Book review: Confessions of Joanna, or towards a Mormonism Lite

By Ralph C. Hancock

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, April 5 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

What a relief it was, then, when Donny and Marie Osmond appeared on the TV screen, and Joanna could emerge from her family's fearful huddle to commune with the thousands of Mormons who were at the very same moment proudly watching their beautiful and talented fellow-believers perform confidently before the whole world! Marie's splendid, confident example comforts Joanna in her loneliness and validates her Mormon difference.

But her adulation of Marie Osmond also reinforces an unhealthy and perhaps compulsive pre-occupation with overcoming bodily imperfections, a dissatisfaction with and discomfort concerning her own body that runs through much of Brooks' story. This alienation from her body is associated with a strangely dualistic understanding of the gospel in which the spirit's shedding of the body (and not the final reunion of body and spirit into soul) is somehow taken to be a moment of ultimate transcendence. Thus the young Joanna saw her own body as a "cold" and "inert" burden, considered the natural processes of generation and birth with "awe and horror," and sought some world view that would make her feel "in control," in the driver's seat.

She finds such a world view in the feminism of certain of her teachers at BYU in the early 1990s, and embraces these and other heroic "liberals" and "intellectuals" without reserve. From this point on young Joanna regards all her past Mormon experience as darkness itself. She is alienated from the church when her heroes are "purged" (actually, fail to get tenure, in some cases flagrantly court excommunication, etc.), and spends years at the margins of church activity, finally leaving altogether and eventually marrying a Jewish man.

After a season, she is moved by her grandmother's death and by concern for her daughters to come back to church. But alas, her timing is cursed, for the controversy surrounding Proposition 8 is about to sweep through the state and through Brooks' life.

It must be said that there is never a moment, according to her own account, in what Brooks calls her "life of searching inquiry," when it occurs to her to question the authority of the "feminism" (never really defined or defended) that she embraced so enthusiastically as a young BYU student. From this point on, she will not only assume the compatibility of all things feminist with some true, if elusive, ethical core of Mormonism, but she will in fact strive tirelessly to interpret Mormonism according to the absolute and unquestioned truth of feminism, liberalism and progressivism. The core of this new enlightened ethic is an ideal of equality Brooks associates with the scriptural words "all are alike unto God"(2 Nephi 26); this ideal seems to become the single and pure source of all religious and moral truth for her.

Of course there would seem to be an obvious problem in reconciling a feminism that understands equality between men and women with sameness (or the abolition of "gender roles" which, as she must have learned from her professors, are not grounded in nature or eternal destiny but merely "social constructions") with the church's teaching in "The Family: A Proclamation to the World." It seems that Brooks can only hope for the church's teaching to "progress" beyond the Family Proclamation.

Needless to say, Brooks abominates the church's vigorous and well-organized effort in California to defend traditional marriage, an effort she is perfectly sure is reducible to the now oft-diagnosed syndrome of "homophobia": "I feel as if my heart has been thrown to the concrete and a cinderblock dropped on it," she reports. Here again Brooks' capacity for "searching enquiry" meets its limits; she is perfectly confident that all arguments against same-sex marriage are mindless propaganda, and that concerns about threats to religious freedom are "a blatant falsehood." The skepticism Brooks applies to religious orthodoxy and to the church's political concerns is nowhere to be found where her own political orthodoxy is concerned.

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