Leaving the Fold
James W. Ure, editor
“Failure is impossible.”
—Susan B. Anthony at her 86th birthday celebration, 1906
[p.161]Shauna Adix has a bachelor of arts degree and a Ph.D from the University of Utah, as well as a master of arts degree from Ohio University. She has been program director of the Jewish Community Center; director of the Brighton MIA Girls’ Camp; coordinator of the Project on Aging, Salt Lake Community Services Council; a staff member of the National Training Laboratory; acting chair, Department of Modern Dance, University of Utah; director, Women’s Resource Center at the U. of U.; a director of Anytown Utah; a director of HERS/West, U. of U.; director and president, the Virginia Satir Network; dean and faculty member, Inner Light Institute; facilitator, Crone Connection; president, Crones Counsel, Inc. She was executive vice president of et al., inc., a Salt Lake City advertising agency, and was national president of Mortar Board, Inc. She has received awards from Women Helping Women, Soroptomist International, Rocky Mountain Region-Salt Lake Chapter. She was a 1980 recipient of the Susa Young Gates Award.
Shauna’s a woman who thrives and grows by taking on new interests. Her dark blue eyes well with tears when we talk about death, and she speaks lovingly of her father, Frank McLatchy, who was sales manager at KSL almost until his death in 1954. Wearing a crew-neck [p.162]sweater, and sporting white hair cropped short, she settles into a sofa in the living room of her home, built on Salt Lake City’s east bench in 1912. We reminisce about her late husband, Vern Adix, also a professor at the University of Utah, who taught drama there. We explore some personal history before the interview begins; she self-consciously adjusts her posture to keep from folding her arms over the microphone. The ticking of a grandmother clock (her designation) punctuates the silences as she considers her answers.
One could pay a high price for sounding as though one is speaking against the church when you’re speaking your own truth. That’s one of the problems about church membership—that it calls you to ignore your own truth so much of the time to heed to what the brethren say.
Interesting. Do you think that’s why I find that more women than men—especially women in the arts—decline my requests for interviews?
I think I can tell you exactly. Women in general, regardless of their religious backgrounds, have been subservient to the desires and the dictates of men—their husbands, their fathers, their religious advisors. I bet some of those in the arts are connected to men who’ve said they don’t think it’s a good idea for them to participate. They’re not going to stand up against those men. I think there’s both a real and sometimes an imagined penalty for speaking out. It’s much harder for women to speak out than for men. Sonia Johnson is an example of that. I had dinner with her shortly before they called her excommunication trial. Several of us encouraged her not to go, expecting what was coming. She said, “Don’t be silly; this isn’t a religious matter.” We all saw what happened to her. I have an idea that many of the women in the church don’t call themselves feminists because somehow that sounds too liberal. Many women who do call themselves feminists saw what happened to her. I think it’s not clear yet if there’s too high a price to pay for women to speak publicly about what they feel and believe.
Let’s go back to your growing up in Salt Lake City. You were born during the Great Depression. Your father wasn’t Mormon.
[p.163]Right. His story is interesting. Frank McLatchy met Charlotte Ulke in Yellowstone Park in the summer following her graduation from college. He ran the tour buses there and she had a summer job prior to beginning a teaching career in Utah. They were married by summer’s end. She came back to begin her teaching job. Before a replacement had been found for her, she discovered she was pregnant. He agreed to come here long enough for her to have their child where she could be with family. They had to wait some months before my older sister was born. He needed a job. This was in the height of the Depression, 1929, after the stock market crash. When he arrived, he began walking the streets looking for work. He went into KSL—for what reasons I don’t know or remember—and met Earl J. Glade who was then the manager. He asked for work and was told there were no jobs open, but if he wanted to try to sell some advertising time, he’d be given a commission. That day he sold time to Dinwoodey Furniture Company. That was the beginning of a career for him which lasted his entire worklife in Salt Lake. He never did go to the job awaiting him in South Dakota. I think for me growing up probably had a little different flavor than for people who grew up in homes in which the priesthood was held by the father.
But your mother was active?
My mother was very active. My maternal grandmother lived with us and she was also a staunch believer. My father didn’t have a religious background. He didn’t go to any church, but he agreed that we should have a religious upbringing, so neither did he balk at our being raised Mormon. The ward was just three houses down the street and we all went. He never joined us unless we were performing or receiving some award. I remember a time when he said if his children attended the ward, he thought he owed the system something. He sometimes served on the ward beautification committee or something that didn’t require a testament of faith from him.
Did your mother encourage you to be active?
It was assumed we would be. We just did it. We would march every Sunday to church and Tuesday to Primary and/or Mutual. We lived at what was almost the edge of the city then. People farther out, mostly past 2700 South, were generally living on farms. They were building Highland Park Ward when we moved into the house I grew up in. My [p.164]parents initially had a house on Highland Drive which they couldn’t afford to keep. Next they rented on Alden Street. They bought the house on Stratford and Douglas when I was four or five. My growing up life was spent in that general neighborhood. I left Stratford Avenue to move into this house when I married Vern.
You’ve essentially lived in two houses your entire life.
Yes. I barely remember Alden Street, so there are just two houses of memory for me. Almost nobody I know has only two houses they’ve lived in for as long as I’ve been alive.
You said this wasn’t a priesthood house.
My father liked to hunt on weekends. He had poker buddies in once in a while and usually played at someone’s house monthly. The rest of us had different things going on, often associated with church. He never sought to undermine whatever we were being taught and always encouraged us in our activities, whether at church or at school. He was supportive without being particularly vocal about it. The irony is that at some point he was asked to join the church by J. Reuben Clark. It was during the time President Clark was in the First Presidency. By then Father was a major official at KSL. He didn’t smoke and he didn’t drink, at least not in front of any of us. However, he did like to drink coffee and he liked to hunt on Sundays. He said if he were ever to join the church, he felt he needed to do it totally and to practice it wholeheartedly. Since he wasn’t interested in giving up coffee or hunting, he said no. Many years later, in the mid-1950s, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was never told he had cancer. He lived for two years after that. I had never thought KSL to be particularly magnanimous in their personnel policies, but they were for him at the end. Father thought he should resign because he wasn’t able to perform his job the way he felt it should be done. My mother encouraged the manager to accept his resignation because he was in and out of the hospital frequently. The reply was: “No. If we had paid him everything he was worth to us all these years, we might feel that we couldn’t afford him now.” They gave him tasks which could wait for him to accomplish and kept him on full salary until he died. Every day he could manage it, he would go to work. In the last year of his life, he was sick more than he was well and he was at home most of the time. His longtime [p.165]Mormon buddies came regularly to visit him. During the final year he converted and became a member of the church.
This man who wouldn’t join because he wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t totally integral to his personality and sense of complete honesty wouldn’t have done that as a deathbed concession to my mother. I’m quite sure he didn’t know he was going to die. The church had a policy then which I think is still operant today. There is a year waiting period after someone joins before that person is eligible to go to the temple. That policy was waived for my parents, I suppose, because many had deemed him worthy for a long time. He went through the temple in a wheelchair with my mother on one side and his doctor on the other. Thus it was that my mother realized her lifelong desire for a temple marriage.
You went to Mutual, you went to Sunday School, you did all the things an active little Mormon girl would do?
I paid my tithing, took my pennies to Primary. Absolutely.
At what point did you begin to question?
I could tell you the exact point. It was in a Mutual class. I was newly into Mutual, so I was twelve, thirteen at the most. The lesson was on dating. The teacher asked how many of us would date boys who weren’t Mormon. Mine was the only hand that went up. As I think about it now, a kind of diatribe ensued about how foolish that was. If we dated boys who weren’t Mormon, we might decide we wanted to marry them, and then we would crumble our eternal cookies, in essence. I remember sitting there that night having no idea what percent of the world’s population was Mormon, but it seemed pretty stupid to limit yourself to possibly one-fourth of 1 percent, or whatever the figures might prove to be. That’s the point at which I date my beginning to be what I came to call a malcontent Mormon. It seemed to me to be a system that didn’t fully honor everything about all the members—like freedom to choose, freedom to date. That was the seed of why I couldn’t stay active in the church. It became too limiting.
I progressed through all the stages. I did a lot of active things in and for the church. I spoke in church frequently; I narrated a pageant in the tabernacle for the 50th anniversary of Beehive. I taught and was on the stake Sunday School Board in Highland Stake. When I came here, I [p.166]taught Mutual and served for many years on the Mutual Stake Board as the drama director. Vern, who wasn’t Mormon, sometimes used to get aggravated when the stake secretary would call to find out what my attendance record at meetings had been for the month. He was soft-spoken and non-volatile about almost any issue, but when she called, he’d say in his loudest voice, “Shauna, the Gestapo is on the telephone for you.” He helped me in many ways when I was stake drama director by building sets, doing makeup, etc. He even played a role in one production. His support for my activities in the church was very reminiscent of my father. When we adopted our children, Vern agreed to go to Sunday school and other meetings because he thought the children would benefit from that kind of parental modeling. He’d been a Baptist once, but hadn’t practiced it or attended for years. Almost invariably when he’d go, if it was a testimony meeting, or even for the two-and-a-half minute talks, someone would say how sorry he/she felt for those who didn’t have the truth of the gospel. He resented having people feel sorry for him or look down on him when he felt his life was full and lived well. He soon quit going.
During the early years of my marriage was the time of the Summer Festival—the time when the theater department mounted a musical and an opera on a stage built for that purpose in the north end of the football stadium at the University of Utah. For six of those years, I directed the MIA camp in Brighton and came home on weekends to see the shows. I paid my tithing for years even as my sense of malcontentedness increased. The day finally came when I wondered to myself why I would support with money a system I couldn’t support as a belief system. It was the late 1960s by the time I ended any tangible support for the church.
You quit paying tithing about then?
Sometime around there. I still believe in the principle of tithing. I give away 10 percent of what I have even now, but I like to decide where it goes. I think that’s not a bad thing to do, to share what you have with others who can use it.
There are many nice things about Mormonism. We’ll get back to those in a minute. I have another question for you. Do you still consider yourself a spiritual person?
[p.167]I do consider myself a spiritual person. I do not consider myself a religious person. I think religion often drives the spiritual sense right out the window by the call to adherence to form and structure that doesn’t allow for one’s own sense of connection or growth.
You haven’t joined another religion though?
I did join the Inner Light Center from which the Inner Light Institute which I helped create, grew. The institute is the teaching arm of the center. I was invited to join when the Inner Light Center began a few years ago. I said I’d be glad to join if they didn’t expect me to be there all the time. They don’t care what other affiliations people have. It wasn’t a conversion experience. I liked what they stand for and the openness with which they operate. I liked the fact that they didn’t have any dogma to espouse, didn’t require you to believe in anything but values like goodness, harmony, truth.
Not exactly an organized religion?
No. They call themselves a spiritual community. They believe in love and peace and harmony and oneness of all with each other and Mother Earth. They affirm those values and want to assist people in helping find them as they can and will.
Were you nurtured by your Mormonism when you were growing up?
Oh, I’m sure I was. Whether I was nurtured socially or spiritually is a little hard to say now because the ward was the social center of my neighborhood. There were a few non-Mormons, but we didn’t know them well. All the kids my age were Mormon as far as I can remember. The ward show was the big social event on Friday nights. We would’ve been very isolated in our neighborhood were it not for the social culture of the Mormon church, so I was certainly nurtured that way. I didn’t think a lot about spiritual growth and attainment in those days. When I decided to marry Vern, a lot of neighbors and Mormon friends were worried about my future since he wasn’t Mormon. They worried because of the notion of eternal progression which they thought I’d be foreclosing for myself. I was kind of relieved, actually, because I wanted to see how things would work out prior to signing on for all eternity, should the Mormon system prove to be right.
You had no conflicts?
[p.168]Not about that, no. I don’t know when I first thought about it, but my sense was that if this whole thing works, if what the Mormons believe about all the degrees of glory really happens, I’d rather be pruning the vineyards with people more like me than with people like some I know who think they’re headed for the celestial kingdom. It seems to me that if that system were to be true, which I had serious doubts about, then there certainly ought to be a worthwhile place for someone who tried to live a life as thoughtfully and as spiritually and with as much sense of doing no harm as I could figure out. I used to hate to go to Mormon funerals where people would extol about the life of the deceased for having made a wonderful place in heaven. I disliked the notion that doing everything here was for some future glory. It seemed to me what we did here ought to make sense here and now. I didn’t have any need to travel to the Celestial Kingdom. I thought I’d be more at home in one of the lower realms if degrees of glory actually were proven to exist.
Back then, did it ever strike you as unfair that you had to be married to a worthy male to make it to the Celestial Kingdom?
I don’t know that it struck me then. It certainly struck me subsequently. I don’t know that I would’ve embarked on a career, as one university professor saw it, as the University’s “resident feminist” if I hadn’t been aware of gender imbalances and discrimination. I didn’t put it in a religious context then, but, yes, I suppose if there has been one thing that has really lighted and emblazoned my professional life and which made me more discontent with Mormonism than I already was, it was how restrictive Mormonism was to women. Vern and I didn’t have a lot of conversations about religion. I didn’t have any need for him to convert to something which didn’t speak to the fullness of who I was. I remember the day, however, when he found out that in the temple ceremony a man could have more than one wife, but a woman couldn’t have more than one husband. He suggested I ought to be willing to do battle against such patent injustice. I explained I didn’t feel I had the tools or entree to take that one on.
I’ll tell you about another time. A psychologist called me when I was at the Women’s Center, someone I didn’t know. He said he had a client he didn’t know how to help and kept asking for referral names. Mine kept coming up. He asked me if I’d see her. The issue was that [p.169]she and the man she was then married to had each been married to somebody else at the time they became intimately involved with each other. She became pregnant. Each of them left their first spouse and was married. At some point they felt guilty about their behavior and reported it to a bishop. The second husband was serving on the stake high council at the time. Separate bishop’s courts were called for these two. He was disfellowshipped and she was excommunicated. She went wild. She didn’t mind having justice meted out for their mutual transgression, but the fact that her punishment was different, to say nothing of being more severe, from his, just made her crazy. I saw her for several weeks. She finally worked through her frustration and anger. Last I heard, which was some years ago, she’d worked herself back into the church because that had become important to her again. Those kinds of stories make me a little crazy, too. I want to believe in a system that is love and not punishment, understanding and not censure, opportunity and not limitation. I just found too many limits for me and others—particularly women—to make it feel it was the place that fostered and nurtured my own growth.
What good qualities does Mormonism foster?
When the systems implicit within the ward structure really work for everyone in the ward, this is good. I think the bishop is the key to this. When caring is stronger than the letter of the law, especially when it’s made available to the entire neighborhood comprising the ward boundaries, then it can be a very nurturing environment. Ward people often come to help others in times of trouble. It would be nice if it happened as a neighborly gesture on a regular basis. If the potential power of the two monthly home visits from the Relief Society and the priesthood was used not so much to teach a lesson, but really to find out what might be valuable assistance to neighbors, greater good might come forth. If we were as interested in living the lessons of the gospel as in preserving the ethnocentricity of the belief system, I believe everyone could benefit—including neighbors who aren’t members of the faith, if they so desired.
I sat next to Apostle Mark E. Peterson on a plane once when I was working in the field of aging. I discussed with him how wonderful I thought it would be if the wards could be used as senior centers when not busy with regular ward activities. It seemed to me that a beneficial [p.170]result of the power of the church would be to use its facilities for meetings which could help folks despite what their religious training might be. I didn’t succeed, as you might’ve guessed. I understand there would be a number of problems attendant to opening the wards to non-church activities, including financial, custodial, and supervisory, but I’d love to see creative energy applied to exploring ways in which wards could be used to meet the issues faced by members in the community.
One of the recurring themes I heard at the Women’s Center was voiced by newcomers to Salt Lake and the university. Many of them had heard horror stories about moving here, about how Mormon neighbors ostracized their non-Mormon neighbors. My sense from hearing these stories was that the Mormons in the neighborhood were often friendly initially in meeting the newcomers and often invited them to join their activities. If the invitation wasn’t acted upon, it was often the last attempt at inclusion. Being a Mormon is a full-time job, not just something to do on Sunday. The Mormon neighbors remained busy in their own daily lives which, then, excluded those whose practices were different. The exclusion, it seemed, was usually as much a product of lack of time as of purposeful intent.
Do you find that your friends are more apt to be inactive Mormons or non-Mormons?
I have friends of all kinds.
You don’t feel isolated from active Mormons?
No. I don’t feel isolated. Some years ago the ward clerk called to tell me the bishop wanted to see me. I could think of a lot of reasons why a bishop might want to see me and none were particularly positive. When we met, he asked if someone in the ward had offended me because I hadn’t been present for some time. I responded that the ward members hadn’t offended me, but the church had. Some of the things I believe strongly in, the church had taken a public stand against. It seemed to me that to lend my support to a system which denounces things I stand for simply didn’t make a good mix.
What were those things?
There were three. I’ll tell you about them in a minute. To finish [p.171]about the interview with the bishop, he said he was pleased I hadn’t failed to come because of being offended by anything the ward members had done or said. He assured me that if I ever felt like coming back, I’d be welcome. He also assured me that I was valued as a neighbor. Another example of why I don’t feel isolated has to do with a fence in my back yard which divides my property from the ward. A time came when the fence was listing badly and would’ve fallen on the ward property if it collapsed. I called to inquire whether the ward would be interested in sharing the cost of replacing the fence with me. The answer was no. They sent one of the ward members to shore it up as, I think, they knew Vern was in a nursing home and unable to do maintenance on our property. The next year they put a fence in and didn’t ask me to share in the cost. No, I don’t feel I’ve been isolated in my neighborhood.
And the three issues you’ve felt at variance with the church about?
Lack of support for the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, abortion, and homosexuality.
Do you feel the church is threatened by the women’s movement?
Well, it certainly worked hard to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment as far as I’m concerned. Yes, I think it’s threatened. Maybe I can illustrate what I mean this way. The Women’s Center brought Gloria Steinem here for her first speaking engagement in the state in 1975. That was also the year of the first Women’s International meeting in Mexico City. The United Nations declared the decade 1975-85 the decade of women. Conferences were held in Mexico, Kenya, and Denmark as part of the observance. Our annual women’s conference followed the Mexico City meeting. They used an open mike process which allowed for individuals to take the microphone and discuss whatever they wished. (Sounds a little like a Mormon testimony meeting, doesn’t it?) We incorporated that into our conference as well. Gloria Steinem and I were sitting on the dais together. There were a number of women who identified themselves as students at BYU. Most shared a similar theme, which was that they wanted all gathered to know they were Mormons and they were also feminists. Gloria and I discussed whether we thought one could be a Mormon and a feminist, [p.172]and we agreed that if feminism were defined as freedom to choose, then one could be a Mormon and anything you choose, so you could be a Mormon and a feminist. However, if you define feminism systemically, as we both did, then feminism requires openness in all systems for all people, regardless of gender, to move as thoroughly and as far as they can. Under those circumstances, you could not be a Mormon and a feminist. Since openness and equality are extremely important to me, you can understand why the church increasingly hasn’t had a fit for me.
Another example of a manifest threat, I think, happened with some frequency at the Women’s Center. I’d get a call from someone, not infrequently a bishop, who’d report that someone from his ward had decided to get a divorce after seeing one of our staff members. The caller would often lambaste the Women’s Center for encouraging divorce. All we ever did was try to listen to people and help them make decisions which they felt were right for them. I remember that happening several times. If a ward member’s behavior was a violation of whatever the caller thought was proper, then we were viewed as the devil’s advocates.
As far as abortion is concerned, I can understand that some men may not want their prospective children to be aborted, but it’s the woman’s body which is totally involved for nine months. Therefore, if any decision about what to do about a pregnancy is to be made, I believe the woman has the greater reason—and therefore right—to decide. I’m not persuaded that life is really life until it can be viable outside the uterus. As a result, I think the abortion laws as they have been laid down make sense.
Homosexuality deserves support and respect, I believe, because it’s the place of belonging for many men and women. Attempts over generations to “cure” it or to stamp it out haven’t succeeded. Rather than making the lives of those for whom it is the proper way to live more difficult, we would do well to ensure that those who practice it are afforded the same civil rights the rest of the world enjoys. The negative response by individuals and groups, including the banning of gay clubs in the high schools in Salt Lake, is a manifestation of the limits imposed by negative thinking. You know how strongly I feel about limitations imposed on persons from others, especially from established groups.
[p.173]How do you think active members of the church view you as an inactive?
I don’t know.
What’s your guess?
I think if they know me, it doesn’t matter to them. If they only know me by someone else’s view or by hearsay, they might not know what to think. Maybe they’d just think that I’ve lost my way.
What do you think, in a general sense, actives think of inactives?
I think if they have any energy behind that question, they’d probably wish we’d get it right, because they don’t like to see anybody fall by the wayside. They’d like us to help move the work along. If they think about it very much, and/or have some questions themselves, then they might envy us—or fear for us—that we had taken a stand. I think the power and the reinforcement capacities of the church are so strong that a lot of people don’t even entertain the question about whether it’s right or not.
I developed a metaphor about what happens to church-going believers. The container for holding one’s faith is like a garden hose. Faith runs through the hose and comes out strong at the end. When something occurs with which one cannot agree or feels uncomfortable about, a kink occurs in the hose. The issue is lifted out and the general flow goes on only slightly diminished. You’re fine unless you get so many kinks that only a trickle, or nothing, comes out the end. I think the process is something like that. I suspect there are a lot of people who are troubled by some things about the church, but they aren’t sufficiently troubled, nor have so many kinks, that the flow is destroyed. When there is as much or more faith bottled up in the kinks as flowing through, then folks may be pushed to take a stand. It may range from remaining silent to deciding not to be involved any longer.
If you were president of the Mormon church, what would you do to change it?
If I were to be president of the church, I’d have to have a sex change operation. I might get so busy trying to figure out what it’s like to be male that I might not do anything at first. [She laughs.] Seriously, if the mantle were to fall to me, I’d hope there would be compatible people with whom to work, people who feel and believe as I do. I don’t [p.174]know how many there’d be in the male councils of the Quorum of the Twelve and the Seventies as presently constituted who’d be supportive. I wouldn’t have many female allies unless a lot of those bodies had changed a great deal along the way. I’d want to open up the system equally to all. See, I think that is where the threat is. I think we could give blacks the priesthood because it didn’t require a marked change in the structure and systems of the church. To admit women to major leadership positions would be such a fundamental change in the basic structure of the church that I think it may be difficult for the present leadership to envision how it could happen and still keep the workaday things of the church on track. It would be a world-shaking change in the organization to change its leadership style and organizational structure from top to bottom.
It gets right to the heart of the Book of Mormon.
That’s right. I was interested when the Equal Rights Amendment was an issue. In 1977, when each state had an International Women’s Year meeting funded by the federal government, I was on the state planning committee. The chair of the committee went to the general president of the Relief Society seeking her approbation to tell Mormon women it was all right to attend. I don’t know if you remember what happened, but Utah had the biggest meeting of any of the states. We had almost 14,000 attend our two-day meeting. It was bigger than New York, California, anywhere. About that time the Women’s Center was contacted by women who said, essentially, they’d been called by someone from their ward to go out and collect signatures against the ERA and to attend the meeting and vote no on everything that was on the proposed national agenda. Our callers thought they might be well advised to know something about the amendment before setting out to collect signatures. They were surprised to learn it was made up of three short sentences, as the furor it had caused led them to believe it must be lengthy and extremely complicated. Several women I spoke to said they’d oppose it because they were busy enough already and didn’t want to add the priesthood to their list of activities. It was at that time I came to believe there was an underlying, probably unconscious, concept operating in the lives of many Mormon women. The scenario read something like this: If I had been married in the temple and had done all the required work to earn a celestial reward, it would [p.175]be enormously scary for me to question whether all the things I’ve done and the things I’ve supported might possibly be wrong—or not guaranteed to produce the results I’d been promised. If I began to question them and decided they weren’t what I’d bargained for, I might become terribly angry. If I were that angry, I might be out of control. Who wants to risk being out of control because then people would very likely think you are crazy? I don’t how accurate that is, or for how many, but I became convinced that something like that was operating for many women. It’s safer to adhere than risk being pronounced sick, crazy, or angry, or not know where you belong. I think there’s a great power in belonging, and especially if you belong to something that promises you glory from here to the end of everything. That’s a powerful hold.
There’s another process which happens that makes it difficult for many people, especially women, to question their church membership. The power of the promise of families together for eternity is so great that should one member of the family decide to leave the system, that person could destroy the whole family’s capacity for future glory. It’s the woman who generally is most concerned about the family and its functioning both here and in the hereafter, so the onus particularly falls on her. It’s one thing to take risks and possibly ruin things for yourself, but to ruin something for everybody else is a huge burden to bear. A lot of people, even if they think about it, don’t want the responsibility of possibly ruining things for anyone else.
Is there a chance you might return to active status?
The one moment I considered it was several years ago when my daughter died. She was almost twenty-four. Many of our friends suggested holding her memorial service at the ward even though she hadn’t lived here for several years. I called the stake president, whom I knew from my days on the stake board, and asked if it would be possible to use the ward without having the bishop in charge. (One of the things I haven’t liked about Mormon funerals is to have people conducting who don’t know the person who’s died.) I told him I only wanted people involved in the service who’d known her. After checking, he said it wasn’t possible, but told me he thought I’d like the bishop. When the young bishop came to the house, I explained to him why I hadn’t wanted to have him involved. It turned out he’d known [p.176]Alison as his wife had once been her Mutual teacher and he’d gone on outings with the class. He said the service was my show and he’d do whatever I wanted him to do. I asked if he’d have trouble dealing with cremation and he said he wouldn’t. He was such a prince, I thought I could go back if there were more like him in leadership roles. Unfortunately, that didn’t change the system and the stands I couldn’t agree with which the church had taken. I can’t imagine the system will open to women sufficiently in my lifetime for me to be comfortable there or feel my needs and values are acknowledged and/or met. I don’t think there’s much chance I’ll go back. I’m not angry about it. I think it’s terrific for those who find it to be true and right for them. I believe any system which helps people live their lives responsibly and with meaning has much more good in it than bad. If people think it works for them, fine. It just stopped working for me.
This is a good place to ask what happens to you when you die?
I believe that life force energy isn’t lost. I don’t really believe in three degrees of glory in the hereafter. I don’t know where life force energy goes or precisely what happens to it, but I don’t think it’s lost. I happen to believe in past lives, so I guess that means I believe in reincarnation, although I don’t have a system in mind about how it works. I can’t answer the question, but I think it’ll be a grand adventure. I’ve lived the best life I know how. If there are rewards to be given, then there has to be an adequate reward for that. I’m willing to take the reward at whatever level, however it comes. If what I’m comfortable with here is the measure at the final analysis, that’s what I’ll probably be comfortable with there. I look forward to it without fear or concern. I think it’ll be most interesting. There are days when I think I’ve learned as much from this life as I need or want to know. Learning what’s next will be exciting, I think. When my daughter died, there was as much relief as grief for me and a little bit of envy because she was able to move and learn something brand new while I’m still doing the same old stuff.
Well, that’s the only thing that makes sense to me. She didn’t necessarily want to be cremated, but we’d lost a younger cousin of hers three weeks before. At the funeral Alison had said to me, “Promise me [p.177]something. If I die before you, don’t bury me.” I said, “If I don’t bury you, I’ll have to cremate you.” Her response was, “I don’t care. You know how I hate the dark. I don’t want to be buried underground.” I didn’t promise, but when she died unexpectedly three weeks later, I felt I had to honor her request.
What was the cause of death?
Her death certificate reads suicide. She was an adopted child, and we didn’t know her genetic history. She was subject to constant and severe anxiety attacks. Life was one continual anxiety for her. She was clinically depressed and on a prescribed anti-depressant. She’d started a new job on a Monday and felt completely overwhelmed by it. I think she lost track of her medication. As it turned out, she overdosed on it. Then she drove herself to an emergency room to tell what she’d done. I think if she thought she wanted to die, she changed her mind. I think rather she was hoping for some time out to figure what to do as a next step as she’d decided to resign from the new job. Her boyfriend told me later she hadn’t been taking her medication regularly during the week. I think she might’ve wanted to catch up and take some extra for good measure before telephoning her supervisor to resign. Interestingly, I was with her the day before she died. She told me then she wanted to have a major change in her life. She’d been drinking and smoking and exploring some things to try out to find out who she was, I guess. She didn’t want to continue those patterns any longer. One of the last things she said to me was that she wanted to get religion back into her life, that she wanted a big change. I think she got what she wanted. I tend to think in terms of what the universe does more than God anymore. I think there’s order in the universe. If people want to call that God, that’s okay with me. I think the universe does interesting things in response to what it knows or is asked of it. She literally got what she’d asked for, I think, even though that may not have been the response she was consciously seeking. Her doctors told me she’d probably be in and out of hospitals all her life. She was no stranger to them as she had spent time in both psychiatric and medical wards. She was a young woman with a beautiful face and an obese body. She felt as though she was a prisoner in her body. All the diets and other attempts to change her body into one she felt good in hadn’t worked. She felt she was a blight on the world because of her size. All the affir-[p.178]mations of love and caring from everyone she knew had never been enough to dispel her own sense of being unacceptable. I believe her death gave her an answer to her desire for a change. It gave her a new start without the prison she’d been locked up in all her life.
Our society puts such a premium on thinness. Did you ever drink or smoke? That seems to be one of the tests of active or inactive Mormonism.
There was a time when I was still living in my parents’ house when I smoked. Not a lot, but I smoked some. My mother did a very wise thing about my smoking. She wasn’t always so brilliant in responding to actions of mine which disturbed her, but this time she was right on. She came into my basement bedroom one day when it was reeking of cigarette smoke. Instead of giving me an exposition on the evils, she said, “Before you come upstairs and see your grandmother, I suggest you brush your teeth and change your shirt.” I never smoked in that house again.
I was on a plane one time and happened to sit by a noted molecular biologist who told me of the discoveries coming out of his lab. What he said was that if he could make a major contribution to the world, it would be to keep people from inhaling any foreign substance. The lab tests were demonstrating that an enormous number of brain cells were destroyed through inhaling. I didn’t know, of course, what lay ahead of me in life, but I figured I’d need all the brain cells I could manage to keep alive. I never smoked again.
And drinking? I drank, but only once in a while. I do it now very occasionally at social functions. That was one of the values of growing up Mormon. We didn’t have the stuff in the house. By the time I was ready to expand my horizons, I found I didn’t like the taste of liquor. I think my taste buds stultified and it was never important enough to try to acquire a taste. I suspect I didn’t have a great need to rebel because my actions weren’t tightly restricted. Except for my Mutual teacher, nobody ever tried to force me to do or think in ways which felt in opposition to my own desires. It occurs to me that it’s no great sacrifice to avoid doing anything which isn’t particularly inviting.
Why are you willing to talk about this publicly?
I’m wondering about that. I suppose because I think you can’t make a decision unless you have something with which to compare. I guess [p.179]that’s why. If what I think or believe or have experienced can make a difference to somebody else’s journey, I guess I’m willing to share that. I feel I’m comfortable with you. I’ve told you more stories about my life than I imagined I might. We don’t know people’s stories. That’s a problem, that we don’t know the stories. We see the façade, we see what we want to see or think is there, but we don’t know what’s underneath. It’s what’s underneath that troubles all of us. That’s what sends people into therapy.
I’ll tell you one of the most compelling stories of my life. It happened not too many months after I was hired as director of the Women’s Center. Life became very complex for me. Besides trying to develop the idea of a center, there was a general telephone strike; we had little money budgeted for furnishing our space; my son was having difficulty learning to read in school; and my housekeeper was having problems with drugs. Additionally, I was president of a national organization for which I had many responsibilities and had to travel fairly often, and I was doing a lot of public speaking throughout the West. To top it off, I had the flu and was dragging about every day. I came home one night and found my children were at each other about some mutual grievance. At that moment it was as if something snapped in me. I just couldn’t take any more cacophony. Some months before this, Vern had built what I called the blanket box. It was the base for a bed with a large storage compartment in which we stored extra blankets and pillows. We kept it in the basement. At that time it was mostly used for storage. When I could no longer stand the endless noise and confusion, I went downstairs and climbed into the blanket box, and lay there very still. I knew I needed respite and calm.
After a time I heard questions floating about from the family as to where I was. I hadn’t announced my departure and that was very unusual behavior for me. They began searching everywhere for me. My daughter came to look for me in the basement. I could hear her opening doors and looking in every possible opening. I knew that she was going to find me. She opened the box and asked me what I was doing there. “Just resting,” was my response. I didn’t have any way to talk about my disappearance with my family. A little later I heard her on the telephone with a friend reporting my crazy behavior.
The next day a colleague came into the office and announced that I looked terrible. To look the way I felt was the first connected thing I’d [p.180]experienced since the previous night. He invited me to tell him what was happening in my life. I reported what I termed my bizarre behavior of the night before. His response was that it made all kinds of sense, given the pace, the complexity of my life the previous months. He asked me if I’d give him two decisions about my life. I readily agreed. The first one, he said, was that I was leaving the center. I couldn’t, said I, I had too many things on the docket for that day and several following. He responded—and told my staff, as well—that I was leaving and he couldn’t tell them how soon I’d be back. The second decision was that I was not to return to work until he told me I could. I demurred, but he reminded me I’d given him two decisions and those were they. He called my boss and told her I had to get out of there, that I was in desperate need of time off. Her response was an acknowledgement that I’d been working too hard for too long and she’d wondered if or when I might break under the pressure. I was off for about two months.
I’d never been in therapy. The same colleague who furloughed me told me he thought I’d benefit from professional help. I called a psychiatrist and saw him five times. He kept waiting for me to talk. All I wanted to do was roll myself into a catatonic ball. I wasn’t much help. Finally, he said he thought we ought to talk about my unresolved conflicts with my mother. I was willing to think I might have some, but even in my de-energized state, I didn’t think that was what was at the core of my dilemma. Being burned out and over-programmed seemed a much more likely basis.
As part of his decision process for my life, my friend and colleague also arranged for people to take over the imminent pending commitments I had. They included out of town travel, lectures, and teaching. Freed thereby of all obligations, I spent many days at home trying to work on the puzzle my life had become. I was lying in bed one morning remembering a conversation with a friend and fellow staff member of a human relations training lab which had occurred several months before. He was an eminent psychologist whom I had known for some years. We happened to meet one afternoon and I had asked him what he felt he’d learned from his many years of practice. He said, “Funny you should ask. I’ve learned one thing. That is, if you know you need something, go out and get it.”
During the first days of my mental health leave, there were many people coming and going in my house trying to figure out how to be [p.181]helpful. Nobody knew what to do, least of all me. As I lay there remembering that conversation, I pondered deeply about what it was I needed. Pondering was a slow process as my mind was working at a snail’s pace at the time. Finally the realization dawned that what I wanted, and therefore needed, was just to be nurtured in some tangible and affirming way. I thought of calling my friend who had set this whole process in motion. I thought I’d say I didn’t know what a nurturing group was or how it would work, but could he put one together for me? About then my doorbell rang. Standing there was a woman I’d known only a short time. She’d been one of those called to fill in for me, so she knew something of my circumstances. She said, “I don’t know why I’m here. I had to cancel an appointment to come, but I felt I should come now, today.” In response to her query about how I was and what I’d been up to, I told her about my new-found recognition that I felt in need of nurturance and was considering requesting that a nurturing group be developed. She said simply, “Maybe I can help,” whereupon she went to the telephone and made some calls. When Vern came home, she told him she was taking me out for awhile and would deliver me home later. “Shauna will be with me all the time,” she said, “and she’ll be safe.” She literally had to put my hands in my coat on that cold winter day as I had so little energy. [She cries softly.] It still moves me.
We drove to a downtown motel and she rented a room. She took my hands out of my coat, sat down on the bed, and opened her arms to me as though she were welcoming one of her own children. “Come,” was all she said. I cried for five hours. We talked after for another long while. Finally as evening was coming on, she said she thought we needed to eat something and wondered if I wanted to stay all night. She was like a mother nurturing a hurt child. After dinner, this wonderful psychologist (that was her career as well as her intuition) called her husband and mine and told them we’d be a while yet, but that we’d be returning home. When all her arrangements for continuing child care were complete, I said to her that all my life I’d been somebody’s counselor. I was number two sibling in my family of origin. Birth order expectations for number twos, according to some experts, include being a counselor within the family. People all my life had been coming to me to talk about their problems. I said how overwhelmed I felt that she’d do something so generous and helpful to me, especially since I had nothing to offer in return. I felt totally empty. “What could [p.182]possibly be in it for you?” I wondered. She replied, “You’ve given me a great honor. You trusted me.” What the psychiatrist had been unable to do, she did for me in that evening. She taught me more about acceptance, nurturing, trust of self and others, and connection in one day than I’d ever known before. I truly believe she not only saved my life, but gave it back to me to live with new understanding.
This story provides the underpinning for what spirituality has come to mean to me. This is a classic example of humanity at work: spontaneous, sensitive, and giving as it was in creating a way to meet a need. That’s what spirituality comes down to, I believe—to try to meet needs where you find them and to live as fully and completely as you can while still being caring, kind, responsible, and forgiving. We talk all those virtues, but they’re too rarely felt, called upon, or even enabled in many religious systems. At least, that’s my sense of it.
The most important directive in my life these days is to know my truth and be willing to speak it. That’s become really important for me … trying to figure out what truth is for me and not be judgmental about anybody else’s truth. I don’t want to spend my time—my free choice time—with people whose truth is in opposition to mine, who’ll try to change or alter my truth to fit theirs. I think there’s enough space in the world for everybody’s truth. A friend said to me long ago he believes everybody constructs a belief system in order to get through the world. If you don’t construct your own, you agree with one you meet along the way. If Mormonism helps someone make sense of life, I think that’s terrific. I’d rather be emperor of the world than president of the church. If I ruled the world, I’d want a place where everybody could find a place of meaning and purpose. Diversity would flourish. We’d live reasonably without hurting or harming each other. We’d value and honor our differences as well as our similarities. We’d allow things like gay and lesbian clubs in our schools. We’d encourage everyone to reach for the stars in his/her particular firmament.
Yes, if I ruled the world, it would be kind, gentle, invigorating, and diverse. Most religions would probably have to go, or change significantly, in order to fit in. Not just Mormonism, but most religions. They are, after all, corporations and businesses which want to keep people heeling (instead of healing) to what they think is the proper outcome. If you can agree with that outcome, then fine; but if you think you ought to be the architect of your own outcome, therein lies the rub.