Monday, October 8, 2012

Joanna Brooks – The Book of Mormon Girl:
"Yes, I love my faith, and yes, I am a vocal, brainy, progressive woman."

Joanna Brooks
Joanna Brooks. Photograph c/o Mormon Stories
I came across Joanna Brooks' website and then her book, The Book of Mormon Girl, and was immediately intrigued. Her work has been incredibly popular among Mormons for a while but with Mitt Romney's candidacy for President, she has become a well known mainstream political and cultural commentator. Wait whaa? Did I just call a feminist Mormon a mainstream media personality?! Crazy, right?! But seriously, if you live in the States, you have probably seen her on MSNBC, heard her on NPR and/or adored her on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Part 1 & 2).

I fought the urge for the longest time but eventually broke down and bought her book. I did get it in Kindle format because I was embarrassed that if I got it in paper, somebody would see me with it and think that I was a Mormon. In Bulgaria, where I am from, people think that Mormonism is a dangerous religious sect and I think people are a little bit afraid of Mormons. They think that if you speak to a Mormon, you will get brain-washed! When I was in high-school, I spoke with a couple of Mormon missionaries on the street (because I was a teenager and they were really cute). I told my mom that I had wanted to practice my English and I got an earful. In defense of our bigotry (I know, I know), 45 years of Communism really beat spirituality out of us. Religion is an opiate for the masses and all.

I am confessing all this just so that you know where I'm coming from and why it is so surprising to me that not only did I read and loved Joanna's book but I also send her a long email begging for an interview. I just feel like she was such a kindred spirit. Her story, although nothing like mine, is so much LIKE mine. She grew up with Mormonism, traveled disillusioned away from it and found herself going back...  Which sounded so much like my story of immigration. And, probably, much like the immigration stories of many people.

As an immigrant, you leave your home and enter a new world that initially appears so much more appealing but at the same time, as much as you don't want to go back, you feel drawn to where you were born. You go back but the place has changed and you don't fit and you don't feel like you belong and you feel so incredibly hurt. So you travel back and forth between those places until you realize that you are too focused on those destinations and perhaps it's the journey that matters anyway. It's taken me so many years to get to this point and not feel like a total stranger EVERYWHERE but the best thing about going through that hardship is that now I kind of feel at home ANYWHERE.

And that's how I read The Book of Mormon girl. Of course, this is a book about being a progressive feminist woman in a largely conservative religious group. I encourage you to read the book to learn more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from someone who actually knows it and loves it but is also not afraid to critique it. But, beyond that, I think that many of you would also enjoy Joanna's work because ultimately, it is a book about creating a space for yourself.

I hope you enjoy the conversation and, thank you so much, Joanna! You are a hero!


I am amazed at your courage to write this book to begin with. Obviously, your story is compelling and resonates on so many levels... but at the same time, I cannot even begin to imagine the personal costs of writing it. Did you ever feel afraid to have it published? Do you worry about being excommunicated?

I have been afraid, yes.  But I think of what the great African-American feminist Audre Lorde wrote about fear-- that we can "learn to work through fear the same way we can learn to work when we are tired."  Facing fear means that we are doing important work, not just for ourselves, but for all the others who are afraid to name their truths, their realities.  One of the story lines in the Mormon community is that feminism and excommunication go together.  But the truth is that while some women have been excommunicated, yes-- and that's a terrible loss to our faith-- there are so many more of us who are not.  I'd like to see that storyline change in my lifetime and for more Mormon women to say, "Yes, I love my faith, and yes, I am a vocal, brainy, progressive woman. One can be both."

What I found most moving about The Book of Mormon Girl is your ability to be both critical and so incredibly loving to your church and the Mormon community. Could you try and explain how you were able to accomplish that?

I am so glad you enjoyed the book. There is something special about being Mormon-- not better, mind you, but unique and special.  There is a profound sense of belonging we share, this feeling of belonging to a people. That's a rare feeling in a discombobulated global 21st century. And as in any relationship, belonging entails the good parts and the bad.  I've felt both parts intensely.  But it took a while to come to a place where I could weave them together.  It's like being an American citizen in many respects--I love this country, it's my home, and I take it seriously, so I am frustrated when I feel it's not living up to its promise or ideals.  And telling that story is part of my contribution.

Your feminism is such a huge part of this story and, as a fellow feminist and former feminist blogger, I wonder if you ever considered simply abandoning that term for yourself? I've been readying your blog for a while now and especially after reading your book, I kept thinking... if she didn't call herself a feminist and kept making those same arguments... people wouldn't be that upset. 

I've always thought the ridiculous stigma attached to the word feminist was one of the best reasons to use it. Unashamedly. In the world of Mormonism as well, feminism is not an abstract concept:  it's a very real set of relationships with other women in the Mormon feminist community. Mormon feminists may disagree, but we look after each other, and we truly understand each other and the intricacies of living life as a progressive woman in a conservative faith. I call myself a Mormon feminist to honor that brave community of women who are willing to stick up for each other.

We are having this conversation just as the LDS Church has announced that the minimum age for missionary service is now lowered from 19 to 18 for young men and from 21 to 19 for young women. As an outsider looking in, I'm surprised that there was such a difference to begin with and I'm generally glad about bringing things to a more level plain, but could you put the significance of this decision in context for us? Does this decision make you feel... well... heard?

This decision has clearly been in the works a long time-- change comes slowly to Mormonism. I'm just grateful it arrived. Here's why it matters: Mormonism isn't just a list of belief propositions. It's a life path. Faith is bound up in all of your life decisions-- education, marriage, family, work. It used to be that the Church said to young women, wait until you are 21, and if you're not married, then serve a mission. For women, that sent the message that marriage was their most important spiritual duty, more so than a mission, which entails intensive religious study, exposure to the wider world, public exposure, and leadership. By putting the ages almost parallel, and clearly before the age of appropriate marriage, I believe the message is now that everyone regardless of gender should prioritize their own spiritual, educational, and leadership development.  And then everyone can make choices about marriage and family later. That's a big change in the way young women will see their lives.  Lots of celebrating.

In describing your path to reconciliation with your religious community (I purposely don't say God because it doesn't sound like you were ever in conflict with your God), you come to the realization that "salvation happens not only when our people claim us, but when we muster up the courage and the capacity to claim our own people". Do you mind telling us about the ways in which various people have responded to your work? Who has claimed you? I know that John Stewart is a fan. ;)

You are so cognizant to pick up on the fact I never really quarreled with God-- okay, just a few times. Writing this book has brought out some fear and rejection from more orthodox members of my faith community, but overall, those negative reactions are outweighed by the messages I get from people who tell me-- "I thought I was the only one who struggled. Thank you for helping me feel less alone." So many people all across the Mormon orthodoxy spectrum and from different faiths too. And it's been thrilling as well to see the message that Mormons are human beings who struggle with their faith like everyone else translate to a warm and receptive public. The Mormon experience in the US has been one of feeling deeply misunderstood. And one of the first editors I had a conversation with about my writing told me that Mormonism was too "weird" to write about for the general public. But my experience has been that if we find the courage to tell our stories, good things can happen.  Even Jon Stewart. 

I couldn't recommend this book more strongly although, I must warn you, tears will be shed. To read more about Joanna Brooks and her work, take a look at or check out her blog


  1. I'm a mormon feminist and I loved this book and love Joanna so much for writing it. It's like she's speaking for many of us whenever she writes about our faith. I'm glad she tweeted this interview because you did an excellent job with the questions.

    1. Thank you so much, Carla! Joanna is such a role model for me, I can only begin to imagine what impact she must have had on fellow Mormon feminists.

      Also, I am so embarrassed to admit that I was completely unaware of the events at BYU that Joanna describes in the book. I have found myself looking for more info on that period. I have taken many women's studies, feminism courses and I don't think that in any of those courses there was any mention on negotiating feminism with religion. I am not saying that people do not do academic work in that area but it's not a hot topic for mainstream conversations... which I think is really unfortunate.

      Thank you for your note and I look forward to exploring your blog!

  2. Heh. I'm a vocal, brainy Mormon feminist and Joanna Brooks bugs me. :) I have never lived in Utah, but I was in college at Cal Berkeley when the 1993 events happened, so I remember it quite well though at a remove. My friends and I did a lot of talking about feminism and the LDS Church back then! But I have not read her book.

    As for feminism and religion, though, the LDS Church is fascinating ground. The stories of the early Mormon women--who were amazing vocal, brainy feminists--are very inspiring to me (though I am not descended from them at all, I like to think of them as my spiritual forebears). And we have a tendency to ignore most of the 20th century, which I think is a mistake--but I still don't know too much about it. :)

    1. Ooooh. Say more, say more! Why does she bug you?
      She NEVER says that there aren't other feminist Mormon women. To the contrary! Her point is that there are! And that there are many progressive Mormons: men AND women. I think what's most important for her is to bring to the surface (the very obvious) fact that the Mormon community is not as monolithic as it's been portrayed in popular culture.

      Now let me ask you, after the saw this interview (and before) many of my friends have recommended that I read "Under the Banner of Heaven" but I think I remember seeing another interview with Joanna Brooks in which she said the book was not an accurate description of Mormonism. Have you read it? And what do you think?

  3. Oh, I don't know, she just rubs me the wrong way somehow. I read her stuff and it seems more foreign to my own experience than I expect it to be, maybe. Most of my friends from college adore her, but I just get irritated. Well, you can't have everything. But I didn't think that she claims to be the only feminist Mormon around. :)

    "Under the Banner of Heaven" is not about the mainstream LDS Church, mostly. I gather it covers some history, and I've heard that Krakauer is not very fair, but I haven't read it myself. (I have issues with Krakauer's writing anyway even without that.) It's specifically about the FLDS splinter group and its awfulness, so you wouldn't get much about ordinary Mormons from it. There are many books that I would recommend before that one!

    Let's see, I'm not as up as I should be on these things right now. For a basic explanation of the theology, I like Robert Millet's "The Mormon Faith." "The Mormon Experience" by Leonard J. Arrington is a history written for a non-LDS audience, and Arrington was highly respected in his day, but it's quite an old book now. "The History of Joseph Smith, Written by His Mother" is an interesting primary source, and "Rough Stone Rolling" is a biography with a good reputation (my husband liked it a lot, I haven't gotten to it). And I have a shelf of books about Mormon women, but they're not so easy to come by. "Sister Saints" is an oldie but a goodie if you can get it through ILL. All of these are on the dense side, though. (You wanted a book list, right? ;) )

    1. Thank you for the book recommendations! Excited to dig in!

    2. Oh, cool--just be warned that they're nearly all on the dense and boring side. I don't know of any light and fun books explaining Mormonism to non-LDS people...

  4. Hey, I thought of you when this popped up in my feed this morning--a review of a new book. I knew Julie in college and she is amazing, so I'm taking her word for it.