A Former Mormon Watches The Book of Mormon

How Does It Feel Watching a Musical Do a Send-Up of Your Family's Religion? An Interview with an Ex-Mormon Named Jake

The Stranger, Seattle/July 30, 2014

By Brendan Kiley

The Book of Mormon, currently playing at the Paramount Theatre, is about two naive, fresh-faced missionaries sent to a village in Uganda that is being terrorized by a local warlord. Last time it was in town, a local theater artist named Jake, who had some traumatic childhood experiences with Mormonism, went to see the show and had a profound, joyful experience watching a highly intelligent takedown of the church that somehow didn't dehumanize or mock the goodness and decency of individual believers. (The tension between the cruelty of the institution and the kindness of its members is a frequent theme in discussions of Mormonism.) In a series of interviews, Jake told me what it was like to watch The Book of Mormon.

On His Mormon Family

I'm the third of six kids in a family that goes back to the early days of Mormonism on both sides. I won't bore you with lineage—polygamy guarantees that most Mormons are descended from at least one creepy important leader. I do have an ancestor who was taken from her husband by Joseph Smith himself. On her deathbed in Salt Lake City, she told the tale of her secret marriage to Joseph Smith, and of bearing his child after he got rid of her husband. As kids, we were encouraged to socialize only with other Mormons or people who we could feasibly convert. In Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, the sparse distribution of members meant that I never had close friends at school. Only when we moved to Alaska did I go to school with other Mormons. Unfortunately, the move coincided with the realization that I was gay.

On His Teenage Suicide Attempt

As a 12-year-old, my prospects for marriageability were already being openly discussed and, for a couple of years, I figured that I could pull off some kind of dual identity. But after a bad year at Boy Scout camp and participating in a particularly strange panel discussion where I had to explain why modestly dressed women were the most attractive, my brain kind of broke.

At 14, I got caught in the middle of a clumsy attempted overdose—aspirin and vodka in large quantity—and was sent to an inpatient hospital in Anchorage where I wasn't allowed to talk about sexuality with other patients. I was pretty heavily medicated with some crazy pre-SSRI stuff and coerced into admitting to drug and drinking problems. I had tried alcohol only once before, which made my diagnosis as an addict especially confusing.

The hospital also outed me to my parents.

I returned home after about a month. My parents allowed me to stop going to church, and the Mormon kids at school pretty much ignored me, except for Sundays when all the boys my age would be brought to my house by their adult "Priesthood" leaders to bang on the doors and windows and yell for me to come back to church. (Any male Mormon in good standing can be a Priesthood leader—at 12, it's the Aaronic priesthood, then the Melchizedek at 18. This is like an express line to god with the power to bless the sick and also a special leadership thing. It's also key in the subjugation of women.)

My life really improved when I quit taking the meds and, a couple of years later, borrowed enough money to move to Seattle and start school. I was 17 at the time.

On His Family's Crisis of Faith

My family really started to change when my younger brother came out at 16. They had moved back to Utah, and his experience at the hands of Mormon bullies was much worse than mine. His bullies were the sons of the congregational lay leader: the Bishop. They lived across the street from my parents and were cruel in a way I never had to deal with. My folks couldn't really do anything because the kids' dad was their spiritual leader. That's probably what wrecked it for my dad. He's a PhD and had long had to defend evolution on a weekly basis—but when he realized that the ideology that he had struggled to swallow for so many years had not just failed but actively damaged one-third of his family, there was no turning back. My dad got my brother into some good therapy and started asking some of the hard questions that the Mormon Church teaches members to avoid.

The family is now more apostate Mormon than faithful, but even my sisters who still go to church are fierce advocates for LGBT people.

Why Mormons Love Musicals

Mormons have held onto the musical as a popular form, in part because it's more innocent than real life. I think they like the idea of such emotional honesty that their love of songs is unavoidable—it's like in a musical, the characters are bearing testimony every time they sing. Mormons have a strong tradition of amateur theatrical performance, and Mormon kids usually own high-school musicals. They love everything from The Sound of Music to Newsies. But it's a sanitized canon that knocks out most of the stuff from the 1970s and half of the '80s, and they feel empowered by their god to listen to and perform bowdlerized versions of anything.

The Book of Mormon is such an incredibly catchy show that they can't cut down or only perform it in part. It reclaims musical theater as the domain of gays and racial minorities, and I couldn't be happier. Sitting in the packed Paramount Theatre during 2013's Book of Mormon and hearing roars of laughter rolling up the aisles was vindicating in a way I never could have imagined. It gave me back a sense of community I didn't know I missed.

Why the Show Works

The show is so moving to me because it perfectly points out how ridiculous and out of touch the church is as an institution while, at the same time, individual members continue to exhibit such charity and grace. And it's wickedly funny to Mormons and "gentiles" alike. There aren't a ton of inside jokes in the show—in surprisingly seamless ways, it lists many of the big factual/historical discrepancies that are driving people out.

Take the "Hasa Diga Eebowai" song, for example. It's a satire of "Hakuna Matata" from The Lion King, and it's a phrase the villagers in the musical say to comfort themselves when bad things happen. The Mormon missionary characters begin to sing along, not realizing that "hasa diga eebowai" literally means "fuck you, god" in the local language. This points to an issue common among questioning and former Mormons—the God of Car Keys, who can't be bothered with Darfur but is completely available to answer lost-key prayers of Mormons everywhere.

The set drop depicting Zion—the Mormon ideal of a righteous utopia—filled with commercial signage is genius, and the pink-sunset sky looks like the mural of the universe surrounding the famous Christus statue replica at Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Anybody raised in the church would recognize it. (The clouds-into-space-into-heaven theme is classic Mormon kitsch.) And then there's the proscenium based on the Star Trek–style architecture of 1960s and '70s Mormon temples.

A Different Kind of Musical

I never really dialed in to the worship experience as a kid. Singing in a group in church always felt like a chore, and church never inspired that special, true feeling other Mormons describe. I can get it from other live music, but never theater or religion.

But The Book of Mormon changed that. I felt transported—like I had heard a truth that gave me goose bumps. recommended

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