After dabbling in things that I thought were different from sex (second base, third base….I’m not even sure if those are the right bases, but I don’t want to talk dirty to you by going into detail), I finally had sex—at the age of 28. It was a lot like everything I was doing already, only a little bit scarier. Afterward, I took a walk. Standing alone on the street, I burst into tears—it was the biggest step I’d taken away from Mormonism. It wasn’t that the sex that made me feel bad—it was knowing that the path I was taking was leading me away from my family. I felt alone.
For the next year I continued to have relationships and have sex. I kept it from my parents. They knew I was on a break from being Mormon, but they didn’t know the extent of it. I was terrified of what they would do if they found out. I didn’t really think that they’d disown me, though it was a possibility. The main thing I was afraid of was disappointing them beyond heartbreak. Their religion is everything to them, and Mormons believe a very specific thing: they believe that families can be together forever. If you get married in a Mormon temple, you and your husband and your children and their children and so on will all get to be together in the afterlife, so long as everyone keeps God’s commandments. Well, I’d just broken the number-two commandment. If I told them what I’d done, I’d be telling them that I wouldn’t be reunited with them after we died. I’d be saying that we only had a little bit more time together.
Waaaay back when I was a virgin, I wrote an article for Glamour magazine called “Yes, I’m a 27-Year-Old Virgin.” After I had sex, I wrote a follow-up. “Guess What?” the headline crowed. “I’m Not a Virgin Anymore!” It was meant to be a heartfelt piece about what it feels like to lose your virginity later in life, but instead it was a cheesy article full of magazine-y lines I hadn’t written, like “Sex quickly went from slightly uncomfortable to PURE PLEASURE.” I wanted to tell my parents before the article was published, because I didn’t want them to learn that I wasn’t going to spend the afterlife with them via a picture of me dangling a cherry above my mouth.
To make matters worse, the article was slated to come out the same week as my younger sister’s wedding to another Mormon in a Mormon temple. The last thing I wanted to do was upstage her wedding. My whole family would be there. “Julia’s getting married,” they’d say, their eyes filling with tears of joy, “But Elna’s going to hell!” and they’d sob uncontrollably.
And so, to avoid a huge scene, two months before the article came out, I flew to Siberia to tell my parents directly. At the time my parents actually lived in Siberia—that’s not a joke. My father ran a titanium factory in the middle of nowhere. I was excited to visit. It’d always been a dream of mine to run down the halls of the factory and knock things over while chanting, “It’s Daddy’s factory!” in a poncey British accent.
It takes three days to get to Siberia. Which gave me plenty of time to prepare my speech. I have never been more nervous to tell someone something in my entire life. My goal was to tell them right when I got there—that way we’d have two whole weeks together to repair our relationship. But the moment I walked out of security and into the Ekaterinberg airport, my mother looked at me and said, “You look different.” I froze. I don’t have a hymen anymore, I thought. The mere thought of telling her the truth sent me into a panic. I decided to wait another day before coming clean.
The next day we went on a hike near the Ural Mountains. The weather was crisp and beautiful. I felt at peace being outdoors with my parents, seeing nature at its finest. We hit a clearing in the trees and looked out at the view. This was the perfect time! I turned to face my parents and deliver the blow, when my mother said, “Look at that pure, pure white snow.” Gah, I thought. I can’t tell them now!
I spent the next two weeks hanging out with my parents without giving them the news. It was one of the best vacations I’ve ever spent with them. No friction, no fighting—I got to just enjoy my mom and dad. It’s amazing how much more you can appreciate something the minute you think it’s going to disappear. I knew that once my parents found out I was no longer a virgin—or a Mormon—our relationship would never be the same again. And so I treasured every moment of those two weeks—the time before everything changed.
Suddenly it was the last day of my trip, and I still hadn’t told them. My dad left early to go to work for a few hours. My mom was making me breakfast. I took a deep breath and decided to just come out and tell her, like ripping off a Band-Aid. I’d tell my mom, and she’d tell my dad.
I sat at the kitchen table in front of a plate of eggs over-easy and said, “Mom, there’s something I want to talk to you about…” As I said this, I cut into my eggs. Hot yolk splashed from the plate up into my eye. “Oh my god,” I said. I dropped my fork and covered my eye with my hands.
My mother dropped her silverware, too. “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain in front of me!” she yelled. “Do you know how much that hurts me?”
Her face was beet red and she was fuming. I can never tell her anything, I thought. If my saying “god” hurts her, imagine what telling her I’ve had premarital sex will do! I started full-on crying. I pretended it was because my eye hurt. But really I was just so sad. Is this what it means to grow up? I thought. When I was younger and living a PG to PG-13 life, I could tell my parents everything; we talked all the time. But now that I’d entered the R-rated stage of things, I felt like I had to keep everything about my life from them.
My dad showed up an hour later in a cab. My parents wanted to spend a little more time with me, so they’d agreed to accompany me on the three-hour drive to the nearest airport. As we got into the car I thought, All right, I flew all the way here to tell them; this is my last chance.
But then my dad started talking to the driver and they were becoming friends. Great, now I have to tell my parents AND the driver?! The driver was fascinated with the fact that my parents were Americans living in Siberia. “If you could change anything about this country,” he asked, “what would it be?”
My father immediately answered, “The alcoholism—it’s ruining this country.”
“How do you change that?” the driver wanted to know.
“You never take the first sip,” my dad said. “If you never take a sip of alcohol, you never tempt yourself with addiction.”
“That’s funny,” I interjected. “You used to tell us that growing up and it terrified me. But you know…I drink now, and it’s totally possibly to drink in moderation.”
My comment was met with silence. Both of my parent’s faces were white.
“What?” my dad said, sounding angry. “You drink now?”
“I thought you knew that?” I said.
“No, we didn’t know that.” He was getting angrier and angrier.
“You knew that I was on a break from being Mormon—what did you think that meant?”
“That you weren’t going to church on Sundays,” my mother said.
I looked at both of my parents. I could see shock and disappointment on their faces. It was only then that I realized we weren’t on the same page at all. To them I was still a Mormon. A Mormon who missed church on Sunday, but who would eventually come back to the fold.
My parents gave me the silent treatment for the rest of the ride to the airport. When we hugged goodbye my father leaned in and whispered, “This break of yours, is it worth it?”
I thought about it. My life was more honest now. I wasn’t trying squeeze myself into a box I’d never fit into. But: I was hurting my parents.
“I don’t know,” I said.
It was only when the airplane’s doors shut that I realized, I flew all the way to Siberia to tell my parents that I lost my virginity and all I ended up saying was that I drink in moderation.
One month before the Glamour article came out, I called my parents and told them the truth. It was an incredibly hard conversation to have. When I told my best friend, Kevin, who’s gay, about it later he informed me that I’d given the same speech every gay person gives when they’re coming out. It went something like this: “Mom and Dad, there’s something I need to tell you. I’ve wanted to say this for a long time, and I feel like I’ve been distant from you because of it. I’m not doing this to hurt you. But I’m 28 years old and I had sex.”
Their response was the best I could have hoped for. They told me that they were incredibly disappointed, that they didn’t think this would ever make me happy, but that I’m their daughter and they’ll always love me.
The next time I saw them was at my sister’s wedding. It was held at the Salt Lake City temple. Because I’m no longer a practicing Mormon, I wasn’t allowed to attend the service. But I was a bridesmaid, so I had to sit in the car for the two-hour service in a bridesmaid’s dress, and then come out for pictures.
It was really cold out the day of the wedding. I remember sitting in the car, looking up at the temple, and thinking, What if Mormonism is true? What if I’m walking away from everything that God wants for me? Is this what the afterlife will be like: my entire family in a big glowing white building together, with me freezing alone in a parking lot….in a bridesmaid’s dress for ETERNITY?!
My year off was officially over, and whether I wanted to admit it or not, I wasn’t going back to being a Mormon. I think “breaks” are a funny thing. Some people can just stop doing something cold turkey. But then there are others of us, like me, who need to invent an interim step, a “break.” And we do it because there are things in both worlds that we want so badly, but the more we try to hold on to two competing lives, the farther apart they get, until eventually we’re forced to make a decision. And a decision always involves giving something up. Something that was possible becomes impossible.
Being a Mormon was a full-time job. I went to church for three hours every Sunday, took part in church activities during the week, and read scriptures daily. I prayed every night. When I let go of all that, I suddenly had all this free time. At first, I felt guilty, like I was letting God down. And so I ignored God, or anything spiritual. I pushed religion as far out of my life as possible, so that it wouldn’t make me feel guilty. But of course it’s all still there. A big part of me is still searching for some sort of peace. I heard a line from an Elliott Smith song recently and it brought me to unexpected tears: People you’ve been before that you don’t want around anymore—they’ll push and shove and won’t bend to your will. I’ll keep them still.
I’m not religious right now. I certainly feel lost. But that doesn’t mean I’m not happy. When I do feel spiritually awake, it happens because of the simplest things, things so small I probably wouldn’t have noticed or appreciated them before: seeing the moon, or a spectacular tree, a stranger being nice to me for no reason, walking on the beach. I know this is all such cheesy shit to list, but these things make me feel alive and appreciate life. In a way, they remind me of the best moments of my former religion.
You may be wondering how things are with my family now. The answer: I probably shouldn’t write this article for another five years. I only say that because I think in five years, it’ll get easier and there’ll be some sort of resolution to all of this. I tell myself that if I get a good job, marry some dude they really like, and make a grandbaby, they’ll accept my decision not to be Mormon. But the truth is, I don’t think they’ll ever accept it. Their faith means too much to them. They will always want me to come back. And so I will always make them feel sad, or like they’ve somehow failed as parents.
This is what we have to deal with now. It’s always under the surface. But the good news is, going through it was not as hard as I thought it would be. There have been horrible moments, screaming matches with my mother, disappointed phone calls with my father. But we’re doing it. We love one another, so we keep trying to figure it out. It may not be forever anymore, but we are still a family. ♦
Elna Baker is a writer and comedic storyteller. Her memoir, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, won the 2010 AML award for best humor writing. She’s also the co-host and co-creator of The Talent Show, recently named best variety show by New York Magazine.