The Disabled in Mormon Lit

A friend asked yesterday if I knew any works of Mormon literature that dealt with disabilities, especially those that treat mental disabilities. I was only able to come up with one title off the top of my head, Margaret Blair Young’s stunning play Dear Stone, so I thought readers here might help put together a more extensive list.

A quick search of the MLCA database gave me a few additional titles, which I’ve listed below. Can any of the readers here fill out the list?

[Just to be clear, this list includes all kinds of disabilities, not just cognitive disabilities.]

  • The Handicapped by Josephine Spencer. Young Woman’s Journal 23 (January 1914): 7-17
  • Handicapped Boy by Margaret Johnson. The Relief Society Magazine 27 (1940): 250-252
  • Charlie’s Monument: An Allegory of Love by Blaine M. Yorgason. Rexburg, ID: Ricks College Press, 1976 (64p.); and Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1977
  • Lost Boys by Orson Scott Card. In The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction 77 (October 1989): 73″“91; and in Maps in a Mirror: The Short Fiction of Orson Scott Card New York, NY: Tor Books, 1990 (675p.): 108″“20
  • The Warm Spirit by Blaine M. Yorgason, Brenton G. Yorgason. Salt Lake city, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1990 (20p.)
  • Lost Boys by Orson Scott Card. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992 (448p.)
  • Dear Stone by Margaret Blair Young. Produced May, 1997 by BYU’s Theater Department.
  • Light of Bethlehem by Julie A. Warnick. American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2000 (29 p.)
  • Where the Heart Leads by Anita Stansfield. American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2001 (246 pp.)

21 thoughts on “The Disabled in Mormon Lit”

  1. MBY also did a novelized version of the play “Dear Stone”, called Heresies of Nature. Signature, 2002.


    Angie, by Pat Bezzant. Fawcett, 1996. AML YA fiction prize. About a learning-disabled girl.

    Steven Tuttle. “The Tree of the Holy Virgin: A Primer,” Hunger Mountain. 8. Spring 2006. Essay about working with cognitively disabled children.

    A handicapped daughter plays a small but important role in Brady Udall’s The Lonley Polygamist.

  2. I did a search of my Year in Reviews, and came up with a bunch.

    Holliday, Vallarie. “Mothers, Daughters, and Dolls” in Dialogue, Fall 1990 (23:3), and “Street Sympathy” in Dialogue, Fall 1992 (25:3). Valerie wrote about her relationships with her family in the two essays in Dialogue, especially her mother, who suffered from mental illness.

    Yates, Alma J. Sammy’s Song. Covenant, 2005. Girl helps her handicapped cousin in 1968.

    Leavitt, Martine Bates. Heck, Superhero. Front Street Press, 2004. Middle grade. A mentally ill mother and a boy on the streets. 2004 Kirkus Reviews Editor’s Choice. 2005 ALA Best Book for Young Adults. 2005 ALA Notable Children’s Book. “Credible characters are placed in recognizable situations to create a poignant, fast-paced, and believable look at homelessness, mental illness, and the way one boy copes with their impact.”

    Torres, Laura. Crossing Montana. Holiday House, 2002. Middle grade. Coming-of-age story about a girl who takes care of her dysfunctional family. Kirkus: “As she copes with the tangled feelings of identity and love, she also realizes that she must confront the possibility of mental illness in her own life. Absorbing and powerful.”

    Elizabeth Petty Bentley. In a Dry Land. Publish America, 2006. Mormon family struggles with various problems, most of all caring for a mentally handicapped daughter. Centers on bitter daughter who was conceived and raised to be a caregiver for the handicapped girl.

    Jack A. Nelson. To Die in Kanab. Cedar Fort, 2006. Southern Utah crime. Nelson is a retired BYU journalism professor, and a parapalegic since age 17. He often writes about disability and journalism issues.

    Mr. Dungbeetle (film). Tom Russell, director/writer. Jeff Parkin, producer. Around 2007. Lots of BYU people involved. Comedy about mental patients escaping from a sanatorium.

    Winegar, Tracy. Keeping Keller. Cedar Fort, 2008. 1955, couple has an older mentally handicapped son, big challenge. Revealed at the end that the boy is autistic, which was often diagnosed as insanity in those days.

    Larson, Melissa Leilani. Up Deer Creek. New Play Project (Lost & Found), 2008. A couple from an earlier era struggle with what to do with a severely handicapped baby.

    Heuston, Kimberly. The Book of Jude. Front Street, 2008. About an intelligent Mormon girl’s fight against a debilitating psychological illness, set against the historical events of the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Prague. Elizabeth Ward at The Washington Post wrote, “[Jude’s] a canny and poetic observer, but because we’re limited to her viewpoint, the fog is pretty thick before it dawns on us that this is no portrait of a spoiled, “stupid American teenager,” but a remarkable inside account of a mental illness unfolding . . . Heuston’s interweaving of these big themes is moving and often funny, and she rarely jabs you to think this or feel that. You could give The Book of Jude to any adult, young or otherwise.” Lynn Rashid at the School Library Journal wrote, “The story starts off slowly as the teen leaves New York and the political and social details of Czechoslovakia are presented. While some less-savvy readers may be alienated by the historical context and setting, others will be drawn in as it becomes apparent that Jude is struggling with more than the usual teen angst. Other novels do a better job of illuminating the realities of teen mental illness; what makes this novel unique is the context in which it takes place.” A reviewer at Kirkus wrote, “Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, Jude is placed on medication and returned to her family in Prague where, far from cured, she continues her self-destructive behaviour. Only when her father brings a Mormon bishop to bless her does Jude return to functional health. Although Jude’s illness is powerfully and convincingly portrayed, the deus-ex-machina resolution fails to satisfy. Readers who don’t know or share the Mormon faith may be perplexed or unconvinced by Jude’s beatific religious experience. The message that severe mental illness can be cured, or at least controlled, by faith is at best debatable.”

    Ellis, Ann Dee. Everything Is Fine. Little, Brown, 2009. YA, written in verse. Stuck at home caring for her severely depressed mother and abandoned by her father, Mazzy has only the day-to-day dramas of her neighborhood to keep her busy. “What Ellis makes crystal-clear is how the tsunami of mental illness can devastate everybody in its wake.”

    Stewart, Mahonri. Fading Flower. 2009. About David Hyrum Smith, Joseph Smith’s youngest son, who suffered from a mental illness. Occurs during the time of David’s courtship and Emma’s struggles to protect and hold together her maturing family.

    Best, Ann C. In the Mirror. WIDO, 2011. Memoir of Ann’s life, including her divorce, and her care for a disabled daughter.

    Wells, Dan. I Am Not a Serial Killer. TOR, 2009. Horror/fantasy. John Wayne Clever series about a sociopath. [And of course the new Dan Wells book].

    Williams, Carol Lynch. Glimpse. Simon & Schuster, 2010. YA, in free verse. Two sisters, one suffers from depression, becomes suicidal.

    Williams, Carol Lynch. Miles From Ordinary. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011. Kirkus stared review. A 13-year-old girl and her struggle to cope with her mentally ill mother.

    Fletcher, Tiffany. Mother Had a Secret. Covenant, 2010. Memoir. Daughter chronicles her mother’s mental illness with multiple personality disorder.

  3. One main concern of my novel, Bound on Earth, is how a character’s mental disability (in this case, bipolar disorder) affects an extended family.

    The main character in Jack Harrell’s story “Calling and Election” has a brain tumor that may or may not be causing mental disturbances and hallucinations.

    Kathryn Lynard Soper’s memoir The Year My Son and I Were Born focuses not only on her son’s Down syndrome, but Soper’s own depression as well.

  4. Does mental disability mean the same thing as mood disorder or mental health issues? I’m not sure that bipolar disorder and depression are the same thing as a disability.

  5. Depends on your definition of disability.

    From my point of view, as a disability attorney, the answer is definitely “yes”, if the condition affects one’s ability to function in some area of life.

  6. Awesome! Thanks for posting this, Kent, and thanks for all the feedback folks. Doing a master’s thesis on cognitive disability in LDS theology so these will come in handy, as our official manuals etc. usually do not confront the issue directly.

    Laura: there is some controversy over whether depression should be considered a disability. Also, in disability studies in the US tends to separate “impairment” from “disability,” the former refers to the actual physiological or psychological aspect, the latter deals with the societal barriers which are constrictive/oppressive. So depression is usually considered an impairment but not always a disability. On the legal side of the question things get a bit murkier.

  7. My play Swallow the Sun about C.S. Lewis has a character “Doc” who suffers from what was diagnosed as war neurasthenia. The debate between characters that crops up in both this play and in The Fading Flower about whether these were mental ailments or spiritual ailments (possession) is something I thought worth exploring… even in the New Testament the “possessions” that Jesus cures there often seem like what we would term as clinical mental disabilities. Can mental illness ever be targeted by spiritual forces? Or are they physical and mental illness that we only attribute spiritual aspects to? Or do they mingle more than we could ever tell?

  8. It’s also interesting that historically both these characters were involved in spiritualism and the occult before their breakdowns. Same thing happened to Abraham Lincoln’s wife before her mental breakdown… was the mental illness drawn to this sort of thing or was it part of the cause?

  9. Can mental illness ever be targeted by spiritual forces?

    Interesting premise. I’ve long felt that so-called gifts of the Spirit are usually just gifts that get amplified in God’s service, kind of like wizards and wands. The notion of mental illness getting amplified in the service of Satan is bound to result in a story in my catalog.

  10. I skimmed over the other posts and I don’t think anyone mentioned Rebecca Talley’s The Up Side of Down. About an LDS woman who discovers that she is going to have a baby with downsyndrome, and if the list includes the I Am Not a Serial Killer series then it needs to also include the Hollow City by Dan Wells that just barely came out.

  11. Mark said:
    “Interesting premise. I’ve long felt that so-called gifts of the Spirit are usually just gifts that get amplified in God’s service, kind of like wizards and wands. The notion of mental illness getting amplified in the service of Satan is bound to result in a story in my catalog.”

    And I wonder if it can work vice versa, as well. For example, if one can have hallucinations through bi-polar, etc. can that be targeted by positive spiritual forces? Food for thought.

    And I agree with your spiritual gifts idea. There was a Wiccan we baptized on my mission whose gifts seemed the same before and after we baptized her… they were just now focused in a different direction towards Christ.

  12. Anyone ever seen Joan of Arcadia? The main character is a teenage girl who sees different manifestations of God who guide her to help people and do His/Her work. In one of the season finales she’s hospitalized and is diagnosed with lime disease, which is a crisis of faith for her.

    I also once had an experience where I swear I was attacked by a demon, which I saw, but then I watched a program on sleep paralysis which attributed those sort of experiences as a physical/mental ailment that is not so uncommon when people have not fully emerged from their dream state. It got me thinking for a while, but the experience was so vivid and real that I the theory I now have is that it was both– the demon used that as a point of access, where they are very well aware of our physical and mental make-up and how to manipulate it. It’s a theory anyway…

  13. I’m coming late to this conversation, but I just came across a physical disability in Nephi Anderson’s “The Boys of Springtown.” The novel features a character named Charley who is a “cripple” and a fantastic storyteller among the boys because he spends a lot of time reading and daydreaming. At one point, he gets picked on by the biggest boy in Springtown and his friends rally to his aid.

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