Lately when my parents call I let it go to voicemail. I know this is bad of me, that people get older and someday my parents (who are only in their 50s) will die and I should cherish the time I have with them now. It’s just that every time they call I get this sinking feeling that if I pick up, I’ll be in trouble. Whether I wrote something they read and disapprove of (like this article inevitably) or did something that Google Alerts kindly informed them of—I seem to make them mad a lot. The rest of the time they’re goofy and funny and it’s like the old days—when we were a happy Mormon family that was going to be together forever—before I went astray.
I should say right off the bat that I love my mom and dad and I grew up in an awesome home. My parents married young—21 and 22—and immediately had five kids. Because Mormons don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, drink coffee, or have sex outside of marriage, pranks and family get-togethers are our equivalent of a wild night out. I grew up in a home where family water fights, pillow fights, and eating-whipped-cream-out-of-the-can contests were the norm. Saying prayers every morning and night as a family, reading scriptures together at least once a day, and going to church every Sunday, were also the norm. Three solid hours of church every single Sunday. This was non-negotiable.
When I started high school I had to go to a six AM scripture class every day called seminary. I hated it and would do anything to get out of it. My sister Tina was responsible for getting me out of bed and to church every morning; one night I discovered that if I snuck into her room, unplugged her alarm clock, then plugged it back in, it wouldn’t go off, and then, oops, we’d miss seminary. I used this technique every few nights. Eventually Tina caught on and started locking her bedroom door. That’s when I discovered the circuit breaker to the entire house was located in my bedroom. On nights when I really didn’t want to get up the next morning I would wait until everyone was asleep and then flip the power switches back and forth. It was incredibly selfish of me. My dad would be late for work, all five kids would be late to school, everyone would be running around in a panic, and I’d be grinning from a full night’s sleep.
Over the course of the next six months I pulled the power-switch move so often that eventually my parents hired an electrician to rewire the house. They also bought battery-operated alarm clocks. There was no way around it: I had to get up at 5:30 every morning to learn about God.
I’m making it sound like my parents forced me to go to church and I hated it all. This isn’t true. I believed in Mormonism. Sure, I questioned it all the time—I thought it was weird that some of my ancestors were polygamists, and that someday, if I was real good, I’d be a god and get a planet of my own. But I also had several spiritual experiences that bolstered my faith. When I was 14 I went on a church hiking trip. We were told to go into the woods by ourselves to pray and “gain a testimony” that the beliefs of the Mormon church were “true,” literally. Having a testimony is the same thing as having faith in something, only it usually consists of a story that you can share with other people—a big religious moment that happened directly to you. If God answered your prayer or gave you some sort of sign, this meant that everything Mormons believed was true: Joseph Smith was a prophet and all the events in the Book of Mormon actually happened.
I found a quiet spot and prayed, and I asked to know if God was there. I looked up at the moon and felt the presence of something bigger than me. I felt someone wrap their arms around me, as if they were hugging me, and I started to cry. As I cried, my body rocked back and forth and I knew it wasn’t me who was doing the rocking. It was such a peaceful feeling that in spite of my doubts about church dogma and my constant kicking and screaming when it came to church stuff, I felt obligated to be Mormon—out of respect to that feeling.
When I was 18 I moved to New York City to go NYU. My mother was terrified. To her, New York was a scary, dangerous place. A month before I left home, she sat me down for a mother-daughter talk.
“Elna,” she said. “The first thing that will happen when you move to New York is you might start to swear.”
I wanted to say, “Oh shit, really?” but I knew that only my dad would think that was funny. So I nodded and said, “Mmm-hmm.”
“And Elna,” she said, “swearing will lead to drinking.” I had somehow missed the connection. “And drinking will lead to doing drugs. And Elna…what would you do if a lesbian tried to make out with you?”
“I’d say, ‘No, thank you…lesbian.’”
My mother rolled her eyes. “There’s one more thing,” she said. “There are these clubs in New York where men pay women to dance with very little clothing on. Don’t do that.” Thus ended our mother-daughter advice talk.
I didn’t admit this to my parents (or they would’ve sent me to Brigham Young, a Mormon university in Utah), but when I got my acceptance letter to NYU I felt, in my core, that I was being accepted into an entirely new way of life—one I secretly longed to lead. Instead of being a home-ec major and then a mother and a housewife, I was going to pursue acting, writing, and directing in New York City.
It was freeing to leave home and chase down my dreams, and yet I wanted to live up to my family’s expectations. I also felt like I was supposed to be Mormon, like it was too late to be anything else and I didn’t have a choice in the matter. So when I got to New York, I stuck with my faith. I went to church every Sunday. I didn’t drink, smoke, have coffee, or do anything with guys besides kiss sitting up. Dating was the hardest: no one wanted to go out with a virgin, especially as I got older. But eventually, when I was 25, I met a Mormon guy and we started dating.
His name was Travis and he went to Brigham Young. When he told me he wanted to get married, I panicked. If I said yes I’d have to move to Utah and give up all the dreams I’d been pursuing in New York City. But more than that, I’d have to become a Mormon forever, with him. At least that’s what it felt like. I wanted God to help me make the decision. So I went to a Mormon temple and I prayed and asked God if I should marry Travis. I closed my eyes and felt my body rock back and forth like it had that time in the woods. I heard a voice say yes, and I knew that’s what I had to do: say yes.
When I got to Utah, I was miserable. Travis and I fought for two weeks straight. And then, no big surprise, he broke up with me. I was devastated at first. I felt like I’d sabotaged the life I was supposed to have. I got back to New York, and started writing and performing again. Eventually the feeling that I’d screwed everything up wore off and I started to see the relationship more clearly. Travis was a dud. We weren’t compatible. As my best friend put it, he liked me in spite of the best things about me. I was lucky I hadn’t married him. If I had I’d be a boring, miserable, Mormon housewife in her mid-20s. Like something out of Mad Men. Or, you know, 50 years ago.
I felt confused. Why had God told me to marry Travis when it was so obviously the wrong decision? I thought about this a lot. Eventually a new thought occurred to me, something I hadn’t thought, or let myself think, before: What if it wasn’t God? I’d felt a lot of pressure to marry another Mormon. I’d been trying to find a Mormon guy who wanted to date a freethinker like myself since I was 15. Travis was the first one to ever take the bait. In fact, he was my only Mormon boyfriend ever. Marrying him would’ve made my parents happy. It would’ve been the right thing to do. That’s when it hit me: What if I answered myself and told myself it was God?
This was perhaps the most revolutionary idea I’d ever had. And after I had it, it snuck its way into everything I thought about regarding church. All the moments where I believed God was answering or listening or talking to me shifted, and I wondered if I was just doing it all myself. I’d still pray, I’d repent, I’d seek help, but it was different from before: I was sitting on a deflated life raft and pretending it was full of air.
It took another year and a half, but eventually I gathered the courage to take a break from being Mormon. I called it my rumspringa, after the Amish tradition where teenagers get some time off from being Amish to go out into the world and try whatever it has to offer. At the end of this time, they can decide to return to the Amish faith without religious repercussions, or they can decide to stay out in the world and quit being Amish. I was questioning my faith for the millionth time when it occurred to me that I didn’t know what it was like to not be Mormon at all. And so I decided to take one year off to do whatever I wanted.
It was hard. Trying alcohol for the first time at 27, smoking a cigarette, learning how to order a latte correctly, and of course, fooling around with guys—none of it came naturally.
Although, for a long time, even when I was a Mormon, I pushed the limits of what I was allowed to do sexually. Mainly because the limit was NOTHING—I wasn’t allowed to do anything beyond kissing sitting up. I’d slip up every now and then, the first time being at 16, when I let a boy show me his penis in my grandparents’ motor home. I was really hard on myself about these indiscretions. If I masturbated or let someone fondle my boobs, I’d immediately repent to my bishop. He’d make me describe the indiscretion in detail, which was always awkward, and send me home with literature on repentance and chastity. I thought my sex drive was a huge character flaw. Now I realize it’s a part of me—a good part, if used wisely.
The main reason I took a break, if I’m being totally honest, was to have sex. I wasn’t terribly interested in alcohol or drugs. But sex was exciting. I also felt like, if I had sex, it’d open up a whole new realm of relationships with guys who didn’t want to date someone they couldn’t fool around with.
But for a long time, I couldn’t go through with having sex. For Mormons, sex before marriage is considered the second most serious sin. Number one is murder. (Murder: a horrible crime; and sex, as it turns out: pretty enjoyable.) After rumspringa, the Amish kind, you get to go back to your faith if you choose to. But for me, as a Mormon, sex was the point of no return. If I let someone touch my boobs, I could repent for it and in a few weeks I’d be allowed to take the sacrament at church (the Mormon equivalent of communion) and be forgiven. But if I had sexual intercourse outside of marriage I could be excommunicated from the Mormon faith—it’s that serious.
And so, instead of having sex, I’d set up the situation, and then freak out. Early into my break, I went on a date with this really hot Italian guy. After dinner I went up to his apartment, and we started making out. As a Mormon, I was a master of the make-out. But this guy took it further: he unbuttoned my blouse, pulled off my bra, and started kissing my boobs. I tried to act like I was used to that sort of thing. And I did a pretty good job of it, until he started shouting, “Oh god, oh god, oh god,” because I guess he was turned on. It was easily the worst possible thing to say to a Mormon girl on a break. I grabbed my shirt and fled. I remember looking back at him as I walked out the door. He was so shocked that I was leaving that, no joke, he got on his hands and knees, and said, in a thick Italian accent, “I beg you to stay. Let me make love to you.”