Baring Witness

36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage

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Editor(s): 
Holly Welker
  • Champaign, IL: 
    University of Illinois Press
    , July
     2016.
     296 pages.
     $13.94.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780252081781.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As the title suggests, this book contains thirty-six essays by Mormon women who intentionally challenge the unrealistic marriage ideals that the Church of Latter-Day Saints [LDS] perpetuates. In an attempt to portray marriage in a more realistic light, these stories cover topics ranging from divorce to staying together through thick and thin, and include frank discussions about sex and being a gay or lesbian Mormon.

Editor Holly Welker has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and a Ph.D. in Literature. In the introduction, Welker discloses that one of the first people to read the manuscript told her that many of the issues in her essay seemed very dated. Indeed, in 2016, what is so innovative about a book that focuses on dating, marriage, and divorce in the United States? The novelty of this book is the Mormon context. As Welker makes clear in the introduction, marriage in Mormon culture and doctrine is “more than just an institution, a relationship, and a good idea … it’s a commandment, an absolutely necessary prerequisite for salvation and exaltation” (2). The Mormon ideal is heterosexual marriage with a man as patriarch and breadwinner, a stay at home wife/mother, and lots of kids. Achieving this ideal is the principal way LDS members prove their righteousness in their community. A window into the various realities that make up Mormon relationships, Baring Witness is split into five parts, which are arranged by theme. Each part aims to complicate or subvert certain Mormon marriage ideals that are, the book contends, harmful to healthy relationships.

The first part, titled “For Better or for Worse,” sets up the rest of the book for people who are not familiar with Mormon dating culture. Because marriage and reproduction are so emphasized in relation to salvation, it is common for two young Mormons to meet, get engaged, and get married within a matter of months. The essays in this section of Baring Witness demonstrate the difficulties such a path to marriage can bring. One of the most heartbreaking stories in this section is about a woman who, desperate for the nuclear family and in a dark depression while on her mission, asks a fellow missionary whom she has never been alone with and has never touched beyond shaking his hand, to marry her. For sixteen years she endures a miserable marriage, then almost divorces him but decides to stay. They both eventually leave the Church. She explains that she feels betrayed by the messages she received from Church leaders that as long as two people are righteous and love the Lord they will find everlasting happiness in their relationship. Any happiness they find together, she concludes, will be in spite of the Church, not because of it.

Part 2, “Complicated Paths to the Temple (Or Not Getting There at All),” changes pace as it focuses on people who face challenges in getting married in the temple—tthe place sanctioned by the LDS Church where one is married and sealed to their partner for all eternity—and, therefore, are forced to take a second look at who they are marrying and why. Part 3, titled “Divorce and Other Endings,” complicates Mormon ideas about divorce. One author writes about how she found out that her husband was gay. He married her to try to cure himself but it did not work. She critiques the Church’s suggestion that gay and lesbian Mormons marry into heterosexual relationships. She asks why, if the church is so concerned about families staying together, do they not consider the effects that these actions will have on the spouse who does not know their partner’s true sexuality, and the quality of family life that is inevitably going to be affected by the unhappiness in these marriages. Another woman shares her experiences of abuse, and critiques how Mormons tend to act in public as if their family lives are perfect when underneath there are many problems that should be spoken about. This façade and the expectation of a happy marriage, along with the idea that divorce is something to be condemned, kept her from leaving her abusive husband for many years.

Part 4 of Baring Witness, titled “Second Chances,” focuses on finding love after a first marriage has ended. This section includes an essay about a woman in a heterosexual relationship who falls in love with another woman and eventually comes out as a lesbian and leaves the Church. It also focuses on how many women have to reject the negative messages they learned in the Church about sexuality and patriarchy in order to have a healthy marriage. The fifth and final part of the book, “Expectations: Met, Unmet, or Exceeded,” centers on relationships that the Mormon culture might predict would be difficult to maintain, or would fail, but instead are successful—such as marriage to someone of a different race or culture, or in which traditional gender norms are disrupted in some way. For example, one woman describes her marriage to a Jewish man, her experience navigating both religious communities, and raising her kids in a multi-faith household.

My only critiques of Baring Witness are acknowledged by the editor herself in the introduction of the book: most of the essays are written by a similar demographic—white, middle-class, mostly heterosexual, educated, cisgender women. Welker identifies this bias as a result of who responded to calls for submission. This does not diminish the importance of the book, though it draws attention to the ever-growing gap in the literature about Mormon women, a gap that is begging for attention from current and future scholars. Additionally, while a majority of the women included in the book are active Mormons, most identify as Mormon feminists, and some are no longer members. It is obvious that the voices of orthodox Mormon women are absent—a result, according to Welker, of their objection to this collection including the experiences of gays and lesbians, and discussions of sex. On the other hand, it is important to capture the full range of Mormon experience. The inclusion of so many Mormon feminists may be a sign that Mormon feminists are successfully navigating their way around, or through, aspects of the Church that are problematic, yet they are able to stay in the Church and work toward the changes they want to see within the organization.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Barton is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Brandeis University.

Date of Review: 
March 7, 2017

Keywords: 

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