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.
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.
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]