Emily Pearson’s Dancing with Crazy and Joanna Brooks’s The Book of Mormon Girl
I first heard of Emily Pearson in June 2007, while I was riding in a nearly deserted Manhattan subway car. Only two other people were on board with me: my wife, Ann; and well-known Mormon writer and gay activist Carol Lynn Pearson, the mother of Emily.
I was visiting New York on the dime—er, shilling—of a British publisher who wanted me to join him at a book convention. Ann decided to come along for a long weekend of theatergoing. We both enjoyed Vanessa Redgrave’s one-woman dramatization of Joan Didion’s perhaps slightly overrated memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, although the play was so quiet that you could hear the traffic outside, and at one point a cell phone shattered the spell for what seemed like several minutes. I loved Spring Awakening, but Ann found it too raw and sexual. We also saw the tourist-friendly 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
For our fourth play, we’d heard that Carol Lynn Pearson’s gay-sympathetic Facing East was playing in a small theater down in Chelsea, which I suppose would be classified as Off-Broadway. We thought it would be a novelty to see such a Mormon-related play in the Big Apple, a play written by the same person who wrote My Turn on Earth and the screenplay for Cipher in the Snow. Also, I was quite curious to see if Pearson would offer any new insights into the Mormon-gay impasse.
As I sat in a stall in the theater restroom before the performance began, I heard a group of men enter the restroom. They were tittering together in a lispy way, and we were in Chelsea after all, so I assumed they were gay. (Is there a word for a group of gay men? I lean toward gaggle.) For a moment, all I heard was the sound of zippers opening. Then an exuberant, singsong voice called out, “Penithes, penithes, all around!”
I waited until they were gone before I ventured out of my stall.
Inside the theater, I sat next to a small woman with short silver hair. Turning to me, she introduced herself as Carol Lynn Pearson and asked if I was so-and-so, naming a person she was evidently expecting to meet. I told her no, sorry, I wasn’t. But I gave her my name and said she might know me from The Sugar Beet, a Mormon satirical news source to which I recalled that Pearson subscribed.
She lit right up at the mention of The Sugar Beet. I told her about some other times our paths had recently crossed. I’d included an interview with her in my book Conversations with Mormon Authors. At a Borders Bookstore in Salt Lake City, I’d done a book signing right after her, waiting nearby as she chatted with a last few fans. While coauthoring Mormonism For Dummies, I’d sought her input on the homosexual section. Pearson hadn’t liked how I’d said that some same-sex-attracted people could “reclaim their God-given heterosexuality.” In addition, she felt that I didn’t give enough weight to the “huge body of evidence these days that the biological contribution is profound.” I don’t remember making any substantial changes based on this input, which I considered wishful, deluded thinking on her part.
I thought Facing East was fine as a drama, but I also felt it was manipulative propaganda. For me, the basic message was that Mormons need to learn to be thrilled with fellow Mormons who act out their gay desires, otherwise they will commit suicide and it will be our fault. A year later, I would tussle with Pearson in the Salt Lake Tribune over this. She would write an opinion piece titled “We can change history for gay LDS,” reiterating the same basic message as the play. My published response letter would include the line, “That sounds like blackmail to me, and I don't accept it.”
After the play, Ann and I sauntered through the hot Manhattan afternoon to the subway station. On the platform, we found ourselves standing next to Carol Lynn Pearson, who must have walked by a different route. During our screechy, rattling subway ride together, we started chatting about blogs, and Pearson told us about her daughter Emily’s blog. “Now, I have to warn you, she can get a bit salty,” Pearson said, as I was jotting down Emily’s blog address. When I asked if she thought Emily would ever come back into the LDS Church, Pearson shook her head sadly and said something like, “I don’t think so. For some people, the church does more damage than good.”
To our surprise, a few days later we found ourselves standing next to Carol Lynn Pearson again, this time at La Guardia. It turned out we were on the same flight to Atlanta. During this layover, the three of us ate lunch together at a Chili’s restaurant. Pearson said that our numerous chance encounters had earned us a mention in the diary where she noted the “synchronicities” in her life. A few months later, she and I would do a session together at the Utah Book Festival, titled “Mormon Writing: Promised Land or No Man’s Land?” Our purpose would be to discuss “the trials and blessings of seeking an audience for material that some would call ‘too worldly for the Mormons and too Mormon for the world.’ ” Of course, Pearson would use this opportunity to spread her gay-activist gospel.
As soon as we got home from the New York trip, I added Emily Pearson’s blog to my Google Reader. Over the next few years, I enjoyed reading her exuberant, snarky, often witty posts. Sometimes I played along with her on some irreverent, inappropriate things that I thought were wildly funny. Other times I went head to head with her over Mormonism and the gay issue. When she announced that she was finally self-publishing her memoir Dancing with Crazy, I was one of the first people to order it.
I was expecting Pearson to paint a rosy picture of her father, Gerald, who left the family to pursue a gay life in San Francisco, eventually dying of AIDS. But this is not at all what Pearson does. Instead, we get a realistic account of her father’s hedonistic gay life and his profoundly irresponsible exposing of young Emily to the whole gay scene, including pornography and drugs. She even reveals that some of Gerald’s friends ritually sexually abused her, without Gerald’s knowledge.
Now, it’s clear that Emily loved her father—in fact, rather too much and to a codependent degree, in my opinion. But there is absolutely no way I can see for her to defend his character, and I don’t think she tries to. He’s not some noble gay man who took a responsible approach to his homosexual orientation and made a life that could be held up as any kind of worthwhile example. No, he comes across as someone who simply abandoned his commitments and completely gave himself over to follow all the temptations that came his way. In the process, he did a terrific amount of damage to his daughter Emily, who often spent time with him down in the Castro. How could she not be screwed up?
I have not yet read any of Carol Lynn Pearson’s books, but now I definitely want to read Goodbye, I Love You, her version of having a gay husband and helping him as he died of AIDS. While Emily completely threw out her Mormonism perhaps partially as a coping mechanism for accepting her own father, I’m curious whether Carol Lynn tries to make any argument that Gerald’s homosexuality was actually a worthwhile thing, something defensible, something that God himself might have accepted.
Unfortunately, Gerald was only the first of many toxic, codependent situations that Pearson got herself into. When describing this book to others, I have often used the term train wreck. Seriously, Pearson had a real knack for attracting Mormon weirdo after Mormon weirdo, including a polygamist who courted her for his third or fourth wife. Her one normal boyfriend ended up dying of cancer, but not before some whacko Mormon priesthood holder led Pearson to believe that she could save the boyfriend via extreme faith.
Of course, Emily eventually ended up marrying Stephen Fales, even though he was attracted to men. They had two children together, but this horrible relationship was probably the deciding factor that finally drove her away from religion. Again, even though Emily is now a gay activist, there is nothing about Fales that makes me think the gay identity is actually a good, worthwhile thing. Like her father, he’s just another spiritual failure who couldn’t control his impulses, keep his commitments, and stay on the Mormon track. I’ve read Fales’s play, Confessions of a Mormon Boy—which, incidentally, is what goaded Emily to write her own version of the story—and he offers nothing to make me think homosexuality is actually a positive thing worth pursuing. It’s a human weakness that should be resisted, just like any other ungodly impulse.
When I was in high school, I made a friend who told me a weird, horrifying story. One day, this guy’s father came home from work and, even though it was starting to drizzle outside, he took out a chainsaw and started cutting into the roof of the family’s home. It turned out that my friend’s dad had decided to take a second wife, and he was adding some rooms to the house for her. My friend was pulled out of public school and, as the oldest of seven children, was put in charge of their home-schooling. He missed his entire junior high experience before his mom finally kicked out her husband and the new wife. When this friend and I rebelled by moving to downtown Salt Lake to join the underground New Wave/punk scene, I knew he had a damn good reason for rejecting Mormonism and anything like unto it, whereas my only reason was boredom. To this day, I don’t blame my friend for taking a completely nonreligious approach to life; in fact, he’s an atheist, and I can see why.
After reading Emily Pearson’s memoir, I feel much the same way about her. With most people who leave the church, it’s fairly easy for me to identify a reason that reflects more on their own poor spiritual character than on the church. Often it’s because they put too much stock into human ways of understanding science and history. Another common reason is that, consciously or not, they have adopted secular humanism as their worldview and can’t see things in terms of spiritual reality, true theology, eternity, etc. (see, for example, Joanna Brooks, discussed below). Secular humanism “embraces human reason and secular ethics while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision-making” (Wikipedia). It’s a worldview for spiritual weaklings who just can’t or won’t exercise faith in the face of ambiguities and unknowns.
My main emotional response to Pearson is pity, and I don’t blame her (much) for abandoning Mormonism and becoming a New Age goddess unto herself. She now subscribes to a worldview wherein the self is the ultimate authority—in fact, she basically says that the self and God are the same thing. How could she not be confused with a father like that, with formative experiences like that, with fellow Mormon weirdoes like that? Whenever she did try to exercise faith with all her heart and mind, it usually led her down a terrifying rabbit hole. I don’t really see much that she could have done differently. I wonder how accountable she is for leaving Mormonism and what God’s ultimate judgment of her will be. (I also hope she hasn’t misrepresented or exaggerated her story.)
Although Pearson’s memoir needed more editing, especially for surface-level stuff like punctuation, I can recommend it as a fascinating example of Mormonism gone awry. Perhaps, like Emily’s mother said, Mormonism does more damage in some people’s lives than good, at least as far as their earthly experience.
While I feel sorry for Pearson and don’t really blame her for leaving Mormonism, Joanna Brooks just pisses me off. When I read her expressions, not only her memoir The Book of Mormon Girl but also her stuff online, I often find myself wondering, Who does this person think she is?
Before I complain about Brooks, let me first say what I like about her communications, in this memoir and online. She is quite articulate and charismatic, with considerable social and emotional intelligence—she’s fantastic at empathizing with people, reaching out to those who feel alienated in Mormonism, and building a sense of community among her followers. At times, she expresses some good insights and interpretations of Mormonism for outside audiences. She can communicate clearly and simply—one of the best things about her memoir is how short it is and how fast it reads. Her writing style can be entertaining and moving at times, although equally often her prose turns purple, and occasionally she floats out a misshapen metaphor, such as: “Do we blame our parents? Do we resent the worry in their eyes? Do we feel our failures eat up the oxygen in the room like lost and hungry ancestors?” (Kindle location 1643).
For me, the problem with Brooks is that she’s missing an authentic Mormon spiritual core, and she does not hold an essentially Mormon worldview. Rather, she sees the world as a secular humanist, putting far more stock into human understanding and human ethical reasoning than into religious faith and prophetic authority. For Brooks, the ultimate authority is the self, not God or religion or a prophet or anything else. For these reasons, she ends up doing more bad than good, especially for Mormons who are looking for justification to abandon Mormon orthodoxy. Brooks is calling for a big-tent Mormonism that can accommodate and equalize people with all kinds of contradictory beliefs and behaviors, without holding them to any kind of orthodox standard. In other words, a bunch of selves who are all making their own rules and calling the shots in their own lives, rather than trying to find out what the Lord wants so they can obey and conform to that standard.
Brooks wants what I can best describe as a kind of Mormon Unitarian Universalism. “Unitarian Universalism is a religious denomination characterized by support for a ‘free and responsible search for truth and meaning.’ Unitarian Universalists do not share a creed; rather, they are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth and by the understanding that an individual’s theology is a result of that search and not obedience to an authoritarian requirement. Unitarian Universalists draw on many different theological sources and have a wide range of beliefs and practices” (Wikipedia).
What’s so wrong with this? It’s the gospel of secular humanism, not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Brooks seizes upon one important aspect of the Savior’s gospel—loving and accepting others despite their differences and sins—and elevates that teaching above all others. In other words, individual humans know better than the Lord’s church, and the self is the ultimate authority. If the self feels homosexual, than the self is fully justified in pursuing that. If the self prefers the idea of gender neutrality and sees justice and ethics in that worldview, then the self is justified in ignoring Mormonism’s prophetic teachings otherwise. After all, Mormonism made a terrible mistake with the blacks, so it could be wrong whenever it tries to uphold standards or warn that some identities or lifestyles or philosophies are ungodly and incorrect. (Brooks seems to somehow know that the whole black situation was entirely a mistake of bigoted male Mormon leaders, and that there’s zero chance that God could have had anything to do with it. Her own human brain can’t imagine such a thing, so it’s impossible. Also, she apparently takes the gay agenda completely at face value, believing everything that gays say about themselves and their experiences, how they are born that way and have no other options and deserve fulfillment. She acknowledges no possibility that maybe so-called gays are deep in self-deception and are simply giving in to temptations. Where God fits into it, she doesn’t even attempt to say.)
Brooks is basically a proud intellectual/feminist who, enabled by today’s predominantly secular society, thinks she knows better than prophets, the church, and maybe even the Lord himself. The authority she follows is not priesthood or faith or the Holy Spirit but her own human heart, which is constantly getting squished between concrete and a cinder block because Mormonism has been so mean and discriminatory toward blacks, women, and now especially gays. Brooks is a bleeding-heart liberal of kneejerk proportions who, after leaving the LDS Church, has now come back because she missed some tangential aspects of Mormon culture and society and because she wants to teach Mormonism the correct path.
When Brooks does, on rare occasion, say something positive or encouraging about an actual Mormon theological belief, I can detect an agnostic undertone to it, a feeling of “Wouldn’t it be nice if that were true.” I don’t remember hearing Brooks ever say anything about the devil, which is a common blind spot among so-called Mormons who have a secular-humanist worldview. Without belief in the reality of a devil who tempts people and leads them astray, it’s easy to define homosexuality as simply a biological fact that can’t be resisted. But what about the possibility—the fact, in my belief—that homosexuality is a temptation and that today’s gay movement is a huge deception that the devil is perpetrating on our civilization, as the newest battlefront of the Sexual Revolution? Brooks is completely blind to this kind of worldview, to a reality in which actual unseen beings can whisper false ideas and impulses to the spiritual minds of human beings—including, I would argue, Brooks herself in all her heresies. She is clearly one of the elect who is being led astray, putting more of her soul into fighting for gay rights than into humbling herself before Mormon (male) prophetic authority and getting with the program.
I can imagine that, with young daughters to whom she wants to bequeath a cultural identity, Brooks might be envious of her husband’s Jewish identity. I think her return to Mormonism is motivated mainly by her desire to carve out something similar to modern-day secular Judaism, something with cultural texture and ancestral resonance but without actual central (male) authority, core doctrines and theology, and a supernatural worldview. This is exactly the direction that the secular world would like to see Mormonism and all strong religions go, so it’s no wonder that Brooks has become a bridge between the secular world and so-called Mormonism. I understand that an imprint of Simon & Schuster is now republishing her memoir, and there’s no mystery why. To them, Brooks is a modern, progressive, rational thinker who sees past all the hokum of Mormonism, has grown out of it, and is trying to transform it from within and neutralize its power and authority in people’s lives.
I have to admit, I’m personally almost the exact opposite of Brooks in my stance toward Mormonism. I really don’t like Mormon culture, society, or spiritual practices. However, I have firsthand experience with the devil, and I strongly believe in Mormon authority, revelation, and theology. My suggestion to Brooks is that she go ahead and start her own religion. She can take the Mormon Jell-O and funeral potatoes of which she is so condescendingly fond, her beloved pioneer ancestors, her favorite LDS hymns, the social aspects of the church that she likes, and join it to her pro-gay secular humanism.
You can tell that Brooks is at once fearful of and attracted by the prospect of church discipline. Personally, I would like to see the LDS Church act against her in some way, because I feel that she is misrepresenting Mormonism and confusing people both inside and outside the LDS Church. I feel this is true for any so-called Mormon gay activist; eventually the church is going to have to do something about these heretics within the faith. Since Brooks has already self-selected as a non-temple-going member, there’s probably no need to excommunicate her. But I’d like to see the church make it clearer somehow that many of Brooks’s beliefs and views are not acceptable, especially on the gay issue. Probably that won’t happen anytime soon, because today’s LDS Church seems to be run more by public relations than prophecy, and it wouldn’t be good PR to start cracking down on people like Brooks. However, I consider her an enemy to the faith, a not-so-secret agent of today’s dominant secular humanism who is trying to infiltrate Mormonism, weaken its authentic spiritual power and authority, and water it down to be like any other humanist pseudo-religious organization.
Yeah, yeah, I can hear some people saying, “You’re just judging Brooks, and Elder Uchtdorf said ‘Stop it!’ ” Well, in my opinion, anyone who puts her story out in public and sets herself up as alternative spokesperson for Mormonism is a worthy target for analysis and, yes, judgment, just as she judges Mormonism for being anti-gay, anti-feminist, etc. I predict Sister Brooks won’t last too many years in Mormonism unless something pierces through her intellectual/humanist pride so she can see spiritual, eternal reality and humble herself to it. In the meantime, I think Mormonism needs some protection from her. She teaches the philosophies of (wo)men mingled with Mormon culture, and I don’t see where she’s much different from a Book of Mormon antichrist like Korihor or Nehor.