Guest Post: Erin Anderson, “In and Out”

By May 29, 2013

Today, as part of our continuing series on Mormonism’s Many Images, we are pleased to welcome Erin Anderson as a guest blogger. Erin left the LDS Church in her early teens, along with her parents and siblings; her extended family is still active. She holds degrees in religious studies from New York University and Boston University, and works as an administrator at Harvard.

The last time I set foot in an LDS building, more than a decade ago, I spent the entire day in the foyer. It was an ideal location. Like the rest of my immediate family, I had come to welcome these in-between settings: close enough to see friends and relatives, but removed from problematic religious spaces. My uncle’s wedding at the temple? We’ll volunteer to watch the kids outside. Visiting grandparents? Let’s fly in on Sunday afternoon, to spare them from asking us to church. We kept the peace by finding comfortable gray areas, neither embracing nor rejecting our heritage.

My parents, sisters, and I had withdrawn from a tight-knit congregation two years earlier, resulting in this “betwixt and between” strategy. Even in Massachusetts’ progressive Mormon community—surrounded by the lovely women of Exponent II—it had simply become too difficult for my mom and dad to raise three liberal, feminist daughters. And so I twiddled my thumbs that Sunday outside the chapel doors, already a veteran of living between two cultures at fourteen.

Now that we’re past much anger and anxiety, our decision to leave the Church has deepened my empathy for anyone caught in these liminal situations, including my former coreligionists. No group, to my mind, better exemplifies a dichotomous social posture than contemporary Mormons. As Ben P noted, it is both the most American of religions, and a perplexing “other.”

The Church has tried to square these two characteristics for decades, striving for balance between assimilation and idiosyncrasy. Armand Mauss hypothesizes that LDS history is marked by periods of cultural integration, followed by ones of retrenchment. Members assert their distinctiveness as soon as Mormonism looks too mainstream, to preserve their sense of being specially chosen—but not so much that they will lose all social respectability. [1] The needle swings between those two poles, and believers generate a range of expressions reflecting the desire for equilibrium.

I feel a great deal of appreciation for those who manage to walk that line with panache. My mother recently sent me a link to “Just Say Amen Already,” a Tumblr whose GIFs both celebrate and satirize the author’s singles’ ward adventures. “Just Say Amen Already” perfectly straddles the divide between insider and outsider: almost anyone would recognize the Disney films, network sit-coms, and Simpsons episodes she samples, but only someone well-versed in LDS habits would truly “get” every implied punch-line. And the Tumblr would be less humorous to those-in-the-know if it appealed to a broader base. Members are privileged, but without alienating newcomers.

Or consider this panel by Calvin Grondahl, editorial cartoonist for the Ogden Standard-Examiner and lifelong Latter-day Saint. [2] The Mormon soldier is immediately identifiable—his upright, obedient demeanor is a stark contrast to the others—but it is precisely that difference that makes him the ideal U.S. soldier. He is at once the most, and the least, American of his peers.

Grondahl

However, the whole point of the cartoon is to poke fun at this impression. It ridicules outsiders for buying into LDS stereotypes (and for being sloppy, inattentive, and unhealthy) while also lampooning Mormons, accentuating their squeaky-clean reputation. Everyone is a target, member or not, but in such a way that anyone can appreciate the humor without too much offense.

Such strategies for thriving within an interstitial space have kept me linked to a faith I have otherwise abandoned. Apostles, inactives, and apostates alike, I am confident that each person connected to Mormonism has confronted the strain between assimilation and peculiarity. When should I gloss over my unique background, and when should I highlight it? When the public talks about Mormonism, should I respond by stressing its conventional or exceptional qualities? Should I respond at all?

These are the same questions I’ve wrestled with for a lifetime, and my approach to dealing with them has not changed much since leaving the Church. Americans are fascinated by Mormons’ distinctiveness, as this blog has mentioned frequently; I’m never too far from a conversation about it. (This past electoral cycle made it impossible to avoid. “Oh, you’re from Belmont! Did you know the Romneys?” If I had a nickel….) And, almost every time, I’ll ride out the tension by trying to make my audience more comfortable. I rush to reassure onlookers that, while unusual, I am not that strange. As a kid I knew it was “weird” that I couldn’t drink iced tea, but I would point out that all kids have rules. It’s the same today. Yes, I used to be Mormon, and isn’t that intriguing! But here I am, drinking a beer. See? I’m just like you!

Just as it’s been for the Church, my own juggling act is never-ending. External factors will upset this delicate balance, forcing me to find new footing. Am I truly just like you if my face burns when a coworker says something ignorant about Mormons? Am I appalled by the Jodi Arias trial as an average citizen, or because the media has sensationalized its LDS connections? Why do I take offense when the New York Times implies that BYU’s straight-laced graduates are boring? [3] Each time, I am compelled to grapple with dual loyalties. These moments remind me that I have not severed all ties to the Mormon community, though I have long since given up any religious investment. They have taught me how to live both within and without, neither here nor there.

 

[1] Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994) 8–9, 77–78.

[2] Image from Calvin Grondahl, Freeway to Perfection: A Collection of Mormon Cartoons (Salt Lake City: The Sunstone Foundation, 1991).

[3] Jon Mooallem, “When Hollywood Wants Good, Clean Fun, it Goes to Mormon Country,” The New York Times, (May 23, 2013).

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Gender Popular Culture Reflective Posts


Comments

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful, incisive personal view of the complexity of identities and allegiances. A lot of it resonated with me, even being on the other side of that liminal space.

    Comment by Ben P — May 29, 2013 @ 9:57 am

  2. Thanks, Erin. I am in awe with the even keel with which you are able to write about Mormonism. It must have been a struggle to achieve that, and on-going struggle to maintain that distance. Most of my friends who have left the church are still struggling to find a space from which they can breathe and heal years after their decision to make the split final.

    Comment by Amanda — May 29, 2013 @ 10:07 am

  3. Thank you, Erin, for sharing your experiences with us. I think most of us are in complicated liminal places in relationship to aspects of our cultural and/or religious identities (With our penchant for religion-hopping, many Americans are “recovering” somethings, right?) This is a really thoughtful take on the struggle to walk a fine line between choosing to leave while still understanding and respecting both the community you’ve left and your ongoing connectedness to it.

    Comment by Cristine — May 29, 2013 @ 11:10 am

  4. Good stuff, Erin. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — May 29, 2013 @ 11:30 am

  5. Thanks for the feedback, everyone. I think this is the first time I’ve written publicly about my LDS background, and I’m happy to have had the opportunity.

    Amanda, I also saw a lot of my own experiences reflected in your post. When my split with the Church was still fresh, I too binged on ex- and anti-Mormon narratives. I feel very fortunate that, for the most part, my family has developed more Zen attitudes since then. (I think my mom and dad are still upset about all the tithing they’d paid over the decades.) It took a good deal of emotional work to find and maintain that balance, and it felt right to acknowledge the lessons I learned as a Mormon that still apply to my life today.

    Finally, I owe a huge debt to my parents, whose courage in leaving the Church as adults made the transition for us kids much, much easier. I am extremely lucky that my immediate family was able to act as a unified group, since such a radical life change could have splintered us apart.

    Comment by Erin — May 29, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

  6. Erin, I identify with many parts of your post. I grew up between two distinct (to me) religious worlds–my maternal grandparents, stepfather and mother’s sometimes uneasy relationship with Catholicism and my father and stepmother’s eventual conversion from having no outward church affiliation to Evangelical Christianity when I was in my early twenties. I do consider myself to be Catholic yet one who almost never attends church–mostly because I have not found one I feel at home in. I struggle with the church’s stance on issues I find most important, which are almost all related to my feminism. That said, I honor my religious and traditional roots. A lot of my Catholicism is connected to my family Irish Catholic traditions. I, too, find it difficult when people stated criticisms or misunderstandings toward the Catholic Church. Recently, I have been finding myself in the odd position of having to explain and too often defend aspects of Mormonism to many members of my family, friends, and colleagues. Though Catholicism and Mormonism are very different religious traditions, I am often struck by parallels between antiCatholicism and antiMormonism and the experiences with members who struggled with key issues in both faiths. Thanks so much for writing such a thought-provoking piece.

    Comment by Natalie R — May 29, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

  7. I’m not sure how kosher it is for the author’s mother to jump into the discussion, but here I am anyway. I appreciated Erin’s piece for allowing me to see what a difference a generation removed can make (among other things).

    I still struggle with my Mormon-ness, and I don’t always come out on top. For example, just the other day I met up with an old friend from pre-mission BYU days who was passing through Germany en route to Vienna, and whom I had not seen for at least two decades (although we’d been in touch off and on). While I did not say anything overtly misleading, the church did come up several times, and I’m sure that she was left with the impression that I am still active (at least to some extent).

    Why didn’t I just tell her that I no longer believe, and that the only times I’ve darkened the doors lo these many years has been because of the occasional funeral or when I haven’t managed to make travel arrangements on Sunday? (Going to church with my parents in the run-up to last year’s election… oy. Apparently they are members of the Republican Tea Party First Ward — but I digress.)

    Perhaps it is because I didn’t want to give her, as right-wing a political conservative as she can be, the satisfaction of knowing that I, a Europeanized liberal, am also an apostate. This is rather different than my unwillingness to rub my parents’ and in-laws’ noses in our unbelief and inactivity: in that particular case, I don’t want to hurt them further. I know that my parents are already disappointed and grieved and pray for “those who have gone astray” (that would be us, among a handful of other close relatives). So I’ve been and continue to be loath to make the situation (and us) worse in their eyes.

    —On the other hand, I’ve always had a notorious weakness for projecting how I think other people might react or feel about things… based on a somewhat overly-dramatic imagination. (“Only ‘somewhat’?!”— I hear Erin say.) For instance, when I was a teenager, I would writhe in agony “for and in behalf of” the older single women whom I admired any time the topic of marriage came up in church. Surely this was a stab in the heart to them every time it was mentioned! Surely they were secretly weeping inside! And even if they weren’t, I had more than enough misplaced empathy to ride the wave of assumed grief for them.

    Anyway, I expect that this same pathology contributes to my imagining my conservative friend pointing to our leaving the church (in every way but officially) as proof of the devil’s hand in progressive politics. (Do I really think that is how she would respond? And if so, what does that say about her and our friendship… but even more, what does it say about me? I honestly don’t know, but I simply didn’t want to deal with taking any direct steps to find out. So I sidestepped and redirected the conversation and talked and acted just the way an active member would. I can still talk the talk, regardless of how far away from the walk I am.)

    I am not at all proud of my behavior in this and in similar instances. Erin’s dad doesn’t seek out confrontation, but when the topic comes up, he’s up front about his lack of belief. (He is a thorough unbeliever, it must be said, while I am largely content to be resolutely agnostic about all of the questions that I was once supremely confident I had all of the answers to.)

    Well, enough of this self-indulgence. I am happy to see that Erin has found a sensible equilibrium in her own dealings with Mormonism, both past and present. Her piece has obviously amplified certain recent pangs of conscience about my lack of openness around at least some of the people I knew during the heyday of my church activity.

    Comment by Lynn in Europe — May 29, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

  8. Thanks for sharing, Erin.

    Comment by Saskia T — May 29, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

  9. Lynn, thanks for stepping in and offering your perspective. It’s interesting to compare the perspectives of mother and daughter. My father has been in and out of the LDS Church and has left decisions about the religious education of his children to their mothers. My mother, a Catholic, decided she couldn’t raise her daughters as Mormon or Catholic because of the sexism of both churches, while my half-sister’s mother converted to Mormonism and is raising her daughter Mormon. My mom hasn’t shared too much about her specific reasons in why she made the decision she did, but it was interesting to read about your decision. It resonated with me, especially about the part about being prayed for by family members. My grandmother made the choice to make comments on my wedding day about how her friend’s children were being married in the temple that same weekend. It didn’t really hurt, because I’m used to it, but it definitely put a damper on things. My sister was also recently asked why she wasn’t Mormon. I still find her response — that my dad was in the military and as a result, we were living in Germany when we were 4 or 5 — puzzling. It doesn’t really answer the question, but the person accepted it as a legitimate reason and backed off. I still wonder why my sister didn’t say tell it was because she didn’t believe in the Book of Mormon or that Thomas Monson was a prophet. Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful response.

    Comment by Amanda — May 29, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

  10. Thanks for the post.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 29, 2013 @ 11:53 pm

  11. Erin and Lynn,

    Thanks for this sharing of perspectives. As the father of six adult children, with three of them in and three of them out of the church, your narratives were very helpful to me in understanding that my wife and I are not the only ones who feel like we are caught up in a delicate balancing act. If we never know how the things we say or do will be interpreted, it is helpful to know that our inactive children are probably feeling the same things. A reminder that in these cases, the relationship and love come first, all other considerations are secondary.

    Comment by kevinf — May 30, 2013 @ 10:54 am

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