Here comes the firestorm

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I knew this was going to happen, but that doesn't make it any less aggravating now that it has.

See, as part of this Mormon missionary memoir of mine, I've divulged secrets of the Mormon temple ceremony that I'm not supposed to talk about. In fact, I took gruesome oaths on my life in the Mormon temple never to reveal the contents of that ceremony.

Now that the book is picking its paraplegic way toward publication, I figured I should give my parents a heads-up about the coming betrayal. (Not only will the book contain, early on, this temple material, but I've also culled those pages out as an excerpt for my agent to try to sell to some major magazine.) I emailed my parents, told them about the contents and purpose of my book, and offered to let them see what I had written so far so they could be prepared for the consequences. My mother asked to see the book so I sent it to her a couple of weeks ago.

Well, this morning I received the following loving email from one of my siblings (I have seven):


As I was visiting with Mom this weekend, she shared e-mail that you sent her as she explained to me (amid tears) that she was reading your book. She shared the e-mail to alert me to the contents of your novel so I would not be surprised later. Unfortunately, I was not surprised, but rather deeply saddened.

I will, however, without hesitancy, firmly voice my opinion. You, of course, are entitled to yours. Without dispute, you are my superior intellectually speaking. However, intellect often forgets both common sense and wisdom. Some things are more wisely felt than reasoned. Here is one: There is absolutely no need to profane what those you love hold sacred, whether you agree with those beliefs or not. I would challenge you to rise to a higher level than that. No amount of money or fame, or any other reason for that matter, should entice you to feel compelled to write of the temple endowment. What good purpose comes of profaning things of a sacred nature for profit and gain. As one who knows of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the restoration of all things through the prophet Joseph Smith, I would also issue out of love a warning of an eternal nature to you in publishing such writings.

Even if you don't believe what we do, why destroy even in part something which does many people good. Do you not respect the right of individuals to worship as they will? I believe that with your talents and gifts that the avenues for success in your writing are many and broad. Why choose to wallow when you can fly?

I love you more than I can explain, yet my loyalty lies with my testimony which I will never deny. I will defend it at the expense of our relationship if necessary. Mom and Dad have been hurt enough. Please rethink your approach. It is never too late to make a better choice.


Not that I would have kowtowed anyway, but I respond particularly badly to gag orders, or even gag requests. This is the response I dashed off:


I love you and I appreciate your forthrightness. I won't stop speaking to you because we differ in our opinions, or because you're willing to express yours. But I'm also not going to silence my own.

First, I wish you'd read the book before criticizing it. You can't really understand my point of view otherwise. Second, I believe very deeply in people's right to worship as they see fit. The flip side of that, constitutionally and morally, is the right of other people to disagree and to discuss their disagreements openly. Third, I have a bone-deep belief in informed consent, which is that people have a right to know everything they can about what they're getting into before they get into it.

I'm writing the book that I've been aching to write my entire adult life, the book that I wish I'd had to read before I ever went to the temple. To speak very frankly, my endowment was about the most degrading and horrifying experience of my life. I don't believe it's godly in any way, shape, or form, and it's a dead certainty that the reason the penalties were removed from the ceremony in 1990 is because so many good Latter-day Saints felt the same way and weren't afraid to tell their bishops and stake presidents so. What clue did you or I or anyone else have when we walked into the temple for the first time that within an hour we'd be pantomiming spilling our blood and vitals in the most gruesome way possible? The God I believe in doesn't need to protect his heaven with bloodthirsty frat rituals and fear, and if it turns out that I'm wrong, well, that's not the kind of heaven I would care for.

I believe people need to understand the traditions from which their beliefs and practices arose—not only that but that they have a right to seek information about every side of a question before they yoke themselves to a philosophy that could end up hurting them. True, Mormonism seems to do good for some people. But it damages others pretty badly, and to withhold compassion and the balm of shared bad experience from those people outweighs, in my mind, the hurt feelings other people are going to have when what they hold sacred is exposed. How many people are trapped in misery in the Mormon Church because they're afraid to talk to anyone else about their doubts and hurts? There are a lot—I correspond with them on the Internet all the time. Some of them have gotten themselves out, some are still in the process, but most of them could have been spared a lot of pain if they'd just known there were other people going through the same thing.

I don't hold a grudge against Mom or Dad. I'm not writing the book to hurt them, and I gave it to them early specifically to spare them from a harsher revelation later. My beliefs and lifestyle are painful to them period. I'm not going to stop acting or living the way I do because of that. I can't. That would be a lie and only harmful to myself, as harmful as living in Utah and trying to conform to something I couldn't morally square myself with. I try not to rub anyone's face in my choices, but I have every right to make them and not be ashamed of them, and when someone tells me not to talk about my relationship with Mormonism, that's tantamount to telling me to be ashamed of my beliefs and my choices. I won't do it.

If Mom is crying reading my book, then I'm deeply sorry, but I believe she's crying because her beliefs tell her that I'm going to be eternally damned. Writing or not writing this book doesn't change the fact that I am a constant source of pain to her because I do not share her beliefs. I obviously don't regard my temple covenants as having any moral hold or authority on me, and I haven't for some time. I think that when you attack the writing of the book as the source of her pain, you overlook the fact that this pain is out there already. I'm in deep trouble with God, according to Mormon beliefs, whether the book exists or not. Mom and Dad believe I'm lost. At least with the book out there they don't have to imagine what my "transgressions" are and be afraid of something they can't quantify. If they have a handle on who I am, what I think, and why, then at least they may be able to deal with that unformed dread they've been feeling on my behalf. And if they can start dealing with something quantifiable, ultimately I believe we'll be better able to heal our relationships than if we all just sit back with our mouths shut and wonder what the other person is thinking. That's one of the functions of the book.

But that's not all I think the book does. If there's any one thing Dad demonstrated to me growing up, it's not to be ashamed or afraid of standing up for what I believe in. How many times did he tell principals and bishops and other leaders that he disagreed with them? It sure didn't make him popular, and it offended a lot of people, but he did it anyway, and I admire that. The thing about standing up for what you believe in, as you're doing, is that if you're going to claim that right then you must allow everyone else the same right. Well, I'm standing up for what I believe in. You can disagree with me about Mormonism, but if you have a conscience from God then you shouldn't be able to sleep at night and still advocate the silencing of a differing opinion. That's the sort of thinking that, widespread, could get your right to free speech and freedom of religion overthrown, together with mine. Your freedoms and mine are opposite sides of the same coin.

Can you tell I'm passionate on this subject? I'm as passionate about it as you are about your beliefs. Thank you for sharing your feelings. I hope you'll listen to mine as well and take that into consideration.


She's come back to me with a pretty quick response—within about fifteen minutes of my reply. It's sitting in my inbox, unread. I don't want to open it. I will eventually, probably soon, but at the moment I'd rather not know what it says.

Kind of like my family in regard to my book.

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on October 10, 2000 12:55 PM.

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