Sunday, 30 September 2012

Review of 'Under Covers'

Here's a very generous review of my story 'Under Covers' from Mel Ulm at the review blog, The Reading Life.

You can read 'Under Covers' at FemaleFirst.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

A little bit of Autobiography ~ Motherhood

I think my recent autobiographical musings (here and here) have been laying the foundations for this post. To recap, in a recent interview Zoe Lambert said:
Of course, the relation of the self to writing is more complex than the insertion of autobiographical experiences or facts or the creation of characters of the same age and gender as the author.
I've been thinking about Zoe's comment, particularly with reference to the forthcoming publication of my first short story collection. It's not really up to me to say what my book is 'about' - I won't ever be able to view it as a reader - but as I reflect on the stories, I notice frequent instances of parental ambivalence and perhaps, on an autobiographical level at least, some of that ambivalence can be contextualized by an understanding of a woman's place in the Mormon community.

I grew up feeling that my life was building towards the ultimate fulfillment of motherhood. I always pictured myself with a big family. Maybe statements like the one below played a part in my imaginings:

Woman and the Priesthood, Rodney Turner, p.222. 

My own family life probably played a part, too. I'm one of five children. Some people hate growing up in a big family, but I loved it. I loved my siblings, we had tremendous fun - when we were small we were like the five musketeers: one for all and all for one.

Mormon girls are taught that bearing children is their primary purpose in life. A 2010 statement reads: 'Teach your daughters to find joy in nurturing children. This is where their love and talents can have the greatest eternal significance' (see full text here).

The song below, 'I Want to be a Mother', is featured on a CD for Mormon children that is still on sale (it contrasts beautifully with the get-up-and-go, disco-influenced 'My Big Brother's Going on a Mission').

What if a woman doesn't want to be a mother? It seems that she is intrinsically bad: 'Faithful daughters of God desire children' (see full text here).

What if a woman wants to be a mother AND something else? Tough luck: 'It was never intended by the Lord that married women should compete with men in employment. They have a far greater and more important service to render... Wives, come home from the typewriter, the laundry, the nursing, come home from the factory, the cafe. No career approaches in importance that of wife, homemaker, mother - cooking meals, washing dishes, making beds for one’s precious husband and children' (see full text here).

I wanted to do motherhood the 'right' way, the way I'd been taught: milk and cookies and yellow balloons, the whole joyous, fulfilling experience. I spent several years in a slightly bewildered and occasionally desperate fug, wondering what I on earth I was doing wrong. Things were difficult financially because we had followed the advice of numerous Mormon prophets: 'Do not curtail the number of children for personal or selfish reasons. Material possessions, social convenience, and so-called professional advantages are nothing compared to a righteous posterity' (see full text here). Consequently, I needed to get a job. I decided to work nights so I wouldn't be away from my children during the day. I felt guilty about working and I was so exhausted that I was frequently physically sick. My doctor gave me some medication to counter the sickness. I didn't tell him that on the nights when I wasn't working, I often lay awake, struggling to breathe past my bounding heart as I worried about things like eternal polygamy and how to quell the desire to snatch back some of my life from sticky, grasping fingers.

There were times when I attempted to give voice to my feelings, but other mothers were incredibly skilled at squelching ambivalence. I couldn't find anyone who was prepared to concede that parenthood was bloody awful at times, so I began to assume that there must be something fundamentally wrong with me. A thick, cotton-wool silence surrounded topics like postnatal depression and sleep deprivation. When I got a prescription for anti-depressants, I didn't tell my husband - I couldn't find the words, they weren't in the script of joyous, eternal motherhood.

Things got better. When I finally started writing again (I stopped when I was 19, after I got engaged) I wrote about all the things I couldn't discuss. (I talk about this in a Thresholds article on short story writer Helen Simpson, here). I wrote about harried, sleep-deprived parents; about shattered expectations and beastly children; about absent miracles and anxiety. After so many years of trying to carve myself into a complaint, and obedient woman, writing about the dark side of family life was a transgressive and extremely enjoyable enterprise.

My collection isn't autobiographical; I'm not divorced, I didn't buy my children at the supermarket and I don't live in a gingerbread house. But, as Zoe says, the relationship of the self to writing is complex and I wonder whether, among the drowning dolls and twilight supermarkets, the fictional parenting books and decapitated snowmen, there are tiny refractions of past anxieties: the place of women, polygamy, motherhood - I expect they're there, somewhere.

Friday, 28 September 2012

A little bit of autobiography ~ Polygamy

photoI didn't find out about polygamy until I was about thirteen, and then it was inadvertently, during a lesson at church. People may find it hard to believe that a Mormon girl could be unaware of polygamy, but this was back in the days before the internet. I didn't have a Utah pioneer heritage replete with dozens of polygamous ancestors, and although I had heard people mention polygamy, it had always been to insist, 'No, of course we aren't polygamists!'

There must have been about ten of us in the room. We were attending the church's program for girls aged 12 to 18 (called Young Women's). We were taught weekly lessons on a variety of topics including Preparing for Marriage, Dating Decisions, Creating a Spiritual Environment in the Home, Homemaking, Attitudes about Divine Roles and so on. I assume the lesson that particular week had something to do with marriage - many of the lessons did. I don't know how the topic of polygamy came up, but our Young Women's leader was entirely unprepared for the questions that followed and she went to look for help. It just so happened that a woman we all liked, a mother of several grown-up children, was lurking in the corridor outside our classroom. Our Young Women's leader called, 'Sister Doe (that wasn't her name). Can you come and help us, please?'

Poor Sister Doe. Whenever I picture her, I see her standing at the front of that classroom, trying to justify eternal polygamy to a group of very upset girls. I hardly recall a thing she said, but I do remember watching her laugh nervously as she wrung her hands and played with her wedding ring, and I remember one of the girls asked a question: 'Does it work both ways? Can women have more than one husband in heaven?' Sister Doe shook her head. 'No. It only works one way,' she said.

I had a lot of questions about polygamy after that, but no-one wanted to answer them. I asked whether I would be forced be a polygamist in heaven and I was told I had better worry about getting to heaven first. When I pushed further, I was told polygamy had been instituted to take care of widows (not true - between 1850 and 1950 there were more men than women in Utah). I was told  polygamy was numerically necessary to raise a righteous generation (not true - polygamous women have less children per capita than their monogamous counterparts). Finally, I was told polygamy was God's will and, as a female, (see previous post) I was in no position to argue.

Birthplace of Joseph Smith - relief carving by origamidonIt was several years before I heard Joseph Smith's claim that an angel with a drawn sword had appeared to him and commanded him to take more wives or be utterly destroyed. Smith married at least thirty-three women, including several teenagers and at least eleven women who were already married. I wasn't surprised to learn that many women didn't want to be polygamous wives. Joseph Smith's fourteen year old wife, Helen Mar Kimball wrote, 'I would never have been sealed to Joseph had I known it was anything more than a ceremony. I was young, and they deceived me, by saying the salvation of your whole family depended on it' (Mormon Polygamy: A History p.50). The next Mormon prophet, Brigham Young, had to give a sermon telling women to stop complaining about polygamy:
... 'it is frequently happening that women say they are unhappy. Men will say, 'My wife, though a most excellent woman, has not seen a happy day since I took my second wife.' 'No, not a happy day for a year,' says one; and another has not seen a happy day for five years. It is said that women are tied down and abused; that they are misused and have not the liberty they ought to have; that many of them are wading through a perfect flood of tears... 
But the first wife will say, 'It is hard, for I have lived with my husband twenty years, or thirty, and have raised a family of children, and it is a great trial to me for him to have more women; then I say it is time that you gave him up to other women who will bear children.' (Journal of Discourses)

There were even hymns admonishing women to help their husbands acquire extra wives. Here is an example from an edition of Songs of Zion:

Now sisters, list to what I say:
With Trials this world is rife,
You can't expect to miss them all,
Help husband get a wife!

Now, this advice I freely give,
If exalted you would be,
Remember that your husband must
Be blessed with more than thee.

Then, O, let us say,
God bless the wife that strives
And aids her husband all she can
T' obtain a dozen wives.

Although Joseph Smith and other Mormon prophets were polygamists, mainstream Mormons haven't practiced polygamy since the early 1900s. When Mormons say, 'No, of course we aren't polygamists!' they are technically right. However, eternal polygamy in the afterlife is enshrined in Mormon scripture (see Doctrine and Covenants Section 132) and it's something that causes devout Mormon women a lot of pain (see here and here). In fact, the church continues to perform polygamous eternal marriages by allowing men who have been widowed or civilly divorced (without a religious divorce) to be married for eternity to more than one wife. But a woman who has been widowed or civilly divorced (without a religious divorce) may not be married for eternity to more than one husband.

Polygamy hurt Mormon women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and it still hurts them today. I remember comforting a friend whose first husband had been unfaithful. She was crying because she was terrified about dying and being forced to share her second, much-loved and faithful husband, with other women. I didn't believe in polygamy by then, in fact I was agnostic about the existence of God, but sharing my unbelief wouldn't have comforted my friend. She believed in Mormonism and consequently had to find some way to rationalize and accept the doctrine of eternal polygamy.

Mormon missionaries don't routinely mention polygamy when they canvas for converts - sometimes women join the Mormon church without knowing anything about it. I know a woman who attended church meetings for several months. She was even baptised. Then she read about polygamy on the internet and she never attended church again. I was asked to go and visit her to explain why polygamy is okay. The man who asked me said it would, 'sound better coming from a woman.' I refused to do it.

After I got married I tried not to think about polygamy at all. Whenever I thought about it, I felt sick to my stomach. Then I had my daughter. And I knew that one day, someone would tell her about her eternal destiny as a polygamous wife; that her idea of heaven would be tainted by a sexist doctrine which rendered her feelings and desires irrelevant. In retrospect, that was the beginning of the end for me. I loved my Mormon community and our funny, Utah-centric culture; I knew even if I managed to tear myself away from the church, a big part of me would always be Mormon - and I was right, if you could turn me upside-down to see my label, you would read, "Made in Mormonism" - but I wanted different, better things for my daughter.

By some strange and circular coincidence, years after I watched Sister Doe attempt to explain polygamy, I was wandering the corridors of my local Mormon church. I didn't want to be there. I couldn't bear to sit through the lessons anymore, but I was reluctant to put my husband through the shame of belonging to a part-member family, (a family where one spouse is not Mormon) so I continued to attend church with him and our children. I felt bruised and lonely as I traipsed up and down the corridors. I was increasingly alienated from the people I loved by doctrines I could no longer embrace. I didn't even look up when one of the Young Women's leaders hurried out of a classroom. 'Carys,' she called. 'Help! It's all kicking off in there. They're talking about polygamy. Some of them didn't know. They're crying. I don't know what to say. Can you come in and talk to them?'

I had a sudden flashback to the day I heard a grown woman stammer through a half-baked justification of eternal polygamy. I looked at the flustered Young Women's leader. 'No,' I said. 'I'm sorry, but I can't.'

To be continued.

Polygamy Porter image from Flickr, by Celebdu
Joseph Smith image from Flickr, by origamidon

Thursday, 27 September 2012

A little bit of autobiography ~ Women

I've been thinking about Zoe Lambert's comments regarding autobiography in our recent interview. Zoe states,  
Of course, the relation of the self to writing is more complex than the insertion of autobiographical experiences or facts or the creation of characters of the same age and gender as the author.
I think Zoe is absolutely correct, the relation of self to writing is really complex, and it's something I've been pondering. My next few blogs are likely to be long and rambling. I'm going to try to organize my thoughts into three posts: Women, Polygamy and Motherhood *gulp*

I grew up in a patriarchal faith community. I wrote a little bit about it here.

As a child and teen I attended church at least twice a week. Men had a divine right to be in charge of the faith community and women were subject to their authority. Women who campaigned for equality were characterized as either misguided or as man-hating feminists.

The quote below is taken from an article published in a church magazine around the time of my birth (full text found here).
There is concern expressed in some quarters that the growing rebellion of youth is a logical extension of the shift toward equalitarianism. In a new way and in ever increasing numbers, the youth today are demanding a voice in education, marriage, sexual expression, and other significant areas of life. As woman challenges the authority of man, so youth challenges the authority of the family and all other related social institutions(bold added)

Just in case the above quote doesn't make things clear, here's a helpful diagram from Rodney Turner's Woman and the Priesthood, a book that was also published around the time of my birth. This diagram illustrates that face to face communication with God and woman is not possible because 'the man [stands] between Him and the woman' (p.52).

I grew up thinking it was perfectly normal for men to officiate at all church meetings. For men to baptize, bless and interview women about 'personal worthiness' (and it did get very personal). For men to select the leaders of the church's women's organization and to decide who is allowed to go to the Mormon temple. For men to deliver church discipline and act as jurors in church courts. In the Mormon church men 'preside' over women. [Preside (Verb): 1. To be in a position of authority. 2. To be in charge of.]

The above book, Woman, contains fifteen essays written by men.

Nowadays, when Mormon men talk about presiding, qualifications are made: preside doesn't really mean preside - it means something else; the fact that men have the casting vote in a marriage doesn't mean they are in charge; men and women are "co-equals" etc. In a way I prefer the unequivocal language of my childhood to the Orwellian, language-bending prevarications necessary to make this 'separate but equal' ideology palatable to women in 2012.

In a recent attempt to revisit the language and ideology of my past, I ordered a book, Woman's Divine Destiny. This book sets out the guidelines which "God's spokesmen" have given to women. I braced myself for the book's arrival. I knew it was going to be a difficult read.

The book arrived last week, a secondhand, musty-smelling hardback with a water-damaged cover.

I carried the book upstairs, opened it and read the dedication page:

I closed the book and I sat down, suddenly uncertain about revisiting this part of my past. When Woman's Divine Destiny was published I was three years old. Although it was written by a woman, the book is an exercise in justifying and upholding the words of generations of (male) prophets. Many of the women who tended to me at church read books like Women's Divine Destiny. These women loved and cared for me, they sang and played with me in Sunday School, they took me on trips and camps, and they tried to grow me into a good woman; a woman who would eventually become the kind of wife the book describes:
One should choose a mate as he chooses a shoe: if it isn't a good fit, it will be painful. If we consider this shoe-to-foot analogy, we can see the husband as being the foot, having to climb the rocky road to exaltation. A bare foot is going to find the path too painful; it needs a comforter, a shoe...

When I consider what makes a shoe truly comfortable, I see more clearly how to be a comforting wife. What does a comfortable shoe do for a foot? It supports but is also pliant. Good leather molds itself to the demands of the foot, whereas if the foot yields to the shoe, the foot becomes misshapen and doesn't perform as well. The shoe needs to do the yielding as it cushions the hard places. This yielding can be minimal if proper care has been given to the fitting of shoe and foot.

Those of us playing the roles of shoes need to seriously consider what happens to shoes that are painful. They are generally discarded and a more comfortable pair takes their place. Some men are honorable enough to endure the pain of uncomfortable shoes... But far too many pain-producing wives have learned that their husbands aren't that long-suffering, and have found how it feels to be discarded.

Wholesale Lot Steampunk Alice in Wonderland necklace pendant charm Drink me bottle vial 5ml 43 antique silver bronze brassAfter I read the above description of marriage, I put the book to one side. I sat at my desk and wondered why I feel compelled to pick at this particular wound. Perhaps, I told myself, it is because I am writing a story with Mormon characters and I need to remember how it feels to be a Mormon woman [*]. Or perhaps, I thought, it is because I am still engaged in what seems like an eternal, unravelling exercise, separating myself from the teenager who, drunk on the advice of "God's Spokesmen," gave up a scholarship at an American university to get married, work part-time in a menial, poorly paid job and give birth to 5 children in 7 years. I'm not sure. I'm not sure about lots of things nowadays. But I am sure that Zoe Lambert's observation about the complex relationship between writing and autobiography merits further consideration.

To be continued.

[*If I could sum it up briefly, using one experience as an example, this is how it felt to me: Several years ago, a Mormon man I hardly knew telephoned and asked me to play the piano for a Mormon musical production that was happening in a city 20 miles away. There were bi-weekly rehearsals and I was not offered payment for my time or expenses. Back then I had four children under the age of nine, so I told the man I was too busy to play the piano for the production. The following evening the man called again and spoke to my husband. He asked my husband to 'tell' me to play the piano. I didn't.

'Drink Me' image from UmbrellaLaboratory, a gorgeous, Steampunk, Etsy shop.

Part 2
Part 3