Review: Joanna Brooks grew up believing she was special. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Brooks felt set apart from her peers (in a good way) during her childhood, where her parents emphasized love, faith and service.
It wasn’t until Brooks started college at Brigham Young University in the 1990s that she started to see a side of Mormonism she didn’t feel connected to — a church that excommunicated vocal Mormon feminists and a church willing to invest millions of dollars into a California campaign to restrict the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. The Book of Mormon Girl chronicles Brooks childhood in a faith she loved and subsequent struggle to find a way to live that faith despite her distance from its leadership during her adulthood.
Although Brooks writes lovingly and evocatively about her childhood as a Mormon girl, The Book of Mormon Girl really hit its stride for me when Brooks started to write about the rise of Mormon feminism in the 1990s and the subsequent fracturing of Brooks own connection with the Mormon Church. According to Brooks (which I add only because I don’t know anything about this issue other than what I read in this book), in 1992, Mormon feminist historian Lavina Fielding revealed the Strengthening the Members committee — a group organized by elders in the Mormon church to maintain files on members that were deemed critical of church leadership.
As one might expect, many members of the church were critical and frustrated by the revelation. Over the next several years, Mormon Church leadership and critics clashed. In 1993, a high-ranking member of the church gave a speech “declaring that the three greatest ‘dangers’ to the Church were the ‘gay-lesbian movement,’ ‘the feminist movement,’ and the ‘so-called scholars or intellectuals.'” Feminist faculty members were fired from Brigham Young University (and others resigned in protest), and six Mormon feminists were excommunicated.
For Brooks, the entire decade felt like a betrayal:
The Church I was born into, baptized into, raised up in, the Church of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers, the Church I had attended as many as twelve hours a week every week of my life, and tithed to, my Church had declared me a double enemy. Not the multilevel marketers who used Mormon membership records to defraud their fellow Saints, or the CIA intelligence experts devising legal justifications for torture, nor the pedophile bishops who cost the Church millions of tithing dollars in legal judgments; not untruth, not fear, not greed. But me, and the others like me I met while a student at Brigham Young University — a small cohort of Mormon liberals, trying to find or make a place for ourselves within a tradition we loved.
As I read, I couldn’t help thinking, frequently, about another losing/finding religion memoir I read earlier this year, Raised Right by Alisa Harris. Both Harris and Brooks began to question their faith while in college, and subsequently wrote publically and privately about their experiences trying to reconcile a dogmatic church with their personal understandings of their faith. The similarities between the political rhetoric of both the fundamentalist Christian and Mormon Church is uncomfortably similar, and both Harris and Brooks take a similar path away from and back towards their religious lives. I can’t say I’d recommend one over the other, and in fact I think they’d be fascinating reads back-to-back.
The Book of Mormon Girl also has a lot of relevance as it relates to the prevalence of religion in our current political rhetoric (for good or for bad). It’s easy to place all people of a religious bent into a single category, missing the fact that inter-group conflicts can be even more fractious and important to understand. Although I wish Brooks had spent a little more time on her life after Brigham Young University and less time on her childhood, I learned a lot about the Mormon Church in reading the book and would recommend it as a fair and entertaining look at the complicated relationship that develops with faith as we age.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!