by Joanna Brooks
First sentence: “On Monday nights, my father and mother gathered their four children around the kitchen table in our tract house on the edge of the orange groves and taught us how the universe worked.”
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Disclaimer: while I didn’t know Joanna at BYU, I knew of her. And my husband actually knows her. In fact, as the story goes, he asked her out once and she said no.
I am not Joanna Brooks. And yet, growing up Mormon in the late 1970s and 1980s, there were many elements of Joanna Brooks’ story that I recognized.
This story — which was buzzed about a bit back before the election when Mormons were having our “moment” — is basically that of Joanna’s childhood, growing up in Orange County, California. Her path to BYU, and then her path away from — what shall we call it? — orthodoxy, full activity, your typical Mormon life.
It’s nothing I didn’t know, or haven’t heard. The Monday night family meetings (ours were on Sunday afternoons, actually), the year’s worth food storage in the basement (which fully ruined me for store-bought canned peaches and pears. Not at ALL good.), the end-of-the world paranoia (that was mostly high school, when I was actually noticing it). All of it was instantly familiar to me.
And you can tell that Joanna has a fondness for her childhood, the way she was raised, and even the way the church was — to some extent — in our childhood. But, then we hit BYU.
(It surprised me that she is only a year older than I am. I thought she was older than that.)
I don’t know what BYU is like now, but she reminded me of all the reasons I disliked the place in the early 1990s. I wasn’t in the middle of everything — from the firings and excommunications to the protests — but I caught enough of it through my program — journalism rather than English — that I realized that the Church (the organization, not necessarily the doctrine) could be a not-very-friendly place for people who didn’t toe the line.
And it was this point where Joanna’s and my paths diverged, and where I found the book to dissolve into melodramatics. Yes, she was discriminated against, but I’m going to assert that it’s because she lived in the wrong places. I have often told my daughters — especially when they come home feeling excluded and belittled at church — that not everywhere is like here. That there are places — like my ward growing up in Ann Arbor — where people don’t always expect everyone to tow the conservative Republican line like they do in, oh, Orange County, California. Or Wichita, Kansas, for that matter.
Maybe it was too personal for me, maybe it was too much like my own story, and maybe that’s why I finished it feeling unsettled. That said, I am glad that Joanna’s story (and mine, to a certain extent) is out there for people to read. Maybe it will make a difference, too.