Since reading the first chapter of Elna Baker’s The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, the book has taken me on a ride. Sometimes I was filled with joy and sometimes with horror. Sometimes I felt she was very much my kind of Mormon and sometimes I wanted to slap her. In other words, it’s a good memoir.
1. Damage Control
About halfway through the book, a newly confident Elna (more on that momentarily) decides she will win the most desirable young Mormon man in New York. Her primary competition is an Amber who “is like a Heather only she’s attacking your spiritual worthiness and your dress size at the same time” (128):
And do you know what the craziest part about all this is? Amber’s popular. I’m dumbfounded by it. Not because I’m jealous or want to be popular myself, but because she’s insane. She raised her hand in church one Sunday and said that Katrina happened in New Orleans because sometimes God needs to “cleanse the world of sin.” It’s people like her that make damage control in the non-Mormon world a never-ending task. (129)
I’m with Elna here: It makes it harder for me to feel like a reasonable and respectable person when I’m put in the same category with Ambers. Seriously So Blessed owes its massive success to the existence of Ambers, and that faux Amber’s over-the-top self-righteous snidery rings plenty true — the site has both the insider lovemail and outsider hatemail to prove it.
So yay. Elna is a defender of the faith. Or is she, he said as he turned to the camera, one eyebrow raised.
Do we defend the faith alongside Elna? Or do we defend it against her?
Here’s a scan of the dedication page:
Elna is clearly not writing this dedication just for her parents. It’s written for any LDS Barnes and Noble shopper who picks this book up wondering what Mormons (like themselves) have to do with sexy short dresses (unlike their own dresses) and begins to thumb through it, looking to see whether the author is on Sister McKay’s side or not.
And, clearly, Sister McKay would not approve of a Mormon girl who uses “nine F-words, thirteen Sh-words, [and] four A-holes.”
Elna’s sending a clear message to good Mormons who would sooner be murdered than speak inappropriately: “I would sooner speak inappropriately than be murdered.”
And if you believe that unclean language springs from unclean thoughts leads to unclean actions, then beware: This young lady might be exactly who you fear she is.
So if her dedication makes you doubt her dedication, this is not the book for you.
Start defending the faith.
3. You’ll notice I’m calling her Elna
Not to make this review all about me, but yes, I am. I am calling her Elna.
One aspect of this book is that it’s difficult to finish it without believing you know Elna Baker, that you are Elna Baker’s close personal friend. And so I call her Elna. Until she tells me to stop.
4. The Polite-Company Rule of Memoir Writing
I’m not sure what the precise ratio is, but modern memoirs have a clear x:y requirement of Stories Appropriate for Polite Company to Stories Decidedly Not for Polite Company. Elna’s in a unique spot in that, depending on what brand of Polite Company you mean, nearly everything she says is a notfor. Both Jesus and tongue tag are taboo depending on who you’re sitting down with. So her potential at making Constant Reader uncomfortable is doubled, giving her an advantage over people like James Frey and JT LeRoy who had to make stuff up to keep everyone squirming.
Mormons make people uncomfortable. Mormons are easily made uncomfortable. What a win-win for Elna.
5. Pooping out a Fourth Grader
If you, like me, have only seen pictures of Elna like
then you may find it difficult to believe that she was not always a little blonde cutie in the traditional form. And all the available photographic evidence (coming up next) would suggest that’s what she wants you to believe. And yet, one of her book’s major emphases is her change from Large-Since-Childhood to Sexy (“Who knew that I could be sexy?” ).
Like any Large American, she had flirted with dieting before, but it never took. Until one day at a British amusement park she met a funhouse mirror that presented her to Thin Elna. “‘I wish I looked like you,’” (78) she says and, having seen herself Thin (“For the first time . . . [with] a sweet spirit and a sweet ass” ), she decides that it is time to finally drop the weight. For reals this time.
You should know that in addition to all the bad language (and so forth), this book also contains some clear and penetrating spiritual moments that are without irritating sentimentality or that feel tacked on without being first earned. The weight-loss story is one of these.
She prays for grace before starting. She skips her own birthday cake. The doctor has her keep track of all her eats. She drinks gallons of water and takes “Potassium, seratonin, dopamine, a multivitamin, and phentermine . . . little circles of color. Skittles . . . only the opposite” (84).
And she starts shedding weight.
She’s a great success.
Until she realizes she’s only halfway done.
Only halfway done.
And then she has that experience where “God wasn’t in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but God wasn’t in the fire, and after the fire a still, small voice, and God was in the still, small voice” (90) and she perseveres, together with God, and loses “eighty pounds, which is the equivalent of pooping out a fourth grader” (91) and she and God stand together in their moment of shared victory.
She is Thin.
6. Evidence of the Past
Now. That Polite-Company Rule? Really, in most circumstances, “Stories Appropriate for Polite Company” means stories that the teller can tell without giving away any information they do not wish to part with. In other words, you don’t tell embarrassing stories. Not ones that still embarrass you.
But the memoirist makes the decision to bring these unpleasantnesses into the foreground and display them, providing a mutual catharsis shared between author and reader.
But there is a line Elna will not cross. She claims to have destroyed all pre-Thin Elna photos. For all I know this is true. I have never seen one.
And so, new addendum to the Polite-Company rule, you may tell all the inappropriate stories you want, but you are not required to show anything.
7. The Change
Speaking of showing, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is punctuated with drawings and handwritten text. The two most significant (because recurring) offer commentary on the past and foreshadow the future and fill in untold gaps. These are a simple T-chart comparing “What I believe” and “What I used to believe”, and a map of Manhattan surrounded by a gradually growing list of boys kissed. Here is the first map (123):
Besides the fact that handmade inking is always welcome in a book, Elna uses her ink to good effect. Not to dumb down the book, but to provide additional facts on the sly. They show a respect for the reader’s capacity to figure things out. And what reader doesn’t appreciate that?
If you’re good at numbers you’ll notice that this first map didn’t appear until postfourthgraderpooping. Care to guess the reason for that?
You’re right! Thin Elna gets lots more kisses than Large Elna did!
8. Wait, phentermine???
“Everyone gains weight back, at least a little of it. I knew this. I’d watched it happen to other people. But that wasn’t going to be me. I was a success story” (200). Only it did. When she gained back ten pounds, unwilling to disappoint her doctor, she decided to lie about her weight and order her old pills again off the Internet.
And this second experience with phentermine takes the most beautiful moment in the book thus far and turns it 90° and suddenly it’s not so otherworldly anymore: “‘It’s basically a derivative of speed’” (203).
. . . [losing weight had been] an out of body experience — Christ was dwelling inside me. I was waking up early, jogging incessantly, my appetite was gone, and I had an obsessive need to clean: All because of God. Only this change in my behavior hadn’t started the night I . . . prayed for His grace. These symptoms began two weeks later when I first took phentermine. My BIG miracle, I realized, the closest thing I had to evidence of God’s existence, was actually just me — ON SPEED! (203-4)
9. An Aside, in which You Are Subjected to Some Thericonian Philosophy
I try and I try to understand why so many Christians are threatened by evolution. That many of us are is well documented and something irreligious authors love to harp on. The otherwise brilliant novel Ark Baby blows it at the end by having a religious man, faced with irrefutable evidence of evolution, suddenly just drop God like an out-of-fashion necktie.
Among the new threats scary science is currently wielding over faith is the God Spot in the brain where religious sentiment is generated. An idea Robert J. Sawyer used to prove God a brain-generated evolutionary error.
Or human cloning, which idea gives Elna the heebie-jeebies — “‘Scientists can’t create that thing that makes us alive . . . They can’t create a person’s soul‘” (163).
Now, Mormons are famously (though with plenty of exception among the laity) unconcerned with what the truth is because we are concerned with what the truth is. Or, to be less enigmatic, since we believe in gathering in all truth, we do not fear it. So if it ends up that God wants to talk to me through an evolutionary “error”, why should that bother me?
Why can’t God give clones souls?
Why shouldn’t God work through speed?
10. How much do we love the moderately estranged? Elna Baker as test case.
Let’s start with what Bambi said:
I attended NYC singles wards at the same time as Elna and she was a rather polarizing figure. Yes, she is mostly funny, but a lot of it comes at the expense of the church or its quirks. A lot of people were bothered by the fact by Elna would be representing the church to so many people and the manner in which she did it. I think that by most accounts she stayed “active”–at least in the NYC sense of the word. She made some decisions about her act that some members would find questionable, but she is definitely a talented story teller and worth checking out at least once.
Bambi is hitting on the curious truth that many Mormons seem to labor under the incorrect assumption that Mormons are a homogeneous group. That’s bad for Mormons who think Mormon are like themselves (because they fail to reach out), and it’s bad for Mormon who think Mormons are not like themselves (because they feel pushed away).
And what happens when someone like Elna shows up, someone who forces those on the one side to realize this coin has over 13,508,509 sides? She might make us uncomfortable, but since when is being thrust out of our comfort zones antithetical to being Mormon?
Theory: the real issue (though not for Bambi, obviously — please don’t feel picked on) is that she is single.
The travails of the single Mormon woman have been done to death within Mormonism so no need to rehash it, but I had a revelation recently when a good friend of mine was married. Because I did not expect her to get married. The not-enough-Mormon-males problem is so endemic that I have stopped expecting my single female friends to marry.
Elna deals with the cutthroat Mormon singles scene with not enough boys on one side and Ambers, those “crazy dogmatic Christians on a quest to find celestial popularity” (128), on the other.
When Elna finally does start dating a Mormon boy, she warns him that “my mom says that every time I meet a guy at church I subconsciously sabotage it” (214).
And why not? Kissing your way across Manhattan isn’t a mistake on par with marrying the wrong Mormon and ending up with an eternity of bad sex (several pages). It may be a mistake and it may make some people look down on you but it’s a risk with a short shelf-life. The wrong marriage, however . . . .
Elna clearly considers herself Mormon. She just as clearly is unsure how to process that fact. She clearly has a testimony. She just as clearly is unsure how to quantify that testimony.
Thus, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is a volley of sorts — a manifesto for moderately estranged Mormons. The question begged, then, is how will “homogeneous” Mormons reply? Is our literary culture gracious enough to let in a (nonapostate but) moderately estranged believer?
11. Until tomorrow when her book hits stores, Elna Baker will be better known for telling her stories live. Here’s one from the book. (Please be warned that it mentions v*g*n*s.)
12. Spoiler alert
I’ve already given too much away. Sure, I haven’t touched the atheist boyfriend or the movie star or the racist baby shoppers, but now I’m now going to talk about the end of the book. So be warned.
Also, know that much of what I say will be in response to my previous post on The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance‘s first chapter.
13. The End of the Book
It ends perfectly with a primal scream on a log at a lake in the woods in the midst of the artistic release of writing this book. Release and self-acceptance and all is right with the world and one more drawing to wrap things up and tell us we are done and then huh? what’s this?
Just as Elna sabotages her relationships with men, she now needs to sabotage her relationship with her readers. She had us at a place of hope and comfort and optimism for the future, but she is constitutionally unable to leave us there. As she says, she’d “sooner admit to holding a penis than to being sentimental” (271) and so she takes her advance on the book and blows it on a trip that is guaranteed to grind her into dust. Frankly, her capacity for self-immolation is remarkable. I can’t tell you how many times I ripped the book from my face, forced to psych myself up to read the next massively short-sighted (stupid) or embarrassing (horrifying) thing she would do next.
And so she takes her book’s perfect ending and gives us one more extended horror.
15. The End of Yes?
And having done so, she realizes that she is “refusing to choose what kind of person I want to be. I’m saying yes to way too many things. I love that moment of unlimited possibilities so much that I’ve accidentally built my entire life there” (271-1).
Last time I said that
Elna demonstrates through joyous actions the pleasure and happiness to be found in living a life of YES and she makes us want to say YES as well . . . [and] by the end of page 22, as you stand in the corner of the New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance with Elna and her “too many cookies and a notebook” watching “a thirty-five-year-old man — definitely a virgin — dressed in a duck costume doing the electric slide” you will pray, with her, “God, there has to be another way.”
She feels that way again as the coda ends.
But this time, the answer might not be
One final thought……:
I’m glad it took me so long between finishing the book and finishing the review, as now I have a better sense of what its lasting impression is. The proper ending and the conflicting coda left me unsure whether Elna was providing damage control or requiring more of it.
But two weeks later, I can say, that no matter what label you want to put on her, Elna Baker is my kind of [label].