I See Light Because I See Shadow

I just finished watching Under the Banner of Heaven on Hulu this week. It’s the true crime story of a horrific murder that occurred in American Fork, Utah in 1984. The perpetrators of the crime were a couple of Mormon men who became interested in fundamentalist Mormon principles and began to practice them. The series is based on a book by Jon Krakaur that I’ve never read, but the portrayal in the series does an excellent job of showing how the generally accepted teachings of the church, might lead its members to accept acts and opinions and rules that, when carried out fully, are actually quite offensive to even the most devout. 

The Mormon church is the church I grew up in and the church I participated with fully from birth until age 35, but I was somewhat protected from that end of the continuum because I was raised by fairly liberal parents (depending on your frame of reference) in a community that was not predominantly LDS. My dad is a deep and critical thinker, university professor, descended from Mormon pioneers. But he had a grandmother who left the church around the turn of the century, when her husband, John Whipple, wanted to take on a second wife. She left him and she left the church. She found a new husband and took her two adult sons to homestead a farm in Southern Idaho.

Her name was Melissa Charity Adams, and she was my Grandpa Whipple’s grandmother. She was described as stubborn and not particularly generous by my grandpa. My grandpa was not raised in the LDS church, but he grew up surrounded by Mormons in Southern Idaho, and while they did not participate in the local church, his parents adhered to a high moral code. 

My grandpa was baptized into the LDS church in the Pacific Ocean after the end of World War 2. He was stationed in Southern California and my grandma joined him there, where they lived in a converted chicken coop until he was released from the service. I’m not sure what influenced my grandpa to get baptized, but I suspect it pleased my grandma and he had no intention of violating the covenants that were required; he may have even been a believer, of this I’m not sure.

Suffice it to say, one of the main diversions his family had from general Mormon culture of that time, was that his family was shaped by a strong matriarch, his grandmother. Perhaps this is something that appealed to my grandma. My Grandma Whipple, had a similar story in her family history with a different outcome. Her grandmother faced a similar situation around the same time, the turn of the century. 

My Grandma Whipple’s grandmother, Susan Tucker, also had a husband who wanted to take on a second wife around the early 1900s. He married the daughter of a friend, a woman who was much taller and more gregarious that my great-great-grandmother. They were living in Wyoming at the time where polygamy was not accepted by the general culture, so her husband and the new wife had to flee to Southern Idaho, leaving behind Susan and my great-grandmother, Zella, who was only 12 years old at the time. 

Years later Susan and Zella followed him to Southern Idaho, bringing only one piece of furniture, the piano that stands today in my living room. Zella begrudged her father. This I know because my dad knew his grandmother and he heard her speak, with contempt, that her father, “Traveled with a pillow under his arm,” between the houses of his two wives.

This is what I know of my family. My family has seen the light and shadow of the “gospel” enough to recognize that it is not all light. Some might argue that Mormon men practicing polygamy after the practice was officially banned by the church is not a reflection of the gospel. In the word’s truest sense, I would agree—gospel means good news. But in the sense of the way life actually plays out, these men were empowered by a system that told them their desires were paramount to their wives and sanctioned by God. Whether we call it culture or doctrine, similar themes were played out starting in the days of Joseph Smith.

Going back to the storyline of Under the Banner of Heaven, the writers skillfully weave together the perspectives of three groups: the modern, devout, LDS members; the tribe of men moving from the fringe of mainstream Mormonism to fundamentalism; and those entirely outside of the church. As the story progresses it becomes increasingly apparent to me that what most put people in jeopardy, what most deluded and darkened their sight, was the inability to examine shadow.

The culture of the mainstream LDS church has mostly been to avoid looking in the shadows. Much of the church’s early history has been honed down to, what is now the official telling of the stories, and anything outside of that can feel dangerous to members. I say this because it felt dangerous to me. 

But to avoid the shadow is to avoid half of life, half of intellect, half of feeling, half of experience, and it’s easy to see how this can muddy discernment. In the years since I’ve stopped participating in the LDS church, I have not looked for dirt. I’ve never been a history-buff sort of person, before or since. I have never had much enthusiasm for church history and there are people on both sides of the argument, for or against the church, who would criticize me for this. It simply does not interest me as much as what is happening in front of me right now. 

…Which brings me to what is happening in front of me right now. 

The most moving scene, for me, in the Under the Banner of Heaven series was in the last episode. Dianna, who escaped execution only because she fled the state with her children to escape her physically abusive and wildly egomaniacal husband, returned to attempt to rescue her sister-in-law, Matilda. She completes the rescue, but they are caught by the younger brother of their husbands at a gas station. On-lookers stand by as he physically attempts to force Matilda into the car. On-lookers. Stand. By. 

Dianna, in a show of emotional strength, yells to her brother-in-law, calling him weak. She implores Matilda to break free, to show him her strength. In that moment, Dianna is transformed into a beacon-warrior, not because she physically fights, but because she speaks the truth. She knows the shadow and she knows her strength. 

But instead of this moment feeling triumphant, I feel a hollow ache in my chest as I watch. These women would never have been here, so deep into an insane situation, except for the years of training and coaching and counseling to avoid the shadow. Don’t look in the dark places, don’t listen to the anger, don’t give voice to the shame. Smile, and be quiet, and look like we expect you to, and answer the questions the way we expect you to, and don’t ask the questions that would require us to look into the dark. In short, don’t trust yourself, trust us–whoever us may be.

I had no reason to violate these admonitions. I believed it all. I lived it all. When I left the church it was because I was confronted by the shadow; it came to me, in the same way it came to Dianna in this series. I saw, what seemed to me, subtle, at the time, but now feels enormous and looming—the shadow of misogyny, colonialism and bigotry—woven throughout church doctrine and culture.

I’m not writing this to disparage the church. Many of my most important and loved people are still very much aligned with it. I am writing this with hope that we can embrace the strength that comes from examining the shadow and rid ourselves of the weakness produced by hiding from it. 

We all have light and shadow inside of us—all people, organizations, organisms and entities. This could be said of the deer that, in seasons, overpopulate and overgraze the landscape, bacteria which in one setting are helpful decomposers and in another, infect and colonize the body to the point of death. Even personality traits carry light and shadow! Of course they do. The introvert shines at quietly filing his alone time with meaningful projects and pursuits, but shies away from public speaking or parties. The extrovert struggles to be alone. 

Carl Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” Avoiding the shadow only gives it more strength. But we do avoid it because it is uncomfortable. Self-examination is uncomfortable. 

So last week in The Artist’s Way we were encouraged to explore our negative emotions, to begin listening to them. And this week we are talking about integrity. The link I want to make clear here is that unless you are willing to explore the shadow, you will always be out of integrity. If the shadow is ignored it automatically creates a facade, so this is constant work.

Just yesterday, for a moment, I wished I could return to my previous life, where everything was laid out before me and simple, and I only needed to endure to the end to be richly rewarded. I, like Eve, now live in the lone and dreary world. I make my bread by the sweat of my brow. I am daily reminded of the shadow, but my life is not dark. It has become a rich topography of peaks and ravines, forests and deserts, snowy pastures and luxurious seascapes. 

I cannot speak about your experience, only my own. But, for me, I cannot imagine a God, who created this world, filled with so much diversity, so much light and so much in the deep, to have meant for us to skim the surface, not when the landscape of human experience is so vast and rich. There is freedom when I remember I am strong enough and humble enough to trust myself to see the shadow, to explore it and to emerge from it.

I see the light because I see the shadow.