Joanna Brooks, Ralph Hancock, and The Book of Mormon Girl

If you follow the bloggernacle, by this time, you are likely familiar with Ralph Hancock’s recent two-part article at Meridian Magazine (parts one and two) about Joanna Brooks’ memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl. (See discussions here, here, and here.) I know I’m a bit late to the party, but I found this essay seriously troubling, and I wanted to add my two cents. There is a lot to consider, but I want to focus on a few things I found particularly problematic: Hancock’s condescending tone and generally dismissive attitude toward Brooks, and his approach to issues of gender and feminism.

The genre of this article is not entirely clear. It is a rather meandering essay, which on the face of it, appears to be a book review. But while it does indeed have characteristics of a book review, Hancock himself explains that this is not his primary aim. Rather, he hopes to warn Latter-day Saints who might be deceived by the worldview of Brooks, who “proposes a beguiling vision of Mormonism as reconciled to a liberal secular culture.” “I think it is important,” he says, “to warn other Latter-day Saints who may be confused by her political agenda against confusing love and kindness with acceptance of an extreme political agenda and against re-interpreting Mormonism to suit this agenda.”1

In addition, Hancock construes himself as a sort of father-figure who is in a position to exhort Brooks to mend her ways. His paternalism thus extends both to an imagined audience of readers who might be beguiled by Brooks, and to Brooks herself. He does have positive things to say about her: he describes the narrative as (at least on the one hand) “a touching and intimate account of one girl’s, and then one woman’s, deeply personal experience,”; he describes her as “courageous,” and says that some of her accounts are “moving,” and after seeing an interview with her, notes her “easy charm, generous personality, and winning sense of humor.” But these sorts of positive statements are undermined by the paternalistic tone which pervades his writing. His view of his relation to her is made quite explicit at one point:

I couldn’t help seeing her for a moment from her parent’s standpoint (they being no doubt just a few years older than I, she just older than my oldest son), and understanding their love for their bright and fierce and vulnerable Joanna, and joining their hopes and prayers on her behalf.

This view of himself as a kind of father-figure perhaps explains his condescending tone in other places. For example, he admonishes her:

I do not want Joanna to give up. I do not want her to give up on her quest to reconcile her personal understanding of life’s meaning with the LDS heritage she does not want to forsake. I do, wonder, though, whether this quest might not bring her more peace and more growth if she learned to bracket her political agenda for a while, to distinguish her commitments as a certain kind of feminist and homosexual rights activist from her understanding of “a loving, kind, and powerful God.”

Or, in response to her telling God, “have your way with me,” Hancock writes,

This is powerful indeed, and the ‘orthodox’ LDS reader can only second this prayer, for Joanna’s sake as well as for that of her husband, her parents, and her children – we can only join this prayer that God will have his way with Joanna, and that she will let him.

Another example:

The gospel is most certainly is big enough, but only, I would caution Sister Brooks, on condition that we not insist that He accept our authorship of our own stories of consciously choosing a life of dignity and fulfillment, but rather that we accept his invitation to make our story a part of His, to freely accept his Plan for reaching “dignity and fulfillment.”

If you do not see the problem in these kinds of statements, using language like “I would caution [you],” asserting that you will pray for the person about whose work you are writing, and admonishing her that she needs to bracket her political agenda, consider how they would come across if a female scholar took this tone in writing about the work of a prominent male Latter-day Saint. Even the more informal world of Mormon blogs generally has policies against questioning people’s righteousness and exhorting them to do better. As several people noted on the BCC thread, this behavior is incredibly unprofessional.

Near the conclusion of his articles, Hancock explains that he saw this as an “opportunity to learn from an author whose personal experience can supplement my own.” However, he gives little appearance of actually being interested in learning from her experience or her ideas—rather, he repeatedly dismisses them. For example, Brooks describes a simple mantra which she uses as a sort of touchstone: “all are alike unto God; God is a Mother and a Father; Mormon women matter.” In a comment which is strikingly condescending even for Hancock, he describes this as a something “she takes to be a bold little credo.” (Again, if you don’t see anything wrong with this, ask how it would sound if I referred to Hancock’s article as a “bold little essay.”) He then asserts that far from being an assertion which could get you in trouble with the Church, “one would be more likely to get excommunicated for persistently and publicly denying the points of Joanna’s credo.” However, I do not see evidence that this is the case, given that historical justifications for why blacks were not in fact alike unto God did not lead to church discipline for those who held them, nor has a failure to believe in Heavenly Mother, as far as I am aware, gotten anyone into ecclesiastical trouble. By contrast, exploring what the “all are alike unto God” phrase might mean for women, or talking about Heavenly Mother, have in fact landed people in hot water.

This kind of glib dismissal appears again in Hancock’ discussion of events in the early 1990s, including the firings of several BYU professors, and the excommunications of the September Six. Brooks writes how deeply these events affected her, how she felt like she had been declared an enemy of her own church. Hancock magnanimously states that he will “credit Sister Brooks’ report of her own feelings,” but then does his best to discredit her. He dismisses the September Six as people who actually wanted to be excommunicated. He describes her reaction as “melodramatic.” And he simplifies the situation into Brooks being upset merely because “some of her favorite teachers were not retained at BYU, and because some people she liked, or whose writings she liked, were excommunicated.”

I do not wish here to re-hash in depth the debates about the legitimacy of the firings and the excommunications of that time period. In defense of the Church, Hancock emphasizes that as a private organization, it has the right to “determine the qualifications of membership in that association.” I do not disagree. But he here misses the point for several reasons. First of all, the fact that the Church has a right to draw boundary lines does not mean that no one has any right at all to object to any excommunication. But more importantly, Brooks is focusing on the effects of these events. I was at BYU in the early 1990s, and I relate to much of what Brooks describes—she was far from the only one to feel that her own church saw her as the enemy. Whether intentionally or not, these events created a climate of fear among many members of the Church who were sympathetic to things like feminism.2 But once again, Hancock seems unable to take Brooks’ description of her experience seriously.

Hancock’s approach to issues of gender and feminism is also deeply problematic. Brooks reports her observation at a young age that men and women had different roles in the church, and that men had the more prominent ones. “The actual work of being in charge, receiving revelations, and presiding over home and church belonged exclusively to men.” Hancock sounds surprised that Brooks experienced this gender split negatively. But he exhibits no interest in understanding why it might negatively affect women—instead, he immediately proposes some rather vague justifications for the set-up. He turns to the classic refrain: “but men and women are different!” A hypothetical anthropologist would say (he thinks) “that the education and socialization of boys and girls is sexually differentiated in all traditional societies, and that this difference can be seen as answering social and psychological needs related to real sexual differences.”

There are a number of problems with this apologetic. The fact that women have been traditionally subordinate in many societies is not much of a justification for it—there are plenty of “traditional” practices that we now see as questionable. (Would Hancock see women not having the vote or being able to own property, for example, as potentially legitimate because of the different psychological needs of men and women?) Additionally, the problem with going immediately to the “men and women are different” line is that in and of itself it does not account for anything. It’s a leap, in other words, to move from (A) “men and women” are different to (C) “it’s necessary for only men to hold the priesthood, preside, etc.” You need a (B) which explains how the differences asserted in (A) make (C) necessary.

Hancock does propose a possibility: “It may be, that is, that, on the whole, women are more immediately or naturally in touch with the meaning of their womanhood than men are with their manhood, and thus that boys need certain social structures and incentives that differentiate them from girls and women.” This vague statement is not terribly persuasive. (To be honest, I am not even clear as to what it means to be in touch with one’s womanhood or manhood.) The idea that a patriarchal structure is necessary in order for males to develop their identity is not only a debatable point (Hancock cites no evidence), but essentially throws women under the bus in the name of men’s need to be in touch with their manhood. (See also this related discussion on T&S).

Additionally, Hancock here once again fails to allow Brooks to be the authority on her own experience. Her negative experience of gender roles in the church cannot be taken seriously, this essay suggests, because a hypothetical anthropologist might suggest that the set-up was actually a good thing, or because of the possibility that this set-up is necessary for male development.

Another thing that seems to puzzle Hancock is Brooks’ ambivalent relationship to her body. She “evinces no awareness,” he says, “of the distinctive genius of the Restored Gospel concerning the eternal dignity of the body and of practical, temporal endeavors.” But Hancock himself evinces no awareness of the mixed messages that women receive about their bodies in LDS culture. He is quick to chastise her for being “oblivious or tone deaf” to the positive view of the body found in LDS teachings. But he seems oblivious or tone deaf to the complicated relationship to bodiliness in LDS discourse about both modesty (women learn again and again that their bodies are dangerous to men, and must therefore be modestly covered—a discourse which encourages women to distance themselves from their bodies and relate to them as objects of the male gaze), and motherhood. Brooks comments that she was supposed to learn math to balance the family budget, that Home Ec was aimed at the future care of husband and children, and “so too what was important about diet and exercise was not only slimming and reducing, but remembering the future children we hoped to have someday.” Her attitude toward her body is tied up with the Church’s emphasis on motherhood. Additionally, Brooks points out that the bodies of adolescent females have an ambiguous place in Mormonism. “What to do with our bodies?” Brooks asks. “If they were not instruments of priesthood power, and not yet instruments of eternal procreation, what was our purpose?” Rather than engage such questions, Hancock simply cites LDS teachings about how the body is positive, and chastises Brooks for a presumed failure to be sufficiently aware of them. As is the case throughout his essay, he fails to acknowledge any complexities or tensions in the tradition.

When it comes to the subject of feminism, Hancock spends his time attacking straw feminists. He writes,

in my view, however, what generally passes for “feminism” in fact tends to posit the interchangeability of the sexes (“the social construction of gender,” as Joanna’s feminist teachers at BYU would have it) and thus in effect to undermine the distinctive value of womanhood.

It is hard to know where to begin with this statement. First of all, “the social construction of gender” is hardly equivalent to “the interchangeability of the sexes.” In fact, the phrase is somewhat redundant, because the very definition of gender (as opposed to biological sex) is that which is socially constructed. And the accusation that feminism simply asserts that women and men are the same is a caricature of a complex movement.

And even more strikingly, Brooks doesn’t actually talk about “the social construction of gender” in this book (I searched in vain on my Kindle to find the phrase). When she talks about encountering feminism at BYU, she refers to discovering that “historians were publishing books reconstructing the lost worlds of early Mormon women, who, we learned, once commanded priesthood powers and forms of authority lost to women in the modern Mormon church.” She reads Terry Tempest Williams on the “downwinders” in southern Utah who were exposed to radioactive contamination, and Carol Lynn Pearson on Heavenly Mother. She finds a feminist heritage in both early Mormon feminists, as well as more recent ones. She feels connected to her foremothers. It is hard to see how any of this “undermines the distinctive value of womanhood” (which is what Hancock accuses feminism of doing).

But Hancock seems too attached to his caricature of feminism as a conflation of equality and sameness to pay much attention to much else. He describes it as a “tragedy” that at BYU, Brooks does not encounter “a richer understanding of the Gospel and of the great destiny of womanhood and of our male and female bodiliness,” but instead opts for feminism.3 His assumption seems to be that the gospel understanding of womanhood would answer feminist concerns. But as a Mormon feminist, I would note that it is precisely church teachings (or the lack thereof) about “the great destiny of womanhood” which concern me. Is the “great destiny of women” to be in eternal polygamous relationships (a concern raised several times by Brooks)? to be eternally pregnant? to be eternally subordinate and silent, priestesses not to God but to their husbands? The teachings of the church are far from univocally reassuring on this point.

Brooks describes a powerful moment when she encounters 2 Nephi 26:33 and its statement that “all are alike unto God.” Hancock is puzzled that she “reacts as if she is hearing these things for the first time, and that she understands these ‘great unmapped possibilities of Mormonism’ as opposing the ‘dark tones’ of the doctrine she had learned in her youth.”4 Once again, he seems unable to imagine that there might be conflicting teachings and messages about gender in the tradition, or that young women might notice things at church that at least raise questions about whether all are alike unto God.

And while on the one hand, Hancock is puzzled that that Brooks failed to be sufficiently aware of the message of 2 Nephi 26:33 in her younger years, he also thinks that she now takes it too seriously, making it “the single pure source of all religious and moral truth as she understands it.” He never explains, however, how he understands the verse, or why he objects to her read of it. He complains that a feminism “that associates equality with sameness,” is incompatible with the FamProc. But he has not established that Brooks in fact associates equality with sameness. He does have a point, I think, that feminism is likely to raise questions about the FamProc. But he doesn’t seem to be aware that there are diverse and conflicting messages in the LDS tradition. On the face of it, it is not in fact immediately obvious how the “all are alike unto God” notion in Mormonism fits with the gendered expectations laid out in the FamProc.

Near the end of the essay, Hancock writes,

She has hoped that the line from 2 Nephi 26 that ‘all are alike unto God’ might become by itself the touchstone of all religious and political truth, thus making it possible to avoid the choice between, on the one hand, accepting the Lord’s invitation ‘to come unto him and partake of his goodness’ and, on the other, seeing herself as an exceptional ‘liberal intellectual’ and receiving the adulation of so many progressive admirers.

I’ve read through this several times, and I’m not entirely sure I understand what he’s saying. But it sounds like an assertion that Brooks is misusing (in Hancock’s opinion) 2 Nephi 26:33 to (falsely) believe that coming unto God is compatible with being a liberal intellectual. I have to wonder whether being a conservative intellectual is compatible with coming unto God. In any case, I don’t think it’s fair to set up this dichotomy—and I especially find distasteful the suggestion that Brooks is resisting God in order to receive the “adulation of so many progressive admirers.” This sort of personal attack, like so many other digs throughout the essay, reflects very badly on Hancock.

Throughout this essay, Hancock sets himself up as the authority on Mormonism. The repeated subtext is that Brooks’ failing is to lack the superior understanding of the gospel which he understands himself to possess—if Brooks sees things differently, it’s because of her confusion, or her failure to understand. And while he emphasizes that he bears her no ill will, he seems to have a hard time taking Brooks seriously. He dismisses her experiences, and caricatures her positions. He accuses her of advocating an “extreme” political agenda, but except for disagreeing with her about Prop 8, he does not explain what agenda this is. He critiques her for viewing the church through a feminist lens, but admits that he has his own agenda in reading her book—he is reading it through the lens of looking for dangerous ideas. If his concern is with what he calls “Mormon Lite,” I suspect that he could have written a much stronger essay focused just on that—the mixture of a kind of  book review, a patronizing concern for Brooks, and some vague hand-waving in the direction of why he disagrees with her without much development of his own position, does not make for a very coherent or persuasive read.

Nonetheless, I have to thank Hancock, because thanks to reading his review, I bought Brooks’ book. And I’m glad that I did. I don’t agree with her about everything, but I really enjoyed her writing. It actually left me feeling more positive about being Mormon, and more appreciative of my Mormon heritage.

  1. And in a rather odd aside, he explains that he is going after Brooks even though he “might have profited more from advancing my own professional work in political philosophy.” This focus on warning people about Brooks (both here and in other places) at the expense of his own professional development comes across as a bit obsessive. []
  2. Part of the problem, I think, was the lack of clarity about exactly what had precipitated the excommunications. When you don’t know where the line is, it creates a climate of uncertainty. []
  3. And like many, he jumps to the conclusion that one problem is that womanhood is not being praised enough. “Can parents and Church leaders and teachers do more to praise womanhood in its full dimensions?” he asks. “Certainly.” If he were seriously cognizant of feminist ideas, however, he might be aware that excessive praise of womanhood is itself seen as a problem. []
  4. Ziff pointed out to me that this is an odd response to someone having a scripture strike them in a new way–that’s actually a classic Mormon narrative. []


  1. Lynette: I wonder why it seems to me that your post suffers from the same kinds of flaws in each instance of which you accuse Hancock. I would replace “paternalism” with a type of superior female perspective bias, but other than that, I wonder if you aren’t just mirroring back.

  2. Blake, it’s certainly possible (and even likely) that my post suffers from a number of flaws. I’m not sure, however, where you’re seeing a superior female perspective bias. Is it because I disagree with Hancock’s understanding of feminism, or about the legitimacy of raising feminist questions? (Despite being tempted, I didn’t engage in mirroring along the lines of stating my intent to pray for Hancock, which is the kind of thing I found particularly paternalistic.)

  3. Blake – I also wonder why it seems that way to you. Can you point out the language in Lynnette’s post that you found paternalistic?

  4. Oh bless you, Lynette. Your treatment is precisely what was needed; a layer by layer deconstruction of Hancock’s “bold little essay.”
    It just made me want to weep that there was an audience for Hancock in the first place. In my ideal world we would all be very kind and very dismissive of Hancock- we would recognize his ravings as an unhealthy obsession and no publication serious about promoting Christ would recognize him.
    But that’s not the world we live in and I find myself just speechless and unable to articulate the absurdity and the baseness of Hancock’s attack on my friend.
    Thank you for your clarity and your fairness. It was exactly what I needed.

  5. Oh Lord. This is bad for my health- my eyes are rolling so far back in my head I’m going to get a concussion. Are you trying to be a caricature, Blake? Nevermind. I get it. I actually don’t want to play angry feminist to your patriarchal tool. Good luck with all that.

  6. Here is what I found questionable:

    “Hancock himself evinces no awareness . . . ”

    “But as a Mormon feminist, I would note that . . .”

    “But he seems oblivious or tone deaf . . .”

    “But Hancock seems too attached to his caricature of feminism . . .”

    “But as a Mormon feminist, I would note that it is precisely church teachings (or the lack thereof) about “the great destiny of womanhood” which concern me. . .”

    “Once again, he seems unable to imagine that there might be conflicting teachings and messages about gender in the tradition . . .”

    “Nonetheless, I have to thank Hancock, because thanks to reading his review, I bought Brooks’ book. . . .”

    If you don’t see it, pointing it out won’t go very far. Oh, and crazywomancreek, I don’t think an apoplectic tirade is very helpful to the discussion either.

    Being unable instead of just failing on this occasion, being labelled as unaware, oblivious; calling out one’s superior credentials as a true card carrying feminist that one who lacks such credentials just can’t quite grasp, and congratulating him seem to me to be the same problem she is critiquing — not taking another’s point of view seriously instead of responding with charity and crediting it as that of an informed and intelligent person.

    I like Lynette’s stuff generally. I’ve said as much in the past. However, it just sometimes pays to notice whether one is simply mirroring one’s own issues and biases in response to another’s.

  7. Blake, that’s fair. In some cases, I was deliberately parroting his language (the “evinces no awareness” and “seems oblivious or tone deaf” in particular).

    Re: “But as a Mormon feminist . . .,” if that’s what you heard, I think that probably came across in a way that I didn’t intend it to. I was trying to make the point that Brooks is objecting specifically to some church teachings re gender, so greater immersion in such teachings wouldn’t necessarily have been helpful for her (and as Mormon feminist, that made sense to me).

    Also, I genuinely don’t see any evidence that Hancock is aware of contradictions regarding gender in the tradition. As I’m reading him, he honestly believes that feminism is the idea that men and women are interchangeable. That’s why I suggested that he isn’t aware. I wasn’t saying that he was in general uninformed and unaware, but on this particular issue, I didn’t see much awareness of the issues at stake–and, in fact, I think he was misrepresenting them.

    I hope that clarifies, a little. I didn’t want this post to be overly snarky, which is why I gave it some time, but I do genuinely regret it if there are parts that sound that way.

  8. One thing I found particularly sad about this whole affair is Hancock’s consistent claim across a number of platforms that Joanna claims to speak for all women of the church, this being a prime sin and presumptuous on her part. Never does she make such a claim, but he on the other hand writes this review with an assumed view that he effortlessly represents orthodox Mormon teaching while never actually stating his understanding of the things he finds so objectionable in Joanna’s telling. So I am left to wonder from what place he considers he derives his authority to critique. It isn’t logic or argument or appeals to scriptures or leader’s words. It seems to be because he is not a feminist and a priesthood holding male.

    It is also rich that he motivates this essay through a desire to counter Joanna’s “political project” and yet refuses to acknowledge this makes his review an overt political political project.. Not once does he acknowledge that conservative political thought or causes could possibly suffer from the same flaws as liberal ones when mixed with our religion. Without at least a nod to this possibility it makes the whole thing seem unbalanced and you have to question his own self-reflective abilities.

  9. Outstanding, Lynnette! Given Hancock’s vagueness and rambling, I’m impressed that you were able to pull out coherent themes in his piece to respond to. 🙂 Not only that, of course; your responses are very well put.

    Blake, I agree with Lynnette. Hancock’s essay is dripping with paternalism. That Lynnette points this out by mirroring his language in some places merely makes her point. She gives Hancock far more credit than Hancock gives Brooks in his review.

  10. Ziff: I don’t disagree with you. However, a more charitable take on Hancock’s “paternalism” viewed from one horizon can also be seen as his effort to state a differing point of view that addresses her concerns. The problem with “paternalism” is that it can be seen as an effort to point out how things can be seen differently from a different perspective. By its very nature, pointing out a different perspective assumes that one’s interlocutor does not see that perspective adequately. It always goes both ways.

    Lynette: Thank you for your gracious response. I don’t see even remotely any bad or ill-formed motives behind your response. Certainly a response is more than justified and you raise very important points.

  11. Thanks, Blake. And I agree that the meta-message of “this is me telling you” is inevitably a challenging one. What I found particularly problematic here was the combination of “this is the way it is” with the portrayal of Brooks as someone in need of prayer and concern. That doubtless influenced the way I read him.

    rah, that’s a great point. Hancock situates himself as a defender of orthodoxy, but he doesn’t clarify just how he knows what constitutes orthodoxy (perhaps because he regards that as self-evident?)

  12. Great post, Lynette! I found it over at FMH, and accidentally commented there first. Anyway, like you, Hancock’s just made my desire to read Brooks’ book that much stronger. Can’t wait to read it!

  13. Lynnette, simply outstanding. As has already been mentioned, you were far more charitable here than Hancock was with his subject. (And far far less creepy).

  14. Near the conclusion of his articles, Hancock explains that he saw this as an “opportunity to learn from an author whose personal experience can supplement my own.” However, he gives little appearance of actually being interested in learning from her experience or her ideas—rather, he repeatedly dismisses them.

    Yes! This! This is the line that struck me most in reading Hancock’s piece, because it took my reaction to his piece from thinking of it merely a comically unselfaware hit piece, to reminding me of the real tragedy of missed opportunity for expansion of vision and empathy, and reminding me how difficult and roadblocked the work of gaining any recognition or understanding of women’s voices is in the church of men.

    Lynette, bless you for every word of this, everything I wanted to say and every support I wanted desperately to give to my fellow sister Joanna, but just couldn’t formulate–out of hurt, out of anger, out of discouragement, and out of just plain not being as bright and well spoken as you. 🙂 Thank you.

  15. Oh my, look at the privileged assumptions the bloggernacle has done for you Lynette, as a member Mormon actually find it any kind of “what?” upon hearing the predictable squawking from the establishment regarding Brooks’ unorthodox approach towards the good news. Am I, the Atheist, the only one that regularly attends our Mormon meetings rubbing shoulders absorbing rank and file ethos? Mormon blogging I swear produces a jedi-mind trick that somehow swells our breasts with our presumed bringing the more refined teachings of Joseph and Jesus to be embraced with humbled thanks from the lay members, thirsty in their questions for more, when in reality all they perceive is esoteric liberal bullsh1t from hostile progressives/feminists that lack the fundamentals.

    As I listened to conference this weekend I thought with the evidence that affluent educated members leaving in droves, that the church would somehow at least attempt a start at reconciliation and honesty concerning its history. What we got was the gospel of prosperity, proclamation of the family (read gays are evil) and a total be-smirking of the scientific inquiry , further alienating anyone who has trouble with young earth, noah’s flood, tower of babel, and immediate creation of all life to so outside the margins, that people like you Lynette, whom I respect, admire, and most of all agree with, have absolutely no hope with your women advocatin, gay acceptin, Book of Mormon metaphorical interpretin, science considerin ways. In fact Lynette, your bloggernacle views are as heretical to the main stream church as mine are.

    I admire Joanne, love her work, along with others. But there is no reconciliation with the Mormon body, and I don’t see any olive branches being readied either. And really Lynette, do we have that kind of time?

    Thomas Jefferson described religion like “diamonds” in a “dunghill”. glittering as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” he said about the teachings of Jesus. Even I a non believer value the teachings of the Carpenter from Galilee. I’ll find those diamonds on my own and avoid the stink.

  16. Very well done. This was an impressive read.

    As for Blake’s comment, I, for one, don’t see that at all. I found this post well balanced, reasoned, and insightful.

  17. In one of Hancock’s essays he refers to “Professor Bott” and, in the same sentence, to “our Ms. Brooks”. Newsflash to our little Ralphie: Brooks is a professor also, and an actual scholar, in contrast to Prof. Bott.

    I am quite certain he isn’t being consciously dismissive, but the sexism and the smug paternalism just oozes out of him. Until Lynnette employs those kinds of putdowns, we have no business accusing her of simply mirroring Hancock.

  18. Lynnette, if I 1/100th as articulate as you…

    Excellent job. Hancock’s hit piece was very troubling to me, in part because of how common his self-unaware condescension and judgement is. Noting the comments following his writing, I worry whether his mindset represents the majority of members.

  19. Lynnette, this is SOOO good. I almost fell out of my chair when I read Hancock’s description of a fictional anthropologist and his less than shallow understanding of feminism. I was embarrassed for him. Thanks for your careful response to these issues.

  20. Thank you, Lynette, for the thoughtful response to RH. One thing that bothered me about RH’s review-thingy was the always-assumed position of orthodoxy. One of the key arguments floating in the background of JB’s book and RH’s response regards the question of how our individual beliefs, biases, perspectives, opinions, convictions, etc. merge with what RH refers to as God’s “Plan” for us. RH assumes that for JB, the political tail is wagging the theological dog. He seems to say “you must choose Liberalism of the Lord” (and he seems to be using the term in a strikingly recent way, in the Fox News type liberals v.. conservatives opposition that overlooks the classical meaning of the term). But is his political tail wagging his theological dog, too? For instance, he goes on to oppose interpreting “freedom” as “individual autonomy.” I reckon some of the Meridian folks miss the implications. Notice RH building his own categories out of the scriptures, apparently pledging allegiance to them in the same uncritical fashion he criticizes JB for doing. For instance, where can I find either “humanistic autonomy” or “redeemed moral agency” in the scriptures? These are constructions drawn out of, or imputed to–not inherently discoverable within–our canonical texts. This goes for JB and RH.

    I agree with the need to constantly evaluate whether we are merely looking in the mirror at God or whether we allow ourselves to be changed by God. Is such self-reflection more likely to be done by those who feel mainstream? All we like sheep. But RH notes that JB reminds people that she doesn’t represent all of Mormonism or all Mormon women, while he evidently goes on to speak on behalf of the whole tradition!

    I confess this is one of my own most immediate and intractable tasks when confronting my Mormonness: negotiating the intersections of revelation and reason. I admit that I don’t expect to agree with everything every apostle and prophet says, or even everything a unified group of those authorities says at any given point in time though I seek to sustain them. But no Mormon can agree with it all, so long as they desire coherence. This is because our tradition is already diverse enough to provide opportunities for a variety of perspectives. RH said he hoped to learn from JB, but his review made it evident he only came to lecture, even if he wanted to offer a closing prayer.

  21. How does Hancock define this nebulous “liberalism” Joanna Brooks seems to have about the Church? Since I’m old enough to remember the 1970’s, there were members who felt the idea of Blacks ever getting the Priesthood was far too ridiculous & liberal to think about. Oops. And, how do you define feminism? What Hancock thinks is feminism may not be the same definition to others.

    Yes, Hancock did write with a lot of condescension about Prof. Brooks.

  22. Wow, great stuff Lynnette!

    I didn’t get a copy of Joanna’s book when she was here for the Mormon Stories conference last month. I’ll have to get my hands on one and read it after this semester is over. Oops, I meant ovester. I’m a feminist, after all.

  23. re: Hancock’s broadsides of “liberalism” and “progressivism”: As he presents it (and I’m sure he genuinely believes this), his position is basically Correct and as such is neutral, normative, and apolitical. Therefore, any disagreement with his gospel is necessarily politically motivated, which is why sees liberalism and feminism as such threats. To me that’s self-evidently ridiculous and trying to refute it is like trying to argue with someone who argue that the sun is green. The reaction is “Huh? Really?” I think as much as anything it’s Hancock’s blindness to his own blatant political rhetoric, even while he condemns JB’s politics, hat has frustrated so many folks on the ‘nacle. And that’s where replies like Blake’s miss the point – most of the “liberal” replies to Hancock are very aware that their own opinions are politically motivated, and they acknowledge the tension in that. Hancock implicitly denies that it’s even possible for him to be wrong and sets himself up as an infallible arbiter.

    So, tl;dr: Hancock assumes he’s apolitical, he’s wrong, and pointing that out isn’t the same as what he’s doing.

  24. Hancock’s dislike of Brooks stems from his political disagreements.It’s his condescending denunciation of her as a “feminist and homosexual rights advocate” that really reveals his true feelings.

  25. Fantastic rebuttal to Hancock’s piece. It’s amazing to me how unaware he is of his own condescending tone and his patriarchal privilege. Furthermore, he seems to be completely unaware that someone could understand *exactly* what the Church intends, doctrinally speaking, buy it for a while, then break under the strain of trying to live something that doesn’t feel consistent with true Christianity. The problem is not the understanding of it; the problem is the idea itself.

    I don’t think Hancock could even begin to understand the internal struggles that many women in the Church carry with them every day, feeling less-than-worthy, wondering what’s wrong with them, berating themselves for having desires they feel like they were born with, that are part of their very natures, but being asked to deny them in favor of early marriage and constant childbearing. He will never understand what it feels like to defer to a man in all things (even when that man is misguided), yet be told that you’re equal.

    His snarky, dismissive tone merely proves much of what Brooks is trying to convey about her discomfort with the status quo. His assertion that she is trying to speak for all women and implying that she might be successful in starting some sort of hope-based NOM revolution is typical of the fear-based tactics we see so often. A dissenting voice must always be seen as dangerous to one’s testimony.

  26. I haven’t read Brooks’s memoir yet, but I have serious objections to how Hancock frames the issues. He observes, for example, that Brooks “seems to have experienced this difference [women’s marginalization] negatively.” “Seems to” is gratuitous—respectful engagement with her work starts by taking her at her word. But worse than that, Hancock goes on to argue, abetted by an armchair anthropologist in his head, with Brooks’s own experience!:

    Those who are not simply content with accepting the Church’s authority on such matters might thus consider the possibility that Priesthood responsibilities and rites of passage serve purposes particularly appropriate to the making of boys into men and to the effective and wholesome definition of manhood.

    An anthropologist considering Mormon practices might point out that the education and socialization of boys and girls is sexually differentiated in all traditional societies, and that this difference can be seen as answering social and psychological needs related to real sexual differences.

    But Brooks is describing her own experience with patriarchy! Why would the arguments of an imaginary anthropologist on the benefits of patriarchy (known as “sexually differentiated roles” among the mealy-mouthed) even be relevant?! She’s not obligated to consult an external authority to determine what she experienced. Wouldn’t a good anthropologist consult her on her experience, not ask her to consult him?

    The ultimate irony in this is that Hancock alleges that women are naturally in touch with their womanhood (“it may be, that is, that, on the whole, women are more immediately or naturally in touch with the meaning of their womanhood than men are with their manhood”), and yet, implicitly, he’s set himself up as the arbiter of the natural, and specifically of what it means to be female. I’m left wondering—in his own system—why does he understand what it means to be a woman in the church better than a real live woman?

  27. Thanks for the comments, everyone! I especially appreciate that several of them have helped me make more sense of why I find Hancock’s approach to be problematic.

    Rude Dog, I’m not exactly sure what you’re saying–is it that there is no hope for someone like me to be part of the church? I sincerely hope that my attitude toward my fellow members isn’t as condescending as the one you describe. And if you think I’m inevitably bound to be ostracized, you really should meet my ward.

  28. “why does he understand what it means to be a woman in the church better than a real live woman?”

    Because he is a Straussian, and they always know best.

    Good work, Lynnette–thank you!

  29. Zara wrote: “His snarky, dismissive tone merely proves much of what Brooks is trying to convey about her discomfort with the status quo.”

    Perhaps media responses like Hancock’s will be the best thing that could happen for Brooke’s book? They just underscore how on-target it is.

  30. Casey:
    “… trying to argue with someone who argues that the sun is green. The reaction is “Huh? Really?”

    Totally off topic, but it’s my favorite subject so I can’t let it slide.
    The sun’s emission spectrum peaks at about 500nm, which is the bluer side of green. So, the sun actually *is* green but our atmosphere scatters the light so it looks yellow from the surface.
    That is all. Carry on.

  31. Jessawhy, overster is awesome. I don’t think it’s actually an etymologically accurate (I think semester is from Latin six-month, not from male-seed), but in any case overster is awesome.

    I’ll bet that’s something they didn’t teach in seminary. 🙂

  32. Totally off topic, but it’s my favorite subject so I can’t let it slide.
    The sun’s emission spectrum peaks at about 500nm, which is the bluer side of green. So, the sun actually *is* green but our atmosphere scatters the light so it looks yellow from the surface.
    That is all. Carry on.

    I’m actually going to call you out on this one. Despite an emissions peak in or near the green are of the spectrum, my understanding is that sun is also emitting enough light in the redder and bluer areas of the spectrum that, outside of our atmosphere, the sun’s light would simply be perceived as white.

  33. People like Brooks risk offending people of color by pretending Mormonism is a culture or an ethnicity. Mormons in America are as generally indistinguishable from other white people. I can see why she does not want to call her book “White Girl Stories” but that is all it is.

    Because the LDS Church is a religion (and not something immutable like an ethnicity) it is fair to ask when someone has crossed the line and is no longer representative of the beliefs of that religion. I am a big fan of the idea of “big tent Mormonism” but no tent can fit everyone. Personally, I think that someone who does not believe in the Atonement or sustain the President of the Church as a Prophet, Seer and Revelator has left the tent.

    That does not mean he or she is a bad person. It just means he or she does not have faith in the things that make our faith community a faith community.

  34. Stuart, you’re conflating “ethnicity” and “race.” An ethnicity is a group of people whose members identify with each other due to possessing a common heritage, culture, and/or ideology. Race is certainly closely tied to ethnicity in some circumstances. And it is debatable that Mormonism comprises an ethnicity. But the very fact that it’s debatable lends substance to Brooks’ claim. I for one believe Mormonism is an ethnicity by virtue of the presence of a very strong common heritage and ideology. The argument for a common culture could also be made, though that one’s more tenuous as the church becomes more global.

  35. Also I find it problematic that you’re saying that Brooks is “pretending” that Mormonism is an ethnicity, as if she’s knowingly disingenuous about it. I don’t think she’s pretending anything and the assertion that she is, is akin to the kinds of condescending criticisms Hancock makes of Brooks in that it doesn’t take her at her own word about her own beliefs and opinions.

  36. Stuart, I’m curious how you think you know Joanna’s heart and mind on the topics of atonement and sustaining prophets.

  37. Thank you, Lynnette, for a more thoughtful response to Hancock’s Brooks article than I have seen posted elsewhere (FMH, BCC, T&S). While I appreciate the fact that much more thought and less “snark” went into your article here, I can’t help but wonder why the focus always seems to go back to the man-responding-to-woman angle or the he-is-so-sure-he-is-right idea, which appears to annoy many LDS bloggers. Is it just me, or do you and Joanna not come off just as “sure” you are right as does Hancock? This, I should add, does not bother me in the least. What interests me is the arguments themselves, not the confidence of the author (or even the straightforwardness with which the arguments may be written). From my vantage point, the fundamental question here is whether we should be seeking to learn the will of the Lord–via the Prophets, the scriptures, and personal revelation–and conform our lives to it (through repentance and humility–through an empowering submission, in fact), or whether we should instead invest our energies in seeking to encourage the Church to more closely align itself with our notions of modern, progressive, liberal, feminist realities. I am grateful that we LDS have many differing views. What I don’t like is seeing how frequently those on the blogosphere assume ill-will or insincerity on the part of those who espouse views that differ from our own. This is what I see happen in the case of Hancock time and time again. And yet I trust that he, like Lynnette here, is absolutely sincere and would be more than cordial and even Christlike in a debate held on these very issues.

  38. From my vantage point, the fundamental question here is whether we should be seeking to learn the will of the Lord […] and conform our lives to it […] or whether we should instead invest our energies in seeking to encourage the Church to more closely align itself with our notions of modern, progressive, liberal, feminist realities.

    I respect your point of view, but I believe equally strongly that for many active, engaged, sincere members of the Church this is a false dilemma.

  39. Thanks for a thoughtful comment, European Saint. To address a couple of your questions—I don’t see confidence per se as a problem. I’d agree that none of us would be writing if we didn’t have some confidence in our positions. But there’s a difference, I think, between confidence and being patronizing. You can be confident in your position without dismissing the experience of another person out of hand, and calling them to repentance. I also question the kind of confidence that leads a person to set themselves up as the definitive arbiter of how the gospel is to be interpreted, or as being in a position to decide who is a real Mormon. I do think Hancock touches on issues that are worth discussing. But as I said in the OP, I think a stronger essay would have spent more time engaging those questions, and less time lecturing Brooks.

    Like Peter LLC, I also disagree with a dichotomy which pits “modern, progressive, liberal, feminist realities” against the gospel. Our experience of the gospel is always mediated by our culture, I think—this is one reason why I’m suspicious of anyone who claims to have access to some pure, unadulterated understanding of the gospel while assuming that those who disagree are limited by their cultural biases, as if all of us didn’t have to grapple with that challenge. And I don’t think it would be fair to assume that if people hold particular positions (be they conservative or liberal), this means that they must not be interested in seeking the will of the Lord through scripture study and personal revelation. (I’m not saying that’s necessarily the view you’re advocating, by the way, but it does seem like an implication of the dichotomy you outline.)

  40. I knew better than to read the Hancock article, but I yielded to temptation. Thank you for articulating why the tone of this article is so demeaning and patronizing, and for dissecting out why his facile dismissals of feminism are so uninformed.

  41. @ Kiskilili – that was just what I was thinking. Like Lynnette noted, Hancock’s piece doesn’t quite fit into the standard parameters of a book review. Instead, it meanders, critiquing not Brooks’ book, but her outlook and personal approach to Mormonism. He seems to be saying not only “your worldview is wrong and the conclusions that you have drawn from your own experiences are incorrect” – which is problematic in and of itself – but also that the experiences themselves are incorrect.

    When he waves away Brooks’ discussion of her struggles to come to terms with her embodied self, it appears very much like an attempt to invalidate her narrative and to dismiss her personal experience. This, to me, is where his critique is most puzzling and most audacious. And, since he implies misunderstanding and misinterpreting her own sense of her embodied experience in one instance, and goes on to emphasize LDS gender teachings in the next, we as readers are left with the uncomfortable sense that he feels that he knows better than she what her life has been, and how her life should be understood.

  42. One thing that’s entertaining about Hancock’s review is the extent to which it inadvertently bolsters some of the very claims it seeks to discredit. He wants his readers to think that Brooks is misleading us about the fact that being a woman in the church is often difficult because of, among other things, not receiving empathy and true understanding of the female experience from male leadership. The nature of his response has, I imagine, only made that claim more credible in the eyes of outside observers.

  43. Kiskilili, 62, I might venture that that is the whole entire problem, considering all of the patronizing, condescending, and self-righteous arrogance that it takes to assume one even has the right to do something like that to another person.

  44. First,

    Lynette, spot on. Your articulation far surpassed my ability to express my views, but mirrored my sentiments very well.


    Is there a possibility that the wise editors at DN and MT published Ralph Hancock’s piece in order to provide an additional voice to individuals who take issue with traditional paternalism / “my way or the highway” viewpoints?

    My rough calculations after reading many of the responses across the web are that there’s a 10-1 avalanche for Joanna Brooks vs. Ralph Hancock.

  45. What an amazing original post that has garnered so many thoughtful comments.

    What really got me about Hancock’s review is that he completely ignores and bowls over ways that Mormon culture could be impacting Joanna’s feelings and responses. For example, he cannot fathom why she feels so disconnected from her body and doesn’t feel “in the driver’s seat” with regard to sexuality. He caulks it up to some kind of abuse while completely ignoring all of the object lessons (chewed gum, damaged rose) that were part of almost every Mormon girl’s experience from Joanna’s generation. Joanna explicitly talks about this in her book, but he completely ignores it.

  46. Note: this thread is a discussion of Ralph Hancock’s review of Joanna Brooks’ book. It is not the place to discuss whether or not Joanna Brooks should be considered LDS, and comments on that question will be moderated. Thanks for playing, and have a nice day.

  47. I think the Faux LDS Adherent vs. Cultural Mormon-Identity issue does get to the heart of the tension found in Hancock’s “review” and Joanna’s call in her book and in the media for the LDS church to embrace an “inclusive mormonism” . Hancock just doesn’t have the heart-perhaps gall?- to call Joanna out on it directly, so he goes about it in a paternalistic passive aggressive way. It is an implied part of his “review” though.

  48. For example, he cannot fathom why she feels so disconnected from her body and doesn’t feel “in the driver’s seat” with regard to sexuality.

    I found this part of the review shocking. He thinks the problem is that she’s a deviant who isn’t comfortable in a female body for some unknown reason?! Dude! You. are. clueless about the messages women get about their bodies, both in and out of the church. Seriously clueless.

  49. Wow. Just wow. As a left-of-center, feminist LDS woman, it feels really weird to be censored on a feminist website. I was taken aback by the responses from my posts, but they made me think. I am taken aback by your censorship, it has made me think . . .

  50. Jana, personally, I think the question you pose about the boundaries of religious belief and commitment is eminently worth discussing–in broad outline. But I’m sure you can understand that we don’t want the thread to disintegrate into a discussion of the merits and demerits of Brooks’ commitment, worthiness, faith, etc. That’s a task for God, not for strangers on the Internet. Rest assured that were your personal righteousness and faithfulness under discussion, we would extend you the same vigorous courtesy.

  51. I, on the other hand, am delighted to have been bounced–I’ve been trying for years to say something feisty enough 🙂

  52. #67, 70: Exactly right. While most of his review made me angry, this just made me depressed. One thing I loved most about the book was that it captured so well all the pressures and cultural factors that lead to women’s sense of dissociation from their bodies. Finally!, I thought, someone has put this experience into words that can communicate it to men who don’t understand this. Then along comes Hancock, so. not. understanding. it. And I thought, my goodness, if this book couldn’t do it, nothing can. Game over, we should just give up, pack up our bags, and go home. And that was a really depressing thought. The OP gets at it here:

    “Near the conclusion of his articles, Hancock explains that he saw this as an “opportunity to learn from an author whose personal experience can supplement my own.” However, he gives little appearance of actually being interested in learning from her experience or her ideas—rather, he repeatedly dismisses them.


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