Big Love

I finally watched the first season of Big Love.

Hubby and I bristled at the show for so long because when we first moved to Utah, pretty much everyone asked if Salt Lake City was just like Big Love or told stupid jokes about Big Love or insinuated I better watch it or my hubby would find me a bunch of sister wives just like in Big Love. When friends weren’t doing that, they were asking if we moved to Utah because we secretly converted to LDS. Or they lectured us about Utah culture, even though they have never been. Or they preached about the evils of Mormon theology, even though they had never read the Book of Mormon or even talked to an actual, living, breathing Mormon. Some expressed grave concern about my fascination with Temple Square.

One relative who came to visit even cut me off mid-sentence when I invited her on a walk to the temple and wondered aloud if the square was still open after twilight. “You can’t go there,” she said. “Not without a temple recommend.”

Well, duh.  I never said we were going inside. I meant I could take her to see the outside, which to me was amazing.  I walked to the temple daily, sometimes for hours, even climbing the steps to touch the beehive doorknobs. I wanted to show her the moonstones and explain the Big Dipper on the west central tower. I wanted to show her the scale model in the South Visitor Center with the cutaway view of the temple interior and the tiny, tiny baptismal font. I used to gaze at those miniature oxen for so long I lost track of time.

I wanted her to understand my fascination with a place I was not welcome to enter. I wanted to show her something essential about living as a gentile in the holy capitol of the LDS faith.

I came to realize, though, that most people did not want that kind of tour. If they controlled the tour and dismissed my experiences, they could hold tight to comfortable misconceptions. They could keep a safe distance from a strange faith that seemed so good at converting people to it.

And that is what it came down to, I think: People seemed to believe–really believe–that I would convert to the Mormon faith by pure proximity, that in fact, proximity was dangerous.

I understood. When I first moved here, I used to joke I would live five blocks from the temple and never visit it. I would keep my distance from everything LDS. I would stay here as long as I had to, but I would treat it like a business trip, one for which I had no time to get out and see the place. Maybe I was afraid of converting, too.

It all changed when I started to circumnavigate the temple, sometimes for hours, every day. You can read about that experience in my essay, “Nowhere, No Place, Like Home” published in Black Clock 16. That piece is part of a much larger project that continues to deepen and evolve.

But I digress.

I swore I would never watch Big Love ever ever ever ever because I do not need reminders of my depressing first year here when I was wrestling to accept living in the capital of a strange and foreign-seeming theocracy, and people felt the need to constantly jab me with that very fact like some kind of anti-Mormon inoculation.

But I am stuck indoors all summer because of a medication that makes sunlight downright dangerous, and I needed to feel connected to the place again, not so cut off. So I watched it, and even though that view of the temple outside the tower where Bill Henrickson signs legal papers is fake and not even possible from that particular angle, the show really does nail something about life in Utah … mostly the sense of being watched. Of feeling like you have to keep your beliefs close to the vest. Of feeling like you might be exposed at any moment. Of putting on one public face and one private one. Of the clash between God’s law and man’s law. Of the collision between the pioneer past and modernity. Of the struggle within the Mormon faith to be in this world, but not of this world. This place feels haunted by its past, much the same way the characters on Big Love seem haunted by visitors from the Juniper Creek compound.

There is a scene where a new girl at Sarah Henrickson’s workplace grills her about her involvement in the Mia Maids and Young Women’s and whether she is “inactive,” and that moment, right there, is quintessential Utah, that first meeting where people try to “figure you out” as a Mormon, non-Mormon (gentile), apostate, ex-Mormon, or anti-Mormon. That’s what hooked me on the show.

My husband agrees. He remembers when he first transferred to his job here, and several extremely active Mormons in the office  made a point of poking fun at all things LDS. They were telegraphing to him, we are not like them. People here seem to have  a deep need to define themselves and others, to put people in a box. It is both alienating at time and extremely fascinating.

And then there is the guidance of the moon. Revelations. Fasting. Signs. Testimony. I have often described living here as coming under a kind of spell. I have adopted something of a magical worldview and questioned all the foundations of “truth” I used to have faith in.

I have some reservations about the show, but I am withholding judgment for now because the show tends to reveal things slowly, and I want to give it time to let everything unfurl, just like I have with Utah.