Escaping Polygamyland

by Caleb Wootan

Utah: the land of ten thousand wives. Only one husband, though. I can say that. I’m a former Mormon myself. Raised in a cult, you say? Well, I’d say that’s a little strong. It’s more of a corporation than a cult. Cults have charismatic leaders. Corporations have old and boring white men droning on about recruitment. It’s a classic multi-level marketing scheme. One that I was almost sucked into permanently—until I escaped polygamyland.

To be clear, I wasn’t raised in Utah. I was sent there to join a select fraternity of anyone who could afford to pay to spend two years on a religious mission. How much, do you ask? For the small fee of ten thousand f*cking dollars, you can wear a full suit in sweltering heat and try to indoctrinate other people. Prefer dresses? Perfect, women can go too. Don’t fit between the suit/dress dichotomy? Prepare to be excommunicated.

A little history of Mormonism, for the uninitiated: a 14-year-old boy said God and Jesus gave him golden plates that told the story of an ancient group of Israelites who made a big old boat and sailed to the Americas where they became the Native Americans.  Nevermind that a) Joseph Smith was known for claiming to find hidden treasures, b) DNA has proved Native Americans are not Israeli, and c) there were later translations done on some of the scrolls Joseph Smith claimed to translate that didn’t match up.

My lawyers/bodyguards have advised me to be fair and balanced. I am legally required here to say the following: perhaps a group of Israelites did leave Jerusalem, build a big old boat, sail it to the Americas and establish an entire civilization. It’s possible they all died out and conveniently left the only evidence of their existence on a set of gold records. The same gold records that the young boy showed to less than 20 of his followers, some of whom left his church afterwards.  So I guess there’s two sides to this.

I arrived at the Missionary Training Center bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and also full of doubts about the religion of which I was a part. Two weeks later, I decided to come home. Why, you ask? Do you see those Mormon missionaries in New Paltz sometimes, sitting outside Starbucks despite coffee being banned for them, and hocking their Book of Mormon; hocking their faith. A noble endeavor. What you may not know is that they spend 14 hours a day cooped up in a brick building on the campus of Brigham Young University having language skills and religious dogma shoved in their faces and down their throats. You keep them awake, tired and isolated.

No calling home, except for twice a year. No emailing, except for once a week. No instant messaging. No texting. In a world of connections, you’re alone—except your “companion” who is also there to report on you to the mission president. I didn’t enjoy that at all. I was a ball of anxiety, fear and loneliness. I went to the counselors at the Missionary Training Center and they understood. They arranged to have me sent to the next level, the so-called “Stake” President, who had to be convinced I was suicidal enough to send home. Not because I merely had a desire to go home.

What did I learn?

I learned the value of choice, freedom, etc. What I really learned is that people do amazing things to cope in extreme circumstances and can be extremely resilient. I also learned that people shouldn’t always have to be this way. Sometimes it’s okay to say, “Nah, I’m good, thanks,” and bow out. Sometimes the path of least resistance is also the path that’s right for you.

There’s no shame in doing the easy thing as opposed to the hard thing. This all being said, the next time you see Mormon missionaries, don’t ridicule them or point out all this stuff.  That’ll just imbed the “us vs. them” mentality Mormons have. Instead, be nice to them. Offer to buy them something to drink. Tell them they can go home if they want to. There’s this myth that with the church, you’re either with them or against them. I don’t believe that. I’m not with the church, and I am against it, but not because I have to be.

I choose to speak out because people need to know that there is real damage being done and I’m a white cis-gendered straight male.  If I was miserable, what is it like for everyone else? That’s for a different article. I’ll refer you to the Mormon Stories podcast by John Dehlin, an excommunicated member for further information and also, read the Book of Mormon, it’s some wild ass sh*t.


A version of this post originally appeared in “Tenacity” The Teller October 2019 Issue #7

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