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.