It is not an option, it is your obligation

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A nibble comes in, one admiring but not entirely won over, and yet again you find yourself crafting a book proposal to suit a particular audience of one. You like this audience of one, and you take their comments seriously, but you resolve not to internalize those comments at the expense of your own vision for the book. It's hard work, especially with a novel on hold for a week or so, but at last you find a way back inside the material. What comes out is a blend of the new, the old, and the very old. The one temptation you can't resist is the temptation to throw a piece of it out there the moment it rolls off your virtual platen.

So that's one place you could say it all started, my first day as a missionary in Canada. But you could also rewind a couple of years if you wanted, to a lonely back road somewhere east of Victorville in the California desert, and say it all started there. That's where, late in 1984, my father sprang a terrifying question on me.

"Son," he asked that afternoon, "do you want to serve a mission?"

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the path my life would take pivoted on the answer I gave to that question.

My father, like most of us, has always been a mass of contradictions. A devout and in some ways fanatic Mormon, he nonetheless drinks coffee in secret and has never been afraid to call his church leaders idiots. Despite a doctorate in education from UCLA, he seems to take pride in his ignorance of such topics as evolution. When I was a small child, he took me on frequent trips to the planetarium and loaded me down with books on astronomy and paleontology on the one hand, then tried to teach me that the earth was only 6,000 years old on the other. He forbade me to read science fiction after finding novel about cloning in my bedroom, and hit me with a belt when I still hadn't returned it to the library a week later. But three years later, when I was fifteen and intent on writing science fiction myself, he hunted at 7-Eleven newsstands until he found magazines I could submit my stories to. He beat me once when I was six or seven for getting an involuntary erection, and he screamed himself red in the face at me once when I was sixteen after my sister ratted me out for swearing, but I once overheard him say of a neighbor boy who had just gotten engaged that he should screw the girl instead and get it out of his system.

A man who loved Los Angeles like no other place on earth, my father chose to raise his family in Utah instead, where they would be safer growing up, both physically and spiritually.

I loved my father, and I hated him. I can't count the times I wished him dead, nor the times that wish scared me silly.

My father was born in 1936 and grew up in a part of Los Angeles called Eagle Rock. His mother was descended from Mormon pioneer stock. His father was an alcoholic. My father grew up tough, and from what my uncles told me knew how to use his fists. He played football in high school and junior college, and once had three of his front teeth kicked out in a game.

Both his parents had died by the time he was twenty-one. Mentored by a local Mormon bishop, my father got serious about religion and was called as a missionary to Germany. In those days missions lasted two and a half years. After his mission he joined the Army and was stationed for a time in Germany again.

He eventually ended up at the Mormon Church–owned Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, working on a master's in education. That's where he met my mother, whose family traced its genealogy on both sides back to Mormonism's founding fathers. My father had been engaged before this several times, but told me once that he finally went through with it with my mother because he knew she would get him into heaven. In my teenaged arrogance, I believed this meant that love had played no part in it.

On their wedding day in 1966, my father was thirty years old, my mother not quite twenty-one. By the time I came along a year later, they were living in Los Angeles. While my father continued his education at UCLA, he also taught shop at South Pasadena Junior High. Looking back, it seems to me that he always had his best rapport with underprivileged kids. I was often jealous of that growing up.

I was six when we moved to Utah, and by then I had three younger sisters. My parents kept on multiplying and replenishing the earth as long as they were able, and by the time they stopped I was fifteen years old and the oldest of eight.

I couldn't have been less like my father. I was a voracious reader, a student who sailed through classes with straight A's, a skinny introvert, and in my heart of hearts I nurtured secret doubts about the religion that surrounded me at home and at school. I remember first questioning my faith at the age of five, when I began asking myself what would have happened had I been born to Lutheran instead of Mormon parents. I moved on from there to trying to conceive of God's origins, a process that only hurt my brain and made me feel very tiny, insignificant, and frightened in my darkened bedroom at night.

At the same time, I demonstrated an easy mastery of scriptural topics at Sunday school. Because I could speak well from the pulpit, I was the sort of kid that people at church predicted would grow up to be a bishop or better someday. Somehow I somehow knew better than to confess that was the last thing I wanted. Inside I resented my religion and the onerous burdens observance and guilt that it piled upon me. I often fantasized about what life would be like if I didn't believe in God and Mormonism, but I could never bring myself to make that leap. Because of my devout upbrining, I did believe, as much as I didn't want to.

No demand of my faith was more onerous to me than the expectation that I would put my life on hold at the age of nineteen and serve a two-year proselytizing mission. As a small child in Los Angeles I had looked up to the local elders with an awe bordering on reverence, anxious for the day when I too could become a missionary, preaching the gospel far from home in exotic lands like Germany, Columbia, or Korea (where different of my relatives had served). My parents sometimes had the missionaries over for a hot meal, and after dinner, armed with cutout figures and flannelboard, they'd practice teaching the story of Joseph Smith while my sisters and I paid rapt attention.

Preparation for mission service was the constant theme at home and at church, as if those two years were more important than whatever would come after. My father opened a savings account for me when I was small, my mission fund, so I'd be able to support myself during the unpaid time of service. Most of the money I made working summers in a cabinetry shop during high school ended up socked away for that purpose.

But the nearer that day came, the more I came to dread the coming interruption. As early as twelve I remember getting knots in my stomach thinking of those two years knocking on doors away from home. I wanted to be good, but canvassing some foreign country for converts was just not a prospect that excited me. I had college to think of, and my growing passion for science fiction writing. The only upside I could see to a mission was the possibility of gaining fluency in some useful foreign language. But there was no guarantee I'd be sent overseas.

We lived in Kaysville, an overwhelmingly Mormon town twenty miles north of Salt Lake City. I had skipped a grade early in school, so most of my friends, even the ones from less devout families, turned nineteen and left on missions during our first year after high school. I was not yet seventeen when we graduated, and while that meant I had to watch my friends abandon me one by one as they scattered to the far corners of the globe, it also meant I could squeeze in two full years of college before my mission.

As piously as I acted, the one thing I could not bring myself to do was attend Brigham Young University. A school where religion classes were part of the core curriculum and where the dress code outlawed wearing shoes without socks was not the place for me. I applied to half a dozen schools, but despite my parents' urgings their beloved alma mater was not on the list. In the end I settled on the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, an institution whose liberal reputation made it seem more dangerous in our state than it might have elsewhere. I wasn't sure yet exactly what I would major in as an undergrad, but I planned eventually to study biomedical engineering, and the U (home of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart) had an excellent program. My father was upset with my choice, but I think what persuaded him to calm down was as much that I could live at home and commute as the full-tuition scholarship I received.

Still, my parents and my bishop all expected me to attend classes at the Institute of Religion, a church-run seminary adjacent to campus that offered classes similar to the religion curriculum at BYU. The prospect didn't thrill me, but I figured I could use the social interaction, especially since I'd be living at home. Good Mormon kids were forbidden to date until the age of sixteen, which meant I hadn't gone out with a girl until my senior year of high school. Maybe I'd meet a nice, liberal Mormon girl at the Institute. That would be nice.

I did sign up for one Institute class every quarter, but inevitably I'd stop attending after the second or third week of class. I just couldn't take the curriculum as seriously as my real coursework—especially one class called "Preparing for Mission Service."

What a waste of time that was. It didn't even tell you what to do if you got locked up in a foreign jail.

Early in my first year of college, my father and I made a long weekend road trip to Los Angeles. This was not unusual. My father would use any pretext for a drive to his hometown, impressing whatever kid happened to be available into service as his wingman. He preferred back roads over the interstate, and loved to reminisce aloud about the days when the trip home from BYU in his Corvette convertible took him ten hours or less. I think these modern journeys were meant to be bonding experiences, though he never said as much. I was in a phase of my life that hasn't really ended, where I'd rather be reading than talking, especially with my father. But even then I had sensitivity enough to know that whipping out a book would not be appreciated, so much of these trips would pass in a stony, desert silence. I came to know the roads between Kaysville and Los Angeles as well as the route to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Which is to say, I could do it with my eyes closed, and frequently did.

I didn't like to talk to my father about my life, and only would when pressed or when I needed something. His probing questions felt to me not like interested inquiries but diagnostic knives, wielded to biopsy the state of my soul. The smallest deviation from the result he expected might occasion a forceful correction, and though his tools had grown more verbal and less physical over the years, their application made me feel as sinful and small as ever—ashamed of every deviant thought, and resentful because of it.

Let's get one thing straight: I was a good kid, at least in outward observance. Maybe I stayed out too late with my friends from time to time, listened to new wave music and jazz, preferred Isaac Asimov to the Book of Mormon. But I never smoked, drank, or did drugs. I had kissed one girl in my life, maybe two. I'd been editor of the high school newspaper, and my college scholarship was paying all my tuition and books for four years. I accompanied hymns on the piano in priesthood meetings at church, for Christ's sake. But my father, ever the dutiful teacher, helped me understand that none of this was good enough.

That's why when, out there in the California desert, my father asked me if I wanted to serve a mission, my eyes sprang open and my heart thrashed itself into a gallop.

Did I want to serve a mission? Did I have a choice? I was seventeen, my mission a mere two years away. I had several thousand dollars in the bank already. As firstborn, my responsibility to set a good example, especially to my two brothers, was immense. My entire life had been one long rehearsal for this seminal rite of passage, the imprimatur without which no self-respecting Mormon girl would ever deign to join me in the holy celestial bonds of matrimony. Judas Proust, how many dozens of times had I sung "I Hope They Call Me on a Mission" as a kid in Sunday school? Who on earth could entertain the possibility that I might not go?

Over the years I had watched countless boys leave on missions and return changed—solidified, confident, somehow more real than they'd been before. It was like they'd been aged in fine oak casks, infused with the Holy Spirit and transformed into men. They turned heads. People commented aloud on the change. I'm not going to lie to you—a big part of me wanted what they had.

On the other hand, the boys who didn't serve missions generated only whispers, innuendo. I didn't know how could they remain so monumentally indifferent to what the community thought of them. How could they not care that their spiritual deficiencies were hanging out, the unbuttoned fly of the soul, for everyone to see? The prospect of wearing those shoes horrified me even more than the prospect of serving a mission.

This is why, when my father asked me that question, I instinctively tried to weasel around it. In 1974, the Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball said: "Every young man should serve a mission. It is not an option; it is your obligation." I must have heard that quote repeated a hundred times in church, and it sprang to mind now, right when I needed it.

"It's what I'm supposed to do," I said to my father, and the dusty landscape churned past. "That's what the prophet said."

If I thought that answer would satisfy, I was wrong. "No, son," he said, hunched over the steering wheel with a look like he was gnawing his tongue. His vehemence startled me, even accustomed as I was to his bursts of temper. His eyes blazed. "That's not how you should be thinking. This is a very serious question. Do you want to go on a mission?"

My ears roared. Was this a trick question? All systems pinging with alarm, the reptile in me—firstborn, example, martyr—curled its scaly armor around the underbelly of my hidden self.

"Yes," I said. "That's what I want."

If I could go back and change any one moment in my life, that would be it. Had I answered honestly, what came next would have been bad but it would have passed. I would have gotten through it. Who knows? My father might have been forthcoming with me in return. A discussion might have followed that bounced me off the path to missionary service entirely, or somehow changed my outlook on the prospect.

Instead, I had told my father yet again what I thought he wanted to hear. And yet again, that still wasn't good enough for him.

"Why?" he pressed me.

Every Mormon knows there are right reasons and wrong reasons to go on a mission. Some boys go because their fathers promise them a car afterward, or offer to pay for college. Some go at the insistence of their girlfriends, who would otherwise marry someone else (and often do anyway). Some go out of inertia, or boredom, or to put off other, more momentous life decisions.

None of those factors described me. I had about a zillion things I wanted to do with my life, and none of them included putting my life on hold to live like a monk for two years.

Why did I want to go on a mission? So the man glaring at me from the driver's seat would love me.

"I want to serve God," I croaked, trying to sound convincing. "I want to spread the gospel, so other people can feel the same joy we know."

The words were like broken glass in my mouth, but they seemed, at last, to have done the trick. "It's a solemn responsibility," my father said, eyes narrowed. "Not to be undertaken lightly."

"I know."

He gazed balefully at me for a moment, then returned his attention to the road. "Okay, then," he said.

A milepost ticked past in silence.

"The church is true, son," my father said a minute or more later, his face painted with that infusion of cynicism, grief, and resolve that passed for solemnity when he tried to give voice to his faith. "If it weren't, the missionaries would have destroyed it long ago."

And with that gnomic utterance, a more lasting silence descended on our journey.

My father used to make that crack about the missionaries all the time, deploying it like the capstone to an elaborate proof of the correctness of Joseph Smith's cosmology. But it never occurred to me to ask him what he really meant by it—what his mission had been like.

Did he savor the experience? Had he found joy and success in the mission field? Had it brought him closer to God? I was so focused on defending the borders of my teenaged self that I couldn't imagine him as anything but a marauder at my gates, a colonial governor, a totalitarian regime. He wasn't a person to me—he was an institution, a force of nature. His life stories were the myths and legends of my childhood, carved in columns of stone. I couldn't imagine there was anything I needed to know about him or his time as a missionary that I hadn't been told by the age of five.

And that was too bad. Not only was that kind of thinking a disservice to my father, but a serious talk about his mission to Germany might eventually have prevented me from leaving the Calgary Airport in the back of a squad car.

But then again, I'm a science fiction writer. I imagine improbable things for a living.

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on November 14, 2006 9:51 AM.

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