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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Song for Issy Bradley and 90s Kids Am I Right

He keeps talking but Claire can't keep up with his words, she can't catch them, they're flying past her ears like tiny bids, fluttering to the open door and out into the hospital corridor. He has made Issy's recovery contingent on her faith and she doesn't know how she will ever forgive him. - Carys Bray, A Song for Issy Bradley
A Song for Issy Bradley made me bawl. A lot. Not just the sort of weepy, whoa, is a book making me cry? kind of sniffly uncertainty, but full on sobs. It does so many things phenomenally well, but after trying to go to sleep last night following a marathon reading that left me blinking at my clock as it insistently told me that it's 2:30 AM, I couldn't shake one thing. This book would have been near flawless if it had been set in the 1990s. But it's not, and to me that's a real problem.

I stopped watching The Walking Dead after the season in the prison, whichever that one is. I've been reading the books for a long time, and couldn't stand what they did to my favorite character (Andrea) and how much time they spent with my least favorite character (The Governor). Aside from a handful of conversations and the occasional headline, I haven't looked back. Which is fine. There's a lot of show there and a lot of it is gross and I can get gross stuff from other places, like having children.

The upshot of this is that I don't have a lot of input in conversations about The Walking Dead TV show because even though I have intimate knowledge with the first handful of seasons and the source material, I acknowledge that too much has changed since then for me to have much to say about the current status of the show. I'd probably still get some stuff right (whoa, Carl sucks), but I'd definitely mess up on others (isn't it cool how alive Glen is and how dead he isn't?)

That's my problem with Carys Bray's portrayal of the LDS (shorthand for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) church in A Song for Issy Bradley. And I need to include some big massive caveats before I go any further. I usually don't read online reviews of books before I write about them, because I want to make sure my opinions are my own, and also online reviews are written by Mogwai who have eaten chicken out of a bucket after midnight (I mean the post-rock indie band--they get indigestion). But last night/this morning, I couldn't help it. The results were about what I expected. People with little knowledge about the church were pleased that the book confirmed a lot of their suspicions. People who had left the church a decade or so ago were ecstatic to see the realities of their lives portrayed in rich literature, and people who were still faithful saw little of their faith expressed on the pages.

This is basically my bishop's face when he sees this book

I didn't want to fall into one of those categories, and don't think I do. When I picked up the book I welcomed a harsh and critical look at a church and its surrounding culture that I think is deeply flawed in a very human way (as institutions run by humans are want to do). And when it comes to characters, Bray just absolutely nails it. There are no villains here, and no heroes, either. Everyone is flawed and trying their best and on a journey to improve. That's how I think about my religion, too. I think it has a past replete with genuine horrors, a present that is sometimes beautiful and sometimes extremely damaging, and a future that is unknown but I'm basically optimistic about because despite everything I just have to stick with optimism or I don't get out of bed in the morning. That and an eagerness to find out what new color combinations the marshmallow engineers have come up with next in the world of Lucky Charm rainbows.
Anyone can be brave for five minutes or an hour or two. The bravery no one talks about is the hardest bravery of all. When you get up in the morning even though you'd rather be dead, that's brave.
Let me give you a quick synopsis: the Bradley family is one of those perfect Mormon families we all grew up with (or in?). Ian is the Bishop, a leadership position that is unpaid but requires enormous amounts of personal time, and he throws himself into the calling with all of his heart. When we first meet the Bradley family he is missing his son Jacob's 7th birthday party, and his wife Claire is singlehandedly planning the day. Claire was a convert to the church, having joined it shortly after falling in love with Ian.

They have four kids. In addition to Jacob, there's 4-year-old Issy and two older teens. Zippy is the oldest, and confused about the conflicting lessons at church about female sexuality. She's been taught all her life that it's the boys who want sex, and it's the girls' job to keep them away at all costs. Except she kinda wants it too; is there something wrong with her? Then there's Alma, though he insists everyone call him Al, because Alma is a girl's name. Al isn't interested in explaining that he was named after a Book of Mormon prophet to his peers, even though his dad calls it a missionary opportunity.

The family has to deal with a tragedy that is portrayed so expertly that I am still grieving. Even while telling myself that none of the characters are real. I'm just gutted by it. Faith and family are tested, etc. I want to point out that from my experience, this is not a typical LDS family, but one that I know exists. Even the book acknowledges that while Alma isn't allowed to participate in team sports because they're too "worldly," many other Mormon kids are. Even PG-13 goes to far for these folks. There's no TV, except Book of Mormon cartoon videos (yeah, that frickin scam). It's basically Gilligan's Island. These guys are hardcore.

Early on in the book I was delighted by a gentle (and sometimes not) skewering of many LDS tropes. And much of it resonated with me down to my very bones. Some of the things I was taught as a kid in church I now consider genuinely damaging to adult life and I've seen firsthand how it can be absolutely devastating to victims of sexual assault and abuse, to name just one example. I was grimly amused by a teen girl's complaint that while she was given multiple handouts about how to prepare to be a perfect and pure wife, the boys her age were playing basketball in the gym. The assumption being that men had little to aspire to other than church service and jobs, while women had a complex code of domestic perfection and femininity that needed intensive training. A scene where the Bradley mother, Claire, just destroys one of Mormon culture's worst object lessons by indulging in some ABC gum in front of a young women's teacher is pretty priceless. 

At times the portrayals veer toward caricatures, especially when given the limited handful of side characters the Bradley family deals with. But I don't necessarily have a problem with that. Fiction (and often nonfiction) distills characters to their most concentrated forms. Timelines compress. In one book we're shown every bad example and painful church lesson an adult has experienced over a lifetime taking place within just a few weeks of time for the Bradleys. That's a reasonable writing technique, but it's worth recognizing.

There are only just a few ward members (for the uninitiated, wards are another word for local congregations) that we meet, and they are all broad stereotypes. There is one "cool" Mormon leader who gives out Kit-Kats and one time takes his shirt off and spins it around his head during a rugby game and everyone is kind of shocked but also amused. But aside from him, it's a rogues gallery of the weirdos every LDS person meets on their journey of holding fast to the iron rod. The doomsday prepper, the "old maid" who is approaching 30 and is still  unmarried, the purity obsessed young women's leader. The Bradleys unfortunately carry the brunt of the responsibility to show that Mormons can be normal and funny and sometimes awful and trying their very best but failing most of the time. 

Honestly, I think that Bray pulls as many punches as she delivers. And there are real or at least perceived miracles that happen here. Prayers are answered, though in ways not anticipated (a very, very Mormon kind of thing to happen), and the boring conclusion I was anticipating -- a wholesale abandoning of the faith by the Bradley family -- doesn't happen. I think there's fondness in Bray's portrayal of her culture (she says she left the church at age 30, replacing it with writing), even though she has a hefty amount of anger about the lessons she learned. One online reviewer, post-gremlin transformation, called the book "preachy."

In short, I think Bray does a fantastic job of preserving a near exact portrayal of the experience of being a Mormon teen the same time that I was a Mormon teen. I was amazed at how similar the experience was in the UK compared to my Utah upbringing. I have a hunch that, similar to my experience in Mexico, sometimes Mormons in other countries were even more zealous in some ways due to being a tiny minority. I felt sometimes they had a chip on their shoulder to prove to us Utah missionaries how hard they can Mormon. This accuracy is so uncanny that the handful of times when it seems to get something fundamentally wrong, it was jarring. The problem is that Bray stopped watching The Mormon Show several seasons ago, never got caught up, and wrote a thinkpiece about it anyway.

This book is what it feels like to be Mormon in the 90s perfectly, but it's set in the 2010s, and that's a problem. At one point, someone quotes a passage from a church lesson manual from 1993, and Claire points out that the manual is outdated, that a lot can happen in twenty years. The lesson teacher points out that the church is the same today as it was yesterday. This is a very common Mormon refrain and patently false. I wish that Bray had taken her own advice. The church is in many ways massively different than it was when I grew up in it. I would argue that in most ways it's for the better.

The way church leaders teach about mental illness, for example, is vastly different than the portrayal in the book, even if it feels more or less in line with my experience from a couple of decades ago. I remember a mother who suffered from profound depression who was viewed more or less as having a personality flaw. Depression was often viewed as the result of unresolved sin. Obviously that's horrible, and there has been massive amounts of progress on that front since. Church leaders today offer referrals to therapists, and will even pay for it out of member donations. In General Conference meetings (our twice-yearly world-wide church meetings), mental illness is spoken about frankly and kindly. In my volunteering I work with phenomenal LDS therapists who are fluent in both modern research and the intricacies and complications of religion.

Does that mean that people from my generation and before don't still harbor and believe the things we were taught before? Nah. There are still problems. But not in the monolithic form that is portrayed in A Song for Issy Bradley. The same goes for some of the horrible lessons young women were taught about personal purity. Those manuals are no longer in use, and since I spent some time teaching young men and women in church, I can say that the topics are handled with much more maturity and sensitivity now.

It would be blindly optimistic, even for me, to assume that these lessons still don't find their way into discussions on Sundays, because those kinds of habits die hard. But they are dying. Because Bray has apparently been out of the loop for some time, she understandably misses some stuff. It's obvious especially when her 2014-or-so Mormons aren't talking about the things that are really dividing members right now, especially the teens she writes about. There is a quantifiable exodus of young Mormons from the church that has little to do with the subjects Bray brings up. Millennials are leaving the church (all churches, actually) often because of a divide between their personal conscience and the views of the church on social issues. There's some pretty good red meat there for a critic of the LDS faith to explore. Instead Bray focuses on the things that apparently bothered her when she was young.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about reputations, and how I wanted (and still want) people to see me as I am today, not how I was when I was younger. I'd be sad as heck if someone who hasn't spent time with me lately wrote a book with me as a character today who still acted like I did ten or fifteen years ago. It would gut me, to be honest. I'm a big advocate of letting people change and progress, and feel the same way about institutions. There's value in soberly assessing the history of a person or church or nation, while also acknowledging progress made today. Like, look at how dumb Nintendo was in the 90s. We can all laugh at that while still acknowledging that Breath of the Wild was dope AF.

All of this would be fixed so easily if she'd just set the book in the 90s. Church members reading it would be confronted with how different the church was almost 20-30 years ago and forced to really notice how much things change and progress over one's lifetime. Even in a church that was "the same yesterday, today, and forever." We could use it as a way to remind ourselves that if there is something we learn at church that doesn't sit well with our conscience, that we were all given the agency to do what we think is right. And sometimes history is on our side when it all shakes out. Remember when everyone thought Sonic the Hedgehog was better than Super Mario World, but you knew better? It's like that.

Outsiders, who are going to be inclined to see the portrayal in whatever light their preconceived notions have set, would at least know that this story is a time capsule. I've loved reading stories about other's faith and religious traditions, even when I find aspects of it foreign at best and horrible at worst, I can also see beauty in aspects of it. I think the LDS tradition could and should have that light shined on it as well. A Song for Issy Bradley gets so close. I'd recommend it to anyone curious about the culture, with the big addendum that things have changed since then. And the assumption based on past events that it will change a lot in the future.

I think many members will enjoy it, too. Watching the family deal with tragedy from the LDS perspective was especially powerful for me, and gave me a searing insight into our particular form of grieving. We are taught sometimes that we should be happy, even in spite of horrible events, because we have a more enlightened viewpoint on God's plan. Sometimes we forget that it's OK to be sad.
The postman slides fat bundles of commiseration through the letter box every day: heartfelt wishes and bad poems in muted, floral pastels. People write little notes inside the cards. She is longing for a note saying "I'm so sorry"; she is sick of explanations and justifications.
All that being said, be prepared for some very frank discussions of things a lot of LDS consider sacred. Even if we talk about them all of the time at least as frankly and irreverently as Bray does in our private conversations, it's startling to see them on a page. And don't be surprised if amid all of the dead-on details, there are a few big missteps. Some of it might be hard to hear, too. The book saves its most potent vitriol for Mormon culture, while rarely critiquing what we call doctrine, but I know that those things can be hard to separate.

As with most fiction, there's truth and then there's Truth. Bray gets some of the truth wrong, in my experience, but when it comes to the Truth--the capturing of life's essence in all its pain and hurt and everything--she's accomplished something pretty amazing here.