Guest Post: The Problem in Writing Truth vs Fiction in Mormondom
This is co-written by Spunky and Kaki Olsen. Kaki Olsen is Boston-raised and BYU-educated. Her serious writing ranges from nonfiction to science fiction, but she writes academic papers on geeky things for fun and has been a finalist in the Mormon Lit Blitz.
Kaki and I are in several online LDS writing groups. The groups are great– we beta-read each other’s’ work, brainstorm re-writes and encourage each other. And sometimes we sound off with things that are frustrating. Normally the frustrating points discussed have to do with re-writing nightmares, writer’s block, and rejections from publishers. But every now and again, there is something different.
“Why can’t we write what’s real?” lamented a group member. She went on to describe an Elder’s Quorum Presidency meeting that she overheard at a fastfood restaurant in northern Utah. One of the men asked the others what he should do about a woman who texted him following a date.
“Tell her it was a Mormon one-night stand,” advised his mates. “You don’t have to go out with her again no matter how hot it was. Block her.”
Between bites, the talk became more sexualised. “My wife can’t get new drapes unless she [pleases me with a specific sexual act],”
laughed one of the men. “So when you see those drapes at my place….” he said, followed by deep, knowing laughter.
And finally, “Okay— let’s start this meeting.”
We could not imagine a Relief Society presidency meeting having nearly that level of sexualised discussion. And yet, here were a group of men in position of ecclesiastical authority, discussing sexual conquests and sharing exploitation strategies between bites of burgers and fries.
These men are the ones we are supposed to rely on for spiritual guidance. They are the ones we are supposed to call when we need blessings of temporal health and spiritual strength. They are the ones we and our sisters are “supposed to date” as preferential to men of lesser callings or non-members.
Reality Bites. And astounds. And depresses. And makes one yearn for something better in a naturally combined sense of feminist justice and Christian rage.
But the lamentation within this writing group stung in a professional way. Not only were these men behaving atrociously towards the women in their lives, as LDS authors, their existence is forbidden. We can’t recreate or disclose this kind of conversation in our FICTIONAL or even non-fictional writing, because this is not what LDS editors and readers want. We have to pretend that this is not what LDS people are like. Even when it is.
As for fictional writing, repentant characters are most certainly welcomed. The sins made by these penitent characters are usually depicted as being in error. Or at worst, someone who let things slip, or were unfairly manipulated before they succumbed to a “Mormon one-night stand” — a night of forbidden passionate kissing in the front seat of a car.
These repentant characters aren’t meant to be the *current* Elder’s Quorum president– because that would be too unbelieveable. The Elder’s Quorum presidents are meant to be heroes, or at least loveable oafs whose sins of omission are both innocuous and accidental, meant for comic relief, or intended as dramatic and/or learning devices. There is no room for the reality that men in these positions might sexualise women– even their wives– in front of other males, and passively brag about it by reminding the men in their company that when they see drapes in his window, it is a sign of manipulative marital sexual audacity and bravura.
But the darkness is true. And these are not characters, but members of a real LDS Elder’s Quorum. Truth is stranger than fiction, as they say.
So what about reality writing? What if we wrote this or– even reported it to a bishop or other ecclesiastical leader?
To put it in a different context, let us consider a court ruling from 2005 that we are aware of personally. A BYU student met, dated and married a returned missionary she had known from freshman year on. His family welcomed her in and encouraged the relationship from the start. Eleven months after their temple sealing, she was granted an annulment. Why? Because this BYU RM would punch his new wife in the face or throttle her in their student housing. He had physically assaulted a sister-in-law and had outbursts against his family. But mostly– the family knew about this before they were even dating seriously, but still encouraged the marriage. Even his roommate at BYU witnessed his flare-ups and still concealed them, offering to set the young man and woman up on dates. What they saw as behavior that wasn’t relevant information became domestic violence. Thus, in the end, a judge granted the annulment on the basis of the fraud perpetuated- not just by the man, but by the surrounding friends and family who wanted to deny this part of his personality.
There has to be a middle ground between “Gosh-golly-shucks, my dreamy home teacher accidentally stole my car from the DI parking lot after the service project” and “I’ll let her redecorate if we get it on” in reality and in fictional writing. Logically, we understand that this is the case. As avid readers, published authors (and Kaki is a professional editor), we have seen both ends of the spectrum. We are constantly asking that authors don’t pigeon-hole male characters, and yet…. When an author delivers the ideal man or woman by making everyone else drunk, abusive, socially inept and selfish, they show off the rugged hunk who hugs puppies and cries manfully when discussing his feelings. They also detach us from reality and cheat our perception of human nature.
There is the suggestion that depicting the “reality” of Mormon culture, this Elder’s Quorum for example, would be slanderous. We believe that the intent is the key here. Ideally, we are not writing these characters in order to be anti-Mormon or anti-man. We are not trying to turn them into the Mormon Shylock and leave them wailing “Hath not an RM personality?” on the pages of every novel. To quote Natalie Portman’s Evie Hammond, “Artists use lies to tell the truth.” Likewise, it is our duty to find ways to tell the truth “In all times, in all things and in all places.”
Lessons on pornography and instructions on violations of the law of chastity are not taught because we should know that they will never happen. Failing to discuss the best and worst of humanity would be akin to an obstetrician failing to disclose the details of high-risk pregnancy. In an ideal world, the adversary has no sway over the hearts of people in wards, branches, missions and stakes, but it is up to us to acknowledge it.
In the case of this BYU student, she sought help from her home teacher the night before her court date and he responded that “By leaving your eternal companion, you are dishonoring the priesthood.” Is it not the greater dishonor to not educate ourselves and those around us in ways that all fall short of the glory of God at the same time that we look with brightness of hope for the healing that the Atonement can bring? And, in truth, wouldn’t it be better to read of a story where a woman overcame such horrors and retained her testimony in spite of the things said and done to her? Perhaps a reason why this is so difficult to write is because stories like this are real, and common, and tightly closeted because repeated pain is inflicted or because painful truth is hard to discuss in Zion.
Or in other words, shall we remain in a state where socially-approved fiction is idealized, but reality is deemed false? Shouldn’t we hope and seek and demand for truth, even when it is deeply, darkly ugly?