Note: Both my wife Anne Stewart and I read Joanna Brooks’ The Book of Mormon Girl over the holidays and were deeply affected by it. I asked her to write a guest post on her response to it here, and I will write my own thoughts on the book at a later date. –Mahonri Stewart
A number of years ago, while I was working at a book store in Springville, Utah, called the Red Leaf, I read Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. I can’t remember the moment I picked it up or why I decided to read it (other than the obvious: women and the Old Testament). In the fictionalized world Diamant creates, Dinah (daughter of Israel) is surrounded, not by twelve brothers, but by women. While I was ever aware that these were fabricated tales, I was struck by the way she fully structured the story around the Biblical women. While I’d read many fictionalized accounts from the point of view of Biblical women, this was the first that felt so singularly focused on the woman’s journey. Here were women, strong women. These were not women whose rituals and practices were a shadow to the men in their lives; these were women with rich, powerful stories who led lives of their own. The Red Tent filled in the absence that is present in so many religious narratives: the women’s story.
Like other religious narratives, the Mormon story is starved for female narrative. In the Book of Mormon there are six named women, the Doctrine and Covenants only two, and even our female deity remains mostly veiled to us. In The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith, Joanna Brook’s narrative connects to generations of Mormon women and makes a place for women who are less orthodox.
I especially enjoyed Brooks’ reflections on her Mormon childhood. As a multi-generational member, I understood her childhood feelings of Mormons against the world. There are so many stories of that magic investigator moment that it does seem, as a child, someday someone is going to ask you that important question: why you are different and then, because of you, their whole world will change. Even in Utah, I remember those “root beer among cokes” moments, where there is the fear of standing out and the pride of standing up. And the feeling of being a root beer in a room of cokes doesn’t just fade away.
In the Young Women theme it states that young women will “stand for truth and righteousness.” Standing for what you believe in has long been an important part of Mormon rhetoric. In many ways, this book is about Joanna determining where and for what she should stand. Although I have a very limited knowledge of Marie Osmond, I related with Brooks’ desire to become like Osmond. When I was twelve, I received a copy of Jack Weyland’s novel, Charly. I wanted to be like Charly, with all of her Mormon spunkiness. I was in young women when many of the church films began to come about. Movies like God’s Army, The Other Side of Heaven, and even The Single’s Ward, normalized aspects of Mormonism. There we were, Mormons on the big screen; an example for the entire world to see.
A story from a Mormon girl separates from a story of a Mormon boy around age 12. There was no story of ordination, while mentioned; it was not part of Brooks’ story. Instead we get tales of the shift women go through at a similar time: menstruation. For a brief time in college, I was fascinated with the treatment of menstruation in modern society. I was interested in the combination of earlier menstruation and the disgust with menstruation in our society and effect that had on young girls. It makes sense that a woman’s story would include these types of stories, because they are singular to a female experience.
Joanna Brooks’ story seeks to carve out a place for what it means to be Mormon, Female, and Feminist. In true Joanna Brooks’ fashion, she is inclusive. She seeks to make space for herself, while not pushing anyone out. “No one should be left to believe that she is the only Mormon girl who walked alone into the dark. No one should be left to feel like she is the only one broken and seeking” (pg 144). Upon first venturing into Mormon Feminism, it did seem a lonely path. But I have found that Mormons are good at community building, and even their most unique members have found ways to create community.
In college I remember a professor talking about words that we use to define us and others. She talked about reclaiming labels. I thought of the term “Mormon” and how it had been used to mock the Saints, until the Saints took it and made it their own. There is power in words to define and redefine. The moment when Brooks’ realizes that she identifies with the label of Mormon is a powerful moment in her narrative. She does not fit the traditional definition of Mormon, and yet, by claiming it as a label, she redefines it. The church’s “I’m A Mormon” campaign seeks to do something similar: it tells us that a Mormon can be so many different things and reminds us that there are Mormons like Joanna Brooks. Mormonism is not just one pattern or one way of thinking. A community of saints is embracing, encompassing, and welcoming.
In her book, Brooks quotes Muriel Rukeyser, “What if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split apart.” I was taught once that God’s people were encouraged to write, so that their stories would not be lost. The women’s stories from ancient times, for the most part are absent from our religious record and so it becomes even more imperative for us to record them now. What worlds will “split apart” when we talk of the religious history of women?