“A Larger, More Inclusive World”: An Interview with Beckie Weinheimer
by Hugo Salinas
Author Beckie Weinheimer found inspiration for her new novel Converting Kate in her experiences as a sixth-generation Mormon who grew up north of Salt Lake City. Weinheimer’s novel explores themes of religious fanaticism and homophobia through the experiences of Kate, a 15-year-old girl who has lost her father and is growing up with her mother in a fundamentalist home. I recently interviewed Weinheimer and asked her about her new novel and the experiences that inspired her to write it.
Just like your heroine Kate, some Mormons find conservative religion too stifling and leave it altogether. Yet for many of us the process is more complex, and might include salvaging aspects of Mormon identity, tradition, and even practice. What was your personal journey?
Like most Mormons who leave the church, I tried to salvage parts of it. I continued to attend church even as I began to question things. As a woman, I felt more and more demeaned. I remember one incident when my husband and I were called in by the stake president for my husband to be called to be in the bishopric. I was invited along and then once we agreed to the calling was asked to sit out in the hall while the two men talked about important sacred things I couldn’t be a part of. Another time around this same period when our family was asked to speak during sacrament meeting, the bishopric member said, “Of course your husband will be the main speaker.”
Also, I began to resent having to cover my face with a veil during the temple ceremony while my husband could clearly see without any fabric or restrictions obstructing his view. The thing that bothered me the most was I was asked to follow my husband in righteousness as he followed Christ. Why couldn’t we walk hand in hand together and make decisions about our spirituality and faith together? Why couldn’t I be strong enough to follow Christ on my own? But the temple rituals and our religion demanded I bow my head and say yes. The last time I attended the temple, I bowed my head and said no. In other words, I would not follow my husband in righteousness. I would make my own way. I went home and took off my garments. Incidents like these that I had taken for granted for years began to grate on my nerves. But I don’t think I could have ever given up my heritage, my way of life and risked ending my marriage, all for women’s rights. So I still went to church.
It was when Proposition 22 came up in California that I drew my line in the sand. I just felt it was so wrong that members of wards were called in and assessed a certain amount to support legislation that demanded gay couples would not have medical benefits equal to those of legally married couples. People like Britney Spears can get married and divorced, or have the marriage annulled within a few days. And Mormons didn’t choose to support legislation banning that “lowering of family values.” No, they went after those who supported the right of two loving homosexuals who choose to spend their lives together.
I had too many gay/lesbian friends, and I could not stand by and support a church who would go to that extent to raise money (their hope was forty million in CA) when so many other atrocities continued to exist in the word, things like AIDS, malnutrition, and starvation. It just seemed so unchristian and such a total waste of money and energy. It went against everything I felt was good and right about the church I had belonged to.
Have I salvaged anything? Not much. I hate casseroles and Jello! I do enjoy choir music and still listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Handel’s Messiah. And I do have a love for genealogy that was instilled in me by my Mormon grandmother. In fact, my next book was inspired by the true story of my great-great-grandfather who joined the Mormon church in Wales. I have a modern-day Mormon girl time travel to 1845 Wales. The church isn’t the topic there, like it was in Converting Kate; it’s just the background, and the story doesn’t really delve too much into religion, pros or cons.
One of the themes in your novel is how some churches ostracize gay people. How did the anti-gay stance of the LDS Church on California ‘s Proposition 22 inspire your writing?
See above for how I felt about Prop 22. But also a very sad incident happened to a gay couple who were friends of mine. They lived in Salt Lake City and had built a home together in West Jordan. A young man, around 17, was concerned about his sexuality. He came to them for friendship and advice, against the counsel of his bishop. When the bishop knew he would be at my friends’ home one night, he called the county sheriff and accused my friends (one of them was a deputy sheriff at the time and had been living in Salt Lake City for 20 years) of having sex with a minor. Several sheriff deputies came to my friends’ home and stormed the house armed with guns, ready to fire. My friends were sitting around the family room with this young man, all fully dressed watching television. Eventually, all charges were dropped, but only after their little house had been on the news for a week. My friend was “let go” from the sheriff department. That incident ruined their lives in Salt Lake City. They have since moved to Portland and were married a couple of years ago. Their story incensed me, and I wanted to somehow use that anger in my story about Kate. So the fictional incident that happens at the climax of the book, which deals with the town exposing a main character’s sexual orientation, is inspired by this true incident.
You recently told a reporter that this is your “angry book.” Do you find writing therapeutic?
Yes! Yes! Yes! Sometimes I find myself just pounding on the keys and the physical act of hitting the keys as hard as I can as I dump out my anger into a fictional story is so healing. If much time passes and I have not been writing, my husband will say, “I think you better get back to writing.” In other words, “you are much easier to live with when you get your anger out through your writing.” 🙂
Even though your writing was obviously influenced by your Mormon experience, to me the fictional Church of the Holy Divine resembles more a fundamentalist sect than mainline Mormonism. Would you agree with that assessment?
Yes, although I grew up in a very conservative Mormon home. In contrast my husband grew up in a more mainstream home, so even within Mormonism there is a wide scope of what is acceptable behavior. Most of the things I wrote about actually did happen to me. My mother was fanatical. She did think Satan was a handsome young man in a dark suit. She did think that music and malls were full of devil worshipers. She did pull me out of English class and forbid me to read a book, and I was in junior high in Utah at the time! I knew she didn’t represent mainstream Mormonism, but she represented my experience.
When I wrote this story, I lived in rural Virginia, and our small town was full of fundamentalists who homeschooled their children, banned books, thought voting for a Democrat meant supporting gay rights, and therefore elected an all-Republican board of county supervisors who overnight brought sprawl to our lovely farm country. I was angry at them, too, so I decided to make up a religion that took the worst of the kind of Mormonism I was raised with and added what I observed from the people I lived around in Virginia.
You recently said that in the LDS culture women are expected to live solely for their husbands, children and the church, and are viewed as pitiable if they are not married by the end of college. Aren’t you being too harsh and simplistic in describing a culture that is considerably assimilated to mainstream America and does include and value single women?
I don’t think so. The rhetoric is all politically correct. “We adore you single women.” “You are an important part of our church.” But the innuendos are everywhere. I’ve heard a good faithful Mormon mother say to an older single daughter, “When are you going to find a husband and give me a grandbaby?” It isn’t the male hierarchy that is demeaning single LDS women as much as other women in the culture. Women will talk about So-and-so, and say, “Isn’t it sad she isn’t married.” Single women are naturally excluded because they don’t do Mormon Joy pre-schools, they don’t swap babysitting, and they don’t double-date with other Mormon couples on a Friday night.
And while I may have been too simplistic in my assessment that Mormon women live solely for their husbands and children, women are strongly encouraged to be stay-at-home mothers, to multiply and replenish the earth, and are gossiped about—once again, by other women—if they choose to have a career or to have a small family. I chose to use birth control to limit my children to three and was looked down on by other family members who had 7, 8 or 9 children. I always felt justified in having a small family because my eldest daughter had special needs and took so much of my time. But had she been normal, I think the peer pressure of other women in the church would have been too strong, and I would have had more children than I really wanted. In fact, after my daughter’s death, someone very close to me said, “Now you can have more children.” And I replied, “No, I can’t—I’ve had my tubes tied.” She looked at me like I said, “Adolf Hitler was a good man.”
I don’t think anyone but a Mormon woman can know the peer pressure put on by other Mormon women. And I believe because the scope of what is acceptable is so small—cooking, having children, cleaning house, raising a good garden, sewing, doing arts and crafts, being president of the Relief Society, Primary, or Young Women’s—the competition is intense and for those who have to work, the guilt and effort of trying to do it all is even more intense.
If you haven’t seen a friend for a while, the first thing she will ask you is, “What is your calling at church?” And then she will compare yours with hers to see who has the more important calling. I almost always felt like I was being compared by other Mormon women, not welcomed and loved as an equal. I would compare it to a pecking order with hens. Isn’t that sad? It took leaving the church to find good women friends who accepted me for me, and who were not threatened by my talents, because of course they were free to pursue their own.
In your novel, Kate’s yearnings for religious independence trigger altercations with her mother. Do you think it is possible to question aspects of the LDS tradition and at the same time maintain a loving relationship with our extended Mormon families?
Yes, I think it is possible to maintain a loving relationship with extended Mormon family members, but very difficult. I have achieved it with a small percentage of the family and friends I had while active in the church. Many of them are very hurt by what I have done. I have rejected what they hold to be most precious, and so it is hard to separate my dislike of the church from them personally, because they are the church in so many ways. I think they feel I have rejected them too.
Also there is the belief by faithful members that they belong to the only true church. If I don’t believe that their church is the most special, the one and only, most conclude that I am spiritually less than them because I have chosen not to belong to the only true church. Does that make sense? With the few people I have remained close to, we have agreed to disagree and we never bring up religion or politics. And that is hard, when every meal is usually started with a prayer, when daily scriptures are read, when most of the conversation between Mormons focuses on church life and church issues. But I have some very good faithful Mormon friends and family who have chosen to value me as much as their religion, and that is the most wonderful gift anyone could give me.
I like the word “converting” in the title of your novel because it puts in positive terms a process that the Mormon Church often condemns with ugly labels such as “to get inactive,” “to lose your testimony,” and even “to apostatize.” Would it be fair to say that Kate’s conversion is not really about losing something, but rather about gaining something? Ultimately, what is it that she gains?
Yes, I would say Kate gains exposure to a larger more inclusive world where questioning is not forbidden, where she can read and dress as she wants and she can be free to be herself instead of trying to confine her wants and desires to the tiny limits that the Church of The Holy Divine allows. I think she gains the ability to see that she is good, that the world isn’t black and white, and that she doesn’t have to be haunted with the belief that Satan is on her path every turn she takes. She is free to make her own destiny and define who she is and who she wants to be. And as someone who has taken that same journey, I cannot express the joy, the wonder, and the simple awe I have of waking every day and deciding what is right and wrong, and how I will spend my time.