Inhuman Swill : Mormonism

The Accidental Terrorist (charity auction edition)
I never expected it would take so long to make this announcement, but my Mormon missionary memoir The Accidental Terrorist will be published by Sinister Regard in 2015.

Although it might end up with a different title. And the cover definitely won't look like the one below. And Sinister Regard is actually me.

I'm very excited, nevertheless.

It's hard for me to pin down exactly when I started work on this book. The events it chronicles took place mostly between September 1986 and March 1987, when I was a Mormon missionary serving in Alberta. But before that time span had even ended, I was already learning to tell bits and pieces of the story to an audience. In 1988, I told the full story to a few fellow missionaries—with a tape recorder running. Here's an excerpt, in which you can hear me at age 20 with my Utah accent still fully intact:

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I've told this story many times, in many ways. This particular version was written for The First Time: First Crime, an evening of readings at Second City's Up Comedy Club in Chicago on April 17, 2013. I read it again at Tuesday Funk #61 on September 3, 2013, and later posted it as an answer on Quora (to the question "What are you banned from? Why?") and as an essay on Medium (where it became an Editor's Pick). As long as it was available for free in those places, I figured it ought to have a home here too. So here it is. Happy Canada Day.

They caught up with me in the men's room of a bus station in Great Falls, Montana.

Now, the fact that "they" were after me might lead you to presume that I was running from the law, that the cops or other authorities were hot on my trail, but that's not the case. My felony was still two months in the future at that point, though I was on the lam.

I was on the lam from the Mormon Church.

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My first R-rated movie

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The Star Chamber
Reading this edition of "The Big Question" at Hitfix.com got me thinking about the first R-rated movie I ever saw. The film itself—a Michael Douglas thriller called The Star Chamber—was not so memorable, but the circumstances around my viewing of it are, in retrospect, amusing.

When I was growing up, the LDS Church strongly cautioned parents not to let their children see R-rated movies, so that was exactly the rule my parents established for us. I followed it, too, though not always happily.

I don't remember what it was about The Star Chamber that made me willing to break that rule. Since I was close to turning sixteen, it was probably just time for it to happen. My friend David, who was a little younger than I was, kind of wanted to see it too, so he asked his parents to take us. So, it was time plus opportunity, I suppose.

(I had seen R-rated movies already, but on video at friends' houses, not in an actual movie theater.)

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The following story is an outtake from my memoir The Accidental Terrorist. The names of most of the other participants, including relatives, have been changed to offer some small measure of concealment.

When I was eighteen, my father and I drove from northern Utah to Los Angeles for my cousin Delia's wedding. I had recently put in my application to become a Mormon missionary, and I had yet to learn where I'd be spending the next two years of my life. It wasn't for the sake of one last road trip with my father, though, that I agreed to tag along. I was hoping to meet Danny Elfman.

After the wedding—a brief affair in a tiny chapel like a sugar-frosted cake—the entire gathering moved down the road to the Arcadia Women's Club, a large banquet hall for rent, where a shaggy trio played jazz on a spare proscenium. A dozen long tables were set up in ranks across the room, and we enjoyed an abundant feast of cold cuts, casseroles, and cakes as the music played. "Hey," I said to my aunt Deborah, who sat across from my father and me, "I thought Oingo Boingo was supposed to play."

"All Delia and Sammy's friends are musicians," she said, "so lots of different people are playing. I don't think they're on until later."

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Back in September, I took advantage of the chance to support a very worthy-seeming Kickstarter project—helping to fund the completion of a documentary called Mormon Movie.

The director, Xan Aranda, also made festival favorite Andrew Bird: Fever Year, but this new project is something more personal. Check out this preview reel to see what I mean:

The Kickstarter campaign is long done, but you can still help support Mormon Movie at The Hideout this weekend in Chicago. Just buy a ticket to their third "They Shoot Indies, Don't They? Dance Derby Fundraiser Spectacular" and show up to dance and win prizes. It all gets started Saturday, February 2, at 7:00 pm at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia. Tickets are just $10 in advance, $12 at the door.

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My good friend Cesar Torres recently had me on Episode 29 of "The Labyrinth," his fine podcast about the strange and unusual.

We talked about my Mormon upbringing, how I tried to avoid writing a novel, what not to do when you're learning to write, and of course the strangest thing that ever happened to me. If could go back and do it over again, I'd tell myself to slow down and take a breath, but you can listen to my exhausting rush of words here:

Cesar and I are in a writing group called Error of Judgment together. He has also interviewed our fellow workshoppers Eden Robins and Holly McDowell, plus lots of other fascinating people. Check it out.

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Le mot juiced

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I read the following essay, which appears in somewhat different form in the epilogue to The Accidental Terrorist, in the Essay Fiesta series at The Book Cellar in Chicago, on December 21, 2009.

There is no worse feeling than, five minutes after some unpleasant confrontation has left you tongue-tied, humiliated and confused, smacking yourself on the forehead and exclaiming, "Oh, my God! That's what I should have said!"

This is not that kind of a story. This is the story of how I once delivered the perfect rejoinder, in the moment, when it counted. I tell it not to demonstrate how smart, suave, or clever I am, but because it so rarely happens that way with me. In fact, this may be the only story of its kind I have.

This happened in December 2003, at a Christmas party my wife Laura and I threw at our apartment in Queens, New York. Our parties, if I do say so, were legendary, always with an interesting mix of people, and always with good booze, and plenty of it.

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To follow up on my post from Friday, the latest issue of Rolling Stone features an article by Mikal Gilmore called "Mitt Romney and the Ghosts of Mormon History." It provides an excellent overview of how the Mormon Church has drifted away and distanced itself from its founding philosophical ideals, and how Romney has done the same with his own family's legacy. Here's a great passage:

When Romney veers from liberal to conservative to moderate stands, what he makes plain is that the world he is in, but not truly part of, is the political world. The shifting is a sleight of hand, like Joseph Smith's magic, a means to an end. That end is higher attainment in the big payoff, the eternal world. As a result, expecting Romney to be accountable to a secular morality is to misunderstand him. That's part of the Mormon hubris, and it's what grants him the right to withhold specifics about both his political vision and his deeper beliefs. But if you hold yourself apart from the world, how can you understand those who do not? And how can they ever understand you?
Gilmore was born into a troubled Mormon famly, and his grasp of the church's history is incisive. I'll link to the article if it ever appears online, which I hope it will in the next couple of weeks.

Mikal Gilmore also wrote the excellent memoir Shot in the Heart, about his relationship with his brother Gary, the executed murderer, and their relationship with the church and its murky doctrine of blood atonement. Dark, dark, dark, but highly recommended.


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Referring to his fluid political positions, a number of commentators of late have been making statements to the effect that the only thing Mitt Romney seems to believe in is that he should be president. That got me thinking about how such a belief might have arisen, and how it might explain all the shifty flip-flopping we've seen over the course of the presidential campaign—and, in fact, the whole of Romney's political career.

Mormons believe that God has an individual plan for every one of us. This is not to say that they believe in predestination, an idea that would play havoc with their crucial belief in free will. Mormons instead believe in the doctrine of foreordination, in which God has specific tasks in mind for each of us to accomplish in this life, but with the actual accomplishment of them being dependent upon our own faith and diligence.

Another thing Mormons believe in is personal revelation. This means that if we have a problem or a question or a goal, we can turn to God in prayer after sincere consideration and ask for direction. God, we are told, will answer either by causing a confusion to come upon us that makes us forget the thing that is wrong or by affirming through a burning in the bosom that the thing is right. (See Doctrine & Covenants 9:7-9.) No good Latter-day Saint should undertake any major pursuit without having gone through this process of spiritual confirmation.

But this is a tricky doctrine. When I was growing up, I myself was able to convince myself that God approved of many different courses of action that probably weren't so good for me, simply by praying about them persistently and feverishly enough. And this is where Romney's belief that he should be president comes in. I have no doubt that, being a faithful Mormon and in fact a Mormon leader, he prayed long and hard about whether or not to pursue this office. The fact that he threw his hat so firmly into the ring is proof that he received his spiritual confirmation.

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Mitt Romney's comment about "binders full of women" during the debate the other night could not have been more unfortunate, especially considering his family's history of polygamy. Anything that inadvertently conjures up images of the young women in Roman Grant's "joy books" on Big Love is probably not a place Mittens wanted to go...

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