Public Miseries

Secret Ceremonies: A Mormon Woman’s Intimate Diary of Marriage and Beyond, by Deborah Laake, which came out in 1993, is a memoir of a young woman’s journey of disillusionment with Mormonism, and especially marriage to her LDS husband, whom she portrays as cheap, ignorant, domineering, and full of himself. The time period of the original text seems to be late-60s/early-70s to early 80s, and the 1994 paperback version contains an Afterword that focuses mostly on the book’s reception and its impact on the author’s life.

The title Secret Ceremonies is somewhat sensationalistic and misleading. It refers to the Mormon temple rituals, which most Mormon women go through as they’re about to be married and the details of which are to be revealed on pain of death. The writer describes part of the ritual as follows:

We learned the Sign of the Nail. The name seemed to allude to the Crucifixion, and the gesture was a matter of pressing index fingers into each other’s palms.

We learned the Sure Sign of the Nail, a handclasp where in we linked little fingers and pressed our other fingers against our neighbor’s pulse. I practiced both … these exercises easily with the happy bride beside me, wondering a little why I needed to know them.

The ‘penalties’ to be extracted for revealing the new maneuvers were by now much harder to get through. My stomach flip-flopped as, in unison with my brethren, I acted out cutting out my own heart, then a strong slash low on the abdomen to disembowel myself. I didn’t understand whether I was promising to submit to death at the hands of someone wielding the switchblade of justice or whether I would be expected to take my own life if I found myself blurting temple secrets …(pp. 112-113)

But aside from the 14-page description of the ceremony Ms. Laake endured, the book is really about perceived Mormon sexism and how it affected the writer, not about Mormon temple rituals.

There are several recurring themes in the book. Sex is pervasive. Another is the special Mormon underwear, which Ms. Laake calls “nylon armor” (p. 104), and how it separated her from others, both emotionally and physically.

And the author’s own mental illness recurs throughout the book, from half-baked suicide attempts to stays in psychiatric hospitals, and it informs her account in ways that should be obvious to the reader but are not obviously obvious to her.

The biggest problem with the book is its structure. The early part of the book vividly captures Ms. Laake’s hopes and expectations for marriage, how she ended up married to her first husband, and why the marriage, which lasted only nine months, was so miserable. Then she writes about her post-marital efforts to reclaim status as a young unmarried girl and her frustrations with the church authorities who refused to let her complement her civil divorce with a Mormon temple divorce, which she needed in order to remarry in the temple and to be eligible for the highest Mormon heaven kingdom. “Mormon heaven is very complicated,” she explains. “It is made up of three graduated “kingdoms,” but only the uppermost tier—the Celestial Kingdom—has any real status. And I had never intended to miss it.” (p. 5)

After the divorce, she is assigned by her hometown bishop the task of writing letters to the president of the Mormon Church, describing her non-existent sexual activity:

“Dear President Spencer Kimball,

“My bishop has suggested that I write again to you and emphasize that at no time previous to my marriage, and at no time since my divorce, have I had sexual relations, and at no time during my marriage was I unfaithful to my husband … I have remained constant in this regard and I am striving in every way to live the Gospel. The Gospel matters so much to me, and I want to find my proper place within it again. I know that I can do it, with your help. Thank you for your kind attention and concern. It’s comforting to know you’re there.”

I believed that the president of the Mormon Church was reading my letters, and I was only a little hurt that he never replied. I understood that he was very busy. pp. 194-95

But by the time she’s introducing the second of her three marriages, the book seems to rush, leaving out a lot of detail. And the third marriage is relegated to an Epilogue.

The key moment of the book is covered in a way that’s pretty unadorned, as though the author still didn’t fully understand it:

“I have been thinking that everything will be all right if you can just support your husband more,” John was saying to me. That was his magic formula … His face as he found the key that would unlock my life was bland and assured.

“I’m sure that would help, Bishop,” I said ….

I have often been asked why I stopped being a Mormon in my middle twenties, when everything I’d done until then had being a Mormon so fiercely at its heart. There isn’t one answer to the question ….

There was just a moment when I watched John Lawton’s back moving away from me down a quiet street and realized that there was nothing in him that could acknowledge my life’s complex circumstances. …

I was not very well suited to being alone, but I was completely alone now. (pp. 257-58)

The characterizations are bland; except for her first husband, and to a lesser extent, one friend, no one is really three-dimensionally portrayed.

The strengths of the book appear primarily in the first two-thirds, in her vibrant language and descriptions that paint the scenes that form the backdrop to her feelings:

I had begun working as a health-club spa attendant at a women’s exercise center … The real fitness craze had not yet overwhelmed America, and there was nothing particularly serious about the spa; it was a roomful of gentle machines that did most of the work, and a … luxurious whirlpool and shower area, where anyone who had broken a sweat against the odds could revive themselves. … I loved the robin’s-egg blue slacks and white shirts I wore every day, loved the pink-and-blue rooms of the club, the thick brilliant carpets, loved talking with people after my months of isolation in Utah. …

And then the cleaning service quit. Without warning one day, it was decreed that in the evenings, right before we went home, the attendants would hose out the whirlpool area.

That night the other girls and I lined up on the tile ledge surrounding the whirlpool. The room was dimly lighted and smelled damply of sour disinfectant and sweat. One of the attendants, a girl with black hair to her waist and legs like a Barbie doll’s, was shoving hairpins into her ponytail in order to get it off her neck. Then she stepped out of her blue slacks and the other girls all followed suit, tugging at their pants or kicking their way out of them until they were a wall of bare young legs forming a complete ring around me. The girls pulled their shirts over their heads. Wielding spitting hoses, they stood hip to hip in their bras and panties, …

I couldn’t see a way out of it. While my co-workers waited, I very slowly pulled my own slacks down to the floor and stood revealed in the baggy, knee-length lower half of my garments. In the back, I could feel them flapping open … and exposing my buttocks to the fetid air. In the front, they parted so that the other girls could see my pubic hair.

“What are those?” somebody asked into a moment of sudden silence.

“They’re my underwear,” I mumbled, blindly clutching my trousers up around my waist again. … I broke out of the circle and fled into a dressing booth, where I sat on the narrow bench, my heart pounding. I unhitched my waistband again and slid my hands down into the legs of my pants … smoothing out my garments where they had rolled and bunched into ridges that I thought were as noticeable as a ball gown would have been beneath my clothes. I stayed there, very still, … until the sounds died out altogether and I heard the girls chattering, emptying out of the dressing rooms. Finally the lights went out and yet I continued to sit alone in the dark, too humiliated to move. …

I never went back to the spa again, except to get my check. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to face the other girls. It was that I couldn’t feel I belonged there with them, since they hadn’t yet thrown away their lives. (pp. 197-200)

The critical reception to the book was mixed. It garnered a lot of praise for the author’s writing technique but some criticism about her motives and objectivity. The Boston Globe called it a “frank story about conformity and sexuality that still manages to hang on to a good measure of dignity and humor”. Newsweek, on the other hand, wrote, “Laake fails to be fair.”

The popular reception was equally mixed. Some, especially Mormons, trash it, and often point with some justification to Ms. Laake’s mental illness, rather than Mormonism, as the root of her problems. Others rave about her writing ability and the interesting story. For a while, it became a media sensation, and Ms. Laake was profiled in the New York Times and interviewed on television and radio, often pitted against Mormon women, one of whom even wept that she would talk about temple rituals on TV.

Secret Ceremonies has sold more than 500,000 copies, but unfortunately neither writing the book nor its success gave the author the catharsis she seemed to need, and she committed suicide, in at least her fourth attempt, in 2000.

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