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Ralph C. Hancock
Thursday, March 22 2012

Confessions of Joanna, Part 2

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joannabrooksAccording to an old feminist adage, “the personal is political.” This is certainly the case for Professor Joanna Brooks. Her narrative is, on the one hand, a touching and intimate account of one girl’s, and then one woman’s, deeply personal experience. Precisely because this experience is authentically individual and personal, many LDS readers will identify with at least some aspects of Brooks’ account of the blessings and challenges of growing up Mormon. And all perceptive readers, even those unfamiliar with the Latter-day Saint experience, will resonate with Joanna’s personal encounter with such universal human concerns as family, sexuality and religion.

To be sure, this book will have special meaning for women, since this is a deeply feminine tale; but it will also touch men who love women as their sisters, wives, and daughters, and who know that no man’s understanding of life and its meaning can be full unless a man opens himself to the distinctive experience and wisdom of womanhood.    

But this tale is also deeply, pervasively political. Joanna Brooks has a political agenda – or, to be more precise, a political-religious agenda, since her outlook on what is true and good is profoundly conditioned by a progressive-liberal-feminist political project, and since this project requires a fundamental re-interpretation of the religion her parents taught her.

In fact it seems that the first draft of this book was written as an explicitly political act and according to the instructions of activist political leaders. Joanna Brooks’ story first emerged as an assignment at “Camp Courage, … a week-long event where they train activists to tell our own stories about why equality matters and to use our stories” as part of a grassroots strategy. The version of her story she told at this camp provides a fair synopsis of The Book of Mormon Girl, at least in its most political dimension:

My name is Joanna, I say. And I am a straight Mormon feminist.

(Cheers. The crowd cheers.)

I grew up in the orange groves of Republican Orange County. I was raised to believe in a loving, kind, and powerful God. …

In 1993, one of the leaders of my church declared feminists, intellectuals, and gays and lesbians enemies.

I felt as if someone had thrown my heart to the concrete and dropped a cinderblock on it.

In 1997, my church started giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to the anti-gay marriage initiatives.

I felt as if someone had thrown my heart to the concrete and dropped a cinderblock on it.

…But I went back to church so that my daughters could know the same loving, kind, and powerful God I was raised to believe in.

Just a few months later, my Church mobilized a huge campaign for Proposition 8.

And again I felt as if someone had thrown my heart to the concrete and dropped a cinderblock on it.

I did what I could. It wasn’t enough. But I am a Mormon. And I am not giving up.

No one boos. No one makes me feel ashamed. Everyone shows Mormon girls the love…

I do not want Joanna to give up. I do not want her to give up on her quest to reconcile her personal understanding of life’s meaning with the LDS heritage she does not want to forsake. I do, wonder, though, whether this quest might not bring her more peace and more growth if she learned to bracket her political agenda for a while, to distinguish her commitments as a certain kind of feminist and homosexual rights activist from her understanding of “a loving, kind, and powerful God.”

And, beyond my sympathy for Joanna Brooks’ courageous personal quest, I think it is important to warn other Latter-day Saints who may be confused by her political agenda against confusing love and kindness with acceptance of an extreme political agenda and against re-interpreting Mormonism to suit this agenda.

Coming to Terms with Womanhood

But let us turn now to a few of the more critical and poignant moments of Joanna’s story; and let us consider them, first, as far as possible, in abstraction from the political agenda that tends to frame the whole book in order to appreciate them as personal stories and to learn what we can from them.

As the young Joanna began to come to terms with her emerging womanhood, she was acutely aware that “our whole Mormon world was organized into domains of the male and female.” But she seems to have experienced this difference negatively: “We saw that women did not hold the priesthood, prepare, bless or pass the sacrament, preside in meetings where men are present, etc. … The actual work of being in charge, receiving revelations, and presiding over home and church belonged exclusively to men.”

I will leave it to women among Brooks’ readers to assess how common is this girls’ negative response to role differentiation between men and women in the Church. An anthropologist considering Mormon practices might point out that the education and socialization of boys and girls is sexually differentiated in all traditional societies, and that this difference can be seen as answering social and psychological needs related to real sexual differences.

Those who are not simply content with accepting the Church’s authority on such matters might thus consider the possibility that Priesthood responsibilities and rites of passage serve purposes particularly appropriate to the making of boys into men and to the effective and wholesome definition of manhood. It is not clear, in other words, that the well-known formula, “we had motherhood; men had priesthood” is ridiculous on its face, as Brooks seems to assume – though it is surely not the whole truth. It may be, that is, that, on the whole, women are more immediately or naturally in touch with the meaning of their womanhood than men are with their manhood, and thus that boys need certain social structures and incentives that differentiate them from girls and women.

Whatever may be true in general of education to manhood and to womanhood, however, there is no reason to question Brooks’ report of her own personal difficulties in coming to terms with her own womanhood, and particularly (as we saw already in Part I) with her own female body. She notes with regret that “no special ceremony marked the onset of my procreative powers,” and that “nowhere in the scriptures was there any special mapping of the spiritual domain of women.”

Earthly Realities

She recounts an experience in which she recoiled “in horror and awe” at the realization that eight “big-boned” children had issued from the body of her Young Women’s leader. What some might contemplate with grateful wonder as a blessed natural process and divine gift, Brooks regarded (and still regards?) as a distasteful bodily reality, and one that gives her little reason to look forward to a heavenly “reward” characterized by “eternal pregnancy in the company of plural pregnant wives.


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