My Underwear Didn’t Save Me: The Mormon Story I Kept Telling Myself Fell Apart
It didn’t seem right that Belgian snow stuck to my boots and turned to gray muck in the gutters just like it did back home in Idaho. The winding streets crammed with squat brick buildings were disorienting, but when I brushed my fingertips along the bricks, they scratched the same. I touched the buildings to ground myself, trying to shake this sensation of what the hell am I doing here? although I didn’t use words like hell, except when reciting Bible passages.
Strangers’ mouths puffed the same steam, but made unintelligible sounds of ooo-voo-too. Even I was alien to myself, dressed in a skirt and a nametag introducing me as Sister Wells.
Sometimes I “accidentally” let my long hair cover this tag; I hated having strangers know my name. But at least I knew where I was: Charleroi, Belgium — the world’s ugliest city, according to the Internet. On my first day there, a dreary Thursday in December of 2003, I did not disagree.
And I knew who I was: a twenty-one-year-old virgin who didn’t drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages, avoided R-rated movies and cigarettes, and paid 10 percent of my income to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My blonde hair and sturdy body were an inheritance from ancestors who hauled handcarts across the plains. In the midst of my homesick anxiety and culture shock, the story I kept telling myself was grounded in Mormonism.
In the midst of my homesick anxiety and culture shock, the story I kept telling myself was grounded in Mormonism.
Like most sister missionaries, I had attended three hours of church on Sundays for my whole life, an hour of seminary every day in high school, and three years of gospel study classes at Brigham Young University. So I spent my brief time at the Missionary Training Center focused on learning French and techniques for starting conversations with strangers. I was terrified; how could I take all my doctrinal knowledge and personal experience, put it in the palm of my hand, and offer it to a stranger?
My first try was on the flight to Brussels. I sat next to a professional snowboarder from Germany who asked about my name tag. He looked less than thrilled when I whipped out my blue paperback copy of the Book of Mormon and put on my friendliest tour-guide voice.
“You probably know us as Mormons, but that’s just a nickname. We are the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ.”
He didn’t react. I plowed ahead. “This book begins with a family living in Jerusalem in 600 BC. The father, Lehi, was a righteous man. God warned Lehi that Jerusalem would be destroyed, so Lehi left with his family and sailed to the Americas, where they settled. They’re the forefathers of modern Native Americans.”
I’d grown up next to Fort Hall Reservation and marveled at their oblivion to their incredible heritage. But now, explaining this to a stranger, it occurred to me that none of the Native Americans I knew looked Jewish. I ignored the thought and opened the book, showing him the vivid, detailed illustrations of burly, chiseled men with beards.
Explaining this to a stranger, it occurred to me that none of the Native Americans I knew looked Jewish.
“This new civilization splintered into two groups,” I continued. “The Nephites were the righteous group, because they followed the good son, Nephi. The other group, who followed the wicked brothers, were called Lamanites.”
I didn’t mention that until 1981, the Book of Mormon described Nephites as “white and delightsome,” but then “white” had quietly been changed to “pure.” Nor did I tell him how it still said “the skins of the Lamanites were dark” because they were “cursed.” I followed the Prophet’s directions to teach “milk before meat,” although it suddenly felt like I was lying about my religion. I picked up the needle of my thoughts and placed it on a new track. The gospel is true. The gospel is true.
Dr. Jocelyn Elders, the first African American Surgeon General of the US once said, “You can’t be what you don’t see. I didn’t think about being a doctor. I didn’t even think about being a clerk in a store; I’d never seen a black clerk in a clothing store.”
One day in Belgium I saw a billboard advertising a new show, The L Word. We had been knocking on doors all morning, getting rejection after rejection, and my feet, knuckles, and ego were all sore. Standing there on the sidewalk, wearing my conservative outfit and nametag, I gazed up at the seductive pouts and windblown hair of those skinny high-femmes and thought I really want to watch that followed quickly by Ew, gross! What is wrong with you? and a prayer for forgiveness.
Before going on a mission, I went through the temple endowment ceremony and began wearing the garments, or special underwear consisting of a white T-shirt and shorts. Temple rituals are so sacred that no one talks about them except in vague terms, so the ceremony was a surprise — especially when most of it was a movie.
I sat in a small, white-and-gold auditorium with about thirty other templegoers and watched a re-telling of the Garden of Eden story from the Book of Genesis. Onscreen was a passive Eve, a blindly patriarchal Adam, and a God and Jesus with matching beards and sparkly white robes. The film was paused from time to time so we could learn “signs and tokens,” essentially handshakes and passwords, that were required to get into heaven. Everyone put on special clothing over our white temple outfits, including green aprons and white silk togas. Women put on veils and made bowed-head promises to be subservient to our husbands. There was a chanted prayer around an altar.
Temple rituals are so sacred that no one talks about them except in vague terms, so the ceremony was a surprise — especially when most of it was a movie.
The whole experience was surreal and difficult to swallow. I’d concluded years earlier that the Bible’s stories were mythologies for a less sophisticated audience. But here was the Forbidden fruit, two white humans created in a blink, and expulsion from Paradise, all presented as literal.
I waited for the joke to be up — for my mom to take off the veil and shake out her blond hair while everyone laughed, saying, “Don’t be silly! Why would God want us to dress oddly and chant? And of course you can ask questions!” But she didn’t.
The worst part was swearing on my life to never reveal the details of this ceremony. Five generations of my family had been “sealed” together for eternity in temples, and I was terrified of being the weak link. A lifetime of hearing, participating in, and guarding this sacred ritual loomed before me, and my underwear would constantly remind me of it.
I spent several pre-mission summers in central California, living with and working for my father, who was a defense attorney for men on death row. A large part of my duties included proofreading hundreds of pages of briefs and appeals, including detailed social histories and interviews with the inmates. The narratives of these men’s lives were written in a spare, journalistic tone.
As a white, Mormon teenager from a rural town, I’d never heard the terms “systemic racism” or “generational poverty” — not that these phrases were stated explicitly. But reading matter-of-fact narratives acquainted me with the specific horrors of these terms: adult backs still striped with scars from childhood beatings; watching friends and family be gunned down, often by police; young boys placed in institutional correctional homes and witnessing other residents be raped by staff and/or older boys.
The most damning story was about a young black man, whose life story included all of the above. He was accused of a murder in which, judging by the courtroom transcripts, it wasn’t clear who had literally pulled the trigger. This man’s white accomplices got off with a wrist-slap while he was sentenced to die.
This man’s white accomplices got off with a wrist-slap while he was sentenced to die.
In the air-conditioned chill of those sterile offices, a red pen in my hand, my clear-cut worldview of good and evil — of saints and sinners operating in an equal-opportunity society — began to erode. Now when the news reported a crime, I wondered what parts of the story weren’t being told.
In April of 2003, right before my mission, the Prophet Hinckley said, “Each of us has to face the matter — either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing.”
Despite being a voracious reader, I never cracked open a book or visited a website that might have been critical of the Mormon church until I was twenty-five. I’d been home from my mission for two years and was graduating from BYU. Until that point, any time I questioned doctrines (for example, why could only white men hold the priesthood until 1978?) I put the issue aside, on a metaphoric “mental shelf,” confident that someday my concerns would be answered. But after the temple and my mission, this shelf was groaning under the weight.
When I discovered Postmormon.org, an online community of Mormons who had a “faith crisis” and left the church, I spent an entire night reading their exit stories. By morning, my shelf had shattered. I had believed that leaving Mormonism would only lead to misery, depression, and whoring in back alleys for meth before dying alone. I literally couldn’t conjure up the story of leaving and being happy until I read it…and read it again and again and again.
The most helpful therapist I’ve ever had was an interrupter. She would stop me mid-sentence, prod me to consider another point of view and remind me to stop using hyperbolic terms. At first I balked; my opinions and perspective were truth! But as a writer, tinkering with a story is appealing, even my own. So I learned to slow down, examine my viewpoint from different angles, and be conscientious of my word choice. And when my head and tongue re-framed my story, my “truth” shifted.
Writing a first draft is cathartic, sure, but to move beyond that and begin editing, you must view your previous self as a character.
Perhaps this is why memoirists often say the process is therapeutic. Writing a first draft is cathartic, sure, but to move beyond that and begin editing, you must view your previous self as a character. Shifting to this perspective forced me to admit how little authorial control I have on what happened and, all too often, on how life continues to unfold. All I can really control is how I’m telling the story.
The night my faith crumbled, I lost the stories that framed my world. Gone was the war of good and evil, the host of invisible angels and demons fighting over my soul, and the hand of an omnipotent Heavenly Father, watching and waiting to bless or curse me. My eyes burned from reading all night, but the rest of me felt even worse.
The night my faith crumbled, I lost the stories that framed my world.
Under a dim blue sky, I drove and then hiked up to my favorite spot in the foothills overlooking Utah Valley. The sun rose behind me, sparkling on Utah lake and the windows on BYU campus. I felt the dirt beneath my shoes, the pulse of my heartbeat sending blood through my veins, the wind prickling my hair. My underwear was just fabric. Everything I couldn’t touch now felt like a question.
It’s still strange to be around practicing Mormons, especially my family. Their religion is now like a pair of glasses I can take on and off, watching that familiar view of the world go in and out of focus until my eyes ache. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in that lens: an apostate, a lost soul, a quitter who was seduced by the world and couldn’t hold on to the iron rod. But that is their version. I get to write my own.