In “The Book of Mormon Girl,” Joanna Brooks describes her 1980s Southern California Mormon childhood in loving and witty detail: the search for a non-caffeinated beverage at birthday parties, an overabundance of greasy casseroles and a Mormon festival at the Rose Bowl featuring 15,000 sateen-clad dancers.
She was “a root beer among the Cokes,” a Latter-day-Saint oddity amid countless born-again Protestants. A friend once invited the 13-year-old Brooks to an evangelical youth gathering at which a stand-up comic ended his routine with a deadly serious warning that “the Mormon Church is a cult.”
Still, for Brooks it was a comfort and sometimes a thrill to grow up among the people God had chosen to protect from outside threats. A year’s supply of water, dried foods and powdered milk had her family prepared for a Cold War apocalypse. More substantively, their faith steeled them for whatever lay ahead. After all, their years on Earth were a time of testing and trial, a preparation for their return to their heavenly family. No nuclear missile could interrupt God’s “plan of salvation.”
“I could not yet see the shadows in my world of sparkling difference,” she recalls. Those shadows, however, gradually crept across her adolescent life of faith. There were questions about polygamy in heaven, stern warnings about maintaining chastity and the discovery of “the largest tampons we had ever seen” in a chaperone’s Coleman cooler. When Brooks turned 12, the boys in her Sunday school class received the priesthood, the ecclesiastical authority to “lead, bless, and baptize.” She received a copy of Marie Osmond’s “Guide to Beauty, Health & Style.”
When she reached Brigham Young University, Brooks anticipated finding a husband in a community full of root beers. Instead, she became an antiwar feminist out of place in politically and theologically conservative Provo, Utah. “Anti-Christ,” someone shouted from a passing car after seeing a peace symbol on her book bag. The memoir accelerates through these years, leaving the reader to wonder why she embraced ideas apparently so antithetical to her upbringing.
Despite the Mormon Church’s history of opposing the modern feminist movement, there was a small cohort of feminists at BYU during Brooks’s undergraduate years. Uneasy about not only feminism but of any scholarship critical of the church, Mormon leaders in the early to mid-1990s ultimately excommunicated six prominent intellectuals.
Brooks returned her BYU diploma in protest and pursued a PhD in English at the University of California at Los Angeles. Having failed to secure an eternal companion in Utah, she fell in love with a Jewish graduate student. When she married him, she risked — according to Mormon doctrine — separation from her family in heaven. Presumably to protect their privacy, she leaves out what must have been anguished conversations and strained relationships with many friends and relatives.
After years of self-imposed exile, Brooks returned to her church, accompanied by her still-Jewish husband. Her ancestors had endured persecution, exodus and poverty to maintain their faith; she decided that she could survive political and theological differences to pass hers along to her interfaith children, who have learned about both “Moses kneeling barefoot before the burning bush [and] Joseph Smith kneeling in a grove of trees with a heart full of questions.”
Her return coincided with her church’s decision to galvanize Mormon support for Proposition 8, a California ballot measure to overturn the legalization of same-sex marriage. Brooks joined her church’s opponents, standing alongside gay friends and speaking publicly against Proposition 8. She was saddened, but not surprised, by the successful political mobilization of her co-religionists.
Like many other branches of Christianity, Mormonism is too steeped in patriarchy to easily welcome feminism. And unlike most American churches, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that men and women must be sealed in marriage to enter celestial glory, which they can then enjoy together. That view of heterosexual eternity makes it difficult to see value in homosexual relationships on Earth.
Yet Mormonism has changed over the past 20 years. “I believe the Church is slowly outgrowing old habits of punishing the unorthodox,” Brooks writes. Even if the excommunications of the 1990s still cast a dark shadow over the lives of Mormon intellectuals, Brooks and other Latter-day Saints have criticized their church’s support for Proposition 8 with no ecclesiastical consequences.
Brooks’s sprightly yet thoughtful prose, her carefully constructed narrative and her passionate yet forgiving activism make hers a rare memoir that ended too soon. It is a triumphal declaration of unorthodox faith and an engaging — if unconventional — introduction to an American religion. Her story’s true ending, of course, remains to be lived and written. Brooks’s grandmother wrote the story of her life when she reached the age of 84. I hope that Brooks will not wait as long to write “The Book of Mormon Woman.”
THE BOOK OF MORMON GIRL
A Memoir of an American Faith
By Joanna Brooks
Free Press. 207 pp. Papberback, $14