By Nicole Hardy
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Now in her funny, intimate, and thoughtful memoir, Nicole Hardy explores how she came, at the age of thirty-five, to a crossroads regarding her faith and her identity. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Nicole had held absolute conviction in her Mormon faith during her childhood and throughout her twenties. But as she aged out of the Church’s “singles ward” and entered her thirties, she struggled to merge the life she envisioned for herself with the one the Church prescribed, wherein all women are called to be mothers and the role of homemaker is the emphatic ideal.
Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin chronicles the extraordinary lengths Nicole went to in an attempt to reconcile her human needs with her spiritual life–flying across the country for dates with LDS men, taking up salsa dancing as a source for physical contact, even moving to Grand Cayman, where the ocean and scuba diving provided some solace. But neither secular pursuits nor LDS guidance could help Nicole prepare for the dilemma she would eventually face: a crisis of faith that caused her to question everything she’d grown up believing.
In the tradition of the memoirs Devotion and Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin is a mesmerizing and wholly relatable account of one woman’s hard-won mission to find love, acceptance, and happiness–on her own terms.
Sex isn't everything," my mother says lightly, from the kitchen of my new condo. She means to be encouraging. But I stiffen reflexively against her words, as if to defend myself. I've heard it too many times from too many people—that sentence, so reductive it's offensive.
How easy it is for my mother, who married at twenty, to dismiss what she's never lived without. I can't help but feel like she's being purposefully dense, simply refusing to consider anything beyond the surface. My first impulse is a fierce rush of frustration—the urge to roll my eyes, shout a blistering, condescending "no shit" in the direction of the kitchen, where she's unpacking boxes. Obviously, the problem is not just the absence of sex. Obviously, there are more complex issues at the heart of my unplanned celibacy.
But when I turn to meet my mother's eyes, I work hard to keep my voice from veering into sarcasm. "Do you think I'd be a virgin at thirty-three, Mom, if I thought sex was everything?"
As if on cue, the CD we've been listening to reaches the last notes of the final track. The silence in the room highlights the trepidation we both feel. "I know you're struggling," my mother says, resting her hands on the counter. An impotent kind of energy is humming around her. She wants to help me, I know. She's trying. For the first time, she's asking.
Seconds pass before I trust my voice not to waver, before the burn in my throat subsides. "I don't know how to fix it." Ashamed by even that admission, I hold in the heaviest secret, the sentence that frightens me at night. Outside, a container ship slowly barrels through the shipping lanes. The north end of Vashon Island is nearly obscured behind its towering mass of orange crates, its hull plowing a wake toward the breakwater below. "I don't know how much longer I can live like this," I say finally, half hoping my mother won't hear.
The Mormon Church is a system of absolutes. There is only one right way to live. One complete truth. Either I believe the doctrine of my church was revealed by God to a living prophet, or I don't. And if I believe, I must live the way I've been commanded. I must endure to the end. If I am floundering, drowning, or desolate, my faith should be the solution.
I can feel my mother's fear from across the room, the exaggerated stillness of her body. How can I tell her that over the past two years I have willed myself into depression? The relief of numbness, that saving grace. How can I say I am glad to feel myself withering? That I can almost stop needing what I can't have, if I don't allow myself to feel anything.
If I say no, sex isn't everything—those mechanics, that act—but it affects everything, she will say, "Be faithful." If I say sex casts a monstrous shadow over my life: the visceral wanting of it, the religious sanctions against it, the looming threat of disfellowship or excommunication, and the damaging ways I've devised to resist it, she will tell me to follow the prophet's counsel, and that of his apostles. If I say sex keeps me from getting near enough to a man to fall in love, because nonmembers are the ones who want me and I can no longer trust myself around them. If I say I'm unmarriageable in the Mormon community. If I say the crisis of celibacy is a crisis of isolation, that I am wrong in both places, judged by both sides, she will say wait for my spiritual reward. "Look to the afterlife," as if this life means nothing.
There will be no way to respond that isn't sacrilege. No prophet or apostle has lived a celibate life, is what I'd like to tell her. No one who's told me celibacy is a viable option has ever been celibate. They don't even use the word. They say "abstinent," which implies there will be an end. They don't consider what my life will be like, if I never marry. Which is likely, given who I am, and the ways I'm different. People stand at the pulpit or they come to my house and tell me not to need what every human needs. Afterward, they go home and undress. They lie down next to the person they love most, or once did. When they reach across the bed, someone is there.
The ship outside my window has traveled all the way from China. I imagine it's full of laptops, T-shirts, lipstick, or toys; I imagine a crate full of telephones or headphones—some advanced technology that could help my mother hear me. Make her understand. One of the apostles recently warned against withdrawing from others. "Such retreat," he said, "may ultimately lead to the darkening influence of the adversary, which leads to despondency, loneliness, frustration." He's got it backward, I remember thinking. Withdrawal is a survival tactic. Because if I can't get numb enough, if I can't withdraw far enough from my body and the need to feel human, I will end up clinging to a stranger on a deserted beach, again. I will find myself tangled in the arms of another somebody, anybody, on my entryway floor. It will be some weary, medicinal surrender that destroys everything. One moment of weakness is all it would take to make myself a hypocrite, or a failure.
I open my mouth to explain, or try to. But there is nothing I can say. I listen, instead, to the steady, rhythmic crash of waves against the seawall. And my mother's voice, which sounds as if it's coming from far away. "Everyone has trials, honey. You just love God. You keep the commandments, and you say your prayers." She turns back to the dishwater, as if that is all that needs to be said.
And ye must practise virtue and holiness before me continually. Even so. Amen.
—DOCTRINE & COVENANTS 46:33
Age twelve is a turning point in the Mormon Church. For me, on that portentous birthday, the heavens opened. The angels sang. Because the following Sunday I would enter the Young Women's program and would never again have to sit with the little kids in Primary, be made to sing embarrassing, babyish songs, and be talked to as if I couldn't already read at a ninth-grade level.
I'd been indignant about Primary the entire year prior—about still being categorized as a child by the hierarchies of my church. I was five foot eight, and still growing—if only because my parents ignored their doctor's dead-serious suggestion to give me growth-stunting drugs at age two. I wore a bra, if only for training. So I was more than ready to become a Beehive—the designation for every twelve- and thirteen-year-old Mormon girl.
My first Sunday in Beehives I sat in the small semicircle of folding chairs feeling fancy in a sea-green Laura Ashley dress and my first pair of heels: mauve leather pumps with clip-on bows—a feature that sealed the deal before I even tried them on and practiced walking the plush, carpeted runway in Brass Plum shoes. I wore those heels with pride, though they made me even taller than my father. I wore lip gloss and mascara, too, for the first time that Sunday. But perhaps the most obvious marker of my status as a Young Woman was our Sunday school lesson that week—the first of many to come regarding The Law of Chastity.
Sister Jepson, our teacher, stood confidently in a small classroom adjacent to the chapel. She was pale skinned and dark haired, thinner and younger than our mothers. All seven of us Beehives wanted to grow up to look exactly like her. She had six children, which was hard to believe, given her figure. The first was born when Sister Jepson was nineteen—only seven years older than I am now, I remember thinking.
"Today is the day you should decide," she said, looking each of us straight in the eye. "Make up your minds right now how far you'll let boys go. Then, when the moment comes, you'll never be unsure of what to do."
We watched, rapt, as she turned to the chalkboard and drew a line graph, labeling from left to right: kissing, necking, necking and petting, heavy petting, and intercourse—nouns that seemed old-fashioned, and embarrassing. Then she abruptly changed the subject, or so it seemed.
She told us how much her husband loves her hair. He'd die if she cut it he always says. And we agreed. It was magnificent: the kind of hair we'd soon be spending all our babysitting money trying to replicate, via perming, diffusing, back combing, and spraying, until Aqua Net seared our lungs like mustard gas.
Sister Jepson segued into the special bond a physical relationship creates. She assured us there is no more wonderful expression of love between a husband and wife. "Some people think it's okay to have sex before marriage, as long as you love the person," she said. "But what's wrong with that line of thinking?"
Mindy Harris, a girl wildly obsessed with Duran Duran's pompadoured drummer, Roger, was the first to speak up: "What if you fall in love with lots of people before you get married?"
"Exactly," said Sister Jepson. She asked Mindy to read from a recent issue of the Ensign—the church's monthly magazine, which includes reprints of talks from General Conference, where twice per year the living prophet and his twelve apostles speak to the membership worldwide.
"[The prophet] Alma, in the Book of Mormon, says, 'Bridle… your passions, that ye may be filled with love," Mindy read. "Bridling increases strength, increases power, increases love… A horse is stronger than a man, so the man bridles it, thus controlling its power… Passions are stronger than we are, so we bridle them, thus controlling their power and using that power to strengthen a marriage and forge it into eternity."
Sister Jepson thanked Mindy for reading, and in another unexpected turn asked us to raise our hands if we loved mashed potatoes. Our arms shot up. Our mouths began to water in a collective Pavlovian response, triggered by fantasies of Sunday dinner. We envisioned the ham, pot roast, or spaghetti that would appear, steaming, from our kitchens after this—the third and final—hour of church.
Sister Jepson combed her fingers through her curls until she caught several loose strands. She held them out, and asked which of us would eat a plate of mashed potatoes if they were laced with her jet-black hair. We groaned in disgust; Mindy Harris pretended to gag.
"Beautiful things," said Sister Jepson, "in the wrong place, at the wrong time, can cease to be beautiful." She paused, to let that idea sink in. "And the most beautiful thing about you is your virtue. I want you to make a promise to God, right now. How much will you give away before your wedding night—knowing you can never get back what innocence you've lost?"
She indicated the chalk line, clearly labeled, illustrating the slippery slope to sin and the threat of eternal punishment. God's punishment. And in the silence that followed, I promised to maintain a personal standard corresponding to the church's standard. I'd be married, given six to ten more years. Anyone can wait that long. And besides, I remember thinking, is it just me, or does sex seem kind of gross anyway? I mean he pees from there.
Eight years later, sitting in a large theater-style classroom at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, I'm not married or even close. I am, however, in the midst of another equally enlightening lesson about sex. Psych 101 includes a unit on human development, which—at the moment—has us knee-deep in exhibitionism, voyeurism, and frotteurism.
My professor, who teaches every day in Levi's and a white dress shirt rolled at the cuffs, flips on the overhead projector. Bullet points appear on the ten-foot screen behind him. The bulb illuminates his impeccably white rockabilly pompadour. "Frotteurism is a paraphilic interest in rubbing, usually one's erect penis, against a nonconsenting person for sexual gratification. Frotteurs are generally male, victims female," he says cheerfully.
This is all news to me, and I am captivated. I love the freakiness of it—not to mention the glamorous French spellings (frotteur, derived from the French verb frotter, meaning "to rub").
The professor's voice carries easily to the back of the room. "Although female on male, female on female, and male on male frotteurs exist."
Whoa, I am thinking. And, ew. I copy the salient points in my notebook, unable to help myself from imagining potential questions for our upcoming exam:
A FROTTEUR MAY ATTEMPT TO RUB YOU:
a. In a box
b. With a fox
c. In a house
d. With a mouse
e. In the rain
f. On a train
"Frotteurism usually occurs where the victim can't easily respond," our professor continues. "For example, on crowded trains or buses."
Suddenly, there's a commotion in the back of the room. A girl has stood up from her chair. Abruptly. She slams her book shut, and all two hundred of our heads track her furious, clomping journey down the linoleum-covered stairs. Just before reaching the door, she turns, takes a deep breath, and chucks her seventy-five-dollar textbook directly at our professor's head. "Here's your sex manual!" she declares righteously, before flouncing out of the room.
The class erupts in laughter—either at her emphatic declaration, or her wide miss—and I cover my mouth in gleeful horror. All I can think is, Clearly, that girl has never seen a sex manual. If she'd spent her fifth-grade afternoons like I had—poring over The Joy of Sex in my friend Jennifer's basement—she'd have known the difference. This text has no earnest charcoal renderings, no stunning puffs of pubic hair, no catalog of intriguing and/or perplexing sexual positions.
Our professor picks up the textbook from the floor and says, after a pause, "I am so grateful for that sweet sister." And then, with a wink, "Her aim was terrible!"
Outbursts like these—prompted by religious fervor, or some perceived sacrilege—certainly aren't the norm at BYU, but they're common enough. They're probably to be expected at one of the nation's most conservative Christian universities. But what consistently shocks me is how many people are shocked about sex around here—even married students, for whom nearly all sanctions are lifted.
I love talking about sex, especially when it's part of the curriculum. I want information from every appropriate source, so I'll be prepared when the time comes. I've heard too many nightmare stories of virgins who get married and literally don't know what to do, or who are unnecessarily guilt-ridden, unable to get beyond the idea of sin.
"God would not have created the clitoris," I overheard once on a TV talk show, "if he didn't want women to enjoy sex." I feel like that's a philosophy I can live by; I plan to put it into practice one day soon. No one ever said Mormons have to be prudes just because we practice abstinence. I may never have been to second base, but I sure as hell want to know what a frotteur is. That information could turn out to be useful one day—particularly if I travel by train.
Growing up, my family always talked openly about sex—which I'm beginning to realize isn't exactly the norm for Mormons. But each of my parents suffered traumas as children—in varying degrees—so it was always a priority for them to debunk whatever myths my brother and I picked up on the playground, answer whatever questions we had, and protect us—as best they could—both from predators and the religious guilt often used to promote abstinence.
"It's how adults play," my mother often said, casually. But sex has its time and its place. Our church leaders are adamant about that distinction, as were my parents: wherever, whenever, as long as you're heterosexual, married, and monogamous.
That trifecta is right in my wheelhouse. I'll get married during college, or not long after—because that's what Mormons do. The practice of abstinence speeds things along, obviously: if I were to hit it off with Mr. Dreamy in the striped sweater sitting two rows up, our entire value systems would already be in sync. We'd already have the same priorities, the same core beliefs, the same vision for our future. If we could talk and laugh and trust each other, and if we wanted to tear each other's clothes off, what more would we need to build a life together? But beyond the urgency abstinence inspires, Mormons marry because "two of the vital pillars that sustain Father in Heaven's plan of happiness are marriage and the family."
My mom has called twice since Christmas to tell me she's had spiritual promptings regarding my future husband. I'll meet him soon, she says—any day now. Which makes me sort of nervous, honestly. I've never even really dated. During high school, I kissed a grand total of three guys. My longest relationship happened when I was officially too young to date: sixteen is the church-sanctioned age, and I was fifteen. Nate and I went to different schools, and his parents made it hard for us to see each other, so we stayed together months longer than we otherwise would have. After that, I had one date with a trumpet player in the high school band, and a two-week flirtation with a Mormon guy who'd recently moved from California and charmed me with his long-in-front skater haircut.
Last year, as a freshman in college, I had a four-month interlude with a guy I'm pretty sure is gay—but honestly, that didn't matter much. We weren't having sex, we weren't getting married, and he was a really good dancer. Since then, I've been on one date each with two different guys. Both ended with a five-minute doorstep makeout, and little interest in seeing each other again. One lived out of town, and the other, it turned out, had a thing for my roommate, Krista. That's the grand total of my romantic experience, which could be worse: it's still a far cry from rubbing up on strangers on a city bus, or running around in nothing but a fedora and a trench coat like some pervy film noir private eye.
After class, I head over to meet Krista at the Cougareat. I launch into the story as soon as we choose a booth and detray. But neither frotteurs nor book-chucking girls can hold her attention like Ty Detmer can. Krista's staring at BYU's resident hero and Heisman Trophy winner as if his sandwich contains the clue to the missing link. I wave my hand in front of her face.
"I hear you," she says, batting my hand away. "I'll see your frotteurs, and raise you the forty-year-old woman in my marketing class." She pauses between bites of frozen yogurt. "Last week, she interrupts everything to announce she can't possibly be expected to research misogyny in advertising. Her temple covenants would never allow it. The professor had to hand her a dictionary. She couldn't be convinced misogyny wasn't a synonym for porn."
On the tabletop beside my fork I notice a pencil drawing—a heart with a banner over it and two sets of initials, in the style of a 1940s mom tattoo. Which makes me wonder if my mom ever sat at this table. Met my dad between classes, shared a milkshake, talked about the Beatles or Vietnam. It's strange to think I could literally be walking in their footsteps when I'm on campus: that their feet, as well as my brother's and mine, have slid into the same deep grooves in the marble library stairs.
My parents met on this campus, twenty-five years ago. They fell in love, married, and conceived my brother, all before graduation. Five years ago, they began their campaign: promising to help my brother and me pay for college if we chose their alma mater. I only cared about three things: going to a big school, out of state, where people had to be smart to get in. I was happy to come here, though my nonmember friends can't see why anyone would attend a college with such a strict honor code. And make no mistake. There are a lot of rules: no drinking, no smoking, no sex, no porn, no drugs, no coffee, no co-ed living. No co-ed visits in dorms, except on rare, authorized, supervised occasions. No co-ed visits in off-campus housing, either, except in living rooms and kitchens. On campus, skirts and shorts must be knee length; no tank tops, no backless, no strapless, no braless, no midriff, no bikinis. No extreme hairstyles or colors. Nothing too tight, nothing low-cut. No piercings (except for girls, except for ears—and only one pair), no visible tattoos, though even invisible ones would be scandalous. No beards, no grubby facial hair—though neatly trimmed mustaches are okay. No long hair for men, modest sideburns only. Nothing dirty, ragged, frayed, or patched may be worn on campus according to the dress code. Women always wear dresses for church, where regular attendance is required, and men always wear ties.
A skirt hitting a few inches above the knee or an unshaven face could bar a student from entering certain buildings. Like the testing center. During finals week. And from the pulpit, there are often pointed, embarrassing directives to the student body, in regard to remaining morally clean. Picture a sixty-year-old man saying into a microphone, without a hint of irony, "Backrubs lead to front rubs." Our bishop stood in sacrament meeting just last week to announce, "Feigned sexual intercourse with your clothes on, also known as 'dry sex' or 'Levi lovin',' is strictly forbidden."
And though the entire student congregation sat mortified, cringing at his excruciating use of Utah-based slang, we've all come to expect such things. The rules aren't anything new, nor are the lectures about them. And honestly, I probably wouldn't do anything against the BYU honor code, regardless of where I went to school. Besides, it's nice to live in a place where I don't have to listen to the "Come on, don't be uptight. You only live once. It's no big deal."
I committed—at baptism, at age eight—to a life absent of experimentation, rebellion, and risk. And 98.5 percent of the other students here are Mormon, too. Which means they also promised to suppress every physical appetite in the quest for a spiritual reward. I can't speak for all thirty thousand of my classmates, but I've kept those commitments since my baptism, and I don't feel like I've missed out. I never saw the point in derailing my life for the sake of teenage rebellion.
Obeying the Word of Wisdom—which prohibits drugs or alcohol—meant I'd never be suspended, incarcerated, or sent to rehab. It meant no thoughtless decisions made while I was impaired, no life-altering mistakes, the wrong ride in the wrong car on any given night. Obeying the law of chastity meant no pregnancy scare, no pregnancy actual, no "why didn't he call me, why doesn't he love me," no damage of that particular kind to my self-esteem. That's not to mention the spiritual consequences, or the fact that I had homework to do. Mostly it seemed like a lot of effort to worry about abortion, birth control, and Chlamydia.
According to Mormon scripture, sexual sins are "most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost." I don't even want to think about committing a sin nearly on par with murder. How terrible I'd feel after, or what consequences it would bring. So far, the worst of my spiritual offenses is an affinity for swearing—including the F word, but excluding any phrase including "God" or "Jesus." That, and occasional attendance at Brother Bell's Sunday school class. Provo's Taco Bell is just a few tempting blocks from campus. And while keeping the Sabbath Day holy prohibits spending money on Sundays, neither Krista nor I can commit to going hungry for twenty-four hours when we've forgotten to stock the fridge.
"I need to stop by the bookstore," I tell Krista, gathering up the detritus from our lunch. "Wanna come?"
"Sorry," she says. "Study group." She walks out the door, smiling coyly, not thirty feet behind Mr. Heisman.
The bookstore, any bookstore, is one of my favorite places on earth; though this one lacks ambience, has too many strictly instructional tomes. But in the section where I spend most of my time—the assigned aisles for the English department—the shelves are like a shrine to my truest loves. I've shared my bed with a pile of books for as long as I can remember. This week I'm shacking up with Leaves of Grass—for the third time, at least. I like to imagine Walt Whitman and me on a picnic, holding hands. Lolling around in the grass, picking daisies. Shaking our locks at the runaway sun—just before diving face-first into a wheel of triple-cream Brie.
In the absence of boyfriends, books have taken on the role of the beloved. In the absence of adventure, passion, and pleasure, they've always been my source. When I was a kid called to dinner, made to put my book down and take my assigned spot at the table in our split-level suburban house, my father would ask one of us to pray aloud, thanking God for our abundant blessings. If it was anyone's turn but mine, I would turn inward instead of out. I would nurse whatever tragedy, romance, death, or injustice I'd recently read about for as long as I could make it feel real. I'd sit with my head bowed, my eyes closed, savoring whatever bruise my book had left behind.
As a Mormon girl, I've been taught to "be not of the world," and also to love my fellow man. Stand apart, but love. "The natural man is an enemy to God," according to Mormon scripture. "And will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord." Because I could not—should not—walk in others' shoes, I have read their stories instead. They're a conduit to the empathy I've been commanded to feel—and are as sacred, to me, as any sacrament or scripture.
Halfway down one of the long narrow bookshelves, I find what I'm looking for: Refuge, by Terry Tempest Williams. It's been on the syllabus since the beginning of the term, but the books have just now arrived. I slide a copy from the shelf and flip to the back cover, which details the story of a woman whose family is plagued by cancer—exposed to fallout from nuclear testing in the 1950s. Woven through that tragedy is an account of the catastrophic flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. In this book, the author's mother will die, the land will flood, and the birds will disappear.
The back cover also says the author is Mormon, and a woman. Looking at her photograph, my heart jumps to my throat. I know there are Mormon writers, obviously. One of my roommates is obsessed with the genre novels of Orson Scott Card; and what Mormon girl hasn't read Charly, the Love Story of Mormon culture? Every Deseret Book outlet is bursting with titles almost solely by Mormon authors. But mainstream literature, earning critical acclaim? A Mormon woman, doing that? I didn't know such a thing existed. Could exist.
Looking at the author's face, holding her book in my hands, I feel the thrum of a kindred spirit. Sister is the title I'd use if I were to meet her at church: Sister Williams. Terry Tempest Williams. Tell me everything.
I rush straight home and crawl into bed with Refuge. I break its thin spine and lean in for the marrow. I stay up all night, devouring her story, imagining I can feel the author's breath in my lungs as I read. That her world is mine, collapsing. I'm enthralled by the two stories woven together, but the detail I keep coming back to is a tiny, nearly inconceivable aside—an idea circling, burrowing into my consciousness for the first time.
The author says she and her husband chose not to have children. I realize, upon reading that sentence, I've never heard of such a thing. And even more strange is that I've never noticed, until now. I know Mormon women who don't have children, obviously. Who can't have children. But without exception, it's the trial, the refining fire, the suffering that forces the soul to grow.
I'm astonished to hear a Mormon woman say she simply chose differently—that her identity and sense of purpose spring from a different source. It seems ridiculous to say it: I didn't know a Mormon woman could choose
- On Sale
- Aug 20, 2013
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Hachette Books