July 19, 2009, Moscow, Idaho
For almost four years Brittney has been writing about the 18 months she spent in Venezuela as a missionary. While she was there, her father, who was excommunicated from the Church when she was 14 and from whom she had been estranged for years, began sending her letters, photocopies from the journal he kept as a missionary in Colombia between 1973-75. This began a reconnection and reconciliation of their relationship which, by the end of her time in Venezuela, would become the most poignant and enduring conversion of her mission.
People ask where I grew up and I never really know what to say. I was born in Idaho Falls, Idaho. My parents lived on a pig farm, which I have no memory of but love nonetheless. A sort of absurd and wonderful place to start a life. We moved to San Diego, California, when I was four, and lived there until I was eleven. Then St. Simons Island, Georgia, and though we left the South and moved back to California when I was 14, when I get nervous that southern twang comes shining.
My parents divorced when I was 17 and my mother took us (I’m the oldest of five) back to Idaho. I graduated from high school there, drove west the next morning and swore I’d never go back. I spent a lot of time wandering. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and California, I even lived a few days out of the back of my car in Wyoming. But my best friend was in Rexburg, Idaho, at Ricks College [now Brigham Young Univerisity – Idaho], and I missed her, so I caved. And bless Rexburg’s heart, I hated it there. Still, 13 years later, here I am, 9 hours north of those cold, lonesome streets, in a little piece of heaven called northern Idaho. That’s life I suppose, God laughing and playing, as they say.
My family is many generations Mormon on both sides, so I was raised in the Church. My father always held some leadership position. My mother was my first Young Women’s president. It’s a strange and sad thing, I suppose, that of the seven members my family, only my brother and I remain active in the Church. My dad was excommunicated when I was 14. My mom, for reasons she keeps close to her chest, hasn’t been active for 6 years.
Did you have a testimony at a young age? What factors in your childhood helped you to develop faith?
Like lots of kids born into the Church, I was baptized when I was 8 years old. I’m not sure I had a testimony then. My aunt had given me a journal, and that night, after my baptism, on the way home, we stopped at the grocery store for milk. Later, in my bedroom, holding a flashlight under my sheets, I wrote that while I walked through the Albertson’s parking lot, I was sure my feet hadn’t touched the ground. I didn’t know how to name the lightness, but it was real as the cup of milk on the nightstand beside my bed.
What was your relationship like with your parents?
My father is a really eloquent man, a fantastic, commanding speaker. I remember once, as a kid, hearing him speak in Church. I don’t remember the subject (though I do remember he quoted Harry Chapin’s tune “Cats in the Cradle,” which lends itself to myriad possibilities…), but I’ll never forget the feeling, the pride that he was my dad, that I was his daughter. And for a long time as a child and into adolescence, I would have believed anything he said. I guess in a way, my faith in the Church started simply as faith in my father, faith in the way his eyes lit when he told stories about his mission to Colombia, in the way he could take a song from the radio and make some gospel truth.
For a long time, I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world. Mine was always the “happening” house; my parents were the ones all my friends loved. This was, of course, part of what made their divorce so devastating. Choosing to live with one over the other was, hands down, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
The choice to live with my mom was certainly more theoretical than real, I think. Or at least it felt that way back then. My youngest brother and sister (ages 9 and 11) were going with my mother. That was non-negotiable. The older three of us were given the choice, and I think it was mostly out a sense of obligation to keep our family together that we chose to leave California and go to Idaho with our mother. My father was, of course, devastated. Frankly, I don’t think either of my parents really understood, nor had any way of anticipating, the fall out that would result from their separation.
Shortly after we left, my father’s girlfriend (whom he would later marry) moved in, and I think, in a way, this solidified the kids’ decision to stay with our mom. We felt betrayed. My father, in his own right, felt the same way. Christmas Day 1993, he called in an effort to explain, to help me see things from his perspective. The hurt was so deep though, so hard for either of us to express that somehow, perhaps because it was the easiest place to start, the Church got caught in the middle. He felt like I was judging him because I’d been “brainwashed by the Church.” And that’s where I hung up. I didn’t speak to him for three years. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t do it again, but back then I didn’t know what else to do. It killed me. And only now, as a parent myself, can I see how deeply it killed us both.
This was clearly a painful time in your life. What kept you going to church during these difficult years?
Two things, I think. First was that I firmly, earnestly believed in the Church. I’d felt the burning of belief and couldn’t walk away. Second, for all intents and purposes, I’d just chosen the Church over my father. I’d prayed every night since I was 14 years old that he’d come back, that the storm in his eyes would pass. I thought if he did, maybe, somehow, I’d get my family back again. I figured that if I were strong enough, had faith enough, that would do it. There’s some faulty logic there, and it’s a terribly treacherous path, but I walked it for a good long time.
How did you decide to go on a mission? Your father had been a missionary in Colombia in the 1970s. What was your parents’ reaction when you were sent to Venezuela? How did you feel about it?
Now there’s a long story: Age 19, I’m nannying for the summer in Florida, and I start doing splits with these two sister missionaries, Sister Matthews and Sister Hawkins. I’m lost at the time, still reeling from my parent’s divorce. I haven’t spoken to my father for almost 2 years. I hate Ricks College but that’s where I’m headed back to once the summer’s up. So many things. One day, I’m out with the sisters and we’re teaching this wonderful, crazy family—a single mother with a whole mess of kids. They live in a giant, crumbling colonial house on Glouchester Street in Brunswick, Georgia and Sister Hawkins asks this beautiful little ten-year old girl, Shameka, to give the opening prayer. She makes it short and sweet: Dear Heavenly Father, please bless Sister Matthews, Sister Hawkins, and the girl whose name we don’t know yet. Name of Jesus Christ, Amen. It wasn’t so much that I was touched by the Spirit as it was simply that her prayer made me smile—a really big, really sincere smile, crooked and all. And it felt like I hadn’t smiled like that for years.
That same summer, it happened that one of my best friends, a roommate from Ricks, was 4 months into her mission in Rochester, New York. I couldn’t help it, couldn’t resist: I gathered up a few friends and we drove north through the night. And there she was in the morning, in Waterloo, New York, standing in the doorway of Peter Whitmer’s house. Like the fantastic missionary she was, she gave us a tour. We saw the bedroom where Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery worked like madmen, scribbling through the dark. She broke the rules and took me out the back door. She said “Look!” and pointed to a stand of trees. She told me a story about Martin Harris when Joseph was showing him the Golden Plates: Martin couldn’t see the plates, at first. And so he came out of the trees. But Joseph Smith took him back there, held his hand, and when it was finally finished, after Harris had seen the angel, Joseph came running and fell on his mother’s lap. He cried and begged his mother, “Now can you believe I’m not crazy?”
It’s a pretty simple conversion story, really: crazy or not, I believed.
My patriarchal blessing talks pretty specifically about me being a missionary, about finding and teaching “those who you knew before coming to this Earth.” I couldn’t read it and not feel pulled, especially after that summer in Georgia, that trip to New York. I got my call in July 1997. On Pioneer Day. In the parade our ward put on in the church parking lot, a kid had fallen off his covered wagon replica and broken the heck out of his leg. My friend Aaron, just home from his own mission in Philadelphia, said there were days on his mission he’d wanted to walk in front of a bus on Constitution Avenue, break a leg, and get a free ride home. He said I had no idea what I was in for. My mother, still active then, told him to shut up and get the atlas. I’d been called to Barcelona, Venezuela. She kept saying, “I thought Barcelona was in Spain.” My father, with whom I was only barely speaking, said Venezuela was too dangerous. He threatened to call the Church Headquarters. He was, to put it mildly, not pleased.
Would you describe the development of the relationship with your father? How did your mission influence his testimony as well as yours?
Like I said, my dad was excommunicated when I was 14, and that began the undoing of our relationship. Understandably, neither of my parents was really forthcoming with the details, but suddenly, I suspected my father was someone I didn’t know, maybe someone I’d never known at all. He was hurt and angry and fighting a fight so fundamental and yet so isolating that I didn’t know how to reach him. There was a lot of grieving on both our parts.
When I got my mission call, we were speaking, but very tentatively. He was still angry at the Church. I think he felt unfairly judged and betrayed, even by his children. The way he saw it, we’d been brainwashed and were too far gone to realize it. He didn’t come to my mission farewell, nor the Missionary Training Center (MTC). He didn’t come to the airport when I flew to Venezuela.
So then I’m there, struggling with my first companionship, feeling taken out at the knees. The MTC nearly killed me. It was 8 weeks of a fire that didn’t feel so refining back then. But this thing started happening, this slow, subtle thing. I hated the food less. Spanish started making a little more sense. The boy I loved (on a mission in Honduras) didn’t feel so far away anymore. And my father began to write. Cards first, then letters. He wrote sometimes in Spanish, and it was like magic. A simple connection, one small thing we shared. Eventually, once I was in Venezuela, he started sending me pages from the journal he kept as a missionary in Colombia. And I can’t really speak to how my mission affected his testimony; he has never been re-baptized. Still, I can’t help but think it was a study in redemption for both of us. I know it was for me, day after day after day.
How did you get the idea to write a book? What is the book about? How have you prepared to write the book?
Oh the book. The book started as a lie I cooked up to get into a writing workshop in Barcelona, Spain. I’d written an essay about my mission (“Barcelona, Venezuela. 1998”) which was published earlier that year, and I submitted it with my proposal to the Student Grant program at the University of Idaho, where I was in the second year of an MFA program in creative writing. I made a really half-baked plea for money saying that this workshop in Barcelona, Spain was the missing link between me and completion of the “book” I was writing about my time in Barcelona, Venezuela. This, of course, was a fiction: one four-page essay does not a full-length memoir make. Nonetheless, they ponied up, and in July 2007, I found myself walking the Passeig de Gracia, dumbfounded by the difference between Spain and Venezuela, reeling at what I’d just gotten myself into: my mission had become a world I could neither reenter nor make sense of, and now I was obligated by this grant to write a book.
The workshop was led by Patricia Foster, a professor at the University of Iowa, and one afternoon, she asked me to stay after class. She’d looked at my essay and wanted to talk about the book. I said, essentially, there was no book. I didn’t know how to write it, and even if I did, who’d read it anyway? Plenty of Mormons have mission stories, and no one who isn’t Mormon is interested in hearing them, so what would be the point? And really kindly, Patricia Foster just said I was wrong, that the literary community was waiting for a book like this. She said, “The story of why a thinking person leaves the faith has already been written. What we want to know now is why you stay.” I walked out onto Aragó Street both energized by her assurance and vaguely aware that if I was supposed to try and answer that question, I’d just bitten off more than I could chew.
I fought with it for about a year. Starting scenes but never finishing them, always pestered by the feeling that I was trying to write from a vantage point that was simply too distant. I’d been home from my mission for nine years. I didn’t understand the story anymore, couldn’t see what it meant in any way that might resonate with a larger audience. But I kept writing anyway, trying to remember, trying to make sense.
And then, visiting my father in California last summer, I got an amazing gift. We went to play tennis at my old high school, and beside the courts is a huge magnolia tree. It was in full bloom, flowers as big as your face. My father says, “I wish you could see the magnolias in Barranquilla, B [B is my nickname].” He laughs and tells me if I think the flowers here are big, in Colombia they’re the size of small kids. And right then I understood what was missing. At home I had the letters my father had sent me, the pages from his journal, full of the doubt and loneliness he wrestled with, commentary on the food, the weather, the drivers, the relief of basketball games on p-days, the heart-racking poverty, flowers and the faces of children more beautiful than anything he’d ever seen. All of it was so familiar it could have been my mission. I could have been walking with him, which is, of course, why he sent them. And suddenly, I knew the book wasn’t so much about my mission as it was the story of a family’s redemption. The story of me and my dad—his choice to leave the faith, my struggle to stay, and the ways in which the consequences both destroyed and redeemed us. I think embedded in that story, ultimately, is the answer to the question, why does a thinking person stay?
Once I knew that, I knew I needed to go back to South America. I needed to see the magnolias in Colombia, to walk the red clay roads of Venezuela again. The Idaho Commission on the Arts got behind it, as did The Peery Foundation. Thanks to those grants and some unbelievably generous family and friends, my husband and I spent the month of June, 2009 tracing my father’s footsteps and retracing my own. People ask if I found what I was looking for: like you can’t believe, and then some. It will truly take a book.
How is your desire to write connected to your spiritual journey? How do you feel your journey is now influencing your mothering?
I hope I don’t sound nebulous or abstruse, but I think writing, especially memoir, is inherently a spiritual journey. I’m not writing because I have the answers, I’m writing because I still have questions. My experience has been that through writing—and the soul search that accompanies it—meaning is made. By connecting the dots of what feels like my own, pretty personal story, I’ve learned some really beautiful things about life. And hope. And redemption, in the end.
As far as mothering is concerned, I can tell you right now that leaving your eighteen-month old with her grandparents to go trek through the wilds of South America, spiritual journey or not, is no way to win to favors with said child. Our six-year old held up like a champ. The baby? Nope, not so much. I’m pretty sure she hated us when we got home. Thankfully, that stage has passed. But I’ll tell you what, trying to write about yourself makes you hyper-aware of who you are, who you’ve been, and who you want to be—as a woman, a mother. The trick, writing a book or not, is to remember what you’ve seen.
At A Glance
Brittney Poulsen Carman
Location: Moscow, ID
Marital status: Married. Happily. 9 years.
Children: Two daughters — 18 months, 6 years.
Occupation: Writer, Secretary of the University of Idaho English Department
Schools Attended: Ricks College, University of Utah (BA), University of Idaho (MFA)
Languages Spoken at Home: English, Spanish
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos by Heather Parkinson-Nelson.