I grew up in a religion that loved everything I would be taught to disdain in graduate school: America, authority, marriage, motherhood, and divine revelation. My father was a history-reading intellectual who treated me like an equal and encouraged ambition as well as faith, so I saw no reason, until I left Utah for Syracuse University in 1988, to question what feminists called the Patriarchy and I had always called Brother Smith or Bishop Fraser. I used to wonder what the angry women in my classes would say if they knew I possessed a document called a Patriarchal Blessing, a set of prophecies about my life that had been given to me when I was 12 by a man we literally and reverently called the Patriarch.
I knew what the feminists would think. They would think I was stupid. I was the only nondrinking, churchgoing BYU graduate in the creative writing program, so I kept the Patriarch and my blessing, which promised me children who would be a source of joy and satisfaction to me —“if I lived worthy” — to myself. (They might also have noticed the grammatical error and suggested that a real seer would have said “worthily.”)
That first term, I had a sad-seeming, very remote professor who summarized the mood of literature studies at that time: “We are living,” he said, “in the age of the sneer.”
It was not just the whole social structure of the country that was under attack in my classes — men were evil, America was evil, the middle class had ludicrous values — but the whole idea of reading literature for enlightenment. Though it was still possible, in an independent study class, to do close readings of Wallace Stevens poems, it was more fashionable to talk about tropes and the male gaze and the need to deconstruct the canon I had traveled two thousand miles to revere. From the remote professor, I took a course in 20th-century authorship, and we spent our time on the fifth floor of the Hall of Languages investigating not the artistic work of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein but the way the author was defined by him (or her) self and society. Not the thing itself, but the maker of the thing, who was, we saw now, a construction and a sham, no more authentic than the Wizard of Oz.
I remember in particular a summer afternoon on Westcott Street. I was in love with the houses on Euclid and Westcott, with the entire sagging and genteel neighborhood, the rows and rows of old bungalows and wood-shingled, two-story Victorian houses where the afternoon sun fell on hardwood floors and wavy, leaf-stroked panes of glass. I loved the wide wooden porches, the sidewalks cracked and buckled by the roots of maples and oaks, the grass that grew unbidden and untended, irises and tulips and daffodils and overgrown roses, the way it all looked and felt like the America I had been looking for all my life. I was sitting on the porch with a friend who had grown up in a place called (oh, the poetry of this!) Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, though she always deleted the “by-the-Sea” part because she found it pretentious. She had attended private schools and was ashamed of this, too, had spent her summers on an island in Maine that was picturesque beyond description. She looked out at the porches and trees, the whole green-gilded leafy world, and said, “I look at America now and I just see blood.” She saw the natives swimming out to greet Columbus and being sickened, converted, and slaughtered to make way for Catholic parishes and Protestant New England towns. This was the version of our history as we were told now to see it: America corrupt from the very beginning, a heritage we should neither revere nor perpetuate.
I remember thinking, but not saying, that I loved it still. I couldn’t consistently see the blood. I knew it all ought to be spoiled for me, the grandeur of upstate New York and New England, the wood and stone houses, the steepled towns, all built on stolen land by people who believed in their own spiritual superiority, but to me it was still the realization of some early, earnest, hopeful faith — misguided, certainly, as most faith is, but not universally malicious.
When I left Euclid and Westcott and returned to Utah with my degree in advanced sneering, I still wanted what I had always wanted: to marry and read novels and have children and live on a street with sidewalks buckled by trees whose leaves cast blurry shadows on my porch. I wanted to live in that neighborhood Curious George rides through on his bicycle when he gets his paper route. I wanted children in my house to wear baseball uniforms and stir sugar into lemonade they would sell for a quarter at the park and hold sparklers at dusk on the Fourth of July. I wanted to stand at the edge of a parade as a horse clops by holding a rider who’s holding an American flag and not sneer at it.
This hope was all that survived the deconstruction of America and God; gone, by 1990, was my belief in divine revelation, priesthood, and the Patriarch. Gone, soon thereafter, was my faith in the literal resurrection, heaven, hell, outer darkness, forgiveness, Joseph Smith, the golden plates, eternal marriage, missionary work, and prayer. What remained were novels, which I still loved, and Tom, the man I loved even more than novels, who had a formless, sunny faith in the unseen that turned out to be less brittle than mine.
It’s hard to forget, though, a very old, dark-suited man laying his hands on your head and speaking as if for God when he says that you’ll have, if you live worthy, children who will be a source of joy and satisfaction to you. During a miscarriage and four long years of infertility, I never stopped wondering if God was pointing out the truth of that conditional “if.” I had turned my back on the faith that had promised me not just kids but satisfying kids, and then I had married a cheerful, nonpracticing Presbyterian. The deal was off.