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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Mormonism and Murder

by Sharon

In October a new book hit the shelves: The Open Curtain by Brian Evenson. Dubbed a thriller by Publishers Weekly, The Open Curtain is a story about Mormonism and murder.
Evenson (Altmann's Tongue) explores some controversial Mormon history in this thoughtful thriller rooted in an actual century-old murder case. When Rudd, a disaffected, fatherless Mormon teenager living in an unspecified part of Utah, discovers he has a half-brother, Lael, in suburban Provo, the two meet and embark on a strange friendship. While researching a school project, Rudd learns from a series of stories in the New York Times about a murder committed by William Hooper Young, a grandson of Brigham Young, the Mormon pioneer. In 1902, William Young was tried for, and convicted of, the murder of Anna Pulitzer. The crime cast a dark shadow on the Church of the Latter-Day Saints by exposing such arcane, perhaps doctrinal concepts as "blood atonement," a disturbing idea about the saving of a Mormon soul by shedding someone else's blood. (Copyright Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.)

Brian Evenson has authored six previous fiction books. He is currently the director of Brown University's Literary Arts Program. Brian is a former Mormon and a former teacher at Brigham Young University. According to Booklist,
Evenson lost his teaching post at Brigham Young University because his writing was too implicitly critical of the Mormon Church.

I've not read any of Dr. Evenson's books, but based on an online interview written by Angela Stubbs, Dr. Evenson's dismissal from BYU over a controversy surrounding his first book is not surprising. (Read about Dr. Evenson's experience writing this book, Father of Lies.)

Ms. Stubbs' interview with Dr. Evenson is really interesting and very revealing regarding Mormon culture. For instance, Ms. Stubbs asks,
Do you feel that it’s inherent in Mormon culture to suppress or deny religious history or at least the facts that might blemish the church’s reputation in any way?

[Dr. Evenson answers:] I don’t know if it's inherent, but it's certainly been established practice for a number of years. In the 1950s, the Mormon Church had almost no publicity department; now, that's one of the largest departments in the Church's bureaucracy. The Mormon Church has acted more and more like a corporation as time has gone on, and has become incredibly conscious of negative publicity. I do think that too often that leads to suppression of or minimizing of facts from Mormonism's very colorful and to my mind very interesting past. In the last few decades Mormonism has worked very hard to present itself as a Christ-centered Church that fits really snugly into Middle America. But to be able to see it that way, you have to forget a lot of Mormonism's history.

In discussing the Mormon main character in The Open Curtain, Ms. Stubbs asks,
Because Rudd has been living in a religious culture where he’s been told how to think and feel about things for so long, he’s lost the ability to make decisions for himself. He turns to this alter-ego or other “self” to tell him what to do or who to be. Why do you think Rudd has these issues?

[Dr. Evenson answers:] I think it's an extreme response to a subculture that has a kind of internalized split. Mormonism in its day-to-day services seems very Protestant; in its temple ceremonies, it's very ritual and almost pagan at times. You talk about the Church in one way among Church members and in another way to outsiders. And then you try to reconcile that to the ideas and attitudes and mores of American society as a whole, weaving yourself carefully into that fabric as well. And then if you've have [sic] a religious structure telling you what to do and what to be, what happens if you lose your faith? Who tells you who to be and what to do then? Maybe nobody, or maybe you start hearing from all that that religious structure has repressed…

Having acknowledge earlier that Dr. Evenson has revealed quite a bit about the LDS temple ceremony in The Open Curtain, Ms. Stubbs asks,
As a Mormon rule, non-members aren’t allowed to witness the temple wedding ceremony. Rules like these cause suspicion among non-members due to the secretive nature involved with this ceremony. You go into great detail about the temple ceremony in The Open Curtain. Do you feel you’ll get any backlash from friends/family members who are still LDS or fellow readers for divulging top secret information?

[Dr. Evenson answers:] Since Mormons are generally polite, I think generally there will be very little overt response: they simply won't respond. Certain of my friends who are still Mormon are likely to break off their friendships with me, others will simply pretend like the book doesn't exist. A few friends who feel particularly close to me or family members might say how sad it makes them that I would write about Mormonism in this way, and there will be some public discussion of the book on Mormon e-mail lists and blogs that will probably be upset with the book. I've gotten several weird emails, always from anonymous sources, telling me that if I look hard enough at myself, I will see I am a tool for evil and I'll repent. I've also had several death threats, but they're always very silly and not worth paying attention to.

The Stubbs/Evenson interview is quite long but, as I think is demonstrated above, it's well worth the time. Pour a cup of coffee and settle in. Dr. Evenson's experience, perspective and candor make for a fascinating and enlightening read.

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