January 29, 2009

Ross was the baby of the family, and we always thought he was awfully spoiled (which of course he was). He didn’t look like me at all, I thought, with his reddish curly hair and sly grin. He liked to be the center of attention (My dad always said he was a “ham”), and he usually got it. Danny resented the attention Ross got and picked on him mercilessly.

I remember when Ross was about four years old, and he had apparently picked up some language from one of the neighbors. At dinner one night, he said in a very polite voice to my mother, “Please pass the f***ing butter.” Mom’s jaw dropped, and the rest of us just burst out laughing. Another time when he was about seven, he and his friend from across the street brought a stack of Playboys home. Mom was mortified.

As I said, Danny hounded Ross for a long time, mostly because Ross was smaller by quite a bit. But when Ross was about thirteen, he suddenly grew into a tall and rather solidly built kid. Danny stopped bugging him. Somewhere along the line, Danny started calling him “Otis” because he thought it was funny. Ross was not bothered at all, and soon everyone was calling him Otis. Once my dad went to pick him up at a church dance, and when he asked for Ross Williams, no one knew who he was talking about. Finally, someone said, “Oh, you mean Otis.”

During his teenage years, Ross became quite a good surfer, and he and Danny surfed just about every weekend and every day during the summer. I think it was the surfing that made him so strong. He had massive shoulders.

By the time I got home from my mission, Ross was big and tall and strong. He met an African American girl at youth conference, and she persuaded him to start dressing and grooming himself as if he too were black. Danny called him the “pseudo-black.” What made me sad was that this girl treated him really badly and said terrible things to him, such as that she was embarrassed to be seen with him. He really withdrew during that time and became really quiet and unsure of himself. I used to pick him up from his job at Builders’ Emporium and we would talk for hours about life. I kept telling him that no one was worth the abuse he was taking from her. Finally he broke up with her, and soon he was back to his old, happy self. Later I read his journal from this time period, and it made me cry to think of how sad and hurt he was.

After graduation, he and Danny spent a week surfing in Mazatlan. Ross ended up surfing alone much of the time because Danny got stung by a Portuguese Man-O-War. He was pretty good about staying with him and taking care of him, but Danny insisted he go out and get in some waves.

That fall he headed off to BYU like most of us in our family had. The first day, he went to class and realized he’d forgotten a pencil, so he turned to the girl sitting next to him and asked if he could borrow one from her. They immediately hit it off, and soon they were inseparable. Just a couple of weeks into the semester, I was working one night at my low-paying job cleaning the Wilkinson Center floors when someone knocked on the window behind me at about one in the morning. It was Ross, and he wanted to introduce me to Becky, the girl he had met. He was much taller and bigger than she was, but they both seemed so happy together.

For my birthday, Danny and Ross rented a couple of movies to watch at our house. The only one I remember was “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things.” At Christmas that year, we all gathered at my parents’ house in California and took a family photo. For some reason, Ross didn’t have his dress clothes with him, so he squeezed into one of my sweaters. (I have no idea how. He was about 6’2″ tall, and I’m six inches shorter than that. )

As I said, the last time I saw Ross we were swimming in the Richards Building at BYU. Both Danny and I commented on how huge he was, his shoulder muscles big and strong. We felt like dwarves standing next to him.

Ross was driving the day they were killed. His girlfriend took a picture of him behind the wheel, a big licorice pipe in his mouth. He looked really happy. I wish they had not done a viewing, as Ross did not really look like himself there in the casket. I much prefer thinking of him standing outside in the cold, his arm around his girlfriend, a big contented grin on his face.

Joseph Smith: Legal and Business Genius

January 28, 2009

There is a remarkable article in the Church News about the legal and business acumen of the Prophet Joseph Smith:

A couple of choice quotes:

“In addition to his many roles as the Lord’s anointed, Joseph Smith showed remarkable competence in legal and business matters as well.”

Yes, he showed such skill in business and legal matters that his biggest enterprise, the Kirtland Bank, folded ignominiously within a couple of weeks, and Joseph had to flee the state of Ohio to escape his creditors.

But this one is jaw-dropping:

“Underpinning the treason charge against the Prophet was his declaration of martial law in the face of a threat of mob violence against the people of Nauvoo. ‘Consequently,’ Brother Walker said, ‘I would say that Joseph and Hyrum were martyred for trying to protect their people. The Expositor was an underlying subplot to the story, but the reason they found themselves in that jail on the 27th of June, 1844, was not due to the destruction of the Expositor. It had to do with the fact that Joseph and Hyrum were making their best effort to protect the saints. And for that, they would be killed.'”

So, destroying the Expositor was just an “underlying subplot,” while the real reason for the “martyrdom” was Joseph’s attempt to “protect the saints.” Sometimes the rewriting of history is shameless, isn’t it?

Joseph ordered the destruction of the Expositor because he feared William Law’s exposure of his behavior, including polygamy and the creation of the Council of Fifty and Quorum of the Anointed. Yes, the saints had been under increasing threat from non-Mormon mobs, but it was the Expositor incident that pushed the mobs into action.

And rather than “protect the saints,” Joseph fled the city to go into hiding, leaving his followers to fend for themselves. It wasn’t until his own friends and family accused him of cowardice that he returned to face the legal consequences of his actions.

If this is a representative example of what they are doing with the “Joseph Smith Papers,” I’d say the project isn’t worth much.


January 21, 2009

Nearly 21 years ago, my brothers Danny and Ross were killed in a car accident. That event was obviously a huge trauma in my life, and not many days go by that I don’t think about them and wonder what their lives would have been had they not been taken from us at such young ages (Danny was 20, and Ross was 18).

For some reason I thought I would tell you about them. I’ll start with Danny because he was older. All my life I knew my brother as someone who was fearless and full of adventure, such that he always got into trouble from an early age. I remember when he was about 6, an older boy pushed him off a trampoline at his school and told him little kids weren’t allowed. Danny picked himself up and beat the crap out of the other kid. He would not allow anyone to push him around, and most people learned not to mess with him.

But on the other hand, he had a very tender heart and was always giving of himself. My mother says that when he was little, if she gave him a cookie, he would break it in half and give half back to her because he wanted to share. He was always collecting stray kittens. Once he brought home a pathetic little orange tabby with a gooey, swollen eye and some kind of insect infestation. “And he only cost $10,” he said happily. The vet had to shave the cat, which Danny lovingly bathed and cared for the bad eye. He named it Spike. Even in college he brought home a stray kitten and kept it in his apartment until he had to move, and then he made sure the cat had a good home.

Danny knew how to get on my nerves, and he often did so intentionally. For some reason, whenever we would go swimming in our backyard pool, he would eventually grab hold of my neck and try to hold me underwater. He wouldn’t succeed, but he would not let go until I would have to punch him repeatedly, at which point he would go into the house crying and tell my mom that I had, for no reason, beaten him up. And then he would smirk as I got punished. It makes me laugh just thinking about it. Once the Boy Scouts left some boxing gloves at our house, and we decided to test them. Within a few minutes we were beating each other to a pulp, both of us crying.

As teenagers, we were friendly but didn’t do too much together, as our circles of friends didn’t really overlap. I worked a lot, and he and Ross were at the beach in their spare time. After I got home from my mission to Bolivia, we went on a trip to Mazatlan together, a belated graduation present for him. We had a great time swimming and surfing and riding around on motorcycles. The last night we splurged and had lobster for dinner. The appetizer was a shrimp cocktail that tasted slightly funky. That night we traded places on the toilet and didn’t get any sleep.

That summer we worked together at a restaurant and were together all the time. We would get up early, go to the beach to surf, take a nap in the sun, and then go home, shower, and go to work. We became really close that summer, and then when we headed back to school, we lived in the same apartment building, his apartment directly below mine. At school (we both went to BYU), he excelled, getting such good grades that the university gave him a retroactive scholarship and refunded his tuition.

When I was dating my wife, Danny was very much taken with her. He kept telling me I should hurry up and marry her, so I did. We were in his apartment when we set the date (on a Far Side calendar, his favorite). At the wedding, the photographer was a rather weathered fellow in a shabby suit. Danny kept saying, “Smile for the hippie,” under his breath, and everyone was laughing.

That summer Danny gave me a leather bomber jacket (I still have it) that my parents bought him for his birthday. He said it was too pretentious for him, so he gave it to me. When fall came, he came by and asked if he could have it back, because he didn’t have a warm jacket. He would show up at odd hours and sit and talk with my wife for long periods. I knew he was lonely, and he really did like her.

The last time I saw Danny, he and Ross and I went swimming at the Richards Building on the BYU campus. We didn’t swim for long but instead talked for a long time. A few days later my dad called to tell me that they had been killed. When I saw him in the casket, it didn’t look like him, though he was wearing his thrift-store sharkskin suit. The expression on his face seemed so fragile, so childlike. Sometimes I can’t bear to remember that.

So I choose to remember the tough but tender kid I knew. I loved him.

A Good Day to Be American

January 20, 2009

I’m a Republican. I know some people are shocked when they hear that, but it’s true. But I think on a historic day like today it’s appropriate to recognize how far we’ve come as a country. No, our problems and divisions won’t disappear just because we have inaugurated an African-American president. But it does put to rest one barrier that has existed for a long time. So today I’m sending my best wishes to President Obama and hoping that he can help us as a nation navigate some very perilous times.

Interesting New Mexico Cult

January 19, 2009

A friend pointed me to this National Geographic documentary about a cult in New Mexico that has splintered off from the Seventh-Day Adventists. The cult is led by one “Michael Travesser,” who claims to be the Messiah. A couple of things really struck me.

First, this isn’t exactly a charismatic man, someone who might have some kind of persuasive power over anyone. From an outsider’s perspective, he comes across as rather creepy and transparently self-absorbed. And yet one of his female followers describes in almost rapturous terms the joy of being held naked by this man who is fully God and fully human. It makes me wonder if some people need to see the divine, the inspired, in the mundane, the earthly.

Second, it’s amazing what some people will do when they are  convinced that God is behind something. Oddly enough, a common denominator in most personality-driven religions is that eventually the leader will assume certain sexual privileges with his followers. Hence, Travesser has had multiple sexual partners among his female followers, and husbands and parents are expected to stand aside in favor of the leader, who is commanded of God to consummate these relationships. Watching the video and seeing a young girl speak so matter-of-factly about entering Travesser’s bed reminded me of how dangerous it is to give yourself, your sense of morality, your conscience, over to another person.

I think I understand somewhat how this works. I used to, in my own way, speak just as these young women did. I believed “that which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. … Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is.” In short, when you believe in someone’s divine authority, right and wrong become relative. It becomes acceptable, even noble, to violate normative notions of right and wrong when we are told that God requires it.

I’ve learned to be far more skeptical about claims that God has commanded something, especially when that something is dishonest and immoral.

The Truth Hurts Sometimes

January 5, 2009

Someone asked me why it was that the issues that so upset my friend (see the preceding post) did not upset me and do not seem to upset a lot of the apologists.

That’s a difficult question. I really can’t answer for anyone else, but it seems logical that most people would be upset if they learned that the religious leader they had been taught to revere as God’s chosen prophet had done some pretty reprehensible and inexcusable things (say, to pick one example, marrying teenagers and married women behind his wife’s back). Indeed, most people who find out these things before joining Mormonism will never join Mormonism. And many church members live blissfully unaware of such problematic pieces of history for years, and when they do uncover them, they are devastated.

But what of us who knew of these things and defended Joseph Smith and the LDS church anyway? Many church members simply deny that any of it happened, waving it off as an anti-Mormon lie. I know people who insist that Joseph’s marriages were platonic in nature and never consummated, despite all of the evidence, including firsthand testimony of the wives who actually did consummate the marriages. Of course, the simple truth is that most ofthe marriages were not platonic. Their sexual nature thus demanded the total secrecy Joseph maintained, including from his wife. There would be no need for public and private denials had these been the “loose dynastic sealings” the apologists speak of.

But a lot of apologists know very well of these problems (and there are far more problems than the plural marriage issues), but they seem untroubled, no matter the seriousness of the problems. I was one of these. I knew at least fifteen years ago of many of the problems with early Mormonism and its claims. Why didn’t it bother me? I think I went through a few stages of understanding.

First, I went into denial mode. Again, using plural marriage as an example, I rejected the information and dismissed it as exaggeration. The Joseph Smith I knew would never have done such things. There had to be some kind of misunderstanding, or the history was incomplete. And last, this really wasn’t an important issue because I had a testimony.

Next, when the evidence became to me undeniable, I rationalized. Well, he was commanded of God, I told myself. This wasn’t the behavior of a sexual predator but a solemn commandment of God made through an angel (with a drawn sword, no less). If God commanded it, it must have been right, and I was wrong to question it because my mortal understanding could not comprehend such holy things. Again, my testimony trumped all, and I accepted the rightness of the acts because I believed in the prophet.

Finally, that day in August of 2005 I acknowledged what I think I had known all along: there was no misunderstanding, and it wasn’t about doing anything holy. It was just part and parcel of the larger religious and financial enterprise Joseph Smith had built around himself. It’s no coincidence that almost every religion led by a charismatic leader ends up with his or her getting involved sexually with followers. It’s just one of those things that people with absolute power do, and Joseph Smith was no exception.

I’m glad I stopped making excuses because my conscience really did bother me all those years, and I suspect that at least some apologists feel that same nagging feeling that something is wrong. But I’d bet that they rest comfortably in their testimonies, as I once did.