(Forgive me for being more personal–and freaking long–here than I should, but I thought some of you might relate to this.)
Reading Mark Hofmann’s “summary” of his crimes, it struck me that he had a preternatural need for attention and adulation. Deceiving and defrauding made him feel bigger and better than anyone else. The image he had built up was so important to him that he was willing to go to desperate lengths to preserve it.
A while back, someone who has pretty much stalked me on the Internet said I was a lot like Mark Hofmann in my deceit of others. In fact, he started referring to me as “Runtu Hofmann.”
That really bothered me, so much so that I actually sent him a rather conciliatory message trying to be friendly and resolve the animosity. Of course, he just laughed and said there must really be something wrong with me. And maybe there is. What I realized from that episode is that I’ve had this strong need to be liked my whole life. Someone recently said I was everyone’s friend, and in all honesty, that was probably an unconscious goal of mine in the past. I couldn’t stand it that someone could have such hostility and hate for me. Imagine being upset that some stranger on the Internet doesn’t like you! Crazy, huh?
I talked to my mother about it, and she agreed that it’s something I’ve struggled with. She said that maybe it came in part from my early childhood, when I was in the hospital overnight one or two nights a week to have my esophagus dilated. Because I was the only “regular,” the nurses all knew me and spoiled me rotten, as my mom put it. I was the center of attention. This went on until I was 5 years old.
We moved when I was 6, and I remember the first week of second grade being bullied by a much bigger kid (I’m not much of a physical specimen), and in our neighborhood there was an older boy who taunted me mercilessly. Once he threw a large rock at my head, giving me a concussion. I’d never experienced anything like that before. Until we moved, I had a lot of friends and had this naive faith that I could get along with anyone.
Throughout my school years, I stopped being the friendly, outgoing person I usually am and became extremely quiet and withdrawn. I had a few friends, mostly from church, and basically just kept my head down at school. That only gets you so far, though, and the bullying continued. But church was my lifeline. At church I had friends, I was outgoing and loved to participate in activities and seminary. And my senior year, I pretty much singlehandedly planned our “super activity,” a trip to Hawaii for which we worked for over a year to save money.
But school was a different story. There I was called a loser, a wimp, and all that. I didn’t go to school activities (sports, dances, plays, none of that), as my social life revolved around church. When I graduated and went to BYU, I realized that I had a choice to live the way I wanted; no one at BYU knew me, and I had a fresh start. I was once again outgoing and friendly. I was “church” me.
Another issue, I think, was that I was taught at church to be an example of the believers. People were watching me, I was told, to see if I would live up to the church’s standards. Growing up Mormon in a Jewish neighborhood, we did sort of stick out, and I was always keenly aware of maintaining that Mormon image. In a way, it was the one thing I could control at school. Missionary life was an extension of that, and then living in Texas made me that much more aware of people around me.
When I was posting as a believer on the FAIR message board and elsewhere, I was active in the church and serving in the high priests group. I was content because I considered myself well-liked and had a lot of friends. That was still important to me. But when I lost my faith, I gained some real enemies, people who genuinely wished me ill (mind you, these were just online folks, thankfully). But worse than that was knowing that I had disappointed my family and friends. People I’d known for years told me that they had lost respect for me. It was hard for me to admit to a lot of people that I’d lost my faith. For example, I kept my unbelief hidden from one of my Internet friends from the MAD board because I couldn’t handle her reaction; of course, it was that secrecy that led to her eventually thinking I was crazy and a sexual predator.
During that time I needed to get a lot of things out of my system, and I vented and mocked and railed as much as anyone. I didn’t so much hate the church as much as I hated the kind of person I had become in it, and that’s where I think I gained the reputation as being someone who is dedicated to attacking the LDS church. But I still wanted to be liked. Even in my venting I tried to be as inoffensive as possible, and I apologized when I crossed the line. I needed friends. I went on the MAD board once when I was really depressed and nearly suicidal, hoping for support from friends. Mostly I got attacks and hate and the suggestion that I deserved to be depressed, given what I had done to my wife and family and the church.
At my lowest, I tried to kill myself, not because I wanted my life to be over, but because I knew I had disappointed my wife. She had seen what was inside of me, and she hadn’t liked what she’d seen. This had been my greatest fear my entire life: for someone to know me completely and not love me. Mind you, my interpretation of her reaction wasn’t true. She never stopped loving me, and she wasn’t disappointed. She just wanted to make things work. But I was so fixated on being loved that I couldn’t see any way out but death.
I think this is why the Mark Hofmann letter hit me so hard. He needed to preserve the image of himself at all costs, just as I had (obviously, I wouldn’t have killed anybody, though). After my suicide attempt, I had to learn to be happy, no matter what other people thought of me. I had to live according to my own beliefs and morals, never sacrificing what I thought was right in an attempt to keep friends.
I spent months in therapy, but things finally clicked when my therapist asked me what my life would be like in ten years if I kept deferring to others just to keep the peace.
“I’d be miserable or dead,” I said.
“Yes, you would,” she replied. “Every time you give in and don’t stand up for yourself because you want to be loved, you lose another piece of yourself, and eventually there will be nothing left. You have to get to the point at which having a happy and authentic life is more important than any relationship.”
This shocked me, as it ran counter to everything I’d ever been taught. Self-sacrifice and self-denial for God and your neighbor are the highest ideals of the gospel. But I learned these can go too far. It is possible to give too much, to sacrifice too much.
A friend emailed me this morning in frustration that his family is not interested in why he has lost his faith. I told him that I had, as part of my desire to be loved, tried very hard to get them to understand my position. But the first thing I gave up on a long time ago was the hope that my family would be willing to look at the issues and see where the problems are. They aren’t. So, then, I thought I just needed them to respect my position. They don’t. I’m resigned to just not agreeing with them.
He replied, “I have to live a life with a ruined reputation in the community and being misunderstood?”
Yes, probably, but so what? As my therapist said, the opinion of others pales in comparison to a happy and authentic life. I’m trying to live that authentic life, and I think I’m succeeding. I compromise some, such as attending sacrament meetings with my wife, but I don’t hide where I stand. This may be what my stalker meant when he said he was glad I’d taken off the mask and come out as an “unapologetic apostate,” whatever that means.
I guess the point of all this rambling is that each of us must get to the point at which we are true to ourselves, no matter what other people think. For me, that has been an especially difficult struggle, but I think I’m approaching that goal. But being true to ourselves does not require us to treat other people badly. That’s my goal: kindness and authenticity. I put the mask down a long time ago.