Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist (Amazon) (AMV review) has been making a splash. As of this writing, it’s holding on to the last spot of the NYTBSL and I’ve been seeing articles about Udall all over the interwebz.
Here at A Motley Vision, we are “devoted to exploring the world of Mormon arts and culture. Or to be more specific: Mormon literature, criticism, publishing and marketing — plus film, theater, art, music, and pop and folk culture” (cite) and generally we interpret this to mean the culture of faithful Mormons.
With Brady Udall, whom, many of those reports report, is rather less faithful (at least as compared to his wife and kids, apparently), the question arises: How do faithful Mormons (interested in the arts or not) view our less faithful artists?
(Note: This topic has been considered at greater depth elsewhere on this site, including here and here and here and here, and I would be happy to see any of those discussions revived if you’re interested in engaging.)
Simply put, the perception is that “we” generally view “them” with at least moderate suspicion. Even enlightened artsy types like myself.
That said, let me announce here, as clearly as possible, that The Lonely Polygamist in no way knocks Mormons. Here are the three most notable quotations about mainstream Mormons in the book (please keep in mind that my copy was a free ARC from the publisher and my page numbers will not correspond with your page numbers) (also note that if you remember tiny details from blogposts, there is bit of a spoiler in the second and third quotations):
Unlike the valley’s Mormons who peopled the towns along the river, the members of the Living Church of God, who mostly lived on farms and compounds at the eastern edge of the valley, did not hold positions of power, sat on no boards or councils, had nothing but their little church on the hill and each other. (152)
Though the Mormons in the valley were suspicious, even openly antagonistic toward their polygamist brethren, a child had gone missing; they formed search parties, set up and command center in Hurricane, shut down their farms and shops and businesses to comb miles . . . . (247)
The Mormons—who had abandoned the Principle a hundred years ago . . . had many things the fundamentalists did not: they had their expensive modern chapels, their temples and their worldwide bureaucracy and millions of clean-cut members, they had their Donnie and Marie. But they did not have this priesthood authority, the ancient biblical power, borne of men of God . . . who spoke the hard truth, who conversed directly with God and had the ability, like Jesus of old, to release a dead child from her . . . grave. (249)
Mormons, as per 1970s polygamists’ perspective.
Anyone who, reading those passages, would take offense or freak out or burn a book is insane and should be treated as such (you will notice from this opinion that I do not always learn the lessons I claim to learn). Happily, I have not read any angry yellings yet, but, well, #35 on the bestseller list really ain’t that many books (and it doesn’t show up on this week’s USA Today‘s top 150 at all).
But Udall knew that talking about polygamy is sensitive no matter how fair you are. And so, shortly before the book’s release, its publicist at Norton sent AMV this statement, penned by the book’s author:
Like so many others in the church, I am a product of polygamy. If my great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother had not decided to get married-even though great-great grandpa was already happily married to someone else-I and hundreds of my kin would never have been born. So it was only natural that, when asked by Esquire magazine in 1997 to write a piece about my religious traditions and values, I chose to write about polygamy. This was back before Big Love, before the raids on the Texas compound, and before Tom Green and Warren Jeffs became household names. Though I had direct connections to polygamy and thought I knew something about it, I went into my research expecting what anyone might expect: ramshackle compounds, hardened men in homemade clothes, cow-eyed women in pioneer dresses with ridiculous hair.
The people I met turned out to be disappointingly normal. They lived in suburban townhomes, drove minivans, shopped for clothes at the mall. As a rule, normality doesn’t make for interesting copy, but as I spent more time with the families I began to see that the appearance of normality was an illusion. They had to keep their lifestyle a secret, suffered the scorn of their neighbors and were criminals under the law-not to mention the fact that in a single family there might be as many as six wives and thirty-five children. These were normal people, then, living in an exceptionally abnormal way.
The Esquire article led to my upcoming novel The Lonely Polygamist which took the better part of a decade to research and write. Because novelists are routinely asked what they happen to be working on, I got into a lot of discussions about polygamy, and I noticed a common reaction among members of the church. Mostly they seemed agitated, or even aghast, wondering why I would want to write about such a prickly subject. Once or twice I was asked if I had something against the church, some axe to grind.
Of course, these sorts of reactions were not surprising. The church has struggled to distance itself from polygamy, claiming that it no longer has a connection to the practice. And yet I don’t think we can sweep polygamy under the rug so easily. Whether we like it or not, polygamy is not only a part of our past, it’s part of our present, our scripture and theology, which both suggest it will be part of our future. If we are to respect our heritage and be honest about who we are as a people, we must acknowledge polygamy’s place in our church and culture. And when we see a polygamist family among us, we must remember we are looking in the mirror; we are looking at ourselves.
At this point, we learn something new about interMormonism culture wars. As you might have picked up from the book quotations above (and likely already know anyway), any feelings of wariness Mormons feel toward the lapsed, polygamists feel toward us—for we, from their perspective, are also lapsed.
Yet, in truth, are we not all fallen?
I know everyone likely to read this post already agrees with me, but if Brady Udall, who generally strikes me as a pretty balanced and centered human being (even if some of the violence in Edgar Mint is really really awful), feels he has to wage a preemptive attack on Mormon biases, then I’m wondering if many Mormons cannot tell the difference between a Brady Udall and an Ed Decker (who, incidentally, is from my home ward, though I should point out he lost his mind before I was even born and we have never met)?
I’ve too often seen liberal-minded (in the classical sense), artsy Mormons pick on those of lower-caliber mind, and I don’t want that to happen here. But I do want to open the comments with a few questions. Feel free to address all, some, one or none of them but please be nice to those who aren’t here to defend themselves.
1) Is Udall’s seeming paranoia justified?
2) Is there a culture war between faithful and less faithful Saints? And if so, is that war based in unrighteous judgment or something more doctrinally justifiable?
3) And what do you make of this whole “war” metaphor, anyway?
4) How similar is the relationship between polygamists and mainstream Mormons to mainstream Mormons and lapsed Mormons?
5) Is The Lonely Polygamist a “Mormon” book?
And please, as I hardly touched upon it, delve into the meat of Udall’s statement as we discuss this issue.
See you in the comments.