Why Do We Devour Ourselves?

John Dehlin has asked repeatedly why it is that he is most vociferously critiqued by other ex-Mormons, rather than by Mormons. One answer to this is fairly simple, that most Mormons don’t follow him and if angry at him, tend toward passive-aggressive remarks and certainly no cursing. Ex-Mormons, however, have no such restraint or need for niceness, and some of us are still figuring out how much cursing and which curse words are the best ones to use for our apparent constant state of anger post-Mormonism. But I think another, more complex answer is that ex-Mormons are traumatized and, like a wounded bear, turn toward whoever is nearest to try to ward off our terror of a new wound.

I feel like I’ve experienced this response on both sides recently, after having published the essay “The Five Doctrines of Ex-Mormonism” with Religion News Service, which was picked up by the Salt Lake Tribune as an “op-ed.” I’ve felt devoured by what I thought was my ex-Mormon community, my peeps. I write essays more than once a week and have hundreds published by Huffington Post, RNS, The Trib, and Medium on Mormonism and ex-Mormonism. Most of them have fewer than a hundred readers.

When I published this piece, I thought that most people would nod and smile wryly to themselves, recognizing some patterns they’ve seen, and hearing me making fun of myself as well as others. Mormonism is a high-demand religion and it seeps into every part of our lives. I, like many others, may well spend the rest of my life trying to see how Mormonism is still hidden within the simplest assumptions. Getting rid of all those Mormon parts is probably impossible and isn’t really my goal, though I do hope to see my own problems more clearly, and writing is one of the main ways I process my experiences.

The explosion of anger from other ex-Mormons that was the result of this piece at first made me angry. Some of the complaints seemed (as is often the case) to demand an essay of about fifteen times as many words as the one I had published. Other complaints were addressed in previous or planned essays that critics had not bothered to read. But I admit, I had not anticipated the genuine pain and hurt that I cause and for that I apologize. I did not intend to cause more harm to those who are in trauma after leaving Mormonism. I also did not intend to give any satisfaction to Mormon critics of ex-Mormons, especially in their “angry” or “sinful” arguments, which I think are superficial and untrue. We are angry, in part because of what we’ve been through, in part because we are allowing ourselves for the first time to experience negative emotions which are not allowed within Mormonism.

One friend told me she felt that my piece sounded “superior” in tone, and that criticism rankled. My exit from Mormonism has been stretched out over fifteen years, and so I think the final step away was not as difficult for me as it has been for others. Some of the questions, like how to get rid of the idea of God punishing us, are things I dealt with so long ago that I’ve nearly forgotten about them. I certainly didn’t mean that me not drinking coffee regularly and finding alcohol disgusting make me superior. In fact, they make me feel socially awkward, as almost everything in my post-Mormon life does. But I also don’t want to be pushed into doing ex-Mormonism the way that other people have done it before me.

And here is the heart of the problem as I see it. I have certain triggers because of what led me out of Mormonism. Specifically, I have a knee-jerk reaction to anything about authority, masculinity and femininity, and about my autism. If someone presses on those and makes me question whether I’m doing ex-Mormonism “right,” I think I find myself feeling as if I’m back in the Mormon mindset where I don’t get to choose my own life, and it makes me feel suffocated.

I can see now that I did the same thing to other people, touching their trigger spots on issues of “worthiness,” “shame” and “guilt.” My accusations about sexism in ex-Mormonism aren’t less true because of this, but they are more complicated. Patriarchy is alive and well outside of Mormonism, and it can feel very comfortable there. When people who don’t know me automatically suggest male authors to me (though I’ve published 15 books of my own and hundreds of essays), I feel patronized in the same way I often felt in Mormonism, where I was never qualified to lead or speak in a position of power over men.

So my answer to the question John Dehlin poses about why ex-Mormons are his worst critics is that we are all wounded animals, but the wounds are different. When we try to be ourselves, vulnerable and authentic as we often were not within Mormonism, our sharp edges hit each other. What you see and are trying to change about yourself is not what I see and am changing about myself. We’re all working on different parts of the project and we all have wounds. And it’s just hard. Really, really hard, when we’re not reading from the same script anymore.

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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