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?

Spunky

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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10 Responses

  1. Kelsi Moore says:

    I think if an author is brave enough to write about reality the work will find it’s audience. It will be really difficult for that first author(s) to trailblaze the space but it will open up a place for new discussions and further writing based on reality. And if we as an lds people are not ready for the truth now, I have hope that we will be someday. But I still think we should write the truth now so it is ready for whenever we are ready to face it. Maybe I’m overly optimistic but I hope both of you and the writers you are having these discussions with will be vulnerable enough to write reality because I really think there will be a place for it and it is doing us all a disservice if it isn’t written.
    Much love to all the writers doing this hard work.

    • Kelsi Moore says:

      Also I think that writing from reality is a great way to bring about the change that is so desperately needed in our culture.

  2. Battered women's shelter worker says:

    The Mormon fiction that I read does deal with some of these issues, but in rather shallow ways, always as the bad husband that the heroine escapes from before finding her true love. The dude is painted as black as possible and porn, spouse abuse, child abuse and adultery are all touched on to make him the black hat wearing villain. And, the guy’s biggest sin is that he is inactive.

    What is not dealt with is the issue of why such an angelic girl ever fell in love with such a jerk. The red flags of recognizing such jerks are not taught, nor are the characteristics that these men look for in a spouse that make her an easier victim. It is like she married him by accident. Healthy coping mechanisms are not taught, such as skip taking to your bishop and go to the battered women’s shelter and get yourself into therapy so you will not rebound into a love affair with another abuser.

    But the heroine rebounds from the jerk and falls in love with Mr. Perfect, totally by her hormones telling her that he is hot.

    The reality I would like to see taught is:

    1. Your LDS bishop is not a trained counselor and doesn’t know the first thing about domestic violence, let alone all the variations of treating your spouse badly, like these Elder’s Q leaders treating women like a sex toy. A bishop is told by the church to keep the marriage together, putting the marriage above the battered woman’s life. He is gagged and cannot give an abused woman the advice she needs.

    2. There is a pattern to abuse, learn it.

    3. Abusers do not change unless forced. Leave him sooner rather than later.

    4. Abuse is the first violation of the marriage covenant. Once he abuses his wife, in any way, she no longer has a temple marriage to honor and needs to protect herself and children. That is her duty to God, not staying and putting up with abuse.

    5. Professional therapy helps you heal and learn how not to get in another abusive situation.

    6. Forgiveness does not cure abuse.

  3. Kasey Tross says:

    I recently read a post about all the things in YA fiction that need to stop, like love triangles. I had to disagree with it, because, at least for me personally, I don’t usually read fiction in order to be enlightened about a particular subject or taught a lesson- I read it for fun. And when I was a teenage girl, the idea of having not just one, but TWO guys into me and fighting over me was quite a nice fantasy, so I was all about those stories with love triangles. Take those away from my teenage self and you’ve just dropped my interest in your story about 10 points.

    So that begs the question: are we writing fiction to tell a story and to entertain, or are we writing it to prove a point and teach a moral lesson? Could it be possible that people don’t dwell on the bad in Mormon culture because we’re a positive people, and the bad stuff simply isn’t appealing to us?

    I recently read “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert, and one thing she said was please, please don’t write a story because you want to teach people. Especially not a fiction book. It will feel stilted and unauthentic and forced, and nobody wants to read that.

    If a book like this will be written, I think it needs to be a true story, or at least based on a true story. Granted, that will be a daunting task for someone, but I think it’s their story and they should tell it, and I would wholeheartedly support that kind of a story. But I also agree that there are those who will hold it up as a hook to hang all Mormon men on- but then again, that kind of thing happens no matter what, so…?

    I’m currently writing an LDS fiction that’s completely lighthearted, but I do touch ever-so-lightly on the less-than-ideal male character, because that’s how these characters came to me. I have a picture-perfect Elders Quorum President who is duller than a box of blocks and, as it turns out, is also pretty judgmental. Then I have a tattooed, not-always-active RM who believes in the gospel but is a little tired of Church culture. They both have prejudices to overcome, as does the MC, because she thinks Mr. Perfect EQP is the one she should be going for, and only accidentally realizes that Mr. Tattoos is exactly what she needs.

    Again, it’s a very lighthearted story, but it’s been interesting for me to use it to kind of explore our paradigms and show, through character development and growth throughout the story, how those can change when we look past the outward appearance and into the heart. I didn’t set out for it to be a story about those things, but it’s an interesting little bonus, I think.

    This is a good topic for discussion and I’m interested in others’ points of view.

    • spunky says:

      Interesting questions. I really enjoyed Big Little Lies– and I read it for entertainment, but also because the characters were so, so deeply flawed that I could relate to them.

      I think your romance about EQ vs. Tattoos sounds like my marriage, but not exactly. I think it would be a great book. When it’s finished, please ask us to review it so we can add it to our goodreads and amazon pages.

  4. spunky says:

    There have been a few comments on facebook about how this is too focused on males wearing the “black hats”—and absent of women as the aggressors. So I hasten to add this example:

    In high school, a dear friend (pseudonym Kimberly) was bullied, but not in typical fashion. The bully was the bishop’s daughter. And her method was in gossiping about Kimberly so that her father heard. The bishop’s daughter said Kimberly was not obeying the law of chastity, creating details and conversations that hurt Kimberly at school. But this gossip bled into the bishop’s office where the bishop refused to give Kimberly a temple recommend. The things his daughter (and wife) were discussion at home clouded his judgement, so in his mantel as bishop, he pressed Kimberly for a confession and refused to issue her a temple recommend to do baptisms for the dead.

    This lasted for Kimberly’s final two years of high school, when she changed wards and attended a YSA ward. She went on to serve a mission and married in the temple. Then, about a 12 years after high school, she was home visiting her parents, children in tow. There was a knock at the door. It was the (now former) bishop’s daughter. To her credit, she asked Kimberly for forgiveness, saying that it was she who created all of the gossip and rumours surrounding Kimberly in high school. You might say that the situation was righted—and this could make a great story. BUT—the former bishop never apologised. Should he? In fiction stories the duped-but-still-good-guy does. But in reality, the bishop never responded, perhaps he was ashamed that he was more in tune to his daughter than to the spirit? And maybe because of that his daughter would need to apologise and make things right with him.

    The scenario still stands, and it is complicated.

  5. Selwyn says:

    The truth – in all its hairy, sloppy, rude, joyous and fragmented glory – should be revealed in what we write. Both fiction and non-fiction are ways of looking at lives and choices and being able to say “That dude’s a jerk” or “that woman’s a manipulator” or “they’re so sweet and trusting they’re going to be hurt” – and if it so happens that it’s referring to leadership or a neighbour, so be it and bring it to the page.

    I know of book clubs where the selections are decided on to strict rules, like there can’t be any disagreements in a marriage, no leaving a spouse for any reason, no attraction to anyone outside marriage, no struggling with doctrine… Why read then??

    Life is complicated, and having books to turn to put yourself in other situations, or especially to see what people “do” in similar situations to yours, is a huge resource. It baffles me why LDS women in particular insist so often on insisting that the emperor is dressed, and very modestly too, it said so in the book they read recently, and the one before that too.

  6. Paul Stanbury says:

    I don’t doubt the truth of what you say. I heard such conversations as a missionary from my American companions. Back home in England I’ve served in many (more than a dozen) presidencies, bishoprics and councils and I’ve never heard anything approaching those conversations.
    I wonder if it is a cultural issue? Yes, the gospel should make all of us into better people, and especially us men into ones less likely to abuse and objectify women. That is a long process for many I fear.
    I’m sure we need to talk about it more and writing about it in fiction is perhaps a good way to raise these issues?

  7. Jim says:

    I’m curious, is this type of fiction widely read? And if so, where? I admit I am not in the US and so access to such fiction is perhaps harder. But it never occurred to me that anyone was writing LDS Mills and Boon. Not that it would be something I would read.

    However, if you are going to write it it should be true to what you know. I read fantasy and science fiction. I have read pretty much all the Orson Scott Card and Brandon Sanderson have written. Card uses LDS characters occasionally – but the main one (in the Ender series) was a lapsed Mormon married to a Catholic.

    Most people who know more than a very few Mormons will know some that are active, and some that are not. And they will know that many less active members are great people, and some active members are hypocrites.

    So write about anything – don’t sanitise it. But I would find a way to ensure the reader sees any “bad” LDS characters are atypical.

    • Spunky says:

      I get your point and appreciate the sentiment that we are to write about what is true to us– but it is hard to find a publisher that will print these kinds of stories. To be clear, I think there is a demand for these kinds of stories, but if a writer wants to make an income in book sales, it is hard to find a publisher willing to take the risk of non-traditional Mormon themes.

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