Natalie R. Collins' novel Wives and Sisters is a mystery and a gripping tale of fear and suspense. However, today's discussion isn't a review (I reviewed the book here, plus I know the book got a lot of other good reviews which I imagine you can find if you poke around Natalie's site a bit). For today, I'd just like to talk about how Collins' portrayal of Mormonism, Mormons, and ex-Mormons contrasts with the portrayal in my novel Exmormon.
As one might expect, neither novel describes Mormonism as good and/or true, but the difference in perspective it striking. The contrast can essentially be summed up as follows: Collins portrays Mormonism as being like a horrible traumatic injury from which you might recover, but which might possibly leave you crippled for life. I portray Mormonism as being more like a large obstacle that has been placed in your path which gives you valuable life experience as you climb over it.
I don't want to suggest that one perspective is right and the other is wrong. Obviously one's views on Mormonism vary depending on one's personal experiences with it. Collins' book shows people with grave problems caused by their LDS upbringing, whereas I show people with rather medium-level problems caused by their LDS upbringing. Both categories certainly exist (though from reading Natalie's blog I know she gets a whole lot of flack from Mormons who don't want to see this face of Mormonism). Really, to get the full spectrum, I would recommend reading these two books alongside the non-fiction memoir Suddenly Strangers, which describes some people who had a positive experience with their LDS upbringing right up until the end bit when they unintentionally discovered that the church is not true.
Collins' book puts the spotlight on characters who are the victims of massive abuse as children and who are never properly treated for it when the (untrained) lay ministry of the LDS church covers up the crimes of those who seem to repent. These victims are scarred, some beyond recovery. The other type of irrecoverable characters she describes are those who are so fanatical in their LDS faith that they have no capacity for rational thought or for compassion even towards their own family. The main representative of this second category in Collins' novel is the abusive father who blindly leads his family into a state of horrible dysfunction.
In the three LDS families portrayed in my book Exmormon, the parents are all a little wacky, but fundamentally loving, and none of the families are truly dysfunctional. In short, I play the proverbial benevolent deity who gives her creations serious trials to overcome, but refuses to give them more than they can ultimately handle. Collins is more like the “cruel realities” deity who says to her creations “Oops, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, so too bad for you.” Wham!
In both novels the characters participate in ex-Mormon gatherings in the end. Unsurprisingly, Collins' characters are more interested in the “support group” aspect of post-Mormon activities whereas I have my characters flying back to Salt Lake for an exmo conference for the purpose of touching base with old friends and to attend parties and the like.
To illustrate this difference in point-of-view, I'd like to contrast the beginning of chapter 26 of Exmormon (the opening chapter of Part VI: Temple Wedding) with corresponding quotes from Wives and Sisters.
It's amazing how small it looks from a distance. When you're immersed in it―living in Utah or in an LDS household―Mormonism is like a cage with one small clouded lens to look out through that distorts your every view of the world.
Then one day you step out. You leave home, or you leave the Mormon corridor of Arizona, Utah, and Idaho, and suddenly it's as if it's hardly even there. It's this tiny, unimportant thing that you can forget about for days, weeks, months, even years at a time. You can take it out of your pocket and show people if you like, as an amusing conversation piece at parties. Or you can just not even bother with it at all.
Except that if you come from Mormon stock and your family is LDS, you occasionally have to face the disorienting task of stepping back in.
Now, after more than three years apart at our respective universities and one year back together at grad school on the East Coast, Rex and I were about to step back in.
From Wives and Sisters, p. 308:
“You're going back to the church?” I was astounded to hear that she planned to return to the institution that has been the source for all the trials in our lives. I couldn't fathom stepping foot inside another Mormon chapel for the rest of my life. It hurt just to drive by one.
“It's our heritage. It's part of who we are. You can't run away from that. You might as well try to resign from being a Jew.”
My younger sister Annette was getting married to a returned-missionary from Orem named Matt Hobbs. She had met him at BYU. The marriage would be solemnized in the Provo temple, a stone's throw from campus. So we would be traveling back to Utah Valley, “Happy Valley” as it is lovingly known, to see all of my family at the reception. At the same time Rex, who grew up in Utah Valley, would be going home.
From Wives and Sisters, p. 317:
I understand now why I can't leave Utah, although I will never be a genuine part of the masses. My ghosts are here, and I can't leave them behind.
Even with Rex's younger sister Jill back home from college for the Summer and his even younger siblings, Joy and Jared, still living at home, there would have been room for us to stay with Rex's family if we had wanted to. Like Matt's family, they lived in Orem. The thing was, though, that Rex's parents had told him directly that since we weren't married we would have to sleep in separate rooms, and they had also told him that they would require him to “respect the rules of their house,” which was their code for saying that there was to be no illicit hanky-panky even when nobody else was around.
Certainly it wouldn't have killed either one of us to go three days without sex. But it was the principle of the thing, and Rex wanted to make a statement to his parents that if they were going to stick their noses in his private life like that then he wasn't going to stay with them. So even though it took a bite out of our meager grad student budget to pay for a hotel room on top of paying for our plane tickets, we managed. Interestingly, when Rex's parents offered him the use of one of their cars for the duration of our stay, he was willing to accept that. I figured that that meant that at least there would be no hanky-panky in the car.
From Wives and Sisters, p. 80:
Stung, Corrie hastily pulled her hand away from mine and, in her hurt lashed out. “Not everybody has sex with a man before they even know his name!”
I regretted sharing that confidence with her in a moment of weakness, one of many regrets I carried around like a bouquet of wilted flowers.
From Wives and Sisters, p. 124:
“In his eyes, it's better to be dead than to be a sinner.”
“And do you think you're a sinner?”
“Yes. No. I don't know anymore”
From Wives and Sisters, p. 148:
“He went the way of most men in my life. Adios, amigo. I'm a slut, didn't you hear?”
The point to note in the above is how Collins' main character Allison allows her LDS family to shame her and make her feel ashamed about her personal life, by contrast with my character Rex who refuses to see his LDS family's judgments of his private life as anything other than a totally inappropriate and offensive intrusion.
Our flight arrived in at the airport, and from there we took the bus into downtown Salt Lake where we caught another bus south to Utah Valley.
April and her new girlfriend Susan picked us up at the bus stop. They'd only been seeing each other for four months, but already it was serious enough that they were living together. Susan was twenty-seven years old and had an eighteen-month-old daughter named Judy. And since―unlike us―Susan and April were both gainfully employed (at a magazine in Seattle), they had no trouble renting a car for the weekend.
We set up our things in our hotel room, and then the five of us went out to dinner.
When the waiter came by, we ordered a few simple dinners off the menu. It was Susan's first day ever in Utah, so she was quite taken aback when the waiter asked us for ID when we ordered beers with dinner.
“Obviously I'm over twenty-one. Look I have a child,” she said, reaching for her purse and pointing at Judy in her high chair. “And I'm just ordering beer with dinner, not drinks at a bar.”
“Now see here, my good man,” said Rex. “I'll have you know that all of my wives are of age. I certainly take no child brides. Well, except for that one over there.” He pointed at baby Judy and smiled.
The waiter gave Rex a blank look as if he didn't think that that was funny at all, so Rex just got out his ID like the rest of us so that we could have beer.
As soon as the waiter was gone, Rex laughed and said to Susan, “It shows that you've never been to Utah before. Here merely having a small child is not at all an indication that you're over twenty-one.”
Susan seemed almost creeped out by the incident. “What kind of place is this?” she asked.
“Welcome to Wonderland,” said Rex.
From Wives and Sisters, p. 259:
“So what did you think?”
“Lots of angry people.”
“Yeah, ex-Mormons are some of the angriest people I've ever met.”
It wasn't until I read the above quote in Collins' book that it struck me that the characters in my novel are really not angry about their lives, their upbringing, or the LDS church. This is one of the reasons I like to read related novels back-to-back: the unique aspects of one author's perspective stand out more vividly when contrasted with a portrayal by another author.
The scene in Exmormon goes on to discuss how Annette's new in-law's would prefer not to have April's lesbian partner attend the wedding reception. Still, April's own LDS family members accept them both as part of the family. This is very different from the treatment Collins' homosexual characters get from their LDS family:
From Wives and Sisters, p. 52:
“She wasn't your only daughter. You had two daughters, and Aunt Carol's still alive.”
My grandmother's lips tightened and she gave me a sharp look. “Don't talk about that. Stop.”
“Which was worse for you? My mother dying, or Aunt Carol being a lesbian?”
She slapped my face hard. Don't you ever say that word or her name again.”
Here are a few more quotes to illustrate the degree of abuse and dysfunction Collins' characters are dealing with:
From Wives and Sisters, p. 119:
“We're so grateful Kevin died honorably serving God and spreading the Gospel. It's better that he came home in a pine box than to have been sent home in disgrace.”
My heart started beating rapidly. Had my father just said that it was preferable to die than to make a mistake?
From Wives and Sisters, p. 225:
“You aren't worth it,” I said to my father, contempt in my voice. “You've never been worth it. I would have saved myself a lot of pain and agony if I'd realized that years ago.”
From Wives and Sisters, p. 253:
“Parents are supposed to offer unconditional love, Allison,” Sandra said, a grim expression on her face, “but that isn't always possible. For some people, there's no such thing. To them, all love has strings attached.”
“Strings that tangle, and get twisted and warped, until they're wrapped tightly around your neck and you choke to death,” I added.
I think the key difference between the two novels is kind of summed up by this quote:
From Wives and Sisters, p. 321:
Sandra told me I was strong, and I would survive all that happened for that reason. I still wasn't sure, but I knew I owed it to Frank, Kevin, my mother, and most of all to Cindy, to fully live the life I still had. I owed it to them to be happy.
Most of all, I owed it to myself.
In Wives and Sisters, the characters are lauded for perhaps recovering from Mormonism. In Exmormon recovery is a total non-issue. The only time in Exmormon we hear “Despite all he'd been through, he seemed resilient enough to turn out okay,” is in reference to the runaway, Joe, who is one of the so-called “redundant boys” of polygamy, taken in by his mainstream LDS relatives.
The characters in Exmormon aren't worried about whether they'll survive and recover from their experiences with Mormonism. They're just playing the cards they've been dealt and Mormonism happens to be one of them.
Check out Natalie R. Collins' Wives and Sisters -- the trailer is cool!!!