Apparently we went through a “Mormon Moment” a few years back, somewhere around the time Mitt Romney was running for President. Mormon Ken Jennings’ all-time Jeopardy record still seemed unbeatable. The Book of Mormon was the hottest ticket on Broadway. Yet for once the Mormon Church resisted knee-jerk outrage – instead the church ran cute proselytizing advertisements in the show’s Playbill. Some folks sensed a thaw in the glacial relationship between the church and “feminists, intellectuals, and homosexuals.”
Perhaps the perkiest fad we saw during the Mormon Moment was the phenomenon of “Mormon Mommy Bloggers.” Back then “blogs” were a vibrant social media thing, not today’s literary ghost-town. “Mommy Blogs” were bourgeois pornography, like HGTV or IKEA – the kind of porn you can either project yourself on, or ridicule, or both. And “Mormon Mommies” were the Disney Princesses of Mommy Blogs. It’s our people's wholesome white-bread perfection vibe. Mormon Mommy Blogging was the ideal platform for displaying fascinating womanhood to the world, and maybe even for earning a little pin money from appropriate advertising. Obviously without competing with your husband's priesthood role as the family's divine breadwinner.
In contrast, the Queen of the Mommy Bloggers wrote from the opposite end of the spectrum. The website was “Dooce.” Her real name Heather B. Armstrong.
Dooce was a dark queen – raging about housework and parenting and hormones and stress. Yet by most economic measures she was the most successful blogger in the mommy niche. Her blog generated enough ad revenue to support a family of four in style. Heather's essential gimmick was to avoid the kind of latter-day Ozzie and Harriet repression you’d get from those Stepford Mormon wives. Dooce repressed nothing. To the contrary, she wrote about everything, with no respect for authorities of any kind, churches definitely included.
Ironically, Heather herself grew up Mormon. She still writes about being an exhausted single mother from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Heather Armstrong graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English a few years after me. We’ve never met. However, she went to college with several friends who worked on Student Review, the student newspaper I helped start at BYU in the 1980s. They introduced me to the dooce website, and I would occasionally read Heather’s candid tales of post-Mormon parenting.
Heather began publishing online in 2001. By 2005 www.dooce.com was generating enough advertising for her husband Jon to quit his office job and focus on the blog business. However, Heather’s career illustrates both the economic and noneconomic perils of blogging. You can see some of the trends in the titles of the thought pieces that regularly appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Slate:
“That Outrageous Mommy Blogger Who Refuses to Stop Writing About Her Kid Highlights a Key Parent-Child Generational Gap” (Not Heather, BTW, she respects her teen and tween daughters’ boundaries. Mostly.)
“How the Mom Internet Became a Spotless, Sponsored Void: Gritty Blogs Have Given Way to Staged Instagram Photos”
Eventually website advertising dried up for all the Mommies, even dooce. Heather couldn’t bring herself to whore out her children as advertisements for appliances. She continued writing sporadically. But after divorcing and becoming a fulltime single mom, she was forced to find a stressful job with a local nonprofit.
Like blogging and the Romney campaign, the Mormon Moment eventually disappeared. Careful observers heard the door slam shut in November 2015, when the Brethren announced a virulently unchristian policy targeting the children of lesbian and gay parents who are legally married.
The Mormons’ homophobic announcement coincided with my diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In addition to triggering additional PTSD symptoms, this Mormon connection helped my healthcare providers identify the youthful traumas underlying my PTSD.
About the same time, Heather Armstrong began a major depressive episode a thousand miles away in Utah.
As I wrote last year in “Reslient,” Depression and Anxiety are labels for the two categories of mental illness that affect the largest proportion of the population. Here is a model I’ve found useful for contrasting these two distinctive types of mental experiences:
Anxiety is a disproportionate response to the future. Depression is a disproportionate response to the past.
I was introduced to this dichotomy years ago when I read Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Solomon described depression and anxiety as "fraternal twins." As Michael Pollan observes, "Both reflect a mind mired in rumination, one dwelling on the past, the other worrying about the future. What mainly distinguishes the two disorders is their tense."
The skewed responses of anxiety and depression are rooted in powerful emotions that generally benefit the species. Humans should worry when a saber-toothed tiger is approaching at high speed. And we should grieve at the loss of a loved one. When these two healthy emotions lose proportion and negatively affect important aspects of our lives, however, they become potentially deadly disorders.
Chronic anxiety is exhausting. But major depression is even worse. As Heather summarizes,
Back to Crazy Mormon Mommy Bloggers. Or rather to Ex-Mormon Single Parents Writing About Mental Illness Because Someone Fucking Has To.
Heather and I are primarily anxious people, but we both have endured the occasional bout of major depression. Heather’s first book, It Sucked And Then I Cried, was about post-partum depression after the birth of her elder daughter, who is about the same age as my two daughters. [Ed. Note: Hmm, hormones offer yet another argument for adoption.]
Heather’s new book is about her eventual recovery after eighteen months of debilitating depression. As Michael Pollan recently observed in How to Change Your Mind, depression patients are finding new hope in variations on old technologies, including 1960s psychedelics and 1970s party drugs. There’s even a resurgence in Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT).1
1No, not the kind of aversion therapy where doctors attach electrodes to the genitals of desperate Mormon gay boys and attempt to shock them into heterosexuality as they watch gay pornography. Yes, the Mormons were still doing this when I attended BYU in the 1980s.
With modern ECT, patients receive controlled electric shocks to their brains while under anesthesia. ECT is effective for a significant percentage of patients with treatment-resistant depression. However, ECT still has serious side effects, including memory loss.
Are you a fan of the British sitcom The IT Crowd? It’s set in the London headquarters of a fictional corporation. Regardless of their IT problem, help desk callers all hear the same tape-recorded question: “Have you tried turning it off and on again?
That describes Heather’s recent depression treatment. In 2017, she volunteered for a study being conducted at the University of Utah. The experimental treatment sought to obtain the benefits of ECT without its nasty side effects. Rather than shock the brain into rebooting, as with ECT, the doctors instead used powerful anesthetic drugs to turn her brain off completely for fifteen minutes before reviving her. Heather’s mother and stepfather valiantly escorted her to each of the ten treatment sessions.
The title of Heather’s new book, The Valedictorian of Being Dead: the True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live, refers both to the nature of the depression treatment and to a lifetime of Mormon perfectionism. As she reminded her faithful Mormon mother, “when I want to do something well, I become the valedictorian of doing that thing.” Not just the obvious things, like being named as valedictorian of her high school graduation class. For example, during her treatments Heather “bragged to the phlebotomist about being the valedictorian of having my blood drawn.” So of course “no one does dead better” than Heather – even being “dead” for just fifteen minutes, with a host of medical professionals and family members closely monitoring her vital signs.
Fortunately the experimental treatment worked. Heather still takes her meds and copes with mental health issues every day, but her depression lifted and hasn’t returned. Nevertheless, Heather recognizes that “part of the ongoing ‘medication’ for my mental health has been identifying triggers for my anxiety. I either avoid these triggers altogether or I develop habits to handle them.”
Heather concludes by confessing “I used to think I was good at choosing my battles. What the depressive episode taught me was that I was terrible at it. In order to manage my anxiety, I have to let so much go. This isn’t easy for a valedictorian.”
Have I mentioned I was the valedictorian of my graduating class at BYU?
Depression extinguishes our purpose in life – the purpose of anything in our lives – making it quite literally impossible to handle anything. Every day and hour and minute is an obstacle course of things we are supposed to handle; most people do so without any effort, but we can’t even see around the first corner. And so we collapse. Or we sleep for days on end. Or we yell at people who don’t deserve it. Some of us drink ourselves into a stupor. Other scream into a pillow or crawl into a corner to rock back and forth. Some of us retreat to a closet to call their mother and say, “Please, let me be dead.”
Midway through the round of treatments, Heather started to take an interest in life for the first time in many months. She showered. She listened to music. She played with her daughters. The fog of depression began to dissipate.
At this point, Heather told her mother “I feel like I died and someone brought me back to life.” Her mother’s response: “You do realize that’s exactly what happened?”
In addition to frankly chronically her experience with mental illness, The Valedictorian of Being Dead is a moving tribute to Heather’s endlessly supportive Mormon mom. Blogging is no longer Heather’s job. But as her mother puts it, writing about mental health is Heather’s “calling” – “this is what you were meant to do.”
The first writer I ever met was my maternal grandmother, Helen Seeley Phillips. Mostly she was a perfect 1950s Mormon housewife, of course. And a perfect grandmother. But she also was a lifelong freelance writer – meeting monthly with her ladies’ writing group in Denver, diligently practicing her craft at home, and regularly publishing items in magazines like Readers’ Digest.
Among the many life lessons I learned from Gram is that being a writer is not necessarily a day job. In fact, for most writers most of the time, it probably shouldn’t be.
Before returning The Valedictorian of Being Dead to the library, I suggested my mother read it. I figured she could relate to the tribulations of other heroic Mormon mothers. And their even more aggravating and oversharing ex-Mormon children.
After she finished Heather’s story of mental illness and recovery, Mom showed me a letter my grandmother typed to a friend on May 8, 1945 – the day Germany surrendered to the Allies. Eventually the letter made its way back to the Phillips family, and now it’s carefully archived in my mother’s files.
My mom was born during World War II while my grandfather was serving in the Pacific. I didn’t realize Gram worked as a typist for the Veterans Administration in Salt Lake City during the war. Each day she would leave my mom and her older sister Carol at home with family members, and go do her part for the war effort.
Single parenting is hard, in war or peace. As Gram wrote to her friend, “Marcia always pleads tearfully, ‘not go to work today, mommy! Stay home with sus girls.’” But “at least the job accomplishes the purpose for which I took it---it keeps me too busy and too tired to do much worrying about Boyd.”
Gram’s long letter to her friend is filled with numerous throwaway lines that resonate with family members seven decades later, such as “I don’t know what is wrong with me. Every time I pass the yard goods counter in a store, I invariably buy a piece of material.” In response to patriotic nagging about recycling from school-aged Aunt Carol, my grandmother observed “Everything I am, or hope to be, I owe to the prodding from my offspring! I begin to have sympathy for my parents.” Me too.
But the real reason my mother showed me Gram’s letter was what my grandmother wrote in gossiping about an acquaintance's discharged husband:
He recently returned home, classed as Psychoneurotic. His wife said that that at first just having to decide what he wanted to eat made him violently ill. Also in the VA files there seems to be lots of Anxiety Neurosis. In my unlearned way I had been classifying that as “worry wart” – we learn something every day.
As Gram concluded seventy years ago, “when I see in our files just how many fellows are given discharges for various neuroses, I’d like to broadcast to people how no stigma should be attached to it.”
Gram was such a perfect 1950s Mormon housewife she couldn’t help intimidating her three daughters. Carol, Marcia, and Sidney are such perfect Mormon homemakers in turn that they couldn’t help intimidating their six daughters-in-law and all my exes. Hopefully my daughters’ generation of great-granddaughters has finally achieved a healthy feminist equilibrium.
In many ways my grandparents were typical, even stereotypical: Pops’ engineer precision, Gram’s salon hairdo, their stoic repression and New Deal Democrat politics. But the Phillips family legacy is not limited to Greatest Generation clichés, or to the missionary rolls and the chocolate chip cookie recipes in the family cookbook. My grandparents also bequeathed each of us a witty and resilient sense of humour, a love of language and books, and their boundless love and empathy.
That’s a priceless heritage for any family, Mormon or otherwise.
That’s a priceless heritage for any family, Mormon or otherwise.