my tongue” (5).

This idyllic scene from her youth shortly gives way to scary end-times-Cleon-Skousen-style warnings, creepy bishop interviews, late-night Girls Camp chats about eternal polygamy, rivalries with local evangelical anti-Mormons, and other not-so-flattering stories from her Southern California Mormon up-bringing. Of course, nit-pickers will question a few of her more-obvious slips, like labeling the “iron rod” of Lehi/Nephi’s vision as “Mormonism” rather than “the word of God” (6), getting the baptismal prayer wrong (10), attributing a Halloween mask ban to prophets (20), flubbing a lyric in a Saturday’s Warrior tune (it’s “rising in their might,” Joanna! p. 47), mis-remembering the design of the Tabernacle’s baptismal font (160), and so forth.
You’re sure to hear a few such discordant notes as Brooks’s fingers glide up and down the scale, but to focus on such slips overlooks the book’s overall melody, the song of a Mormon girl whose nascent faith is challenged, lost, found, and refined by fire throughout. She’s the prodigal daughter telling only a little about years of riotous living, more about the faith of her youth and the re-visioned faith of her adulthood. Memoirs aren’t intended to tell a disconnected story of one’s life, but to invite readers into an intensely subjective world. The best memoirs aren’t written as how-to manuals (like the Marie Osmond brand beauty and fashion instructions Brooks read as an awkward, body-conscious young girl. You’re sure to laugh out loud as she spends a chapter pillorying such fluff). Instead, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, good memoirs awaken “a sense of what it might be like to be someone else or to live in another time or culture, and they tell us about ourselves, stretch our imagination, and enrich our experience.”2 American publisher William Sloan says readers of such works are not so much saying to the author “Tell me about you,” but rather “Tell me about me; as I use your book and life as a mirror.”
Brooks deftly wields the tool of personal narrative to create a sense of intimacy, but more importantly, to provide the opportunity for her “self-knowledge to be generalized, codified, and publicized as [our] social knowledge.”<3 Mormon testimony-bearing works on similar principles, which raises the question: To what extent do our stories bind us together? This question suggests that the simple act of reading a memoir or listening to a testimony requires not only sympathetic eyes (imagination), but also discernment (critique). Before addressing that latter quality, I want to try on some sympathetic eyes while giving you the gist of Brooks’s story.
I’m separated from Brooks’s Mormon youth by time, space, and gender. I’ve never watched California wildfires while imaging end-times world melting, recalling my mother’s calm reflections on an impending nuclear winter which the righteous could avoid (35, 40). I never encountered object lessons in which my body was compared to a donut or a rose, to be delivered in pristine condition on some future wedding night. “You, your body, your sex—”, she imagines herself telling her sixteen-year-old self in a poignant scene, “you are not an object lesson” (121). But she also describes the potentially positive power of being an embodied object lesson through the eyes of her fifteen-year-old self. A hearty Young Women’s advisor urges her along during a difficult hike. “One foot in front of the other,” Sister Coombs tells the stragglers, and Brooks hears this as “the key to, well, everything”:

“It was difficult, sometimes, being a fifteen-year-old Mormon girl, with scrawny lungs, a bad perm, and wobbly ankles. But this was the very point of it, the very point of everything: our spirits had been sent to earth to persist against the weak and messy medium of our bodies, one foot in front of the other, until we reached higher places” (95).

From her early childhood on, Mormonism thoroughly infuses her cosmos and physical body. These chapters might provide a laudable challenge to youth leaders today who read with sympathetic eyes, who might benefit from considering the impact they make on our youth based on the examples they set and the stories they share.
Brooks grew up only to discover that many of the stories from her youth left her ill-prepared to face the challenges of a college education, no less at Brigham Young University in “Provo, Utah!” (this is the humorous way she spells it throughout the book, reflecting her childhood Provo-worship directed at the ikons of BYU, the possibility of being surrounded by multitudes of smiley-faced Mormons who can discern each others’ identities at a glance. She’s typographically aping Marie Osmond’s Guide to Beauty, Health and Style.). During orientation she listened as Professor Eugene England welcomed the students to the university using a verse from the Book of Mormon Brooks had read with her father as a little girl:

“He denieth none that come unto him,
black and white, bond and free, male and female…
and all are alike unto God”
(2 Nephi 26:33).

This verse would become her touchstone; a flood of light poured over her as her youthful “cosmic Mormon vision…colored by the dark tones of the end-times” gave way to a wider vision wherein “the glory of God was intelligence” (131-2). Physicists, psychology professors, feminists, and others “patiently listened to an eighteen-year-old girl unbend the limbs of her mind” (132). Until her joy was curtailed in May 1993 when Cecelia Konchar Farr, “a feminist literary critic and my mentor” was fired from BYU followed by the resignation of several other like-minded professors. Brooks doesn’t describe the exact nature of the firing, but she ties it to the excommunication of the “September Six” a few months later, several of whom having had some influence on her newfound understanding of Mormonism, an understanding she felt the Church was not living up to (136-7). At a small press conference Brooks symbolically returned her freshly-earned BYU diploma, moved back to California, and spent her “exile years” working on a PhD, occasionally slipping into the back of various church meetings, canning soup at the Church’s L.A. cannery, joining unspecified student protest marches, marrying a non-Mormon to the disappointment of her parents, and giving birth to two lively daughters to whom she would often sing “Come, Come Ye Saints” (139, 141-2).

“What do we do with ourselves when we find we have
failed to become the adults we dreamed as pious children?” (195).

Throughout the story Brooks expresses her fear and hurt (are church leaders watching her every word to scan for signs of apostasy? has she been declared an “enemy” of the church?) alongside glimpses of grace (an angelic Visiting Teacher encourages her to keep on, and a patient Jewish husband appreciates her intense passion for Pioneer Day). During her inactive days she reflected on the faith of her grandmother, great grandmother, great-great grandmother and on…strong women whose deep faith and harrowing sacrifices sustained them through struggles at the under-noticed outskirts of Mormon orthodoxy—one foot in front of the other (see especially 155-8, 161). Certainly the most touching scene occurs when she joins her active mother and sisters to dress her grandmother Pearl’s body for burial in her temple clothes (162-4). The experience sparks questions. “What will I leave my own daughters, my own granddaughters? What stories will accompany them across the miles they will travel in their lifetimes?” (164). Later she adds:

“My daughters are getting old enough now…to either grow or not to grow a living connection to Mormonism. And it has been—I count back—how many years since I have attended church myself? But I think of Ella and Rosa. How badly I want them to know what their grandmothers knew. How badly I want them to have a claim on the curious beauty and the power of this tradition. How badly I want them to make their own place in this Mormon world. My daughters embolden me with a renewed urgency to try again” (166).

No longer the “kind of Mormon girl I was when I was seven, eight, or eighteen years old,” she announces her return to the Church as “an unorthodox Mormon woman with a fierce and hungry faith” who insists: “I will not be disappeared from the faith of my ancestors” (168). Her return came at a somewhat inopportune time, a few months before the Church would dig deep into the issue of marriage equality in the battle over California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative. This is a major reason why her story is not the heart-warming transition from apostasy to activity or doubt to faith; one particular conflict runs like a thread throughout her story: a passionate desire to belong, and a deep sense of alienation that continues in Mormon girl’s Mormon present.
Perhaps “belonging” is the most prominent theme throughout Brooks’s story. “I belonged. I belonged. And if I did not belong, what would become of me?” her young self cries (48). “No one should be left to believe that she is the only one” she pleads in a cryptic chapter called “The Sealed Portion” (150). “Ours may yet be a faith that is big enough for all of our stories…a table with room enough for everyone” her conclusion resounds with hope (196). As a rightfully self-styled intellectual,4 Brooks is familiar with a problem facing intellectuals in many social contexts, as described by Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski:

“Intellectuals are often…torn asunder between incompatible desires or attitudes. On the one hand, they are proud of their superiority and independence. On the other hand, this very feeling of independence they are so proud of produces in them a kind of uncertainty about where they belong. There is, of course, in every human being, a need to belong somewhere.”5

Such people, Kolakowski says, are often found rooting for the underdogs, and if gays and lesbians are some of the underdogs in the Mormon tradition, Brooks is doing her utmost to root for them.
Earlier in this review I mentioned the need to read memoirs with a sympathetic eye. As promised, I turn to the subject of discernment (in the sense of critique). Personal memoirs are tough for me to critique because they present a human being baring their soul in a selective fashion, just as all of our stories are heavily edited and massively under-annotated. Brooks shares some intimate and poignant memories, some of them disappointing to read. “I don’t want to blame anyone” Brooks says, for the heartache she and others have faced in the Church (196). But it’s clear she sees shortcomings in various imperfect members—including herself—and perhaps hopes her book can help provide some catharsis, or better yet, foster a healthier climate for all the people she includes in her own “unorthodox Mormon story” (199). A little friendly fire is unavoidable. In scholar/social critic Christopher Lasch’s “typology of intellectuals” he discusses the problem of “accusatory public testimony” using descriptors like “ideological,” “didactic,” “one-dimensional,” and “impoverished.” He suggests: “It is possible to be stirred by the basic complaint,” which I certainly am by many of Brooks’s, “and yet find oneself…raising the primitive and unavoidably ad hominem question of authenticity.” Brooks’s (again, still-important!) perspective can’t encompass a “fullness of absorbed private experience.”6 As with all of us, she offers a selective and carefully articulated story which glosses over other Mormon voices. This is the heart of my own love/hate relationship with memoirs, and also with Mormonism’s (still-important!) practice of testimony bearing. Brooks delivers a fuller understanding of women’s experience in the Church, but not the fullness. We all close some things off, even in the act of disclosure.
While Brooks’s youthful self early in the book can be excused for not distinguishing between Cleon Skousen’s bizarre anti-communist rants and the LDS standard works, or between Young Women’s church lessons and Marie Osmond’s beauty tips. Her present self never returns to distinguish between such local Mormon cultural elements and the wider Mormon experience of her diverse generation. (See EmJen’s review for a similar impression.) This is why I still wondered a little, despite her touching stories about her ancestors, why Brooks wanted to come back to that church she’d described from her youth and later college days. I sensed this disconnect during a speech she recalls delivering at “Camp Courage,” a “weekend-long event where they train activists to tell our own stories about why equality matters, and to use our stories…to change the political landscape of California, one conversation at a time” (187-8). She feels terribly out of place there, knowing the attendees are highly-attuned to the Church’s contributions against a cause they all fight for. She stands before two hundred gay rights activists announcing “My name is Joanna, and I am a straight Mormon feminist.” As the crowd cheers she tells them of being “raised to believe in a loving, kind, and powerful God.” She speaks of the pain she felt after she left BYU, and when the Church later supported Proposition 8. “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…I am a Mormon. And I am not giving up” (189). No boos, but rather, “everyone shows Mormon girl the love” and her heart is lifted up (190). Of course, delivering a sympathetic message is usually met with applause, and she seems to recognize that problem as she alternatively attends church meetings as well as “No on 8” gatherings. Mormons tell her of stolen “Yes on 8” signs, dog feces left on porches, and chemicals thrown on peaceful demonstrators (181). Non-Mormons tell her of stolen “No on 8” signs, dog feces left on porches, and chemicals thrown on peaceful demonstrators (183). No wonder she wonders about belonging!
So if Brooks is an uncommon Mormon in her support of marriage equality for gays, she is perhaps an uncommon social activist, with her love of and activity within the Mormon tradition. Her faith and politics don’t simply clash, however—they intertwine. Brooks is not a secularist calling for a foundationless morality, or demanding the abolition of the “traditional” family, or proclaiming the death of God, or any such thing. Her morality is directed toward the sort of equality she believes God wishes—even commands—for humankind: “All are alike unto God” is her constant mantra (and “God is a Mother and a Father” she repeatedly adds; 134, 144). Hers is a thoroughly faith-grounded perspective; her God is real. So she might expect to catch some flak from those who feel any such negotiation with religion is dangerous at worst and simply complicit with oppressive power structures at best. On the other hand, she’s sure to hear it from some members of the Church who wonder how she can support gay marriage and remain an active member (“You’re not a real Mormon!” she reports one man shouting at her during a “No on 8” meeting; 183).
This brings me to what I understand to be the heart of the matter, especially for Mormon readers of Brooks’s book: the tension between personal and institutional revelation; or, questions of authority. It all boils down to a particularly Mormon tension.
Brooks’s book has sparked a lot of online discussions since it was first published. A two-part book review written by Ralph Hancock, a BYU Professor of political science, expressed concern that Brooks is advocating a “Mormonism Lite,” a watered down faith to accommodate wider cultural acceptance of things like marriage equality for gays.7 Hancock seems to completely miss the raw feelings Brooks labors so diligently to deliver throughout her book. As one friend suggested to me, her experience in the Church has been far from “lite.” It ain’t easy being a Mormon “liberal,” less because “the Gospel” isn’t compatible, more because the present dominant host culture makes things more comfortable for “conservatives” (scare quotes indicate I’m using these terms in the contemporary American sense of the words). It also ain’t easy to be consciously aware of holding unorthodox beliefs. And it certainly can’t be easy to be a Mormon girl who feels disconnected from a male-only institutional hierarchy who make the final decisions despite whatever input they receive from women.
Yet she’s still here.
In a follow-up response to his own review, Hancock reiterated his concern that Brooks’s political tail was wagging the religious dog: “What concerns me is a strong tendency for liberalism to migrate from politics and to penetrate and reshape religious understandings.”8 Of course, Hancock is unfairly and inaccurately stacking the deck by attributing this phenomenon only to “liberalism.” The underlying impulse he describes regards the extent to which our political and religious convictions inform each other. And to be sure, such admixture is a problem well-worth considering, although Brooks doesn’t take time in her memoir to do so and Hancock wrongly assumes he hasn’t done so. Arguing from an ostensible position of orthodoxy, Hancock concludes her book is incompatible with “the Gospel,” most especially because it is grounded in her personal experience—a memoir, a personal testimony:

“We are not — certainly not automatically and always — the supreme authorities on the meaning of our own experience. That is what religious authority is for – to help us get ourselves right and to let us know when we are wrong, even or especially wrong about ourselves.”9

The fault line between Brooks and Hancock runs along the tectonic plates of personal conscience and hierarchical instruction. “We believe in living prophets,” we Mormons say, and what good are prophets if you can dismiss anything they say that runs contrary to your current beliefs? On the other hand, what good is personal revelation if it only serves to rubber-stamp whatever church leaders have instructed? In my view, the crucial two-fold question which both of them maddeningly dance around without explicitly articulating is whether one’s personal conscience/personal revelation might ever run counter to the teachings of a church leader (Brooks implies yes, Hancock implies no), and what to do if such a circumstance arises. Hancock avoids the sticky question of whether church leaders are fallible, stating Mormons must simply follow the prophet because that is what “religious authority is for.” Conversely, Brooks avoids the sticky question about how much Mormons should yield their personal (and admittedly limited) views to such leaders—especially leaders who seem to make imperfect decisions, leaders who can’t always live up to the D&C mandate to exercise authority “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” Hancock would do well to consider why Joseph Smith wrote—to the Church—“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39-42).
Granted, there are a whole bunch of other questions I was left with as I closed the covers of a book I completed in one sitting due to its fluid and engaging prose. (How does she talk to her daughters about priesthood authority? What do they think about growing up in two distinct faith traditions? How does she feel about temple attendance? How did she go from delivering nervous speeches to small groups of activists to speaking on the national stage? What does she think changed between the early 90s when various intellectuals were excommunicated and today, when she and others speak out without much repercussion? etc. The trouble is, questions like this can be inappropriately raised as measures of orthodoxy, as tests unfairly seeking to determine one’s worthiness. To judge someone, in other words.) But I think the question about the tension she might feel between institutional allegiance and personal conscience might be the one I’d like to see her address most. It’s certainly a tension I wrestle with. I believe this is a conversation that deserves attention, particularly in the present atmosphere in which a variety of Mormon voices are being broadcast in the public square, each negotiating their understanding of what it means to be Mormon, each telling their Mormon story, each story being influenced by ever-multiplying stories.
I’m happy to see Brooks in the public sphere discussing her faith, and discussing our faith, helping various stressed out journalists piece together stories about religion in the face of an increasingly interesting political campaign, or popping in and out of various podcast episodes. When we share our Mormon stories, as with the sharing of most stories, we demand something of each other, question each other, uplift each other, inspire each other, discomfit each other. The best stories tend to lure and invite us, rather than force. Brooks imperfectly but respectably walks this line. In this review I emphasized the need to read works like Brooks’s with sympathetic but discerning eyes. I tried to call attention to a few of the gaps I saw in her narrative, in addition to showing appreciation for some of her social criticism. (Another large underlying theme of her book is gender, something deserving of its own review. Who’s up for it?) Her obvious affection for the tradition helps me feel a little better about how she seems to occasionally trade in on her Mormon credentials to earn a bit of street cred. And on a personal note (for full disclosure and as a small gesture of gratitude), I need to point out that I consider Brooks a friend and a wonderful Latter-day Saint. She’s charitably taken time from her busy schedule to speak with my wife and me about massively difficult family health issues, and I’ll always be grateful for that. She walks the Christian walk–not a perfect walk; a faithful walk–and she’d like to walk it with as many as she can.
Her love of the Mormon past isn’t the love of a fairy tale, but of an ongoing faith saga, with all its triumphs and tragedies:

“These are the unspoken legacies we inherit when we belong to a people: not only luminous visions of eternal expanses of lovingkindness, but actual human histories of exclusion and rank prejudice. We inherit not only the glorious histories of our ancestors, but their human failings too, their kindness, their tenderness, and their satisfaction with easy contradictions; their wisdom as well as their ignorance, their arrogance, and their presumption, as our own. We inherit all the ways in which our ancestors and parents and teachers were wrong, as well as the ways they were right: their sparkling differences, and their human failings. There is no unmixing the two” (30; see also 187).

Ultimately for Brooks, Mormonism is a combination of the sublime and the lowly, the holy and unholy—and like Jell-O powder and water, such elements can’t ever be entirely separated. She places it in the fridge of grace and waits for it to set.
1. From Domonic Boyer and Claudio Lomnitz, “Intellectuals and Nationalism: Anthropological Engagements,” Annual Review of Anthropology vol. 34 (2005), 107. I believe reading Brooks through the sort of “nationalist intellectual” lens proposed by these scholars would provide an illuminating comparison, given the communal quasi-ethnic structure of the LDS community.
2. Cited in Martin E. Marty, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011), 29. In context, Bonhoeffer was specifically referring to the Humanities, but his reflections occur in the context of a discussion about memoir, and I believe clearly informed his later personal writings as a religio-political prisoner in Nazi Germany.
3. Boyer and Lomnitz, Ibid., 113.
4. “Intellectual”; there’s a fraught word! A major problem with discussing intellectuals is that the discussion quickly becomes self-referential, like holding a microphone close to an amplifier causing feedback, drowning out voices. Roughly speaking for the purposes of my review, intellectuals are those who think, organize, and articulate. They help define and are defined by the culture in which they participate. We all do this in varying degrees, but intellectuals in a stricter sense specifically “engage in contests over different definitions of cultural value, competence, and authority; they strive to impose their definitions of value and to gain recognition for their version of social reality” (see Boyer and Lomnitz, Ibid., 109). Brooks’s self-identification as an intellectual Mormon feminist highlights an oft-assumed incongruity of the terms, which she embraces and hopes others will embrace.
5. “Superiority” need not be understood as a stab against Brooks. In this case she holds views about homosexuality which she views as morally superior to the views of many other Mormons. It should go without saying that we all tend to so favor our own views. From George Steiner, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Leszek Kolakowski, Robert Boyers, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals: A Discussion,” Salmagundi, No. 70/71 (1986), 164-5.
6. Christopher Lasch, “A Typology of Intellectuals,” Salmagundi No. 70/71 (1986), 32.
7. See Ralph C. Hancock, “Confessions of Joanna or Towards a Mormonism Lite,” Meridian Magazine, 13 March 2012. Part two is here. This initial review was quite polemical, and unfortunately was also republished in the Deseret News. Without offering a full response (since that horse has been somewhat beaten to death anyway), I’ll just say it was seeing his review there which prompted my own review.
8. Ralph C. Hancock, “Mormonism and Liberal Authenticity: A Reply to Critics,”, 7 May 2012.
9. Ibid., emphasis in original.