I just came back from a refreshing weekend in a cabin in North Georgia with some good friends. While I was there I read a book (on a Kindle, but that’s for another post) by Elna Baker – The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir. The book, as the title tells you (if you managed to make it to the end of that title) is a memoir. Ms. Baker is 27. I think there should be some rules about when you get to call your book a memoir. Regardless, it does tell the story of about ten years or so of her life, so I suppose the title is accurate. The book focuses on three main themes: her struggle with being Mormon, her struggle with her weight, and her struggle with being self-absorbed. The third difficulty is the most crippling. I have some negative feelings about the book and Ms. Baker, but it was quite well-written, entertaining, and honest. The honesty is actually the biggest redeeming factor of the book. Just when you want to give up reading because her decisions are so absurd, she admits how absurd they are and lets you understand why she made the choices she made. She doesn’t excuse them, just explains them.
The part I found the most interesting was in her discussions of her religion. She openly recounts her internal discussions about Mormonism where she asks some fundamental questions and brings up some difficult inconsistencies. It’s especially interesting to read because, although I believe most members of the church have these same internal debates, they are generally not talked about. Elna recounts these internal thoughts with candor. Unfortunately, with the direction Elna appears to be heading by the end of the book (i.e., out of the Mormon church), I fear members may see it as further confirmation that questioning your faith is dangerous. Regardless, it’s interesting to hear her thinking about such blunt questions as, “Are my spiritual feelings really just conditioned responses to my hopes and expectations?”, and, “Does my feeling of guilt when sinning come from the Holy Spirit or just the result of cognitive dissonance between what I was taught as a child and what I’m doing now?” I feel like these are questions that must be answered in some form in order to have a truly firm belief in God.
So I liked her candor. But boy is she obnoxious sometimes. I almost had to stop reading after the chapter recounting her family vacation to Europe. Imagining a woman at 22 as selfish and bratty as she describes made me so angry I needed to pace around for a while. Again, her saving grace here is her ability to recognize these failures in herself. The first time she wrote “I’m an asshole” I almost breathed a sigh of relief. “At least she admits it,” I thought.
The fact that that sentence appears a second time (and near the end of the book, no less) is a little troubling, though. She’s kind of like a season of Grey’s Anatomy – there are frequent profound insights, but no one seems to be learning anything. Near the end of the memoir, Elna recounts a trip to Africa where she hears about a sort of relationship shaman. Elna must see this shaman, she decides, because she needs some sex tips in case she decides to abandon her chastity. Meeting this shaman is a great honor and she is only even able to because she is friends with local royalty, but she barely mentions that. Her focus is, “How can I get what I want?” The image in my head of Elna was frequently one of a 13-year-old girl whining, “But mom, I’ll die if I don’t go!”
As I mentioned, by the end of the book I got the impression that she was moving away from Mormonism. A graphic that she revisits throughout the book lists “What I believe” and “What I used to believe”. By the last entry her “Believe” column has worn down to new age ambiguity: “We can stop and know who we were, who we are, and who we will be.”, while the concrete items, like “The church is true!” have moved to the “Used to believe” column. Although she identifies the source of the shift, citing Jesus’ teaching that you cannot serve both God and Mammon, she doesn’t ever get the courage to really pick one or the other. So instead of progressing down either path (getting laid or growing in faith), she’s stuck in that miserable middle area where no one is happy. By the end of the book it seems she has come to the same realization, but the thing about fear of commitment is to get away from it, you’ve got to be committed.
My hopes for her staying in the church aren’t high. I imagine in twenty years she’ll be a happy ex-member of the Mormon church, imagining that she made the decision to leave, when really she just drifted away because it was easier.