The other night I had the great privilege of hearing Dallas Jenkins, creator of The Chosen, which I now remember I said a long time ago I would review on this blog at some point and then I didn't, do a Q&A session with Mormon Studies Chair Patrick Mason at USU. He was, as always, charming and funny and spiritually supercharged. He talked about giving his career to God after one of the biggest failures of his life, and how God has guided him since then. It's very clear from his stories and from the most recent results of his career that this guidance is powerful and frequent. I thought to ask myself on this occasion, what does "the gift of the Holy Ghost" include that he doesn't already have? I was taught that my church has exclusive access to this gift, which is bestowed at baptism; that the Holy Ghost can and does speak to people outside the church, but only we can have it as our constant companion. And in fairness, I don't know of any other religion that places nearly such an emphasis on personal two-way communication with God as we do. Evangelical Christianity, which Dallas calls his spiritual home, places far more emphasis on the authority of the Bible and even asserts that feelings are an unreliable guide to truth. Yet I would wager that he has a stronger and deeper relationship with God than the overwhelming majority of Latter-day Saints. And he's one of the people that Brad Wilcox thinks is only "playing church" because he doesn't "have God's permission."
He talked about how focusing on Jesus can bring down religious barriers, and how people of different denominations can disagree even about significant things, refuse to compromise on their own beliefs, and still be friends and collaborators. I wish his fanbase would get the memo. Last I checked, evangelicals in the The Chosen group on Facebook were constantly posting about how Latter-day Saints and/or Catholics aren't really Christians, and it was very annoying. I got more defensive of the Catholics because life is too short to care what idiots say about my church. I would call out Catholic-bashers and conclude with "Sincerely, not a Catholic." I also mentioned more than once that this holier-than-thou gatekeeping bullcrap just makes Christians in general look bad to everyone else, and is a contributing factor to the modern secular world's lack of respect for them. That didn't fix the problem, but it made some people really mad because they knew it was true. Anyway - focusing on Jesus. There can never be too much focus on Jesus. I came away from the event convinced as ever by this godly man that whatever else I may or may not believe at any given time, I believe in Jesus.
Dallas talked about some things from a writing perspective that of course interested me as a writer even though I've heard him talk about them before. For example, he portrays even Jesus' enemies as nuanced and complicated people, which is both realistic and good storytelling. We see why some of the Jewish leaders opposed Jesus. As Dallas puts it, Shmuel didn't just wake up one morning, twirl his mustache, and ask himself how he could make Jesus' life difficult. Judas, who's introduced in the last episode of Season Two, seems to just be a regular decent guy, as he must have been at one point. This show skillfully avoids the dogmatic us vs. them persecution complex approach that makes the first two God's Not Dead movies unwatchable (and makes my own church experience insufferable sometimes). Very few people do evil things just for the sake of being evil. Even Putin has realistic motivation for his evil deeds. I'm not saying lust for power is a good motivation, but it's a little different than waking up one morning, twirling his mustache, and asking himself how many war crimes he can commit just for fun. I thought about this principle again the following evening when I got Zoombombed for the first time.
Dr. Solimar Otero of Indiana University was giving the Fife Folklore Honor Lecture entitled "Stories of Our Lives - Material Culture, Memory, and Narrative on the Bóveda," and I tuned in because I was bored and lonely. I half paid attention and half read a book. Half an hour into the lecture, someone screenshared pornography, and I cycled through six thoughts in about six seconds.
1. Ew, gross.
2. This is the most embarrassing moment of someone's life.
3. Ew, gross.
4. Wait, is my computer doing that somehow? If it is, I'll have to kill myself.
5. Ew, gross.
6. Wait, this is no accident.
My realization was immediately confirmed as someone started saying the n-word over and over and over again, and at least three people pasted it in the chat several dozen times each, rapid-fire. It was a blitzkrieg, a far more efficient invasion than Putin's. Someone said "If you make me the cohost, I can get rid of them," but for all I know he was one of them. It was very difficult to think under this barrage, but I tried to focus and come up with something to say that would make these Zoombombers understand that their lives were collectively more pathetic and less valuable than a mosquito's, and I failed to do so before the meeting closed. I couldn't just say any old rude or angry thing because that would play right into their hands. They wanted to get reactions out of people. And in the days since, I've grappled with the curious fact that this appears to be the entire extent of their motivation. The only reason I can think of for grown adults to ruin a complete stranger's Zoom lecture with pornography and racial slurs is that they just get a thrill out of being turds for the sake of being turds. They weren't well-written villains at all. And perhaps the greatest mystery of the universe, I thought to myself, is what Jesus saw in them that was worth dying for.
Lately I feel like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is actively trying to push me out of it by doubling down on a facile, myopic, and demonstrably incorrect view of itself and the restored gospel that I cannot accept without shutting my brain off. For example, as part of recent high-level efforts to staunch the hemorrhaging of members in Europe, Russell M. Nelson's wife Wendy said in a devotional, "My testimony is that prophets of God always speak the truth" and "For this new year let's put an exclamation mark after every statement from a prophet, and a question mark after everything else we read, see, or hear." Okay, so this paraphrase about putting exclamation points instead of question marks after prophetic statements was also shared by Neil L. Anderson in General Conference a couple years ago, and I didn't find it helpful then either. It rather obtusely sidesteps the legitimate issue of prophetic fallability. But by saying that "prophets of God always speak the truth," Sister Nelson goes a step further and claims that prophetic fallability doesn't even exist. There's no way to spin that statement to make it accurate. If prophets of God always spoke the truth, they wouldn't contradict each other (or themselves) and the Church wouldn't have to formally disavow all the racist things that Brigham Young and others said. Later she asks members to question everything they read, see or hear except the prophet. Um, yikes. And she thinks statements like this will prevent loss of faith?
This brings me, then, to a discussion of Brad Wilcox's recent controversial fireside in Alpine, Utah. I know it's been discussed to death, and I'm sure he feels bad enough and I have no desire to rub it in further, but it's not like he'll ever read my blog anyway, and I can't not discuss it after it caused me so much angst this week that I could have lived without.
Everyone who's met Brother Wilcox says he's very nice. I've been aware of him since I was ten years old or so, when my parents outsourced most of my sex education to a book he wrote, and I've been in Utah long enough to hear him speak twice - at the Logan Institute's weekly Religion in Life devotional and years later to my YSA stake. On both those occasions, he said almost verbatim the same things about black people and women that have aroused such controversy this time. This time, however, his talk was structured around trying to staunch the hemorrhaging of young people. He said at the beginning, "Maybe some people can leave some churches and they don’t miss that much. But you leave this church, you miss everything. You miss everything. Let’s talk about the blessings of the gospel that you can only find here." And he reiterated at the end, "I hope you realize that if you walk away from this religion, you lose everything. You lose everything. Everything that truly matters most. So stay put. Stay strong. Look for every possible reason there is to stay. And there is to share the truths we have that cannot be found elsewhere." And in between as he went through each of his topics - Godhead, Only True Church, Spirit, Priesthood, Everyone, and Living Prophets (GOSPEL) - he kept stressing the things that people will lose if they leave the Church.
It would be unfair to call his approach entirely fear-based. He does focus on the positives that the Church has to offer. But at the same time, he is trying to make people afraid to lose those positives. I think he could have eliminated that side of things altogether. For me and many others, it has the opposite effect of encouraging us to stay. It makes me think, "Why do you have to beg and cajole me not to leave instead of making me want to stay?" His assertions that people who leave lose everything are both false and perplexing in light of his acknowledgement elsewhere in the talk that people of other faiths have truth and access to the Spirit. One of my closest friends right now is a former Latter-day Saint who believes that when she left the Church, she kept all the true and good parts and simply added to them. (Why does that sound familiar?) I discussed this talk with her and she said it's too bad because she likes Brad Wilcox. She's one of the kindest people I know, she rarely stops smiling, and I have holy envy for her expansive and inclusive spirituality. I think I'm more committed to an ideal of objective truth than she is, but nonetheless, I want to do what she does and what Joseph Smith said to do: "We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons." This expansive and inclusive view has always been integral to the gospel, but it's always been in tension with the "only true church" thing. And Brother Wilcox didn't get off to a promising start in that section of his talk either.
"If you haven’t yet run into somebody who gets a little uptight when you say 'This is the only true Church,' then you will run into somebody who will get uptight because they don’t like that. They don’t think that sounds very tolerant. And in today’s world, tolerance trumps all. So by hang, we better be tolerant." Now, I believe in objective truth and I don't believe all religions can be equally true, so I'm not opposed to this concept on principle, but yes, tolerance ought to compel us to be very tactful about how we share it, and comprising .02% of the world's population (or less than half that if you only count active members) ought to give us a little humility in our interactions with the other 99.98%. And I think Brother Wilcox gets that. He said, "But we’re not screaming 'We’re number one,' saying we’re better than everybody else. We’re saying 'We’re the only true Church' in a spirit of invitation." Then he used an analogy from Boyd K. Packer: "Truth is like a piano keyboard; some churches play a few notes, some churches play several octaves, but we’re the only church that has a whole piano." I think this analogy still misses the mark. I think it drastically undervalues the amount of truth and goodness that other faiths (not just Christian churches) have, and oversells how much we have. If we have a whole piano, why do we need continuing revelation or an ongoing Restoration? Why should I even think God is limited to one instrument? And then Brother Wilcox went and made it needlessly derisive: "You walk away from the Church, say goodbye to the whole piano. Have fun playing Chopsticks the rest of your life. I don’t want to play Chopsticks the rest of my life." And I personally don't want to hear only piano music for the rest of my life.
In the section on Spirit he said some nicer and more nuanced things, but in the section on priesthood - which has been at the center of the controversy - he went right back to being derisive. He opened with, "How many of you used to play school? Okay, good. I’m glad to see those hands up. How many of you used to play Church? I’m glad to see a few hands go up. My kids played Church. They’d pull out the stuffed animals, they’d put them on the couch, they’d sing the song, they’d do the talk, [I] got a little nervous when my daughter started blessing the sacrament, but they played church. And I used to think, 'Oh, that’s so cute. It’s so cute.' But now I’m older, and I realized it wasn’t just cute. It’s actually what most people in the world are doing. They’re playing Church. They’re sincere, they want it to count, but they don’t have the authority. They don’t have God’s permission. So that the things they do really count on Earth and in eternity. Man, I want what I’m doing to count. And to be able to have that, we have to have the priesthood. We have to have that." Wow. I hope I don't have to explain why this is an unwarranted slap in the face to billions of good and sincere people. I look at these people and think about how proud God is of their goodness and sincerity, and how much He blesses them and works through them. Brother Wilcox and many, many other Latter-day Saints look at these people and think how sad it is that they're all wrong. To the extent that this attitude wins out in the Church, it is not a spiritually healthy place for me.
Moving right along: "Now, sadly, you live in a time where a lot of people get uptight about priesthood issues. It’s one of the most glorious things we have in the church, and yet people want to sit and fight about it and get uptight about it. Now, I don’t mean to oversimplify a complex issue, but I sure think we make it a little harder than it needs to be. 'How come the blacks didn’t get the priesthood until 1978? What’s up with that, Brother Wilcox? What? Brigham Young was a jerk? Members of the Church were prejudiced?' Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of saying, 'Why did the Blacks have to wait until 1978?', maybe what we should be asking is 'Why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829?' 1,829 years they waited. And why did the Gentiles have to wait until after the Jews? And why did everybody in the House of Israel except the tribe of Levi have to wait until - when you look at it like that, then instead of trying to feel like you have to figure out God’s timeline, we can just be grateful. Grateful right down to our socks that the blacks received the priesthood in ’78. Grateful, right down to our socks that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had the priest to restore to them in 1829. Maybe we should just feel grateful."
This is one of the things he said both times I heard him speak in Logan. I didn't recognize it as racist, because he didn't say anything about black people being inferior or cursed or less valiant, but I did have mixed feelings about it. Brigham Young was a complex person and your mileage may vary on how much of a jerk he was, but yes, he was prejudiced, and so were other leaders and members of the Church. That's very well-documented. It's not up for debate. What's bizarre here is that by mentioning Brigham Young, Brother Wilcox seems to show an awareness that he, not Joseph Smith, instituted the priesthood ban. So Brother Wilcox seems to be aware, as most people are nowadays, that black people did get the priesthood well before 1978, and then it was taken away from them. What does that mean for his ideas about God's timeline? Nonetheless - and maybe this makes me racist, I don't know, but when I heard him say this I thought his other questions were legitimate points. Not answers to the issue by any means, but additional food for thought. I had figured out long before his talks that there's very little evidence the priesthood ban had anything to do with God, and a lot of evidence that it had to do with white men being racist, but in order to maintain my faith I had to believe that God had some greater non-racist purpose for allowing this mistake. He could have stopped it. I don't buy the argument that stopping it would have thwarted Brigham Young's agency. Brigham Young wanted to do what God wanted him to do, and would have appreciated the correction. In any case, I failed to grasp just how insensitive Brother Wilcox's dismissal of racism was, and obviously so did he.
He continued: "'Yeah, but, Brother Wilcox, how come the girls don’t have the priesthood? I mean, that’s what I want to know. How come the girls don’t have the priesthood? What’s up with that?' Girls, you’re going to hear a lot of people say a lot of things, and many of them say them with very angry voices, but just because somebody’s angry doesn’t necessarily make him or her right. Just because somebody’s loud doesn’t necessarily make him or her right. I was at a professional conference for BYU. I had a name tag. It said, 'Brad Wilcox, Brigham Young University'. Some lady walked up to me that I didn’t even know, she sees my name tag. And she’s like, 'Oh... WHY DON’T YOU GIVE WOMEN THE PRIESTHOOD?' Just like that! And I said, 'Good to meet you, too.' And then I asked, 'What’s the priesthood?' and she said, '...Well, I don’t know, but I think the women should have it.' Seriously? 'I don’t know, but the women should have it?' What’s malaria? 'I don’t know, but the women should have it.' I mean, I’m going to let her voice, that’s very shallow, drown out my testimony just because she’s loud? No way." One thing that doesn't come across in a transcript is the faces and voices Brother Wilcox did when citing people like this anonymous woman to make them look and sound stupid. I highly doubt that in real life her eyes bugged out and she shouted just like that. It's pretty juvenile and uncalled for, but he was speaking to young people and trying to be funny, and obviously it's worked for him until now.
"Girls, listen closely, because I don’t know that you’ll ever have somebody explain it quite this point blank again. You have access to every priesthood blessing. There is not one priesthood blessing that you are denied. And you serve with priesthood authority. When you are set apart in a class presidency or you’re set apart as a missionary or in any calling in the church, you serve with priesthood authority. You will go to temples where you will be endowed with priesthood power, and you will dress in priesthood robes. 'How come the girls don’t have the priesthood?' What the heck are they talking about? Your life exudes priesthood; it’s surrounded by priesthood; it emanates priesthood." When church meetings were canceled during the early months of the pandemic, many women without priesthood-holding men in their households found it difficult or impossible to receive the sacrament. They did not "have access to every priesthood blessing."
"'Well, how come women don’t have priesthood keys?' Well, how come most men in the church don’t have priesthood keys? Priesthood keys are an organizational structure. It’s how God’s house is a house of order. And so not everybody needs them; just those who are part of this organizational structure. So how many men in a ward have priesthood keys? The Spirit is whispering... The Spirit is whispering... Four! You knew it! You knew it. I’m so proud of you.... So girls, don’t mix keys up with influence. We’re certainly not saying the only ones who have influence in the church are the Bishop, the Elder’s Quorum President, the Teacher’s Quorum President, and the Deacon’s Quorum President. Surely there are others at all levels of the Church who have great influence without having keys. So don’t mix those up; don’t think that that’s something that’s needed to be able to make a difference." Theoretically true, but how much influence can women really have when they're superfluous to the organizational structure and listening to them in meetings is optional? A congregation needs a certain number of tithepaying Melchizedek priesthood holders to exist. It doesn't need a Relief Society. Speaking of which, I've mentioned before how both of the Relief Society general presidency counselors in 1995 attested that the male church leaders never consulted them about the Family Proclamation or even told them it was in the works. Chieko Okazaki remarked, "Sometimes I think they get so busy that they forget that we are there." How's that for influence?
"What else don’t women have? Priesthood ordination. They’re not ordained to the priesthood. 'Well, how come they’re not ordained to the priesthood?' Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking, 'Why don’t they need to be.' Girls, how many of you have ever entered a temple to perform ordinances? Raise your hands high. Raise them high. Do you realize that you have done something that no man on this Earth can do? There is not a male on this planet who can enter a temple to perform ordinances without being ordained, and yet you just waltz right in. You just walk right in. So what is it that sisters are bringing with them from a premortal life that men are trying to learn through ordination? Maybe that’s the question that ought to be keeping us up at night." I guess I accepted this as a legitimate point the first two times I heard it because he didn't exactly come out and say "Women need the priesthood because they're better than men," which I've had a problem with for a long time. Now that I've had my feminist awakening, I can see how patronizing it is regardless. Abby Hansen explained it better than I could over at the Exponent blog:
"We have to do everything else that a man does to go to the temple. I don’t get a free pass on paying tithing, drinking tea, or skipping my church meetings. I still have to answer temple recommend questions every two years and be interviewed by my male priesthood leaders where I tell them what kind of underwear I wear each day. I have to cross every single hurdle that men have to cross – except for the one that lets me bless my sick children in the middle of the night, preside in a meeting, or see women with authority, independence and final decision making ability. For most of the history of the temple, women (including myself) didn’t make covenants directly with God like the men did, and our entire destiny and eternal potential is a complete mystery because Heavenly Mother is a hidden secret – but because we don’t have to have priesthood ordination to go into the temple, somehow that’s supposed to make it all okay? Are men picked on and persecuted because they get to possess the actual power of the God of the entire universe while girls and women just have to do everything else exactly the same, only minus the power and authority? Oh, my. It must be so hard to be a man."
Brother Wilcox did say one thing the first time I heard him that he seems to have subsequently dropped from his repertoire. He gave it as his opinion, and he's entitled to his opinions, but I thought it was a silly opinion and I was glad to see it go. It was a thought on why the Book of Mormon only mentions six women by name (half of whom are from the Bible). "You know what's happened to Mary, the mother of Jesus?" She's revered by three billion people? "Her name is a swear word!" Oh, yeah, I guess I have also heard her name used as a swear word twice in my life. Actually, a much better example to support his opinion would have been Eve, who's long been blamed for all the problems in the world and regarded as ipso facto proof of female inferiority. But the whole idea that women were kept out of the Book of Mormon to protect them struck me as absurd. How many people outside the Church could even name one Book of Mormon character who isn't also in the Bible? Why, I wondered, can't we just admit that the Nephites were sexist like every other culture in the history of the world? I don't know why he stopped saying that, but I assume he realized it didn't make sense, and I respect that.
[ADDENDUM: I'm keeping in the above rhetorical question about sexist cultures because it's just about word-for-word what I thought at the time, but I will pass along this feedback from a friend: "I was perturbed when you mentioned all other cultures in the world are sexist. I don't know how much you know about Hinduism, but we worship goddesses and have been for the last 5000 years (well before the feminist movement). We elected women leaders to run our country on multiple occasions. We're not perfect by any means and there is room for constant improvement but I wanted to make sure you were privy to that knowledge in case you might need it in the future sometime. Other than that I loved your article. Thank you for writing and sharing it."]
Now again, I'm not interested in piling on Brad Wilcox and I'm sure he's a great person, but I hope everyone in church leadership is getting the message loud and clear: THIS APPROACH TO KEEPING PEOPLE IN THE CHURCH WILL NOT WORK. I would have hoped that would be obvious by now.
Much of the Church's current rhetoric feels to me like five steps backward after some initial progress in being candid about difficult issues and shedding toxic cultural baggage. But there was one good thing to come out of Brother Wilcox's talk, and that was his apology on Facebook: "My dear friends, I made a serious mistake last night, and I am truly sorry. The illustration I attempted to use about the timing of the revelation on the priesthood for Black members was wrong. I’ve reviewed what I said and I recognize that what I hoped to express about trusting God’s timing did NOT come through as I intended. To those I offended, especially my dear Black friends, I offer my sincere apologies, and ask for your forgiveness. I am committed to do better." Now, many have questioned the sincerity of his apology for saying the same thing he's said several times before, and pointed out that it doesn't mention the other offensive aspects of his talk, but I see it as a big deal because church leaders never publicly apologize for anything. I don't suggest for a moment that they owe an apology every time people are upset about something they said, but Brad Wilcox is hardly the first one to screw up and he won't be the last. I hope this action on his part will set a precedent and open a new chapter of much-needed institutional humility.
Last week some guys from my ward were bragging about how many guys they've kissed and the smaller numbers of girls they've kissed and trying to guess how many guys some girls in the ward have kissed. Their guesses were way off. One girl had kissed zero guys, and I asked if she was waiting until she's over the altar, and she got huffy and people laughed and I thought No, wait, I was just surprised, I was just curious, I wasn't trying to be mean this time. I would never tease about such a potentially sensitive subject. I also had to say my number, and the number was five, and then I figured that's as good a reason as any to write this post that's been sitting in my drafts for twenty-one months. These are those five. Not that the number itself is particularly impressive, but the stories behind it sure are a lot less so.
Mary was at least in fourth grade, maybe sixth, when I was in kindergarten. We rode the same school bus. She had an equally attractive sister in my class, but I was far more interested in older women thanks to the sister missionaries who used to put me on their laps and tickle me. Bullies had not yet destroyed my confidence or turned me into an introvert, so every afternoon when she got off the bus I yelled, "Bye Mary, I love you!" And then one day some older boys thought it would be funny to restrain her so I could kiss her. Nobody taught me about consent when I was five years old, okay? I'm sorry. At least I only kissed her on the wrist. It was the easiest part to reach as she tried to get away. Ugh, I'm going to hell.
For a couple years before they moved from New York to Utah, my family often hung out with the Davis family. Their daughter Natalie was probably twice my age. She had a twin sister, but I knew which was which and I knew which one I wanted. She also had a sister my age, but see my previous comment about missionaries, and also I thought her sister my age was annoying. All of us kids slept on the Davises' trampoline one night, and Natalie told us a creepy/humorous story about a creepy voice that said "I gotcha, where I wantcha, and now I'm gonna eatcha," and her doing that voice gave me a mild case of vorarephilia before I came to my senses. Long story short, one day we were at a Primary activity at a park somewhere and I decided to make my move. Natalie was sitting and talking to a friend, which enabled me to reach her cheek with my lips.
Natalie: "It's okay, we're related."
Yeah, so I had missed the discussion where our families had found out that her grandfather was my mom's grandfather's brother, or something like that, I don't remember. It was something distant enough that we still could have gotten married, but c'est la vie.
Even though she was a few years younger, I danced with Kristin at a school dance one evening and decided for whatever reason that I wanted to kiss her, but by this time I was mature enough to at least take into account the possibility that she didn't want me to kiss her, so after stressing about it a little I compromised by kissing the top of her head as she walked away. She giggled and kept walking. That was probably some time before I asked her to prom and she couldn't go because she was grounded. It was quite a while before she reached out on Facebook, having ignored me for years, and gave me her sob stories and asked for money and came up with excuse after excuse for why she couldn't pay me back when she said she would and needed more money. Long story short, she ruined my life for a long time and by the end owed me more than six thousand dollars (every penny of which, surprise surprise, she still owes me). She said she thought to ask me for help because she remembered that I was "nice" in high school. I wish I had been mean to her like everyone else.
USU has a tradition called True Aggie Night where you stand on a big letter A next to the building with another big letter A on top during a full moon and you kiss a True Aggie to become a True Aggie. I accomplished this during my first week of college ever. I just showed up by myself and got lucky. As I loitered in the crowd, Natalie Hinton asked me something like, "Did you go to Skyview High School?" And I said something like, "No. Are you a True Aggie? Do you want to kiss me?" (I now know that during the first week of school, the requirement for one party to be a True Aggie is waived, but oh well, at least I covered my bases.) And I stressed about it a little, but it was over really fast. I knew her name because she signed a little card attesting what she had done to me. I scanned this card once upon a time but I can't find the scan now, and the card was destroyed in a washing machine, leaving no more evidence for this story than any of my others. We became Facebook friends and she was in my anthropology class a year later but I never talked to her again and we aren't Facebook friends anymore.
Some Black Girl
I swear on the holy books of every religion in the world that this is true. Once I had a roommate who had a woman spend the night, and after a few weeks I realized she wasn't going to leave. The landlord didn't care. I don't know if she paid rent. I know she didn't pitch in for utilities, and my roommate flipped out on me when I suggested it. Anyway, at some point she somehow got it into her head that I should kiss her "so that you can say you've kissed a black girl, and I can say I've kissed a white guy." My roommate did not find that logic convincing. They argued about it in front of me, with her being like "Come here" and him being like "Don't you dare" and me wondering when Allen Funt was going to jump out of the couch. She had to compromise, and brought in one of her black girl friends to kiss me instead. She filmed it. I'm not in touch with her and I've never seen the video, so there's no more evidence for this story than any of my others. Afterward her friend said, "You're a good kisser." I thought, I have almost zero experience; you don't have to lie to make me feel good.
A Gay Friend
I almost forgot about this one. I guess I have to count it. I'll keep him anonymous since he isn't out to his family. On my birthday he told me he was interested in me, and that he knew he probably wasn't my type, but he'd like to kiss me, and when I didn't say anything for a moment he took that as permission. It wasn't, but whatever. Karma. Later he apologized for making my birthday about himself and asked why I let him do it.
Where, oh where does the time go? Friday and Saturday marked the two-year anniversary of the worst day of my life (which encompassed an entire sleepless night). I'm not going to explain it again. I wrote about it at the time in a blog post which is still there if anyone's interested, but which I don't recommend because it's somewhat incoherent. I was still reeling from shock and confusion and anger, and I jumped around chronologically several times. But it was useful for recording quotes and details while they were still fresh, which has helped me with subsequent accounts. The most definitive one, and the one which I do recommend to anyone interested, is an essay I wrote for class last year called Things That Rhyme with "Elise." Though it doesn't include every possible detail, it is much better-written overall. It left a big impact on my classmates and my professor. Actually, because it was so long, I split it into two parts and submitted them separately instead of writing two essays. And the first part had just a bit of foreshadowing of what I like to think of as the greatest plot twist since (spoiler alert) "No, I am your father." I still laugh a little to myself when I think of how my professor began her feedback letter to the second part.
I have such a sick sense of humor. I mean, I felt really bad about this plot twist, though not as bad as I did about living through it. Everyone was so invested in the story, thought it was so sweet and so cute. I felt like I was preparing to shoot a puppy as it looked up at me with eyes full of love and trust. But to continue:
Yes, there is some mention of race in the essay even though the worst day of my life had nothing to do with race, because I wanted to acknowledge that larger conversation and show my awareness that even when I am misunderstood and mistreated for being different, I maintain some degree of white privilege. There is zero doubt in my mind that my interactions with the police and hospital staff would have gone even worse if I was black. And as much as Officer Nelson can go fuck himself, I'm not accusing him of conscious racial prejudice. But he was very obviously prejudiced against me because of my mental illness, and it's also self-evident that white cops in the US are conditioned to perceive and treat black people as more threatening, while white healthcare workers seem to believe they have different biology altogether. We saw this, for example, with the cops who assaulted a neurodivergent black man named Elijah McClain for "looking sketchy," then claimed he had exhibited "superhuman strength" and the fictitious medical condition of "excited delirium" (both often used by police to justify brutality). We saw this with the paramedics who injected him with ketamine without attempting to talk to him and overestimated his weight by eighty pounds. Those cops and paramedics should be publicly executed just like they publicly executed him. So yeah, I wanted to recognize my privilege of not getting murdered for existing while black. It would have been very tonedeaf not to do so.
I couldn't have asked for more understanding than I got from my professor and classmates. It was kind of intimidating, in the era of #metoo and #believewomen, in a predominantly female class in the hotbed of liberalism that is a college English department, to assert that two women falsely accused me of some form of sexual misconduct. (In saying that, I don't mean to suggest that I have it worse than the women who are actual victims and still don't get taken as seriously as they need or deserve. USU is currently being sued, and its police chief Earl Morris was recently forced to resign, for that very reason.) I am grateful that everyone believed me and empathized with me. I don't take that trust lightly. There was one part of the essay that I'd been tempted to gloss over because it put me in a less positive light, but I realized that if a classmate from my undergraduate non-fiction course (with the same professor) could write an essay about abusing her husband, I could admit to being less than perfect too. And then only one person even commented on that part in their feedback.
Toward the end of my essay, I didn't have room to explore all the introspection and gossip and recovery that filled the months after the worst day of my life, and in particular the process of reconciling what I thought I knew of Calise's kindness and maturity with her very unkind and immature action, so I tried to summarize it. I tried to explain why, to the best of my knowledge, Calise and Talease did what they did. I didn't want to cast them as one-dimensional villains when in real life I know them to be complicated people, and I've forgiven them and I didn't want anybody to hate them. (Maybe someday I'll be able to say the same about Officer Nelson.) But my professor and classmates didn't think that worked. They said Calise and Talease already came across as complicated, and that the end of the essay needed to stay focused on me and not them. So I changed that. In my first blog post about them, even though I did hate them at the time, I kept them anonymous (unlike Officer Nelson) to avoid any appearance of vindictiveness. But after a while I stopped keeping them anonymous because I hope that someday they'll notice what I've written about them and get the side of the story that they never asked for and then barred me from sharing. Is that a socially acceptable thing to do? No, and I don't care. If people are going to abuse me no matter what I do then I'm going to do what I want.
I've written a little prayer/poem that goes like so:
Father, forgive Talease, for she is delusional.
Father, forgive Calise, for she is naive.
Father, forgive Officer Nelson, for he is stupid and poorly trained.
Father, thank you for giving the emergency room staff at Logan Regional Hospital what they deserve. [Note for future historians: this is a reference to the COVID-19 pandemic that made healthcare workers' lives a living hell.]
Father, forgive me, for I am autistic.
Crisis struck last weekend. Prudence, which it runs out I am capable of possessing once in a while, dictates that for the time being I keep it to myself apart from a half dozen friends and all of my Fiction Writing classmates who deserved an excuse for why my second story is garbage compared to the first. For a few moments after seeing the news I never wanted to see, I tried to wrap my brain around the fact that my life and my faith were about to shatter beyond repair. Then I ran into my bedroom to pray but discovered that I couldn't speak. I tried to pray silently but discovered that I couldn't think. So my prayer was just Help me, help me, help me, help me, help me.
I reached out to this guy in the ward that I know a little bit for a priesthood blessing. I didn't want to be too much of a burden on the guys I usually ask. While waiting for him to get back to me and then waiting for him to arrive, I cooked a frozen pizza and force-fed myself half of it, despite my complete lack of appetite, because I was starving. I offered the rest to him when he arrived, and he said it would be a good idea to make himself eat, and he appeared to have an even harder time doing so than I did. He wasn't doing well. He asked if he could stick around for a while after the blessing so he didn't have to be home alone. He asked if I've ever had questions about my faith, and I outlined the most recent one in very vague terms. I didn't want to tell him about my situation because I just wanted comfort from the blessing; I didn't want to open the channels for advice that I wasn't ready to accept. And he gave me the shortest blessing I've ever gotten and I appreciated that. He cried afterward. I think it helped him more than me. So that was cool.
I invited him to accompany me to Come Follow Me with people from the ward. While there, I went through mood swings and wasn't in hell the entire time. I sat there for half an hour while two girls and four guys discussed the proper care and washing of different kinds of hair, a topic that I found altogether uninteresting but still better than being home alone, and then as I was poised to go be home alone again some others arrived very late and we played Werewolf. I threw myself into it with gusto. When I figured out that my in-game lover was a werewolf, I protected her with as much zeal as I would a real-life lover who murdered people. When others falsely accused and killed me, I was only upset that it would lead to her death as well. I can be selfless like that.
I didn't look forward to bedtime because past experience had given me some idea of what I was in for. I'd gotten the obligatory blessing, and I would pray, and I would get sufficiently calm and peaceful to fall asleep, and I would wake up an hour or two later in a cold sweat with my heart doing its best impression of the ungodly screaming over the bridge of Rammstein's creepy and inappropriate song "Mein Teil", and there would be no more calm or peace or sleeping for the remainder of the night. Well, I did wake up and fail to get back to sleep until the sun rose, but the rest didn't happen. I didn't feel good by any means, but I felt all right. I soon came to the realization that God was shielding me from the worst of the pain. And He continued to shield me throughout the week, and I thanked Him and prayed more and tried harder and got better. Wednesday morning I woke up from a nightmare that ruined most of my day, Thursday morning I woke up from a nightmare that ruined the next half hour, and Friday morning I woke up from a nightmare that I was able to put out of my mind right away.
It's not like I'd never thought to pray for comfort before. I'd just rarely noticed any of this magnitude, no matter how hard I pleaded. I don't know what's so different this time, if the nature of the situation has made me more desperate or more deserving or what. I do know that whatever suffering remains is a part of life that I shouldn't try to avoid or expect to be exempted from. Now I feel like I'm in a good place where I haven't stopped hoping for and believing in one specific outcome based on God's previous communications to me no matter how unlikely it looks at the moment, but I'm also patient and trying to be open to any outcome and the necessary understanding that will come with it. I know, I hate having to be so vague too. I'm annoying myself.
One thing I've consciously done to enhance this effect is listen to a playlist I started nearly two years ago, which has taken on ever greater significance. Sometimes, like in the mornings when I wake up feeling like a dead battery and vulnerable to all manner of negative emotions, songs like "Head Above Water" and "Echoes of Andromeda" and "Boasting" have returned to my head.
I canceled my Tuesday morning classes so I wouldn't have to get out of bed until I felt like it, which greatly disappointed my students, I bet.
My ex-neighbor and dear friend Steve drove up from Salt Lake on Monday evening. We talked a little about what happened, but mostly watched Disney+. We watched Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and then some of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons - "Bart Sells His Soul", "Miracle on Evergreen Terrace", "The Springfield Files", "Lisa the Skeptic", "Bart on the Road", and possibly another that I forget at the moment. He went home around noon on Tuesday, which I later realized was his birthday. He gave up a third of his birthday for me. And I couldn't believe it was two years to the day since we went to see Jojo Rabbit, aka one of the finest films ever made. Where does the time go?
My classmate and colleague Kylie also offered to hang out, so after our class on Tuesday I went up to ask if she was still good to hang out that evening. As soon as I started to speak, she put her hand on mine, and I thought about how USU's sexual misconduct prevention trainings told us not to touch someone without permission, even though we know full well that's not how neurotypical people live their lives. And I thought about my old friend Bracelets who used to touch me on the shoulder a lot until she saw the Temple Grandin movie and decided I didn't want to be touched. And I thought about a girl in my ward who came up to give the closing prayer after I had spoken in sacrament meeting, and touched my knee as she walked by. I think, in fairness, that this isn't just about neurotypicals vs. autistics but about women vs. men. Because women are raised to be more affectionate and nurturing, I think they can touch men's hands or shoulders or knees without these automatically coming across as romantic or sexualized gestures, whereas the reverse is not true.
I remembered when a friend in high school was crying about her grandmother dying, and I needed to comfort her but I didn't know what to do but I didn't want her to think I didn't care so I finally admitted, "I'm trying to decide if I should put my arm around you or not," and that made her laugh through her tears a little so I guess it was better than just putting my arm around her. Speaking of dead grandmothers, I was at the funeral of mine a couple months ago, seated right next to my grandfather, who howled with grief a couple of times. If ever there were appropriate contexts to touch someone without permission, these were them. And it was still hard, it still rebelled against my conditioning, to put my hand on his wrist. And then I felt awkward. Should I take it off now? What if he wants to move his arm? I'm not really letting him move his arm. I envied a little Kylie's ability to put her hand on mine all casual-like just because she knew I was having a rough time.
I couldn't think of anything more exciting to do than watch a movie, but fortunately for me, Kylie hasn't seen any Star Wars except for Rogue One and both of SNL's Undercover Bosses skits with Kylo Ren, so I picked the original Star Wars movie to guarantee that I would get invited back at least eight more times. She observed that Darth Vader is a jerk for kidnapping his own daughter, that stormtroopers don't aim very well, and that the use of computers in warfare was a pretty new idea in 1977 and that's probably why the movie was so popular. After the next movie, she reiterated that Darth Vader is a jerk for strangling his own men, and also reflected on the lack of women and racial diversity that's been somewhat fixed in the more recent movies. She said Princess Leia is an interesting character - specifically, it's interesting that she's a strong character but she still has to be sexualized. I hate myself for using that word twice in one post. Anyway, Kylie wasn't judging; she said the movies were fair for their time. I should have apologized in advance for what happens to Leia in the next one.
She made me watch the SNL skits, and I made her watch the Robot Chicken sketch that introduced the world to Gary the stormtrooper.
I also talked to my old friend Eliana on the phone a couple times, and the first conversation mostly turned into her complaining about the Church. Kylie has left the Church too, but we have nuanced and mutually respectful discussions about it, and I look forward to reading her folklore paper about how patriarchal blessings might have roots in the Smith family's fascination with folk magic. When Eliana left a couple years ago she still believed in the Book of Mormon and stuff but didn't trust the leadership because of their past mistakes and current LGBTQ policies. Now she sees nothing good, wholesome, or true in any of it. I didn't try to argue and I hoped that my listening allowed her to let off some steam. But I kind of wanted to ask, Can you live with yourself knowing that I'm still in the Church because of you? I used to tell her about all kinds of issues that bothered my testimony, and she was so chill about all of it and confident that the Church was where God wanted her to be. She was my anchor many times. You never can tell what the future holds, can you? Anyway, we don't talk much anymore but I appreciate that she's still there for me.
For Thanksgiving, I was going to visit a nearby great aunt whom I shamefully never visit because I'm always welcome but that means I have to kind of invite myself at any given time, but she got sick. So I went to my bishop's house. Although I haven't always cast him in the most flattering light, he is a great guy. I wish I could say the same about my last bishop. Some others from the ward also showed up, and someone else in the ward had a friend who wasn't in the ward but was going to come, but he went to the wrong house so we started without him. He showed up fifteen minutes in and guess what? He was one of my students. So he saw me without a mask on and sat right next to me and that's kind of funny, isn't it? I hope he didn't take it as a personal jab when I said that I like teaching college students because if they don't want to be there, they don't show up.
Today I tried really hard to pay attention in church and be open to the Spirit, and I did pretty well. I didn't even close myself off when a couple of people in Elders' Quorum said a couple of things about gender roles that made me want to stab my eyes out.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.