Sunday, September 7, 2014

A review of Happiest Misery: My Life As A Mormon by Jared Lonergan

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been keeping myself occupied with reading, playing computer games, watching re-runs on iTunes, drinking beer and listening to music.  After I finished reading about Betty Broderick, I decided I needed to read something that wasn't true crime.  Some time ago, I downloaded Jared Lonergan's book, Happiest Misery: My Life As A Mormon (2013).  I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading this book, especially since I love "exmo lit".  But now I have read it and overall, I thought it was good reading, though perhaps a bit unconventional.

Jared Lonergan is a talented writer and I was definitely interested as he described being raised LDS in Kansas and Chicago.  As Lonergan explains, it's not so common to be Mormon in those places.  Like many faithful Mormons, he was very much involved in his faith and did his best to follow its many rules.  One of the many rules of Mormonism is that sex before marriage is prohibited.  So is masturbation.  For Jared, these rules turned out to be very difficult to follow.

Jared starts his story as a nine year old youngster, noticing the pretty women in the church.  One of his older friends goads him into telling an older girl how "hot" she is in a rather vulgar way.  He gets away with it because he's so much younger and cute.  It seems to ignite a sexual obsession within him; but then, Jared is obsessive about a lot of things, like weight and physical attractiveness, his own and that of other people.

Most of this book consists of an almost obsessive, stream of consciousness-like spew of Jared's thoughts.  As someone who has studied a lot of psychology, I found Jared's thoughts very interesting. He's always thinking about sex, but he knows he's not supposed to indulge.  So he tries to distract himself or shame himself into thinking about other things.  He doesn't use a lot of official swear words-- only occasionally does he slip up and utter the word "fuck", for instance.  Instead, he uses the Mormon equivalents to swear words like "fetch" and "frick" and "crap".  I've always found it amusing that some folks think it's better to say "fetch" rather than "fuck".  The intent is the same; it's only the letters that are different.  But Jared dutifully avoids officially swearing, just like he avoids sex and other "sinful" behaviors to the point of driving himself mad.

Jared also has an eating disorder.  He is obsessive about food, his weight, and exercise.  He gains and loses weight, especially on his mission to Bordeaux, France.  He describes his mission as a terrible time in his life and spends the whole time obsessing over the girlfriend he left behind, Annie.  Annie is also Mormon and has dreams of a temple marriage and perfect family life.  Jared wants to give her that, but he has trouble fitting into the Mormon mold.  That inability to conform causes him heartbreak, although maybe in the long run, not conforming was for the best.

Jared's parents were Mormon converts and they joined the church before Jared was born.  He explains that a couple of missionaries came over one day and impressed them by being respectful and upstanding.  According to Jared's parents, he wouldn't have been born had it not been for the Mormon missionaries, who impressed them by convincing them how important family is.  Three brothers followed Jared's entrance into the world.  Perhaps because his parents were converts, Jared's upbringing seemed to be a mixture of hardline conformity to Mormon ideals and familiarity with life outside of Mormonism.  Jared writes about his brother, Aaron, who requires multiple brain surgeries.  Mormonism probably helped his family cope, since the church believes that families can be together forever... as long as everyone pays, prays, and obeys, that is.  And Jared does his best not to disappoint.  

As I read this book, it occurred to me how utterly distressing, frustrating, and impossible it must have been for Jared trying to grow up in the church.  He's obsessive, sexually frustrated, and seems terrified of doing something that will get him sent to the wrong echelon of Mormon Heaven (which frankly, to me, sounds like a really boring place).  He tries to act and look the part of the perfect Mormon, but no one is perfect and some people are less perfect than others.  So on top of trying to come of age and mature into a healthy adult, Jared is trying and failing to become the perfect Mormon male.  He doesn't measure up and it leads to depression and rejection, since other people expect him to be who he's not.

Parts of this book were annoying to read.  For instance, Jared doesn't like fat or ugly people and he liberally insults them.  But then he turns around and acknowledges his own shortcomings and his inability to be perfect is a kind of torture for him.  It ends up being poignant and kind of tragic.  At one point, he visits a doctor who tells him he needs to masturbate because his prostate is enlarged and causing him pain.  But Jared can't do that because it's "wrong", according to his faith.

Parts of this book are kind of funny, too.  I thought Jared's overuse of "swear words" like "fetch" and "crap" were humorous, if only because to a non-Mormon, they just sound silly.  I mean, in most ways, Jared is a normal, red-blooded teen with hormones running through his body and sex on the brain.  But he has to substitute the word "fetch" for "fuck".  So when he has a "nightmare" about almost indulging in lustful sex with a supermodel, he says "Fetch off!" and "Fetchin' hell"...  and it seems ridiculous.

I thought Jared's thoughts on his missionary experience were interesting, too.  It seems like being a missionary might have opened his eyes a bit about how others see the church.  He also had his eyes opened about some of the church leaders, recognizing that they were really just men.

Overall, I liked Happiest Misery, though I thought the ending was a bit abrupt.  I'm not sure how Jared feels about the church now.  I got the feeling he had turned into an exmo, but I'm not really certain about that.  I do think it's a fascinating look into the psyche of a young man growing up Mormon, especially since I suspect Jared may have had something else going on mentally besides simple growing pains.  I recommend it.

        

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