When Verna Flake, the heroine of Judith Freeman’s elegaic novel The Chinchilla Farm, regrets the transience of human love, she is mourning not only the infidelity of her husband Leon, who has run off with a beauty queen, but the loss of a world centered on and ordered by the Mormon church. Leon’s defection with Pinky was betrayal
at a depth I thought cruel. He had led my mother to believe (or so she had later told me) that I had been the first to stop wearing the holy underwear, and by doing so, steered us on a wrong course—one he was powerless to abandon or alter, as though the woman, as with Eve, were again to blame, responsible for what in truth was a man’s own complicity.
Verna and Leon had lapsed, with much defiant smoking and drinking, but the central questions in her mind remain spiritual as well as personal:
What if in our own lives it were also possible not only to swear devotion, but to follow through on such a promise? Have things changed so much? Can we still hope to live a long and full life based on a vow, putting our hearts on a deep and unquestioned track of fidelity?
One cannot help being struck by how seldom such questions are asked in modern fiction. Literary subjects undulate like hemlines with the emotional fashions of the capital, distant from vast tracts of land and millions of people whose concerns are quite other. Dramas of the loss of faith no longer have the poignancy they had for the nineteenth century; and, anyway, faith, by definition inaccessible to others and nearly inexpressible, has always been harder to make interesting than the loss of faith.
Verna’s story manages to be about both. Although she has fallen away from the Mormon church, she has not altogether come to terms with the profane outside world. Raised in Utah in a large, devout family, where “everything—everything was tied to the church, it was our life, so there was this strange order to the chaos,” she will exchange Zion for Los Angeles, where “there were more choices in the world than I had imagined. Everything opened up when I left home, and yet, everything was at once lost.”
After Leon leaves her, she drives to LA in her pickup truck, towing a horse trailer he has given her as her share of their possessions. She stays for a while with an old friend, Jolene, and her husband, Vincent, then moves into a shabby apartment and gets a job as a dental receptionist. She is lonely and looks up family connections, including Inez, widow of a dead brother, and Inez’s retarded but agreeable daughter, Christobel, who live with an abusive old man, Jim, from whom they want to escape.
When the marriage of Vincent and Jolene breaks up, Vincent starts spending time with Verna—until she kisses him. Then he protests “I don’t have those feelings,” and stops coming over. (Here the trained 1980s reader will suppose that Vincent is gay.) Eventually Verna drives Inez and Christobel to Mexico, to get away from Jim. Jim follows them, and is accidentally pushed to his death by the morally unaccountable Christobel.
Verna is that rare creature, a reliable female narrator, whose preoccupations are with what she sees and learns about the world instead of with the resolution of her own story, about which she is almost taciturn. She is more articulate and confidential to the reader than she represents herself as being when she talks to the other characters, and with Vincent she is a model of the compliant female listener. Vincent is grandly rhapsodizing about history:
“Already I can see how we’ll have our moment and then we’ll pass, just like those other races and their cultures, those ancient trading centers, the once-flourishing hubs of the world. Do you see that?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m not good at history.”
“Think of it,” he said…
I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about…. I don’t know,” I said again. “I don’t know about any of that.”
Verna stubbornly conceals her own philosophical speculations, a response she has learned, presumably, in the atmosphere of credulity she was raised in, where skepticism was reproved, especially in females. But skepticism is a prerequisite for imaginative literature.
The world Verna Flake finds outside Utah is bleak and derelict, yet she is unafraid of it. She befriends a hitchhiker she later finds sleeping in a park that is so rough she has been warned not to go through it. When she takes off for Mexico she never reflects on the danger or unfamiliarity. Apropos of some childhood experience she has told us: “Luckily we belong to a religion that promises this won’t be THE END, so we face death with courage.” She is speaking ironically, of course, but only half ironically, still drawn to old certitudes. When someone complains to her that Mormons hold themselves apart, she explains by describing the secret temple rituals:
People seem pure with all that white on. All white…except the aprons: the small green apron that each person will be wearing, the shiny satin fig leaf, which restores original innocence, I guess, and turns everyone into Adams and Eves.
How could you not feel exceptional?
Not coincidentally she is reading Faust, and at first pretends not to understand this fable of a bartered soul.
Verna’s concerns are partly universal. Standing on the shore of the Pacific, in an Arnoldian mood, she listens to the long, withdrawing roar of the sea of faith. But some of her concerns are specifically female, conditioned by her upbringing in the tradition of Mormonism’s deeply conservative ideas about women—these doubtless the legacy of the “peculiar institution” of polygamy, a singular quirk in Mormon history that still affects the whole community, although it was firmly and pragmatically repealed by a revelation to the Church president a hundred years ago.
Verna is pitying and censorious about the passivity and credulity of women, and resentful of their inferior status.
According to what Mormons believe, Leon could have seven wives in heaven, whereas I could have only one husband. It sounds complicated, but it’s really very simple. It’s just a kind of heavenly law, which allows men more of everything.
This contrasts with “the terrible tragedy of some women’s lives, how they don’t ever see the possibility of having something for themselves but only imagine themselves endlessly serving somebody, offering up the cheapest sort of cheer, and all the while denying their pain.” There is something out of time here. Female resignation has been dismissed, though not in real life, at least as a fashionable subject of fiction, which in its movement from George Eliot to, say, Erica Jong has gone on to other formulations of women’s situation. The real world, of course, is something else.
In Verna Flake’s fictional world, her bleak fable of loss and confusion changes course with an ending one is unprepared for either by current literary fashion, principles of realism, or internal logic. Only in generic terms does it make sense, and even seem correct: Verna and Vincent are married. Moreover, he turns out to be a sensitive, rich, artistic man with a Mercedes Benz convertible—a veritable savior. It is no accident that Pinky, the woman Verna’s first husband ran off with, was a runnerup beauty queen, icon of female submissiveness to male fantasy, and very much the Mormon ideal. Although Verna professes to despise what Pinky represents, the author’s reward to Verna in part affirms these values: marriage, return to Utah, and reintegration into her family, and—what was missing in her life with Leon—a baby. And yet she is not without a sense of having made a fateful bargain. She has come, she says, to understand Faust. In a sort of reverse pastoral, she has journeyed from innocence (Utah) to knowledge (the city) back to innocence (motherhood, which in fiction always restores innocence). If a religious mind can impose an optimistic pattern on the unpromising materials of reality, it is an alternative given to authors too.
The fury of Islam about The Satanic Verses provided an exotic example of the disappointments awaiting religious people and religious societies in a secular and pluralistic world, but many examples can also be found, evidently, in the intermountain West. A number of books and news stories in the past year concerning crimes committed by and/or on Mormons provide extreme realworld correlatives of the emotional situations in The Chinchilla Farm. The rapes of perhaps a hundred or more women in the Mormon community of Lovell, by their Baptist doctor, who for years had convinced them that he was merely doing something medical to them behind their shrouded knees, would seem comic and incredible if the combination of passivity, ignorance, and credulity it testifies to were not itself so horrible. These were sexually ignorant women, trained to trustful acceptance of authority, who hadn’t liked to doubt, or to think that the doctor would do anything wrong, or to tell their husbands or make trouble, so that it took years for suspicion to gather in the collective mind with enough force to bring him to justice. According to Jack Olsen’s tactful and repulsively fascinating account in “Doc”: The Rape of the Town of Lovell, even after his conviction, the town remained divided, with many still unable to believe in Dr. Story’s guilt.
The strange bomb murders in Salt Lake City were of course more horrible still, and a stronger example of the rage and misery that can accompany loss of faith, for here, though there were human victims, the target was the Mormon church itself, and the murderer a disappointed apostate who had set out to alter its very history.
Writing in these pages in 1985, the Yale historian David Brion Davis noted “two important and recently discovered letters” which together “confirm[ed] the view that [Joseph] Smith was deeply immersed in the folk magic of the early nineteenth century.”1 This would challenge Smith’s own account of how he had found golden tablets containing the Book of Mormon, According to Smith, an angel appeared to him and showed him where to find the tablets. The most important of the two letters made “no mention of angels or other divine figures but refers instead to a spirit ‘that transfigured himself from a white salamander,’ ” and thus became known as the Salamander letter, of central importance to Mormon theological history if true, and embarrassing to received accounts because it implied that Mormonism had its origins in Smith’s involvement with popular folk magic practiced during this time, a claim denied by the Church.
These letters, which had originally been suspected by some fundamentalist Mormons to be fakes, had been subjected to careful scrutiny by experts and, it seemed to Professor Davis and others, had been proved to be “almost certainly authentic.” Professor Davis was writing in August 1985. In October the original purchaser of one of the letters, who had then donated it to the Church, was murdered by a nail-encrusted pipe bomb. Some people at first suspected that the crime could be the work of Mormon fanatics, perhaps even members of the Church security forces bent on punishing those who had anything to do with the Salamander letter.
Two things compelled this suspicion: a tradition of violent fanatacism at the fringe of the bourgeois orderliness of Mormon life in the Western states; and the vulnerability of the Mormon church to historical revision. The Mormon church is at the mercy of history in a way the ancient religions are not. While no one expects at this date to find evidence that Moses really didn’t find any tablets, the pertinent events in Mormon history were so recent that things might easily turn up that could alter or refute cherished beliefs.
The first murder was followed by a second, of the wife of another prominent Mormon, for whom the bomb had probably been intended. Then a third bomb went off accidentally, injuring a man who was soon suspected of having concocted it. This was Mark Hofmann, the Salt Lake City dealer in rare documents who had sold the Salamander letter to the man he later killed. Hofmann would eventually be convicted of the two murders, and it would emerge that he was an unusually accomplished forger.
Hofmann, in an interesting account by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, and in another by Linda Sillitoe, was a model Mormon boy whose childhood, not unlike Verna Flake’s, was bound up in Church activities, family solidarity, and, in his case, the shadow of polygamy in the form of a polygamous grandmother whose painful secret the family did not like to discuss. Mormons, unlike Australians, who celebrate their convict ancestors, are disapproving of and reticent about this aspect of their history.2
If there are crimes peculiar to the rootless and alienated, perhaps there are crimes peculiar to the apostate deeply enmeshed in his roots. Rewriting history, like writing fiction, requires a liberating skepticism. In fact, credulity is often explicitly punished in imaginative fiction, which is itself generated, perhaps, when reality becomes unacceptable. Verna was lucky to have the privileged insulation of a literary sensibility or, one might say, a less direct and more socially acceptable way of rewriting history than Mark Hofmann had.
It developed that Hofmann had forged hundreds of documents relating to Mormon history, most of them twisting that history, and had sold many of them directly to the Church or to wealthy Utah businessmen who piously donated them to the Church, which in turn placed them beyond reach in its most secret archives. Hofmann, in debt and undoubtedly unbalanced, could be seen as just a crazy criminal, but the pointed direction, the special bitterness, of his crime against the structures of an edifice that had ceased to sustain him, reminds one in a way of Verna Flake’s gentler pain.
Naifeh and Smith cast a cold eye on the paranoid style and autocratic methods of the Mormon church’s upper echelon, which mostly refused to cooperate with the prosecution of Hofmann, claiming immunities usually reserved for national security. Like many other religions the Mormon church appears to be attracted to guns, nationhood, and divinely sanctioned lawbreaking. With a security division run by former FBI agents, it was prepared for enemies. Naifeh and Smith quote the defensive response of a high Church official, Boyd K. Packer, to the bomb incidents: “When you are at war,…and we are, security is crucial.”
So was secrecy. Initially, the manner in which Hofmann’s case was prosecuted reflected the ambivalence the Mormon community felt about the possibility that a good Mormon boy could be irreclaimably evil, its wish to preserve him alive to sort out the errors he had seeded into their theological history, and the embarrassment the Church felt about having been taken in. Was the “Blessing” genuine, wherein Joseph Smith designates his son Joseph Smith III, not Brigham Young, as his true successor? Or the letter that says that Alvin Smith, not Joseph, found the tablets first? Hofmann was allowed to plea bargain and never went on trial, on the understanding that in return for a guilty plea he would be sentenced as though for manslaughter. (In the end, however, a renegade Board of Pardons enforced a life sentence.) Naifeh and Smith quote an observer’s explanation for the relaxed attitude of the prosecution: “Hey…you don’t rise in this state embarrassing the Mormon Church or making them look bad.”
Unlike Naifeh and Smith, Linda Sillitoe, coauthor of another, and in some ways more informed, book on the Hofmann case, Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders, and author of a new collection of short stories, Windows on the Sea, writes from within the Mormon fold. Though she is more indulgent of Church organization and practices (and probably more knowledgeable), Sillitoe too illumines a darker side of Mormonism—the petty tyrannies, rigidity and lack of charity, the rivalries that creep into all hierarchies, the internal spying, and the generally subservient role women are expected to play.
Taken together the stories constitute an interesting report on the state of daily life among the faithful, and especially a glimpse into a world of unreconstructed femininity. The reader will be struck by a sense of anachronism. The concerns of the women characters are perfectly contemporary—they are single parents or career women or disappointed in love—but the context is more like the early 1950s, before they might have read Betty Friedan, or as if they lived somewhere else instead of in a kind of Shangri-La of the Wasatch, from which, upon leaving, Verna Flake aged in a day. Here are characters from small Utah towns who think even Salt Lake City is a drug-ridden sink of vice. They have baby names like Marci or Luci or Janeece, and their anxieties have to do with love or baking. Their many acts of kindness—taking food or offering counsel—are counterbalanced by the implicit female competitiveness that seems to characterize societies in which women’s status depends on men. They constantly and sometimes cruelly assess one another’s hair and figures, and console themselves that their roles as wives and housekeepers are secretly powerful, or as useful as men’s.
Shauna’s streaky hair was perfectly coifed. Gina knew her own auburn curls looked fine, tumbling over the aqua fabric, but she wanted to run to the mirror to check.
Ken could kid her all he wanted about her becoming bishop’s counselor. She’d never hoped to hold that kind of position herself, and had no quarrel with the men and their priesthood. All her life she had watched her mother and other women run what she considered the real priorities in religious life.
Sillitoe’s women characters have not yet been struck with resentment that their lives are in the control of often sanctimonious and unattractive male Church functionaries, or that some local man who by reason of his position within the Church could, as in these stories, excommunicate an unwed mother, or humiliate and criticize working women because they aren’t married. But they have noticed, a necessary preliminary to the questions that will follow, as they did for Verna Flake. It is significant that in the story that comes closest to expressing reservations about the methods and values of the Church, the questions are put into the mind of a male character, as if a female author could not quite attribute these dangerous perceptions to a female character. At the weekly testimonial Marc, who has been having a crisis of confidence about his vocation in the Church, hears his wife anxiously proclaim her domesticity, and it is he who sees her unhappiness and sacrifice:
“I love to cook,” Kris was saying tightly. “I love playing with my children. I’m very lucky to have them.”
What is she doing? Marc asked himself. Then he realized she was reciting her credentials, her passport for safe passage. She didn’t mention her college degree or her dancing experience.
But, it is emphasized, Marc is not losing faith itself, just finding a more direct relation to God. A curious detail—in many of the stories, the characters recount their dreams, and discuss them as if these communications from the unconscious had special force in the lives of people trapped in a waking world of social control, peer pressure, and a conformity that limits them while giving them security.
It was the loss of innocent trust in a good world, even more than physical violation, that ruined many lives in Lovell, Wyoming. The people in Sillitoe’s stories show concern for others, charity, politeness, they examine themselves for moral faults—in all a little reminiscent of the Sunday School stories of our childhood, or of the innocence of a Victorian world like Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford, where having a good character is valued. Though she pokes a little fun at it, Verna Flake is also proud of the good Mormon character. When she and her mother are involved in a car accident with a couple from Wisconsin, Verna’s mother loves the chance “to demonstrate the good qualities of Mormons to some outsiders—qualities like friendliness, for instance, and forgiveness.” Wallace Stegner, raised among Mormons, notes in his essay in Growing up Western3 both the Mormon interest in history and in good character, and the value placed on transmitting moral training—something the rest of society, apparently divided over what constitutes a good character, often seems to have given up trying to do:
We discovered the Mormon Institution known as Mutual, for Mutual Improvement Association, which every Tuesday evening, in every ward house in Zion, provided everything from Boy Scout meetings and Bible classes to basketball leagues and teenage dances. There may have been a covert proselytizing motive in the welcome that the wards extended to strange gentile kids, but there was a lot of plain warmth and goodwill, too. I have never ceased to be grateful for what they gave us when what they gave mattered a great deal, and though I was never tempted to adopt their beliefs, I could never write about them, when it came to that, except as a friend. Their obsession with their history, too, made me aware that I had grown up entirely with-out history, and set me on the trail to construct some for myself.
The writers of the jacket copy both for The Chinchilla Farm and for Freeman’s earlier collection of stories, Family Attractions, use the word “exotic” to refer to Mormon life, but of course Mormonism is not exotic, it is indigenous—is perhaps the only indigenous American religion. Beginning in the burned-over district of upstate New York at a time of general religious fervor, moving with the westward expansion, Mormon history recapitulates American history, only it is a few decades behind and changes more slowly. The opposition of the Mormon church to the ERA, for instance, shows a conservative view of women’s role but not one different from ideas of women’s role defined by the larger society thirty or forty years ago, when many women might have seen their lives as Verna sees the lives of the self-sacrificing women she knows. In a way that should give them pause, Mormons can see in what the rest of American society is becoming what may await them, too. That they have chosen to resist is not therefore very surprising. Whether it is possible is another question.
There are more Mormons in the US than Episcopalians, and the membership in the Church is rapidly growing, with almost seven million in 1988, and more than 200,000 conversions in that year. They are peculiarly situated to profit from the national experience, and moreover possess two advantages—a respect for history that the rest of society seems to lack, and a mechanism for change, for the Prophet/President can receive revelations—that could lead them to make the same mistakes as the rest of society or help to avert them, especially in the case of women. The elderly patriarchs can no doubt slow down the rate of change in women’s attitudes by exhortations to obedience and praise of motherhood, but to judge from these books they are not likely to succeed. Exhortation rarely works very well against human nature. It would be nice if God would reveal to Ezra Taft Benson (now the Prophet) a definition of “moral values” that has not been tarnished by the Reagan/Moral Majority use of the term to confirm exploitation and selfishness, and then a way of preserving them that all of society could benefit from.
Despite Verna Flake’s own partial disaffection (she is still sipping wine at the end of her story), the world she leaves at the beginning is the one she finally affirms. But the tone of the novel, its mournful note of gentle irony, seems to arise from her understanding, based on her look at the world outside Utah, that American history is not on the side of “qualities like friendliness…and forgiveness,” whatever may be the power of conservative institutions like the Mormon Church to preserve these qualities among its membership; while the darker side of Mormonism seems to entangle Mormons in our collective destiny.
March 15, 1990
“Secrets of the Mormons,” The New York Review, August 15, 1985. ↩
Many sources, including Naifeh and Smith, confirm that more than thirty thousand people still live in polygamy, mostly in southern Utah and Arizona. Not only is the practice ongoing, it seems to be tolerated by the larger community, perhaps because at one time or another it touched most Mormon families, or perhaps they just don’t see it as that odd. If something can be said for it, one legacy of polygamy seems to be a more straightforward and cheerful, though conservative, attitude to sex among Mormons than one finds in religions dominated by ideas of hellfire or the virtues of celibacy. One wonders whether some of the initial successes of Smith’s cause might be owed to his straightforward appeal to the Sultanic side of his confreres. ↩
Clarus Backes, ed., Growing Up Western (Knopf, 1989). ↩