By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
Since my book, Secret Ceremonies, was published last month by William Morrow, the Mormon church has been up in arms. I have been visited by a local Mormon official who told me that his authority to discipline me "comes from Jesus Christ," and who, on April 25, saw to it that I was excommunicated by a church tribunal. I have been denounced by church officials in Salt Lake City, who have issued sorrowful statements to the national press, saying they are offended that I would reveal sacred religious ceremonies for "commercial gain." I have been telephoned and written by angry, sometimes weeping, Mormons, who feel defiled.
All this has occurred because Secret Ceremonies contains a detailed account of the Mormon temple rituals that go on every day in the Mesa Temple and others. The church and its members have long refused to discuss these rituals publicly and the ceremonies therefore are rarely revealed in the popular press. Only one chapter of Secret Ceremonies--the one reprinted here--concerns itself with temple ceremonies, and yet the noise about it is obscuring the rest of the book.
I am not surprised by this ruckus, but I didn't entirely expect it, either: I have been uninvolved with Mormonism for a long enough time that I can be startled by the extent to which the church of my childhood takes itself seriously.
Secret Ceremonies is the story of my years as a young Mormon wife, a coming-of-age story that reveals much about the hidden center of Mormon culture but that also, I hope, tells a more universal story about the way I was made brittle by a belief in absolutes. The brittleness to which I refer isn't mere hindsight or conjecture: Before I was 30, I had tried to kill myself and had suffered a complete emotional breakdown, primarily because I kept trying to shoehorn myself into a precise Mormon life that was completely wrong for me but that I believed was my only option. I extricated myself from that belief gingerly, a tendril at a time, as I think many people have emerged painfully and gradually from the mire of dogma they swallowed early.
This is the story I sought to tell, a story about finally learning to think for myself against the odds, to which I hoped many people would relate. I felt the story was greatly enriched by its Mormon backdrop, both because private Mormon rituals (inside the temple and out) are American social history that's still unrevealed, and because Mormonism is dogma taken to an extreme.
Temple ceremonies are the heart of this Mormon culture, and they affected me profoundly when I encountered them as a bride, so I considered their description to be an integral part of the story. I decided to write about them.
Although my motives were literary instead of vindictive, I knew I wouldn't be perceived accurately by devout Mormons, who consider the temple to be sacred, and who, until 1990 (when the ceremony was changed), promised to protect temple ceremonies from public scrutiny upon penalty of death. I knew that revealing these private rituals would offend not only scores of Mormons I don't know but the ones I know best: My own family, to whom the temple is sacrosanct. I didn't undertake this task lightly.
In the end, however, I undertook it without ambivalence. I knew that my perceptions of the temple wouldn't shake the faith of those to whom the temple is meaningful--that my story would do them no real harm. And I felt not only that I had a right to tell my complete story, but that I mustn't support the Mormon church's desire to keep its rich, mystical and insular culture hidden from view. I had done that before: As a young Mormon wife, I lived my life in the dark, afraid to discuss my deepest emotions and experiences, or to even admit them to myself, because I believed them to be ungodly. My secrecy isolated me completely, and made me emotionally ill. Since then, I have learned that nothing worthwhile is truly damaged by being dragged into the light, challenged, and understood in a new way. If Mormon ceremonies are valuable, they haven't been rendered less so by my account.
In the name of openness, I am willing to be labeled insensitive.
To understand the chapter excerpted here, which is the third in the book, a little explanation is needed.
The first chapters tell the story of my years at Brigham Young University, where I enrolled as a freshman in 1970, hoping to snag a husband. I was a devout Mormon girl then with no thought beyond marrying a worthy Mormon man and retiring into his protective custody.
I admired men unreasonably because of the Mormon doctrine that labels them all "priesthood holders," ordained with "the power to act for God on earth." During my freshman year, I fell in love with a returned missionary who perfectly fit the bill. Unfortunately he rejected me, on the grounds that I wasn't "spiritual" enough for him.
On the rebound in 71, I began dating Monty Brown. When he proposed to me, my desire to be engaged (and to know that a "priesthood holder" wanted me) temporarily overwhelmed my aversion to Monty himself. When I recovered my wits and tried to break the engagement, Monty informed me that he had received a revelation from God that I was The One. Such revelations weren't uncommon at BYU at that time. In my experience, the man received them first and sometimes the woman in question got the word later, although I knew more than one co-ed who'd accepted her mate "on faith." The latter became my case. I hoped to fall in love with Monty after the wedding, but my feet as they took me toward my wedding day seemed to weigh 50 pounds each.
On a morning in early June, Monty and I climbed into my parents' long car and sailed off to Mesa. I wore a red dress, short-waisted, of a fabric so rubbery you could have used it for waterproofing, and Monty's slacks were green plaid. We huddled close together in the back seat, swathed in unintentional Christmas colors, while my diminutive father steered through Scottsdale's streets and my mother clutched in her arms the foamy billows of my wedding gown. We were headed for the temple.
For as long as I could remember, the Mesa Temple had been the focus of my most unbridled imaginings, a presence so grand it could not be dwarfed by twenty acres of lush lawn. My parents had traveled all the way from Florida to be married in this temple. Then when I was small our family had lived in Phoenix, and I'd ridden past the temple and had walked in its gardens a thousand times. It was the only site I'd considered for my own wedding.
But until my wedding day, the interior of the temple itself had been forbidden to me. I understood nothing of its exquisite sacraments. Although the most significant rituals of Mormonism go on within its temples, and although the Book of Mormon itself warns against secrecies in religion, the temple ceremonies are nonetheless top secret outside temple walls, lest their sacred strangeness be ridiculed and defiled by nonbelievers.
Now the morning when it would become clear had finally arrived. My morning. Many of Mormondom's young men visit the temple for the first time when they are nineteen, on the occasion when they become full-time missionaries, but most women enter the temple initially as brides. There they participate in a wedding ceremony unlike any other in the Western world and--this is what I believed--come to understand at last a host of planetary mysteries.
The universe will open today, I was thinking as Monty and I undertook that protracted drive. I wouldn't have been surprised if God himself had shown up at my wedding; my faith felt that buoyant.
And Monty's mood easily matched mine. He was jammed up against me in the back seat with a jaunty eagerness I would not experience again until it was with another bridegroom.
It's a quirk of the Mormon wedding ceremony that Monty and I weren't actually going to be married that day; instead, I was going to receive my "endowments." (Monty had received his own years before, when he'd left for his mission.) These are sacred ordinances and promises that make a person eligible for the highest heaven, and Mormons partake of them on their own behalf during their first visit to the temple. In the years to come, I would be expected to run through the same ceremony again and again as a proxy for dead ancestors whose names had been discovered through the Mormon pastime of genealogy. (The idea behind the temple is that certain ceremonies, such as baptism and marriage and the "endowments," are vital to a person's placement in the hereafter and yet can be performed only on earth. Unless conscientious mortals turn their attention to the graceless states of those who've gone on, scads of wishful spirits will flap around in limbo for eternity.) Taking out my "endowments," in addition to being a very serious business, was a prerequisite to the marriage ceremony, and is tiring enough that many Mormon brides elect to postpone their wedding ceremony until the next day.
We pulled up beside the temple's velvety grounds, and my mother spilled out of the car first, hoisting my gown in its crackling plastic bag. As I tucked my hand inside Monty's elbow and we mounted the stairs to the entrance, I could already see the Arizona heat shimmering off the temple's concrete walls in waves.
We pulled open the large doors and found ourselves in a big lobby. I recall it as long and narrow, windowless as a tomb and yet oddly light. Everything in it appeared to be upholstered: The carpets were thick, the chairs padded, the population of largely middle-aged church members was plump. At one end of the lobby was a long wooden counter manned by temple workers, as though you might check your coat there. Templegoers were renting items of the all-white ceremonial clothing they would need during the temple rites ahead; the clerks were sliding across the counter dozens of white slacks and shirts and dresses that zipped up the front and looked limp from too many washings. I was glad that my own temple clothes, starchy with newness, were beside me in the imitation leather valise that was one of many wedding presents from my mother.
A couple of my parents' friends were awaiting our family; they were leaning forward off the edges of chairs pushed against the far wall, their feet out in front of them in shoes that were a little orthopedic. My two oldest brothers and their wives were there, too, still in street clothes. I was awfully glad to see them, particularly my eldest brother, Ernest, whom I'd always been close to, and whom I wanted near me during the moments when I would discover new meanings of life during the temple session.
Among the well-wishers was Laverne Reese, one of my mother's oldest friends. She was a second mother to me and the real mother of David, my comrade through summers of backyard adventures in childhood and, now that we were older, the object of some of my unspoken romantic fantasies. Had he not been the son of a permanent family friend, David would have seemed to me everything I'd ever wanted in a man, not just in terms of his religious history but because he was taller than I was. As things were, I'd never been able to admit my crush to him and risk a rejection I'd have to confront forever because of our families' intimacy. To the world, and to some degree to myself, I'd transformed my longing for David into friendship and had been hoping he would go through the temple with me that morning. I asked after him.
"He didn't think he could stand it," Laverne said a little grimly, and I stood looking down at her for a minute, suspended in time, stunned by the intimation that David might be jealous of my impending marriage to Monty. I found myself filling with longing for marriage to someone chosen not by God but because of my own feelings. I was still immobilized with yearning when Mother whisked me away, up the wide and elegant staircase.
Our first step in the temple journey took place in the bride's room. Mother had explained to me that it was the most luxurious dressing area in the temple and was reserved for women about to become wives. (After tomorrow, whenever I visited the temple, I would don my ceremonial clothing in a locker room.) The wide chamber was rose-colored and shadowed and very sweetly swank; its deep upholstered chairs and benches were pulled up to ornate mirrors where I could sit and examine my uncertain face. My mother, who was still lugging my voluminous gown around, hung it up with some relief, then came with me into a private cubicle where she helped my out of my clothes and into a "shield" the temple provided. This beautiless thing seemed to be a white cotton sheet with a hole cut in the middle for my head. It was open at the sides, and I was naked beneath it. As I exited my cubicle five other brides were exiting theirs in their shields. We looked like girls in headless ghost costumes.
I padded along to be "washed and anointed." My heart pounding, I climbed onto a stool in a small area made private with curtains. Around me, coming from within other booths, I heard the hypnotic murmurs from the voices of old women. I could picture the women exactly. Throughout my life, I'd watched the faces of Mormon women settle into untroubled, crumpling moons that began to look alike by the time the women were old enough, and idle enough, to be "called" by church leaders to positions as temple workers. (Older men were "called," too.) Temple "callings" were an honor: They were reserved for the most righteous of Mormons. My mental image of the temple had become one of hushed rooms and hallways peopled by a thousand perfect grandmothers. Their faces and figures were round from pastries; their eyes were bright but not deep; their frames of white hair were carefully crimped. The creases that had come into their cheeks appeared to be not only the slackness of age, but the deepening of their complacency.
In a moment, my temple worker glided in, and her face was the one I expected. It was also very kind. "This is your special day, dear," she said.
Her gentle hands darted beneath my sheet to bless the parts of my body. There must have been a basin in our cubicle, because when she touched me her fingers were wet. She intoned, "I wash you that you may be clean from the blood and sins of your generation." She touched my head (that your brain may work clearly), my ears (that they may hear the word of the Lord), my mouth and lips, my arms, my breasts and "vitals," my loins (that you may be fruitful in propagating of a goodly seed), my legs and feet. Her chanting and her cool fingers were both song and dance, and I was caught up, calmed. When she had finished the first round, she began again, replacing the water with oil from a dropper that anointed me head to toe. I was tingling with significance now, the magic of unknown things. Finally the temple worker leaned to my ear to whisper my "new name": Sarah.
With that, the trance of body worship was broken. I didn't know what this new name was for and the conditions attached to it disturbed me. I must reveal it to no one, not ever, except at the one proper moment during today's ceremony, the temple worker told me.
Her demands made my stomach a tight coil of nerves. I hadn't mentioned it to anyone, but my major misgiving about taking out my "endowments" was the secrecy. I'd been known to be careless with secrets, especially when they were a colorful variety. I admired Monty and all the others who had been quiet about the temple ceremony all these years, but I doubted whether I would carry on the tradition with exactness. What would they do to me?
I was coming up now on the only part of this morning that I'd been truly dreading: It was time to climb into my first pair of regulation Mormon underwear, an unlovely wardrobe item that, during their first temple visit, Mormons agree to wear for the rest of their lives and that they refer to ever after as their "garments," as though their underwear is always the only clothing they are wearing. In those days garments were one-piece, made of thick nylon, and cut like very loose teddies; they had a scoop neck and little cap sleeves and they came to the knee. The amount of coverage wasn't accidental: One of the purposes of "garments" is to make sure that Mormons eschew daring clothing. The other is more directly theological: The underwear's holy nature is expressed by small markings sewn into the cloth over each breast, the navel, and one knee. (The markings signify comforting homilies like "Deal squarely with your fellow men," and are intended to serve as reminders of temple covenants. The symbols themselves derive from the fact that Joseph Smith was a newly initiated and enthusiastic Freemason when he originated the Mormon garments.) The garments had one other characteristic that, if not actually biblical, did have something to do with creation: Women's garments were slit in the crotch, very generously, so that they flapped open and left a girl's greatest fascinations exposed.
They were unwieldy indeed, and yet the garments I've described were the streamlined, modern, everyday variety. The pair I received on my wedding day were specifically designed to wear inside the temple itself and were patterned after the garments worn by the original Mormons in the mid-nineteenth century.
I was wearing long johns.
The fabric was thick and white, probably a cotton blend, and it reached to the wrists and ankles. The neckline was so high that I realized it was going to poke above the square cut of my gown.
Swathed again in my shield, I trailed dejectedly back to the bride's room. I was met there by a replica of the washing-and-anointing woman, who gathered me and the other brides into a little flock and admonished us kindly that we should wear our garments "night and day." She said to wear them next to the skin, with our bras over them, and explained that they represented the garment God gave to Eve in the Garden of Eden. Unless we sullied them, our "garments" would be a shield and protection against the power of Satan until we finished our work on earth.
I knew to take her seriously. One of the major themes of mystical Mormon lore had to do with those who have sailed unscathed through death-defying circumstances on account of their garments. The most oft-repeated stories involved unnamed wartime soldiers who'd watched bullets glance off their clothing as though it were armor, and vaguely identified fire victims whose burns halted wherever the boundaries of their garments began. I had never questioned these particulars. On the contrary, I had treasured them, especially when they described someone I knew. I still remembered affectionately the occasion when a friend's father had survived electrocution and I had heard my mother tell my father, "He never would have lived if he hadn't been wearing his garments." At least at that moment, the clumsy clothing had seemed to be more than a mean-spirited conspiracy against sex appeal.
On the morning when I was first blanketed in garments, they did not. My brain whirred with visions of movie-star fashions that I'd never be able to buy, the way they say you see your whole life pass before you as you drown. I felt I was leaving behind me forever the worlds of desirability and youth. Standing resentfully before the beaming temple worker, I figured I was going to hate my underwear every bit as much as I knew my mother hated hers each day that she put it on. Mother had never said as much to me; she had always referred to the donning of her baggy underwear as a privilege. But she was a fashion plate, and many was the time I saw her patting futilely at the ridges this amazingly extensive covering made across the rump of her sleek clothes. I had watched her flip through a hundred racks of dresses at Goldwater's, pausing with a beat of longing at the sleeveless dresses that the cut of her garments outlawed. These griefs of the soul didn't even begin to take into account the misery of wearing nylon armor during the summer.
I figured that from this moment on I was a freak.
As I prepared for the temple session, a long look in the mirror did nothing to reassure me. Decked out in my wedding finery now, I appeared to have dressed at random out of a weird laundry hamper.
It wasn't just that my underwear had become a feature of my wedding ensemble, seeing as how it encircled my throat for a fully visible five inches. It was also that, instead of my delicate mantilla veil, I'd had the temple veil foisted on me. It was a swath of fairly sheer, limp fabric, gathered around the head as though by elastic and otherwise unadorned, which my dress was not. It lay across my hair as heavy as though it were wet. I couldn't seem to stop staring at myself.
Of course, Mother noticed my interest. She was not as concerned as I about my ensemble, because sartorial glitches did not pose an aesthetic problem for templegoing Mormons. A lot of women brought only street-length white dresses to these sessions, and their special temple garments jutted out beneath the hems so that the women looked like Sikhs. But Mom was eager to be sensitive to my mood. "This isn't anything to worry about," she said levelly, rustling away and returning with a dickey for my throat that the temple matrons kept on had for just such occasions.
It wasn't the same shade as my eggshell dress, and its lace bore no relationship to my gown's tulle, but I was going to have to live with it.
"You look like a beautiful Mormon bride," my mother said, and I hoped Monty would agree with that.
@body:As soon as our little bride's room party was ready for the temple ceremony, we all flowed out into the main crowd of worshipers. Glancing around at the other brides, I felt my heart lift as I realized I looked no more eclectic than anyone else. Monty was ahead of me in the throng, surrounded now by all three of my brothers, who were jostling and teasing the groom in a relaxed way that I attributed to the fact that they'd all been to the temple before. At one point, my ordinarily unsmiling brother Len threw his head back and laughed unrestrainedly.
Like everyone else entering the temple service, these four wore white shoes, socks, pants, shirts, and ties. I thought they looked like angels. Across their arms they'd draped articles of ceremonial clothing to wrap around themselves during the upcoming ritual's appropriate moments. The most eccentric of these regulation accessories--a green apron sewn into the shape of a fig leaf--was dangling very low off Monty's arm like a long streamer off the body of a philodendron. That bright leaf bobbing among sets of legs was the last I saw of Monty for a few minutes as he merged with the mob of shimmering templegoers.
We filed quietly into the cavernous Creation Room, where huge and staid murals depicting the creation of the earth loomed above the pews. The paintings were brilliantly colored, and against these frescoes of horizons and meadows and peacefully grazing beasts the chapel full of white-suited worshipers shifted and stirred like a field of daisies. The men took their places on the right side of the chapel, the women on the left. I was seated next to a particularly radiant bride. Her joy was so overpowering that its light nearly triumphed over the sad-sack effects of her temple veil.
The temple ceremony is on videotape now, but at the Mesa Temple in 1972 it was all still done live. Temple workers played God, Jehovah (whom the Mormons believe was born into the world as Jesus), and the archangel Michael (who became Adam), three separate beings who seemed to be in the process of creating the earth together. This first part of the service was a dramatization of the belief in the plurality of gods.
The temple workers were not good actors, and the unreality wasn't aided by the fact that there were no sets or costumes: The performers stood before us woodenly, in front of a curtain, in the simplest of temple clothes. They appeared to be merely reading their lines. Even after the story turned to the tale of Adam and Eve and the serpent, my attention wandered. When instructed to do so, I tied on almost unconsciously my own green apron, a symbol of the fig leaves that had first clothed Adam and Eve. (The ceremonial use of aprons is another similarity between the Mormon and Masonic rituals.)
I came to life only in the moment when God asked Eve and the women in the congregation to promise to obey their husbands in all things so long as their husbands obeyed God. I had known that some heavy pledges would be required of me today, and this one--known as the Law of Obedience--was the first. I made the promise easily. Next came the Law of Sacrifice, where we covenanted to give up all we possessed, "our lives if necessary," in defense of the church.
Now we were getting somewhere.
I kept catching Monty's profile across the room beneath his unlikely hat. I couldn't imagine how I hadn't noticed the hat before. It was made of cloth and was bouffant; it resembled a chef's hat that had been subdued. It attached to his shoulder with a ribbon and a snap, lest it fall and be defiled by the floor. I stared and stared, hating the way he looked in it. I was still brooding about it when I noticed something going on around me that captured my undivided attention.
God had just instructed his onlookers to learn to perform a grip, a special handshake, that he called "The First Token of the Aaronic Priesthood." (There were to be several of these handshakes, and they, too, were strikingly similar to ritualistic Masonic gestures.) Everyone had practiced the handshake with a neighbor. And now Elohim was asking us to make a sign, as though we were slitting our throats "from ear to ear," to signify the penalty for revealing this handshake to anyone on the outside.
All around me, as nonchalant as though they were yawning, a hundred smiling Mormons in white were drawing their thumbs across their jugulars. It's a testimonial to the thoroughness of my Mormon upbringing that I reacted to this first bizarre moment with only mild surprise.
The God of my Mormon ancestors had always been represented to me as whimsical, in some way human because of his former life as a man. Within this context, eccentric acts on His part were understandable. I had, after all, come to believe at last that He might have chosen me and Monty for each other. I did not expect Him to constantly make sense.
How else, except in terms of eccentricity, could you explain the fact that His interests lent themselves to introducing polygamy into America? How did you explain His capricious standards for behavior, as demonstrated by one of the great object lessons in the Book of Mormon, the murder of Laban? Laban's murder was a slaying that God himself commanded one of his favorite mortals, Nephi, to commit for a cause! The killing had been touted to me from Sunday-school class right through BYU religion courses as an example of how anything is right if the commandment comes from the Lord. The thing my teachers read to me about Laban was the expansive reasoning of Joseph Smith, who had said, "That which is wrong under one circumstance may be, and often is, right under another. God said, 'Thou shalt not kill'; at another time He said, 'Thou shalt utterly destroy.'"
On the day I went to the temple for the first time, the world had not yet experienced the rash of famous Mormons, from master forger and murderer Mark Hofmann, who blew apart with homemade bombs the enemies who knew he was falsifying historical "documents" of the early church, to impeached Arizona governor Evan Mecham, whose conscience may have been aided during dark acts by the doctrine of priesthood authority that he'd heard since birth. The phenomenon of a conditioned people that believes what it is told, and that sometimes justifies actions beyond the limits of decency set by most of the rest of the world, was still hidden away within temples where I was being asked as a matter of course to protect a secret handshake with my life. Was hidden, too, within the nature of my indoctrinated heart, which believed it should make the promise.
The jarring moment passed, and we all followed along to the next chapel, which was called the Lone and Dreary World room. It was painted with flat faces of desert scenes, with brown vistas stretching endlessly and with prehistoric carnivores battling in the foregrounds. The light in these paintings was stark, so that the hostile animals didn't even cast shadows. We were to believe these were the sorts of surroundings Adam and Eve had called home once they'd left the Garden.
Here the play continued. Satan paid a preacher thousands of dollars to teach Adam about God, and the preacher described a God who embodied the concepts embraced by many Protestants. "Do you believe in a God who is without body, parts or passions; who sits on top of a topless throne; whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere; who fills the universe, yet is so small He can dwell within your heart?"
These ideas were ridiculous, and so Adam shooed the corrupt minister away. Then God sent the ancient prophets Peter, James and John onto the scene to banish Satan. Satan departed, but he wasn't a good sport about it: Before he vanished, he had the last say.
"I have a word to say concerning this people!" he cried. "If they do not walk up to every covenant they make at these altars this day, they will be in my power!"
His threat overtook me with a chill. I was truly terrified. Immediately, I began reviewing the covenants I was making, fearful I would forget one and damn myself.
Now the old-time prophets turned to the congregation and explained, "You are now ready to be instructed in all things pertaining to eternal life." It was the cue for temple workers to turn their attention to teaching us more "tokens" and "penalties--the ritual hand motions and pledges to punish that underscored every temple service, and that were sometimes identical to the "tokens" and "penalties" found in Masonic ceremonies.
We learned the Sign of the Nail. The name seemed to allude to the Crucifixion, and the gesture was a matter of pressing index fingers into each other's palms.
We learned the Sure Sign of the Nail, a handclasp wherein we linked little fingers and pressed our other fingers against our neighbor's pulse. I practiced both of these exercises easily with the happy bride beside me, wondering a little why I needed to know them.
The "penalties" to be extracted for revealing the new maneuvers were by now much harder to get through. My stomach flipflopped as, in unison with my brethren, I acted out cutting out my heart, then a strong slash low on the abdomen to disembowel myself. I didn't understand whether I was promising to submit to death at the hands of someone wielding the switchblade of justice or whether I would be expected to take my own life if I found myself blurting temple secrets, but as time passed I performed these brutal pantomimes with increasing reluctance. Once I even felt bile flood my throat, and I wondered why I was overreacting. No one else was responding to the drone of threats as though it were sinister. In fact, as the macabre instructions from the stage grew more graphic, the smiles surrounding me seemed to widen.
I glanced behind me and found my mother in the next row. She was fiddling with her ensemble, trying to adjust the extra articles of clothing that by now we were all wearing. In addition to the aprons, we were swathed in "robes" of white pleated material that wrapped around our trunks diagonally, as though they were very bulky beauty pageant sashes. Over my flowing wedding gown, these additions made me look as padded as a little kid trussed into a ski parka. My mother was looking puffy, too, and she was trying to bring herself into better alignment, but when I caught her eye, her face leaped into a smile so filled with love for me and confidence in these rituals that I was able to believe there was something flawed in the way I was perceiving the action going on up front. I looked over for Monty, too, wanting him because he would steady me if he could. But instead of finding him, I intercepted a glance of pure hunger and heat being dispatched by the husband-to-be of the lovesick girl next to me. As their eyes met, their need was a laser beam in the room. My envy ached in my joints.
I was relieved to be distracted at last by the parting of the curtains. Behind the stage, the drapes disappeared and revealed what seemed to be a very long bedsheet suspended from the ceiling. It has deep slits cut into it that were about the same height as an average man--slits that matched the markings of the temple garments except that they were much longer and larger.
I saw Monty then because he was also looking for me and grinning as though something important was coming--perhaps something that would make these rococo temple rites make sense. As I moved with the others toward the bedsheet, we were told that it symbolized the veil that separates this life from the next. A handful of male temple workers had taken their place on the other side of it and thrust their arms through the slits, and one by one the audience members were reaching their own arms through to embrace the workers they couldn't see, who in their positions in the "afterlife" represented God. When my turn came, the routine altered a little: The person who took his place on the other side of the veil was Monty. It was he would usher me into heaven. It always happened this way for brides, who unlike the men had made their temple covenants not to God but to their own husbands.
This embrace through the veil was by far the most intimate thing Monty and I had ever done together; our furtive premarital groping sessions could not compare with it. In fact, the idea of sharing the secrets that join the dimensions with a man to whom I'd never been able to tell the deepest secrets of my heart made me shy as I approached the veil. Coaxed into it by another one of those kindly female temple workers, who had appeared to stand beside me, I slipped my arms beneath Monty's and then around him. I moved in close so that through the sheet our bodies were touching as though we were dancing.
The temple worker now asked that we touch at the "five points of fellowship": foot to foot, knee to knee, breast to breast, hand to back, and mouth to ear.
And then, when Monty made the Sign of the Nail into my hand and asked me to identify this "token" and its "penalty," I realized disbelievingly that this was a test. The actions that were going to guarantee my entrance at the gates would have nothing to do with love or charity or the other teachings of Christ that I'd been raised to believe God valued. In fact, I hadn't heard a single one of those words spoken today, the most primary day of religious instruction in my entire life.
No, I was going to burst into heaven on the basis of mumbo jumbo. God must never have gotten past that carefree period of mortal development when he'd formed a club with little pals and refused to let them into the tree fort without a password. The mysteries of the world were fraternity rituals. A wild, bewildered giggle was forming in my throat.
What in the world was everyone doing? Did all the white-suited glorifiers in the room unquestioningly accept a ritual of nutty gestures from the pseudo-occult as a sacrament?
Those were the first moments when I viewed Mormonism with suspicion, and yet my turn at the veil was nothing like a full-blown awakening. The tiny flames of anger licked through me and then went out, just another of the brief savage caprices of my wedding day. I quickly began concentrating, trying to believe my fiance's muffled incantations were scriptural truth.
I reviewed with him all the "tokens' and "penalties" I'd just learned, and I came to know at last the purpose of my "new name" when Monty asked me to reveal it to him. "Sarah," I said directly into his ear. It was the secret, magic password that would identify me to Monty at death so that he could pull me through to the other side. Without Monty, I learned in that moment, I wasn't going to get into heaven at all. That's how the system worked for women, although I would never know Monty's "new name." Apparently God himself ushered in the men.
Now Monty was whispering into my ear the final token of the ceremony. "Health in the navel, marrow in the bones, strength in the loins and in the sinews," he intoned. "Power in the priesthood be upon me and upon my posterity for generations of time and throughout eternity." Then he commended me for passing the test: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter you into the joy of the Lord."
We joined hands in one of the secret grips, and he pulled me through the slits in the veil.
We were in the Celestial Room, named after the upper-most tier of the complex Mormon heaven, and the most notoriously decorative room of the temple. Vast and hushed, crowded with fussy furnishings and lit with chandeliers, it was populated with dozens of bent heads above fig-leaf aprons. Most of the prayerful were seated in deep chairs along the walls but a few were kneeling, away from the foot traffic emanating from the veil. I could have gladly dropped to my knees myself, but the quest for peace of mind was postponed as my family and Monty's family, all of whom had apparently passed through the veil ahead of me, crowded around to sweep me into a series of congratulatory embraces. The temple ceremony was completed, and Monty and I were well on our way to becoming man and wife.
Later, dressed for the world again, my first pair of daily "garments" already sticky with sweat beneath my suffocating street dress, I tried to tell Monty a little of what I was feeling as in that awful ovenish weather we walked across lawns that seemed to go on for miles between the temple and the car. "It wasn't what I thought it would be," I said. "I expected to hear things that would make me feel inside the way I feel when I'm singing the hymns I love the best. You know, when it all comes together in your heart and you know that what you're involved in is the right thing?"
"And you didn't?" he asked, without much understanding. His arm came around me and pulled me against him. His face was changed by his passion for the things we had just gone through together. "Boy, when I brought you through the veil, that was something."
@body:On the final day of my wedding, when I would actually become Monty's wife, the first thing on my mind as I awoke was my eccentric sleeping arrangement.
I was entangled in a situation born of my desire to get married in the Arizona temple. Since my family didn't live in Arizona anymore, my parents had rented a two-bedroom furnished apartment in Scottsdale that summer and, upon our arrival from Utah a couple of nights before, had installed me and my betrothed in the room with two single beds. "I guess I can trust that nothing will go on in here?" my father had asked sternly, looking hard at first me and then Monty.
He spoke as though Monty and I found each other wildly compelling, a not unreasonable assumption. I reassured my father with cheery confidence, however. I knew I wouldn't encounter in that room a temptation I couldn't resist unless somebody interesting came in through the window.
In keeping with the theme of avoidance that had characterized my engagement, though, I didn't consider until that last morning the ramifications that pallid attraction would hold for my marriage. I waited until I was watching Monty's stocky outline lying beneath a sheet six feet from mine to admit that, although he didn't repulse me, whatever lay between us was too thin to occupy us for long, in bed or otherwise. Even this close to the embargo lifting, I felt no urge to slip in naked beside him as a surprise.
And even if I had wanted to, I wouldn't have known exactly what to do next. My parents had harkened so well to the church's promotion of innocence that the entirety of my direct knowledge of sex had been obtained through a series on sexual disease that had run in the local paper when I was a teenager and an odd presentation that had been presided over a couple of weeks earlier by my gynecologist. Unfortunately, the doctor's attempt at sex education hadn't sunk in very deeply, on account of my embarrassment.
It wasn't that the information itself had embarrassed me; it was the setting. This particular Provo doctor must have been in great demand for the premarital services that BYU kids required, since he had hit upon the idea of group orientation as a way to increase efficiency. On a second visit that Monty and I undertook so that more things could be explained to us, when I had expected to have the pleasures of marriage described to me privately, we had found ourselves instead herded into a meeting room where perhaps fifteen couples sat on rickety folding chairs exchanging equally rickety smiles and nervously holding hands.
"Is anybody here not a Mormon?" the Mormon doctor had asked loudly from the front of the room. "I give a slightly different lecture in that case."
But no, we were all Mormons. In fact, I knew quite a few of the kids in the room because they attended my ward. I did not know them well enough, however, to desire to share with them the slide show of brightly colored genitalia that followed. "Since you're Mormon kids, you probably don't have any experience," the doctor had said matter-of-factly while the projector beeped and various views of vulva and testicles loomed on the wall. "I recommend that as soon as you're married, the first thing you do is turn each other upside down to see what you've got. Get acquainted."
I'd found myself wondering suddenly about the upside-down appearance of a red-headed fellow to my left whom I'd always thought seemed interesting when he spoke in church. And then I'd flushed a color I didn't know was lurking within me as I realized that others in the room might be wondering about my upside-down appearance. About the only concrete thing I took away from that lecture was a pamphlet about positions that showed human beings to be as lithe and sexless as elves.
The enormity of my lack of preparation and passion might have overwhelmed me on that last morning, except that, as I used the curling iron and put on another coat of nail polish, I allowed myself to pretend that I was going to find the last-minute grit to careen off to Mexico alone in my Dad's big car. I told myself that Monty would recover from his disappointment and that maybe even God would. Perhaps there was even some way to sort out the problem that only Monty knew my "new name": maybe I could encourage my mother to yell like hell for Sarah when she got to the other side.
I was still considering escape, my throat filled with misery as thick as phlegm, when my brother Ernest whooshed in the door bearing the wedding gown that we'd dropped the day before at the cleaner's. "It's a good thing you know what you're doing, since all the important stuff happened yesterday," he teased me from across the room.
And I thought, Ernest's right; I'm as good as married already. I went along to the wedding very meekly.
We were joined forever in one of the temple's small, unadorned "sealing rooms," kneeling on opposite sides of an upholstered altar. We clasped hands across the altar's silky top while the temple president, Brother Sorenson, bathed us in spontaneous marriage advice of which I haven't the slightest memory. Inside Monty's hands, my hands felt hot. At one point I gazed out at our audience--a sparse one of our family members and a few friends, all of them Mormons worthy to enter the temple and all of them dressed in white. My father caught my eyes and nodded to me, his own eyes inscrutable. The room's bright lights reflected off his bald pate and turned it as white as his shirt. I thought he was blessing me. For the first time, and for just a moment, my wedding was possessed of the serene dignity I'd always imagined.
Just then Brother Sorenson invoked us to gaze into the hallway toward a wall of mirrors whose unending reflections symbolized the eternal nature of temple marriage. He was an old man, and as he pointed at the mirrors with his thin hand, he completely forgot what he was saying; his voice weakened and then died. Monty and I and our well-wishers stirred uneasily, but then Brother Sorenson resumed with new energy, and Monty and I were married.
Usually the mother of the bride cries at the wedding, but in this case it was the bride. Our party adjourned to the Celestial Room, where I began weeping onto the collar of Monty's shirt. I couldn't seem to stop. His hands on my shoulders felt firm and sure, and for a wild moment I considered telling him what I was feeling, since I imagined he might be strong enough to help me. The thought disappeared behind a couple of hiccups. "She's just thinking about what she's done with her life," my new father-in-law joshed.
Maybe Monty was thinking about the future too, apprehensively, since he immediately began pointing out ways that I was failing him. We hadn't even left the temple grounds before he was growling that I was willing to surrender too much time to family shutterbugs who were intent on pictures. And when he and I stopped at a coffee shop for lunch after the ceremony, our first hour alone in days, the occasion was consumed with his horror that I planned on tucking into not only a man-sized meat-loaf sandwich but also the potato salad. He ranted and raved that I should save my appetite for the reception, which, in the Mormon tradition, wasn't scheduled to begin for six or seven hours.
I absorbed all this with wholly shocked surprise. Lest I notice a million things I couldn't have lived with, I had loped through our engagement with my eyes fastened unswervingly on racks of wedding dresses and catalogs of invitations. Now here I was with a man who was revealing a mentality for the smallest concerns imaginable.
In spite of everything, I enjoyed our pretty reception, which is still immortalized in the album of photos showing Monty changed into a tuxedo with the pants leg too short and me in the unstylish gown I thought was perfect. We are standing near the country-club entrance with linked arms, and we're gazing at the photographer as though we can't wait to be alone together and are just honoring his need for artistic expression. In other pictures, our smiles are so wide that our teeth reflect light. Once I'd calmed down, I enjoyed my bride's role that day, the same way I'd enjoyed my role of bride-to-be. The approval and attention of onlookers made me feel I'd succeeded at something important.
@body:At the reception, as I'd whirled around in Monty's arms, in my father's, in my brothers', I'd wondered if I would ever again be so completely the center of attention. But of course I was, almost immediately. As soon as the door closed behind Monty and me at Del Webb's Townhouse, a hotel in downtown Phoenix, I was the only thing on Monty's mind. I was so unnerved by the intensity of his eyes upon me, by the way he homed in close and buried his face in my neck, that I fled into the bathroom to change into my blue, beribboned nightgown. I felt blessedly alone in there.
It was only ten o'clock when we climbed into bed, but it had been a very complicated day. I was tired and terrified, and relieved when Monty suggested that we wait until later. It wouldn't have occurred to me to suggest it, since I thought that the moment of consummation was his decision.
Each of us was wearing garments and our night-clothes over them, so that between us we possessed nearly enough raiment to populate the Paris season. Thus insulated, we lay marooned together in the center of the king-sized bed. I was afraid to touch anything. I was afraid he wanted me to touch something. We fell asleep immediately.
The deed itself was accomplished before it was light, and was a fumble I'm glad I had to live through only once. I can't imagine anything more graceless than the coupling of two virgins. I was particularly horrified by Monty's upside-down appearance. It was nothing like those slides.
We were both so confused that we quit trying to finish at some point. We lay together holding hands as sunlight came into the room. I couldn't look at Monty.
We decided to go downstairs for eggs; we were kids really, and we thought that room service was too grand for us. In the last minutes before we were preparing to leave the room, I was swabbing on mascara in the bathroom and congratulating myself on the maturity I'd shown by not mentioning to Monty my disappointment in his lack of sexual knowledge. Although Mormonism demands that both young men and women be virgins when they marry, nobody ever said a guy couldn't ask his married buddies for a few pointers. I was wishing he had, and I was also deciding that I would.
Standing in the doorway to the bathroom, Monty stood watching my ablutions with a face that had suddenly become drawn and closed. I didn't understand his expression, unless it meant that his disappointment was even deeper than mine. I didn't understand what he said, either, which was, with every word ice-cold and underlined, "I didn't know that sex would be something you were going to have to learn how to do."
The years have allowed me to adopt an attitude of affectionate wonder toward the kind of self-delusion that would enable a completely inexperienced twenty-seven-year-old man of no particular allure to blame sexual failure entirely on his partner. But at the time I felt like he'd heaved an ax between my eyebrows. His cruelty shattered the frail intimacy that had sprung up between us in bed a little earlier, and in its place was all the clawing panic I hadn't allowed myself to unleash that morning. The weight of a million damning facts about Monty and me filled my stomach, my chest, my throat; it snaked down my legs and made my feet throb. When Monty, having delivered his salvo, retreated to the bedroom, I shut the bathroom door and leaned against it, heaving not with sobs but with desperation. Trying to pull myself together, I slid down into the crouch of a baseball catcher and bounced nervously, wrestling honestly for the first time with the thought that the God who from my earliest memories had wrapped Himself around my heart, who had always been kind to me, couldn't want this--and that, even if He did, if He were really that arbitrary, maybe marriage to Monty was something I just couldn't do for Him.
I managed to bide my time for a few minutes until I heard Monty leave the room for something, but then I streaked to the phone like someone trying to get around a kidnapper. I had never been happier to hear my mother's voice. My announcement was so staggering to her that she tells the story still as a family legend, how the morning after she'd been contentedly unwrapping my wedding presents my shrill voice was tearing into her sweet memories of marrying me off. How I was talking about something that families rarely welcome, and particularly Mormon families.
I choked out to my mother, "This is terrible. I don't love this man. You've got to help me get a divorce.