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Chapter 1: Room at the Inn
So there he stands, not five feet away from me. He looks almost unchanged since the last time I saw him, ten years ago—fabulous, for a man now in his nineties. His features are still sharply cut, his sardonic smile and turquoise eyes as bright as ever. The only difference I notice is that both his hair and his wiry body have thinned a bit. His trousers (probably the same ones he was wearing a decade ago) are now so baggy he’s switched from a belt to suspenders.
A Shakespearean phrase pops into my mind: “. . . a world too wide / For his shrunk shank.” From As You Like It, I think. That’s something I seem to have inherited from this little old man in his shabby pants: a tendency to produce random literary quotations, from memory, to fit almost any situation. I don’t do this on purpose; it just happens to me. The same way it happens to him. Despite the fact that we’ve rarely had a significant conversation, I know that my father understands the way I think, probably better than anyone on earth.
“Well, well, well,” he says heartily, opening his arms. Hmm. This is new. Back when I knew him, my father wasn’t the open-arms type. But, then, neither was I. I go forward and hug him. It does feel odd, but I’ve been practicing hugging the people I love for years now, and I get through it.
“Hello,” I say, and stop there, at a loss for words. I can’t bring myself to say “Hello, Daddy,” but I don’t know what else to call him. “Daddy” is the only title by which I and my seven siblings ever addressed him. “Dad” would sound disrespectfully casual, “Father” too formal, his given name completely bizarre. I settle for repeating “Hello,” then gesture toward the easy chair by the door. “Please, sit down.”
He sits, and I’m startled by another eerie jolt of familiarity: This man moves just like I do. Nervous as I am, scared to death as I am, there is something unspeakably poignant about the fact that my posture and carriage are echoes of his. It’s been a long time since I encountered so many of my own chromosomes in anyone besides my own children.
“I thought this day would never arrive,” my father says, still wearing his most cheerful smile. “I thought you’d never come to your senses.”
He assumes I’ve come to recant. He’s wrong. I’m here for two reasons: to sew up the loose threads I left hanging when I fled my past and to make sure, as far as I can, that my father isn’t afraid to die. If his model of the universe is correct, there must be serious retribution awaiting him in the afterlife, and in case this belief worries him I want to tell him I don’t share it. The God to whom I pray is all parts unconditional love, no part vengeance or retribution. I once read that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past, and I reached that point a long time ago. But forgiving is not the same as obliterating memory. As Santayana wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is something I do not want to happen. Not to my father, and certainly not to me.
“Oh, I stand by everything I’ve said,” I tell my father as I sit down on the sofa a few feet away from him. “That hasn’t changed at all.”
His expression turns from cheer to scorn in a heartbeat. “Ridiculous,” he says. “Utterly ridiculous.”
Those sky blue eyes flash toward the door and I feel my throat tense with the fear that he’s noticed it’s slightly ajar, that someone is listening. He’s used to people observing everything he says and does—so perhaps his spider senses are tingling. The hotel room where we’re meeting is decorated in tasteful, neutral earth tones, ridiculously bland for a battlefield. But that’s what it is, and we both know it. We also know it isn’t level; my father practically owns the turf and has the advantages of age, gender bias, family expectation, psychological dominance, and religious legitimacy. Which is why I’m making sure there are witnesses to every word we say. Everything. Add secrecy to his other advantages, and my father will win walking away.
“I know you say it’s ridiculous,” I tell him gently. “We’ve established that. But there’s a lot of evidence that squares with what I remember. Something happened.”
“Nothing happened to you,” he says firmly. “Nothing like that. Never.”
“Well, then, nothing left an awful lot of scars.” He already knows this. I told him about the scars a decade ago, when I met with him and my mother in my therapist’s office. “It’s not the kind of scar tissue a kid gets playing on the jungle gym. Someone put it there.”
“Oh,” says my father with a shrug, “that was the Evil One.”
I can feel myself blink, the way you do when the eye doctor sends that little puff of air into your eyes to check for glaucoma. The Evil One? I’ve heard a rumor that my family of origin thinks I was consorting with the devil at the age of five, but I never believed they’d actually say such a thing. Even my family can’t be that crazy, right?
I sit and stare for a moment as my mind frantically tries on several different interpretations of my father’s statement. Does he actually think I spent my childhood hanging out with Lucifer? Is the Evil One the name he has for an aspect of himself? If he’s suffering from a split personality or psychotic fugue states, is he aware of this intellectually or only at some dark subconscious level? Is my father a calculated liar, or is he certifiably insane, or could he actually be empirically correct? I have no idea. My mind feels like a tar pit. We’ve been talking for less than a minute, and already I feel the same blend of bewilderment, fear, and self-doubt that flavored my early years. Wow. You really can go home again.
“The Evil One,” I repeat, squinting at my father, as if that will make things clearer. “Well, I’m not questioning that.”
He taps the arm of his chair with his fingers. His hands are strong and squarish, with prominent tendons. Like my hands. Like my children’s hands. I feel a rush of tenderness and suddenly realize that he probably thinks I’m recording our conversation in order to turn him over to the authorities—either legal or (worse) religious. I want to reassure him I have no such intentions. I have witnesses in place only because that’s what I was trained to do in controversial situations, where every perception is clouded by conflicting interests. Later, when my father claims this conversation didn’t happen the way I will remember it, I’ll be able to check several sources.
My desperate thirst for data in any area related to my father is a tribute to his job skills. He’s ostensibly a retired college professor, but his real life’s work, the area in which he’s built his reputation, is as an apologist for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as Mormonism. The Mormon Church, whose headquarters is in Salt Lake City, Utah, is one of the few major world religions that traces its roots to recorded history, leaving the claims of its leaders open to factual testing—and the Latter-day Saint leaders, especially the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, have always been fond of making claims.
For instance, Smith taught that the American Indians are the descendants of a small group of emigrants from Jerusalem, who arrived on the continent in approximately 600 BC, and wrote their history onto a book of golden plates. Smith said he was led to these plates, which were buried in New York State, by an angel named Moroni (rhymes with “the phone eye”) in 1823. Using a magical pair of spectacles buried along with the plates, Smith said, he translated the plates, and later published them as the Book of Mormon (Mormon was one of the original owners and authors of the golden plates). The problem, from a Latter-day Saint perspective, is that when scholars set out to test Smith’s version of reality, they tend to bump into a lot of contradictory evidence (such as the fact that DNA analysis traces Native American ancestry to Asia rather than to the Middle East). This is the time for apologists to rush in, like white blood cells attacking a virus, to defend Joseph Smith and the subsequent Mormon leaders. Nobody does this better than my father.
In 2002, the year the Winter Olympics were held in Utah, the New Yorker published an article on the state’s most prominent religion. The reporter who penned the story, a writer named Lawrence Wright, referred to my father as “the most venerable scholar in Mormonism, though he is little known outside of it.” Wright interviewed the venerable scholar about some problematic aspects of Mormon scripture. Why is it, he asked, that after decades of archaeological work bent on verifying the Book of Mormon, “not a single person or place named in it has been shown to exist”?
My father’s official published response, quoted in the New Yorker, was: “People underestimate the capacity of things to disappear.” Wright also recorded what my father told him during their interview—comments tinged, according to Wright, “with some asperity.” I know exactly the tone Wright meant: a stern, disdainful note my father adopts whenever his assertions are under attack.
“Well, if it was all pure fiction, who on earth had ever done anything like that?” my father said. “This is the history of a civilization, with all its ramifications having to do with plagues and wars. The military passages are flawless. Could you please tell me any other book like that?”
When I read the New Yorker article, several responses leapt to mind (for one thing, the “flawless” military passages in the Book of Mormon record battles waged between enormous populations who herded sheep and goats, operated mines, smelted metals, and rode wheeled chariots drawn by horses, none of which existed in North America prior to their introduction from Europe several centuries after the people described in the Book of Mormon allegedly arrived). But of course I knew that my father wasn’t actually requesting input from Lawrence Wright. His response was rhetorical, a question that really meant the guy should stop asking so damn many questions.
This is the kind of thinking with which I grew up, the style of debate I took with me when I ventured out of Utah, the conservative-value capital of America, and off to a non-Mormon university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where liberal attitudes are practically manufactured for export to other population centers. I still remember the immense relief I felt the first time one of my Harvard professors ripped into a paper I’d written, pointing out that my logic was circular, my language duplicitous, and my evidence shadowy. Part of me felt that my skin was being flayed off by sheer embarrassment, but a much larger part of me was practically screaming with relief that someone was dealing with reality more or less the way I naturally did, instead of reinforcing the way I’d been taught to think. “Thank God!” I remember thinking, though at the time I was an atheist. “Thank God, thank God, thank God!”
Thus began my love affair with evidence, which has ultimately brought me here, to a hotel room I have carefully arranged as a kind of psychological laboratory. Even after ensuring that I’ll have multiple eyewitness accounts of our conversation, talking with my father still makes me feel as though my brain is twirling slowly in my head. I’m very grateful that my cousin Diane is parked next door, and Miranda is curled up in the closet across the room. I needed this kind of backup to gather enough courage to meet with my father at all, and though I feel weak and childish, there is huge comfort in knowing that people who would never hurt either of us are hearing this strange debate.
“Well, see, Dad,” I say carefully, “I find your reaction to the scar thing kind of strange.” I notice his eyes widening a little, perhaps because I’m openly disagreeing with him, perhaps because I called him Dad. This suddenly feels right. It feels like rebellion. It’s the harshest, most disrespectful word I’ve ever deliberately said to him.
“If one of my daughters turned up with a lot of weird scars,” I go on, enjoying the giddy, reckless feeling of saying what I actually think, “I wouldn’t just blame the Evil One and drop the subject. I would want to find out what had happened to her.”
“Nothing happened.” My father’s voice carries the ring of absolute assurance, absolute finality, that has made him a safe haven for so many Mormons whose faith is getting a little wobbly. The debate is resolved, the balcony is closed, the fat lady has sung, the last dog is hung, that’s all she wrote.
This dead-certain tone is characteristic of many deeply religious folk, but Mormons are trained to use it about as thoroughly as any group of people I’ve ever known. As soon as they can talk, Mormon toddlers are held up to microphones in church meetings, lisping to hundreds of onlookers the words their parents whisper in their ears: “I know the Church is true. I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. I know our president is God’s prophet on the earth. I know these things beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
Mormons tend to know a whopping lot of stuff beyond a shadow of a doubt. I envy them. My whole life is shadowed by doubt. The only conviction I embrace absolutely is this: whatever I believe, I may be wrong.
For a moment, looking at the stern pioneer conviction on my father’s handsome face, I’m so disoriented that I feel my brain twirling even faster—not in agreement but in familiar hopelessness, in the sickening conviction that no one will ever take my word over his. Everything seems to slither right off the hard drive in my head. He’s right: People underestimate the capacity of things to disappear. At the moment, I can’t even remember the chain of events that took me out of Mormonism, that have made me “a hiss and a byword” not only to my father, not only to my family, but to an entire religion.
Then I remember Miranda and Diane, just a few feet away, and my vision seems to clear. The whole thing comes back to me, the journey that has taken me out of religion and into faith. I recall its horror and beauty, the enormity of the things I have lost and the incalculable preciousness of the things I’ve gained. I wouldn’t give up the journey, not a moment of it. On the other hand, I have no desire to live it again. If Santayana is right, this means I must be willing to remember the whole story. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and force myself to go back to the beginning.