When I was in sixth grade, my social studies teacher told our class that Mormon men could have more than one wife. I was twelve years old and the only Mormon in my class, in my whole grade even, and besides which had never heard such nonsense in my whole life, so I stuck my hand in the air, no easy feat for shy girl, and told my teacher that I was a Mormon and she was wrong. My teacher just looked at me and said that she didn’t think that she was wrong, but that she might be, so she’d go home and check her internet, and I could go home and check mine and, bless her, she never brought it up again. Nick, the class smart ass, told me that maybe I should go home and check with Tom, Dick, and Harry, which confused me, and then made me mad, and today makes me smile because he was charming enough to envision a world in which Mormon polygamy went both ways. A few days later, Nick told me I was a “kick ass Mormon,” because I wasn’t afraid to tell people who I was. Besides being confused and a little embarrassed, I was proud of myself for sticking up for my family and my religion, and I told my parents and church teachers what I’d done hoping that they would be proud of me, too. I have no clear memory of what my parents said in response, or my teachers. Neither do I have any clear memory of the moment I learned that Mormons had practiced polygamy. I do know that in that moment all my pride turned sour with shame.
When I was a sophomore in college, I was eating pizza at Zachary’s with Carter and Jesus, two guys from my contemporary literature class, and the topic turned to Mormonism. They were surprised to learn that I was a Mormon, probably because I swore a lot then and had pink hair. I distanced myself from my religion during college for a bunch of reasons, none of them admirable, but I couldn’t stop myself from confessing who I was to any Tom, Dick, or Harry who would listen. “I’m really Mormon, you guys. Like, three hours of church on Sunday. My dad works for the church.” Carter and Jesus reacted the way people almost always did back then when they met a Mormon masquerading as a foul-mouthed, pink-haired Democrat, that is to say, with delight and amusement, and I was proud of my people, even if I wasn’t very proud of the way I represented them. Carter told me I was a “bad ass Mormon” and then asked how I felt about the fact that “Joe Smith was such a dick.” I was nineteen years old and the only Mormon at Zachary’s, in our whole social circle even, so I defended the religion, and the prophet, too, but only barely, because I didn’t know what he was talking about and didn’t have the confidence to challenge somebody who made a mockery of my religion, when wasn’t I doing the same thing, and besides, what if he was right?
Later that year, I was sitting on my front porch in the middle of the night, bracing myself as I waited for yet another nice boy to turn mean after I told him who I was. Instead, he told me that he’d gone to high school with Mormons in Chile and that they were mostly very nice. A few were snobby. One was a sex addict, and another told his ex-girlfriend that she was going to hell. All of the boys played volleyball and had blonde hair. He asked me questions about the church’s history, about polygamy and masonry and the racist bits in the Book of Mormon, not because he wanted to challenge me but because he wanted to know, and I felt ashamed that I couldn’t answer his questions as well as I wanted. I told him that I may not know everything about my religion, but that, for me, it was Mormonism or nothing. Mormonism was the lens through which my world made sense. He never told me I was a “cool” Mormon, and he didn’t start making jokes about my people until he knew us well enough that they sounded more like inside jokes than anything else. Five years later we married in a quasi-Mormon ceremony presided over by the bishop of my childhood congregation and next month we will both watch while my father and brothers bless our child in a Mormon church house.
These days, I’m not a good Mormon or a cool Mormon, even though I’ve checked my internet and know all about Joseph Smith and his 34 wives, and still want to stick around. I’m not good because I cleave too closely to my agnostic husband and take great care of our summer cottage in Babylon, because it’s home, and I can’t think of anything better than sitting on the patio of a bar watching everybody get faded in the afternoon. I’m not cool because I’m done letting people who don’t know half as much about my religion as they think make me feel ashamed. I’m okay not being good or cool, though, because I’d rather be a happy Mormon than anything else.