10 February 2010

The Review I Promised On Facebook, Even Though A Lot Of It Is About Me

Often reviews become more about the reviewer than about what is being reviewed, possibly because a review is based in the individual’s response to the work. This review of The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker is one of those. I can’t find a way to separate my thoughts about the book from my thoughts about me. So I apologize in advance, since I’m sure you came looking for my opinions about the book and are probably going to end up with a long, self-referential collection of random thoughts.

First and foremost, Ms. Baker is an excellent storyteller. If you haven’t heard them before, go straight to her website and listen to “The Fortune Cookie Story” and “Babies Buying Babies.” The former had me laughing so hard I cried and I fully intend on making my future students read and/or listen to the latter. In fact, I think every person in the United States should read/listen to “Babies Buying Babies” but I won’t tell you why, since that would kind of ruin the impact of the story. Anyway, storytelling is one of Ms. Baker’s strengths and it is apparent in her memoir. She weaves together past and present, childhood and adulthood together quite effectively. She engages the reader (i.e. me) with a voice that is simultaneously familiar and unique. If you are looking for a collection of well-crafted stories, you’ll enjoy this book.

I enjoyed this book, but it also made me a little uneasy. It took me a while to pinpoint the source, partly because I always experience a bit of general discomfort when reading memoirs – in the entering and exploring of a different life and way of thinking. More than that, however, was the fact that she was discussing our shared religion very openly and frankly on a national stage. I am a little sensitive about the pressure that comes with being part of the LDS faith. Not overly sensitive – I generally dismiss pop culture references and actually liked the storyline with the LDS character on House (although I sincerely wish that writers would do actual research about the religion and the Church before writing). But I do have issues with individuals who talk about being LDS and then act in a way that is completely opposite to the doctrines of the religion, like that girl on The Real World lo those many years ago (was it really 10? How time flies!). Ms. Baker’s memoir falls somewhere in between. I can respect that someone struggles with his or her faith and with aspects of a religion’s cultural traditions that can, at times, seem oppressive. But I also can’t deny there isn’t a part of me that wishes Ms. Baker hadn’t been quite so open and frank about her struggle. Obviously I don’t want to promote a false image of perfection or mindless compliance, but there is that moment of cringing every so often when I think about how a reader unfamiliar with our religion and faith will interpret what he or she is reading. Mostly because I don’t know how I’m interpreting what I’m reading. There is plenty to consider in Ms. Baker’s book, but here is what struck me the most.

Possibility v. the Unknown
Early in the book, Ms. Baker says she enjoys the feeling of unlimited possibility, the liminal moment before possibility becomes hard reality and wishes it could last. My exact thought was, “Is she insane?” For me, that moment is my own personal version of Hell and any extension of that moment is torturous. What Ms. Baker calls unlimited possibility I call the excruciating unknown. Me, I like knowing. The unknown is filled in, by my overactive (and apparently pessimistic) imagination, with an increasingly disturbing array of possible worst-case scenarios that seem increasingly probable as the time spent in the unknown stretches. This is why I still don’t sleep the night before the first day of every term, even after a cumulative 19.5 years of schooling. It is why every non-routine day is fraught with unwarranted anxiety and why I am a control freak. Ms. Baker is the precise opposite. She prefers the excitement of not knowing, of the adventure and thrill of something not quite real yet. She likes spontaneous decisions, unpremeditated action, and the ability to say “Yes!” to anything and everything. Something I see as a major part of her struggle with faith, religion, and being LDS in general.

Faith and Choice
Ms. Baker outlines her struggles with religion and faith starting at an early age. She waited to get baptized because she didn’t want to do something just because everyone her age was doing it and she was being told she should. She waited, she contemplated, she decided for herself. I think that is admirable in an 8 year-old. However, in reading subsequent stories I found myself wondering if maybe it wasn’t so much that she struggled with her faith, but that she struggled with being told she had to choose. Faith is a choice and inherent in making a choice is that in choosing one limits one’s possibilities. Even making good choices limits possibility. Inherent in every “Yes” that Ms. Baker enjoys saying, there is an infinite number of “Nos.” I get the feeling that is a reality she doesn’t want to face, leading her to face each choice as a brand new one, something you can’t always do in light of previous decisions, at least not if you want to stay sane. Remaking the same decision, or reconsidering the evidence each and every time you are presented with a choice is maddening. It leads to questioning and reexamining every previous choice made in a never-ending loop. Ms. Baker’s main question seems to be whether she wants to follow her faith, a question that inevitably leads to questioning if she even has it. Faith is simultaneously a thing, an action, and a choice but under constant examination it becomes static, stuck in one state at a time, much like light – it behaves as both a particle and a wave but you can’t observe it being both at once. You can only observe it being one or the other (I hope I have that right – any physicist readers out there?) and in the act of observation it becomes less than it actually is. Sometimes, for faith to get stronger, you have to stop examining it and just let it exist in all three states in your life as you move forward in the path you already chose.

Being a Singleton in a Married Church
I understand that staying in that chosen path can be hard when it occasionally makes you feel like an outsider. I’m 31 and unmarried and a member of a religion that stresses the absolute importance of marriage and family. Not just because it is good but because it is necessary for eternal salvation, for eternal joy, for perfection. Being the person stuck on the outside of that can be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually draining. I get that. I’ve attended Young Single Adult wards for over a decade – I know the crazy that goes on in them. Any woman who has spent anytime in one will recognize the girls Ms. Baker call “the Amber Cunninghams” (to any Bridget Jones fans who are reading, they are the YSA ward equivalent of Rebecca the Jellyfish with the added weapon of ‘spiritual superiority’). But all of that combined doesn’t make me question my faith. Being single isn’t something I need to fix STAT, regardless of how I fix it. I remember having a conversation, at least 4 years ago, with 2 dear friends. We have been friends since junior high, so I hope they don’t mind me sharing this story (not that I’ll be naming names or anything). Anyway, one friend asked if I and our other friend would choose to stay single if the only opportunity we had to get married was to a man not of our faith, and therefore ineligible for a temple marriage. We both said we would opt to stay single. She thought differently, and we were all equally adamant about our reasons for our separate decisions (ironically she married, in the temple, shortly thereafter while we remain single). I made that decision a long time ago and that means, regardless of how hard it is to be LDS and single at my age, I’m going to stay that way if what I want doesn’t come along. Yes, it will be difficult and occasionally lonely but I know what I want and I know what will make me happy. I can’t constantly be re-evaluating, no matter what changes occur.

One of the things that seems to have brought Ms. Baker’s struggle to a head is her dramatic weight loss. In her memoir she discusses her body issues in detail. I think most women would find something familiar in Ms. Baker’s attempt to both accept and control how her body looks. In doing so, she eventually lost 80 lbs., going from a size 18/20 to a size 4/6. I have no idea what this is like. I have always been on the large side and I have the body image issues to go with it (and by using that phrase ‘on the large side’ instead of ‘overweight’ or ‘unhealthy’ it would appear I don’t want to face the reality of it). I haven’t ever been able to take the initiative like Ms. Baker and work adamantly toward change. I don’t know if I could. What I do know is that it would totally mess with my sense if identity, as it did for Ms. Baker. What would it suddenly be like to operate in that world? I would feel like an interloper and a fraud. It would also be exhilarating, like infiltrating enemy territory. Shopping would no longer be an activity saved for days of exceptional mental well-being, but rather a celebration. Ms. Baker tangentially discusses this, but the real discussion of the impact of her weight-loss is focused on her relationships with members of the opposite sex.

Ms. Baker’s interactions with members of the opposite sex didn’t seem to really take off until after her weight loss had begun. She describes it as a new and exciting frontier and experiments with it with abandon. These are the stories that really got my eyebrow raised, mostly because her exhilaration at this new life, coupled with her life-long love of possibility and the word yes, lead her to make choices I don’t understand and don’t know that I would ever make. I can’t say for certain since a) I have never lost 80 lbs. and b) I have never, ever been in a relationship or even been close to being so. In the 15 years since I turned 16, I have been on only a handful of dates, most of which occurred in high school. I am the girl who stayed home on Friday nights, the one who watched her roommates fall in and out of relationships, who listened to their ups and downs, who attended dozens of weddings and whose heart broke a little each time. That is who I am. So I guess I understand how sudden interest by attractive, and previously unattainable, members of the opposite sex could inspire one to giddily accept all that attention. What I don’t understand is how easily her acceptance of that attention equates to varying levels of physical intimacy (but then again I don’t have any experience with that either).

It becomes readily apparent early in the book that sex is a major contributor to Ms. Baker’s struggle with her faith. If you aren’t comfortable with frank and candid discussions about sex you definitely aren't going to be comfortable with this book. The main conflict in the memoir is between what Ms. Baker has believed all her life and what she really wants to do, which is have a relationship with the man she feels is her soul mate; a man who happens to be an atheist. He doesn’t share Ms. Baker’s belief in God, in waiting for marriage to have sex, or in the idea that such a relationship could work. He does respect her and her beliefs enough to take himself out of the equation, to act as the voice of reason when Ms. Baker is the most torn and the least sure about what exactly she believes. He seems to be aware that sex isn’t the only thing keeping them apart, something she didn’t seem to be aware of for most of their story. I kind of despaired of her ever grasping that point until the final pages of the book. There seemed to be a glimmer of hope at the end; that maybe Ms. Baker was starting to get a clearer, less confused vision of her life. But then I read an article she wrote for Glamour (I wouldn't follow that link if you are in any way uncomfortable with this part of the discussion), apparently as part of the promotion of the book, which seemed to suggest that maybe she hadn't. Maybe it is because I'm a bit prudish, maybe it is a corollary of my calling as a Relief Society President, or maybe it is something I just know, but the Law of Chastity is a) not just about sex and b) not to be trifled with. And what I read makes me worry that maybe Ms. Baker hasn't quite grasped that completely.

I really wanted to like this book and I really wanted to like Ms. Baker. There are few funny, authentic voices out there with which single, LDS girls of a certain age can identify. Ultimately, I liked the book, with reservations, but I spent the majority of the second half of it wanting to shake Ms. Baker. That diminished somewhat in those final pages of self-examination. What was apparent to me, as the reader, for most of the book (and what appeared to becoming apparent to Ms. Baker by the end) was that she wanted to live two lives, to have her faith and experience everything she was offered. The world doesn’t work that way. At some point you have to grow up and choose. Regardless of which life you choose, you have to leave the other life behind. Accepting that fact is part of maturing, making sacrifices (no matter what you are sacrificing) is part of growing up. No one likes it, but we have to do it. I really hope Ms. Baker finds a way to make that choice, to make it willingly and whole-heartedly and without reservation. Basically I hope she finds a way to be happy. And I hope when she does, she writes another book about it because even if I don’t agree with her half the time it is some of the the most thought-provoking writing I’ve read in a while.


panini said...

Great review!! I love how thorough you were!! I read this book because you brought it up two days ago, and after I went to her website and laughed my head off over the skits and stories, I was totally intrigued! Also, being slightly cynical about "goody-goody" Mormons, I was attracted to her forthright descriptions.

That said, she admitted to lying to people about every three pages (!) (even to the reader), and that totally turned off my ability to relate to her, and her need to dramatize everything for attention. All of her problems seemed to arise out of #1. her insecurity and #2. her lying.

Here's the review I wrote after finishing the book last night:

"I wanted to like her so much. And this book was a really fast read and generally interesting, but it left me constantly feeling sorry for Elna. Sorry that she's so messed up and confused, even about some Mormon doctrine -- and non-doctrinal things ... like, how did she ever get the idea that Mormons don't wear lingerie? WEIRD.

This poor girl is so insecure and such a compulsive liar that I didn't even believe half of the stories she told. She lies to everyone, admittedly, and doesn't realize she has a problem. She calls it saying "yes" to life. Sad. She's so insecure and desperate to be liked. She threw that desperation at the reader throughout the book, in essence projecting: "I'll joke about my weird faith if you'll just like me. I'll even throw it away. I'll marry someone for attention. I'll have sex for attention. I'll kiss a 12-year-old boy because I'm that needy (when she was 16)." It broke my heart but also made me want to shake her: wake her up to some security and self-confidence. That's the reason why she can't commit to anyone. She can't even commit to herself.

I won't be reading a 2nd book by her. She's said her insecure piece, and I can't imagine her coming up with something else as substantive. Here I'm thinking about the Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert or the Julie & Julia author Julie Powell. Elna's book is similar to those (not nearly as good) and both Gilbert and Powell had terrible 2nd books. Can an author write two worthwhile memoirs? As Gilbert and Powell didn't, I'm not even going to bother with Baker, though I wish her the best of luck. Maybe if she goes to therapy to deal with her compulsive lying she could keep someone in her life. Like for starters, herself."

Kristen Gardiner said...

Wow, Christen. I really appreciate your review and your willingness to tie elements from your own life into those in the book. I like how comfortable you seem to be with yourself. It's nice.
I'm still not sure if I'll read it because I tend to be fairly judgmental of people who air religious dirty laundry on a national scale. It makes me uncomfortable; I hate that people will read that and make a general assumption that this one example accurately represents all of Mormondom.
Anyway, I appreciate your review. Thanks again :)

Science Teacher Mommy said...

"Regardless of which life you choose, you have to leave the other life behind."

I have been thinking of this so much lately. (I even did a post on it a few weeks ago.)

In the book Prince Caspian, Aslan tells Lucy, after a terrible mistake, that she can never know what might have been, but only what will be. You make choices and then you have to live with the consequences, making the best of what you have picked. And ultimately, NOT choosing is also a choice.

esperanza said...

Interesting - I think I am going to borrow panini's copy and read it myself! I have had a few friends read it and say various things about it.