Friday, March 31, 2006

Narcissistic??? Never!!!

When accepting a permablogger spot over on the LDS literature blog a Motley Vision, Shawn P. Bailey mentioned that blogging can be ephemeral and narcissistic. I was so offended by this heretical suggestion that I immediately fired off an angry comment!!! (As you can see if you scroll down to the comments on his post.)

Then I thought about it a bit -- and looked my blog up and down -- and thought "Well, okay, maybe he does have a tiny little bit of a point..."

On that note, I would like to post the first two reviews that have appeared on the Internet of my novel Exmormon!!! The first one is by my brother and the second is by my cousin.

Now I know what you're thinking!!!

You're going: "Hmmmm... so her novel is printed and distributed by Lulu, and all of the reviews so far are by her own relatives..."

But I swear, it's not like that at all!!! It's just that in our family we're such go-getters that when a fantastic new novel hits the market, we tend to be among the first to review it!!! That's all!!!

So, without further ado, here's my brother's review which he posted to his blog here:

C. L. Hanson's semi-autobiographical novel, Ex-Mormon, is filled with vivid characters and situations -- brought to life through the kind of rich detail that could only be mustered by a keen, inside observer of the Mormon subculture.

The imagery is so real, the reader will almost wonder whether the author was working from detailed notes taken during her own childhood. Not only does the book provide valuable insight on growing up Mormon at the end of the 20th century, each one of the novel's intertwined stories is a page-turner in its own right. All in all, Ex-Mormon is a must-read whether you were raised in the Mormon subculture or not.

And here's my cousin's review which she posted on the Reviews forum of exmo-social:

I remain incredibly impressed by Exmormon.

And I'm not just writing that because I'm chanson's cousin. I did find some of the characters mildly recognizable - the grandparents selling juices and vitamin supplements, for example. I also remember helping chanson deliver papers early in the morning, so some of those descriptions I found particularly poignant.

The work is a quick page turner. I recommend reading when you have an uninterrupted block of time. I wanted to find out what happened next -- how the characters fit together.

I don't feel the chapters that chanson posted on her blog really do the novel justice. Read together, the different characters and voices give an arc of continuity to issues commonly faced by those coming of age. And especially by those coming of age in mormonism and in leaving mormonism.

It is a must read for anyone leaving mormonism. This work compares with other prominent exmormon memoirs and could be thought by some as even more relevant. Especially those of us who grew up and left that church in the 80s and 90s.

In comparison, two well known exmormon memoirs by Deborah Laake and Sonja Johnson are powerful, yet they really describe the experiences of people leaving at different times. I found Exmormon to be much more thought provoking for the very fact that it was written from different perspectives and characters.

Chanson is a keen observer and gifted at bringing those observations to the page. The characters were well developed - I feel I could carry on conversations with any of them.

I particularly liked the many cultural references to growing up mormon - the lyrics to Saturday's Warrior, for example. Or the description of the harried family trying to quickly get ready for church and not waste all the hot water.

I've already mentioned it to chanson, I'd like to see some graphic representations of how the characters relate to one another. Many characters (Lynn and April, for example) are members of the same family. They were easy to keep track of but I did find myself confused at some points (especially at and after BYU) about how everyone related to one another. Other novels in the same style (like As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner) do not have such representation, but I think that the work would be enhanced by diagrams of relationships.

For example - April - Lynn - Annette (the Hanson Family).

I look forward to reading more of chanson's work! Again, this novel is highly recommended.

But don't just take my brother and my cousin's word for it!!! Read Exmormon for yourself!!!

You can order a copy here.

The Land Far-and-a-Half Away

On her blog Cynthia Bagley posted her first novel and challenged others to do the same.

It turns out that Exmormon is not quite my first novel. That honor goes to this little tiny gem I wrote when I was eight or nine years old... :D

The Land Far-and-a-Half Away

Chapter I: Running Away

"Today I hated school, Johnny," I said.

"I agree, Sue," said Johnny.

"I feel like I'm going to be 9,000 instead of 9," I said.

"Why?" asked Johnny.

"Because you are so old," I said.

"I'm only 12. Besides, older brothers are nice to have," said Johnny.

"Okay, but school still bugs me you know," I said.

"Then why don't we run away to a place where there is no school?" asked Johnny.

"Okay," I said.

So we bought two airplane tickets and got on an airplane from Sunny Valley to Farm Hill. On the plane I met a 12-year-old boy and my brother and I let him run away with us.

When we got to Farm Hill we saw a train station so we decided to go on a train to the Ohio River. When we got on we met a 9-year-old girl and we let her run away with us.

When we got off the train we saw an old boat. We decided to float down the river on it. We floated down the Ohio River and then the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Soon we were out in the ocean.

Chapter II: The Land Far-and-a-Half Away

Soon there was nothing around us but water. Then we saw an island and we paddled there as fast as we could.

When we got there, there were no people on the beach. So we decided to collect snail shells.

Then Johnny said "What a land, it's far-and-a-half away."

Suddenly a snail popped its head out of its shell. It wasn't a snail at all. Its head was so hairy all you could see was his eyes.

"Why are you putting us into a pile when we were trying to get our shells a darker green?" it asked.

Those are the first two chapters of a total of eight...

My friend Angie also posted her novel Beth. It's entertaining, and a bit more professional than The Land Far-and-a-Half Away. I don't know if it's really her first though or she has one like this one hidden away in a box as well... ;-)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

An Immodest Proposal: sex on the first date?

I know I promised to try not to talk about sex too much in this column. But I've been on extra good behavior for the past few months (at least for me), so I feel like I deserve a little break.

Now I'm not going to write anything graphic, but if you're one of those people who is offended by the mere mention of unmarried people having sex with each other, I ask you to please stop reading right now.

Okay, you were warned. I'd better not see any angry comments from anyone who was naughty enough to read this column all the way to the end.

Whew! Now that I've got the disclaimer out of the way, on to today's topic: Why -- back in my dating days -- I used to always have sex on the first date. On principle. I'm not advocating that anyone else follow this practice. I'm merely explaining my reasoning in case you're curious about how the logical-yet-depraved mind works.

The following line of reasoning obviously applies mostly to women. I know a lot of guys who would also like to follow suit, and to them I say "Good luck to you on that."

The first reason for having sex on the first date is because it's fun. This reason alone would be enough for me, but it turns out that there's so much more!

The next reason is efficiency. Going straight to the sex part is really much more efficient than either the popular heathen practice of waiting until the third or fourth date or the popular LDS practice of waiting six whole weeks and taking a quick trip to the temple together before doing it.

The reason it's more efficient is that it shortens that awkward part where you're wondering where things are leading. Plus, if the guy is one of those guys who's just in it for the sex, and doesn't plan to call back after, this gets the whole thing over with right off the bat so you don't waste too much time on him.

There are guys out there who think that "nice girls don't" and that "women should be virgins until marriage", etc. This method eliminates those guys right off the bat too. Also eliminates closet gay guys. Hey, my time is valuable, people! I'm not so stingy about it, but I figure why should I waste three or four perfectly good evenings just to find out that I'm incompatible with some guy if I can do it in one?

The third and final reason for this practice is that it catches them off guard. Yes, even in our modern day and age, a lot of guys aren't expecting to get to go straight to the bedroom, and they don't see it coming. It confuses them. They've convinced themselves that this is their ultimate goal, so once it's over you can almost see the wheels spinning in their little brains as they go "Now what do I do?" You just can't buy entertainment like that.

Once the sexual tension is out of the way, both partners have a clear head to confront the serious questions of whether there's anything else there worth pursuing -- i.e. interesting conversation, and perhaps a relationship.

If your chosen quarry is a nerdy math, science, or computer type (or some other category of shy guy who isn't getting much), the answers to the above questions are more-or-less determined. When you get to the pillow talk stage, the guy pretty much assumes that now you're engaged to him. This has its advantages and disadvantages, so proceed with caution!

If, by contrast, you're of the mindset that the perfect lover turns into a pizza at 4 a.m., and you prefer the model where the guy doesn't call you back the next day, I'd say go for the super-outgoing flirty guy who has a million girls hanging off him. I have no first-hand experience with this category -- I'm just saying that it stands to reason.

Now some of you may be shocked that I appear to be advocating promiscuity, which is dangerous. Of course, given my weakness for the nerdly types, in my case most of these encounters lead to relationships -- see above -- so in the end it doesn't add up to all that many different partners total.

Still, remember that every single partner -- no matter how nerdly -- increases your disease risk. And I hope that it goes without saying that I mean with a condom every single time, plus avoiding obviously high-risk partners such as I.V. drug users and people with open sores on their naughty bits. Sex with another human is never "safe" -- even following all of the standard safety tips, the best you can hope for is "safer". Even in a monogamous relationship, you can never be 100% certain your partner isn't cheating on you and hence putting you at risk.

The only truly safe sex is to stay home and fly solo. And if that's your strategy, I hope that today's frank and mildly erotic discussion has proven helpful to you.

Another thing to keep in mind is that I'm talking about back the days when people tended to meet people through a friend of a friend or at school or work. I'm all in favor of meeting people on the Internet, but in that case I think I might have made an exception to my usual rule and gone for a lunch date in a public place first. One that includes me going home, and the guy going home to his own home instead of following me home. This would just be a first-pass litmus test to weed out the most flagrant and incorrigible stalkers.

At this point you should probably be protesting that -- while it's clear how I might have been able to put this theory into practice when I was in grad school surrounded by desperately horny math nerds -- it seems it would have been impossible for me to insist on always having sex on the first date back when I was at BYU, surrounded by virtuous and chaste returned-missionaries. The solution is simple: I didn't date the virtuous and chaste returned-missionaries. I was careful to actively avoid going on a date with any guys I suspected of being excessively righteous. Instead, with those guys I mostly just tried to trick them into coming over to my lair.

Ah, those bonny, bygone days!

And so ends today's set of fond reminiscences of a now-mostly-respectable little old lady.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor March 15, 2006.

Monday, March 27, 2006

A note on the polygamy sub-plot in the novel Exmormon

My novel Exmormon is meant to be a portrait of what it's like to grow up LDS. Since my focus is the mainstream LDS church, some might object to the fact that I included a significant sub-plot involving modern-day polygamy, which the mainstream church has disavowed.

But the specter of polygamy still haunts the mainstream church. It affects people who are raised in the LDS church -- even far from Utah -- as they learn that the early Latter-day prophets taught polygamy as an eternal principle and taught that not only is there polygamy in the afterlife but that God Himself is probably a polygamist. The manifesto putting a stop to the practice of polygamy did not address the doctrinal questions.

Some faithful LDS may say that what I have written in the previous paragraph misrepresents LDS doctrine. But LDS doctrine is extremely hard to pin down on this point. Despite having a living prophet, the LDS church refuses to issue a statement clarifying or rescinding the teaching regarding eternal plural marriage.

I recall learning as a teen that polygamy was the way of heaven as I learned about my own pioneer ancestors who practiced it. As much a Salt Lake would like to sweep the whole polygamy question under the rug -- and regard any reference connecting the LDS church to the practice of polygamy as a hateful slur -- the reality is that it is a fundamental part of the LDS church's heritage and legacy.

The fact that polygamy remains a doctrine of the LDS church (see Doctrine & Covenants 132) -- despite no longer being practiced -- allows the Mormon fundamentalist groups to attract converts from among the membership of mainstream LDS church.

The mainstream LDS church and its fundamentalist offshoots tend not to support each other nor have anything to do with one another, yet they are tied together by a common history.

To write details regarding the Mormon fundamentalist experience, I consulted with Troy Bowles (who was raised in the Apostolic United Bretheren), and I also consulted with a guy who was raised FLDS, whose blog I have included in my blog roll (Life in a Cult).

I deliberately made the precisions of Joe's background (in the novel) generic enough that he might have come from either of the groups mentioned above or perhaps from a different fundamentalist group. I did this because my story is not meant as an expose of modern-day polygamy but rather is intended as a portrait of mainstream Mormonism, including a description of the extremely complex relationship between ordinary Mormons and polygamy.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Sexuality vs. Spirituality: Which is more intimate?

April 13, 1986

I love flowers. I'm trying to be grateful to the Lord for flowers and kitty-cats, etc., but it's harder than it seeems. I'm hoping that my love of nature will become a love for its creator, but I just don't know or understand him. I get nervous when I really pray. I don't know why. I think I feel unworthy. I feel like the Lord should be mad at me.

April 12, 1986

I'm getting closer to the Lord although I've been having occasional relapses to being my usual annoying, argumentative self. I talked to my sister all through Stake Conference. I know that the fact that it was boring isn't a good enough excuse. Recently I remembered a few more things to repent of.

July 10, 1986

What the Lord made is beautiful. Each tree is different and each branch has a different shape. The tips of the branches are different colors. Some leaves are arranged like starfish, some are tears, some are hands, some are footballs. When I look at the leaves I feel I'm in the jungle.

We have stopped here in this tower for a spiritual meeting from a spiritual Joseph Smith hike. Everyone is sharing feelings even though most of us don't know one another. This is the perfect place for such a hike -- you have never known such spiritual and physical beauty until you experience this.

Soon we will go back to our cabin here at girls' camp. As for my spiritual progress? I'm coming along one step at a time now. I'm going to try to listen during church and take the messages to heart and use them. And more than that, I'm reading the Book of Mormon each night and I've set a goal to try to use the scriptures in my life.

When I first left the church, it annoyed me that my journals gave a misimpression of how "spiritual" I was. Since journal-writing is a commandment, every time I would be sufficiently guilted into trying to be more righteous and manufacturing a spiritual experience, I wrote the whole thing down in gory detail in my journal.

Now I'm actually glad I recorded this stuff in a sense because it is so alien to my normal personality that I would hardly believe I ever felt this way if I hadn't written it down.

Looking at passages like the above, I feel revulsion, shame, and humiliation. I know that religious people reading this will say that it is because I am ashamed to no longer feel "the spirit" after having felt it once, but really it is quite the opposite.

I feel ashamed that I allowed them to pressure me into manufacturing this sickly emotion of "the spirit" in my mind and that I allowed others to convince me that it was some sort of communication with an imaginary being. When I read things I've written about feelings towards "the Lord", it's as if I were reading a passage I'd written about having a nasty infection and describing in graphic detail the look and smell of the pus that oozed out of it.

It disgusts me that I was pressured into feeling this intimate emotion that I had to contort my mind into a pretzel to feel. Reading about it in my own journal, I feel violated.

I was wondering the other day why as soon as I found my journal from when I was sixteen years old, I gleefully posted to the Internet a series of passages explicitly describing my first sexual experiences in all their glory and how I felt about them. Yet I recoiled in shame and horror at the thought of sharing any of the many passages of my earlier journals such as the above that describe praying.

I'm going to be blunt about it, and I don't give a sh-t about the fact that the righteous of the world will look down on me for this:

The truth is that I'm proud of the sexual feelings and experiences I had when I was sixteen. They were perhaps intimate, but they were authentic and joyful. Unlike the prayer stuff, my sexual feelings were never contrived, forced, or laced with guilt and obligation.

God is imaginary. Sexuality is real. It is a red-blooded emotion that flows naturally through my veins and reminds me that life is beautiful and that I'm happy to be alive.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Parade of Mormon Light Fiction: The secret pleasure of it

Do you ever hide the book you're reading because it's something you'd be embarrassed to have people catch you with? Particularly your parents?

Here in France I have very limited access to books in English, so visiting my parents last Summer, my husband and I loaded up on all the books we could get our greedy little hands on from the local bookstores. Then in my parents' house itself, I was surrounded by a veritable library of books that are doubly rare for me: Mormon books.

Most of these books -- doctrinal stuff, inspirational stories from the lives of the prophets, etc. -- didn't tempt me in the slightest. Yet, for some perverse reason which I cannot fully explain, I was irresistibly drawn to the shelf full of teen romances and other light humor novels.

My mom must have bought these books herself, so it's not clear why I didn't want to have to explain to her my fascination for them. Still, it was somehow easier to play the hide-it-under-a-pillow game or just read standing next to the bookshelf and quickly slip the book back into its place whenever I heard anyone coming.

The first secret indulgence on my list was of course Jack Weyland. For the moment I'd like to set Jack Weyland aside though since if I get started deconstructing everything I like and dislike about his work, I'll fill up my whole column before I know it, and I won't get around to anyone else.

For today, let's start with You're a rock, Sister Lewis, by Susan D. Smallwood, since that was my favorite of the non-Weyland Mormon novels in the batch I read. I give this one points for humor, realism, and story structure.

The theme to this book seems to be "being Mormon is a lot of work." The whole time I was reading it, I kept thinking, "Boy, am I ever glad I left the church!" Like a lot of realistic Mormon stories, it's not totally clear whether it's supposed to be for Mormonism or against it.

So here's the run-down: Sister Lewis is a homemaker with five kids including two little boys at least as rowdy as mine -- which alone are about as much of a challenge as I can handle. She also has a brain-damaged daughter who requires constant specialized care from none other than Sister Lewis. Then her husband has a serious back problem that causes him to be bed-ridden and/or hospitalized for the entire book.

To be fair, most of this is not the fault of Mormonism (except the fact that her life is made infinitely more difficult and complex by the prophet's wise advice about having five hundred million kids). The fun part though is the local ward's reaction to her predicament, namely "Look how competent, resourceful, and responsible this lady is! She could really help us out by taking on the time-consuming additional responsibility of becoming Young Women's president!"

The thing that interested me the most while reading this book and the others -- and I think this was the draw of my secret romance with LDS teen romances -- was seeing the same familiar details and scenes from LDS culture, but each time from a slightly different perspective, based on the author's point-of-view. For example, in You're a Rock, Sister Lewis the villain is the smart-aleck girl who thinks all church youth activities are lame and stupid. In novels like my novel, Exmormon, that character would be the hero.

I thought it was pretty funny when the ward in the book was planning a cake decorating contest/auction, and Sister Lewis was thinking about how she could make a fabulous cake covered with beautiful frosting roses that would impress the smart-aleck girl and make her think homemaking is cool. Reading this, I was thinking "Ummm.... Earth to Mormon lady..."

Of course we never get to find out if her plan would have worked because Sister Lewis's little boys cut a wedge out of the cake before she gets to decorate it. Naughty little boys, dontcha love 'em? Then she makes her cake into a Pac-man cake.

The incongruous part was the fact that when her pack-man cake won "funniest," Sister Lewis was "mortified." This left me going "Wha...?"

You would think that if you have the presence of mind to do a save like that when your little boys mess stuff up, you would have a sense of humor about it. But I guess after X million hours of vacuuming up Cheerios you start taking this homemaking stuff waaaaaay too seriously.

The next book I picked up off my mom's bookshelf was Paradise Vue, by Kathryn H. Kidd. This book rubbed me the wrong way from page one. But it said the following on the back cover:

By page 50, you'll know that Kathryn H. Kidd's Paradise Vue is the funniest Mormon novel ever published. By the end, you may discover that it's also the best.

Plus it even had a foreword by Orson Scott Card. So I figured I might as well at least read it up to page 50 and see if it lived up to its hype.

My conclusion: This is the least sympathetic Mormon novel I have read. It is not the funniest -- indeed I did not find it funny at all. For humor, You're a Rock, Sister Lewis definitely has this one beat as does Around the Ward in 80 Days, reviewed below. (You're a Rock, Sister Lewis also has a foreword by Orson Scott Card by the way -- he gets around!)

In a nutshell, Paradise Vue is about a pair of ladies from Utah's leisure-class élite who get called to the Relief Society presidency. They are free-thinking eccentrics that hate the conformity, rigidity, and insincerity of LDS culture. Normally this would have me on their side in an instant, if it weren't for the fact that they're better than everyone else. You know, more spiritual in the real, non-superficial way.

The author trots out all the usual ridiculous characters that we know and love from our array of Mormon comedies, but instead of poking gentle fun at them as the others do, she essentially describes how very put out the main characters are that they have to deal with these awful people. As a result, the comedy falls flat.

When it got to the point of ridiculing the mourners at a funeral, that was just a bit too over-the-top for me, and I was glad to see page 50 arrive so I could put the book down.

This novel tells me the following story: The author is a very bright, talented woman who has spent too much time choking on Mormon culture. The novel is a way of venting her hostility towards the shameful way LDS culture undervalues bright women, while carefully avoiding blaming the LDS church for any of it.

Now I know that it's a very dangerous time for me to pan someone's novel while armchair psychoanalyzing the author -- considering that I just released a novel myself -- people in glass houses and all that. All I can say it that I'm sorry but this is my real opinion. And if Kathryn H. Kidd or her fans respond by writing a really mean review of my novel, I probably deserve it.

Now, back to the books I liked. Next on the list is the comedy-action-adventure Around the ward in 80 days, by Joni Winn Hilton.

I've spent so much time in the on-line exmormon/apostate community -- surrounded by misfits like myself who chafed painfully against their rigid LDS roles -- that I forget that there are people who fit the LDS mold perfectly and thrive in that peculiar little subculture known as Mormonism.

Joni Hilton is a Mormon success story. She is a beauty pageant winner (Miss California), a TV star (talk show host and local news anchor), and a published author of books and articles in addition to being Relief Society President and a mother of four.

This book gives us another example of how the tone of the book matches the author's position in LDS society. Kathryn Kidd was that Mormon pariah: the bright woman with no kids. And as discussed above, she comes off as having a bit of a chip on her shoulder. Susan Smallwood's main character seems exhausted and painfully overworked yet proud of all she is able to accomplish. Sure enough, in real life the author is a mom with a million kids including a handicapped daughter. And as one might expect given Joni Hilton's bio, Around the Ward in 80 Days portrays Mormon society as rosy, light-hearted, and fun!

Joni Hilton (in the guise of her alter-ego/main character) paints herself as beautiful, sexy, laid-back, responsible, competent, and fun. I would suspect the portrait is reasonably accurate. She is also not afraid to be goofy and place herself as the butt of a vast array of gags. In fact, the text consists of a non-stop stream of gags. Almost without exaggeration every paragraph is the set up or payoff to a joke, so it can come off as a little bit frantic. More than anything else it reads like a collected series of daily comic strips, but it seems to work.

Note that this book has a lot more sexual innuendo than the Mormon lit average (it doesn't take much!), and it's nice to see an idealized LDS couple portrayed as not ashamed of having a healthy sex life.

The "Backword" claims that the characters and story will remind you of your own ward. I first started questioning this claim by the second paragraph:

It all started in May, when Nick -- my younger brother who's been full of surprises all his life -- gave us a triple shocker. The first was that his shady schemes and ridiculous stories were actually just a smokescreen to cover the fact that he was a top intelligence agent with the CIA. We thought we had him pegged as a second-rate con artist (Dial 1-800-Snake-Oil) when suddenly he showed up in a military helicopter at our son, Grayson's, baptism. As a general dropped him off, he gave Nick a letter of thanks from the President.

The whole novel is like that. Some of the minor characters may be wild exaggerations of standard Mormon types, others are like no one on this planet. The author kind of gives the impression that while Mormonism is fun, real live Mormons are maybe just a little bit too boring for a book. I can't give this book any points for realism or serious drama. To be fair, however, I don't think the author was shooting for these qualities. It succeeds at what it sets out to be: a pleasant, entertaining light caricature of a happy LDS family.

For fun, I picked up a non-fiction tips-for-teens book by this same author, and out of morbid curiosity I turned to the chapter about whether or not it's okay to experiment with drugs. The chapter opened with a reefer-madness caliber story about a girl who was pretty, popular, and perfect in every way -- who surprises everyone by dying of a drug overdose. The dangerous gateway drug that led her down the path of destruction? Iced tea!

Kids... Don't experiment with iced tea...

Like I said, I can't really give this author any points for realism.

There's so much more to say about Mormon light fiction, but I have to stop here because this is already about five times as long as my column is supposed to be. Sorry!

See you next week!

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor March 8, 2006.

Monday, March 20, 2006

By the way...

If you like my blog, maybe you would also like to read my novel -->

Like my blog, it's a fun read and it's free to read it in electronic form. All I ask in exchange is that you post your impressions of it to your own blog and/or favorite Internet forums (or fora?) with a link back to my blog. And really that's just the suggested donation -- I can't very well enforce it or anything.

You don't even have to like it. If you hate it, just be sure to post about why you hate it -- giving plenty of detailed examples -- and (important!) a link back to my blog.

Or -- dare I dream -- if you or your friends write book reviews for a real publication and are looking for something out-of-the ordinary to review, consider this book!!! :D

Hey, it's not like I'm asking you for money or something. Not like that Matt guy who posts a PayPal button at the top of every blog entry: Notamormon. (Hi Matt!!! Don't worry, I'm not saying that's tacky or anything... ;-) ).

I know that many of you have already read multiple sample chapters. How do I know this? Okay, I'll admit it -- like any blogger worth her salt I look at the stats on which page loads lead to other page loads. :D So why not read the whole thing?

Ideally, you might consider purchasing it, however if you prefer the free PDF version, please email me at chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com and confirm that you are not a minor. (Really the sex isn't all that graphic -- that's more of a better-safe-than-sorry precaution so I don't get in trouble for corrupting the youth...)

p.s. One of these days I'm going to break down and pitch it to a real publisher ;-) but I'm curious to see how much interest I can generate all on my own...

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Cults vs. cult-like behavior

When I was a kid, every now and then I would hear someone call Mormonism a "cult". This always struck me as some sort of absurd and ignorant insult used by members of older religions to justify their superiority over newer religions.

I've been an exmormon for sixteen years, and the other exmormons still haven't really convinced me that the term "cult" is much more than a rationalization for why believing in one fairy tale is good while believing in another is bad.

Now I'm not ignorant of the dangers of blind, unquestioning, overzealous obedience to authority. I'm just not convinced that the danger is something unique to organizations that fit a particular list of list of cult criteria.

I recently read the book Subway by Haruki Murakami, which is a collection of interviews with people involved in the incident in which members of the Aum Shinrikyo released deadly nerve gas in the Tokyo subway. If anyone is the perfect example of the dangers of a cult, it would be these guys.

The thing I found most striking though was the difference between the voices of the cultists and the voices of the victims. The victims had suffered a terrible tragedy, but they were ordinary people that anyone could relate to, whereas the members of Aum Shinrikyo had something fundamentally odd about them, and seemed like if they hadn't taken up with this group, they would have found some sort of organization to fanatically cling to.

Now obviously it would have been better if they had found some other organization that was not quite so dangerous. If the definition of "cult" is that there is a real danger that the organization will convince its members to kill themselves and others, then I can see the reasoning for supressing cults.

Yet if that is the definition, it would make sense to place Mormonism outside of the scope of the term. I've lived in the Mormon mindset, and I know that it exacts a high degree of obedience to a living man (the president of the church). But knowing the character of the organization and its members, I don't think it is rational or realistic to suggest that there is any serious danger of the leaders ordering a mass murder/suicide and/or the members carrying it out.

Now you may suggest that even when they aren't going all the way to a murder/suicide rampage, cults inspire a lot of other anti-social behavior based on encouraging members to see the organization as their primary community and primary focus. These potentially negative behaviors include taking up all of their members' time and money and restricting the members' social activities to the point where they are discouraged from maintaining contact with friends and family members who won't join the organization.

Mormonism certainly encourages this kind of organization-focused behavior to a degree. But mainstream religions and even many organizations that are not religions do it as well. So it's less a question of Mormonism being 100% cult-like and other religions and organizations being not cult-like at all, it is rather a question of degree.

It is also a question of temperament. An organization can't magically turn a rational person into a fanatic. A person who is inclined to be a fanatic will find a way to be a fanatic. It seems that questionable organizations are the result of this, not the cause.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Why I hate church

I was digging through my old papers, and I found this amusing little article that I wrote for the Student Review -- BYU's now-defunct independent student paper -- when I was around 20 years old. It's particuarly funny that I saw it as shocking and controversial to expose the fact that church is no fun for kids...

"Tomorrow is Sunday and that's my favorite day," sings an adorable little primary-child voice. Unfortunately for the well-meaning parents of Mormondom, most children are not fooled by this sort of un-subtle propaganda. I have yet to meet a Mormon child that will honestly say that its favorite day is Sunday. The real killer, however, comes later in the song when the fantasy child sings "I get to go to Sunday School." Even the most imperceptive child can see that Sunday School is not something you "get to" go to like the mall or the amusement park. Sunday School is something Mommy and Daddy make you go to, like visiting Aunt Esther in the nursing home.

No doubt many of you are offended by my terrible heresy of suggesting that church is not some wonderful, spiritual experience that children look forward to all week, and I'm sure you can cite several examples of model children who have been trained to describe on demand how much they enjoy Sunday School. The reality, however, is that the Mormon church service is not designed to be fun for a child. I'll admit that the purpose of church is probably not to entertain children, but sometimes it appears that the general authorities researched all of the things that could possibly make an experience hateful and unpleasant for a child, and then they saw to it that the church service would systematically do all of those things.

As a perceptive seven-year-old I came up with a test that illustrates some of the various types of distress children associate with church. Basically, my little friends and I would ask ourselves the following question: "Am I cold, tired, hungry, uncomfortable, bored, and have to go to the bathroom?" If the answer to that question was yes, we knew we were at church.

Of course not all of these discomforts are directly the fault of the service. The temperature problem is due to poor design of the building's ventilation. The fact that a child cannot pass the time between classes by going out an climbing a tree is primarily the fault of pink dresse and stockings. Being hungry and having to go to the bathroom during the service are the results of the fact that children rarely plan more than a few minutes in advance.

These minor difficulties, however, are exacerbated by the one fatal obstacle to a child's enjoyment of the church service: Three hours is just too long a time for a small child to sit still and be "reverent." Reverence may be an important virtue, but it is a quality that is anything but childlike. I don't have to tell you that a child's attention span is very, very short, and that fact makes sacrament meeting particuarly painful. The length of time that a child will want to attend talks that it doesn't understand is somewhere between one and two seconds. The rest of sacrament meeting might as well be the eternity in hell that they are being trained to avoid.

The fun doesn't end with sacrament meeting though. The littlest children are gathered into a small room filled with other screaming children and maybe a few ancient, filthy toys. (They may not have to sit still and be quiet, but this sort of confinement is the closest 2-year-olds come to doing so.) Their older siblings in primary don't have it much better. Inspiring primary teachers are few and far between, and inspiring primary lesson manuals don't exist. I personally contributed to this problem when I taught primary last Summer. I managed to be a bit subversive, however, by secretly encouraging the children to interact with each other and play during singing time instead of setting an example of reverence. Perhaps because I don't have any children of my own I identify more with the restrained primary children than with their exasperated parents, but the way I see it, the parents have dug their own graves by bringing their children to something they know their children will hate.

You see, most parents should know better. If you were born in the church, you most certainly learned these same lessons when you were a small child. From the time you were a small child, you knew that church is no fun and you go because you have to. The tragedy is that very few Mormons ever outgrow this view. To be honest, church generally isn't interesting or inspiring enough, even for adults, that they would have reason to overcome their initial dislike of church.

This distaste for chruch attendance is, of course, passed along from parents to children -- yet another reason children hate going there. Children are more perceptive than you many think, and they learn on more than one level. If you hate going but you pretend you like it, your child will learn to lie to itself in the same way. The bottom line is that children who hate going to church will grow up to be adults who hate going to church.

As a result, most Mormons grow up with a philosophy that going to church is one of those painful commandments that earns you stars in heaven. I have heard many Mormons speak with disdain of other, more "liberal" religions that have recently made their services more pleasant in order to encourage attendance. The idea is that these people must be weak if they have to have an enjoyable service in order to keep the divine commandment to show up every week. This martyr-like need for weekly self-torture is reminiscent of the flagellant monks who were compelled to "mortify their sinful flesh."

Actually, I don't know exactly what the doctrine is reagarding whether Mormons are supposeed to enjoy church and be inspired by it, or whether they are supposed to prove their worthiness by enduring it -- but I think theoretically it should be the former. Unfortunately, I think that most Mormons, deep down, believe in option number two. Perhaps without realizing it you are one of the people that thinks of church in this way. It may be heresy to say such things, but I wonder which is the greater sin: to miss church occasionally or to lie to yourself and your children by pretending you're getting more out of the service than a mid-morning nap.

And thus we see the very thinly veiled hostility of the closet apostate attending BYU. As I recall, I was very proud that this article inspired the highest nubmer of angry letters to the editor all semester -- something like three!!! lol

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

So, it finally came in the mail...

I hesitated to open it since I figured this inital edition would be all messed-up and unprofessional-looking...

Nope. It's beautiful. The overall production quality rivals anything I've seen from a "real" publisher. The typesetting job my brother did is absolutely gorgeous -- unsurprising since he's done typesetting for a number of published books.

I'm so used to reading this as a bunch of ugly printout pages from my computer -- bound together with a plastic spiral -- and even presented like that the story shines through. Yet I can hardly describe how astonishing it is to see it in this beautiful format, even if it isn't the "real" edition yet.

The only problem is the typos. There are still typos!!!

How many hundred million times do I have to read this damn thing before I find all of the typos??? >:^(

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Why did I write such an offensive novel? Apologies in advance...

First and foremost, even though my novel is called Exmormon, it is not intended to be an "anti-Mormon" work.

If you've been following my column, you probably already know that I was raised LDS but I no longer believe in Mormonism, nor in God at all for that matter. You probably also already know that I'm not angry and bitter about it, but rather I regard it as just another part of my heritage and background.

I've weighed the evidence regarding God and religion, and I've come to my own conclusions. I think my conclusions are right, but I understand that other people might look at the same evidence and reach a different conclusion, and that doesn't really bother me.

How can this happen -- to be raised in the LDS church and reject it? Aren't you curious?

Perhaps you have friends, neighbors, or family members who have left the church. Or perhaps you've left the church yourself. Or maybe you've never been Mormon but you think Mormonism is kind of interesting. Whatever your situation, you might enjoy a story about the lives and loves of young people in and out of the LDS church told from the exmormon's perspective.

For those faithful LDS who are still reading at this point (if any), I imagine that the suggestion of looking at Mormonism and LDS culture from the apostate's perspective should be setting off alarm bells in your mind. In all fairness, I must warn you that the characters in the novel mention the doctrinal issues and arguments that led them to leave the church. However, the issues mentioned are all points that I would assume faithful Mormons are already aware of. They are real issues in the sense that they're points that people really do leave the church over, however in the novel they are not presented in diatribe format with some elaborate list of anti-Mormon talking points and footnotes. The reader is free to disagree with the fictional characters' position just as he may disagree with the ideas of his real-life exmormon friends.

Plus, the question of whether or not the church is true is hardly the central focus of the novel, fortunately! If it were just a bunch of theological discourses, what a dry novel that would be!

Really, Exmormon is a story about a group of young people growing up, making mistakes, falling in love, learning, and having fun, told with light humor and a dash of drama.

The novel Exmormon is currently available for order here.

Note that I have listed the novel as appropriate for mature readers because of strong language and adult themes including somewhat explicit sex. I might be persuaded to produce a Bowdlerized (edited) edition if there is a lot of interest.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor March 02, 2006.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Virginity -- once an asset, now a liability...

In the past marriage was traditionally more of an owner/property relationship than it is today. I'm oversimplifying a bit, but for much of history a woman and her children were in serious jeopardy without the economic support of a man.

Unsurprisingly, the "obey" part of the wedding vow was more common and taken more seriously. In particular, a wife had little or no expectation of being in a position to refuse to have sex with her husband, nor of preventing him from sleeping with other people if he has the means and inclination to do so.

So a wife's libido was at best kind of irrelevant and at worst a nuisance, given that a wife with a low sex drive was that much less likely to put her husband in the position of spending a big portion of his resources supporting someone else's offspring.

Fast forward to our modern era. Women in western society can earn enough to support themselves and their children if they so desire, so tolerating and staying with an abusive husband is no longer seen as a virtue. According to society's current morals, men are expected to treat their families with love and respect, they are expected to have only consensual sex with their wives, and they know that they will likely be faced with divorce for getting a little action on the side.

In my opinion, this change in traditional marriage is a positive one overall.

One consequence, however, is that a good man with a high libido who chooses his spouse unwisely can be put in a position of having to tolerate a life of little or no sex (after the honeymoon is over) in order not to lose his family. (The same is true for high-libido women as well of course.)

And since the wife's income plus the advent of modern, effective contraception strongly decrease the potential negative impact of spending one's resources on someone else's offspring, a high sex drive has become a very attractive and desirable quality in a wife.

Of course the correlation isn't 100%, but it stands to reason that a girl who has been interested in having lots of sex before marriage is just that much more likely to keep wanting to have lots of sex after.

Mormonism confuses the issue because it trains people not to have any sex at all before marriage -- regardless of their natural inclinations. As a consequence, among faithful Mormons, it is nearly impossible for the couple to determine whether they are sexually compatible until after they've signed on for life.

Now I'd like to ask a couple of questions of my readers, and of my LDS readers in particular, if I have any. (I probably don't have any, although it would be cool if it turns out that I do :D.) I don't intend to debate, denounce, or ridicule anyone's responses on the following -- it is a serious inquiry, and I am genuinely curious as to your position on the following:

1. Do you think sexual compatibility is an important priority in a marriage?
2. Do you think it is possible for two people to determine in advance whether or not they are sexually compatible without having sex?
3. If so, how?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Free PDF copy for reviewers!

If you would like to post your impressions of my novel Exmormon to your blog or to a bulletin board or perhaps even write a review of it for a real publication, then you can have a free copy of the entire novel as a PDF file.

Just email me and confirm that you are not a minor, and I will be happy to send it to you:

chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com

(Does writing your email address like that really fool the spambots? Or have they gotten wise to that trick?)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

We're all about trains at my house!!!

I was re-reading The Indelible Alison Bechdel the other day, and this panel made me laugh:

Haha!!! That poor mom!

Of course I don't follow the cartoonist's wise advice myself since I don't have to -- my kids love trains!!!

So I can get myself (I mean them ;-) ) as much train track as I want and set it up all over the living room so we can all play together:


Normally I love to travel, but I've been feeling so lazy recently that I ended up just spending my whole vacation in my pajamas playing with trains, as you can see from the following photographic evidence:

Monday, March 06, 2006

The differences between girls and boys

When I was younger, my ideas about girls and boys were simpler than they are today. As I said in an earlier column, my parents encouraged me to aspire to be essentially anything I could dream to be, so I played scientist (observing bugs or testing chemical reactions of mixing various household substances) and played house with equal abandon.

I was a rough and rowdy little monkey -- climbing on trees and everything else and couldn't imagine why anyone would want to play "tea party" with all of their dolls set up neatly around a toy table -- so I was sure that this crazy notion of girls being more calm and dignified than boys was wrong and was just the product of parental expectations. Similarly, I excelled in Math, so I concluded that the only reason girls tend to shy away from math-heavy fields was because their sexist parents, teachers and society failed to properly encourage them.

Today the answers seem less obvious. As a parent observing the behavior of various young kids and their parents, it's pretty clear that there's something to this idea of little boys and girls having a somewhat different temperament -- at least on average -- that can't be entirely explained away by parental expectations. I still think that girls' avoidance of Mathematics is primarily a question of cultural expectations, but is that the entire explanation? I'm no longer sure.

There are naturally two conflicting strategies within feminism for dealing with the fact that traits and roles that are labeled feminine are typically looked down on and devalued. One strategy is to get society to value the traits and roles that are seen as feminine, and the other strategy is to stop negative traits and devalued roles from being considered inherently female.

If one of these two strategies were always the right answer in all circumstances and the other always wrong, everything would be a lot easier. But typically different women can't help but have different ideas -- based largely on their own experiences -- and that can cause conflict.

As a stupid example, it seems that people who are taller get more automatic respect. And I've heard that automobile safety systems are designed, crash-tested, and optimized for the average-height man: 5'8". Now I happen to be 5'8", and looking around and comparing various men's height to my own, I might be tempted to say that the suggestion that females tend to be smaller is just so much slanderous misinformation to be countered. And if my opinion on the subject helped perpetuate the the practice of treating 5'8" as the overall average height, that might be fine and dandy for me, but I wouldn't necessarily be doing a service for women in general.

On the other end of the spectrum, the fact that history is written by the victors and the fact that men are still a little ahead in the battle of the sexes has given us a lot of negative stereotypes about women like, for instance, the stereotype that rational reasoning is a male trait. It would be easier to take this in stride and calmly counter it like so many other insulting stereotypes if it weren't for the fact that so many women (the most irrational ones, perhaps?) accept and embrace it.

Astonishingly, I've read arguments from women claiming to be feminists that if society were less sexist, the female means of deduction (intuition) would be as highly regarded and trusted as the male means of deduction (logic, reason, facts, evidence). It makes me angry to even hear people suggest that reasoning strategies are gender-based in this way, and my inclination is to fight to the death anyone who would consider that a feminist position, or really anyone who would consider the above statement anything other than offensive. I'm not sure how rational a reaction that is...

In between these two extremes, there is the more complex question of what to do about traditionally female professions such as nurse, schoolteacher, and homemaker. Should we work to valorize these jobs or work to change things so that they're not exclusively women's jobs? I would say both.

Professions like teaching and nursing that require intelligence and competence yet society won't pay a lot for end up being womens' work since there are a certain number of bright, ambitious women out there who -- traditionally cut off from most professional ambitions -- will take what they can get and do it well. But when women aren't arbitrarily cut off from most jobs, then traditional women's professions will have to compete for qualified personnel, and hence society can't just take for granted getting competent people cheap to fill them. Society is forced to re-evaluate the role (upwards) accordingly. So both goals are met at once.

Similarly with homemaking. Since homemaking doesn't require formal training nor is it paid, it's very easy to place homemakers on a pedestal of empty slogans of respect and esteem while deep down thinking "you do this because you don't have the skills or talents to do something more challenging."

In our modern feminist world, the situation is the opposite. Plenty of women (and even men) who have the talents and opportunity (or potential opportunity) to earn money and respect in the business and professional world choose nonetheless to stay home with their kids instead, demonstrating that homemaker is not just a role that one settles for but is a role that has value.

A while ago, on a fun little apostate/exmormon Internet bulletin board, some people were discussing the popular blog feminist Mormon housewives. There wasn't too much debate as to whether it's contradictory to be a feminist and a Mormon. Even though the LDS church actively organized against the Equal Rights Amendment, so many of us have moms who are feminists at heart that there was really no question about the fact that it's quite possible to be a feminist and a devout Mormon. There was some question however as to whether it is contradictory to be a feminist and a housewife. One of the guys quoted a feminist writer as saying the two were contradictory, but the ladies (working women and stay-at-home-mom alike) agreed that being a stay-at-home-mom is indeed a feminist role if it's the role that the woman chose for herself.

It may seem contradictory or hypocritical for me to say that since I have pretty young kids and I work full time outside the home. But you may rest assured that like all good working moms, I'm all defensive and guilty about it. I'll be happy to explain at length how we can't afford to do otherwise: we have no car, can't afford necessary repairs to our house that is 100 years old and looks it, much less afford luxuries, and besides that I managed to arrange to work from home when I had small (nursing) babies.

I'd rather say that we should praise and value those people (male and female) who have made sacrifices in order to spend more time at home with their kids without necessarily heaping shame on the shoulders of working parents who didn't have exactly the same skill sets and opportunities.

So we can all be feminists or not in our own way.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor February 22, 2006.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Exmormon: the story

Read Exmormon online here!!!

Then I allowed myself to ask the one most forbidden question of them all: What if it's not true?

This is a story about growing up LDS and finding your own way when you've been taught about life out of a rulebook that paints everything simplistically in black-and-white.

The novel follows the intertwined lives of the kids of three Mormon families:

The Hansons: April, Lynn, and Annette
The Wendells: Kathy, Rex, Jill, Joy, and Jared
The Hobbs: Laura, Linda, Matt, Spencer, and Sam, plus Joe

Part I: Young Women's Thirteen-year-old April tries her best to gain a testimony and to be more righteous in her everyday dealings with her friends and family.
1. Barbie dolls and the Book of Mormon
2. A goal to gain a testimony
3. Truth or dare!
4. Divine intervention

Part II: Youth Conference Lynn and her two sisters go to Youth Conference in hopes of finding romance while learning about the gospel.
5. Let the manhunt begin!
6. Doomed unrequited love was something we could definitely relate to in the Mia Maids class
7. Sexual Purity
8. The scripture chase a.k.a. Another great year at Youth Conference

Part III: Saturday's Warrior Jill has a rather unfortunate romantic adventure while she and her brother Rex are participating in a community theater production of Saturday's Warrior.
9. He's perfect for the part
10. You're my obsession
11. A question of morality a.k.a. Danger! Danger! Danger!
12. Could I really love a man who could do something like this?
13. A problem and a solution
14. A favor for a friend a.k.a. Vegas road-trip part I
15. The grace period a.k.a. Vegas road-trip part II
16. Trying to make things right again
17. The sort of spiritual experience eternal companions should share

Part IV: Brigham Young University Lynn is a freshman at BYU, studying hard and having fun with friends. Some of her experiences (including being called in by the Honor Code Office and meeting up with apostate Rex) cause her to rethink her faith.
18. The most non-conformist girl in our dormitory
19. Confidences, confessions, and advice
20. An intimate little gathering a.k.a. Here's to new friends
21. Girl talk and a run-in with Standards
22. The epiphany a.k.a. I just don't belong here

Interlude: Gratuitous Love Scene The name says it all.
23. An even more intimate little gathering

Part V: Polygamist Joe runs away from his fringe Mormon (polygamist) family and is taken in by the family of his LDS uncle.
24. An uncertain destination
25. Who cares what Brigham Young said? I certainly don't!

Part VI: Temple Wedding Young adult exmormons Lynn and Rex go back to Utah Valley for the wedding of Lynn's sister Annette to returned-missionary Matt. All of the members of the various families are faced with the challenge of trying to work out their differences.
26. The disorienting trip back a.k.a. Persona non grata
27. How little do you know me after all these years?
28. A question of perspective a.k.a. The dreadful dinner scene
29. The people who weren't allowed to attend the ceremony in the temple
30. Forever family freak show a.k.a. You can't choose your family

Part VII: Orem High Jared and Joe are rivals for the affection of a new girl in school.
31. And where did he serve his mission?
32. A warm October day down by the Provo River
33. The big date a.k.a. Orem's not so bad when you give it a chance
34. I can rely on myself
35. Jared gets drunk and gets laid
36. Guy talk and the slightly less dreadful dinner scene a.k.a. Forget about her, Jared
37. A story I never tell anyone a.k.a. C'est la vie

Part VIII: Bordeaux Mission Spencer is faced with challenges and temptations as he meets up with some young people from back home during the final week of his mission.
38. The last P-day of my mission
39. Not some dorkazoid missionaries!
40. Even though the church is perfect, the people aren't
41. It's not that simple a.k.a. The temptation of Spencer Hobbs

Part IX: Exmo Conference Heavenly Father observes as a bunch of His wayward children get together for coffee, drinks, and a few laughs.
42. These beautifully flawed vessels

Order it