Pressed for the truth

The other night I was ironing a shirt for work when I accidentally got a steam burn down the side of one finger. The wound was invisible, the pain wicked, especially since I was still wielding the iron, its hot, wet air hissing out all over the place. Though I persevered until the shirt was finished, even the most innocuous wisp of steam became a major irritant, causing me to recoil, breaking out in expletives.

Huh, I thought. This is kind of how I feel about religion.

I had spent the afternoon finishing Mary Karr’s memoir Lit, which, unlike her earlier books The Liars’ Club (which details her hellacious childhood) and Cherry (drug-filled adolescence), is an adult’s reflection on adulthood. Karr, without much validation as a poet, nonetheless rocketed out of grad school with a patrician husband, a gorgeous baby boy, and an adjuncting gig at Harvard. She proceeded to drink nearly all of it away, finally ending up in a psychiatric ward before finding sober friends and hard-won grace as a Catholic convert. At roughly the same time, her life turned around. She started winning grants. Her fairy godmother, in the form of literary agent Amanda “Binky” Urban, got a hefty advance for her first prose book, which ended up spending over a year on the NYT bestseller list. The rest you probably already know, or can guess.

It’s a good story. It’s even better when the drunk’s post-divorce boyfriend is David Foster Wallace (who, during an argument, throws a coffee table at her). When she captures with perfect accuracy the stomach-lurching kindness she encounters at her first AA meeting, the excruciatingly dazzling clarity of her first few sober mornings.

I am a sucker for the drunk’s recovery tale, have read more of them than I’m willing to admit. Yet this one stuck in my craw—probably because Karr’s ascent from rock bottom coincides with her embrace of organized religion, which leads to Catholic baptism for her and her son. No one is initially more skeptical than Karr about a “Higher Power,” the twelve steps, or the quasi-religious surrender they require. She’s a self-loathing, lives-in-her-head cynic unwilling to cede anything to anyone, least of all a benevolent God figure. “If you’d told me,” Karr writes, “even a year before I start taking my son to church regular that I’d wind up whispering my sins in the confessional or on my knees saying the rosary, I would’ve laughed myself cockeyed. More likely pastime? Pole dancer. International spy. Drug mule. Assassin.”

The persona is part bravado, part shrewd plotting, of course; conversion narratives always work best when the believer starts out evil, evil, evil. She was never as hideous as she felt inside. But Karr begins to recognize the drunk’s thought patterns as selfish. She starts reaching out to others, trying compassion and kindness instead of the whipsmart crack. And what do you know?—as she extracts herself from the straitjacket of alcohol addiction, the world starts to open up to embrace her.

Many readers will be thinking, “Certainly this process could be accomplished without God,” and Karr agrees, resisting him page after page. But then one day she prays. Then she prays on her knees. Then she goes to church. Then she takes Communion. And so on. She internalizes love, forgiveness, patience. She doesn’t drink. The End.

Who can begrudge anyone her discovery of inner peace? Yet, as someone immersed in religion from earliest childhood, I find myself resenting those who can wake up to God as adults and find a divine presence in the pews. Literally every aspect of my life was shaped by a Mormon upbringing, and every decision, from going to college to coming out, was made either in express obedience to, or rebellion against, its teachings, whether I chose to frame it that way or not. When I exited the church, I took the socialization with me—homemaking lessons, heavenly kingdoms and all. It is no longer my faith—but it has spoiled me for all other ones, as well. Somehow, despite my rejecting it, Mormonism still positions itself as the “one true church” in my psyche.

Mormonism caused the burn; religion is the steam. I am forever ironing the shirt. It all fucking hurts.

People whose upbringings gleam unblemished by spiritual conviction haven’t lost the capacity for conversion euphoria. Karr hadn’t, and it may have saved her life. Were I her, a stubborn inability to follow the twelve steps—following as they do the map for repentance drilled into me since babyhood, practically—would result in tragedy, not triumph.

Last week at work a guy came up to me after a meeting, bouncing with energy. “Hey, someone said we should talk. I just became Mormon!” It was a punch to the gut. (Does he know about Prop 8? Does he know I am a lesbian? Does he know?) I must have failed to keep the dismay off my face, because he shrugged, “It works for me now. It might not always.” Do people really claim faiths so blithely? You made a covenant, I want to say. You made a promise to God. And you’re talking about it like you were shopping around for car insurance! My indignation surprises me. Is it that I don’t accept Mormon doctrine, but still respect those who do believe it? Do I still believe it, deep down? Or is Mormonism simply my inherited ontological framework for understanding love and commitment? None of these possibilities seems very satisfying. The answers are not forthcoming. But I keep pressing.

20 responses to “Pressed for the truth”

  1. lane says:

    well . . . sorry Tim, it’s that again.

    i actually haven’t been around TGW too much lately, and really haven’t read any full posts in a while. And I don’t know why I dug into this one.

    Have you ever hung out at another church? Talked to another faith’s pastor, minister, priest? I was lucky enough to find a minister in our neighborhood that was really smart and was happy to help me convert my tension over that into laughter.

    Other churches think Joe Smith is an idiot. Mainline Christianity is too polite to say it directly, but on the whole they see that church as a wildly eccentric goofball gag of a religion.

    Yeah people do claim faiths blithely, people are capricious.

    No, you don’t believe it, you really don’t. But you don’t have another religious language to replace it.

    At the end of my Dutch Reformed Church going days the pastor said to me, “You don’t have to come to church anymore, I’ll admit that Christianity seems pretty unbelievable, go enjoy your life.”

    The best response to that new convert is laughter. “Really! wow! give it a few years and you’ll be SO BORED! It’s a really boring religion.”

    Just like TIm keeps telling us!

  2. Lit sounds great — Ellen read it recently, just last night I was noticing it on the shelf and thinking I should take a look.

  3. ScottyGee says:

    “Last week at work a guy came up to me after a meeting, bouncing with energy. “Hey, someone said we should talk. I just became Mormon!”

    Knowing what I do about the way the Church has shaped so many Whatsitsers, this is one of the more gaspy moments I’ve had reading TGW. Considering your former life, and that there’s likely little bits of it still alive in you somewhere, do you ever think, “maybe that’s some kind of sign…Nah!”

    I must admit that I see the LDS connection among you all as being so darn interesting and exotic. It really should be the subject of a TV show. Maybe called, “Jack.”

  4. Rachel says:

    I agree with you that spiritual angst is kind of boring, Lane, but Mormonism is pretty fascinating in all its outlandishness–like ten million people collectively hallucinating a purple sparkly unicorn, and thinking they’re all seeing a horse.

    Or something.

    What I was trying to get at here, though, is the melancholy of realizing that I’ll never have that thrill of feeling saved that Karr spends 300 pages describing. (Which is OK, I guess. We all save one another.)

  5. lane says:

    I think we were led to believe it was interesting and exotic too. But in truth it really isn’t. It’s a boring business cult. Go on FB and look at this year’s Sunstone Symposium photos:!/album.php?aid=202814&id=21533259860

    All those glasses of water, all those old people, all that bad suburban hotel interior design.

    Take it from someone who has wrung the last drop of exoticism out of his upbringing.

    Teetotalling white people who wear long underwear and do almost nothing but raise children is not interesting.

    Like my pastor once said “I attended a Mormon service once, and it was . . . dry.”

    As dry as the Great Basin itself.

    Let’s all just forget it.

  6. Rachel says:

    Maybe that’s why Karr glommed onto the Catholics. They’re as nutty as ever, plus they have all the Crusades and Counter-Reformation Grand-Guignol-type heritage. That never gets old.

  7. lane says:

    hell yeah, and the art and architecture, and all the corruption, pedophillia and anti-semitism! And stigmata! Incense! Mean nuns! . . . BRAZIL for god’s sake! FUCKIN! BRAZIL!!!!!!

    INDIA! HAITI! SPAIN! EGYPT! all those places are SO much cooler than Utah.

    Almost any “world religion” is more interesting.

    Puritanism is dull.

    Give that acquaintance of yours five years, he’ll stop going, almost all converts do. They just don’t give a shit about handcarts and repression.

  8. foxforcefive says:

    I wanted to say, “but Harold Bloom says…” and “but the Bay Area Sunstone Symposium…,” and “you find Mountain Meadows and Danites and secret polyamory and Hofman forgeries and fighting the feds boring?” and “who cares about ‘Mainline’ ‘Christianity,’ which is neither…” and “what about Low (band), and Brady Udall (novelist), and Richard Bushman (historian) and Casey Jex Smith (artist) and…” but I was stopped by Lane’s remark about my peeps doing nothing but raising children. Not sure why.

  9. lane says:

    Mormonism is American Provincialism in the extreme.

  10. Rachel says:

    Wow, Lane, you are decidedly not bored with it yet, based on how much you have to say!

    I am more interested in how intense religiosity early in life can put one off organized religion in general, maybe even throwing out the spirituality baby with the church bathwater.

    Also how powerfully AA co-opts religious rhetoric, which prevents some people from being able to make use of its more rational principles.

  11. lane says:

    no you’re right i’m not bored with it, but only as a symptom of what it represents, which is middle-class american white culture. Mormonism is a code within the larger matrix of white protestant lower and middle class America.

    Puritainism is interesting as part of what America is, but this includes the shakers and the quakers and the . . . mixers and the makers? . . . whatever. The whites against the blacks against the reds, yellows and browns. That’s the bigger picture.

    u dig?

    But in and of itself, it is a dead end. Like I noted, Tim has been telling us that for a while.

  12. lane says:

    Like have you ever listened to Outkast? I am now, it’s such a distinct Southern thing, which is great in and of itself, but it’s so black and so Southern it is defined by it’s own regional distinction. It wont’ ever be a truly national or global thing.

    It will be loved nationally, and even globally, (because in the end it cool to listen to.)

    But for all of those pinnacles of Intermountain West culture that forcefoxfive mentions they’ll never really transcend there regional distinction to be great on the scale Joe Smith described. They will always be stuck in their regional ghetto.

    And yeah, I’ve asserted my upbringing in that ghetto as part of my schtick. And in doing so have discovered the limits of it’s appeal. . . . anyway these are all cultural things.

    As to your points about intense religiosity in youth, Yeah it robs you of it in maturity, probably when you need it more.

    And yeah additction recovery, God and the 12 step. I have a friend who is a two time addict ex-mormon who’s in AA for 12 years now. He tried to attend a “Rational Recovery” group in Salt Lake but discovered they’d all gotten better and quit meeting!

    Yeah hasn’t it been called “The God Problem” in some circles?

  13. swells says:

    Rachel, this is so well written and compelling. I for the record must state that hearing all the Jacks discuss their experiences with Mormonism is NEVER boring–it continues to fascinate me, especially since you all have processed your feelings and experiences so thoroughly (and continue to do so) that it’s always really articulately presented. Thanks for sharing these ideas.

    Also, I don’t know why that Mary Karr book sounds so irritating to me based on your description–was she really sympathetic? How, how? The only part that sounds interesting is hearing what it would be like to date DFW, but at this point that feels like she’s cashing in. I say this without having read it so I hope my third-hand sense of her book is wrong.

  14. Tim says:

    I never intended to imply that Mormonism is boring. At one point I think I pointed out that Mormonism has been the subject of a number of posts here (and rightly so, considering the demographic and shared experiences of many TGW authors and readers) and, as such, non-Mormons occasionally have questions about this sometimes mysterious religion. I think Lane may be projecting a little of his boredom onto me, but I am not bored with it myself. In fact, I quite liked Rachel’s post, especially the controlling metaphor. As someone raised without religion, I was given a glimpse of what it might have been like.

  15. Rachel says:

    Swells, FWIW she calls him only “David” and mentions that he is brilliant, studying philosophy at Harvard, and always wearing a bandana around his head. They are both being treated for mental illness. I had read elsewhere that it was DFW, but the details would not necessarily add up for someone who didn’t already know of him. I don’t think she’s cashing in on him. She’s most definitely cashing in on her messed-up family, which has provided the fodder for all these books, but “write what you know,” right?

    Karr’s not particularly sympathetic, but like all good recovering alcoholics, she takes responsibility for her shit, which I respect. PLus, she’s still alive. I miss DFW.

  16. foxforcefive says:

    (with apologies for contributing to the quasi-threadjack)

    “But for all of those pinnacles of Intermountain West culture that forcefoxfive mentions they’ll never really transcend there regional distinction to be great on the scale Joe Smith described. They will always be stuck in their regional ghetto.”

    I see two tracks here: the religion, which has been fairly successfully exported on a global scale (nearly as well as any other religion in its first 200 years); and the culture (art, literature, architecture, etc.), which, as Lane points out, struggles to transcend provincialism, and rarely is successful. Two responses: (1) is provinciality enough to justify intellectual dismissal of the culture? I spent two weeks this summer in rural Switzerland — as provincial a culture as there is in its way — and was still able to find much of interest and value in its cultural products; and (2) it’s early — it took well over 200 years from the Jews to go from Eastern European shtetls to Portnoy’s Complaint or Augie March.

  17. lane says:

    oh, sorry if i’ve quasi thread-jacked.

    i agree with rachel that intense organized religion can kill one’s interest in, or trust of, “god.”

    and the AA “higher-power” thing is weird. As I mentioned all the rational recoveryist in SLC got better and stopped meeting. It was only the “god” centered AA folks that kept getting together. and then of course AA becomes another “semi” organized religion.

    and yeah, the appeal to Jewish literature. well, they are a talkative bunch, like the saying goes, anyplace you find two jews you’ll find three synagogues. the books, the plays, all that wine at passover.

    mormonisms biggest problem culturally is that the whole thing rests on an appeal to centralized authority. in that regard it’s more like a totalitarian state than a bunch of wandering bohemians. but hey, the Nazis and the Commies produced culture too . . .

  18. lane says:

    oh and sorry i’m thread jacking off here.

    but mormonism will never produce a work of fiction better than the book of mormon.

    nor a work of theater better than the temple.

    both of which could be construed as great works of art, if the culture at large cared, which is doesn’t.