“Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin” (Hyperion, 2013) is an intensely personal, angst-ridden romp through the twists and turns of Seattle author Nicole Hardy’s frustrating (sexually and otherwise) quest for romantic love. It’s also an account of how her entirely reasonable human desire to touch and be touched put her painfully at odds with her Mormon religion.
Because not only does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints forbid erotic experimentation (“necking, necking and petting, heavy petting, and intercourse”) outside of marriage, it also places married heterosexual couples with children firmly on the pedestal at its theological core.
From Hardy’s telling, it doesn’t matter how devout she is, the longer she remains single and the more she pursues her own interests — like writing, scuba diving and making out — the more she is made to feel an outsider at church.
Interwoven with humorous, oftentimes awkward and painful dispatches from the battlefields of love, Hardy describes the waves of grief, fear and exhilaration that arise as one fact dawns on her: The personal cost she is being asked to bear in the name of obedience to the demands of her religion might not be worth the supposed reward she’s been promised in heaven.
Despite what her Mormon leaders would have her believe, she begins to consider that this sacrifice of self might not even be what God wants. "Confessions" is Hardy’s account of her own sexual awakening, which turns out to be inextricably linked to seizing the right to think and act for herself.
Seattle readers might particularly enjoy Hardy's attention to familiar places, with scenes from her job waiting tables at West Seattle's Circa, dining at the Dahlia Lounge, enjoying her first sip of alcohol — a glass of champagne — at Cafe Campagne, which, coincidentally, is the same drink I ordered at Campagne, in 1997, when I began to shed my Mormon upbringing.
Like Hardy, I felt my spirit being crushed by the cultural pressure and spiritual coercion to conform. I stopped attending church in my early 20s, after an exhausting decade of listening to others and suppressing my own doubts.
In her account, Hardy forgoes the temptation to distill the decision to go her own way into a single, decisive, Hollywood worthy moment, but instead illustrates a pile-up of events that eventually becomes too big to ignore.
The approach can make the book seem painstakingly detailed and even mildly defensive, as if she is asking, between the lines, “See, I didn’t do anything wrong, did I?” But this detailed approach also lends realism to her journey, helps establish Hardy’s honesty and makes clear the bravery required to lay bare her experience.
Notably missing in a book about shaken faith is any kind of critique of Mormonism’s history or whether, by the end, Hardy has concluded that what she was taught was really a pack of lies. Further, while she explains that obedient single Mormon women will be granted a spouse and children in heaven, even if they don't find the opportunity to marry on earth, she omits the fact that, in this belief system, a woman could wind up being the second, third, fourth or 100th wife to their heavenly eternal mate.
Polygamy has long been outlawed from mainstream Mormonism in this life, but, to the discomfort of most current and former Mormon women I know, who thoroughly embrace monogamy, it lives on in the next.
While a large proportion of "Confessions" is spent chronicling the ups and downs of Hardy’s romantic love life — the standard stuff of rom-com — its most poignant and revealing moments involve her attempts to reach through to her devoutly Mormon mother.
Her maternal grandmother was a “violent pedophile” who “terrorized” Hardy’s mom. Still, during a Mother's Day church service, this year like all the years before, the congregation ignores the existence of less than fantasy-perfect families.
When all the women over 18 are asked to stand and receive a corsage in honor of their current or eventual motherhood, Hardy refuses, to her mother's disappointment. She recounts the scene: “'I don’t want to wear that ugly thing either,' my mother whispers, pinching the inside of my arm, like she did when I was a kid, misbehaving. 'But I’m being polite.'” Hardy races out of the chapel and bursts into tears.
“I’ve been taught that the LDS gospel is the absolute truth; if one lie is revealed, what then?” She prays that God will give her the strength “to return to my place in the pew beside my mother, sit still, act normal, pretend all I needed was a drink of water.”
Hardy may have felt lonely and alone, but she most certainly was not the only one tortured by doubt, paralyzed by fear. I also sat in church next to my mother, listening to church members speak about "eternal families" — which in Mormon doctrine requires both parents to conform in all the major ways. In my case, after my father had abandoned ship.
Though Hardy stops short of asking it, her story — and mine — begs the question: Who else might be sitting in church, pretending, using “polite” and "nice" to hide misery, confusion, terror? And what of the other women in the congregation, married with children, who’ve been taught that women who work outside the home are committing a spiritual crime against their children?
"Confessions" builds upon the heightened and prolonged sexual tension created by the forbidden taboo of sex itself, which is fast becoming a Mormon cultural specialty. (Think, the Twilight vampire series, by Mormon Stephanie Meyer.) Ostensibly, Hardy's dating sprees, dry spells, disasters and disappointments are all a type of narrative foreplay, building up to the day when IT will finally happen. But by the time Hardy finally gets around to doing the deed, it feels beside the point. Anticlimactic, if you will.
The relentless yearning for eros cloaks, but does not eclipse, the fact that Hardy's story is drawing from another tradition, as well. One that includes Kate Chopin’s "Awakening" and Virginia Woolf’s "A Room of One’s Own", as well as the Mormon author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's, "A Midwives Tale" (Ulrich coined the phrase “A well-behaved woman seldom makes history”). Or, one of my and Hardy's favorites, Terry Tempest Williams’ "Refuge". With this book, Hardy is creating her place in a lineage of women who dare to think for themselves, and to write it down.