After working as a tech writer for several years, Zoe Murdock turned to fiction, specifically to her Mormon roots. The result is her indie-press-published semi-autobiographical novel Torn by God: A Family’s Struggle with Polygamy.
Zoe has been very patient as I’ve taken several months to put this interview together and then publish it (the novel came out in January) so I hope AMV readers will take the time to read the full thing — it’s very interesting. And, although I’ve only read the first 10 pages or so of the novel, I can say that it’s well-written. This is a quality self-published work. I don’t believe the novel has received much attention in the world of Mormon letters so far, but if any readers have heard of it or have links to mentions it that aren’t up on Zoe’s website so far, toss us a link or a reference in the comments. I’m very interested in hearing about the reception of this work in the Mormon community (Zoe talks a bit about what she has experienced so far below).
For more about Zoe and to purchase the novel, visit her website: zoemurdock.com
What was the genesis of “Torn by God” and for those who haven’t heard about it yet, what is the novel about? Why is it of interest to the Mormon letters community?
I’ve been writing about my life for years, frequently slipping back through time to my childhood and that small Mormon town in Utah where I grew up with my parents and ten siblings. Even when I’d attempt to write about the present, something would pull me back to a particularly troubling time when my parents were going through a crisis, a time when there was always sadness in my mother’s eyes. My mother died young, and I always blamed my father for her death without really knowing why. After exploring that period in my writing, I came to realize my mother’s sadness went back to when my father got involved with polygamy. I remembered her saying, “If there’s polygamy in heaven, I don’t want to go there.” I’d often find her crying in the bathroom with a towel over her head.
Even though we were good members of the LDS Church, my father got interested in polygamy. My parents were always very closed-mouthed about it around us kids so I knew very little of what actually took place. It was a family secret, and looking back it felt almost like a family myth. However, I did know that my father’s best friend, who he spent a lot of time with, became a polygamist. He took a second wife, and he was excommunicated for it. Later, I found a note in my mother’s journal saying how dirty she felt after being around that man. That’s all she wrote, and I wasn’t sure what it meant. Then, after my father died, I read his notebook. It was full of questions about polygamy and questions about what he was required to do in order to become a God. It was haunting to see how obsessed he was, and it made me realize I had to try to learn more about what happened back then. I began writing about it, taking myself back to when I was twelve years old. I imagined myself standing outside of their closed doors, listening. I tried to remember everything I’d heard as a child, attempting to understand what the words meant in the context of my father’s obsession with polygamy. My novel, “Torn by God: A Family’s Struggle with Polygamy” is what came of that journey back in time.
It is a story that I hope will be of value to many people, regardless of their religious orientation. Maybe it will help them take a similar journey back in time, to try to understand where their beliefs come from. I found out that even though I didn’t know it, the voices of my parents, my Primary and Sunday School teachers, the Bishop, and even the scriptures, were still whispering in my mind even though I hadn’t attended church for many years. I was surprised to find that those voices made me afraid, afraid that God would punish me for what I was discovering and writing down. Sometimes I had to work through that fear before I could continue writing.
Now that the earth has stopped shaking and I don’t feel that fear anymore, I find I am glad to have been born and raised Mormon. After all, much of who I am came from that Mormon environment.
As I take my book out into the world, people sometimes ask me hard and angry questions about Mormons, especially about Mormons’ involvement with polygamy. I find myself standing in the middle, trying to build a bridge of understanding, trying to tell them we are all much the same, that we all have beliefs and a set of moral codes we received when we were children. Those beliefs help us make life’s decisions, help us make sense of the unknown. It’s when we start to believe we have the one and only truth, that the problems arise. We begin to wonder how opposing truths can coexist with our truth. It can make us feel threatened and feel a need to insulate ourselves, or strike out at those who disagree with us.
Lately, I have been giving a great deal of thought to the fragility of faith. I’ve been wondering how the persecution and even killing that all too often comes with the defense of faith will ever end. I’ve come to believe that we all have to accept that truth is a relative thing, and that we need not totally reject the beliefs of others in order to hold onto our own beliefs.
In terms of why this book would be of interest to the Mormon letters community, I’ve read that there are many who would like to see Mormon literature extend beyond a Mormon readership and traditional Mormon subjects. In order for this to happen, we may need to deal with the difficult questions first, as that is what readers outside the faith are most interested in. Once they understand that Mormons are willing to confront those troubling issues, I believe they will become interested in Mormon-themed literature that deals with broader subjects.
Some members of the Mormon letters community were a little put off or puzzled by Coke Newell’s autobiographical novel “On the Road to Heaven” because of the mix of autobiography and fiction. How would you characterize “Torn by God?” What was the most difficult part about tackling this story and why do it via fiction?
I wrote my story as fiction because there was no way to for me to know explicit details of what happened back then. Many of the events took place behind closed doors, or away from home. Therefore, as I wrote, I was not looking for truth in the details; I was focused on discovering the philosophical and psychological truths that lay behind the events. I wrote from the point of view of a child because that was my perspective at the time, the only perspective I had to go on. Somewhere along the way, I realized that the truth of what happened between my parents was best seen through the helpless innocence and naivety of a child.
Several of my ten siblings have told me that when they read “Torn by God” it felt very real to them, even though they were not in the story. The first-person narrator, Beth, has only one little brother. That’s because I was trying to understand my parent’s situation and it would have been very distracting and difficult to include characters that were representative of all of my brothers and sisters. However, I did set the story in my real hometown, and most of the events actually happened there at one time or another, even though they may not have happened at that time or in the same context.
Related the previous question — how has writing the novel affected how you view your father, other members of your family, the community you grew up in and your own relationship to Mormonism?
I went through many levels of emotion as I wrote the story and often found myself crying for my mother, and for my father. My father’s obsession to know God and to find out what God wanted of him often affected my family in troublesome ways, not only during the time he flirted with polygamy, but throughout our lives. Writing “Torn by God” helped me understand that he was very susceptible to the old stories of revelation and spiritual evolution, stories he had heard all his life. I also learned that he was born just twenty-seven years after the Church rescinded polygamy, and that his grandfather was a polygamist and that he was the one who hid Brigham Young in City Creek Canyon when the militia was coming to arrest the saints who were practicing polygamy. It occurred to me that my father was living in a kind of in-between world of Church doctrine, which I believe caused a dissonance in his mind that was difficult for him to resolve. Despite what he did, I now have great compassion and respect for him. He was a complex man who desperately wanted to know God, personally. He always believed that was possible, and towards the end of his life, when he was suffering from Alzheimer’s and didn’t know who I was or even who he was, he was still looking for that personal communication with God.
Most of all, I feel great sympathy for my mother. She kept her sadness very much to herself. I wish I had been older and wiser so that I could have been her friend. She desperately needed at friend at that difficult time. My frustration with this shows up in my story as Beth looks on, wishing she could help her mother, but at age twelve she is not really in a position to do very much.
My feelings about where I grew up have never changed. I loved that little town, with the creek and the crows and the long lazy summer days of wandering the trails through the sagebrush. I have nothing but fondness for that place, even though it no longer exists. (It has disappeared into a suburban maze of fancy houses, to the point that I can barely find my way around anymore; but it will always live on in my mind.)
What has been the reception to the novel so far from non-Mormons, LDS and/or those in the fundamentalist Mormon community? Has anything surprised you?
I had just finished the final draft of my novel when the media was full of stories about Warren Jeffs and the FLDS, which of course meant there were also many stories about Mormons. Then Mitt Romney ran for president and a new round of publicity about Mormons began. Now, when I do readings from my book, audiences who have heard all the stories in the news are full of pent-up questions, not only about “polygamists,” but about the fundamentalist’s relationship to the LDS Church.
Mormons who have read my book often tell me that they get so involved in the story they read it all in one sitting. It seems to affect many Mormon readers deeply. I hope some of these people will come forward and describe their experience of reading the book. It would help me understand what they are getting from it. Ex-Mormons, or at least those who say they are no longer attending church, are sometimes troubled by the story. That surprises me. Maybe my child narrator causes them to relive the innocence and vulnerability of their childhood, a vulnerability they are now trying to escape. Even so, some of these readers have come back to talk with me and it has led to some wonderful discussions about faith and the rejection of faith.
Non-Mormons mostly have a lot of questions. They have heard all the stories in the media about Mormons and fundamentalists and they want to know how much of it is true. They want to know how many Mormons still practice polygamy. Even after all the disclaimers by the LDS Church, many non-Mormons still associate Mormonism with polygamy. It is easy for me to set them straight about that, but the Church’s historical connection to polygamy is much more difficult to explain.
So far, I don’t know of any fundamentalists who have read my novel. The “bad guy” in the novel is a fundamentalist so I doubt they would feel I have represented them fairly. I do have some uneasiness about that representation, but as I wrote the story, I came to understand the tremendous power a man who is in the position of speaking for God has. The fundamentalist antagonist in my story uses his self-claimed relationship with God for his own purposes. These days, there are many instances of this type of abuse of power and the issue concerns me greatly. Any man or woman who speaks for God should consider their position very carefully and “first do no harm.” I believe restricting the mind and free will of a person is definitely doing them harm.
Are you currently working on another book?
I am about a third of the way through the first draft of a novel about Alzheimer’s as a state of enlightenment. It is another book based on my father’s life. It also takes place in Utah. My father built a house in the desert near Hurricane, Utah, and in the book the character modeled on him picks up a variety of very interesting hitchhikers as he drives down there from Salt Lake City. Surprisingly, it is a story with a good deal of humor in it.
What works of art do you draw inspiration from or find especially interesting and/or entertaining? Any authors that you particularly like?
I am drawn to any art that shows a unique and intriguing perception. I love Van Gogh, Picasso, the pointillist painters, Edward Hooper, and University of Utah art professor Tony Smith who is a friend and one of my favorite artists.
I love books that have a clear and original voice, that take me deep into the mind of a character, a culture, or a point of view. Some books I’ve recently read are Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, and Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart by Joyce Carol Oates. Some of my favorite writers are Doris Lessing, Gabriel GarcÃa Marquez, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, David Malouf, and Margaret Atwood.
I like the music of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Emmy Lou Harris, Sara McLaughlin, Joan Baez, Gillian Welsh, Bonnie Rait, and John Prine, and any of the story songs written by Doc Murdock, my soul mate forever. What these artists all have in common is that they offer a deep and passionate look into a unique perspective of human consciousness.