And here is a repost of a book review I wrote on October 29, 2014. It appears here as/is.
Those of you who regularly read this blog– and I know there are a few of you– know that I enjoy reading “ex Mormon lit”. I have a couple of huge lists of books I’ve already read and reviewed which I’ll link to at the end of this post. I can’t say that every book about leaving Mormonism tempts me, but many of them do. I especially enjoy reading books about missionary experiences since I was myself a Peace Corps Volunteer. While the Peace Corps and a Mormon mission are not really the same things, strange experiences in exotic countries can be somewhat universally appealing.
Anyway, I just finished reading Todd Maxwell Preston’s 2013 book, Sacred Road: My Journey Through Abuse, Leaving the Mormons, and Embracing Spirituality. This book was not about a Mormon mission experience. I still found it interesting in a “Peace Corps” kind of way because Preston is not American. He hails from New Zealand, a place I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time for the scenery and the wine alone!
At the beginning of his book, Preston explains that his parents were not born Mormon; they were converts. Preston was born March 7, 1973 in Hamilton, New Zealand, the fourth of ten children. When he was six years old, his family moved to Utah for the first time. As he grew up in his large Mormon Kiwi family, they would move back and forth from New Zealand to Utah several times. As I read about the major moves Preston’s huge family made, I couldn’t help but think about the logistics of it.
I have lived abroad four times in my life. The first time, when my dad was transferred to England with the Air Force, I was too young to remember what went into making the move. The next time, I went to Armenia– just me and a couple of suitcases. Then there were two moves to Germany. Each overseas move has been complicated and somewhat difficult, despite the fact that each time, there was a job to go to and logistical and financial support. From what I gathered, Todd Preston’s family didn’t have that. Perhaps it makes a difference if you have family to help you, but the cost alone would be daunting for family of Preston’s size. And add in the fact that Preston and his siblings were school aged, I imagine it was a lot of upheaval and confusion for them, especially since one move to Utah lasted only a couple of months!
Making matters worse was the fact that Preston’s father was very abusive and Preston apparently wasn’t one of his favored children. Consequently, he was treated very badly by his dad, who insisted that Preston adhere to the many strict tenets of Mormonism and used abusive methods to make sure he did. I got the sense that Preston was a bit of a free spirit being forced to be a square peg in a round hole.
Preston went to school in Texas to become a chiropractor. He was not the only one in his family to take this route. Two brothers joined the profession before Preston did and they had a practice together in Utah. Preston writes of marrying a good Mormon woman and quickly starting to have kids, perhaps before they were really ready for the job. Though I got the sense that he dearly loves the four daughters he had with his first wife, I also got the sense that going to school, trying to establish a practice, and living with Mormonism was very difficult and stressful for Preston. It was so difficult, that Preston finally had to let go of the church, along with his marriage and even his career.
For the most part, I enjoyed reading Sacred Road. Given that Mormonism is such an American religion, I was curious as to why it would be embraced by people who come from New Zealand. I’m not sure Preston answered that question for me, but I did appreciate his very personal story of what growing up Mormon and Kiwi was like. I wish Todd Preston had spent more time writing about his coming of age years and explained more as to why there were so many moves back and forth to New Zealand.
Preston’s book seems to be mostly about his relationship with his father and how it affected him and less about Mormonism, although I do believe that Preston’s father used the church to abuse his son. The fact that the church can be used in such a manner is why I dislike Mormonism as much as I do. I know that many churches can be used in a similarly destructive way, but the Mormon church happened to personally affect me and, more importantly, my husband. So I have a lot of empathy for people who have been damaged by it, even as I understand that many people grow up Mormon just fine and happily continue to embrace the belief system. I think it’s great when people find a belief system that works for them, but I know that not every belief system works for every person… and I appreciate people who are brave enough to write about their experiences, especially when what they have to say isn’t positive.
I notice that some reviewers have panned Sacred Road because they think Preston confuses his father’s abuse with church abuse. It’s true that even if he hadn’t grown up Mormon, Preston very likely would have been abused by his father. However, Mormonism made an effective tool for abuse, particularly since Preston’s dad seemed hellbent on rising through the ranks and attaining status and power within the church.
While I’ve never been LDS, I have discovered through several different sources that it’s really hard to rise to the higher echelons of the church if you’re a convert, which Preston’s parents were. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. Mormons are expected to do a lot, give a lot, and pray, pay, and obey a lot. Those who can’t or won’t get with the program are definitely subjected to pressure. Add that to the stress of living with an abusive parent and you have a very difficult situation which leads to trouble down the road. And indeed, Preston does write about his trouble– a failed marriage, a crisis of faith, temporarily losing his career and the financial stability that comes with that, and, I suspect, damaged relationships with his children and other family members. The book ends before readers find out what’s at the end of Preston’s “sacred road”, though a note at the end of the book reads that he moved back to New Zealand, remarried, and had at least a couple more children.
I think Sacred Road could have been better than it is, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like the book or get anything of value from Preston’s story. I think it helps to know something about Mormonism before you read this, since I don’t think Preston really explains much about what Mormons believe, nor do I think he explains enough about why being Mormon factored into his journey. Overall, I would recommend this book to interested readers.
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