book reviews, LDS

Repost: My review of Suddenly Strangers: Surrendering Gods and Heroes

Here’s another repost of a book review. This one was originally written for Epinions.com on April 30, 2009. I reposted it on my old blog in July 2014, and I’m reposting it again today, as/is.

Note from 2014

A few years ago, I read an excellent book by Chris and Brad Morin, two brothers who decided to leave the LDS church.  They were from a large family and their decision to leave the church was not met with a lot of acceptance.  The brothers came together to write their story.  I think it illustrates one terrible issue that people run into when they decide they don’t want to be Mormon anymore.  For a belief system that claims that families should always be put first, the attitude toward those who question the beliefs sure is harsh.  Suddenly Strangers is a very well-researched book with plenty of examples from church approved sources as to why the brothers decided it wasn’t as true as it claims to be.  I strongly recommend it.

A few years ago (in 2006), my husband officially resigned his membership to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He had many reasons for doing so. The main one, I think, was that he had pretty much joined the LDS church as a means of saving his first marriage. My husband and his ex wife had converted to Mormonism just three years before they divorced. At the time, it had seemed like a good thing to do, since the church seemed so wholesome and family oriented. They went through the “discussions” with a couple of nice missionaries and were very warmly welcomed as a “golden family”, so called that because they had come to the church on their own accord. But not long after he joined the church, my husband started to learn much more about his new faith and found that he didn’t agree with it. Worse, my husband’s former wife used the church as a mechanism to turn his children against him. When the marriage finally crumbled, so did my husband’s testimony. He became inactive and formally resigned his church membership several years after he had married me.

I have never been a Mormon myself, but my husband’s participation in the faith piqued my curiosity about it. I began to read a lot of books on the subject, and that’s how I came to read Suddenly Strangers: Surrendering Gods and Heroes (2004), by Brad L. Morin and Chris L. Morin. These two authors are brothers who, along with their nine other siblings, were brought up as faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The church had been the focal point of their upbringing and family life. It was also a large part of their heritage and history. They had been taught that the LDS church was the only true church, and that apostacy and denouncing the church was worse than committing murder or adultery. And yet, even so, they felt compelled to leave the church, despite the fact that they knew how negatively their friends and family would react. Suddenly Strangers is the story of their departure, along with their well researched and documented reasons why they left.

Why leaving is such a big deal

I was brought up as a mainstream Presbyterian and that faith, by and large, has been the only one I’ve ever followed consistently. In my church, if someone grew disatisfied and wanted to leave, it was not that big of a deal. Sure, church outreach volunteers might call and ask for an explanation and issue a welcome back, but it’s not like the decision was likely to break up families or cause divorces.  People just leave and that’s it.

As Brad and Chris Morin point out, making a similar announcement to their very devout Mormon family members was bound to cause a great deal of backlash. When they did make their announcement, the reactions were varied. One sister called them and pronounced them “wicked”. She told them she never wanted to see or hear from them again. A couple of brothers expressed sorrow, but otherwise respected their decision. Another brother wrote a letter full of demands that placed conditions on their future relationship. A niece wrote a letter to Brad Morin that practically begged him to reconsider and pray to God for assurance that the church was true.

Of course, the two brothers also had to break the news to their wives. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for LDS marriages to break up when one spouse no longer believes. At the time of his decision, Chris Morin was the father of a one year old child and another child on the way. He actually entertained the idea of his wife, Cathy, divorcing him and remarrying a faithful church member so that his children would grow up in household without a doubter. Then it occurred to him that no stepfather could possibly love his children the way he did. As I’ve witnessed my husband’s pain as his daughters have pretty much grown up without him, I could relate to that thought.

Many reasons for going

In this very well documented book, Chris and Brad Morin include many personal and doctrinal reasons why they could no longer be faithful Mormons. They include many quotes from Brigham Young, some of which ranged from the ridiculous to the unsavory. Brad Morin is a professional educator and he found himself researching some of the historical claims made by the LDS church. He found that many of them couldn’t be accurate. Both brothers discuss how they watched church members behave when someone began to express doubts. Rather than respond to the scrutiny, it was immediately assumed that the person was reading anti-Mormon literature, consorting with apostates, had been offended by another member, or simply wanted to sin. It occurred to them that the judgmental attitudes they were encountering were not in harmony with the warm and fuzzy “families first” image the church put out to the world.

Aside from Brigham Young…

The Morin brothers include transcripts of interviews involving Larry King and the late Gordon Hinckley, who was until recently the church’s prophet. With each chapter, they include actual quotes from church leaders and philosophers. It’s clear they’ve done their research along with plenty of thinking about their decision.

My thoughts

To be honest, I’m of two minds about this book. I definitely think Chris and Brad Morin did exhaustive research in order to make their compelling arguments against the church. Those arguments are no doubt very valuable to those who would want to use official doctrine to disprove Mormonism. However, the part of the book that I found most compelling and more interesting was their discussion of the reactions they got from their family following their decision to resign. I was very surprised and somewhat dismayed to read some of the things these once loving family members said. On page 134, Brad Morin quotes a brother as saying the following when he found out about Morin’s decision:

I am going to be honest with you. I don’t ever want to talk to you again. I don’t want to see you again. I don’t want any letters or e-mail from you. If you write a letter for the family newsletter, I will not send it out. I don’t want you coming to visit on the nineteenth. I still love you, but I don’t ever want to see you again.

A brother-in-law e-mailed the following after Chris Morin announced his decision to quit:

Just heard from Chris, and respectfully speaking, of course, I’m not so sure you didn’t exert some influence there… I think you need to allow people to make their own decisions without your influence… Choices about religion lead to divorce, bad family feelings, and really crappy family reunions, otherwise known as dysfunctional families. People who leave the church end up with huge chips and a need to convert others to their new found philosophy. (137)

It struck me as mildly ironic that this brother-in-law was so quick to chastise Brad Morin for not letting Chris Morin make his own choices. It seemed to me that the brother in law was really selling Chris Morin short, as if he were a child who couldn’t think for himself and had to be talked into coming to the same conclusion his brother had.

But in my opinion, the most offensive missive came from a brother who wrote the following to both Brad and Chris:

The thing that scares me most is your current beliefs. Those beliefs have the capability to destroy me and my family, and anyone who subscribes to those beliefs… You must not say anything to my wife or children about Joseph Smith or any prophet of the church, or any church leader or any church writings, or any church history… We read scriptures in our house. We say prayers in our house. If you visit us you will observe at least one of those maybe both. If we visit your houses we expect to be able to give thanks for the food and to read scriptures even if in our bedroom… If you cannot make this promise to me or if you make this promise to me and break it, my family will not associate (Face to face) with yours… Is this drastic? You bet it is. I have everything I have ever wanted, to loose [lose], if I am deceived. (139)

The pervasive fear that comes from these emails is very surprising to me, but what surprised me even more was when one of Brad’s very intelligent and fair-minded friends produced his own reasons for staying faithful to the church. And then he followed up by stating, “…if it isn’t true, I don’t want to know it” (149). Brad Morin compared this statement to the attitude some people have about not wanting to face reality, particularly when it’s distasteful. He likened it to someone who doesn’t want to know they have cancer. It just feels better to ignore evidence and pretend that everything is okay.

Things I didn’t like about this book

I didn’t really care for the way this book was laid out. The brothers took turns writing chapters and include boxes with quotes in them, endnotes, and various other distractions. I found this layout particularly hard to deal with when I read the heavier chapters that had to do with the church’s doctrine and history. However, even though I found the endnotes a bit distracting, I do think they will be very helpful to people who want to verify research. The list of references is chock full of resources.

I also felt that the writing could have been more polished. This book reads as if the two authors sat down and typed it out without having an editor wade through some of the redundancies. Consequently, some of the material is wordier than it needs to be, particularly in the sections where letters and emails are quoted.

Overall

I think this book may very well be offensive to some readers. If I shared it with my husband’s daughters, for instance, they would probably dismiss it as being full of lies. On the other hand, I don’t know that this book would appeal so much to the casual reader, either, since it takes a somewhat academic approach. I think this book will be most valuable to readers who have been in the Morin brothers’ shoes at some point and have some understanding of where they’re coming from.

Sadly, this book has probably already been labeled as “anti-Mormon” literature by some of the people who might benefit from it the most. In case anyone is wondering, I didn’t get the feeling that these authors had a chip on their shoulders or an axe to grind regarding Mormonism. They even state several times that they value many things about the church and still live the clean lifestyle favored by church members, minus the temple garments. But I fear that some people will still want to dismiss it because it’s a book about two guys who fell away from their religious beliefs… beliefs that were chosen for them before they had the chance to decide for themselves.

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book reviews, celebrities

Repost: Brooke Hayward explains how her family went Haywire

Here’s another reposted book review. I originally wrote it for Epinions.com on January 9, 2012. It was reposted on my old blog exactly six years later. And now, I’m reposting it again, almost three years after the last repost. As this was written in 2012, please bear in mind that some things in my life have changed since then.

Television has certainly changed since I was a child.  Back when I was still at a tender age, movies of the week were very common on the big three networks.  I remember back in 1980, there was a movie of the week starring Lee Remick and Jason Robards called Haywire.  Though my memories of the actual film are hazy, I did remember the movie was high on drama and based on a book by the same name written by Brooke Hayward.  When I recently got the urge to read something new, I went looking for Haywire.  To my delight, it was available on Amazon.com, both in print form and for the Kindle.  I downloaded a copy and spent the next week reading all about how Brooke Hayward’s family went “haywire”.

Who is Brooke Hayward?

Being a child of the 70s, I haven’t seen that many classic movies.  Consequently, I am not all that familiar with Brooke Hayward’s mother, Margaret Sullavan, who was a successful actress and film star.  I’m also not familiar with Brooke Hayward’s father, Leland Hayward, a reknowned Broadway and Hollywood agent.  But the two were at one time a couple and their marriage produced three children: Brooke, Bridget, and Bill.  Besides her turn as an author, Brooke Hayward is known for being Dennis Hopper’s first wife and a model and actress.

Brooke Hayward has also had many famous stepparents.  Her father was also married to Nancy “Slim” Keith and Pamela Harriman.  His first wife was Lola Gibbs.  They divorced, remarried, and divorced again before Brooke was born.  Also before Brooke was born, her mother had a brief marriage to Henry Fonda and a slightly longer marriage to Hollywood director and screenwriter, William Wyler.  At the time of her early death, Margaret Sullavan was married to Kenneth Wagg, an investment banker.

How things went “haywire”

Haywire is, at its core, a book about growing up with Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward as parents.  But at a deeper level, this book is also about being a child of divorce and an innocent bystander to mental illness.  This book was written in 1977, before people talked about how divorce affects children.  Indeed, when Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward split up, divorce was not nearly as common as it is today.  It was a source of shame.

In her elegant writing style, Hayward describes how Leland Hayward and Margaret Sullavan grew up and eventually came together, even though they were very different people.  Leland Hayward liked to live a fancy life, while Margaret Sullavan was more grounded and determined not to let their children grow up spoiled.  Hayward liked the city, while Sullavan preferred the country.  Hayward was a sophisticated jetsetter, while Sullavan remained faithful to her Virginia roots.  They were a mismatched couple, even though their marriage lasted a somewhat respectable (by Hollywood standards, anyway) eleven years.

When Brooke Hayward’s parents split up, she and her brother and sister were asked to take sides.  By Hayward’s account, Margaret Sullavan was very possessive of her children and would manipulate them through guilt.  When they had disagreements with her, Margaret Sullavan would suggest they go live with their father, suggesting that it was somehow a punishment.  One day, Bridget and Bill Hayward agreed that, yes, they would prefer living with their dad.  Apparently, that revelation drove Margaret Sullavan to a nervous breakdown.

Aside from problems stemming from their parents’ divorce, Bridget and Bill Hayward had significant mental health issues.  Both committed suicide.  Bridget died of a drug overdose in 1960 at age 21, just months after Margaret Sullavan’s own suicidal overdose.  Bill Hayward died in 2008 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Both Bridget and Bill spent a great deal of time in mental hospitals. 

Interspersed with her ruminations about life with two world famous but troubled parents, Hayward injects plenty of tales about her contemporaries.  Peter and Jane Fonda were contemporaries and Brooke, Bridget, and Bill spent a lot of time with them.  She describes the elegant lifestyle she enjoyed, despite her mother’s determinations to prevent her children from being spoiled by excess.

This book was updated in 2010 and has a new epilogue, which updates readers on how Brooke and Bill turned out.  There are also pictures which looked great on the Kindle.

My thoughts

I am not a child of divorce, but I am a stepmother to my husband’s two very alienated young adult daughters.  I have only met my husband’s daughters once and they haven’t spoken to my husband since 2004.  Like Brooke Hayward, I have had an up close and personal look at the way divorce can screw up children.  On ther other hand, divorce can be a lifesaver when two people don’t get along.  And if it’s done correctly and the parents put their kids first, it can be a good thing for a dysfunctional family.  Naturally, it works best when parents can cooperate with each other. 

As I read Haywire, it appeared to me that Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward did, on some level, try to co-parent.  Sullavan didn’t like sending her kids to see their dad, but she did at least allow them to maintain that relationship.  However, Brooke Hayward’s account is very telling in that Sullavan was adept at emotionally blackmailing her children.  She made disparaging remarks about Leland Hayward and, though she might not have done it on purpose, asked her kids to take sides.  Clearly, this kind of manipulation eventually took a toll on all three children.  While most children of divorce do grow up without having to do time in a mental hospital or prematurely ending their lives, Hayward’s account of how she missed out on time with her father is very revealing. 

Leland Hayward was not blameless either.  He was somewhat guilty of being a “Disney Dad”, lavishing gifts and money on the children in order to assauge his guilt over not being around.  He was not faithful to Sullavan and that was one of the reasons they split.  I’m sure there was guilt stemming from that as well.

One thing I was glad to see is that Brooke, Bridget, and Bill seemed to get along with all of their stepparents.  I did notice that they seemed to like some of their parents’ choices more than others.  For instance, Brooke really seemed to like her first stepmother, Nancy, more than she liked socialite and future U.S. Ambassador to France Pamela Harriman, who was married to Leland Hayward at the time of his death.  Of course, Pamela Harriman is a fascinating subject all on her own! 

Overall 

While I can’t claim to be a fan of Margaret Sullavan as an actress, nor did I ever follow Brooke Hayward’s acting career, I will admit to liking Haywire.  It’s a fascinating read on so many levels.  It’s entertaining for people who enjoy reading about classic film stars.  It’s also great for people who like to read about family systems.  And now I’d like to re-watch the film that prompted me to read this book.

An ad for the made for TV movie, which was based on the book. I remember watching this film when it aired.

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