Since reading the first chapter of Elna Baker’s The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, the book has taken me on a ride. Sometimes I was filled with joy and sometimes with horror. Sometimes I felt she was very much my kind of Mormon and sometimes I wanted to slap her. In other words, it’s a good memoir.
1. Damage Control
About halfway through the book, a newly confident Elna (more on that momentarily) decides she will win the most desirable young Mormon man in New York. Her primary competition is an Amber who “is like a Heather only she’s attacking your spiritual worthiness and your dress size at the same time” (128):
And do you know what the craziest part about all this is? Amber’s popular. I’m dumbfounded by it. Not because I’m jealous or want to be popular myself, but because she’s insane. She raised her hand in church one Sunday and said that Katrina happened in New Orleans because sometimes God needs to “cleanse the world of sin.” It’s people like her that make damage control in the non-Mormon world a never-ending task. (129)
I’m with Elna here: It makes it harder for me to feel like a reasonable and respectable person when I’m put in the same category with Ambers. Seriously So Blessed owes its massive success to the existence of Ambers, and that faux Amber’s over-the-top self-righteous snidery rings plenty true — the site has both the insider lovemail and outsider hatemail to prove it.
So yay. Elna is a defender of the faith. Or is she, he said as he turned to the camera, one eyebrow raised.
Do we defend the faith alongside Elna? Or do we defend it against her?
Here’s a scan of the dedication page:
Elna is clearly not writing this dedication just for her parents. It’s written for any LDS Barnes and Noble shopper who picks this book up wondering what Mormons (like themselves) have to do with sexy short dresses (unlike their own dresses) and begins to thumb through it, looking to see whether the author is on Sister McKay’s side or not.
And, clearly, Sister McKay would not approve of a Mormon girl who uses “nine F-words, thirteen Sh-words, [and] four A-holes.”
Elna’s sending a clear message to good Mormons who would sooner be murdered than speak inappropriately: “I would sooner speak inappropriately than be murdered.”
And if you believe that unclean language springs from unclean thoughts leads to unclean actions, then beware: This young lady might be exactly who you fear she is.
So if her dedication makes you doubt her dedication, this is not the book for you.
Start defending the faith.
3. You’ll notice I’m calling her Elna
Not to make this review all about me, but yes, I am. I am calling her Elna.
One aspect of this book is that it’s difficult to finish it without believing you know Elna Baker, that you are Elna Baker’s close personal friend. And so I call her Elna. Until she tells me to stop.
4. The Polite-Company Rule of Memoir Writing
I’m not sure what the precise ratio is, but modern memoirs have a clear x:y requirement of Stories Appropriate for Polite Company to Stories Decidedly Not for Polite Company. Elna’s in a unique spot in that, depending on what brand of Polite Company you mean, nearly everything she says is a notfor. Both Jesus and tongue tag are taboo depending on who you’re sitting down with. So her potential at making Constant Reader uncomfortable is doubled, giving her an advantage over people like James Frey and JT LeRoy who had to make stuff up to keep everyone squirming.
Mormons make people uncomfortable. Mormons are easily made uncomfortable. What a win-win for Elna.
5. Pooping out a Fourth Grader
If you, like me, have only seen pictures of Elna like
then you may find it difficult to believe that she was not always a little blonde cutie in the traditional form. And all the available photographic evidence (coming up next) would suggest that’s what she wants you to believe. And yet, one of her book’s major emphases is her change from Large-Since-Childhood to Sexy (“Who knew that I could be sexy?” ).
Like any Large American, she had flirted with dieting before, but it never took. Until one day at a British amusement park she met a funhouse mirror that presented her to Thin Elna. “‘I wish I looked like you,'” (78) she says and, having seen herself Thin (“For the first time . . . [with] a sweet spirit and a sweet ass” ), she decides that it is time to finally drop the weight. For reals this time.
You should know that in addition to all the bad language (and so forth), this book also contains some clear and penetrating spiritual moments that are without irritating sentimentality or that feel tacked on without being first earned. The weight-loss story is one of these.
She prays for grace before starting. She skips her own birthday cake. The doctor has her keep track of all her eats. She drinks gallons of water and takes “Potassium, seratonin, dopamine, a multivitamin, and phentermine . . . little circles of color. Skittles . . . only the opposite” (84).
And she starts shedding weight.
She’s a great success.
Until she realizes she’s only halfway done.
Only halfway done.
And then she has that experience where “God wasn’t in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but God wasn’t in the fire, and after the fire a still, small voice, and God was in the still, small voice” (90) and she perseveres, together with God, and loses “eighty pounds, which is the equivalent of pooping out a fourth grader” (91) and she and God stand together in their moment of shared victory.
She is Thin.
6. Evidence of the Past
Now. That Polite-Company Rule? Really, in most circumstances, “Stories Appropriate for Polite Company” means stories that the teller can tell without giving away any information they do not wish to part with. In other words, you don’t tell embarrassing stories. Not ones that still embarrass you.
But the memoirist makes the decision to bring these unpleasantnesses into the foreground and display them, providing a mutual catharsis shared between author and reader.
But there is a line Elna will not cross. She claims to have destroyed all pre-Thin Elna photos. For all I know this is true. I have never seen one.
And so, new addendum to the Polite-Company rule, you may tell all the inappropriate stories you want, but you are not required to show anything.
7. The Change
Speaking of showing, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is punctuated with drawings and handwritten text. The two most significant (because recurring) offer commentary on the past and foreshadow the future and fill in untold gaps. These are a simple T-chart comparing “What I believe” and “What I used to believe”, and a map of Manhattan surrounded by a gradually growing list of boys kissed. Here is the first map (123):
Besides the fact that handmade inking is always welcome in a book, Elna uses her ink to good effect. Not to dumb down the book, but to provide additional facts on the sly. They show a respect for the reader’s capacity to figure things out. And what reader doesn’t appreciate that?
If you’re good at numbers you’ll notice that this first map didn’t appear until postfourthgraderpooping. Care to guess the reason for that?
You’re right! Thin Elna gets lots more kisses than Large Elna did!
8. Wait, phentermine???
“Everyone gains weight back, at least a little of it. I knew this. I’d watched it happen to other people. But that wasn’t going to be me. I was a success story” (200). Only it did. When she gained back ten pounds, unwilling to disappoint her doctor, she decided to lie about her weight and order her old pills again off the Internet.
And this second experience with phentermine takes the most beautiful moment in the book thus far and turns it 90° and suddenly it’s not so otherworldly anymore: “‘It’s basically a derivative of speed'” (203).
. . . [losing weight had been] an out of body experience — Christ was dwelling inside me. I was waking up early, jogging incessantly, my appetite was gone, and I had an obsessive need to clean: All because of God. Only this change in my behavior hadn’t started the night I . . . prayed for His grace. These symptoms began two weeks later when I first took phentermine. My BIG miracle, I realized, the closest thing I had to evidence of God’s existence, was actually just me — ON SPEED! (203-4)
9. An Aside, in which You Are Subjected to Some Thericonian Philosophy
I try and I try to understand why so many Christians are threatened by evolution. That many of us are is well documented and something irreligious authors love to harp on. The otherwise brilliant novel Ark Baby blows it at the end by having a religious man, faced with irrefutable evidence of evolution, suddenly just drop God like an out-of-fashion necktie.
Among the new threats scary science is currently wielding over faith is the God Spot in the brain where religious sentiment is generated. An idea Robert J. Sawyer used to prove God a brain-generated evolutionary error.
Or human cloning, which idea gives Elna the heebie-jeebies — “‘Scientists can’t create that thing that makes us alive . . . They can’t create a person’s soul‘” (163).
Now, Mormons are famously (though with plenty of exception among the laity) unconcerned with what the truth is because we are concerned with what the truth is. Or, to be less enigmatic, since we believe in gathering in all truth, we do not fear it. So if it ends up that God wants to talk to me through an evolutionary “error”, why should that bother me?
Why can’t God give clones souls?
Why shouldn’t God work through speed?
10. How much do we love the moderately estranged? Elna Baker as test case.
Let’s start with what Bambi said:
I attended NYC singles wards at the same time as Elna and she was a rather polarizing figure. Yes, she is mostly funny, but a lot of it comes at the expense of the church or its quirks. A lot of people were bothered by the fact by Elna would be representing the church to so many people and the manner in which she did it. I think that by most accounts she stayed “active””“at least in the NYC sense of the word. She made some decisions about her act that some members would find questionable, but she is definitely a talented story teller and worth checking out at least once.
Bambi is hitting on the curious truth that many Mormons seem to labor under the incorrect assumption that Mormons are a homogeneous group. That’s bad for Mormons who think Mormon are like themselves (because they fail to reach out), and it’s bad for Mormon who think Mormons are not like themselves (because they feel pushed away).
And what happens when someone like Elna shows up, someone who forces those on the one side to realize this coin has over 13,508,509 sides? She might make us uncomfortable, but since when is being thrust out of our comfort zones antithetical to being Mormon?
Theory: the real issue (though not for Bambi, obviously — please don’t feel picked on) is that she is single.
The travails of the single Mormon woman have been done to death within Mormonism so no need to rehash it, but I had a revelation recently when a good friend of mine was married. Because I did not expect her to get married. The not-enough-Mormon-males problem is so endemic that I have stopped expecting my single female friends to marry.
Elna deals with the cutthroat Mormon singles scene with not enough boys on one side and Ambers, those “crazy dogmatic Christians on a quest to find celestial popularity” (128), on the other.
When Elna finally does start dating a Mormon boy, she warns him that “my mom says that every time I meet a guy at church I subconsciously sabotage it” (214).
And why not? Kissing your way across Manhattan isn’t a mistake on par with marrying the wrong Mormon and ending up with an eternity of bad sex (several pages). It may be a mistake and it may make some people look down on you but it’s a risk with a short shelf-life. The wrong marriage, however . . . .
Elna clearly considers herself Mormon. She just as clearly is unsure how to process that fact. She clearly has a testimony. She just as clearly is unsure how to quantify that testimony.
Thus, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is a volley of sorts — a manifesto for moderately estranged Mormons. The question begged, then, is how will “homogeneous” Mormons reply? Is our literary culture gracious enough to let in a (nonapostate but) moderately estranged believer?
11. Until tomorrow when her book hits stores, Elna Baker will be better known for telling her stories live. Here’s one from the book. (Please be warned that it mentions v*g*n*s.)
12. Spoiler alert
I’ve already given too much away. Sure, I haven’t touched the atheist boyfriend or the movie star or the racist baby shoppers, but now I’m now going to talk about the end of the book. So be warned.
Also, know that much of what I say will be in response to my previous post on The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance‘s first chapter.
13. The End of the Book
It ends perfectly with a primal scream on a log at a lake in the woods in the midst of the artistic release of writing this book. Release and self-acceptance and all is right with the world and one more drawing to wrap things up and tell us we are done and then huh? what’s this?
Just as Elna sabotages her relationships with men, she now needs to sabotage her relationship with her readers. She had us at a place of hope and comfort and optimism for the future, but she is constitutionally unable to leave us there. As she says, she’d “sooner admit to holding a penis than to being sentimental” (271) and so she takes her advance on the book and blows it on a trip that is guaranteed to grind her into dust. Frankly, her capacity for self-immolation is remarkable. I can’t tell you how many times I ripped the book from my face, forced to psych myself up to read the next massively short-sighted (stupid) or embarrassing (horrifying) thing she would do next.
And so she takes her book’s perfect ending and gives us one more extended horror.
15. The End of Yes?
And having done so, she realizes that she is “refusing to choose what kind of person I want to be. I’m saying yes to way too many things. I love that moment of unlimited possibilities so much that I’ve accidentally built my entire life there” (271-1).
Last time I said that
Elna demonstrates through joyous actions the pleasure and happiness to be found in living a life of YES and she makes us want to say YES as well . . . [and] by the end of page 22, as you stand in the corner of the New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance with Elna and her “too many cookies and a notebook” watching “a thirty-five-year-old man — definitely a virgin — dressed in a duck costume doing the electric slide” you will pray, with her, “God, there has to be another way.”
She feels that way again as the coda ends.
But this time, the answer might not be
One final thought……:
I’m glad it took me so long between finishing the book and finishing the review, as now I have a better sense of what its lasting impression is. The proper ending and the conflicting coda left me unsure whether Elna was providing damage control or requiring more of it.
But two weeks later, I can say, that no matter what label you want to put on her, Elna Baker is my kind of [label].
38 thoughts on “Damage Control (and 15 other responses to Elna Baker)”
Th. = brilliant.
1. Wait, is this copy yours to keep? If so, can I borrow it?
2. That’s an interesting point, about her being single. I will have to think about the connection.
3. Excellent review.
Nice review. Lots of stuff to discuss here, but it feels like I should read the book first …
Idea: we start an AMV book group (a non-sexist one that, unlike the group in my ward, allows MEN!) and read and discuss this thing together …
I’m going to have agree with Luisa, Th. (Just don’t let it go to your head.) Brilliant. Awesome post. I sometimes think we need more Mormon stories from real people who are also Mormons (or would that be “from Mormons who are also real people”?), not from the Ambers or the Peters so bent on “celestial popularity” that they sentimentalize and sensationalize life into what amounts to a fairy tale devoid of real conflict and struggle, even, no, especially conflict and struggle with and within the self. Stories from Mormons who aren’t afraid to admit to those F-words, Sh-words, and A-holes and to their experiences with God (even if they do include speed), though there are other times (like when I consider my mother reading what I’ve written) when I think that might do more damage than good. Then again, if we can’t be ourselves, who should we be? Amber? Peter? Elna? Theric? And we can’t all be one of those.
What I like about this post and what I think I’d like about Elna’s book if I read it (which I’d like to) is that it seems neither of you are afraid to be yourself, to be honest about your convictions and your doubts, and to tell stories about what life is like in your neck of the Mormon borderlands, in the radical middle. And that empowers me to do the same.
Anyway. Great post. It’s given me a lot to think about this morning.
the racist baby shoppers
Hey, this line rang a bell. She’s the final act:
Wow! Best Review of a Mormon Book this year, IMO.
Now I want to find out why she thought that God cares whether she is thin or not. (I suspect that this is health-based reasoning gone awry?).
But, that doesn’t seem that strange to me, I guess. I know plenty of other Mormon women that would have the same connection. And I’m sure I’ve made a similar connection on some other subject, just not about weight.
This draws on our Mormon tendency to attribute things to God without justification.
Yes, well done. I appreciate especially the highlighting and contextualization of the single LDS scene. You handled what is a difficult review very well. In fact, I think we’ve seen several instances of that over the past year. Good job, co-bloggers.
Also: loved the Frey and JT Leroy crack, and it confirms what a lot of us have been saying about being a Mormon puts one in a very interesting position vis a vis American culture.
I have to say on thing, though: it’s easy for us to applaud the moderately estranged (and the applause appears to be deserved). In doing so, let’s not forget that the Ambers and Peters have their own stories and strengths and weaknesses and contributions (and sometimes hidden tragedies) to the kingdom.
let’s not forget that the Ambers and Peters have their own stories and strengths and weaknesses and contributions (and sometimes hidden tragedies) to the kingdom.
Too true, Wm. Thanks for the reminder. I need to remember that sometimes and be more compassionate when Amber and Peter come knocking…
But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that we can’t interrogate or even satirize certain attitudes/perceptions/behaviors/modes of speech. As long as its well done, not hecka mean, and equal opportunity…
Luisa: Ah, shucks.
Petra: Yes; do; thanks.
Shawn: My ward’s book group (discussed at length here) is also exclusionary. If only men (other than you and I, of course) read books!
Mephibosheth: I have to ask, since your handle means “exterminator of the shameful one” (cf), if you chose it specifically to comment on this post. (But before you go there, yes, you were right — she’s been on some other topnotch NPR as well.)
I’m now going to go on the assumption that your name is part of your comment and wildly hypothesize on what you may have meant.
a) writers who bring us shame should be exterminated
b) writers like Elna can break apart the shadows of shamefulness and cast sunlight upon new shamefree versions of ourselves
c) you are a vigilante, hunting down shameful ne’er-do-wells and leaving them lying in the street in their own gore
I’m voting for b, by the way.
Kent: Thanks for the compliment.
I think (though I may be projecting here) (and my book’s at home so I can’t look for quotes) that it was less God wanting her to be thin and more God being willing to help her do something difficult that was important to her. I’m not sure though.
But I do agree that we tend too often “to attribute things to God without justification” — although knowing when it is justified and when it isn’t is difficult. It’s like the question, what’s appropriate to pray for? Which I often find paralyzing.
Tyler: Thanks for the adjectives. I’m adding them to my CV as we speak.
For months now I’ve been mulling a post on the Sunstone concept of Borderlands because I’m just not that keen on the way it’s defined. But that’s neither here nor there today.
That said, we do need more honestly told Mormon stories less focussed on celestial popularity and more focussed on our utterly unique and thus shared )for are we not all utterly unique? [/irony]) humanity.
The homogeneity problem I speak of is, I think, perhaps the greatest problem we have in Saintdom. In our quest to be Zion, to be of one heart and mind, we forget that we are simultaneously just a collection of individuals. And while celebrating gross difference is not what I think Mormonism needs, neither should any difference be disturbing.
William: I have a guess that Amber won’t be writing an honest memoir anytime soon. Can I get a holla for fiction?
On the other hand, I love the idea of Elna mixing Mormonism with this whole trend of uber-confessional memoirs.
Wow, wonderful review!
Mormons seem to have a particular problem with this. Are other religions really less interested in being “of one heart and mind”? Or is there something else going on?
Wm: The conceit’s perfect, really. Misery lit is the one popular genre in which being Mormon can be presented to a publisher as a clear advantage.
I’m not convinced this is true (I don’t have the personal experience to really say either way), but if it is, then I wonder if lay leadership promotes the problem. We all have some responsibility to get everyone else toeing the line.
For months now I’ve been mulling a post on the Sunstone concept of Borderlands because I’m just not that keen on the way it’s defined.
Funny: I’ve been thinking the same thing, both in terms of the post and the way the concept’s defined. Maybe we should make it a join venture: Th. & Tyler, Lost in the Borderlands.
Well see, that’s just the thing. I don’t consider myself lost in the Borderlands. I’m a mainstream, orthodox member of the Church, dannit, and I don’t care what other mainstream members say about it.
(Although I have begun to wonder if this opinion’s easier to hold in Berkeley….)
Most religions are self-segregating, even religions where specific behaviors are definitional. Are you Orthodox or Conservative or Reform? Practically every Protestant congregation is the product of self-segregation. Not even Catholics enforce diocese boundaries the way Mormons enforce stake and ward boundaries. And once you remove the more Pharisaical rules from the mix, it is harder to tell who is actually toeing the line.
So, Protestant denominations can self-segregate, to a large extent, but Mormons really can’t (for various reasons), so the uniformity has to be imposed otherwise, either culturally or by dint of correlation?
I’m thinking maybe I should rename an influential-but-only-referred-to character in my book from Heather to something a bit less Mormonly loaded.
OTOH, it gave me a giggle.
Of course, I was being a bit facetious w/the “lost” thing, but I do see where you’re coming from b/c I consider myself a believing, faithful, card-carrying Mormon, though the demographics of belief (I’ll call them for now) are likely quite different here in Idaho Falls than they are in Berkley or Elna’s New York.
Correction: that should read “though where I fit in the demographics of belief (as I’ll call them for now) is likely quite different here in Idaho Falls than it would be in Theric’s Berkley or Elna’s New York.”
If you’re going to make fun of us, at least make fun of us correctly.
(hat tip T&S)
What a fun, imaginative take on a book I now want to read. Great review. Thanks.
In other news, I too read that WSJ article earlier today (and copied a quote into my interview Qs) and several other interesting interviews from online. If you want more Elna tonight before the book’s release (sorry, I don’t know of any midnight release parties), the interwebz can provide.
No commentary was intended, but I enjoyed your analysis, and concur with your choice of b). I use it as a handle because I think it’s a funny name, and the story has a great Mormon and gospel messages on a number of levels (2 Samuel 9).
Very nice, Theric.
Speaking of Ambers,
I was a missionary during 9/11 and shortly thereafter (three months, max) had a companion close his testimony one fast Sunday by saying that all the people who died were destroyed for their wickedness and “pridefulness.” He still got an “amen,” but I didn’t dare look many people in the eye for the rest of the block.
I think sometimes God shuts people’s ears to the stupid things missionaries say. We always said that if the Church wasn’t true, the missionaries would have ruined it a long time ago. I think we all have moments when we represent ourselves and the Church very poorly indeed.
But all is not lost. In my companion’s case, what the congregation sensed (I think) was his powerful, simple faith that God is really the God of this world, and His purposes prevail. What they didn’t know was that this Elder’s learning disability made him socially awkward and prone to such judgments. I was blessed to see him improve a lot over time, and I’d not be surprised if I never find a member of that ward who remembers hearing what to me was an unforgettably embarrassing comment.
And, to add to that, I think God is much more willing to forgive our foibles that we are willing to forgive ourselves or those close to us — even if that closeness is mostly imagined.
Very well written review. Thanks for the shout-out, I think. I haven’t read the book yet, but heard many of her stories before, I think I will find it interesting to hear how the tales were told this time. I’m just guessing, but I imagine that the stories, like all good stories, will have a little more Frey/Leroy spin on them than what happened in reality…but then, what is reality? That is also one of Elna’s gifts–to be able to find the drama and comedy in situations where others might not see it initially. I’m really proud of Elna in following through on her goals. I hope her book is tremendously successful and that Mormons–both those in NY and those in Idaho Falls will be more open-minded about it like you Th. and less like her Grandpa.
Anyway, I seem to recall that there might be one pre-thin Elna picture floating around out there. She wrote an article for ELLE magazine a few years ago about her dramatic weight loss and the choice to get plastic surgery thereafter. I seem to remember there being a before and after picture in the article.
I’ve heard of that article, but I understand it’s not online.
Well, if the book’s big enough, TMZ will dig one up for us….
I bought this last weekend in Boston when I needed something to read on the T. A few reactions:
1. I found the ending rather sad, mainly because she doesn’t really come to any satisfying conclusion about which direction to pick. I also thought it was a rather odd ending for a memoir, since memoirs generally end with some a more tidy conclusion (however manufactured it may be).
On the other hand, the whole book is about Elna feeling torn between two worlds, and ending the memoir ambiguously may be a more honest way of approaching the matter.
2. My brother found the “what I believe / what I used to believe” lists pointless. I figured that they were there as guideposts to help no-Mos navigate the world of faith. I was, however, thrown by something listed in the last one, where she says that she no longer believes that after she dies, she can become a God and create world. That particular belief doesn’t seem to have much to do with the story she’s telling in her memoir, but it is a fairly central tenet of Mormonism, so I was surprised to see her toss it out without any explanation. (I.e., what made her change her mind about that and what else has gone with it?)
3. Elna’s story, the concept of the “radical middle,” and the gap in the “passion / pop curve,” have all got me wondering if the problem with marketing to the middle group in Mormonism isn’t that the group doesn’t exist, but that the group isn’t very stable. I.e., the conservative Mormon market is self-reinforcing, and the non-religious market is equally stable, but the market in the middle is mostly composed of people who are trying to reconcile themselves to one camp or the other, which means that they won’t be around as long-term consumers.
I think your #3 is very interesting, Katya. It’s definitely stable for *some* folks, but your right that it may not be for a lot of long-term consumers, which is why there are major resource issues with the radical middle (more on that tomorrow).
Another one I found interesting but decided not to write about or ask her about is how she clearly has decided that masturbation is for her yet it’s not something she’s ready to make jokes about yet. I imagine it’s hit her standup by now, but if not, it’s weighing on her enough, she’ll have to expunge it sometime.
The creation thing — she doesn’t represent that aspect of LDS cosmology very well at any point. So I wonder too about her relationship to that doctrine.
If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t bother with the church at all.
I’m with Moriah.
What’s the point of being a child of deity if it’s more like how my sister is “mommy” to the sweetest dog in the world, rather than actual offspring?
When my missionary self met neo-pagans, (i.e. Wicca) that’s where I started, because then they saw a reason for a savior.
When I read this post I thought that is was an absolutely brilliant analysis and discussion of Elna’s book. Really spot on! And then I realized that it was THE Theric writing, and I smiled. I must now buy several of the books,to give out as presents for Christmas, and will slip a copy of these posts into the books that I will give to friends. Good job TH!
Thanks, Erin. You know I love you.
(Are you waiting for 10/10/10 to post on your blog again?)
Because of Erin’s comment I read through the post again and fixed a few minor typos. Single-character things.