Happy Valley

On the face of Brigham Young University’s Religious Studies Building, there is a large, bronze mural that features Joseph Smith in a power stance. He’s enveloped in a beam of heavenly light with an enormous halo wrapped around his upper body. Smaller light beams shoot out of his palms at a family of eight, huddled attentively around the Book of Mormon. I pass by the mural into the building’s air-conditioned interior, a welcome respite from the dry heat of Utah summer. I am about to attend my first BYU religion class where hopefully, Joseph Smith’s sci-fi hand-controlled light rays will inspire my mind from beyond the grave. They might even point me in the direction of a clean-cut returned missionary: someone orthodox and non-threatening for a change, who my parents would like. I enter the class and scan the room for potential candidates. 

Sitting near the front is a blond and blue-eyed boy who looks like he might be tall, so I choose the seat next to him. When the professor passes out surveys to each student, I take a peek at his and discover that he’s a sophomore like me. We already have so much in common. Then I notice that under the question, “Are you a convert to the Church?” he has written “born into the Covenant,” instead of something more concise like “no.” The third thing I notice is his left hand, resting on the desk. There’s a ring on it. I look back at my own paper. 

The professor is a tall, broad-shouldered man who wears orthopedic shoes. When he stands just right, his body is abstracted into a long rectangle with a head tacked on top. I can imagine him bending down from that great height to pinch a child’s cheeks and hand them a shiny penny to take to the corner store. If he was my father, he wouldn’t raise his voice, he’d just say, “I’m very disappointed in you, Caroleine.” But the way he’d say it would break my heart. 

As the class progresses I’m convinced that his mind contains the entire Bible, cross-referenced with the Joseph Smith Translation, The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. The girl in the row before mine has conversations with him in Hebrew when she’s not looking at lists of potential names for her unborn child. The professor tells us that Isaiah was an educated court gentleman who knew how to build a chiasm. Chiasmus is a hallmark of biblical poetry: a staircase of words that leads you up to an important point and back down again. Judgment will befall the people and the Earth is filled with sin, so give glory to the Lord because the Earth is filled with sin and judgment will befall the people. The professor asks the class, “Can anyone give me an example of a chiastic structure in the Book of Mormon?” Six hands shoot up, including Married Boy sitting next to me. The professor calls on Married Boy, who answers, “Alma chapter 36, verses 1-30.” He’s right. I realize that even if he wasn’t Married Boy, I wouldn’t have a shot with him. I can’t name the exact scripture reference for any passage in the Book of Mormon. I don’t even know the difference between Lamoni, Limhi, Lehi, and Laman. 

The professor adopts the voice he uses to impersonate non-believers and exclaims, “When Joseph Smith, an uneducated farm boy was fabricating the Book of Mormon, he used his vast knowledge of Hebrew poetic structure to invent a complex thirteen-section chiastic passage all by himself!” I laugh along with the class at the sheer absurdity of the proposition. Joseph Smith couldn’t have lied. If he had, our religion with 14 million members and counting that we’ve been paying tithing to our whole lives would be a sham. You have to laugh at things like that. But the truth is, I’ve never trusted Joseph Smith. Maybe it’s because he was married to anywhere between 2 and 40 women as young as 14 years old. I find it hard to get past this fact so I prefer to imagine the Book of Mormon emerging fully formed out of the ether. That blue and gold book that I read every night is the word of God that I read every night out of that blue and gold book. 

* * *

Most days I eat a leisurely lunch at the Cannon Center, BYU’s all-you-can-eat buffet. Its most attractive feature is the well-stocked dessert display, laden with a rotating selection of puddings, cakes, cookies, muffins, and “bars” of various flavors. Its least attractive feature is that once a week, religious summer camps descend in swarms and hog the desserts. On those days, the Cannon Center becomes a sea of pubescent youth in pink t-shirts chanting, “Form. The banana. Form. Form. The banana. Peel. The banana. Peel. Peel. The banana.” The chant is accompanied by a detailed set of hand and body movements that the kids perform with joyful enthusiasm. “GO. BANANAS. GO. GO. BANANAS.” Droves of teenagers beg their parents for the privilege of attending these camps. My little sister is one of them. For her, church camp was a transformative spiritual experience that strengthened her testimony of the Gospel and stemmed the loneliness that often accompanies being a devout high school freshman. I haven’t had an experience like that since my first Pioneer Trek when I was 13. Outfitted in a skirt, apron, and bonnet, I pulled a handcart of my belongings over rolling hills for three days. On the last evening, we held Testimony Meeting and I felt the presence of God, surrounded by a sea of other 13 year olds who were feeling it too. A year later, I wrote a letter to my future self in the Notes app of my first iPhone. I titled it “The Manifesto,” and it expressed concern for the state of my soul, pleading with me not to leave the Church. I don’t remember when my testimony first began to falter, but I imagine the girl who wrote “The Manifesto” was reacting to the early signs of what would become a full-fledged faith crisis. 

I was a pious middle-schooler, the type who would request that classmates not use crass words like “stupid” in her presence. Maybe learning about the shady points of church history started my downward spiral. Maybe I was forced to reckon with the nature of God: He has the power to heal your body but He might not, He can alleviate human suffering but probably won’t, He hears your prayers and if you’re exceedingly faithful, He may or may not answer them. Maybe falling in love for the first time recast my faith as a miserable impediment to what appeared to be good, true, and beautiful. However, I think the likeliest explanation is laziness. I said convenient things that I didn’t believe until I believed them. The maintenance of religious faith demands constant searching and struggle which I was slow to participate in. When I see the camp kids sitting on the lawn wearing ties, reading the scriptures in silence, I respect them. They embody the spiritual confidence and sincerity that I hoped to reignite by coming to BYU. 

Today there are no Youth groups at the Cannon and my new friend Sarah and I have just started our first round of desserts. Despite living in Provo, Utah, where dating is a competition, a way of life, and an art form, I haven’t gone out all summer. Sarah has though. She tells me about her date with John last night, which must have gone well because she leans closer and in a hushed whisper, informs me that she gave him a blowjob. It was her first sexual experience. One of my greatest strengths is the ability to hold two opposing viewpoints in my mind at the same time without questioning either of them, and I exercise this ability now. “That’s nothing. You’re a college student. My high school friends moved on to BDSM years ago.” “That’s a sin. Mormons don’t do that. You should confess to your bishop and relinquish your temple recommend immediately.” I opt not to say either of those things and instead, I ask her how it went. She says, “It went well. But now I’m worried that I got pregnant.” 

Premarital sex is banned at BYU. It could cost you your diploma. Young Latter-day Saints either A) do it anyway, B) get married, or C) turn their sexual energies toward a productive, church-approved hobby. Some pour their passions into baking, while others get riled up about Marvel, Disney, or Star Wars. I belong to group C – my thing is running. In high school, I made a feeble attempt at joining group A, but I couldn’t handle it and confessed my sins to the bishop hours after making it to second base. I think sexual frustration is to thank for the wealth of sweet foods Provo has to offer. BYU Creamery is famous for its ice cream, chocolate milk, and cookies n’ cream milk, which is an irresistible culinary abomination filled with enough sugar to satisfy any and all of your physical appetites. Lactose intolerant souls turn to Swig, Home of the Dirty Soda. Swig sells sugar cookies and drinks with names like Beach Babe and Guava Have It. Bloody Wild is a mixture of Mountain Dew, Mango Puree, and Strawberry Puree, with optional vanilla creme. 

Not only do sexual fatwas fuel Provo’s beverage industry, they elevate the significance of hand-holding and kissing. My roommate, who tells me her favorite pastime is “networking,” says she is saving her first kiss for someone she can picture herself married to. Her summer romance is named Brian. She can see herself married to him so they spend a week fasting and praying about whether they should kiss. During this week Brian decides that the answer to his prayers is no and takes another girl out bowling. Some girls who kiss frequently flaunt their experience and call themselves sluts. There’s even an acronym attached to it: NCMO, pronounced nick-moe. It stands for Non-Committal Make Out and it’s the BYU equivalent of fucking. The only exception to this rule is group A, for whom the BYU equivalent of fucking is fucking. I heard from a friend of a friend that experienced guys can have the best casual sex of their lives at BYU. Girls come to them wanting a hookup or a deflowering because their devout boyfriends won’t do it. I’m not sure whether this rumored, underground, sexual marketplace exists. I haven’t seen it. 

* * *

Summer term is almost over and despite my best efforts, my BYU boyfriend has remained elusive. It’s a hot, velvet evening and in lieu of human companionship, I decide to hike the Y. Hiking the Y is a ubiquitous Provo experience. It involves schlepping up a series of 12 steep switchbacks to the enormous letter emblazoned on the mountains surrounding campus. I’m not sure how to get to the trail so I leave my dorm and start walking towards the distant Y, hoping to figure the path as I go. I wander through campus and then through winding residential streets. Darkness falls but the heat remains. As I get closer I can no longer see the Y, but I trust that I’m on the right track. The pavement gives way to gravel and the trailhead appears. I’m panting now and regretting the spontaneity of this decision. I didn’t bring a water bottle and I’m braless, with nothing but a fuzzy sweater covering my nakedness. I start the climb around midnight and by switchback two, the sweater has become a problem. Sweat is dripping off my forehead, down my back, and between my breasts. I don’t want to die of dehydration and heatstroke alone on this mountain in the middle of the night, only to be discovered by a cute BYU couple on a sunrise hike in the morning. This is a popular date spot; I wouldn’t want my dead body to get in the way. I look around me and listen for footsteps. I don’t hear anything. Most of the other hikers have trickled down the mountain by now. I take off the sweater, revealing my naked chest to the great outdoors. After spending the summer on a campus where covering your shoulders is compulsory, the act feels deliciously transgressive. My breasts swing as I resume climbing the mountain. Cooled by the breeze, I make it up the last switchback. The Y is bigger than I imagined: too big to see all at once. I look out on the city of Provo, completely alone. Then for reasons mysterious to even myself, I lie face down on the mountain. With my legs together and arms embracing the Y, my body mirrors the shape of the letter. My bare breasts press into the white spray-painted earth. I have had the BYU experience. 

 

Caroleine is an avid vampire romance fan and loyal Utahn. She can be spotted around campus wearing socks with sandals, eating semi-solid foods like pudding, and anxiously waiting for you to email her at caroleine.james@yale.edu.

Comments are closed.