When I was a young Mormon teen, we had a special speaker for a Youth Conference about ‘morality.’* This speaker told us that at the Judgment Day everyone would have perfect knowledge of everything we’d done in our lives. He explained that there would be a ginormous movie screen on the top of Pike’s Peak (the tallest mountain in the vicinity) that would replay our lives for _everyone._ And, as this speaker explained, the only way that parts of the movie could be ‘edited’ was through repentance—those sins would then be cut from the reel of our life story as if we’d never done them. The speaker reinforced this notion repeatedly throughout his talk decrying various sexual indiscretions, explaining that “It’ll be in your movie” and everyone will know what you’ve done if you don’t repent. Following the conference the theme was reinforced in numerous ways by our church leaders. The refrain “It’ll be in your movie” was repeated in church venues for months afterwards.
Another Mormon teaching that was influential in my teen years was the understanding that the Spirit World was actually in our own world, except that spirits (meaning the souls of those who were unborn or deceased) couldn’t be seen by us mortals (as if they existed in a separate dimension or plane). I was taught that my grandparents and other ancestors were always nearby, watching my every move. Many stories that were given over the pulpit spoke of the subtle influences that these spirits could have in our lives—like the proverbial angels/devils sitting on our shoulders and swaying us for good or ill. And example: when I won a regional spelling bee, family members reminded me that my grandma was an excellent speller and probably had exerted some of her spelling acumen (by whispering in my ear?) to influence my victory. I was also frequently reminded by church leaders that my ancestors were aiding me in my efforts to keep myself ‘pure’ and ‘chaste’ and prepared for an appropriate temple marriage. But there were also stories about the evil spirits (those who chose to follow Satan instead of receiving physical bodies). I was told that evil spirits could pollute the temple by accompanying the ‘unworthy’ members into its holy edifice (because only the unworthy who entered the temple could ‘rupture’ the super-protective spiritual force field that generally kept evil at bay). Church lessons reinforced the notion that evil spirits also had all of the temptations of the flesh and would try to smoke ‘real’ cigarettes or attempt sexual liaisons with those of us who have bodies.
Both the belief that my life would be broadcast as a movie to everyone and the belief that my ancestors were watching my every move really freaked me out as I was growing up. I can’t tell you the number of times that I farted or picked my nose or did something quite ungraceful as I was sitting on the porcelain throne that I agonized over the fact that my friends, church leaders, and even my grandpa (not to mention all of Satan’s minions) knew (or would eventually know) that my body was so disgusting. I can remember real angst over the fact that I ‘knew’ these folks were with me even in my most private moments—in the shower, on the toilet, etc. I tried, even when alone in the bathroom, to keep my body as covered as possible, to reduce the washing of my genitals to a quick and efficient motion, to crouching as I sat on the toilet to ensure that the bulk of my body was covered (note: it was also during these years—at Girl’s Camp, I think—that I heard about a sicko pervert guy who took photos from underneath the lids in wooden privies. As a result, in my mind I imagined that Satan’s spirits could see my body from all angles and even trying to cover myself wasn’t adequate to evade their gaze). An example of the difficulties that this caused: when I was in my mid-teens I developed a vaginal yeast infection. I was so mortified by the discomfort ‘down there’ that it was _weeks_ (if not months) before I even examined what was going on. On my own body. That was so sore I could barely sit at my desk in school. And it was weeks even after that I sought help for my problem. Because I didn’t want grandma and everyone else to see that “in my movie.” [And I’ll save the story of the pelvic exam trauma for another day (note: thank Goddess for the fact that Monistat is OTC now.)]
I did consider the fact that maybe there was some sort of protective bubble around bathroom-type activities and that God would not let spirits access to that part of our lives. I also thought perhaps there would be a similar fuzzing or blotting of those moments from my life movie, but that thought contained too many holes for it to really seem ‘logical.’ I realized that by the time we watching _everyone’s_ Pike’s Peak movie we would undoubtedly no longer be shocked by nakedness or defecation. But that knowledge didn’t make it any easier on me as I imagined my total humiliation at my friends’ and loved ones’ viewing of my private moments.
Besides the crazy behavior that resulted from the worries that I noted above, I also found myself frequently confessing minor sins to my Bishop in order to ‘erase’ them from my movie (note: unlike in Catholicism where confession is routinized, in Mormonism confession to Bishops is generally reserved for BIG sins like adultery and coffee-drinking). I felt I had to do this because I couldn’t bear the humiliation of having my misdeeds broadcast to everyone that loved me. (Poor bishops, I think I annoyed more than a few of them with my frequent heart-wrenching confessions about trivial matters.)
All of these concerns and fears about exposure came to a head one day when I was in LA with my father because of some medical appointments. He’d taken the day off of work to drive me down and we’d already spent the morning at the clinic. We ate lunch together at the Bagel Nosh (our favorite!) and then headed towards the temple grounds on Santa Monica Blvd. As was typical for these types of days, Dad went into the temple for an endowment session while I waited in the surrounding gardens and the Visitor’s Center. Well, you can well imagine that I enjoyed wandering around among the fountains and flowers on the temple grounds. At some point in the two hour span that my father was in the temple I headed into the Visitor’s Center restroom. Certainly I thought nothing of the fact that I was mostly alone in the building as there are few people on the temple grounds in the middle of the week in the middle of day. And I’m sure I was wrapped up in thinking about the temple (and my own dreams to be married there someday), my medical appointments that morning, and whatever else preoccupies the mind of a mid-teen. So when I was sitting on the toilet in the very pink & pretty women’s restroom you can just imagine my shock and horror and total confusion when I happened to glance upwards and saw a male face looking down at me.
Perhaps I had a moment to wonder if it was a godly visage that I saw—certainly the middle-aged bearded man might not look too much different from those who walked the roads of Judea. But a more studied glance saw his soiled bandanna and unkempt hair and realized that I was alone and in a completely vulnerable position. And my freaky beliefs about being ‘watched’ undoubtedly contributed to the way that time just froze. Stopped. Dead still. In that horribly long moment of sheer fear.
I have no sense of how long it took me to get out of that stall and out of that bathroom. I vaguely remember the awful feeling of wanting very much to wash my hands. Of feeling totally dirty. And knowing that there was no time for soap and water. And of the moment as I looked into the mirror over the sinks and saw the door open to the stall next to where I had been. And that man standing there with his pants down, exposing himself.
So perhaps you might say that it is just a really horrible coincidence that I had this experience on the Mormon temple grounds. In the place that is supposedly the most protected and holy space on earth (though to get nitpicky I was only *near* the temple and not exactly inside of it). At that time and even now I don’t give too much purpose or weight to the experience in the sense that that I don’t think that god orchestrated it for my punishment or to instill fear into me. But it added to the freaky aura of always being watched that was already brewing inside of me from my church lessons. And made it much, much harder for me to believe that my body wasn’t awful and nasty and dirty—something to be ashamed of and to hide. And I still always have this nagging feeling that I am being watched. Even in my most private moments I get these sense that I am never alone (and I don’t mean in the feel-good Michael McLean way). I mean in the way that I don’t feel I ever have privacy or the security of being safe from the gaze of unseen strangers.
John’s recently posted a piece of satire on his blog that critiques god’s supposed omniscience. While the ‘taste’ and style of expression might be debatable, it is the sentiment that’s behind the image that rings true–because Mormon doctrine reinforces the belief that god and spirits and ancestors are continually hovering around. John knows of the heavy weight I’ve born for many years because of my fears—-he learned this in a big way the first (and last) time he thought it might be funny to jump out and scare me in the dark. He knows that sometimes I still get completely freaked out by creepy bathrooms and dim corners and things that go bump on the night. He knows that the specters of spirits (both benign and malignant) linger in my still-Mormon ‘sixth sense’ even when my rational mind disbelieves that they exist.
*Note: in Mormonspeak, “morality=sexual purity/sexual abstinence”
PS: The title of this post comes from some wording in the LDS temple ceremony. It occurs at a moment where Adam & Eve are discussing their nakedness with god. This is yet another way that Mormonism ritually reinforces some of the ideas that were so influential on me as a teen.