I’m Glad I Didn’t Tell That Joke, Because It’s Still Not Funny


It’s 4:30 a.m., I’ve been crying for hours and the medication I took to combat my insomnia isn’t working, so my judgment isn’t the best. This entry is overwrought and earnest and I hope it’s not too annoying but it’s one of those things I have to post because it really matters right now. I just I hope I don’t sound too ridiculous and unproofread later.

Monday during an appointment to have my teeth cleaned I picked up the newspaper to read while I waited for my dentist (whom I love--he’s both a good dentist and a very nice man) to check my teeth after the hygienist cleaned them, and read an item about how South Dakota (who knew?) is the least depressed state in the country, while Utah is the most depressed. (There are also only six states in which people commit suicide more readily than in Utah.) I laughed. “Of course it’s Utah,” I said aloud to no one in particular, shaking my head. I wrote down the details of the study in the notebook I always carry with me so I could find a link to it later, thinking I would write a glib, funny blog entry about how appropriate it is that Utah is not only the most depressed but the most depressing state in the country, filled as it is with miserable Mormons.

And then yesterday I read this account on Young Stranger of a young man’s desire to kill himself because he is both gay and Mormon, and I lost all enthusiasm for mocking the misery an actual human being experiences when his life is in conflict with his religion.

I’m going to do that incredibly maudlin 80s thing and quote a Smiths song, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” which always makes me weep when I think seriously about the lyrics:

You should know
time’s tide will smother
and I will too
when you laugh about people who feel so
very lonely
their only desire is to die
well I’m afraid
it doesn’t make me smile
I wish I could laugh
but that joke isn’t funny anymore
it’s too close to home
and it’s too near the bone
more than you’ll ever know

The main reason I didn’t blog much in November was because I was traveling, and one of the things I traveled to was a conference, where I presented a paper on religious trauma, in which I finally found a way to make damnation intelligible to a secular audience. I’m not going to go into the details of that now, because if one wants to publish one’s scholarly work in journals one doesn’t explain it on the web. But suffice it to say, believing you are damned really, really sucks, and although it is outside the range of many people’s experience, it is not outside the experience of people who are devout Mormons and desire nothing so much as to live a virtuous, spiritually meaningful life sanctioned by god’s approval, but who feel that, for whatever reason, something about their core self or primary identity or most cherished concept of human ethics and responsibility or whatever somehow prohibits or violates true virtue and is beyond god’s approval.

I felt that. I felt it about my mission. I felt that my impulse to let people choose their own paths, to say sincerely “That’s a perfectly acceptable choice,” when they said, “I want to be an ethical person according to these principles and beliefs, and I don’t feel I really want or need to be Mormon to a good person,” put me outside the realm of god’s love.

It sucked.

But this suicide thing..... It reminds me of Puritanism, for which I felt a profound affinity when I finally studied it in grad school. I’m not the only person to write about the similarities between Puritans and Mormons, which go beyond a certain sexual reticence--after all, the 19th century form of New England Puritanism was Congregationalism, with which Joseph Smith was extremely familiar, and one of my favorite elements of Mormonism, the emphasis of careful reading of texts and of writing a journal in order to turn one’s life into a text to be read for evidence of god’s workings upon the soul, was inherited straight from the Puritans.

But the Puritans had a very dark side: The theology required people to imagine damnation if they weren’t up to par, to confront "the imaginative impact of the idea of being loathed and daily victimized by an all-powerful deity” (John Stachniewski, The Persecutory Imagination) and to write about the experience of doing so. No wonder, then, that they were prone to despair, to the point that they killed themselves far more readily than other people. In fact, as I said in my paper,

the frequency with which puritans committed suicide was used by others as evidence that the religion’s adherents weren’t among the saved. It might also help you understand why the Puritans had such a propensity to call people witches, imagining dark rituals in which people celebrated their hatred of a god who hated them. It might also help explain why there aren’t many Puritans around today: the theology was too brutal and punishing to last.

Mormonism is fairly brutal and punishing in its own way, and yet it thrives. It thrives, as does the misery and despair it engenders when someone doesn’t measure up to its rigid demands. It thrives, even as it prompts people to write eloquent suicide notes, eloquent explanations of why suicide is a morally and theologically justifiable choice for a person who is gay/ an artist/ single/ infertile/ whatever.

Myself, I wrote my first (and still unpublished) book as the defense I would offer at the final judgment, explaining why I stood by the ethical choices I made, and I could well imagine the look of revulsion and contempt on god’s face as he rejected my defense and opened a trap door to send me straight to hell.

I don’t still believe in a god who would do that to me--I don’t still believe in any god, really. But you don’t write a text like that if you don’t care A HELL OF A LOT about religion and spirituality and ethics. Which brings me to my next point: Mormonism often punishes most those who invest in it most.

But that goes for religion in general, doesn’t it. I’m thinking of Karen Armstrong, and her amazing admission at the end of Through the Narrow Gate. Unable to to acquiesce quietly to the intellectual helplessness orthodoxy encourages (or to deal with ways the faints caused by her undiagnosed epilepsy are contemptuously dismissed as a moral and spiritual failing), she suffers a breakdown, and after a few months, is forced to admit that the life of a nun is not for her. While waiting for the dispensation that will release her from her vows, she listens one day to the choir sing the prayer of Saint Ignatius, which reads

Take and receive, O Lord, all my liberty; my memory, my understanding, and my will. All that I have, all that I am, Thou hast given me, and I give it all back to Thee to be governed according to Thy will.

All I ask is Thy grace and Thy love. With these I am rich enough and I do not ask for anything else.

Armstrong details her response to the prayer; she writes

It was the last words that stung. I did want things other than God’s love. I wanted human closeness, beauty, freedom of mind. I probably wouldn’t get them but I wanted them. God’s love should have been enough. It was in one sense everything. But I did ask for other things, and if I stayed I’d be grabbing at little unworthy human satisfactions [and she gives an example, as when sisters fell in love with a cat because they could not devote any affection to another human being].

The prayer left an aching sadness. That perfect self-giving. That image of God as Everything that still couldn’t satisfy me. How could I be happy when I’d rejected Everything?

Mormons who cannot overcome or dismiss their homosexuality often feel they have rejected Everything. Mormons who cannot overcome or dismiss their sense that certain human choices outside of Mormonism are entirely valid often feel they have rejected Everything. Mormons who want human closeness, beauty, freedom of mind in addition to god’s love often feel they have rejected Everything.

And yet we are entitled to human closeness, beauty, freedom of mind, and to be who we are, and I believe that in some fundamental way, rejecting Everything is really the only way to go: because saying that you want those things is a way of saying you are willing to lose your eternal life, to risk damnation. And as the scriptures also tell us, s/he who will save his life shall lose it, and s/he who will lose his life shall find it. And I don’t think that’s a religious truth; I think that’s a spiritual truth, explaining the fact that, as posters in so many adolescent bedrooms have explained, if you let something go and accept that it is not yours to keep, it often comes back to you and stays with you.

But losing your life is not the same as taking your life. Dear god, dear god whom I don’t even believe in but invoke because nothing else has quite the power of that word, please let that young man not take his life. Please let no one else in Mormondom ever take their life because they believe they do not please you.

I don’t know what else to say. My heart aches for Young Stranger’s friend, and I don’t even know him. I have burst into tears at least a dozen times while thinking about him over the past day. I’m up because I’m thinking about him--and about my dear friend R, whose husband has been in the ICU since Saturday and will probably never walk again because, of all things, a tree fell on him while he was working in the woods around their house--and I feel hopeless and powerless and utterly betrayed yet again by the spiritual training of my youth, which I still somehow continue to value, because it gave me things I cherish, like my love of autobiography and journal-keeping, or my marvelous sense of self-tied-up-in-place.

Anyway. I should go back to bed. It’s so late it’s early and my judgment is clouded--insomnia and the medication I take to counteract it often do that to me--and when I am fully awake and sober and it’s daylight, I may regret posting this, but what the hell.


Holly -- This post has left me weeping uncontrollably. After reading my own post on this subject, my friend emailed me to say he still feels that in order to "uphold the brethren" he should kill himself. But he's promised not to. He says maybe he shouldn't uphold the brethren any more.

Mohohawaii just posted a YouTube clip on this subject as well, stressing that "the Sabbath is made for man[/woman], not man[/woman] for the Sabbath." That just about perfectly sums up my theology on this subject.

We have to learn ways to choose life, and to empower people to choose life. That is what every covenant any person has ever made on the face of this planet should truly be about.

Thanks for this post, your words are a deep, deep comfort to me right now, as I hope they will be to others.

Thank you for posting this.

Great post!

Mormonism often punishes most those who invest in it most.

True, true, true! What puzzles me is this: what determines whether a given person invests heavily or not? You get the sense that a person like Mitt Romney, for all his public piety, doesn't stay up nights wondering about his own worthiness.

It's like the old joke that the wicked sleep better than the righteous. (You're cursed for giving a sh*t.)

My own nephew ended his life with suicide days before he was to leave on his mission. He was probably gay. You can imagine why I'm not neutral on this topic.

Hi everyone--thanks for commenting. I'm glad that someone who wasn't me, doped up, sleep-derived and weepy in the middle of the night found what I had to say worthwhile.

MHH, like you, I wish I knew why some people find religion so critically IMPORTANT. I know for me it was a combination of personality and circumstance. But I didn't get good advice or good answers as I tried to work out contradictions. I've said many times that leaving the church was the hardest thing I've ever done--and yet it was more necessary and rewarding than anything else I've ever done (though it took a REALLY long time to get to that point).

GJW, I think your friend shouldn't uphold the brethren anymore. After all, in the doctrine of the church, they are the stewards entrusted with his spiritual well-being, and they have clearly failed him. I hope he will find spiritual mentors and guides who will help him to see that he is precious, not detritus.


I don't need lack of sleep or meds to get me overwrought or emotional. All I needed was one silly thought that it might be nice for my parents if I joined them at church for one Sunday (in the last 20 years), a Sunday School lesson extolling the wisdom of the 'Proclamation on the Family' aka. Latter-day Mein Kampf, and one mother asking me how I enjoyed the lesson...I went off on one. I only wish I had had the cojones to stand up in the lesson and ask them about Stuart Matis (sic?) and where he fit into their perfect picture. Grr. I will never cross the threshold of an LDS church, ever again.

Thank you for posting this, H. It was needed. The struggle is still far from over for a lot of GLBTQI brothers and sisters.

As always, very worthwhile Holly in so many ways.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on December 6, 2007 4:30 AM.

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