Mormonism Permeates Everything
In trying to explain to never-Mormons why it is so difficult to leave Mormonism, I think it’s important to explain the ways in which Mormonism permeates all parts of your life, from family to self-esteem, gender, identity, health habits, clothing, community, media, education, career choices, children, and on and on. I feel like I’m still picking through parts of my brain and identifying things that belong to Mormonism and trying to decide if I’m going to keep them or throw them out (mostly the latter for now, anyway). I don’t think that other Christians go through this same process. Moving from one Christian denomination to another does not require the same amount of work. So it can be hard to get sympathy from them, especially when they use the “c” word (cult) dismissively. “You were in a cult — now you’re out and you can be happy again.” It doesn’t work quite like that.
I don’t like to think of Mormonism as a cult, but perhaps that is partly because I don’t like to think that I was too stupid to see that I was part of a cult. I have a PhD from Princeton University that I finished at age 25. I had graduated with my B.A. and M.A. in only two years after high school. I got a perfect score on the verbal portion of the GRE. I was smart. And it wasn’t as if I was being held in a prison. I lived in New Jersey for my grad school years. I could have left while I was there. But I didn’t. And there are good reasons for that.
I won’t go into all of the ways you can identify a cult (leader worship, only approved sources of information, shunning or the threat of shunning, shame and overwhelming workloads to keep you busy), but the important point here is that there was no part of my life that wasn’t Mormon. I had a career as a nationally published children’s author, but that was what I thought my “calling” by the God of Mormonism had been. I had children because I believed in Mormonism’s promise of happiness through having children. I stayed home with my children and was happy working on the long lists of requirements to get to Mormon heaven because I liked lists and had always been good at them. I enjoyed a kind of smug superiority over other struggling Mormons and non-Mormons. I am not happy about this, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that this was one of the gifts that Mormonism offered me in exchange for not thinking for myself. I was actually happy not to have to think about all the thousands of decisions in life on moral topics because that gave me more mental energy to do other things.
I was not a mindless robot or slave. I very much reject that characterization of the person I was then. I had nuanced views of Mormonism. I thought for myself on many topics. I was not the ideal Mormon woman and I felt some weird pride in this because it seemed to prove that I was an individual and wasn’t in a cult. I had many friends who were non-Mormon. I didn’t believe in the Bible literally and knew a lot of the historical inconsistencies in the church’s narrative of itself. But I also loved Mormonism. I loved the promise of eternal progression. I loved the idea of families being together forever. I loved praying and feeling that I got clear answers from God. I loved the community of Mormonism and the sense that Mormons got things done, both on a small scale and a large scale.
But when I tried to step away consciously, I began to see the enormous difficulty of it. I had to make a list of things to do just to not attend church anymore. I had a class of small children I was responsible for and had to make sure someone else would take over for me. Then I had to do some visible things to make it clear that I wasn’t Mormon anymore, like taking off my Mormon temple garments, which I had kept wearing mostly out of habit (and out of solidarity with my Mormon family members). I made a goal to drink a coffee. And to try alcohol (which I still think is disgusting and possibly the one prohibition that Mormons have right).
I still wish sometimes that I hadn’t left. Not because I believe that God is going to punish me, but only because it is so hard to make every single moral decision on my own. It is so hard to let go of the hope of being perfect and to accept that I’m going to make bad mistakes, possibly every single day, and that there’s no way out of that now that I see the truth of reality. I am still processing a lot of anger and trauma and it feels sometimes like no one will acknowledge it because I *chose* to stay Mormon for so long. I *chose* to defend the church for many years. I *chose* to alienate myself from two of my favorite family members who left Mormonism before me.
I write about Mormonism for a living, but even if I didn’t, I would still have to process all of this. Who am I now? A messy work in progress.
I spent fourteen years after my initial faith crisis trying to make things work within Mormonism, trying to nuance things to death. I respect and admire those who are still trying to make things better within Mormonism, but I just couldn’t do it anymore. I feel guilty for that, for being selfish enough to need to take care of myself, and I know that this guilt is also a gift of Mormonism, because it’s my fault I wasn’t strong enough to do more good. What if I’d left earlier? What if I’d processed all of this years ago? Where would I be now? Who would I be? I will never know that, I suppose, but I’m still angry and devastated at the thought.
It’s no wonder I didn’t leave earlier, though. I thought I was strong enough, but I wasn’t. You don’t become strong enough to do this except by doing it. It’s like training for an Ironman. You can do what you can do, but your first race is the one that really teaches you. There is nothing like that.