Joanna Brooks has emerged as an important commentator on Mormonism for mainstream media. In fact, this year Politico named her as one of 50 commentators to watch in America. She is currently the Chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. She writes about Mormonism and politics for Religion Dispatches and is the author of askmormongirl.com.
Tell us about your Mormon roots. What are some of your fondest memories about growing up Mormon?
I grew up at the southern end of the Book of Mormon belt, in Orange County, California. My dad was a bishop of three different wards. I remember watching him come and go at all hours. I loved the things that he involved me in. I loved the emergency preparedness drills we used to do, being sure that we knew how we would look out for each other if there were a disaster. I walked the ward with my dad on those disaster drills, and it gave me a feeling of having a tangible community.
I loved girls’ camp. We did it right in Southern California. I was blessed with wonderful Young Women’s leaders who believed in backpacking. We backpacked for the first time when we were twelve-year-old Beehives, carrying our own tents and all our food, drinking water from a stream for three days. I absolutely loved it. It taught me resiliency and community. And I loved how the leaders linked in the spiritual, too. It wasn’t just about the backpacking.
Entering high school, I made a conscious decision that I would hang out only with Mormon kids. I’m not sure in retrospect that my perspective was actually accurate, but I felt pretty strongly about it then because at age thirteen or fourteen a lot of kids were starting to party and starting to drink. So in high school I consciously associated pretty much only with LDS kids. It was a wonderful community. There was a good crew of us in my stake. We had dozens of LDS kids, probably twenty or thirty in my high school and some who went to other high schools as well. We were like an extended family. On weekends we did classic Mormon, goofy, fun, sweet activities like ice-blocking. Those activities really set us apart from the kids who were drinking every weekend. Having this other set of family I belonged to was a big part of my growing up—these were like my brothers and sisters.
How did your faith develop in those early years?
I found growing up in the Church theologically and intellectually stimulating. Seminary, scripture study—there was so much to stretch me. The Church has wonderful messages for girls and for boys. I took the responsibility to study and learn very seriously and it fed and nurtured that side of me. I know that it had a huge impact in making me into a scholar and thinker.
When I was ten or eleven, my mind started wrapping around some of the more cosmic elements of the teachings of Doctrine and Covenants—light and space and the nature of time and the nature of eternity and the role of the family in eternity. My brain was so wonderfully stretched by these ideas. It’s a beautifully innovative and rich view of the gospel developed in the Doctrine and Covenants. And to be entrusted with that glimpse of the universe when I was twelve was wonderful! Where else was I going to get that kind of mental stimulation? The universe expands and is expansive and is eternally expansive. Wow! That’s pretty cool! I guess I was a theology geek. I got a geeky pleasure thinking about the shape of eternity. That had such appeal to me then and still does. There is a richness in Mormon doctrine, a real daringness that made it very rewarding for a young person to think about.
What doctrines that you learned as a youth have been most important to you as an adult?
The Joseph Smith story, the founding story of our religion, has always been extremely powerful to me. Here is a young boy struggling to find answers and not satisfied with any answers the adults in his life could give him, so he went out and sought through prayer a direct answer from God. I was not a young person who necessarily rejected things my leaders said. I felt very happy in the Church, but this example that when you face challenges in your life, you can pray—you can go to a quiet place in yourself and ask for help—was very, very centering for me, very grounding, and is one of the lessons that has really carried me through my adulthood. I love the fact that Joseph Smith was fourteen. And I was never told that he was some special example and that his experience did not apply to me. His experience applies to all of us! I took a lot of strength from that. And the doctrine embedded in that founding story is personal revelation, the practice of prayer. That’s one of the doctrines of the Church that has always been very dear to me.
Is there a particular time prayer was important to you?
My early to mid twenties was a really hard time for me. It’s very normal to go through a soul puberty around that time in your life. I was going through the classic struggle for that age of figuring out who I was and what my work in this world should be, but I was struggling with many other issues as well. Some people I cared about had been excommunicated and that was terribly difficult for me. My ancestors came into it a great deal; I was working through emotional health issues that had come down through the generations from my ancestors and needed to be resolved.
So there I was in my little studio apartment in Los Angeles. I remember finding out that someone in my singles ward whom I cared about had been abused as a kid and it really upset me. The weight of everything was just a lot: trying to sort out my feelings within the LDS community, struggling with my own issues and with the issues of generations, being 24 years old and alone in the big city. I remember being so overwhelmed by emotion that I fell on my knees and said, “You’ve got to help me. I can’t bear this right now. I can’t bear the sadness I’m feeling. I just can’t bear it.” And the weight lifted. The memory is as fresh as if it were yesterday. It just lifted. I got an instant sense of peace and relief.
Prayer isn’t always like that, of course. I find that the discipline of prayer helps me access a place of peace and equanimity, but that doesn’t mean that answers come right away. I have learned, whatever the issue, to just keep praying through it, waiting for the help that’s going to be on the way. But at that instant the help was instantaneous and palpable. I had a weight lifted from my chest that I didn’t think I could bear.
You are married to a Jewish man and are raising your two young daughters to respect his faith as well as your own. What elements of your faith do you stress with them?
Prayer is what they’re going to need first and foremost, because they’re going to need to make choices. I don’t know much that compares to the tradition of searching personal prayer that I was raised with as a Mormon. The way I was taught as a Mormon girl to take my choices seriously, to deliberate them, and to seek inspiration is something I try to pass down to them. They know that they need to seek their own answers, and that prayer is the way to get answers. They understand the process of how we find answers, the feelings that the Doctrine & Covenants teaches accompany prayer.
Right now they’re at a stage where the plan of salvation is dawning on them and they are beginning to think of themselves as having a soul that pre-existed this life and that is here to gain experience and that will continue to gain experience through eternity. That’s a marvelous gift of perspective that I’ve tried to convey to them. I’ve taught them that their spirits lived in heaven before they came to this earth and that they came here to learn and later we will go so that we can be with our ancestors. That sense of perspective that the plan of salvation brings is really important so that they know that they’re not an accident, so that they know that they are spiritual beings here having learning experiences.
Lately, I’ve been emphasizing, to them, “You’re a Mormon. You need to look out for the Mormon kids at school.” It’s not partisanship I’m trying to instill but a nascent sense of what it means to belong. We belong to look out for one another. If someone is bothering your friend from Primary at school, you stand up for that person. You go give them your support. As Christians we stand up for everyone, but there’s a special kinship that LDS people owe one another. We’re brothers and sisters, so look out for them!
In my ward, I’m the emergency route coordinator for my little neighborhood, so I took my daughter with me to check on all the houses the other morning, our annual drill–if there’s an emergency, who would you check up on? I want her to have the same memory I have of going out with my dad to check on ward members. She’ll remember, “My crazy mom got up at 8:00 on Saturday morning to knock on people’s doors!” We look out for each other. We look out for everybody as part of being Christian, but we also belong to a community that looks out for one another specifically as LDS people.
Tell me about your family’s 24th of July tradition.
I was less active for 7 or 8 years. In the middle of that time I was trying to think of ways to still honor my Mormonism and figure out what was still important to me in the Church. I have pioneer heritage, and I’ve always thought of Pioneer Day–the day we celebrate the pioneers first entering the Salt Lake Valley–as a lovely Mormon cultural holiday. I decided that even though I wasn’t attending Church at the time that I was going to observe Pioneer Day, and I was going to hold a Mormon dinner.
Part of my idea doubtless comes from Passover. The Jewish people are brilliant at using food to help remember. They have worked it out over millennia: eat and tell your story. I needed something like that for me! So, Pioneer Day: eat and tell your story.
Passover is a spiritual, holy day and Pioneer Day is not a holy day but a cultural day, so I don’t try to make it heavy-handed. We don’t say a series of prayers or have a liturgy like you have for Passover, but we sit around a table and eat and tell stories about who we are. I make some form of Mormon dinner, usually camp and light-hearted. I’ll pull out a couple of Mormon cookbooks I have and cook things that will horrify my husband, various Jell-O dishes, and funeral potatoes (which, truth be told, I never ate growing up as a child but I really like them). My kids and I wear bonnets, and we tell stories about our ancestors who came across the plains.
I invite non-member friends mostly. They think it’s great. They’re all kind of pleased to witness a cultural experience. Some of them have not eaten Jell-O before. Most of the people I associate with day-to-day are not LDS, as is true of most of us who live outside the Utah corridor, and me probably more than most because I married outside of the faith and because I work outside of the home, so I have a lot of non-LDS contact every day. So I’m just excited to share it in a lighthearted way with people I’m close to, and they are excited to be a part of it.
You are a scholar of Early American literature. Your prize-winning book, American Lazarus: Religion and The Rise of African-American and Native-American Literatures, was published by Oxford University Press. How does your faith inform your scholarship, or your scholarship your faith?
When I was in graduate school, fresh out of BYU, I knew I wanted to study religion in some form because it was such a hugely important part of my life. I didn’t want to write about Mormons because I didn’t know how to yet and I was still trying to figure out who I was. But I took a class where we spent fifteen weeks talking about early American religion, and I understood it because I’d attended seminary! Everyone else’s eyes at the table were glazing over, but I got it!
By studying the Puritans I came to understand some of the particular emphases on works in Mormon theology versus grace. I studied the Quakers and thought about the role of the Spirit. My studies gave me a wonderful view into Mormon doctrine and into how Mormonism fits in the larger American literary/historical picture. And in my studies of early communities of color and the ways they used religion, I bring some fairly intimate knowledge I had gained as an LDS person about the ways we organize ourselves as religious communities.
I have noticed in your interviews that you often laugh at questions you get asked.
When I talk about Mormonism in public, I find myself laughing all the time. It’s not necessarily premeditated. It seems that as LDS people we live every day with a great deal of self-consciousness about our beliefs. We often are very nervous about how to explain these tender things that outsiders make fun of so much. We also live with some habits of being very guarded with non-LDS people when we talk about things that we hold sacred. And maybe we’re a little sensitive too. We’ve been through it. We’re not well-accepted. We’re not well-understood. It’s hard to find places outside of our own wards and families and congregations where we are regarded as full human beings who know what we believe and have good reasons for believing it.
So my particular contribution to this “Mormon moment,” as I have come to understand it, is just to be fearless and candid but also unapologetic. There are elements of Mormon political life where I go another way, but one thing I refuse to be is ashamed of Mormon people and Mormon life.
As somebody who studies language and culture issues, I’m fascinated to see the ways Mormons speak in very coded, self-conscious ways to outsiders. I think being married to someone who is not of the faith has taught me to work out explanations or ways of describing what we do that humanize us and that don’t rely on stock phrases that we use within the culture. I try to tell it like it is! There’s a certain amount of liberation that comes with that, but it also takes guts.
I put myself out there, projecting, trying to be as joyful and human as possible. I think laughter comes along with that. I think the moment we’re still living through right now is really interesting. My goal is to defuse the tension by being open and candid and unafraid and signaling that I’m a human being too. And then I end up laughing when I do it.
As you mentioned, you went through a period of not attending Church. Can you talk about the role writing played in your return to activity?
I think writing is the most powerful way to work things out in your heart and soul. Being away from Church actually coincided with my period of not writing. When my second daughter was born in 2006, I started writing. I hadn’t written for years; I wrote for my job, but not from my heart. When my second daughter was born I really started thinking about how we were going to do this with our family. I started writing a very small circulation blog about our family and about family life, basically a mommy blog, looking especially at spiritual questions of parenting. A friend encouraged me to pitch it as a book. I got really close to selling the book but then they said it was “too Mormon.” That really ticked me off. I’m in the twenty-first century and I can’t say who I am? I decided that what people need is a Mormon book.
So I started to write a book about growing up Mormon. The book was also a way to sort through, now that I was a parent, how it was I had been raised and what it meant to me. Writing it was very healing to me. Being able to put down on paper and examine all that I had learned, all that I’d experienced, made me review all of the positive things that my culture had given me, that my religion had given me. So my writing actually led to my return to Church.
In the years that I had been gone, I had really been away from everything. I had been so hurt, so vulnerable and so tender, that I had been completely absent. I didn’t know the Bloggernacle existed. So when I started writing about Mormonism and came upon these blogs by people like me, it really, really, really helped me. Knowing that there is a community of LDS people who may have their own unorthodox take on things has been a tremendous boon to me in becoming active again.
Writing has been an instrument of homecoming. It has helped me sort things out. When I write I feel like I try to make a space in the tradition for people like me where we don’t have to hide who we are or hide our questions or hide our liberal tendencies. I think people get scared away from Mormonism and think there is not space for people like us who are more progressive or questioning. There are lots of us who love Mormonism and honor it. Writing has been a way for me to make a space where I can stand with my tradition and say, I really do love this. Writing has been a way of coming home.
Anything else you want to add?
The difficult choices we face and the demanding theology we embrace and the very observant lifestyle that we’re taught to follow in the Church pay off with enormous dividends of resiliency and determination and clarity for Mormon women. I’m proud to be part of the tradition.
At A Glance
Location: San Diego, CA
Marital status: Married
Children: Daughters ages 6 and 8
Occupation: Professor, writer
Schools Attended: BYU, UCLA
Languages Spoken at Home: English, and a touch of Yiddish
Favorite Hymn: “Now Let Us Rejoice”
On The Web: www.joannabrooks.org
Interview by Annette Pimentel. Photo used with permission.