A favorite Mormon creed is to be “in the world but not of it.” And to be “set apart” is to be formally blessed for a calling within the church. To be marked as different–as a Mormon–is synonymous with being chosen by god.
At 20 I left all this behind. I wanted to try my hand at being of the world. I felt I had to do something–anything, however small–that supported racial and gender and income and orientation equality. It was irresponsible for me to go on pretending I was separate from the world I was born into. But in the five years it took me to formally leave, I began to come up against a lot of things that were strange and new and left me uncertain of myself. Sometimes, they still do.
This period of moving from one kind of faith to another can be a beautiful awakening. But it is also painful. And, if you come from a community as insular as Mormonism, it’s especially confusing. I still carried the lexicon of apartness and separation with me. And even now I find myself still identifying with it, probably more than I should.
Ex-Mormons face some major obstacles when adapting to mainstream American culture, some of them laughable, some liberating, and a few just painfully awkward:
- Going out on Sundays: For the first year–or two or three–it was very hard to go out into the world on Sundays. Mormons aren’t supposed to swing by McDonald’s, stop by the grocery store, buy gas, work, or even mow the lawn on Sunday. To “break the Sabbath” is to fling dirt into the face of God. The first Sunday I purchased food out, I was 20, and I hustled back to my parents’ house and hid in my room. As far as I was concerned, I was a child who had done something bad and was now waiting to be found out. It was years before I realized that the lightning wasn’t going to strike.
- Watching R-rated movies: I was nearly 20 years old when I saw my first R-rated movie. My non-Mormon friends were more thrilled about this decision than I was. They invited me over to one of their houses, dished up some snacks, and popped in The Matrix. I’d never seen a female character as powerful and confident as Trinity. And, emerging from a matrix of my own, I appreciated my friends’ film choice. It remains one of my favorite movies to this day. But violence and sex in movies? I still have a marked distaste for it. If the story can elevate or educate me–like 12 Years a Slave or Defiance or Gran Torino–I’ll stomach it. But I realize this is still very Mormon of me. To require my entertainment to somehow elevate my mind. As for Quentin Tarantino or Blue Valentine? I just can’t. I’m sorry, but I can’t.
- Patronizing bars, taverns, and the like: What can I say? Mormons don’t drink alcohol. Period. So entering places specifically set aside for the consumption of alcohol… I nearly walked my best friend off her feet one night when she thought I was going to pick a bar for us. Yeah. Right. I simply stared into each bar with glazed eyes, freaked out, and kept walking. Bar after bar after bar after bar. I love her for still loving me after that. After that, she said, “Okay, we need to get you over this.” So, finally, at 32, I opened my first bar tab. Terrifying. Not to mention that the bartender didn’t believe me when I asked him to show me how to open a tab. “Sure,” he said and grinned. “We’ll do this together.” And then he watched me chew my lip and whip out my credit card and stand there looking lost and nervous. His grin dropped faster than an egg into a skillet. “Seriously?” He wasn’t flirting now. “You’ve never been to a bar before?” “Well…” I looked around. “Applebee’s.” He was done with me after that. Not my favorite bar spot. I now patronize the Whisk(e)y Bar in Seattle’s Belltown district where the bartenders are patient and professional. They’re more than happy to give recommendations to a 30-something gal who’s trying very hard to learn her liquors. I’ve even braved a few drinks at the bar on my own there. I trust them to serve me fine liquor with all the pride and class of excellent winery staff. For this, I’m half in love with all the staff. And I’ve discovered that I love a good Dalwhinnie scotch. But I’m still worse than buzzed after just one drink.
- Wearing tank-tops (or, god forbid, bikinis) if you’re a woman: Dear sweet jesus, it’s scary. Adult Mormons wear “special underwear” called garments. For women, the garments are shorts and a t-shirt with cap sleeves. The garments are, in part, to keep you modest. They are also believed to keep you safe from spiritual and physical attack. And since any clothing you wear should cover the garments, it’s practically impossible for devout Mormon women to expose bare shoulders, low necklines, or a naked midriff. To this day, I’ve never worn a bikini. Ever. When I swim at my local pool, I wear a tankini–but with swim trunks. And a sports bra under the swim tank. People stare at me like I’m crazy (I’m skinny and have no breasts to speak of, certainly none that require double support). But I’m comfortable all strapped into my swim trunks and double-top. Virginia Woolf once wrote that “chastity has… a religious importance in a woman’s life, and has so wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest.” I can’t help feeling that she would be somehow disappointed in me. But after experiencing two assaults in two years, I cling to my chaste modesty more desperately than ever. I know it doesn’t protect me. But it makes me feel safe, like a talisman. Think of it as my Mormon superstition.
- Swearing: This was the first Mormon taboo I ever broke. I was about 12 years old, sitting on the living room floor one summer, playing Nintendo with my brother and our neighborhood buddies. I was racing against other players, and I pulled a sharp turn on a hairpin curve. I slammed into a haystack. “Shit!” I shouted. I dropped the controller and put myself in timeout. For months afterward, I felt nothing but shame at the memory. I feared deeply all the other words that might pour out of me. Who knew what evil bit its time inside my subconscious? And indeed, it undammed quite a river. One I now enjoy dipping into at least once a day. Especially when I drop things.
- Socializing with the opposite sex: And I don’t mean dating. I mean just to shoot the breeze. My first friend was a boy. My only sibling is a boy. Some of my best friends have been boys. I firmly believe that friendships which cross gender lines are necessary. Separation of the sexes is a tiresome, antiquated holdover from periods when men’s and women’s lives were highly regulated–and very different. And I do believe if there were more male-female platonic friendships, gender equality would come a lot more easily. But even with this unshakeable faith of mine, the Mormon upbringing planted doubts. Why would you ever want to hang around with boys you’re not interested in? But don’t you want to date at least one of them? Do you really believe they can see you just as a friend? I rolled my eyes as a devout Mormon teen, and I roll my eyes now as an agnostic humanist. But this was how I was raised. And I have to admit, the thought rattles around in there. I have to beat it back in the early stages of my guy-girl friendships.
- Getting pop culture references: This just isn’t going to happen. I’m going to be honest with you. Unless it’s Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Disney, or Pixar, your average ex-Mormon is in the same boat as your average Mormon. The leadership of the church discourages engagement with mass media, especially if it doesn’t have an uplifting, clean message. Seriously. Music choices are encouraged to be classical or hymn-based. If you steer towards contemporary music, you might get away with soft rock or country. No vulgarity, violence, or sexuality. Same goes for your movies and TV shows and novels. When I was in high school, I tried to be a good Mormon and read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men by skipping over every “shit” and “damn”. Which turned out to literally be every other word a lot of the time. The Hollywood Production Code of 1930–now a classic in censorship studies–is a Mormon’s dream. My best friend cracks jokes all the time referencing classic movies from the 1980s and 1990s. I smile politely. “Right.” She says. “You don’t have that memorized like every other person under 35.” Right. That was my Mormon Period.
This isn’t a comprehensive list by any means. Coffee didn’t even make it on here tonight. And that’s a biggie. But you start to get the idea. Ex-Mormons don’t just snap their fingers and presto! We’re one of you now! It takes years to really get comfortable in mainstream culture. To learn how to be both in the world and of it. And I’m starting to think, you’ll always be able to look at me and tell.
You’re not really from around here, are you, kiddo?