“All we seem to read about the church comes directly from the church itself . . . pretty much approved doctrine . . . or is an outright attack,” said Bush, 41, of Mesa.
She said her book is neither “party line” nor hostile.
“I wanted balance in this book,” she said. “This is not an exposé of the church. It is about women who lived during the last century or so and who had some differences of opinion with the church, but stayed within the church. My book is like them . . . it is within the faith.”
Faithful Transgressions is, Bush says, the first major study of Mormon women’s autobiographical writing. The life stories she examines and gives excerpts from range from Mary Ann Hafen’s recollections of being a pioneer in the 1860s – and a polygamous wife who had to largely provide for her children alone – to Terry Tempest Williams’ story that intertwines her mother’s death from ovarian cancer with an environmental message.
Bush says that each of the six autobiographies she examines adheres to the “five conventions of Mormon autobiography.”
She says the authors provide numerous instances of God working in their lives. Each author examines her ability to practice basic Mormon principles, and each crafts detailed histories of life in her Mormon community. Each in varying degrees defends Mormonism. Each wants her life story to reach beyond Mormons and to the reading public.
“The works that I examine are more than history, more than just a narrow telling of a Mormon life,” Bush said. “They are literature and express universal fears, universal values. These stories, and, I hope, my book, are meant not just for Mormons or people who may not like the church. They are meant to be entertaining and are for everyone.”
Bush provides interesting examples of 19th century Mormon women who at once declare themselves to be independent, intelligent human beings, yet also defend polygamy.
For instance, Eliza R. Snow, a plural wife of Joseph Smith (and after Smith’s death a plural wife to Brigham Young), was a fierce advocate for women but also a defender of polygamy. Bush provides a telling quote from Snow:
“Were we the stupid, degraded, heartbroken beings that we have been represented, silence might better become us; but as women of God . . . we not only speak because we have the right, but justice and humanity demand that we should.”
ASU Religious Studies Professor Kenneth M. Morrison read Bush’s book before it went off to the publisher, and what he particularly liked was the way Mormon pioneer women were portrayed, “as complex human beings.”
“This is a contribution to our understanding of life in the American West,” Morrison said. “I like its sensibility, its look at the way these Mormon women have actively constructed their own identity.”
Bush presents questioning, curious, intelligent women who do not sit back and let life within the church control their minds. Each life story in her book includes what Bush calls “transgressive writing.”
Bush says that transgressive writing is “when a Mormon woman writer trusts her individual conscience and expresses ideas or beliefs that resonate within her as being right and true but which she knows implicitly or explicitly violate rules of Mormon doctrine or cultural norms within her faith community.”
A good example of such transgressive writing is given by Terry Tempest Williams:
“Although a Mormon may think free agency is about honoring obedience and finding freedom within that obedience, spiritual laws and principles, I’ve never honored that belief. For me, the most important value is independent thought, the freedom to choose a creative path. That’s how I have been able to survive within the Mormon tradition.”
Which is exactly how Bush says she has survived within the Mormon tradition.
“My mother was a Mormon, my father was not,” Bush said. “I was raised with church beliefs, and I still hold many of them, though I have lapsed in some ways. I still believe in much that the church says, but I think for myself.”
As do the women she includes in her book.
Faithful Transgressions is published by Utah State University and is available from Amazon Books and at the ASU bookstore.