Mette Harrison

John Dehlin THRIVE 3 Comments

I’m a novelist and essayist and recently poet who still considers herself deeply Mormon, even though I reject the authority of the church. My novel The Bishop’s Wife from 2014 was a national bestseller and you may have heard me on Radio West with Doug Fabrizio. I also guest write for Jana Riess on RNS and for myself on Medium as “Post-Mormon Mette.” I hold a PhD in Germanic Languages and Literatures from Princeton University (why German? because American and British literature are just too happy–except Thomas Hardy, who is an honorary German). I have five children ages 17 to 26 who are mostly not active.

What parts of the Mormon experience were most important or useful to you?

I was diagnosed autistic in 2017 and suspect that one of the reasons I thrived in Mormonism was because it was full of rules and predictable schedules. A lot of social stuff was arranged for me without me having to be good at it.

What doctrinal or theological parts of Mormonism did you believe that were most important to you?

I loved the idea of perfecting myself and really thought that I was on the way to doing a good job of it. I was totally blind to a lot of my own problems and human messiness.

What spiritual experiences did you have as a Mormon that sealed your orthodox commitment to the church?

I had an experience in high school where I had to pay for my own plane ticket to be an exchange student, and I prayed to get help to find a ticket. I finally found one and really felt like God wanted me to go there. Similar experiences with college and grad school. I still kind of believe that these were things God wanted me to do.

How did you lose your faith in Mormonism?

When my youngest daughter died at birth in 2005, I fell into a deep depression. I will never know if I would have left Mormonism otherwise. I’d always struggled with not feeling God when depressed, but I kept circling around to what felt like the message of Mormonism, that it was my fault that I needed to “learn a lesson” and so my daughter died. I reached a point where I had to give up all belief in God to survive, and even though I tried to go back after that, it never worked for me fully again.

What parts of Mormonism were harmful to you?

Looking back, I internalized a lot of body shame and sexuality shame, as well as gender bias. It’s still hard for me to figure out how much of the problems I had with Mormonism came from my family’s ultra-strict version of it and how much were regular Mormonism.

How do you now explain the spiritual experiences that you had as an Orthodox Mormon?

I’ve come back to a belief in God, though I suppose some theists might say the God I believe in now isn’t really God. I believe in *something* whether that is something inside of myself, something in humanity, or something in the universe. It comforts me to believe in and speak to something. So I think that something was always there.

What was transitioning out of Mormonism like for you? What was most painful about it? What was most healing or joyful about the transition?

I think it took me so long because it was so terrifying. The loss of community, of family, and of my husband. I think if some of my kids hadn’t gone first, I’d never have had the courage. They showed me the way and that it wasn’t going to end with being doing terrible things. But that last month when I was trying to tell people I was out was the worst. I think you forget about that later because the fear is just gone.

In what ways did church leaders or members make your transition more difficult?

I really don’t want to throw anyone under the bus here. Many church members were wonderful at the time. I still have many, many friends who are Mormon and I’ve come to believe that we’re all “doing the work” together of being human, figuring out how to be better and making the world better. This was my path and it was right for me.

Were there church leaders or members who were helpful to you? If so, how?

I had a couple of good bishops when I was in the depths of this, one who, when he found out I was deeply suicidal, told me he wasn’t a professional counselor and offered to pay for me to go see one (which I eventually did). He also tried to release me from callings, but it didn’t work out that way. I had another bishop who listened to me when I was in the midst of the post-POX issues and was kind and loving and understanding.

What resources were most helpful in your transition out of Mormonism?

You know, I had two sisters leave before me (one 25 years ago, one 15 years ago) and I never talked to them or really anyone else when I was in the midst of it. I was terrified of ex-Mormons. The church did such a great job of making me afraid of how bad they were as humans. So it was a long time after my faith crisis that I started to listen to any podcasts or alternate voices. Honestly, I mostly listened to them when I wanted confirmation of my decision that I needed to leave.

What significant mistakes did you make in your transition?

I really don’t regret my choices. I didn’t talk a lot about my faith change in the midst of it, but when I was ready, I wrote about it online A LOT. And then avoided all the comments except people who were truly kind to me. I sometimes find myself wishing I hadn’t stayed so long, but then remember that I just wasn’t ready to go. And I still think of myself as deeply Mormon, and not just culturally. My theological questions are very Mormon-centric, as well.

How has your leaving Mormonism affected your family relationships, friendships, job, neighbor relationships, social life, etc.?

Well, I used to write “clean reads” Young Adult fantasy that Deseret Book had on their shelves. Now, well, I write adult mysteries set in Utah and do a podcast (The Mormon Sabbatical) about Mormonism. I also write Book of Mormon fanfic (serious theologically) and go where I’m called to show up for what I believe is right and true. I’ve lost a lot of my neighborhood friends, but I’m considering ways that I might reconnect right now. The hardest has been my mixed faith marriage, but we’re getting there.

How have you navigated communication and relationships with believing family and friends? Any tips to keeping those people in your life?

This is a hard one. I definitely don’t recommend writing a letter. I don’t think it’s helpful to most people. They don’t want to engage on deep issues. I also think a period of mourning and separation might be a good thing for all sides. I needed space to be angry about all of the church things without the constant attempts at defending the church that happen in many conversations with Mormons. I’m learning right now to see Mormonness as another path that leads many people to good things and to not have such an angry reflex. I’m in process.

Which (if any) of your former Mormon beliefs/behaviors have you retained after your faith crisis?

I don’t really believe in an after-life, so a lot has gone with that. I do believe in family, though. I think family is forever, even if that’s a curse at times. You can’t get away from family, not really, no matter what you do. The connections are too strong. But also, I think I believed so strongly in the individual will that I actually managed to parent so completely differently than how I was parented that I made it true. I am proud of my parenting.

In what ways have your beliefs/behaviors changed after your faith crisis?

When I first went through my faith crisis, I heard other ex-Mormons talk about how they were “the same person.” This made no sense to me at all. I was NOT the same person in any way. I just felt so disconnected from my old self. Lately, I’m on a journey to try to reconnect with who I was, mostly through my childhood self, who always knew she wanted to be a writer. I think she was smarter than I ever acknowledged before.

What are your thoughts/beliefs now about God and Jesus?

I don’t believe we need an Atonement and I often think that the idea that there is some magic that erases our sins is a harmful belief. When we make mistakes, which is all the time, we have to live with the consequences of those mistakes forever. So do our neighbors and our children. To me, this means I have to work a LOT harder to do better. But also, I have to learn how to forgive myself for being human. There’s no magic in it. Just taking a deep breath and trying to move on.

How do you now make sense of death and the afterlife?

I’ll admit that after my daughter died, I became allergic to the idea that she was waiting for me in heaven because I felt like I was unworthy of her and that whatever I’d done wrong to cause her death would make her hate me. I haven’t been able to come back to any belief in an afterlife since then. Maybe something like the end of The Good Place season 4.

Without the church telling you what is “right” and “wrong,” how do you establish your own sense of morality/right/wrong?

I mean, this is a big question I ask myself all the time. I had an atheist friend years ago and I used to be so confused about how he could figure out what was right and wrong just by observation and experimentation. But I guess that’s where it’s really at. I don’t need other people telling me lists of right and wrong anymore.

Do you still value “spirituality” in your life (spirituality defined as “connection to something bigger than yourself”), and if so, what are your main sources of spiritual fulfillment?

I have a prayer/meditation practice every night and sometimes in the morning, too. I go on long walks and enjoy nature. I’m an avid Ironman athlete and get out my need to punish myself there. Mostly, I feel God the most when I’m with my great kids and my family (which includes my adopted family).

To what extent have you found healthy and meaningful community to replace the role of the ward/stake in your life?

I don’t think I have found this yet. I suspect my autism means that I’m bad at making quick friends. I don’t really trust anyone until I’ve known them about 10 years. But also, I don’t crave community perhaps as much as others do. I’m very introverted and I find my community mostly online in groups like WOCA, Mama Dragons, and my writer peeps.

What meaning and purpose does life have to you now that you no longer believe in Mormonism?

I suppose the best and worst part of post-Mormonism is that I get to decide for myself what the purpose of life is. And it can change. So I’m in process here, too. Right now, it’s writing and family. I have a list of values I sometimes re-evaluate, but right now they include Authenticity, Family and Connection, Body and Beauty.

If you are a parent, how has losing your faith in Mormonism affected how you parent?

Oh, tremendously. But it was also because of my daughter’s death. Everything became so precious and fragile to me then. There were no guarantees anymore. The idea that my daughter would be with me in heaven just didn’t make a difference to this life, so I focused entirely on the now. And that meant that I also focused on parenting my kids as they were, not wanting to force them so much to be some ideal of children that I once pressured them into. I think all of my children recognize this change, though the younger ones know mostly the new me.

If you are married or have a significant other, how has leaving Mormonism affected this relationship?

My marriage is still in process. I think we’re both processing the loss and we just try to be patient with each other. I don’t have any good suggestions to offer except maybe that talking about everything doesn’t always help the situation.

How has leaving Mormonism affected your mental health?

It was really hard at first because I felt so unmoored, like I was falling into an endless pit of knowing nothing and having no security. I may have made that last longer than it had to because I stubbornly tried to stay for so long. But it is a little better now as I accept the lack of certainty and the lack of safety that was probably always there.

How has leaving Mormonism affected your sexual health?

Honestly, much improved, but slowly. I mostly had to let go of a lot of unhealthy ideas about what was “right” sexually.

What aspects of your life are better after Mormonism?

I don’t like to say I’m happier because I think Mormonism is great at making people happy and offering them (false) security. I really miss that sometimes. I mostly tend to say I’m just more me. I think I didn’t really know who I was before because I spent so much time trying to be a “good person” that I didn’t investigate who I really was, just tried to hide it because it was embarrassing.

What is your life still missing? In what ways could your life still be improved without Mormonism?

Honestly, I wish I had a job. I gave that up to be a stay-at-home mom, and I don’t really regret that choice, but somehow regret the consequences of that choice.

What final advice would you give folks who are transitioning?

Do it at your own pace and don’t feel obliged to tell everyone everything.

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Note: This post is part of the THRIVING Beyond Orthodox Mormonism project.  See here to browse other profiles.  To submit your own THRIVE profile, click this link.

Comments 3

  1. Thanks for sharing your answers. I have read the Bishop’s Wife books and followed your podcast for many episodes. If I had a wish-list for Mormon Stories interviewees you would be near the top! Your insights on dealing with your faith crisis have helped me make sense of my own 20+ year journey out of Mormonism, and later, out of Catholicism (for similar reasons).

  2. Mettle is a hell of a triathlete as well. Mette, I’ve crossed paths with you a couple of times at the pool in Layton. I hope you’re still peddling, Hit me up if you want a riding buddy here in Davis Co. I was signed up for IM St. George, and do a lot of mnt. biking. Our journeys are similar, although for me the history and science aspect were the major aspects. I too have had to deal with the loss of a child, and all the repackaging that comes with that. Good to see you here.

  3. Thanks for putting yourself out there. As we were leaving we found that lots of Mormon friendships are conditional/not really friends. As we stopped attending church and without a word from him to me personally, our weaselly little frightened bishop went out of his way to make sure I lost my part-time job teaching online for BYU-I. The kids in the ward also started rejecting my kids and the bishop would interview my kids and cast us (parents) in a bad light. Though we no longer believed, we stayed connected because my wife had a high level job with church owned entity, but we got to the point where we could no longer pretend and play the games. It was a relief to move away from the fake Mormon community and all the judgment and cult behaviors. That was the right move for us and we have found lots of ex-mo friends since we left and have found a new community. I wish you the best and hope you find some peace.

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