Friday, 9 December 2011

Do I dare disturb my universe?

I wore my 'Dare' t-shirt on a Friday morning a couple of months ago. When it was time to take my youngest two children to school they said, 'Awh, Mum. You aren't going to wear that are you?'

I explained about T.S Eliot and Prufrock; about daring to disturb the universe and daring to eat a peach, but they remained intractably attached to the conclusion that I am an embarrassing parent. And they are right.

As I drove up to the school I noticed that none of the other children appeared to be wearing school uniform and, not for the first time in my career as a mother, I realized that I had orchestrated an Epic Fail. A Dukes of Hazard style three point turn, a lightening drive home, a couple of Superman-speed clothes changes later, and the children were ready for mufti day.

[Deep breath; 'Dare' t-shirt at the ready - here goes...]

In years gone by, such a parenting failure would have left me feeling nauseous for at least twenty four hours. I was brought up in a Mormon family. When I was a child there was a sign in the hallway of my parents' house which said: 'No other success can compensate for failure in the home' (Mormon prophet David O' McKay said this in 1935). The home is very much seen as the woman's responsibility in Mormonism. In 2007, Julie Beck, leader of the Mormon Women's organisation, The Relief Society, said the following in an address titled Mothers Who Know:
Mothers who know are nurturers. This is their special assignment and role under the plan of happiness. To nurture means to cultivate, care for, and make grow. Therefore, mothers who know create a climate for spiritual and temporal growth in their homes. Another word for nurturing is homemaking. Homemaking includes cooking, washing clothes and dishes, and keeping an orderly home. Home is where women have the most power and influence; therefore, Latter-day Saint women should be the best homemakers in the world. 
(I take issue with so much of the above statement, but I'll limit my response to a request for access to the thesaurus that synonymizes nurturing with homemaking. Other women have taken the time to respond thoughtfully to Beck's address as a whole here).

By the time my youngest child was born, the square footage of my life had been reduced to such a small area that any failures in the home, any lapses in orderliness, seemed disproportionately enormous. Once, I sent son number one to school dressed as a Roman, wrapped in a sheet wearing a homemade, paper-leaf crown: Roman day was the following week. Another time, I forgot to pick a friend's daughter up from school, and she waited there for an hour before I remembered. My ironing basket frequently reaches volcanic proportions and beds often remain unmade. I am not, and never have been, one of the 'best homemakers in the world'. And shaming, in the form of 'should be' statements, has not increased either my aptitude or my inclination to improve.

There are some good things, some funny things and, of course, some bad things about being brought up in a Mormon family. By far the worst thing about such an upbringing is earning the label of 'apostate' when, like me, you decide to leave.
Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. When the gospel was preached, good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant. (Joseph Smith) 
Although the rhetoric of apostasy may suggest otherwise,  I am definitely not a servant of the Evil One (that'd be the devil, as opposed to Voldermort).

Mormons sometimes say that people can 'leave the church, but they can't leave it alone.' This aphorism is an attempt to silence those who leave, and for many of us it works: we don't want to upset or embarrass our family and friends by saying anything about our Mormon experience which could be construed as 'negative' or 'apostate'. Trying not to talk about Mormonism when you've been raised in it can be a little tricky (although it's something I've managed pretty well, to date). But trying not to write about it has been a bit like trying amputate one of one of my limbs with a toothpick; painful and ultimately impossible.

Mormon fiction is frequently 'blindly affirmative' and 'essentially devoid of genuine conflict' (Eugene England). Perhaps this is because some Mormons perceive the creation and depiction of flawed Mormon characters to be an act of aggression; a symptom of apostasy and the desire to be 'negative' - a cardinal sin in a religion in which happiness and positivity are so frequently equated with righteousness. But without conflict and flawed characters, there are no stories. Levi Peterson maintains; 'Literature should reflect life. Ultimately, it should reflect all of life.  Nothing that people feel, nothing that they do, should be denied a place in literature.'

One of my stories has just been published in Dialogue magazine. 'Scaling Never' is my first published story to reference Mormonism. It is a story about doubt, faith, and an absent miracle; the antithesis of the neat, happily-ever-after, stories I used to hear at church. The Mormon church teaches that people should expect miracles. In articles such as this one, 'Do you need a miracle?' the church commodifies miracles, offering instructions on how to obtain one. A miracle would have given 'Scaling Never' an easy, yet utterly unbelievable and defective resolution. Levi Peterson believes that 'Timid authors fall into the error of incompleteness'. I am trying not to be timid; trying not to write incomplete stories that don't reflect real life, even though, in light of my Mormon upbringing, such forthrightness is counter-intuitive.

This blog post probably seems innocuous and incredibly long (well done if you've made it this far) but it's a bit of a milestone moment for me. My younger brother gave a nod to his Mormon roots some time ago, but it's taken me several years to feel able to do the same. I've just disturbed my universe. I've admitted to diminishing guilt re. my 'homemaking' failures, mentioned my Mormon roots and alluded to my future writing plans. Robert Sheppard would describe this post as poetics (and he'd be right). It wasn't daring of me to separate myself from Mormonism - leaving became essential - but, having been raised in a culture which demands the of silence of those who leave, it's taken some daring for me to begin to write about it.


  1. A brilliant and brave post, with so many interesting links, too. Congratulations on disturbing your universe!

  2. Carys, a wonderful piece of wrriting. Kudos to you!

  3. What a brilliant piece of writing. Definately a poetics. I think there's something about Mormonism to be grateful for - all that journal keeping probably made you into a writer :)

    I think daring to leave is important. You often find that writers don't write about the city they grew up in until they move away from it. I couldn't really get into my novel until I'd sent my resignation letter.

  4. Hi Carys,
    Interesting to read your perspective on this, as I too am obviously aware of 'the good, the bad and the ugly' of being raised in a Mormon family (which could be said of non-Mormon families too).
    I occasionally read your blog not because I'm one of those nosey Mormons within the church who is spying on you 'apostates' (no I don't think you are apostate, okay maybe a little bit, but no more than I am!) but because I'm interested too in creative writing and think you have good ideas and it is inspiring to see your success. In the context of your personal story, writing and referencing Mormonism in this last story was very brave, but ignore those silly people that accuse you of 'not being able to leave it alone', it was/is your life and besides you can write about whatever you want!
    I am currently writing a novel set in the 1980s and although I am mindful that it may become a dreadful flop I'm doing it anyway. As I have been told by many I should write what I know and seen as what I know is growing up in a Mormon family then I am writing about that. I should say though that I'm not into giving the everything is rosy picture to Mormonism either as like you said that wouldn't be very realistic or interesting. It is going to be dark and funny, hopefully. And maybe a little bit 'nice' too at the same time.
    Peter Harbon

  5. Hi Peter, you are only the second person I know of to be writing a novel about English Mormons (I'm making an assumption that they're English). I'd love to read your work one day. A novel in the 1980s will be very interesting - looking back, I think the church was very different then.

    1. I'm replying as anonymous because I can't remember my google account name & or password and can't be bothered to refresh it and because I'm trying to be ironic!
      I'm about a third of the way through the novel, it is about an English family and yes the church was a lot different back then (80s). The church is mainly just background and the real story is a family drama and the humour that arises out of conflicts and misunderstandings. With 4 kids now the only time I get to work on it is after 9pm, but I make notes on the back of my hand or anything I can find to scribble on during the day. I get to read 2 hours on the bus every day to and from work so I get all kinds of inspiration from Cormac McCarthy, Harper Lee, Virginia Woolf, J. D. Salinger, Mark Haddon... My goal each day as a writer comes from Hemingway's adage, 'just write one true sentence.' This is not as easy at it sounds as I'm sure you're aware, but it is worth it when it works. Peter.

  6. That's a very varied reading list - can't wait to read what you're writing!

  7. This is a brave, thoughtful, and interesting piece, Carys. I was brought up Catholic and have always been fascinated how many other writers were, too. Perhaps there is something of the confessional in the religion I emerged from, as there is a silence in the one you did?