"And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost."
— The Book of Mormon, Moroni, 10:4
You must search for the truth in a world where there is only one acceptable outcome. If your answer is “it's all a lie,” doubt your doubts and try again. Pray until you're sobbing and can’t breathe. Pray until your weariness paints angels before you. Pray until you can’t anymore and invent miracles to avoid the gazes of the others. Pray until you believe.
When you can’t?
Light floods through the window in angled rays that mingle with the dust and cast giant rectangles of glowing orange across naked walls decorated only by faint smudges of dirt and the occasional accent of chipped paint, picked at by decades of anxious students. The light catches the rough edges where the paint ends and the drywall begins, intensifying the shadow where the light doesn’t quite reach. It looks completely black to me, like a void beckoning me to reach inward and touch it, even though I know my fingers will not pass through, even though I know it’s just drywall and it’s all an illusion.
It’s a Wednesday, which means I am halfway through Especially For Youth, the week-long church camp my parents dropped $600 on for me to attend. It’s the type of camp that the other kids returned from with a certain glow that told you they just wouldn’t shut up about their Magical Testimony Building Experience. The type of camp that the kids from poor Mormon families dream about. I’ve even heard stories of girls meeting their future eternal husbands there.
I sit in the center of the room with my legs crossed and watch the specks of dust dance with my every breath. They sparkle and drift in a way that suggests they are alive. I lean into this mirage.
“Dear Heavenly Father,” I whisper, “I need to know if you are real.”
I continue to sit, in silence, on the floor, waiting for any semblance of a sign. The sunlight catches the light hairs on my arms. My eyes widen, pupils dilating so that I can catch the slightest message God might have for me. The light bores into my brain. I feel naked. I squint. Refocus.
I focus on warmth, that feeling of sun soaked deep into the bones, and I feel safe.
This is it, Ruby, I think, this is the moment you’ll believe. My heart lurches like a child’s heart caught in a lie and a voice deep in my brain — my voice — chides me. I feel shame.
I am ashamed to invent some miraculous story in my mind. It’s a vulgar lie amplifying the church’s facade of posters with smiling families from all over the world. Their grins contort every inch of their faces. Sometimes I see a smudge of mascara under the mother’s eye or a poorly matched foundation shade leaving an orange smear across the daughter’s neck that exposes the hours of preparation it took to fake happiness, but everyone else is convinced. I am a freak destined to not believe the story, condemned to find the sorrow in the perfect, happy people.
My eyes well up with tears and my nose tingles in that pinching way that makes you rub at it ferociously with the back of your hand so as to distract from the coming despair. I hunger for belief. How happy I would be if I could cry along with the girls bearing their testimonies and get butterflies when scrawny, pale, repressed, homeschool boys vied for my attention. If only I was one of them.
I turn my attention back to the window, I mean, back to God. I need to know if you’re there. The sun had begun to set at this point and the once vibrant orange dimmed and became cool. I looked at the open Book of Mormon on my bed. The pages were slightly bent and well worn.
“Dear Heavenly Father,” I whispered, “You need to tell me now because I can’t do this shit anymore.”
It’s funny. I’ve told this story hundreds of times, describing the light and the warm glow, but I’ve never told the truth. The day after, I was crying at Testimony Meeting, describing my story through shaky, manufactured breaths. “I felt like God reached out to me personally,” I cried at an audience of people who were so proud of me. My best friend at the camp pulled me close and we embraced for a long time. She told me I had finally got the answer I needed. The camp counselor met with me personally the next day and asked if she could hug me. “I am so proud of you,” she said. I repeated the story so many times and received tears and genuine smiles conveying sheer joy that I had finally had my moment. Sometimes I even believed it.
But that night ended differently and my soul knew it was a lie.
The sun set and the room went dark. My heart felt cold yet entirely numb. My limbs were tense. I whispered “fuck you” and fell asleep.
Maybe God heard that.
Every Sunday, we sat for three hours in the second row, the sea of wooden pews at our backs. We faced the pulpit and the organ and a large circular window whose panes looked like orange slices cut across the fruit’s equator. The glass was slightly tinged with blues and greens and the trees behind it let in speckled flecks of sunlight which faded before reaching the people below. It was meant to let in the morning sun, but the trees were overgrown and ivy clung to the window. They stole the light before it reached any of us.
Springfield, Massachusetts’ days of beautiful sunrises overlooking the Connecticut River were long gone. Instead, the dreadful sun tore into the once forested hills, now encased in decaying mansions and villainized immigrant populations. It was a gray city, full of trapped people struggling to make ends meet. We weren’t from there, though.
I lived in Longmeadow, up the hill, a mile or two away. That perfectly manicured bubble of Range Rovers and BMW’s, soccer moms and absent fathers. Aside from a small strip mall with a Gap and Talbots, our only claim to fame was the most millionaires in Western Massachusetts. People from Longmeadow didn’t go to Springfield. We heard stories about bodies washing up in the river, pulled downstream until they crashed near the Longmeadow Yacht Club. If you really had to go to Springfield, you locked your car doors and never went alone.
Every Sunday, my mom woke us up early and dragged us into the battered Saturn whose bumper hung precariously as if attached by a thread. Every Sunday, I dug my heels in the ground and gave my mom hell. While the rest of Longmeadow slept, I furiously ripped Sunday clothing out of my closet, searching for the most intimidating thing I could find. Then I would emerge with a scowl, a fifth grader clad in spiky hand-me-down ankle boots and an oversize Goodwill pleather jacket which reeked of cigarette smoke from the previous owner. I would scream “I hate church!” and my mom would haul me into the car. She’d glance at me through the rear-view mirror with tear-filled eyes. Sometimes I told her I knew she didn’t love me.
Then we’d make our way to Springfield.
We weren’t much different from the people there. We rented the smallest home in Longmeadow and skipped meals to afford the ever increasing rent. The kids at school giggled at our old Saturn whose interior featured exposed foam insulation on the ceiling, after years of wear had ripped the fabric off. Kids whispered that the windows in my family car had to be opened by a hand held crank. I ate peanut butter sandwiches and baby carrots, while others had Subway sandwiches, Doritos, and even Cosmic Brownies for lunch. We’d only been off the government-funded grocery program for about two years at this point, but my mom still locked the doors as we passed the “Welcome to Springfield” sign.
She would park and we’d follow the stream of families dressed in button-ups and knee-length skirts. They always wore the best they had, colorful assortments of secondhand clothing carefully arranged out of respect to God. I wore black and dark green. My hair was tightly braided or completely loose.
I sat in the second row and glared lasers through the Bishop and the pulpit where he stood. My face remained in a permanent scowl from the time we entered the building until we left. I didn’t talk, but when I did, my words were carefully selected to send the message “Get. Me. Out. Of. Here.”
I was so small then. My anger was too big for my 4’10” frame. It boiled over and terrified me.
One day, in the summer before middle school, I remember going to a Fourth of July party in the middle-of-no-where Massachusetts. It was the type of town that was so rural that people owned chickens and the thick expanses of trees trapped the humidity and seemed to breed mosquitoes that swarmed in inescapable clouds. In Longmeadow, it was illegal to own chickens and the town sprayed enough pesticides to wipe out even the strongest mosquitos and the most resistant ticks. It took us 45 minutes to drive there. I passed the time watching liquor stores and ice cream shops fly by the window. They became increasingly scarce until all that passed were trees, rocky cliffs, and the occasional hitchhiker.
When the tires of the Saturn finally pulled into the dirt driveway, I peeled my sweaty legs off the seat of the car and trailed after my mom with my arms crossed as she made her way to the backyard where church families gathered around a big plastic folding table filled with casseroles and dishes with too much mayonnaise. I tried not to notice we were the only family whose dad wasn’t there.
My job was to leave the moms alone and to try to play with the other kids on a rusty trampoline next to the chicken coop. It was the type of trampoline that pinched your fingers on the springs when you tried to get on and left you with nasty blood blisters for weeks to come.
I followed the kids around for a while. I don’t remember why they didn’t play with me. Eventually I went inside and sat on my mom’s lap.
“Pleaseeee can we gooo homee.”
She’d brush my request away patiently. The other moms eyed me as if I had somehow done something evil. I wondered what my mom had told them about me. I wondered if they knew I was an 11-year-old that didn’t believe. I wonder if they blamed my dad for my behavior. He had left the church when I was much younger. No one understood what had gone wrong with dad. Maybe somehow I inherited the apostate gene.
On the car ride home, I told my mom the kids at the party didn’t play with me.
“I know,” she said. “Their moms said they think you are intimidating.” I wilted inside. I kept my face stormy and my lips pursed. Sometimes, I think even my mom was afraid of me.
For a small fifth grader, I sure could slam a door. I was just old enough to know what words would yield the maximum pain.
“I hate you, Mom!”
Silence followed the echoes of slammed doors and accusations. With their noise, my anger dulled. Long ago, my mom told me I would have to go to church until I turned 18. I put everything I had into this deal.
I counted the years down. Seven years seem like an eternity when you are eleven. When I think back on the beginning of middle school, I remember my mom crying. I knew she still clung to the hope that one day I’d believe. I knew I could never be the daughter she wanted. I couldn’t bear to see my mom cry because of me anymore.
My mom is a sweet lady. She’s the type of woman who bakes cookies for the neighbors and birthday cakes for her friends. She brought me along with her for a weekly trivia night at our local geriatric care center. She knows everyone in town and people light up when they see her. She even sends handwritten cards when she notices an elderly Healthtrax regular skip a few days. She wears her heart on her sleeve and proudly tells all her non-Mormon friends about her beliefs.
In Mormonism, you are taught that the only way to be truly happy is through the life that the church proscribes. As a baby, my mom made me little laminated picture books of photos of kids getting baptized, of missionaries with their converts, of straight newly weds walking out of the temple. There were even photos of moms and their babies and big happy white families. I never had to ask my mom what she expected of me. It was all laid out from the beginning. In her eyes, she was teaching me the key to be happy. She did everything perfectly. So when her heathen daughter couldn’t believe, they knew my mom was innocent. She was too good. I was just evil.
I was so bad at keeping the promise I made myself to make sure she wouldn’t cry. One day, before church I was picking an outfit. I had toned down the leather and studded boots at this point for a more professional look. I still wanted to be intimidating. It was a facade that kept the people at church away from me. But, at the same time, I wanted a look that said “I am confident. I am a strong woman. I’m nothing like the women here.” I now understand that it was my own internalized misogyny in me that made me view the women in the church as weak and encouraged me to resist any hint of femininity.
This particular day, I pulled a pair of black business slacks from the closet. They were a hand-me-down from my mom’s best friend. They were a little big, but their masculine fit made me feel powerful. I paired it with a pair of grey flight attendant style stilettos and a tan ¾ length sleeve cardigan. I thought I looked strong.
When I clomped down the stairs, stumbling like a newborn deer, my mom looked me up and down and got really quiet. She stood in the kitchen for a while, then came back out. Her eyes were puffy and her chin crinkled and seemed to wobble.
I don’t remember what exactly broke the dam holding back her tears, but all of the sudden she was sobbing. I felt guilty. I felt furious. I knew it was the pants that were the issue, but I could not believe she'd be so shallow. I remember shouting “Do you think God cares if I wear pants!?”
She made her way to my door later that day after I had changed into a skirt and sat through three hours of church and half an hour of silence in the passenger seat of the Saturn. She knocked and entered before I could say anything. She sat at the foot of my bed and apologized.
“It’s just some women wear pants to show their anger at the Church,” she said. “I don’t want people to think that’s the type of message you’re sending.” I made some snide comments in my head about her being scared women wanted equality. I tightened control of internal angst and told her it was okay, I understood.
I made myself a deal. I would go to church. I wouldn’t complain. Then, the day would come when I would turn 18 and I would never walk in those doors again. I knew that would hurt my mom even more, seven years of false hope shattered in seconds, but I hoped that I could walk away from everything then. She’d cry, but I wouldn’t have to be there to see it.
In a way, I felt evil for this. I just couldn’t handle the weight of her disappointment.
There’s something numbing about living a lie. The line between real and fake blurs until you don’t know what side you're on. On the inside I was supposed to be fiery and resistant, critical of every teaching. On the outside I would be compliant, the perfect daughter and future mother, never uttering a word for the girl trapped inside.
That silence was pervasive. It strangled the angsty inner voice and turned me into an empty shell with a friendly facade. But with no source of power to maintain the feigned satisfaction, my mask began to fade until all that was left was a blank stare, that distant gaze that saw nothing, yet everything at the same time and viewed the world like a spirit, floating above.
Sometimes, the feeling of emptiness was magical. It shut off the incoming sensory details and created the type of silence only felt during heavy snow storms or moments submerged alone in a swimming pool. It isolated yet insulated. It made going to church bearable.
At Church, I conducted the music. It started as a favor for my mom, but soon became a weekly occurrence. Conductors are supposed to smile, singing along with the congregation in a sacred embodiment of the music. I never could. My hand would autonomously drift through the air and I would zone out, staring vaguely at the clock as the seconds dragged by. I never managed a smile.
Sometimes I would watch the people. Sometimes I’d see someone cry and wonder if they felt the spirit or simply lacked a place to express themselves. Sometimes siblings would fight with themselves among the pews and their parents would rip them apart furiously. Sometimes a baby would cry and the mother would sprint out, her face red with embarrassment. People were zoned out or sound asleep. The best was when old men would snore. One time I saw the Bishop pick his nose and wipe it on the cuff of his sleeve.
I floated above them all, sometimes observing them, sometimes floating through the high ceiling until I was amongst the clouds, watching the cars move like insects over the green hills and bald patches of concrete and day jobs. Sometimes birds would fly next to me. I’d reach out to touch them, but they would float through my fingers and I’d realize I had left my body in the pew far below me. That never seemed to bother me.
It only got bad when I realized I couldn’t come back. The empty shell I left behind would stay forever like that. She was able to move and go about her middle school life, but she’d sit in math class and watch the numbers pass as if they were a completely foreign system. She’d drag herself out of bed and marvel at how heavy an empty shell can be.
The last day I went to church, I was 16 years old. We were in Utah on vacation. I was with a group of strangers, all the other teenage girls grouped by our age and genitalia. We stood outside the church building. I leaned against the brick wall and watched the scene unfold. Each girl was given a laminated sheet of paper and told to place it on the ground. The labels had words like “Birth”, “Baptism”, “Temple Marriage”, and “Kids” on them. We were instructed to lay them on the ground and follow the path they made.
My heart seemed to crawl into my throat and I felt an unmistakable urge to run as fast as I could and never look back on that scene. My palms were cold and clammy and my pulse raced.
I quickly ran to the bathroom and sat in the Mother’s Lounge. It was a quiet room, isolated from the rest of the building, adorned only by a single rocking armchair which enveloped whoever sat in it. I wasn’t supposed to be here because I wasn’t breastfeeding, let alone a Mother, but I sank into the chair.
I felt something new that day, a kind of confidence that assured me I would never be there again. I would never be the mother in that chair or the churchgoer condemned to believe the ultimate multi-level marketing scheme. I would never marry some Mormon boy and pump out children to give myself an identity.
It would never be for me.
I would die if I had to pretend this any longer.
So, I refused to go. I remember my mom crying but, honestly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. She saw it coming.
I tried to go quietly so as not to disturb the others, but eventually they noticed I had slipped away. Some requested meetings with me. Some brought gifts, asked why I had gone astray. One girl told me I was her “project”.
I received a string of emails from the Bishop. He said he wanted to meet with me. I insisted time and time again that I was not interested.
I had heard the stories from my dad after he left. They interviewed him too. They asked who had offended him enough to make him leave. They assumed he left because he wanted to sin. They twisted his trauma within the church to fit their narrative that somehow he had messed up. They refused to believe that someone could simply come to the conclusion that it was all a lie.
Thanks for your response - I appreciate it. I want to respect your wishes. So I promise I will not nag you or make you a "project". If you are really done with the church, I would respectfully request the opportunity to have an exit interview with you. I would like to understand what your experience has been. If I can understand it, then we can try to make the church experience for others better. Ruby, I know you to be a good person and I don't think your decisions about the church change that in any way. I didn't think you were trying to be rude or disrespectful. But after the number of years that you have been involved with the ward, it would only be courtesy to part ways on a good foot as friends rather than dropping it cold. I hope that makes some sense. I do get your perspective of not being able to have a no pressure conversation with the bishop. I hope you can believe me and trust me with my intent. And so I ask you to please reconsider. One meeting. With a parent if you wish -- either parent, or both. I genuinely just wish to listen to you.
His words were kind, but I saw a different intent behind them. He wanted to manipulate the details of my experience to fit the narrative that I had somehow fucked up. I wouldn’t let my story be twisted in this way. I needed to be the one with control over how it was told.
Eventually, the emails slowed and I stopped opening the letters I got in the mail.
I thought that would be the end of it, but I knew my name was still on the church records, meaning that I would be forever contacted by the members of the Church. I wanted my name gone from their records forever.
I sent in this letter to the Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
A month later, I got a typed email from the Church headquarters. They had removed my name. It was all over.
My whole life, I had waited for the moment when I was done with Mormonism. It had been a magical day I looked forward to, a day that would solve all my problems.
I was so naive.
The grieving process promises a moment of acceptance, where the conflict somehow fades leaving peace and a distant memory of the pain.
Yet, how I was raised will always stay with me. I guess, in a way, that counts as acceptance. I’m not sure if I’m okay with it.
My mom still cries because of me. But, it’s not as often now. I live on the other end of the world. She receives a curated version of my life, specifically designed to not bring her any pain. Sometimes I am angry that I can’t tell her more. Sometimes I feel numb to the distance between us. Sometimes I pretend it’s all okay
The most confusing part is that I deeply love my mom. We live, trapped in a fucked up dichotomy where one can only win by hurting the other. Every time we Facetime, I toe the line between being true to myself and preserving her bubble, so as not to make her cry. I sit through her stories of church gossip and her beliefs. It hurts to bite my tongue, but it would hurt infinitely more to lose our relationship.
I love her and I can’t lose her. So, I will never escape.