Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Leaving Mormonism . . . and finding my way back

Mette Ivie Harrison
Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison

Today and tomorrow we have a guest post from Mette Ivie Harrison, who was a rock-solid member of the very first ward I was ever in back in the early 1990s when I converted to Mormonism in Princeton, NJ.

Mette was at that time getting her doctorate in German lit at the university. I think she gave the talk on the Holy Ghost at my baptism. After she got her degree she went back to Utah to teach at BYU. We lost touch for a long time, only to reconnect a couple of years ago (where else?) on Facebook.

I learned she’d had quite a journey since grad school. She left academia, found her voice as a successful novelist, and — most surprising to me — lost her testimony. As you can see from her candid, vulnerable posts, she’s endured some impossible things and has some very good reasons to question her faith.

She’s now trying to put Mormonism back together in a way that makes sense for the person she is now. I hope you’ll welcome her story with compassion. — JKR

Leaving Mormonism . . . and finding my way back (part 1)

by Mette Ivie Harrison

When I lost my sixth child Mary Mercy at birth in 2005, I went back to church the very next week. I went back to work. I went back to exercising even before I should have. I was convinced that I would feel normal again if I acted normal. I believed that I would get through the worst and come out on the other end if only I hung tight to my religion and trusted in God.

We blessed the baby with the permission of our bishop in the hospital. We gave her a name and spoke about her as a member of the family. We told our other children they would see her again when they were in heaven. I gave several “inspirational” (according to friends) testimonies in the months following, explaining that I trusted that God would teach me about “Mercy” through her namesake and that this was all meant to be.

When a woman told me just a few days after my daughter’s death, in the nicest possible way, that this was a good thing for our family because she was sure that now we would work even harder to be a “forever family” with all the members determined to make it to the celestial kingdom, I told myself she meant well. I made excuses over and over again for people who said unconscionable things, including those members of my ward who were certain that my decision to home birth had led to my daughter’s death.

I believed that I’d stop feeling sad and that random, stupid things people said to me would hurt less. But as the year following Mercy’s death passed, I didn’t feel better. In fact, I got worse. I began to feel suicidal after church on Sundays. I fantasized about cutting myself. I dutifully agreed to a calling in the Primary Presidency, though I warned my bishop, flatly, with no tears, that I was suicidal and I it might damage my health to deal with children who would be able to do all the things my dead daughter never would.

I asked a woman in the ward what I should do since I had prayed and fasted repeatedly for “peace.” That was all I wanted. I wanted to stop desiring to be dead. I wanted to care fully for the five remaining children I had. I wanted to be someone like the person I had once been, faithful and happy. This woman insisted that I just needed to fast and pray MORE. But the more I fasted and prayed, the more frantic I became. I spent at least a year unable to sleep and another year after that only sleeping when on prescription medication, after my GP became seriously concerned about my suicidal thoughts.

At this point in my life, reading the scriptures became agony. I would read stories about other people whom God had not helped. Sometimes people recommended that I remember the pioneers. But it didn’t help me to think that others had it worse than I did. It made me angry, despairing, and more suicidal. I tried multiple depression medications. None of them worked.

At church, I continued to feel the unrelenting doctrine of happiness. One entire sacrament meeting was dedicated to the insistence that we should all just be happier, that if we trusted God fully and had faith, we would be happy no matter what our circumstances. The stories of faith healing that I heard in our ward over the next several years (one returned missionary who nearly died when he fell at a construction site, another man in the ward who suffered similar injuries, and multiple pregnant women who were given healings that led to the survival of their children) made things difficult. Why them and not me? Did God not love me anymore? Why couldn’t I hear him in prayer?

The message at church seemed to be that I wasn’t worthy of being healed, or didn’t have the faith, or was being tested to see how long I could last. At this point I gave up. I realized that I could not worship this God that others in the church insisted was the true one. I couldn’t worship a god who would kill an innocent unborn child so that I would learn some grand lesson. I couldn’t worship a god who refused to speak to me anymore when I felt I had done nothing wrong, or at least no worse than other people to whom he seemed to speak.

I quietly withdrew from the Mormon church. Oh, I kept attending Sunday meetings so the kids wouldn’t notice. But I was an atheist in my heart.

This self-protective impulse had some benefits. The hurtful things that people sometimes said didn’t touch me anymore. I began to see Mormons differently, as an outsider rather than as someone within the fold. I viewed behavior as tribal rather than personal. And I realized that many of the things that people said out loud were an attempt to reassure themselves that what had happened to me would never happen to them. If tragedy occurred because I’d done something wrong, then they could make sure never to do that, and their children would be safe. I understood these behaviors much better without faith involved, and even began to forgive a little in my heart.

[Continue reading Part 2 here.]

 

Mette Ivie Harrison is a nationally ranked triathlete and Mormon mother of 5, including one missionary in Texas. She is the author of six YA fantasies, including The Princess and the Hound and The Rose Throne. She also has published a memoir of her experiences in loss and triathlon called Ironmom and has an adult mystery coming out with Soho Press in December called The Bishop’s Wife. You can find her at www.metteivieharrison.com or on twitter (@metteharrison), facebook (Mette Harrison or Mette Ivie Harrison), and tumblr (www.metteivieharrison.tumblr.com).

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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