Morgan Cattaneo describes her experience growing up in rural Montana and exiting the Mormon church.
When you take away the lenses that other people see you through, the perception of yourself starts to make a radical shift. It is often a slow and painstaking process, it is often read as hurtful to the people close to you. As Jeanette Winterson concisely stated, “How many of us want any of us to see us as we really are?” For me, growing up Mormon in Montana provided countless lenses and expectations of the woman I could have grown up to become. Though I informally left the church at the tender age of 19, it wasn’t until I began to actively remove and dismantle the various lenses that my family saw their daughter through, and that the church saw me and my gender through, that I finally began to view my authentic self.
Mormonism is one of the few remaining modern-day religions that spawned from the Second Great Awakening—the American religious revival that swept across our still young country in the nineteenth century. Founded on the belief that God himself appeared to a 14-year-old boy named Joseph Smith in upstate New York to restore the true Christian faith that had been wiped from the earth in the Middle Ages, Mormons believe in a living prophet who acts as the mouthpiece of God for the entire church. So imagine Moses (or Abraham, or a still capitated John the Baptist), but in a suit and tie in a shiny corner office with a view of downtown Salt Lake City and you’ve got the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When you are anointed to the position of Prophet (in a complex hierarchical system comprised of at least 82 men that I won’t even pretend to understand) not only are you the Prophet for the rest of your life, but you and you alone have the power to create and change the belief system actively followed by some 15 million members. It is this continuous revelation as the basis of a belief system that Mormons are able to discern theirs as the “only true and living church.”
As a child who was born into the covenant, that is, born to two actively Mormon parents who had been ceremoniously sealed to each other in a Mormon Temple for time and all eternity, my life was pretty well laid out for me. As a female bodied person, my primary role was procreation. Granted, across various religions and cultures, women are systematically subjugated to provide free emotional, reproductive, and domestic labor in the name of procreation. But, in this religion invented by a tween boy in 1830, there was a particular emphasis placed on the lack of independence and power offered to we womb holders. Don’t get me wrong—I bought into it. I spent countless Halloweens costumed as a bride (and given Joseph Smith’s proclivity to take multiple wives as young as age 14, I urge you to find a more heartbreaking image than a rouge-cheeked six-year-old in a homemade child-size wedding dress); I fought with my sister in a church pew over who would get to hold the congregation’s newest baby; and, above all, I vowed to keep myself pure and true for my future husband.
It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology then to explain my decade of sexual rebellion. From a curious and wily child, I transformed into an angry and lying teen. When all the questions you ask as a child go unanswered and your growing intellect is chalked up to a “lack of faith,” it’s no wonder I became the blow-job princess of Sentinel High. My last two years of high school were a revolving door of changing long sleeves into tank tops in the parking lot, “spending the night” at various girlfriends’ houses, and evading my nine o’clock curfew. Attracting male attention labeled me a deviant, and both my parents and the church kept an all too watchful eye on me. So, I lied. And I counted the hours until I could leave home, and thus, the church.
I left, and I went as far away as my inexperienced mind could comprehend. At 19, the age when most Mormon girls are either married or, if not (the horror!), serving an 18-month mission (proselytizing and converting typically indigenous peoples to American centralist Christianity), I bought a one-way ticket to Paris. I spent the next two years basking in the glory of art, literature, safe and satisfying sex, language, travel, and food. I fell in love with architecture. I did ecstasy in a lesbian club called Pulp. In the span of a 15-hour flight I went from being an active Mormon who participated in at least ten hours of church activities per week to a bonafide hedonist. I would eventually go on to continue my cultural awakening in Austin, New York City, and now, New Orleans. Each place offering a different version of the woman I could be without the restraints and confines I had felt for the first 19 years of my life.
Montana, it must be said, is glorious, as far as natural beauty goes. Still incredibly remote and secluded, the people can be backwards, at best. Once a year for the past six or eight years I make the very long, very expensive, very emotional “Yes, I’m Still Alive” tour out west. My parents flip houses for a living, and so my most recent trip back was to a burgeoning town that I don’t know at all. I had been given this assignment from Pelican Bomb to write about my exodus from the Mormon church for their month-long pilgrimage theme, which coincided nicely with a trip I had booked for my mother’s 50th birthday. And so, at 29, and ten years post Mormon, I found myself sitting down with my patient and loving parents to discuss my apostasy from the church. I will spare the sad and gory details from that life-changing three-hour-long discussion, which my father cutely coined the “Honesty Talk,” but suffice it to say that amends were made, apologies offered.
In those first five days of July that I spent surrounded by my entire extended Mormon family in the quaint mountain town of Bozeman, I met Evan, a handsome architect turned artist who had been commissioned to build a house next door to an alpaca farm in Bear Canyon. His knowledge of design and culture floored me in a way that I had never experienced that close to home (even with the rise of the Internet and contemporary culture now just a Google search away). My 19-year-old self would have never in her wildest dreams have imagined to find inspiration and creativity in Montana. Yet, through a frenzied few weeks of text messaging (and sext messaging), I find myself accepting an invitation to spend three months in Montana, designing Evan’s not quite a house though not a shack, something more like a bungalow (despite the fact that we both agree that Frank Lloyd Wright was an asshole), and so I’ve found my journey to come full circle. As they tend to do. As we tend to do.
Just yesterday I submitted the paperwork to have my name officially removed from the records of the Mormon church. I am me—just as I have been, just as I will be.
This piece was originally published under the name Lamb Lee.