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Review: ‘Book of Mormon Girl’ by Joanna Brooks

Review: ‘Book of Mormon Girl’ by Joanna Brooks post image

Title: The Book of Mormon Girl
Author: Joanna Brooks
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2012
Publisher: Free Press
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration.
Rating: ★★★½☆

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.

Other Reviews:

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Trisha August 21, 2012, 8:10 am

    I have met more Mormons in the last three years than I had in my entire life. Because of this, I’ve been getting more curious about the religion so this sounds like a good start for me.

    • Kim August 21, 2012, 7:34 pm

      That’s interesting! I think this would be a good start. It doesn’t talk too much about doctrine until later chapters, and then mostly in the context of Brooks’ experiences, but I think it’s still a decent (and fun to read) primer.

  • susan August 21, 2012, 8:33 am

    From your review I sort of want to know if Brooks sticks with it or leaves the Mormon church altogether. hmm. The ex-communications seem dicey

    • Kim August 21, 2012, 7:35 pm

      She does stick with it, to some extent. She’s currently a religion scholar and speaks pretty frequently on Mormonism in the mainstream press. I think she was on Jon Stewart recently, but I could be wrong about that.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy) August 21, 2012, 9:09 am

    This sounds really interesting to me – I’m looking forward to reading it.

    • Kim August 21, 2012, 7:35 pm

      I hope you get a chance to!

  • Nikki August 21, 2012, 2:38 pm

    I just finished Arcadia by Lauren Groff and had the same impression. Albeit a fictional account in Arcadia, the narrator goes a long way towards balancing the negative stereotypes about growing up in a a hippie commune, with his own love of the place even with the problems that arose.
    It’s good to see Brooks following the same direction–one religion or group is not all bad or good. It’s much more interesting to see all sides of the group and the appreciation she still has for her religion even with her critique.
    Thanks for the review!

    • Kim August 21, 2012, 7:37 pm

      Interesting comparison! I want to read Arcadia, but I’m also sort of saving it because I loved The Monsters of Templeton so much and don’t want to be done with Lauren Groff books.

  • Jenny August 22, 2012, 7:41 pm

    This looks really interesting! I think it would be a good one for me because I don’t always, okay, I don’t always be kind enough about the Mormons, BUT reconciling my faith and my feminism has been a really hard thing for me too. And hence this could be my way into Mormons.

    • Kim August 23, 2012, 7:56 pm

      It was! I have to admit not always been kind about Mormonism either.. it’s hard because it’s so young and seems to make no sense. But then lots of religions make no sense when you get down too it, they’ve just been around long enough that it seems to make sense. It seems like a lot of the major religions can find ways to be unfriendly to feminists when they want to be, which is a shame…

  • Grace Peterson August 23, 2012, 12:16 pm

    I recently read Cami Ostman’s memoir, Second Wind. She grew up in a strict religious environment but in her early 20s, broke away and healed herself through marathon running.

    I enjoy memoirs that involve the author rethinking his/her enmeshed belief systems. (I’ve also written one that isn’t published yet.)

    Thank you for this review.

    • Kim August 23, 2012, 8:00 pm

      That sounds like a fascinating memoir, I’ll have to look for it. I tend to enjoy memoirs like that too, about people questioning themselves and exploring where those questions lead.

  • Colleen August 26, 2012, 10:43 am

    I saw the author on an episode of Rock Center where they explored Mormonism and I thought her story sounded very interesting. She very articulately explained her issues with the Church while still showing a respect for the institution. When I saw she had written a book I actually thought I might see a review of it on your blog since you read so much excellent non-fiction!

    • Kim August 29, 2012, 6:27 pm

      That’s awesome! I wanted to watch Rock Center, but never seemed to be home when it was one. I hope I can find that episode to check it out.