I was in a cult during my highschool years. I remember when I was in 10th grade – a sophomore, I guess, we had a Special Outing. It was February in Rhode Island. It had been a long, cold, winter. The heating system was ancient and unreliable, and many of the radiators in the dorms housed families of spiders. The stress of living in a cult plus the terror of going to sleep next to a knocking metal radiator, knowing that spiders would visit me in the night and leave new bites all over my body, had me sleep walking and talking most nights. I even woke up one night jumping on my twin bed and screaming. Some of the girls in my section of the dorm giggled and went back to sleep, some growled, one took me by the hand and put me back to bed. She was waking up with spider bites every morning, too. I don’t remember how that problem was resolved, but I’m pretty sure something changed after the screaming incident because I don’t remember any more spider bites.
One morning, when I went to the office, to fulfill my daily responsibility to print up the schedule for the day, the Director, Maria, was waiting there for me. She told me that today we were to have a special outing. She confided in me that our usual weekly outing had to be cancelled once again, due to more wretched weather, and that the girls desperately needed a boost. We were going to stay home and more or less follow the usual, life-draining routine, but everyone needed to feel like today was special. She asked me to dress up the schedule and give all our usual, dreary tasks new names and by extension, new life. It was amazing how adding a little extra color to the border of the hated schedule and adding clever adjectives to all our usual tasks brought smiles and bright eyes and even furtive whispers (communication outside of sanctioned conversation times was expressly forbidden) to the section of hallway around the bulletin board. Lucky Charms and donuts for breakfast, a slight relaxation of the dress code – jean skirts instead of rayon, tennies instead of dress shoes, a little variety during PE instead of the dreaded, daily, basketball, and board games and puzzles in place of a couple of the afternoon classes, really did change the atmosphere. Most of us lifted a little from our depression and felt renewed in our loyalty to the group, our faith in our leaders and our mission to change the world through obedience.
But, we were easily manipulated. We were completely cut off from the world. Every moment of our lives was scheduled, down to our bathroom breaks. Good luck if lunch disagreed with you or your minimal water and fiber intake got the best of you. There was a table by the director’s office window, covered with newspapers and magazines – full of carefully scissored holes, of course, to prevent us from seeing anything that could “damage” us, and in full view of the director’s watchful gaze, presumably to keep track of who was skipping scheduled activities to find out what was going on in the evil, scary, worldly, Outside. We spoke with our parents once a week for 45 minutes. The phones were public and we were expected to inform on girls who were complaining or seemed unduly emotional during their phone time, as well as reporting on ourselves to our spiritual directors everything that was said during our calls home. The stated goal of the organization was to deconstruct faithful little Catholic girls and re-make them into obedient, faithful, soldiers for the cause of Christ. They drew each of us detailed mental pictures of our sinful selves – each of us was told, privately, in our twice or thrice weekly one-on-one interviews with our leaders, how terribly, how unusually, how colossally prideful we were, how cripplingly lazy, how massively self-absorbed, how pitifully vain and small we were. Of course, we weren’t those things. We were mostly exceptionally generous and religiously-minded teens, but they very effectively convinced us that we did not measure up. If we really were committed to shedding our faults, we would convince siblings and cousins and friends and parents to send more money to the organization, to attend camps and projects and activities. Our countenance would shine with the light of Christ if we were really living the gospel. It would shine so brightly that people would be drawn to us and want to join our organization. If we really cared about being consecrated to Christ, we would never be negative or complain or frown or have questions or doubts. We would always smile, knowing that our faces didn’t belong to us, they belonged to others. If we had love for our fellow men, we would always be positive and upbeat and dwell less on ourselves and more on what others needed in their lives to help them be happy.
Now take a moment and try to remember everything I’ve told you and tell it to yourself again, but this time, imagine that you believe in the system. Imagine you are completely convinced that this program changes lives and softens hearts and brings people to Jesus. Imagine how you would re-write what I’ve written putting a positive light on it and trying your best to understand and accept it as right and good and necessary. Is it difficult? I have lots of practice, so I’ll give you a hand –
I spent the best years of my life in Rhode Island! I made friends there to whom I have a closer connection than my parents and siblings. There were some crazy times, and we participated in some hilarious hijinks, especially at night in those creepy, ancient, dormitories. Remember the night when Anna had to wake me up and put me back to bed? Remember what a great spiritual experience we had that one February when we hadn’t been out of the building in months? Our directors sure knew our needs and cared for us like we were their own children. They were so careful to guard us and protect us and they worked so hard to form us into Women of the Kingdom. It’s too bad so many of us have lost our faith in God, have struggled for years to form healthy relationships, have bad connections with our families or no contact at all with them, have been crippled by depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. It just goes to show you that God will never take away a person’s free will. I pray that those who are lost will someday remember what they learned in Rhode Island and will come back to the faith they know is true, but have rejected in the hardness of their hearts. It is so easy to lose your faith. The small bad decisions people make damage them, and before they know it, they are past feeling. If only they had obeyed more, if only they had trusted more, if only they had been more generous and more careful…
I spoke those words, and then, a few years later, those pitying, accusatory words were spoken about me and to me and much less kind words were spoken, as well. I left the cult, and the Catholic church, and I took up with a group of returned Mormon missionaries who loved to sit and discuss and debate with me the finer points of their theology and my philosophy. I fell in love with a modern day School of the Prophets that happened in fast food joints and the Institute parking lot and parks that we somehow found our way to after classes or YSA activities. I argued my way through the Book of Mormon and parts of the Doctrine and Covenants, and fell in love with the seed of faith that grows if it is good, and the Title of Liberty, and the lesson that Oliver Cowdery learned about studying it out in his mind instead of expecting someone else to do the work for him. I fell in love with a creedless faith that embraced all things that are true and expected to find more true things daily, forever. I fell in love with a faith that recognized that God was not so different from man, just more experienced and more knowledgeable. I fell in love with a God who was both limited and empowered by the same laws of the universe that both limited and empowered me. I was finally, after all the years of trying and giving and obeying and churching, accepted and valued by a church community that wanted nothing more from me than what I wanted to and felt able to offer. This community accepted Me and valued Me – not who I could be or what I could give if I were trained better, but the Me that showed up on the doorstep. This was my community. These were my people. This was the church I joined, and I did not do it lightly. I knew what the response would be. I ran the gauntlet, knowing that even the people I loved the most would not hesitate to beat me with the club meant for those dangerous Others.
Because I’ve been on both sides of groupthink and both sides of the indoctrination machine, I feel I have an unusually sensitive propaganda detection meter. I don’t accept anything at face value. I know how groups operate, I know how people delude themselves into believing that men who claim to speak for God have more authority than God’s voice to their own hearts. I know how conscience is corrupted – and it’s not through disobedience to people in authority, it’s through disobedience to the authority and immutability of moral law.
As my eldest daughter draws close to her 12th year and greater involvement with the church I love, I find myself in a very difficult situation. I know what peer pressure and emotional manipulation can do to a vulnerable teenager. I was one, and I was broken by the messages they burned on my heart. They meant well. They meant to inspire me to do good and to be faithful. Where they failed was in teaching me that good was something outside of myself to be pursued at the cost of the good that already existed inside me, and in convincing me that fidelity was something I owed to an organization or a set of people or a title rather than to a set of principles. The people who actually helped me become my best self, accepted me as I was. They valued me. They did not feel the need to break me down and build me back up in their images. They did not carefully arrange circumstances and activities that would create in me the “correct” emotional response.
My husband and I have gone to some trouble to keep our kids free from the prison of society’s expectations for them. We want them to grow up figuring out what is inside of them and how to enhance the parts they like and channel the parts that would keep them from accomplishing their goals. We don’t have TV or Target ads or Barbies or anything else in the house that will make them feel like their looks and their style and their thoughts and their goals are something they need to buy or imitate or long for. Our idea, our hope, the goal we’re working for, is for them to figure out who they are, not to learn from our sick society who they are expected to be. Until I became more familiar with the youth programs, I expected the church to be our ally in this goal.
We have Trek in our stake every 4 years. For those who are not familiar, Trek is a multi-day activity in which the young men and young women of the church dress up in period costume (dress pants, a button-up shirt and boots for the boys, a pioneer dress for the girls – ankles to wrists covered, a bonnet, an apron, and bloomers), they go out to the desert, usually in the middle of the summer, and hike, push handcarts, and camp out. Adult men and women go along to assist, to teach, and to chaperone. As I read the Trek Handbook, I feel a lot of conflicting emotions. A hiking and camping trip with a bunch of great kids, singing, walking next to people playing guitars and violins, a hoe down, campfire cooking – all these things are my idea of a superbly great time and a tremendously beneficial activity for any kid. But many of the descriptions of how the activity should go seem primarily concerned with how to get the kids to feel this, that or the other. There are several elements here that bother me – first is that the clothing is almost always inappropriate for the weather, especially for the girls, whose movements are hampered and whose costumes are much more intense. The Women’s Pull, when all the men take off and leave the women and girls to fend for themselves is described this way:
The women’s pull can be a valuable part of the trek and can be used to emphasize the principles of faith, obedience, and sacrifice. This pull humbles the young men as they observe it and helps the young women rely on their own strength and their faith in the Lord. http://www.handcarttreks.com/documents/trekhandbook5-20-10.pdf Page 8
My guess is that the girls are learning more about how the game is rigged – pulling handcarts in the girls’ costumes is going to be a lot tougher than it would be in pants and a collared shirt.
The second element that struck me is that the historic moments that these kids are re-living are presented as a shining example of how Latter Day Saints are called to follow the Prophet of God, even if it means getting your family into a situation that results in most of them dying. It makes me very uncomfortable that the church so seldom differentiates between following the Prophet and following God, as if there is no possibility that the Prophet’s desires for us could ever conflict with God’s desires for us. The Trek Manual has a classic example of that tendency to conflate the Prophet’s pronouncements with God’s –
Obedience: “No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands.”
(Heber J. Grant, Teachings of President of the Church: Heber J. Grant).
Motivated by their faith in Jesus Christ and their desire to be obedient to a prophet of God, Latterday Saint converts gathered together in the American West where they could make temple covenants and help establish Zion.
If the youth of the Church are to triumph over evil and obtain eternal life, they too must learn obedience to God’s commands.
http://www.handcarttreks.com/documents/trekhandbook5-20-10.pdf Page 6
I find it so difficult to square this quote and this omnipresent idea in the church that we will always be blessed if we follow the Prophet, even if we follow him to perdition, with the ideas and the conversations that drew me into the church in the first place. I love this quote by Charles Penrose, who describes so eloquently what is so very troubling about this wholesale abdication of personal accountability –
“We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark that they would do anything they were told to do by those who preside over them — even if they knew it was wrong. But such obedience as this is worse than folly to us. It is slavery in the extreme. The man who would thus willingly degrade himself should not claim a rank among intelligent beings until he turns from his folly. A man of God would despise this idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the Saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without any questions. When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves.”
(Apostle Charles Penrose, 1852, Millennial Star, vol 14, num 38, pgs 593-595)
Trek is by no means the only aspect of the Youth Programs that gives me pause. I deeply question the number of hours required, the emphasis on sameness, the emotional highs that the teens tearfully relate to us in testimonies after boys’ camp and girls’ camp and temple trips and other youth activities. Emotional manipulation is hardly novel, much less unusual. We are constantly bombarded with bids for space on our emotional bandwidth. If we were to base our moral choices on emotional experiences alone, well, we’d live in a world much like the one we now inhabit, where people change their moral stances according to the winds of political and cultural changes rather than on studied, rational ideas about how to safely and ethically operate in a complex world. Substituting the cultural winds of Mormonism for the cultural winds of Americanism is hardly a solution to the problems we face today.
We know that racism and bigotry motivated our own prophets to claim they were speaking doctrine when they were actually speaking from the fears and idiosyncrasies of their own experiences and prejudices. https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
We also know that prophets and apostles have warned us to think for ourselves, to put our trust in God, not men, and to always look for our own light and understanding rather than expecting others to direct us in everything we do.
“What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.”
(Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9, p. 150, 12 January 1862)
“Do not, brethren, put your trust in a man though he be a bishop, an apostle, or a president. If you do, they will fail you at some time or place.”
(Apostle George Q. Cannon, Millennial Star, v 53, p 658-659)
So I’m left trying to figure out how a church, conceived when a 14-year-old boy went to the woods, got on his knees, and asked God which preacher to follow, can tell that story almost every Sunday and still somehow forget that God said that all the authorities were wrong. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf makes it clear that seeking continual revelation is not only the domain of church leaders –
“The invitation to trust the Lord does not relieve us from the responsibility to know for ourselves. This is more than an opportunity; it is an obligation—and it is one of the reasons we were sent to this earth.” (What is Truth? By Dieter F. Uchtdorf) https://www.lds.org/broadcasts/article/ces-devotionals/2013/01/what-is-truth?lang=eng
As I draw closer to the fateful day when my eldest transitions from Primary to Young Women’s, I ponder daily how to suck the marrow of rich history, freedom of thought and conscience, love for intellectual pursuits, tolerance for new ideas, curiosity about the great and beautiful things of this world, supportive community, and the shining examples of service, love, loyalty, and outstanding moral courage that the church offers, and still somehow save her from the groupthink and other unhealthy institutional behaviors that cut me so deeply as a young girl who wanted nothing more than to offer her heart to her Savior. We are 6 months out, and I still don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I do rest easy in the knowledge that the sacred Mormon traditions of self-reliance, continuing revelation, and personal accountability will buoy our family as we find our way in the church.
I have had so many experiences in my life of the Spirit whispering to my heart, “the path lies this direction,” that I have full confidence he will continue to guide our family in the way we should go. There was a time when I was certain God’s plan for me was to live a life of celibate religious devotion, but that bend in the road lasted only a short season, and it served to prepare me for richer and more challenging times ahead. Since then, I have accepted his promptings without making such permanent plans for the future. The path winds in ways I can’t guess, but I do know where it ends – in a better, more satisfying, more grown-up, more fulfilled, more crowded with family and friends place than where I stand today.
The Bridge Builder
An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.
“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”
The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”