If you live long enough, you'll fill up a few rooms with memorabilia from your fascinating life. That's my theory and I'm sticking with it.
In the past few months I've been going through a lot of old junk, sorting through the detritus of my long, strange trip thus far. I've discovered an important fact about myself: I don't throw away enough stuff.
But yes – I really, really needed to keep that computer tape of my first novel. I created the tape in 1982 and would be hard pressed at this late date to find a computer old enough to read it. Yet the possibility exists, and it would save so much typing; how can I throw that big ol' tape away?
I also have in my files (yes, I actually file these things) an affidavit I passed around at work about two dozen jobs ago. Twenty people signed on that I was a nice person (although several added their own qualifying language, e.g., "to people she likes," "on her good days," etc.). This is evidence that may come in handy at some point and besides, I've already hung on to it for over 13 years. Why recycle it now?
My sister has no such problem. No sentimentality exists between her and the little pieces of paper that float into her life. I'll bet she'd have no trouble tossing out the receipt for a stay at Yosemite Lodge in 1982 – but I take one look at that crumpled paper and remember a most wonderful adventure. Toss it? No freakin' way.
And it is due to my hoarding of tiny, seemingly insignificant documents that I finally found the name, address and phone number of the sweet, well-meaning bitch who reminded the Mormon Church of my existence.
I was raised in the Mormon church – my big sister selected Mormonism as the family religion at the ripe old age of nine (I was three and unable to defend myself) – and as a young child I felt privileged to be one of the few people in the world who would get to go to heaven.
Oh yes, I believed. When our 7th-grade teacher told us about the mythology of the ancient Greeks, we scoffed at the idea that people could actually believe in such silly, petulant gods. Mrs. Welton explained patiently that the myths were used to explain a world the ancients didn't understand. "What would you say," she challenged us, "if suddenly green and purple smoke started coming out of the floor?"
The only answers I could come up with involved sorcery or religion.
But still – those Greek myths were absurd to my slowly-developing mind. How fortunate I was, I thought, to be part of the true faith, to know beyond doubt what is real.
And suddenly! like a bolt out of the blue a disturbing possibility crossed my mind: Could it be that maybe, just maybe, the Mormon view of things was no more realistic than Greek mythology?
Nahhhh, couldn't be. I remained a good kid and believed what I was told just as hard as I could. But that wasn't good enough, because I also had a mouth on me. I was always cracking jokes and laughing hysterically at my excellent humor and all my fellow Mormonites would scold me for my blasphemy.
For a long time, I thought "sacrilegious" was another word for "hilarious." They'd tell me I was being sacrilegious and I'd say, "Thank you!"
Other than my funny-as-hell loudmouth ways, I was such a good little Mormon. Yes indeedy. I would never dream of touching alcohol, coffee, tobacco, or boys, and I attended meetings all week in addition to Sunday School and Sacrament Meeting every damn Sunday. But I still wasn't good enough; the other Mormon kids told me their parents had forbidden them to associate with me.
That pissed me off – especially when, around age 16, I learned that the local bishop's two sons made a hobby of cruising Sacramento County's back roads and stripping stranded cars in dark of night; the daughter of one of the ward counselors worried every month that she might be pregnant; and another high muckety-muck's kid was trying to cut down on his drinking so he could go on a mission.
And I was evil because every now and then I laughed at Joseph Smith.
Let me tell you a little bit about growing up Mormon, because I'm sure you're just dying to know. When I was ten years old our Sunday School teacher announced that "Today we're going to talk about Adam and Eve." We all traded confused looks and turned back to her for further elaboration. "You know, the first man and woman?" she continued hopefully. We were still lost. Finally, frustrated, she asked, "How many of you know about Adam and Eve? Please raise your hands."
Not one hand went up.
Mind you, if that Sunday School teacher had announced we would be talking about Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or Heber J. Kimball or David O. McKay, we'd have had something to say. We knew Mormon history like nobody's business. But when it came to the basics of Judaeo-Christian philosophy (upon which the church is supposedly based), we were like lambs unto the slaughter: very very ill-informed lambs at that.
So our poor Sunday School teacher had to take us back to Genesis 1:1 and explain the whole Adam-Eve schtick in what remained of her 45 minutes with us. Well, it was about time SOMEbody did!
I don't think I'd have gotten the awful reputation I had among the parents of my Mormon peers if I'd been making jokes about Adam and Eve. I have to assume I'd poked fun at our Mormon forefolk at least once too often somewhere along the line.
Quick, while we're alone, I gotta tell you about something a brilliant young philosopher mentioned to me not too long ago:
The Book of Mormon is, so the story goes, the translation of an ancient document inscribed on plates of gold thousands of years ago, and buried in a hill in upstate New York until, in the early 19th century, 14-year-old Joseph Smith was told about them by the Angel Moroni. The book is full of tales of ancient warfare on horseback – yet there is not one shred of archealogical evidence that horses lived on this continent before the arrival of European invaders.
Voilà, ladies and gentlemen: the Book of Mormon is a fraud.
When I realized the hypocrisy with which I was surrounded in the local Mormonic community I was disgusted. I became a rebel with a cause. My mother still insisted that I get up at 5 a.m. Monday through Friday to attend Seminary (a before-school indoctrination of Mormon high-schoolers; kids in Utah can take Seminary as an elective in school but we Californians weren't so "lucky"). I decided this was my chance to show the other kids just how much contempt I had for this so-called religion (I think of it more as a cult that got out of hand) – so I began to behave badly. I was very bad indeed. This Seminary teacher (a pompous, ill-humored ass) asked me repeatedly to be quiet, but I always ignored him. If I was speaking to a girl seated next to me in Seminary, the teacher would make a great show of poking me to embarrass and quiet me – but I wouldn't stop. I'd keep talking, he'd keep poking, and the girl next to me would panic, clearly fearful that I was dragging her down to the depths of hell with me.
Eventually Mom gave up and devised a convenient excuse to let me sleep in on weekday mornings. My straight D-minus average in Seminary may have been a factor.
I worked at the local newspaper in those troubled teen years, and one day I was innocently offered a cup of coffee. Evil, evil coffee. I'd always loved the smell but had never tasted it because I'd been trying to live up to the standards my Mormonic peers had already outgrown. All of a sudden a little caffeine jolt didn't seem so awful. I loaded the cup with sugar and Cremora and took my very first sip of coffee. And I felt such a rush with that first sip – the deliciously sinful knowledge that I had taken a major step away from my family's dumb religion.
Listen, folks – if God wants to come between me and my coffee, God's gonna get trampled.
I stopped going to church on Sunday too – but it took a couple of years for the Sunday morning migraines to go away. Even after I'd left home and begun a life of sin and debauchery, every seventh day my throbbing head would announce, "It's Sunday morning! Time to dress in uncomfortable clothes, sit in a room full of perfume and hypocrisy, and listen to some jerk you don't respect drone on at length about a lot of crap you've already heard and rejected 100 times!"
Meanwhile, most of my family remained active in the church. In the mid-70's my mother was teaching a Sunday School class of 14-year-olds when the president of the church (a.k.a. "The Prophet") announced that, contrary to previous practice and belief, God had suddenly and quite unexpectedly decided that it was okay for black men to enter the priesthood. This was a huge historical event, and Mom decided to talk about it with her lily-white Sunday School kids. She asked them what this new proclamation meant, and a sweet, fresh-faced young girl replied thoughtfully, "Well, I guess that means we can marry black people."
My mother just about fell over. That obvious ramification had never crossed her mind. I mean, tolerance is one thing, but.....
Life went on. Like a vagabond I drifted from one abode to the next, sometimes on a monthly basis. I was hard to keep up with. The Mormon church gave up hope of ever finding and saving me. My mother didn't give them any address updates, possibly out of fear that some missionary would actually ask me a question, I'd answer truthfully and be excommunicated.
That might have been a good way to go.
Suddenly, it was 1981. I was sitting at my cubicle at a perfectly respectable publishing house in San Francisco when my phone rang. At the other end was a voice from my Mormonic past. It was, according to recently unearthed documentation, Marsha Karley, who had been some kind of Mormon youth leader when I was some kind of Mormon youth. She was having a reunion, a get-together of "my girls" (as she called us), and one of the other my-girls had given Marsha my number (Sandy, I love you but if I find you I'm gonna kill you). She sweetly – you could become diabetic just listening to this woman – invited me to her big reunion bash, and I sweetly declined.
"It won't be all churchy-churchy," she said smilingly, trying desperately to tempt me back into the fold, if only for a day. No sale. Marsha was very concerned over the fate of my immortal soul, and she asked me why I no longer attended church. Where to begin? Eventually I stammered, "I have trouble with the concept of God."
I could hear Marsha clucking softly. A distant rattle intimated she was shaking her head. "Oh Janice," she sighed sadly with a touch of scolding, "you always were a deep thinker."
From the way she said it I could tell she did not mean this as a compliment.
She expressed dismay at my abandonment of the church (without pausing to consider that perhaps I was the one who had been abandoned), wished me well, and let me get back to work. I thought that was the end of that. But I was oh so terribly wrong.
Call me paranoid, but I have reason to believe that it was through good ol' Marsha that the Mormons caught up with me once again. Suddenly I was constantly getting invitations to Mormon singles nights all over the Bay Area – like I would want to meet Mormon singles. I was already living with Dr. Knobs, a sweet, loving, wonderful, thoughtful atheist, and happy as a clam. Eventually we got legally married. But still, the cute little singles newsletters kept arriving uninvited in our mailbox.
Mormons don't think you're really married unless you're sealed "For Time and All Eternity" in the temple, Mormon style – and that's one weird freakin' ritual, if you want to know the truth. They changed the official Mormonic wedding ceremony in 1969; perhaps the blood of the fatted calf was a downer. I honestly don't know what all goes on in the wedding ritual (since I never achieved the required state of holiness to enter the temple), but I read a book about the pre-'69 ceremony once and I'll just strip my description down to essential facts: It was truly strange. Most likely, it still retains a strong aroma of weirdness.
So, many years into a happy marriage, I was still receiving invites to Mormon singles nights.
Last year, while I was in Pennsylvania recording Mumia Abu-Jamal, another one of those great "Come Meet Other Single Mormons" flyers arrived in our mailbox. Dr. Knobs, home alone, was already in a funk and the meddlesome mailing threw him into a rage. He called the local number listed on the flyer. Tearfully, he told the undoubtedly clean-cut fellow who answered the phone that it was imperative that they take my name off their mailing list, because "my wife has been dead for months and every time I get these flyers it just tears me up. You gotta stop, you gotta stop!" and he punctuated his plea with sobs and some very real angst and despair.
Since then, no more Mormonic mailings have been forthcoming, and that is very good news. But it doesn't mean I'm off the list.
The Mormons, you see, don't see death as an impediment to conversion. They baptize dead people regularly. (You think I'm making this up? No way.) So I'm probably on their list as someone who came back to the True Faith after I drew my last breath.
But where the hell does THAT leave me? For Mormons conversely believe that a woman cannot enter the Heavenly Kingdom until a man gets in and calls her name. I never heard anything about purgatory in the Mormonic scheme of things, so I suppose I'll be going to hell.
Fine with me. Who wants to spend Time and All Eternity with a bunch of Mormons, anyway?
I sure will miss my sister.................
by Janice Leber
NOTE: This article was written in 1997 and I've gotten some nasty e-mails from true believers over the years.
It was not hard for me to write this article; this is stuff I think about constantly. It has, however, been a tough decision to post it on the web because I fear its contents will hurt people I care about. But it all comes down to this: Everything I've written here is true and if you don't like it, get your own web site!