Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Cashing In on 'Book of Mormon' Stories
Adapted from a recent book proposal.
I feel I’ve lived several Latter-day lifetimes. (“Fales has lived an almost Dickensian life.”—Chicago Sun-Times.) It just so happens that I’m writing about my experiences at the height of “The Mormon Moment,” a moment that is only on pause since Mormon Gov. Mitt Romney recently lost the 2012 presidential election, but will surely resurge when gay friendlier Mormon Gov. Jon Huntsman (hopefully) returns to the freshly blazed campaign trail and more and more Mormons enter the mainstream. Mitt lost, but the Mormon monolith won! No matter what controversy comes along, Latter-day Saints always seem to come out on top. Mitt learned to “flip-flop” from them. Maybe I learned to weather storms and “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” from them, too! (I just wish I was heir to the Huntsman family estate. You think Mitt was rich!)
As Mormonism comes of age and outgrows its cult label and as Mormons lose their minority status—they’ve also begun to lose their anonymity. Anonymity afforded them protection in the past. Partially self-inflicted, their “anonymous” chapel and temple doors have been flung wide open forever. It’s disconcerting to me, however, to see how many outsiders are now cashing in on Mormon Americana plundering its newfound vulnerability and eccentricity. Mormons, Inc. has become quite the cottage industry and increasingly commercially viable. Who then should get a piece of the Mormon American Apple Pie?
With church membership globally warming to over 14,000,000 members and Mormonism flooding the earth, more discerning people than ever want to know who their Mormon neighbors really are—especially on the East Coast. It’s time for insiders to explain with honesty, fairness, and without lampooning. (Though it is irresistibly delicious to poke fun when they set themselves up for ridicule.) Too often I’ve seen complex Mormons indiscriminately written as two-dimensional characters and the rich sub-culture trivialized—an exotic American curiosity to be exploited and dismissed once the writer’s assignment is finished, agenda completed, play promoted and awards won. In a world of fleeting loyalty (if any) or visceral knowledge of the subject (even less) , I offer authentic, nuanced answers and distinctions to questions most journalists don’t even know how to ask just by telling my story truthfully.
Turning them into Mormon Muppets, today’s “Mopportunists” not only miss the heart and soul of the Mormon experience, but show disrespect when they misquote, take doctrine out of context, ignore details, miss historical facts and in-humor, mangle terminology and lexicon—especially when projects reach the stage or screen and they butcher syntax and egregiously mispronounce Mormon monikers! Not all are qualified to tell the Mormon story nor should they. In a world of carpetbaggers and gold diggers, I claim Mormon “authority” because I’ve lived it, care about it, was burned at the stake by it, and will continue to stand behind it. In fact I’m so excited I’ve done my homework I just want to start swearing about it! Flip-it-y-flip-in’-flip!
Heck, it’s a brave new post-Romney world! I hope to add another crack to the Mormon marble ceiling—and humanize Mormondom for the better. Called “such a perceptive writer” (New York Daily News), my writing is “wrenchingly honest” (Los Angeles Times) but I offer it with “an astonishing generosity of spirit” (Boston Globe). The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones assures, “Fales does not do a hatchet job on the Christian Right in general or on the LDS Church in particular.” I’ve experienced that gosh darn institutionalized bigotry of the doggone Mormon Church first hand! But in a bitter, angry world of two-fisted bullies slinging mud and blame, I still find myself whispering, “The fault, dear readers, is not in the Mormons but in ourselves that we are underlings.”
This memoir is my contribution to building bridges—an olive branch. As I say in one of my shows, I don’t have a problem with organized religion. It’s distorted religion that’s the problem. As an unofficial black sheep bard indigenous to the Mormon fold, I strive to bring healing and transformation to my tribe and more understanding to an inquisitive (yet still hostile) non-Mormon world. My work is a non-traditional prayer. Mormon Boy is my sometimes searing, often funny, always true-of-heart valentine.
It’s my experience that the specificity with which I write about Mormonism (and other themes in this book) helps the narrative land universally. It translates well to any religious culture. All are welcome at this Mormon banquet! As I pull back the curtain of my particular religious family’s dining room, non-denominational readers will imagine for themselves what it’s like to break bread with even more high profile “perfect” royal Mormon families than mine and vicariously witness how the “spiritual elite” wrangle with their Mormon white trash quandaries.
Regardless of economic or religious status all families are created dysfunctionally equal. As I will illuminate later, the disease of addiction and mental illness is no respecter of persons or cultures (though Mormons like to argue that they are immune!). Keeping the narrative close to the culture’s emphasis on the family there is no better way to understand Mormonism than through its microcosm. I will take you inside mine. As the Mormon scripture goes, “Here am I. Send me!”
My proud (cult-susceptible, mostly Anglo) immigrant ancestors crossed the Plains by covered wagon and settled what they considered the Promised Land. Born in Provo, Utah at the height of Mormonism’s Golden Age (1970s) I achieved all the Mormon male milestones with flying colors. I have the Mormon worldview down pat! At my Mormon best (before my fall from grace through formal excommunication) you couldn’t chip my Latter-day paint.
Mormondom has blessed me with many gifts—and at the same time it has slapped me in the face over and over again. I am a sixth-generation Mormon anomaly. As a survivor, I still personify and exemplify the attributes and liabilities of my people and bear the blessings and burdens of proof. A born people pleaser, I can defend, apologize or soothe with effusive compliments; a born provocateur, I can blast, antagonize and lacerate with damning criticism. I can turn on a scathing, witty Mormon dime. In spite of my scars I like to say that I may no longer be a Latter-day Saint but something about me will always be Mormon.
I don’t think I need to go into great detail about the popularity of Mormon-themed work, art and celebrities today, but here is a teaser: Jon Krakauer’s national bestselling Under the Banner of Heaven (Anchor Press 2004); the old bestseller The Mormon Murders; the mega hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon on Broadway (they stole my marketing!); Elizabeth Smart’s new memoir (St. Martin’s Press); Donny and Marie Osmond’s recent comeback from Vegas to Broadway including their bestselling books (Donny’s Life is Just What You Make It: My Story So Far; Marie’s Behind the Smile and Might as Well Laugh About it Now); Twilight author Stephanie Meyer (Mormon vampires?); controversial novelist Orson Scott Card; American Idol’s David Archuleta: singer Jewel; Ryan Gosling; Katherine Heigl; Amy Adams; Eliza Dushku; Chelsea Handler; Paul Walker; Aaron Eckhart (who I went to BYU with); playwright Neil LaBute (who I also went to BYU with); the HBO series Big Love; Reality TV’s Sister Wives; legendary Gladys Knight (converted!); Julianne Hough of Dancing With the Stars; Christina Aguilera’s parents; famous 49er quarterback Steve Young; Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o’s virtual love life; the gay cult film Latter Days; non-Mormon Tony Kushner’s seminal Angels in America (how dare he write about gay Mormons like myself!); Dustin Lance Black’s play 8 (not to mention his acclaimed Oscar acceptance speech that nearly rendered all my work irrelevant and his bareback sex tape! I have never done that.); the Sundance documentary film one-night sensation 8: The Mormon Proposition; the PBS documentary The Mormons; the many other books on Mormondom from Rough Stone Rolling to No Man Knows My History to Mormonism for Dummies and lots of very dry historical novels, memoirs, and textbooks; Mitt Romney’s Turnaround (and all the other books about him!); Fringe Mormonism’s Sunstone Magazine; excommunicated ERA activist Sonja Johnson’s From Housewife to Heretic (Random House, 1980); Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah)’s latest albums (not joking!); incendiary and sentimental Glenn Beck’s current and former FOX News empire; O Magazine writer Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints (daughter of legendary Mormon scholar and Egyptologist Hugh Nibley); The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’s late Stephen R. Covey; JetBlue founder David Neeleman; former CEO of Madison Square Garden Dave Checketts; and the Marriott Hotel empire (take that Paris Hilton!). Even Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) is a Mormon! (He sent me a letter when I received my Eagle Scout Award! Did I mention I was actually raised in Las Vegas? I’ll be going into that at length!) It’s a Mormon legend that Elvis enthusiastically received a copy of The Book of Mormon from the Osmonds! (It didn’t keep him sober).
Deserving a paragraph all her own, I can sing along with (and see through) the goddess of Mormon Arts and Letters Carol Lynn Pearson’s many Mormon works and memoirs including her bestselling Good-bye, I Love You. I happen to be her former son-in-law. It is also expedient that I mention my former Mormon blushing bride, Emily Pearson’s new memoir Dancing With Crazy (which I still haven’t read). Emily is Carol Lynn’s daughter and the mother of my children. My kids are the heirs to one of first mega hit Mormon musicals, Carol Lynn Pearson’s My Turn On Earth and my international off-Broadway one-man hit, Confessions of a Mormon Boy.
Let’s not forget that Time Magazine’s frequent cover girl The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has its own authorized PR campaigns to top the charts from its latest “I Am a Mormon” commercials in New York taxis to its official international touring ambassador, the Grammy Award-winning, Carnegie Hall playing, “longest-continuous-radio-broadcast-in-the-world” reaching Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s weekly Music and the Spoken Word. (Their iconic Mormon organ is a monstrosity. Over 11,000 pipes! The new Conference Center is the largest enclosed religious auditorium in the world seating 23,000!) As I recall the Church generated a bit of buzz during the 2002 Winter Olympics (or “Molympics”) in Salt Lake City (I worked for NBC in Park City that month). As it becomes popular to trace your ancestral lineage to Ellis Island and beyond, the Church boasts the largest genealogical library in the world. Every newly inaugurated president gets their family history done for them for free! Love them or hate them, Mormons are here to stay. (We were the original Scientology and have far more real estate! I heard we now own Mars.) I could go on but won’t. Except to say that I still seem to capitalize the “C” in my fond former Church a lot! Mormon habits die hard.
Once again, I propose that it’s still rare to find non-fiction Mormon mainstream stories written by insiders who are not out to proselytize and who are academically, artistically, and ecclesiastically free to be honest and objective. We must move beyond sentimental Pollyanna-member-written apologetic propaganda and bitter ex-Mormon political diatribes. Sometimes it takes a real heretic to get the job done not merely an intellectual, whining “apostate”. (Heretics have the prerogative to be generous. I am an heretic.) An insider’s insider but no longer “Peter Priesthood”, it’s still my calling, my birthright to tell Mormon stories—starting with my own.
I am offering something real, maybe even too real. “Because everything’s coming up Mormon!” (That’s from my irreverent, nostalgic “Broadway Mormon Medley.” You’ll never know when a lyric, scripture, pithy recovery slogan, witticism or silly quip will pop up in my tragicomedy.) Am I now gilding the Mormon lily? (The seagull lily is Utah’s state flower! Guess the state bird?) Though I am capable of sending up the Mormon stereotypes, by the end of this proposal I hope to have deconstructed and challenged them for the better—re-sculpting Latter-day souls into likeable, fresh characters while chiseling out an unforgettable, inspiring, classic, fresh Mormon Gothic narrative.
Finally, as an heir to the Mormon legacy I declare with a loud, clear subversive pioneer descendant voice that I am the quintessential oxy-Mormon or as Variety calls me, “Brokeback Mormon.” Though London’s Boyz Magazine calls me “the gayest Mormon on earth” with Four Stars! (London Gay Times gave me Five!), I’m ironically the wholesome dad you may have seen in the “Ski Utah” commercial that recently played all over the country. “The Greatest Snow on Earth!” I am no mere Manhattan Mormon poser or South Park imposter! I’m here to make the New York Times declare once more, “Fales knows how to sell it!” I’ll win over the most cynical The New Yorker subscriber.
I intend for this book to become the definitive Mormon (if not American) memoir. Mormonism, however, is just the compelling context for more important, serious themes—and I’m not just talking about cliché “Momosexuality”. And, yes, as a real Mormon, I’m working on that self-righteous arrogance. Let's get down to serious, vulnerable business.
The book proposal continues . . .