What Changed My Mind
ICSA Today, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2016, 8-10
What Changed My Mind
My name is Camilla, and this is my story about growing up in, and eventually leaving, Mormonism.
My family was far from the perfect Mormon family. Both my parents converted in their youth before they met each other, so we had no Mormon relatives. My dad, who still is a bit of a character (he looks exactly like the guy in the movie Up), had a strong will and absolute conviction that everyone else was a bit deluded—save for him, of course, who really was the only one who understood life. He used to work as night guard of the church temple. Therefore it was my father who took care of me and my sisters and brother after school, while my mother was at work. She, in contrast, was everything Mormons praise: achieving and successful.
As I was growing up, it was my dad I saw getting the side glances and nasty comments for not having a career, rather than my mom for not staying at home, which is usually what a good Mormon wife is encouraged to do. However, my mother had an aura that made her a natural leader and a role model for others. It is funny that peoples’ perceptions, including mine, were that it was my mother who was the True Believing Mormon and not my father, when, as it turned out, it was the other way around.
I am Swedish, and most Swedes are atheists. Growing up a Mormon meant constantly having to talk about and defend my faith. It was impossible during my teenage years not to stand out since I was not allowed to drink alcohol, swear, or smoke cigarettes. My dad was also convinced that if I spent more than 5 minutes alone with a boy, we would have sex and I would go straight to hell. Sex outside of marriage is one of the worst sins in Mormonism, and it was a prohibition my dad took very seriously.
Mormons believe in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon. I was taught that the Book of Mormon was the most correct book ever written. I was taught that if I was worthy and asked God with a sincere heart, the Holy Ghost would confirm, through a warm and amazing feeling, our faith being the absolute truth. So at 14 years of age, I knelt down in prayer beside my bed and asked God about the authenticity of the book, and I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. Devastated and ashamed, I kept this experience a secret and felt that the blame was mine. Maybe I was not worthy, or maybe I had not done it right. I tried again, but to no avail.
I was alone with my secret and 2 years passed, until one day my teacher touched on this very subject. She told us her story, and that she had felt nothing. The lack of confirmation had burdened her until she realized that she already knew the church was true, so she did not need the validation. As the lesson continued in this way, I went from feeling like a failure to feeling chosen. Suddenly I had become one of just a few people so strong in faith that a validation from God was completely unnecessary.
Apart from no alcohol, no cigarettes, and basically no dating, someone being a Mormon is not something outsiders would notice. I was taught to socialize and be active in society, but with the unspoken rule to do missionary work undercover. We were widely encouraged to give our testimony or to hand out a Book of Mormon if the opportunity arose. I remember adoring my mother when she came home from work and shared a story of how she had been able to bear her testimony at work; and I felt so proud when one of my classmates in high school actually converted.
Since all of my father’s colleagues were Mormon, his situation was a bit different. He impressed by being the Good Samaritan time and time again. Many times I saw him help people who were on the brink of personal bankruptcy, but I never once saw him brag or tell others about it. He did what he could in silence, which made a huge impact on me, and I admired him for it.
Like the good Mormon girl I had been raised to be, I got married quite young. My husband was everything I had been taught was important; he came from a Mormon family and, like a good Mormon boy, he had completed a 2-year mission. We had been on a few group dates but had spent very little time alone prior to our wedding, which was right before my twenty-first birthday. Married life was a rude awakening.
Then, at the same time, my mother suddenly stopped going to church. I do not know if she had spoken about this to my father, but she had not said anything to us children. It therefore felt completely unexpected and to me seemed without a reason. Looking back, I think she really did not know what to say. I can say this though: Anything would have been better than nothing. From my (and my siblings’) point of view, she suddenly started to act like a rebellious teenager, and she made no sense. She attacked the Church, and my father attacked her. He, like the rest of us, became even more devout.
In church I would hear comments like “It’s a test of faith” and “She will come back if you only…,” and I believed them. I tried to do everything right, and I prayed for her to come back. I can see now how lonely she must have been, still living with us but with no support, and unable to express what she felt. She turned to books and read all there was to read about the Church and its history.
For 5 years, it was impossible to talk to her. All she would talk about was the founder of the Church, Joseph Smith, and his personality. My siblings and I pitied our father, who had to put up with her; and all of us limited our contact with her during those years.
Joseph Smith was pictured in the Church as a saint almost equated with Christ. He was held up to be the perfect man, a loving husband and a devoted father who was unjustly persecuted for his faith. He was hailed by leaders and praised in hymns. It was not until very recently that the Church officially admitted that Joseph, amongst other things, had lied to his wife and married at least 32 other women, most of them behind her back. And some of them were already married to other men whom Joseph had sent out on missions in other countries.
I had no knowledge of the Church’s true history since reading anything about the Church on the Internet was prohibited. I was taught that everything written outside the Church or by former members contained only lies, and the one reliable source of the truth was the Church itself. This I honestly believed. I have a master’s degree in civil engineering from one of Sweden’s top universities; but when it came to the Church, I fully accepted and believed it was infallible. And if anyone raised a criticism, I would stop listening and tell myself it was all lies.
After a few years, my mother finally persuaded my father to read a book about the Church’s history, with the argument that he at least needed to know what her criticism was based on. He actually did begin to see her point of view and started to support her instead of opposing her. This shift had a dramatic effect. Our conversations at home were about everyday life again instead of about Joseph Smith, and my mother’s rebellion seemed to subside.
In retrospect, I realize that during these years my mother did not try to influence us, or instill doubts about the Church, or urge us to leave. Her misgivings had been more about Joseph’s character as a person. This became particularly evident when my father started to talk to us about his own journey. In contrast to my mother, he came to believe everything the Church had taught us was false, and that there could be no trust in an organization that so profoundly lied about its history. He tried convincing us with evidence that would, as he put it, hold up in a court of law.
In my own life, with my parents’ differing paths away from our faith, a different crisis was developing. My marriage of 6 years had become a prison of pain; with that and what felt like my parents’ betrayal, the Church seemed the only stable thing in my life. I felt trapped with no way out. The more I tried, the worse the situation seemed to get.
Then, on my twenty-seventh birthday, I had a remarkable experience. I went scuba diving, and somehow, near the bottom of the lake, I ran out of air. I was in complete darkness, just losing consciousness, and I realized I was going to die. This thought filled me with an inner peace that is hard to describe. I felt relieved and finally free from my marriage.
Fortunately, my diving partner risked her life to rush me to the surface and made sure I got help. I survived; but lying in the decompression chamber at the hospital, I knew I had to change my life.
I filed for divorce, which my parents had different strategies for dealing with. My mother denied that we had ever been legally married (since the Mormon Church, in her opinion, should not have the right to conduct marriages), and my father kept trying to convince me that a divorce was unnecessary. My now ex-husband said I was influenced by the Devil, and my friends felt betrayed. I left everything and went to Asia on a one-way ticket.
My time in Asia gave me a new perspective on life. During that year, I put my faith on hold and tried to break free from my preconceptions. When I came home, I felt my mind had opened up. I felt free to actually ask God not only if something was true, but also if it was true or false. I realized that I had, all my life, looked only for a confirmation and not for an actual answer. I was free to question even the very existence of God.
I investigated and looked at the Church in a different way. I felt relieved, and able to discuss my faith with my family, something I realized we had never really done. Sure, we had gone to church and we had all been devout, but we had never really talked about our personal belief or experiences.
My mother told me that she had never really believed in the Church but had stayed because she did not want to admit to her parents that she had been wrong to convert. She had thought all members of the Church held this reservation in their heart, and she had been utterly surprised to find out that was not the case. We talked about the difference between converting to and growing up in the Church. Teachings given to us, her children, from a very young age had shaped our lives in a way my parents did not understand. Being a Mormon was more than just going to church every Sunday. It became a part of my identity and affected everything in my life, from what words I used to my self-esteem. My feeling of who I am is still connected with what I was brought up to believe. My parents simply did not understand just how deeply their choices had affected the lives of my siblings and me as children and as adults.
After some time I was ready, and for the fist time in my life I asked God in a prayer if The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was false. Afterward, I felt sorrow but also comfort, as if God was with me. There was not even a shadow of a doubt in my heart when I wrote a letter to the Church’s headquarters and asked them to remove my name. I was officially no longer a member. When my friend asked me if I felt I had lost something, I looked at her in surprise and said, “I have not lost anything. Instead, I have gained a liberty in my mind I did not even know I lacked; and because of my experiences, I have the privilege to realize and be grateful for this.”
Eventually, every member of my family left the Church, but each exiting process started differently. For me it was my divorce; but for my brother, for instance, it was marrying his wife. Perhaps it is strange that we had very little direct impact on each other’s faith and decision to leave, but exiting is a very personal journey and a very transformative decision. I feel humbled by everyone’s individual challenges, and I rejoice when I see how much we have all grown.
About the Author
Camilla Hanke was born in Stockholm, Sweden and grew up in the Mormon Church, together with her two sisters and one brother. While still in the Church, she studied at the Royal institute of Technology and attained a Master of Science in Civil Engineering degree in 2005. In 2011, after both her parents had left the Church, and during a time of questioning the beliefs she grew up with, she went traveling and worked as a dive master in Asia. She has since left the Church and today works for the public transportation system in Stockholm in the area of urban planning, especially around the metro system. She is fluent in both Swedish and English and still loves to go diving, now with her newly married husband Henrik.