A Mormon thumbsucker

A while back, one of my colleagues — who, as it happens, has written some pretty terrific things on the subject of religion — asked me if I was familiar with the writer Walter Kirn. Knowing that we were both ex-Mormons and Kirn often wrote about religious themes, he wondered what I thought of Kirn’s work. I spent a lot of time in the creative writing department as an undergrad in the mid-late 90s just as Kirn’s career as a novelist was taking off, and he’d been recommended to me several times though I’d never gotten around to exploring any of his books. (More recently, you might be aware that his book Up in the Air had been made into the eponymous and rather acclaimed movie.)

Being that this seems to be something of a Mormon moment, I finally broke down and checked his second novel Thumbsucker out of the library. It’s a really funny and endearing book about a teenager navigating a variety of adolescent problems that play out against the backdrop of his troubled family converting to Mormonism. The experiences recounted in the book were in many ways instantly familiar to my own life as a teenage Mormon. Even though it was fiction, given what I knew about Kirn’s basic biography, I always wondered how much of a roman à clef the book was.

Then Mollie directed me to Kirn’s fantastic essay in the The New Republic, Confessions of an Ex-Mormon: A personal history of America’s most misunderstood religion, by telling me that “he writes like you talk about Mormons.” Alas, I wish I’d ever formed my thoughts about the Mormon church as gracefully as Kirn does here. Not surprisingly, Kirn is frustrated by how Mitt Romney’s candidacy has suddenly resulted in a spate of anti-Mormon sentiment among those who should know better:

As for Romney himself, the man, the person, I empathized with him and his predicament. He no more stood for Mormonism than I did, but he was often presumed to stand for it by journalists who knew little about his faith, let alone the culture surrounding it, other than that some Americans distrusted it and certain others despised it outright. When a writer for The New York Times, Charles Blow, urged Romney to “stick that in your magic underwear!” I half hoped that Romney would lose his banker’s cool and tell the bigoted anti-Mormon twits to stick something else somewhere else, until it hurt. I further hoped he’d sit his critics down and thoughtfully explain that Mormonism is more than a ceremonial endeavor; it constitutes our country’s longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America, with increasingly dire social consequences. Instead, Romney showed restraint, which disappointed me. I no longer practiced Mormonism, true, but it was still a part of me, apparently, and a bigger part than I’d appreciated.

Sometimes a person doesn’t know what he’s made of until strangers try to tear it down.

Indeed, what makes the essay so powerful is that while Kirn has rejected the church’s doctrines, he remains incredibly fond of many of the cultural aspects of the church — which is exactly how I’ve always felt about things. The really vocal ex-Mormons are often very negative, though I’d like to believe that some vestigial fondness for the healthier aspects of the church’s culture is more representative. For instance, the reference above to the “our country’s longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America, with increasingly dire social consequences” goes a long way toward explaining the church’s appeal as well as setting a positive example for non-Mormons.

The interesting thing is that Kirn does a wonderful job illustrating such lofty observations with his personal remembrances. I don’t know how much the details were exaggerated, but based on Kirn’s recollections in this essay, the events of his life do match up with Thumbsucker closely. (Also, revel in the irony that “thumbsucker” is journalism slang for “a lengthy story or opinion piece based on a vast, complex topic; a journalist who writes such articles.“) But the essay goes beyond Kirn’s teenage years, relating a much more recent event in Kirn’s life where he finds himself  living in a group home full of young Mormons in L.A. while he’s working on the film for Up in the Air.  He’d had trouble finding a place to stay, and it turns out his prospective Mormon housemates had read his Wikipedia page and unearthed his history with the church. Kirn comes to reconnect with his former faith, not as an impressionable teenager, but as as 46 year-old divorcée. The experience was surprisingly revelatory. He comes to dub the house “Beverly Zion”:

It dawned on me that the purpose of Beverly Zion was not to seal out Hollywood at all, but to provide a setting for the enjoyment of a mutualistic way of life familiar from childhood homes and churches. Well, good enough: It kept me fed. It kept me company when I wasn’t writing and when [Kirn's girlfriend] Amanda, also a writer, was on assignment. It provided me with a car when mine broke down, with a truck when I bought a used sofa and had to fetch it, with laundry supplies when I ran out of them, and with dog-sitters for Amanda’s poodle when we flew to St. Louis to watch the filming of Up in the Air. It also provided me, thanks to Bobby’s father, a product designer for a Big Three auto company, with an insider’s discount on a new car that saved me a sweet 4,000 bucks. And in repayment for these kindnesses? Nothing. I asked. Just help finish this Jell-O salad.

“I mean it: Are they for real?” Amanda kept asking me. She’d grown up a Roman Catholic in Chicago and felt guilty about accepting favors that she couldn’t instantly return. Beverly Zion soon overwhelmed this attitude.

This is obviously a deeply personal essay, and as such it isn’t the typical GetReligion fodder. Still, this essay does a better job about getting at the truths of the Mormon experience than just about every strictly news article on the church I’ve ever read. The article isn’t uniformly bullish on Mormonism, but Kirn has a gift for promoting understanding even as he’s articulating differences or telling an unflattering truth. That is largely a testimony to Kirn’s skill as a writer. And at at time when many in the media are still reflexively dumping on Mormons for no other reason than they think they can get away with it — I’m looking at you, Bloomberg Businessweek — Kirn’s essay is a much needed corrective and a great example of why it helps to have people writing on religious topics who are intimately familiar with the experiences and practices of believers. It also doesn’t hurt to have someone such as Kirn addressing the topic, such that many readers approach the topic with an open mind. Kirn’s essay has already drawn a lot of praise, to I suspect the reaction would be muted if many of the same observations were made by a writer of lesser skill and reputation.

But however you want to dissect it, in the case of this essay the relationship between the writer, subject matter, and cultural relevance has produced the kind of lightning in a bottle that augurs well for the revamped New Republic. As a journalist who’s an ex-Mormon, I get frequent inquiries into the subject these days. From here on out, anyone inclined to spout off about Mormonism who asks me about it will be directed to read Kirn’s essay, though I can assure them reading it will be more pleasure than punishment.

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  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    I suspect that Mormonism will get increased scrutiny as the days go on. And the underlying question is, “how can such an intelligent man believe such amazingly crazy things.” But, as you alluded to, the social impact of living in Mormon community is powerful stuff. It’s the stuff we all want really — without the magic underwear of course.

  • CarlH

    Thank you, Mark, for your thoughtful reflections on Kirn’s article (even if it isn’t strictly “journalism”).

  • mapman

    My experience has been that the people who ask “how can such an intelligent man believe such amazingly crazy things?” are those who actually think that Mormons believe in “magic underwear.” Not that weirdness has anything to do with truth, anyways (quantum physics being exhibit A; lots more examples here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RealityIsUnrealistic).

    Anyways, I really enjoyed the article. It was thoughtful and fair, which is something that is often missing in the press these days.

  • kadee

    Interesting observation and reflection. Has Mr. Kirn or the author of this piece (Mr. Hemingway) given any serious thought as to why the Mormon Church (LDS) has been so successful in “…communitarian idealism and promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America, with increasingly dire social consequences…” when other contemporary religions have not? An article on what is behind maintaining a culture so powerful would also be of value.

  • Silus Grok

    Speaking of noteworthy essays — here’s a thoughtful piece in the Huffington Post on “magic underwear” (a wildly offensive term, by the by):

    Matthew Bowman: Mormon Temple Garments — They’re Not Magic

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    Mapman…The official term is “Temple Undergarments”
    And the most devout of believers will never part from them — even bathing with one toe stepping on a piece of the fabric.
    Do just a little research into LDS faith and you’ll see things like the eternal populating of celestial planets, the Lamanite curse, the brother of Jesus, and the total fabrication of the first documents. Look at one of their holy, inspired books, “Doctrine and Covenants.” They have the original document that Joseph Smith translated from — and it’s proven that it’s a total fabrication.

  • kadee

    David Rupert…you have no idea what you are talking about. I have been an member of the LDS church all my life. 5th generation Mormon to be exact. Talk about fabrication…the only thing that could be possibly factual here is you exposing yourself as a bigot.

  • sari

    Mark, thank you for bringing Walter Kirn’s writing to our attention. He’s written a beautiful and respectful piece. In my encounters with people who are LDS, they always struck me as being a lot like Jews. Not the theology, but the practice and the sense of responsibility inculcated from a very early age. Even the garments, which seem to serve a function similar to our Biblically mandated (for men) tzitzit (ritual fringes).

    This line, in particular, really spoke to me:

    As for Romney himself…He no more stood for Mormonism than I did, but he was often presumed to stand for it by journalists who knew little about his faith, let alone the culture surrounding it, other than that some Americans distrusted it and certain others despised it outright.

    He captured very well what it’s like to live as a reviled minority. Every individual’s behavior is scrutinized against a stereotypical template. A single misstep, and you become representative of all your coreligionists.

  • cvg

    I like the general strategy taken by the article. It is nice to see a story focusing on practical benefits emerging from a religious tradition rather than just theoretical implications.

    Divorcing theory from practice has always been a beef of mine. Unlike most religious hack pieces, Kirn doesn’t get caught in this superficial trap. Neither does he get caught in the more subtle trap of either critiquing the author’s own idealized views of a practice or nitpicking the greys of large group dynamics.

    Often an outside foil is used to reveal the depth of in-group cultural norms, such as the extent of the taken-for-granted help occuring within Beverly Zion. However, I find this technique often comes across as preachy or, if its really misunderstood norm and you see hidden benefits, like you’ve just drunk some special kool-aid. Kirn’s history and presentation strategy really avoided these problems. Its nice to understand the strengths insiders find within their own traditions and religious cultures.

  • Jerry

    Sari beat me to the comparison between religions and what is mandated for people to wear. A good test for prejudice is to revise the story substituting other religions and ritual garments and see what it sounds like.

  • Tom Johnson

    Walter Kirn’s experience (and maybe “Mark’s”) is not unusual. Growing up “Mormon” as I did, I watched many of my friends peel off and abandon Mormonism in their high-school and college years, but it wasn’t due to any enlightenment that the religion was not true, it was due to their desire to smoke, drink alcohol, use marijuana, and have sex outside marriage. Having suffered all the questions and doubts that other Mormon kids did, and after exploring various other religions, my spiritual enlightenment came only after and because I had resisted all the foregoing temptations. My series of spiritual experiences were personal to me, but undeniable. I have become totally convinced that no one can gain the knowledge of the truthfulness of the “Mormon” religion unless they keep the commandments of Jesus Christ.

  • http://marilynk1946.tripod.com/ Marilyn Kraft

    Finally, some one who at least tries to speak on the LDS way of life without it being an ignorant foaming at the mouth. I think Romney is playing this exactly right. It is political not religious. He may or may not be a “good Mormon” but that is between God and him. I don’t know the man.

    I wish others would get this and take it to heart instead of writing garbage to try to take it to the bank.

  • Phillip C. Smith

    Different individuals have different perspectives on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon). As a believing, active member, I have my own level of understanding.

    I do suggest that if someone wants to try to understand our theology, practices and/or history they consult the authorized representatives of the Church itself, as accessed through lds.org or mormon.org. Most of those who are like myself want others to see us correctly.

    We do appreciate those who provide an accurate, fair representation of our Church.

    Phillip C. Smith, Ph.D.

  • cvg

    Phillip, I wonder if some aspects of a religious tradition aren’t actually better presented by someone on the outside? I think this article suggests a respectful former member may actually be best positioned to speak to a general audience in a way that enables accurate interpretation.

    The difficulty is that many former members have tremendous challenges dissociating their bitter experiences from the strong positive threads that run through any sustainable group level adaptation, like an established religion. Its nice seeing someone that sees both sides of the coin and doesn’t feel the need for self-vindication or clinical catharsis.