Mormon Stereotypes in Popular Fiction: 1979-1998
Mormonism in Popular
I. Introduction to the Study
The history of Mormonism in American is intimately bound up with the
history of bad literature. While Mormon plots, themes, and characters have
been all but unrepresented in that august body of deep and ponderous works
to which professors have accorded the status of (capital "L") "Literature,"
they have been only too common in the somewhat less respected--and infinitely
more read--body of works known collectively as "genre fiction": tales of
romance, adventure, passion, deceit, suspense, betrayal, and intrigue.
The first work of fiction to feature Mormon characters,
was written in 1843 by Frederick Marryat, who was at the time one of the
most famous "bad" writers in all of England. Marryat's fanciful tale of
sinister, conspiratorial Mormons and blood-thirsty avenging angels helped
to construct the basic image of Mormonism used by two generations of adventure
writers; Leonard Arrington and John Haupt have cataloged over fifty adventure
and romance novels published between 1850 and 1900--almost all of which
contain the same kinds of violent, conspiratorial Mormon stereotypes found
in Monsieur Violet. Nearly fifty more more such novels--along with
more than two dozen silent movies--were released between 1900 and 1920.
Of the hundred or so "Mormon" novels produced in this period, only two
have survived the twentieth century in print. These two, however, are among
the most influential and important works of genre fiction ever published:
Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (1887) and Zane Grey's Riders
of the Purple Sage (1912). The importance of both of these works owes
much less than to their literary superiority than to the fact that both
are now considered "foundational texts" of enormously popular literary
genres. A Study in Scarlet chronicles the inaugural adventure of
the most famous fictional detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes, and can
reasonably be considered the first modern series mystery novel. And while
Riders of the Purple Sage cannot claim to be the first Western Romance,
it is almost certainly the most famous--and the formula that drives it
remains standard procedure for writers of Western novels today.
Nineteenth-century Mormon stereotypes in fiction have been profitably
studied and analyzed in a series of articles by Arrington and Haupt, as
well as in Terryl Givens's recent book, Viper on the Hearth. Most
Mormon critics, however, now operate under the assumption that the nineteenth-century
outpouring of anti-Mormon novels was something unique to that period--something
that could not happen again because of the great strides the Church has
made towards the American mainstream. This belief has even been incorporated
into the quasi-official Encyclopedia of Mormonism via Neal Lambert's
entry on Mormons--Images of--Fiction:
Latter-day Saints are not now as popular a subject as they once were
for non-Mormon authors, and writers' interest in modern Mormons as Mormons
is vastly different from what it was a hundred years ago. While Latter-day
Saints may appear occasionally or casually in fiction . . . they have become
too conventional and too well-known as individuals to be placed easily
molds. . . . While some differences between Latter-day Saint and non-Mormon
culture still persist, these differences now seem to be less exotic or
threatening and hence less accessible for exploitation.
My primary argument in this paper will be that Lambert and other Latter-day Saint
critics who have declared victory over nineteenth-century anti-Mormon stereotypes
in literature have seriously miscalculated the persistence of those stereotypes.
While the Mormon Church has become much more mainstream than it was in
the 1900's, it has also become more powerful, and one of the costs of that
power has been a tremendous resurgence of negative images in contemporary
literature. Occasionally, these images appear in "good literature"--works
like Tony Kushner's Angels in America (1993/1994), which won back-to-back
Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Much more frequently, however,
the negative stereotypes of Mormons appear in the same kinds of "bad literature"
that they have always appeared in: sensationalistic genre fiction, including
romance novels, mysteries, Westerns, science fiction, fantasy, and pseudo-journalistic
categories such as the "true crime novel" and the "expose."
What I intend to present today are the (very) tentative results of a
study of such literature based on the bibliography that I have handed out.
Both the study and the bibliography are works in progress. Indeed, one
of the reasons that I like to present in forums like this is that every
time that I do, people in the audience call works to my attention that
I have never heard of before. (Just in case any of you get such an urge,
I have included my address and e-mail address on the handout and I would
greatly appreciate any suggestions of works that should be included in
the final version of this study). Before launching into my analysis, some
discussion of methodology is probably in order:
The works that I have included on the list meet three criteria:
1) All of the works deal specifically and substantially with Mormonism:
Nothing in this study has been more difficult than determining exactly
what constitutes "specifically and substantially." In general, I have excluded
as "unspecific" books that imply Mormonism without ever mentioning it.
Such books would include the many science fiction novels by Orson Scott
Card that deal with Mormon history, theology, or scripture without ever
actually identifying it as such, as well as the ambiguously anti-Mormon
sci-fi works of Sheri Tepper--Grass and The Gate to Women's Country--with
their portrayals of a secretive, polygamous religious patriarchy that believes
in baptism for the dead. Similarly, I have rejected as "unsubstantial"
works that only mention Mormonism in passing, or works in which a single
Mormon character appears only long enough to be identified as a Mormon--usually
because the author needs to get some mileage from a "straight-arrow" type
who refuses to drink or smoke or talk about sex. I considered about half
a dozen thrillers by Tom Clancy, John LeCarre, and Dean Koonz, for example,
before eliminating them on the grounds that they did not engage Mormon
issues in any significant way. Although I have left a few books in which
deal with Mormonism only peripherally, the majority of these works are
primarily about Mormon issues or Mormon characters. Where a book
has seemed to me to be borderline, I have usually erred on the side of
For the purposes of this study, the term "Mormon" is not limited to
"member of the Utah-based Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints."
I am not attempting to analyze an institutional category, but rather a
cultural category, and "Mormonism" in contemporary American usage applies
to members of a variety of different religious organizations based on the
teachings of Joseph Smith. And as much as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints protest
that contemporary polygamists and fundamentalists "aren't really Mormon"
the fact is that, in almost every relevant sense of the word, they are.
Two of the books in this study deal with members of the Reorganized Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Six deal with Ervil LeBaron's Church
of the Lamb of God. One science-fiction novel even deals with a future
police detective who is a member of a completely fictional Mormon offshoot
that supposedly broke with Joseph Smith during the Kirtland period. I consider
each of these books about Mormons because that is how they present themselves.
The average American reader does not understand the various divisions within
Mormonism any more than the average Mormon understands the difference between
the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods of the Lutheran Church. "Mormons," like
"Lutherans" inhabit a single cultural category--whatever their institutional
affiliation may be--and it is this cultural category that I am attempting
to explore in this study.
2) All of the works were all published between 1979 and 1998: The
starting date of the study is somewhat random, but it does correspond to
a huge resurgence of interest in Mormon plots among authors of genre fiction.
For most of the twentieth century, post-polygamy Mormonism has been all
but invisible on the American cultural radar. While a fair number of novels,
stories, plays, movies, and works of nonfiction dealing with Mormon themes
were released between 1900 and 1979, all but a small handful of them dealt
with the pioneer past. In the late seventies and early eighties, however,
America "rediscovered" the Latter-day Saints--largely, I believe, as the
result of at least eight major news stories between 1979-1989 that showed
modern Mormonism to something less than its best advantage. These stories
include the execution of Gary Gilmore, the excommunication of Sonia Johnson,
the shooting of John Singer, the LeBaron murders, the Lafferty murders,
the Mark Hofmann forgeries, the standoff with polygamous leader Addam Swapp,
and the human-sacrifice killings associated with Jeffrey Lundgren's Kirtland-based
Unfortunately for the Church's public image, these events were not just
negative and sensational; they were negative and sensational in ways that
reminded the country of all of the nineteenth-century anti-Mormon stereotypes
that had been bouncing around in the country's collective memory for a
hundred years. The LeBaron, Lafferty, Singer, and Swapp cases all demonstrated
that polygamy was still alive and well in Mormon Utah. Coverage of the
Johnson and Hoffman cases often invoked the image of a powerful, secretive,
and conspiratorial Mormon hierarchy. But perhaps the most tantalizing revelation
of all came from the Gary Gilmore case: after Gilmore was convicted of
murder, he chose--and actually lobbied--to be executed by firing squad,
largely because he wanted his blood to spill on the ground to atone for
his sins. Given the publicity that the Gilmore trial received, this fact
alone would have been sufficiently sensational to cause a media buzz; the
fact that the laws of Mormon-dominated Utah were constructed to encourage
such an execution--by being one of only two states (the other being Idaho)
that still allowed a firing squad--struck much of American as downright
sinister. It is no coincidence that the Pulitzer-Prizewinning account of
Gilmore's execution--Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song--was
one of the first books of the twentieth century to deal with contemporary--as
opposed to historical--Mormonism. In all, pseudo-journalistic narratives
based on one of these eight news stories account for fourteen of the books
in the current study.
3) All of the works are marketed primarily to a non-Mormon audience.
I have made no attempt to evaluate the Mormonness, non-Mormonness, or partial
Mormonness of any of the authors in my study. However, I have gone to great
lengths to evaluate the probable Mormonness of their indented audiences.
Because my primary research question is, "How are Mormons perceived in
the literature of the larger American culture," I have had to exclude from
consideration works of fiction published and marked to primarily to Mormons.
Most of the works I will examine were published by New York publishing
houses. A few have been published by smaller presses around the country.
I have excluded anything published by Deseret Books, Bookcraft, Covenant,
Aspen, or any other publishing house who primarily does business in Utah.
I broke this rule only twice with books published by Signature: Alan Roberts
and Linda Sillitoe's Salamander, one of four books about the Mark
Hoffman affair; and Rod Decker's mystery novel Environment for Murder.
Neither book, in my judgement, assumed a Mormon readership as its implied
audience, and both were widely available outside of the Mormon cultural
Trying to present information from more than eighty books in 45 minutes
is a daunting task. It would be impossible to analyze more than one or
two of these works in any depth, and equally impossible to draw any conclusions
from so small a sample. What I have chosen to do in this presentation,
therefore, is to isolate three basic plot devices, or tropes, that recur
throughout the books in the study. the trope of the Mormon conspiracy,
the trope of the blood-atonement murder, and the trope of the hostage maiden.
Each of these plot elements occurs in novels and pseudo-journalistic narratives
across the spectrum of contemporary genre fiction. Each is used to describe
the Mormons of the past in Westerns and historical romances, the Mormons
of the present in detective fiction and true-crime literature, and the
Mormons of the future in science-fiction novels and other forms of speculative
fiction. Furthermore, each of these plot elements has deep roots in the
history of genre fiction in America and England. As I describe these tropes,
it should become increasingly evident that, to a great extent, the twentieth
century's literary stereotypes of Mormons are nothing more than the nineteenth
century's stereotypes of Mormons with new clothes.
1. The Trope of the Mormon Conspiracy
The average nineteenth-century reader knew only too well that the absolute
power of the Mormon hierarchy did not end at the Utah border. The Mormon
conspiracy to undermine basic American values, subvert freedom, and impose
sexual perversions on an unsuspecting world was not unique, for people
also knew that Jesuit Priests and Jewish bankers had been hatching the
same plots for centuries. But when the Mormons moved West and embraced
both polygamy and theocracy, American popular culture eagerly put a new
face on old anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and found
Mormons everywhere, even in far-away London, where the son of a high-ranking
Mormon official managed to commit the first murder to require the detecting
skills of the intrepid Sherlock Holmes.
Contemporary portrayals of the Mormon hierarchy seem to have retained
and even expanded the conspiratorial image associated with nineteenth-century
Mormonism. Elaborate conspiracies are the bread and butter of many intrigue
novels, and the secretive, powerful Mormon hierarchy--which came under
intense media scrutiny during the Sonia Johnson and Mark Hoffman affairs--has
proved to be an irresistible backdrop for such books. Current portrayals
of the Mormon hierarchy are largely based on popular accounts of these
two cases and on bestselling popular exposes such as Robert Gottlieb and
Peter Wiley's America's Saints: The Rise of Mormon Power (1984)
and Anson Shupe's The Darker Side of Virtue: Corruption, Scandal and
the Mormon Empire (1991). As a result, the Mormon conspiracy has been
upgraded from a frontier cult to a nefarious global technocracy with seemingly
unlimited resources at its disposal.
The basic premise of a high-tech, ultra-secret conspiracy within the
Mormon hierarchy has presented an irresistible target for writers in popular
genres that more ore less require interesting conspiracy theories. In Stephen
White's Higher Authority, for example, witnesses to a Mormon general
authority's shady past start dying after he is appointed to the United
State's Supreme Court. In Gary Stewart's The Zarahemla Vision, a
Mormon apostle arranges the disappearance of a moderate prophet so that
he can use the Church's resources to strip mine coal in Southern Utah.
In Robert Irvine's The Spoken Word, the "First Apostle" of
the Church has his henchmen kidnap the prophet's niece and blame it on
radical feminists in order to turn both the Church and the hierarchy against
the idea of giving the priesthood to women. And in two separate novels--Irvine's
Baptism for the Dead and Stweart's The Tenth Virgin--a high-ranking
member of the Church hierarchy turns out to be a secret polygamist whose
hidden agenda is to return the Church to the practice of The Principle.
Other elaborate Mormon conspiracies have been developed by writers of
science fiction. A number of recent sci-fi works operate on the premise
that Mormonism will become a major American or world religion in the future.
Occasionally, this premise results in a very sympathetic portrayal of Mormon
faith and industry, as it does in Orson Scott Card's Folk of the Fringe--a
collection of short stories about a post-apocalyptic America in which the
Mormons become the center of the new order that emerges out of the ashes.
This view of the future of Mormonism, however, is not the norm; more often,
it is the conspiratorial side of Mormonism that is projected into the future.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's The Gripping Hand, the sequel
to their enormously successful Mote in God's Eye, begins on a Mormon
space colony where secretive and rebellious Mormons are accused of conspiring
with an alien species that threatens the survival of humankind. In Greg
Bear's Moving Mars, a Mormon senator from Utah is identified as
a ringleader of a powerful, multi-national cabal that stands above and
dictates policy to supposedly independent governments.
Perhaps the most extensive treatment of futuristic Mormonism, however,
comes in Dean Ing's series of three post-holocaust novels: Systemic
Shock, Single Combat, and Wild Country. Though
Ing's premise is almost identical to that of Orson Scott Card in Folk
of the Fringe, the overall presentation of Mormonism is very different,
as the cover advertisement for the middle volume demonstrates: (Back
1995: Scores of our cities are vaporized. Everywhere chaos
reigns. In all of America only one major social unit was prepared for Armageddon:
the Mormons. In Utah, Civil Defense is a religious imperative: now every
practicing Mormon is crowded into a warren of bunkers underneath Salt Lake City with a year's supply of food, medicine--and weapons. Small wonder
then if when America begins to dig itself out it looks to a Mormon president
for leadership. Small wonder too if the Mormon hierarchy yields to the
siren call of religious dictatorship. . . .
In many ways, this series reads like an only slightly updated account of
a typical nineteenth-century Western. The President of the United States,
a Mormon apostle named Blanton Young, moves the nation's capital to Salt
Lake City and secretly trains an elite corps of assassins to take care
of his personal and religious enemies. One of these assassins, a talented
young man named Ted Quantrill, outwits his supervisors and escapes. Despite
being pursued by other assassins, and by the unbelievably vast resources
of both Church and State, Quantrill survives and manages to tell his story
and bring down the autocratic Mormon Empire.
An interesting side effect of the revival Trope of the Mormon Conspiracy
has been an almost wholesale resurrection of the historical event most
frequently associated with the conspiratorial side of Mormonism: The Mountain
Meadows Massacre. A number of the fact-based narratives about Gilmore,
Hoffman, and LeBaron work in a historical account of the Mountain Meadows
Massacre as part of their "context" for the stories. But the fictional
genres carry the notion much further, actually incorporating the history
of the massacre--and its cover-up--into their narratives. Allow me to give
three examples from three different genres.
A. In the Western novel, Bibles, Bullets, and Brides,
the author puts forth the premise that the MountainMeadows Massacre was
merely the first in a long line of massacres masterminded by the Mormons.
The novel is set in Salt Lake City twenty years after Mountain Meadows.
The heroes--two quick-drawing, hard-loving Pinkerton detectives named "Doc"
and "Raider" are sent to Utah to investigate rumors that dozens of famous
outlaws--Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, the Clantons and, the McLowerys
to name a few--have taken up residence in the Mormon capital. The two detectives
discover that the outlaws have been lured to Salt Lake City by none other
than Bishop John D. Lee, who professes to be running an "outlaw outreach"
designed to bring the Gospel to famous gunslingers. In the mean time, three
different wagon trains full of French and German immigrants are attacked,
robbed, and killed by suspiciously well armed Indians. When Raider infiltrates
the outreach program, he discovers a terrible secret: that Bishop John
D. Lee has been responsible for hundreds of massacres on immigrant wagon
trains over a period of 20 years and that he has now decided to use professional
gunmen in his robberies to help him eliminate survivors. The following
selection occurs when the undercover Pinkerton agent, Raider, under the
cover of "Christopher Pike" first meets John D. Lee.
[Lee Speaking] "The beginning was almost twenty years ago.
It was just myself and some locak boys, and I remember the first wagon
train we hit. It was filled with old ladies, and all we got was a crate
full of size 16 dresses." He laughed, and Raider joined him. "Obviously,
things got better. For twenty years we hit about one a month and made a
nice living for ourselves."
B. In the mystery novel, Thy Kingdom Come, a naive-but-well-meaning
Mormon prophet appoints a wealthy industrialist named Dana Sloat to be
his First Assistant. Unbeknownst to the other members of the Church hierarchy,
Sloat is a direct descendant of John D. Lee, the supposed mastermind of
the MountainMeadows Massacre. When a mild-mannered investigator (bearing
more than a little resemblance to Jerald Tanner) discovers the secret,
Sloat has his son, who happens to be the "Prophet" of a polygamous offshoot
in Arizona, dispatch a Danite to kill all of those with enough knowledge
to expose the embarrassing genealogy. In the mean time, Sloat masterminds
a plan to secretly buy up the largest newspaper consortium in the country
so that he can control the flow of information about the Mormon hierarchy
to the public. Sloat almost succeeds in his nefarious plans, but is prevented
at the last minute by an emergency meeting of the Council of the Fifty,
which, we discover, has actually been meeting regularly since 1842 (Read
Selection. Page 163)
"But?" said Raider in anticipation.
"But we got sloppy. More and more wagon trains realized what was going
on, and we had to start killing to protect ourselves. That was when our
little philosophy came into play, Mr. Pike."
"If you're going to do it at all, do it right. I figured, who better
to work with than men like you. That's when I started giving the best damn
free vacations imaginable, all the women and booze you can handle in exchange
for . . ."
"For hitting one lousy wagon train while we'er enjoying your hospitality."
"It's a fair exchange, wouldn't you say?"
"I sure would," Raider said softly. The pieces finally were fitting
together in his mind.
"Try to enjoy your day as much as possible, because I'm afraid tomorrow
is a work day. There's a big wagon train heading for California that'll
pass south of here early in the morning. We'll be there by sunup."
"What exactly will I be doing?"
"I've herd a lot of good things about you, Mr. Pike. Our operation is
simple. Three-quarters of the boys rush the wagon train, make a lot of
noise, and cause a diversion. The others are strategically placed around
the area to take care of anybody trying to run away. I understand you're
something of a crack shot. Naturally, you'll be stationed on a ridge. I
know you're new, Mr. Pike, so I'll tell you right now. I don't like
C. In the science-fiction trilogy Tarot, by Piers Anthony,
yet another descendent of John D. Lee is Mormonism's sole representative
on a planet designed to duplicate earth's religious diversity. On the planet
Tarot, you see, representatives from all of Earth's religions live in continual
suspicion of each other. The hero of the trilogy is one Brother Paul, an
initiate in Earth's Holy Order of Vision, who is sent to the Planet Tarot
to discover "whether or not the Deity manifesting itself there is or is
not God." Paul discovers that the people of the planet experience strange,
vision-like manifestations called "animations," in which they are locked
into simulations of reality--with each one playing a pre-defined role--that
lead them to their own understandings of religious truths.
Brother Paul's principle companions in the animations are Therion, a
cynical, profane Satan worshiper, and Lee, a sincere-but-naive Mormon--who
just happens to be a direct descendent of John D. Lee. The three go through
a variety of animations until they decide to experience, first hand, Dante's
Inferno. In the eighth level of Dante's Hell--in the section reserved
for religious schismatics and false prophets--the inhabitants accuse Lee
of belonging to a schismatic and false religion, and the theme of the animation
becomes a trial of Mormonism. A number of unsavory elements of Mormon history
and doctrine are brought up in this simulation, but the most sustained--and
damning--treatment is of the MountainMeadows Massacre perpetuated by Lee's
own direct ancestor. (Read Vision of Tarot, pp. 230-31)
2. The Trope of the Blood Atonement Murder
Because the Gary Gilmore execution was seen as a test-case for the modern
death penalty, it was one of the most closely scrutinized criminal trials
of the century. When Gilmore chose the firing squad as his preferred method
of execution, intrepid journalists soon "discovered" the link between Utah's
firing squad and the statement of some early Mormon leaders that a murderer's
blood must literally spill on the ground in atonement for his or her sins.
Writers following in Mailer's footsteps have managed to work references
to blood atonement--both historical and contemporary--into thirteen of
the eighteen "True Crime" books in this study. Shot Through the Heart,
Mikal Gilmore's memoir of his brother's execution, devotes an entire chapter
to the Mormon belief in blood atonement, which Gilmore presents as the
reason that his brother chose not to fight his execution. In The 4 O'Clock
Murders, the story of the LeBaron murders, Scott Anderson imports a
bit of anti-Mormon folklore from the nineteenth century to claim that Brigham
Young "had liberally used the principal to eliminate both business and
religious rivals" and that LeBaron "was simply continuing the tradition
that the second Prophet started.". In Nutcracker, Shana Alexander
manages to go even further by working a full explanation of Mormon blood
atonement into a murder story set among an Episcopalian family in Salt Lake City. The most gratuitous attempt to sensationalize blood atonement,
though, probably occurs in Jack Olsen's true-crime novel Doc: The Rape
of the Town of Lovell (1989). Olsen, in chronicling the story of an
anti-Mormon doctor who raped dozens of Mormon women in his examining room.
(Read example on page 36).
The blood-atonement murder trope is even more common in straight detective
fiction. Of the twenty-four mystery novels in this study, seventeen have
plots that depend on some variation of a blood-atonement murder theme.
In some of them, such as Rex Burns's The Avenging Angel (1983) and
Robert Irvine's Pillar of Fire (1995), the actual practice of blood
atonement is confined to fundamentalist sects only loosely connected to
the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, in a larger group of novels, blood-atonement
murders that appear to have been committed by fundamentalists turn out
to have been committed by high-placed Mormon officials. In Irvine's Baptism
for the Dead (1988), for example, a member of the Council of the Seventy
sets out to avenge his wife's murder because "he's an old-fashioned man.
He believes in blood atonement." In the same author's The Spoken Word
(1992), a member of the Quorum of the Twelve orders Church security
to kill a man suspected of kidnaping the prophet's niece on the grounds
that "the shedding of his blood atoned for all his sins" Similar beliefs
by high-placed Mormons lead to ritual-style murders in Gary Stewart's The
Tenth Virgin (1983), Jan Sainsbury's Saintly Death, and
Peter Bart's Thy Kingdom Come.
Another common use of blood atonement in mystery fiction occurs when
ordinary members of the Church, who have supposedly grown up learning that
blood atonement is an eternal truth, take it upon themselves to "atone"
those they consider to be sinners. In three novels, belief in blood atonement
leads to a spree of serial murders in the name of religion: In Thomas Cook's
(1983), a Mormon traditionalist kills people who were involved with
the Church's decision to extend the priesthood to African-Americans; in
Irvine's The Angels Share (1989), a return missionary begins to
murder Salt Lake prostitutes in an attempt to "blood atone" for his own
sins; and in Stephen White's Higher Authority, detectives attempt
to solve a series of bizarre murders that are connected only by the fact
that the killer always makes sure that the victim's blood spills on the
earth. An investigator is able to solve the case by recalling passages
about blood atonement from Mailer's The Executioner's Song. In a
fourth book, Every Crooked Nanny, a model return missionary, upon
discovering that his girlfriend is a con-artist and a lesbian, reports
that he "had to kill [her] to guarantee her salvation." In all four of
these novels, the author includes at least one passage explaining the history
of the Mormon concept of blood atonement--almost always with the explicit
suggestion that it remains a standard article of faith for contemporary
A third mystery plot involving blood atonement depicts a clever killer
attempting to deflect suspicion from him or herself by making a murder
appear to be the work of Mormons or Mormon fundamentalists. Some variation
on this theme occurs in Cleo Jones's Prophet Motive (1984) and in
two books by Robert Irvine: Gone to Glory (1990) and Called Home
(1991). The most pronounced use of this device appears in Karen Kijewski's
Alley Kat Blues, in which a Sacramento private investigator named
Kat Colorado must solve the mystery surrounding the death of a young woman
named Courtney Dillard who had recently left the Church. When Kat visits
the girl's father, he recites Brigham Young's teaching on blood atonement
Read quote on page 68.
Just in case we have missed the point that Orson Dillard is a religious
fanatic right out of Riders of the Purple Sage, Kijewski next has
him turn to his wife and say, "Go to the kitchen, wife. Tend to your duties"
before turning back to Kat and ordering her out of his house on the grounds
that she is "but a wrongheaded tool of Satan sent to do his evil work and
thwart the work of the Lord."
Incredibly, Orson Dillard is one of three fanatic Mormon males who are
suspects in Courtney's murder. As the investigation continues, Kat meets
Robert Corwin, a successful insurance agent who had been Courtney's boyfriend
before his Latter-day Saint mission. Kijewski soon reveals that Corwin, while temporarily
home from his mission to attend his father's funeral, had attempted to
rape Courtney and had then become furious at her for tempting him with
her sexuality. Later, Kat discovers an old missionary letter in which Corwin
upbraids his by-then former girlfriend for wanting to leave the Church
and attend college (in Kijewski's world, Mormon women must choose between
the Church and higher education). In this letter, Corwin directly threatens
Courtney with blood atonement (Page 107):
How can you question your father, the bishop, the teaching
of the Church? We are here to help you and direct you. There is no greater
glory for a woman than wife and motherhood. It is fulfillment for a woman.
Education is not necessary, is not God's way for a woman. Be careful that
Satan has not deceived you and led you toward your destruction. You will
lose not only your own goodness but your family and all you hold dear.
As you have lost me. Remember the Blood of Atonement.
Both Courtney's father and her former boyfriend, however, are downright
enlightened compared to Kijewski's anti-Mormon pièce de résistance:
Ezra Dillard, Courtney's older brother, who lives in a polygamous enclave
outside of Sacramento. Kijewski describes Ezra as "an Old Testament Prophet
in twentieth-century overalls and sturdy boots. Beard to the middle of
his chest, hair below his shoulders." When informed that his sister's death
might not have been an accident, Ezra states merely (238)"Thus sayeth
the Lord: there shall be Blood Atonement for Sin. . . . It is the word
of God and I, his Prophet, so be it. In her death was His will accomplished.
Even so, Amen." Like all of the other Mormon characters in Alley Kat
Blues, Ezra seems to have been drawn directly from the pages of A
Study in Scarlet or the set of Trapped by the Mormons. Indeed,
to students of American popular literature, nothing about the Mormons in
Alley Kat Blues should seem new. The basic plot--a bright young
Mormon woman tries to leave the Church but is continually hounded by fanatic
friends and family who believe that apostasy is a sin worthy of death--was
already becoming stale when Arthur Conan Doyle stole it from Robert Louis
Stevenson. Even the dialogue that Kijewski constructs for her Mormon characters,
with all of it "yeah verily's" and "thus sayeth the Lord's," comes straight
out of the worst nineteenth century fiction. Had she not been killed in
an automobile accident, there would be little reason to believe that Courtney
Dillard had ever lived in the twentieth century.
3. The Trope of the Hostage Maiden
Along with providing three clear examples of the trope of the blood-atonement
murder, Kijewski's Alley Kat Blues illustrates a third common plot
element in contemporary genre fiction about Mormons: the trope of the hostage
maiden. Stories of innocent maidens held against their will by evil Mormons--and
pursued relentlessly if they tried to escape--were distressingly common
in the nineteenth century. Some variation of this plot occurs in Study
in Scarlet, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Dynamiter, and Riders
of the Purple Sage--as well as in motion pictures such as A Mormon
Maid and Trapped by the Mormons. A version of this story even
landed on Broadway in the form of Jerome Kern's 1914 musical, A Girl
from Utah. All of these portrayals had their roots in "true" exposes
such as Maria Ward's Female Life Among the Mormons (1855), Metta
Fuller's Mormon Wives (1859), and Ann Eliza Young's Wife #19
Contemporary historical fiction presents a number of distinct variations
on this common theme of a young Mormon woman held hostage--either physically
or ideologically--by representatives of the Mormon Church. Occasionally,
these portrayals of early Mormons come straight from the nineteenth-century
script, as the following cover blurb for Jennifer Blake's Golden Fancy
SHE HAD ESCAPED THE Mormon WAGON TRAIN and the clutches of
the fanatic Elder Greer, who called his wanton desires the "will of God."
She had been saved from death on the desolate prairie by the handsome,
cynical Ward Dunbar who wanted only her body, not her gratitude. Now Serena
Walsh found herself Dunbar's unwilling mistress--and his prisoner. Closeted
above the Eldorado, the gambling house he owned in the gold rush town of
Cripple Creek. Despised by Dunbar's beautiful partner, Pearlie, for stealing
her man. Desired by Nathan Benedict, the millionaire who wanted her love
at any price. Hounded by Elder Greer, who was determined to make her fear
the fury of her lust and fear God's holy wrath. She stood alone against
the primitive passions of a hostile town that threatened to destroy her.
Consider also the book These Latter Days, by Laura Kapakian, a popular
romance writer who achieved a brief moment of fame with Cossette, her "sequel"
to Les Miserables(Back):
IN 1890, ONE WOMAN DARED TO BE MORE THAN VIRGIN, WIFE, OR WIDOW.
Ruth Douglass was a woman of pride and passion, wed to a man whose religious
zeal imprisoned her spirit, a man who took her from the comfort of her
Utah home to Idaho's brutal wilderness. She dreamed of a richer life. .
.a dream that threatened to drift away on the harsh frontier winds. In
a bold escape, she fled with her children to California, there to find
new love, and wrest from that majestic land a treasured independence..
This would be her legacy, passed on to her willful, darkly beautiful daughter,
fulfilled by her adventurous granddaughter. . . a heritage shared by three
generations of women who dared to live and love beyond the limitations
of their times. (Cover Blurb)
Another variation of this theme--one with wildly different ideological
implications--occurs in the five historical novels of Marian Wells, a Utah-born
Evangelical Christian writer whose novels are among the best selling offerings
of Bethany House Books, by far the largest and most profitable Evangelical
press in America. Wells' first three books--a trilogy consisting of The
Wishing Star, Morning Star, and Star Light, Star Bright--read
like an anti-Mormon version of The Wok and the Glory. This series
traces the rise of Mormonism through the eyes of Jenny Cartwright, who
begins the series as a young schoolgirl with a crush on a mischievous,
dishonest student named Joseph Smith. Jenny is mysteriously present during
all of Joseph's early forays into divining, money digging, and occult rituals--and,
when he forms his new Church, she becomes Martin Harris's house girl, giving
her the chance to observe even more. As the series progresses, Jenny becomes
more and more attracted to Joseph Smith--and even though she is a personal
witness to almost all of the shadier sides of Mormon history--she cannot
break free from this charismatic attachment to one man's personality. Finally,
though, through the influence of her husband--a follower of Joseph Smith
who becomes converted to true Christianity while on a mission to England--Jenny
gives up her belief that Joseph can save her, rejects Mormonism, and embraces
Jesus Christ as her personal Savior.
In still other works, though, it is feminism, rather than Evangelical
Christianity that works as the underpinning ideological agenda in stories
of hostage maidens. Explicit feminist themes appear in the "hostage maiden"
plots of historical novels such as Sister Wives and No Bed in
Deseret, as well as in Alley Kat Blues, The Spoken Word,
Higher Authority, and Prophet Motive. But the most frequent
and hard-hitting tales of hostage maidens have come in the late twentieth
century from the same place that they came in the nineteenth century: from
popular exposés such as Sonia Johnson's From Housewife to Heretic
and Deborah Laake's Secret Ceremonies. The connections between the
nineteenth- and the twentieth-century versions of this genre are especially
apparent in the latter volume, Secret Ceremonies, which is also
one of the two or three best selling books about Mormonism published anywhere
during the last twenty years. A confessional account of a young woman's
temple marriage and subsequent loss of faith, Secret Ceremonies
was billed to readers as "an absolutely riveting account of marriage, mysticism,
mumbo jumbo, Mormonism, and, finally, growth and wonder."
In the beginning of the book, Laake presents herself as someone who
was once a hostage--not as a physical hostage, of course, or even one bound
by the sins of theological error, but a hostage of a religious ideology
that repressed the natural expression of her sexuality. Laake's path of
discovery begins when she is a naive BYU student and continues through
two unfulfilling marriages, a guilty affair, and, finally, a fulfilling
life as a competent and experienced sexual being. But despite the sometimes
overbearing description of sexual acts, it would be a mistake to say that
Secret Ceremonies is "about sex." It would be more accurate to say,
I believe, that the book is about "not having sex"--and about escaping
from an ideology that equates not having sex with righteousness. Consider
the language that Laake uses when, as a married woman, she "discovers"
auto eroticism at the suggestion of her doctor (apparently the thought
had never occurred to her before):
In the weeks that followed, I discovered my body and my sexuality
for the first time. I was a girl whose understanding of the place of sex
in life had been determined by frozen-faced prophets, and yet I slipped
easily and without guilt into a happy obsession with my imagined, sensuous
worlds.. . . . . . . . . . . This permission to feel pleasure seemed to
radiate out of a sure, pure center where values were universal and timeless
and never damning. For a long time I didn't realize that this core of my
personality could also transform the parts of my life that weren't sexual.
. . . . . .. . . This was a completely new form of knowledge. The teachings
of my youth had been so focused on mysticism and the spirit that the body
had been discussed only as a package to house the part of me that was eternal.
It had never occurred to me before that my body was me. It was like discovering
a twin; my body seemed that separate from the part of me that I thought
I knew. But finding it was a beginning, and over the next fifteen years
I would slowly merge with it.
It is interesting to note that, in a passage like this, the anti-Mormon
rhetoric of the nineteenth century comes full circle. Nineteenth-century
moralists used stories of hostage women to show that Mormons were sexually
permissive outcasts in a Victorian society. Secret Ceremonies, on
the other hand, uses this same trope to show that Mormons are Victorian
outcasts in a sexually permissive society. What does not change, though,
is the fact that Mormonism is portrayed as sexually aberrant and therefore,
"other." This is essentially true of most of the books in the study. To
writers writing as explicit feminists, Mormonism represents patriarchy;
to Dean Ing, a well-known libertarian, Mormonism represents political authoritarianism;
to Marian Wells, an Evangelical Christian, Mormonism represents theological
error; to writers interested in racial equality (Gary Stewart and Thomas
Cook), Mormonism represents bigotry; and to writers concerned with the
environment (Peter Barth and Rod Decker), Mormonism represents pollution.
Though there is no consistent ideology among the books in the study, there
is a consistent portrayal of Mormons as "against" whatever it is that an
author if "for."
So what does it all mean? After reading and examining the books on this
list, I believe that the following conclusions, listed in no particular
order, are justified.
1. To the extent that popular literature is able to reflect popular
sentiment, Mormons are not as well perceived in the larger American culture
as most of us would like to believe.
2. Most of these negative images have been fixed since the 19th
Century. Some of the images in these books, primarily in the Western
and Historical Romance novels, have been lifted directly from nineteenth-century
sources with little or no revision. More important, though, are the stereotypes
that have been reworked to fit into a contemporary milieu: the Church security
agent who secretly murders dissidents and detractors; the Mormon apostle
who conspires to usurp power by resurrecting the Mormon belief in blood
atonement; the fanatic Mormon patriarch who locks his daughters in their
rooms to keep them from going out with gentile boys; and the future Mormon
president of the United States who attempts to turn the entire country
into a dessert theocracy. These stereotypes are so close to their nineteenth-century
counterparts that, I believe, it is impossible to attribute them to anything
else. And the frequency with which these stereotypes appear in contemporary
fiction suggests that they have never really disappeared from America's
collective cultural memory.
3. We should not confuse these stereotypes with genuine political
critique. There is a difference between criticizing Mormons for not
giving women the priesthood and criticizing Mormons for conspiring to overthrow
the free world. Too many Mormon intellectuals, I believe, hesitate to call
these stereotypes what they really are--anti-Mormon bigotry--because they
are afraid that they will be perceived as apologists--or, even worse, as
insufficiently unaccepting of racism, sexism, and homophobia. While writing
this paper, I found myself continually fighting off urges to sprinkle my
discussion with CYA statements like, "this is not to say that Mormon feminists
do not have legitimate concerns," or "I do not mean to imply by this critique
any approval of environmentally unsound practices." But enough of that.
Liberal academics and social activists would not for one minute tolerate
mass-produced fiction that portrayed blacks, Jews, Native-Americans, or
Hispanics as negatively and as simplistically as these works portray Mormons.
And I fundamentally believe that Mormon academics can criticize patently
obvious examples of negative religious stereotypes without having to apologize
for or temporize about a thing.
4. By studying the way that Mormons are portrayed in popular genre
fiction we can gain insight into the way that Mormonism functions as a
category in American culture. Most works of genre fiction only have
room for one fully-realized character: the hero. Everyone else has to be
an easily-identified stock character. Mormons have become stock characters
in several major genres of fiction because they are easy to associate with
certain values, perceptions, and behaviors. Both the writers and the readers
of these books can rely on the word "Mormon" to conjure up a whole host
of attitudes, characterizations, and personality traits that are held so
much in common that they never need to be fully explained. Though these
novels can tell us very little about what it is actually like to be a Mormon
in late-twentieth century American society, they can tell us a great deal
about how we are perceived as Mormons within this society-and, I believe,
that is a very important thing for us to know.