Book of Mormon (Afghan) Girl

December 11, 2012 | 17 comments
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You thought you were going to get it right. Right. Instead, you’re morphing into that crazy guy who sits on the front row in Sunday School with two hands up and three incompatible opinions. Given your extremity, making you crazy may well be God’s worst best way of saving you. Plan A is out the window. Now, the only way to get there from here is through that.

More and more, you, like Joanna Brooks, remind me of Sister Simmons.

When Brooks was a girl, her father was a bishop. He organized a holiday bazaar to raise money for the ward building fund.

Sister Simmons was in her eighties, a widow, Utah-born, one of the numberless Mormons who moved down to California during the Depression, or the War, seeking work. She told my father she wanted to do her part for the building fund. (8/199)

The bishop was game. What could Sister Simmons do? Not much. She could crochet an afghan. Very. Very. Slowly. The kind bishop commissioned that afghan and – on the spot, sight unseen – promised to make it the centerpiece of the bazaar.

What materialized at the bazaar was the ugliest afghan my father had ever seen: alternating chevrons of burnt umber and brassy yellow, with a brassy yellow fringe. But who would dare say a word to Sister Simmons? So proud of her dedicated labors: her eighty-year-old hands curling around their crochet hooks as she sat in the soft chair in front of the television in her little house on the edge of a concrete river on the alluvial plains of Southern California, her devotion galvanizing into purpose, while her children are all grown, her husband is gone and waiting to call her name and bring her across the veil into heaven, while leggy blondes in short shorts and espadrilles bounce across the screen of the little television, and the laugh track issues forth in random little bursts, faceless and sort of menacing. (9/199)

Who would dare say a word to Sister Simmons?

No one.

The bishop swallowed hard, displayed the afghan as promised, and set out the bidding sheet.

But who would dare put in a bid? On that?

No one.

That afghan was patently ridiculous. Everyone knew it. The whole evening passed. No one bid a cent.

What does the bishop do? He commits a single, ridiculous, unjustifiable bid: $100!

He saves the afghan.

This is The Book of Mormon Girl. Brooks is Simmons – “Just as Sister Simmons once strung together burnt umber and brassy yellow acrylic yarn as an offering of herself to the community, I strung together words” (192/199) – and the book, like the afghan, is ridiculous. Self-consciously ridiculous. A beautiful mess. A hash of acrylic religion.

You can imagine Brooks, so proud of her dedicated labors, her fingers pecking cheerfully at a keyboard, re-runs of the Daily Show on in the background, Jon Stewart mildly mocking one blessed conservative principle after another, his audience cheering, while her devotion galvanized into purpose.

Right?

Still, can I get $100?

$50?

Going once . . . going twice . . .

How’s your afghan coming?

I’ve saved your seat on the front row.

————————————————-

Joanna Brooks, The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press, 2012).

17 Responses to Book of Mormon (Afghan) Girl

  1. Cris on December 11, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    I’m happy to report that even though it is disturbingly ugly – and it remains unfinished – my afghan has already been bought and paid for.

  2. Rob Perkins on December 11, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    I can’t decide whether this is affectionate or offensive…

  3. Nate Oman on December 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Rob: That’s what makes it wonderful.

  4. European Saint on December 11, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    Nate: LOL.

  5. Carey on December 11, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    Ooh-ooh-ooooh! I know, I know the answer. Call on me.

  6. Nickel on December 11, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    I vote for offensive.

  7. Jax on December 11, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    Wait. Is Joanna Brooks for sale?

  8. Jacob on December 11, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    Here’s my take (that’s what’s great about Adam’s writing, it can be just obscure enough to insert any interpretation you want!)

    We always begin with thinking we’re right, that our perspective is the truest, our experiences most suited to explain the world. But at some point we end up on the “front row,” and “being right” becomes impossibly complicated and vain, and others’ reactions to us reveal this to be so. And those beautiful afghans you sought so diligently to make and are so proud of end up being so very ordinary, even aesthetically displeasing to a lot of people. But it’s your offering and no one else’s, and its very imperfection is symbolic of the ragged chunk of flesh you tore out of yourself to present it, in searing honesty and self-disclosure, a beautiful mess of a gift, because that’s what we really are in the end for one another when we give ourselves to one another. So one could imagine Joanna laboring so hard over her book, this work of love, of blood sweat and tears, and yet in the end, gloriously, it’s not a masterpiece (not of the on a pedestal in the museum kind at least) because it’s fleshy and earthy and muddy and warty and honest and loud. It’s her. And she’s not a spotless Disney princess, she’s a human being with hopes, sins, desires, moments of triumph and despair, beautiful, ugly, ordinary, and the final triumphant strength of her work lies in its unflinching fidelity to ordinariness. She’s not presenting a systematic feminist treatise or collecting an anthology of other women’s stories, she’s telling her own, and when we tell our own stories we’ll never produce anything better than Sister Simmons. And once we realize that we take our place on the front row with our contradictions and craziness and we’re finally free of having to be right all the time.

  9. Aaron Brown on December 11, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    plastic fantastic lobster telephone.

  10. Jacob on December 11, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    Much more coherent.

  11. Adam Miller on December 11, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    Affectionate, people. Affectionate. If you’ve got something better than an afghan, I’d like to see it.

  12. SteveP on December 11, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    Ok, Adam, I need a disambiguation here. I want to embrace Jacob’s interpretation with all my heart but I’m reading it as: “People do crazy, crappy things, and Johanna did a crazy crappy thing and no one would buy it in an auction, even so, it’s the best she has so we must accept her offering in a spirit of love.” Which is really a totally unflattering and unAdamesque thing to say. So my two heroes who I love jointly (you and Johanna, who I consider Mormon Olympians) are tangled in something I can’t unsort. Help me, you are my only hope.

  13. Adam Miller on December 12, 2012 at 9:39 am

    Thanks for the comment, Steve. (And for the vote of confidence. Though I’m totally capable of doing all kinds of mean-spirited and unflattering things. In fact, I do them all the time.)

    Do you think the analogy between Sister Brooks and Sister Simmons (which is the book’s own analogy and which is, in my view, absolutely central to understanding the book on its own terms) is unflattering?

    It seems to me that Sister Simmons and her afghan embody everything good that Brooks felt compelled to return to Mormonism for.

  14. SteveP on December 12, 2012 at 11:04 am

    I’d hoped that’s what you were doing (and thought you were), but the ending pulled out the negative, and so it seemed that while Brooks’ self-deprecation worked for the analogy, an outsider has to tread more carefully when repeating it (as when I say ‘I’m such an idiot.’ and a student says, ‘Your really are an idiot.’ Plus, I didn’t want you to be misread, knowing your stellarocity I felt this fanboy protectiveness over the chance of you being misread.

  15. Adam Miller on December 12, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Yeah, it’s my own fault.

  16. Carey on December 12, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    I think my obscure reference (in #5) may seem out of place, or that I was trying to suggest I knew the answer to whether the post was mean spirited or not, when in fact I was just channeling another type of Sister Simmons named Horshack (from Welcome Back Carter).

  17. Robert C. on December 13, 2012 at 2:28 am

    Excellent, Adam.

    Nice, Jacob — what’s your Lorax fee (if I ever actually post something on a prominent blog page)?

    Steve, admit it, you (and Adam) are just channeling this country song, right?

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