For today’s Mormon Stories Podcast episode we interview Ryan Nielsen and Holly Parson Nielsen, who were both raised as devout Mormons in Rexburg, Idaho. After marriage, Ryan worked as full-time BYU-Idaho faculty for twelve years in the Department of Music, while Holly taught middle school art.

Important themes for this episode include:

  • Ryan’s perfectionism and guilt/shame as a Mormon youth.
  • Holly’s closeted feminism as a Mormon youth and adult.
  • Holly and Ryan learning to listen to their own inner voices, which also involved navigating a religious faith crisis.
  • Navigating BYU-Idaho while one is full time faculty, and in a mixed-faith marriage. This story includes harassment from bishopric over maintaining continuing faculty endorsement (mostly related to Holly’s resignation from the Mormon church.
  • An insider’s view of BYU-Idaho administration, including difficulties dealing with BYU-Idaho executives related to Title IX issues (e.g., sexual misconduct of Mormon ecclesiastical leaders towards BYU-Idaho students and faculty).
  • Navigating and healing from religion-based depression, including suicidality.
  • Deconstructing Mormon literalism and reconstructing a nuanced worldview.
  • Learning to choose love over ideas.
Additional Resources mentioned in the episodes:
  • Ryan’s AMAZING faith crisis/transition Reading/Podcast list can be found here, and has also been included below, after the video and audio links.  This is probably the most impressive and thoughtful resources list I’ve ever seen for Mormon/religious faith transitions.
  • Holly’s Art:  — This link goes straight to the art Holly has done related to her faith transition, and her reclamation of motherhood.
  • Ryan’s Music: — This link goes straight to the music portion of Ryan’s website. Several pieces there are related to my faith transition, including “Prayer for Peace” and “Requiem.”
  • Support Ryan!  Ryan has written a 9 movement suite that explores his experience of a faith crisis, through the lens of the life of Elijah Abel.  It’s time to get this recorded. Ryan has created a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for the project.  Please support this worthy project!


Part 1: Fighting religious perfectionism, becoming BYU-Idaho faculty, suppressing doubts, depression, and suicidality

Part 2: Ryan begins to question his beliefs and seeks for answers

Part 3: Holly’s years of faith, feminism, and then doubt

Part 4: Holly leaves the church in Rexburg, Idaho, while Ryan is BYU-Idaho faculty

Part 5: Ryan encounters ecclesiastical and spiritual abuse as BYU-Idaho faculty

Part 6: Ryan challenges BYU-Idaho administration regarding spiritual and sexual abuse of faculty and students

Part 7: Leaving BYU-Idaho and eventually the church, and finding healing, joy and peace


Part 1: Fighting religious perfectionism, becoming BYU-Idaho faculty, suppressing doubts, depression, and suicidality

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Part 2: Ryan begins to question his beliefs and seeks for answers

Download MP3

Part 3: Holly’s years of faith, feminism, and then doubt

Download MP3

Part 4: Holly leaves the church in Rexburg, Idaho, while Ryan is BYU-Idaho faculty

Download MP3

Part 5: Ryan encounters ecclesiastical and spiritual abuse as BYU-Idaho faculty

Download MP3

Part 6: Ryan challenges BYU-Idaho administration regarding spiritual and sexual abuse of faculty and students

Download MP3

Part 7: Leaving BYU-Idaho and eventually the church, and finding healing, joy and peace

Download MP3


The Books that Helped Me
By, Ryan Nielsen

Part 1: Untying the False–Self

So much of what I learned came from books; just like in my dream. I read, and read, and read. Here are a few of the most important ones to me.

The following books showed me what went wrong. They taught me to identify and challenge the systems, thoughts, and beliefs that fed my illness. They gave me the tools to deconstruct the false-self, and the courage to start believing my true-self.

  • Healing the Shame That Binds You by Jon Bradshaw
  • The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller
  • The Truth Shall Set You Free by Alice Miller
  • Resilience by Boris Cyrulnik
  • An Adult Child’s Guide to What’s Normal by John Friel
  • Bounded Choice: True Believers in Charismatic Cults by Janja Lalich
  • Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Lifton
  • Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steve Hassan
  • Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias
  • The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels
  • Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett
  • The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
  • God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens
  • Healing the Child Within by Charles Whitfield
  • Co-Dependent No More by Melody Beattie
  • The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie
  • Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steve Hassan
  • The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown
  • Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body–New Paths to Power and Love by Riane Eisler
  • Between the World and Me by Te Nehisi Coates
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie
  • Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
  • God on Trial by Frank Cotrell Boyce

Brief Summaries

Healing the Shame That Binds You by Jon Bradshaw

Perfectionism (trying to be more than human) and self-destructive behavior (trying to be less than human) are both sides of the same coin: toxic shame. Toxic shame fuels addictive behavior. The first rule of a dysfunctional family system is to NOT talk about the center of the system, whomever that may be. (consider Dallin Oaks: “It is wrong to criticize a leader of the church, even if the criticism is accurate.”)

The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller

Believe the emotional truth of your memories, love the child within, and embrace uncertainty. “We despise weakness, helplessness, uncertainty—in short, the child in ourselves and in others.” Miller explains the harm of the grandiosity I learned: “The contempt for others in grandiose, successful people always includes disrespect for their own true selves. . . . Their scorn implies: ‘Without these superior qualities of mine, a person is completely worthless.’ This means further: ‘Without these achievements, these gifts, I could never be loved, would never have been loved.’” She also explains well-being: “The true opposite of depression is neither gaiety nor absence of pain, but vitality.”

The Truth Shall Set You Free by Alice Miller

We are willing to do so much to hide our true selves. “Who is he really? No one knows–he himself probably least of all. To find that out, he would have had to stare into his own inner void, and it was precisely to avoid such an insight that he employed such amazing ingenuity for so many years.” Miller writes with confidence in our loving nature: “The split off, denied, and repressed parts of their personalities can be reintegrated. Once that happens, there will be no more need to preach love and responsibility to them because they will see the necessity for themselves.”

Resilience by Boris Cyrulnik

To tap into our innate resilience, we need people who hear us and believe us, who allow us our feelings, and we need to create. “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story.” (Thank you, John, for letting us tell ours.) Cyrulnik points to how connected we are, with stories of people on the brink of giving up whose lives are forever changed by an unaware invitation to participate in creating. “A person should never be reduced to his or her trauma.”

An Adult Child’s Guide to What’s Normal by John Friel

Friel offers empathy for why we get stuck in unhealthy patterns. “Something happened to us a long time ago. It happened more than once. It hurt us. We protected ourselves the only way we knew how. We are still protecting ourselves. It isn’t working anymore.” And he gave me concrete examples of how to change those patterns.

Bounded Choice: True Believers in Charismatic Cults by Janja Lalich

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Lifton

Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steve Hassan

What happened to me was neither unique nor innovative . . . organizations across the globe use similar systems of control. My experience within Mormonism was honed for feeding toxic shame, and for cutting myself off from my true self. It appears we are wired to create communities like this. These books also offer tools for recovery. Steven Hassan’s model of undue influence within a cult focuses on psychology; Janja Lalich’s focuses more on social systems and ideology.

According to Dr. Lalich, a charismatic cult is a hierarchical organization that places true believers in a state of “bounded choice” where obedience to leaders is the only path to freedom. In groups like these, the only legitimate “choice” is to follow the leaders, under penalty of loss of spiritual and/or temporal life, salvation, or enlightenment. Hence, bounded choice. Without going into the details of this model, to my shock and bitter grief, my experience in Mormonism batted 1000% when examining it through the lens of the Bounded Choice model.

Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias

A practical guide to recovery. Their discussion of “Dealing with the Aftereffects” was especially helpful to me. They discuss black-and-white thinking, “floating” (the disconnected smiling non-confrontational receptive state of mind), and triggers, giving practical tools for dealing with each as they come.

Also includes a useful summary of dangerous leaders as “master manipulators.” “Cult leaders have an outstanding ability to charm and win over followers. They beguile and seduce. They enter a room and garner all the attention. They command unwavering allegiance and strict obedience. . . . Paranoia may be evident in simple or elaborate delusions of persecution. Highly suspicious, they may feel conspired against, spied on, cheated, or maligned. . . . Any real . . . . unfavorable reaction may be interpreted as a deliberate attack on them or the group . . . . Beneath the surface gloss of intelligence, charm, and professed humility seethes an inner world of rage, depression, and fear.”

The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels

Because I spent so much of my psychological and spiritual life feeding fears about Satan, this book was incredibly powerful. It demonstrates the historical evolution of the concept of Satan in a way that removed its power in my mind. “While angels often appear in the Hebrew Bible, Satan, along with other fallen angels or demonic beings, is virtually absent. . . .”

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

No-holds-barred tools for critiquing religious literalism. Those tools shored up my boundaries; gave me the strength to try standing on my own two feet. At first, their certainty was intoxicating. Eventually, I realized that their dogma resembled the dogma of my upbringing. Like the literal Mormonism I was taught, this atheism divided humans into two groups; only instead of “saved vs. damned” it was “enlightened vs. unenlightened;” those dumb enough to be religious, and those smart enough to see through the “sham.”  And, like the Mormonism I inherited, certainty was their rallying cry. Still, studying those books smashed down barriers in my mind and gave me new ways to critically engage literalism. (For a beautiful rebuttal of that dogmatic approach to atheism, I highly recommend this conversation with Marcelo Gleiser and Marilynne Robinson.)

Healing the Child Within by Charles Whitfield

An impassioned advocate for trusting the child in us all, and dis-covering our relationship to it. Builds on Alice Miller’s work. More tools to healing from shame; more empathy for the time we spent stuck in it. “While we are in a dysfunctional, shame-based relationship, we may feel like we are losing our mind, going crazy. When we try to test reality, we are unable to trust our senses, our feelings and our reactions.”

Co-Dependent No More by Melody Beattie

The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie

Though at times a tad too “pop-psychology” for my preferences, these books were still really helpful. They offer tools to recognize enmeshed thought patterns as they emerge, and offer healthier alternatives as well. Beattie is a wonderful advocate for letting go of feeling responsible for everyone else’s well-being and emotional state of mind. “I used to spend so much time reacting and responding to everyone else that my life had no direction. Other people’s lives, problems, and wants set the course for my life. Once I realized it was okay for me to think about and identify what I wanted, remarkable things began to take place in my life.”

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

Everything we value about ourselves and about others grows in the soil of imperfection. This was a powerful balance to the perfectionism I inherited. “Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’”

Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body–New Paths to Power and Love by Riane Eisler

Powerfully dismantles patriarchy. Helped me challenge so much of the sexism I inherited, with a focus on human sexual relationships as a metaphor for social models. Eisler simplifies the question of harmful power by exploring two types of relationships between men and women: hierarchical models versus partnership models. A monumental work, she traces the historical evolution of harmful patriarchal practices from pre-history to the present. Truly stunning.

Between the World and Me by Te Nehisi Coates

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie

Helped me deconstruct the racism I inherited. I return to them regularly. Between the World and Me is a letter written from a father to his son about how to navigate living in the United States as a black man in a world of “dreamers” who “believe they are white.” A painfully honest discussion of things I never had to consider. The New Jim Crow lays out the historical and legal evolution of racism in the United States, from its intentional creation by property owners in order to keep the “lower” economic classes divided, to chattel slavery, to Jim Crow, through the Civil Rights Movement, to the Southern Strategy, the New Jim Crow, and Mass Incarceration. Totally heartbreaking, and tremendously urgent and timely. Americanah is a novel whose main character is a Nigerian immigrant, and explores—brilliantly—how race operates in the United States. I was never be able to see our society the same way again.

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

A compelling look at the implications of cognitive dissonance theory, and the mechanisms in all of us that makes it so easy to justify the hurtful things we do. The chapter on marriage was especially useful to me. “Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification.”

God on Trial by Frank Cotrell Boyce

A play set in Auschwitz, in which the prisoners place God on trial, prosecuting him for breaking his covenant with the Jewish people. Poignantly explores the confusion of a faith crisis.


Church History

After my experience with my true-self, I knew what my heart was telling me; but, being Mormon, I needed my mind to confirm it. (D&C 8, right?) I needed a ton of evidence to support the Bursts I’d experienced. This was just too big.

The following books/documentaries were critical to supporting my intuitive bursts about the church, and to creating a more complete version of church history than the one I learned growing up.

Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery

In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton

Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet by John G. Turner

Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman

Neither White Nor Black ed. by Lester Bush and Armand Mauss

The Mormons a documentary by Helen Whitney

Mormon America by Richard and Joan Ostling

The American Religion by Harold Bloom

The Mormon Murders by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer (The most concerning part of this book was not the narrative itself, but the church’s apologetic response to it, which Krakauer responds to in a later edition.)


Important Podcasts

Several podcasts/interviews were tremendously important to me as well:

Mormon Stories by John Dehlin

  • Tova Mirvis (Ep. 865-866)
  • Carol Lynn Pearson “The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy” (Ep. 860-861)
  • Tova Mirvis “Losing Faith and Mixed Faith Marriage as an Orthodox Jew” (Ep. 818-820)
  • Gina Colvin “Kiwi Mormon and Fearless/Faithful Mormon Heretic” (Ep. 542-543)
  • Infants on Thrones Podcast (Ep. 514-515)
  • David Michael “A Non-Member Reads the Book of Mormon” (Ep. 513)
  • Lindsay Hansen Park “On Bulimia, Body Image, and Faith” (Ep. 460-462)
  • The LDS Indian Placement Program (Ep. 456-457)
  • Greg Prince “Faith and Doubt as Partners in Mormon History” (Ep. 439)
  • Hans Mattson “Former LDS Area Authority Seventy” (Ep. 430-434)
  • Top Ten Mormon Mental Health Issues (Ep. 389-391)
  • Fiona and Terryl Givens “The God Who Weeps” (Ep. 385-386)
  • Carol Lynn Pearson “The Hero’s Journey of the Gay and Lesbian Mormon” (Ep. 388)
  • Joanna Brooks “The Book of Mormon Girl” (Ep. 366-367)
  • John Delin “Scrupolosity, OCD and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” (Ep. 323)
  • John and Brooke McLay “From CES to Ex-Mormons” (Ep. 313-316)
  • Jana Riess “Flunking Sainthood” (Ep. 305-306)
  • Jennifer Finlayson-Fife “LDS Women and Sexual Desire” (Ep. 300-301)
  • Terryl Givens “An Approahc to Thoughtful, Honest and Faithful Mormonism” (Ep. 289-293)
  • Michael Coe “An Outsider’s View of Book of Mormon Archaeology” (Ep. 268-270)
  • Jared Anderson “An Academic Introduction to the New Testament” (Ep. 239-243)
  • Deity’s Brian Dalton (Ep. 205-206)
  • Richard Dutcher “A Filmmaker’s Journey” (Ep. 195-199)
  • Bill Bradshaw “A BYU Professor on a Biological Origin of Homosexuality” (Ep. 191)
  • Carol Lynn Pearson “Mormon Author, Poet, Playwright, Feminist, and Philosopher” (Ep. 173-177)
  • Natasha Helfer Parker “LDS Sexuality, Depression, Faith, and Marriage” (Ep. 168-169)
  • Bengt Washburn “Mormon Comedian” (Ep. 135-136)
  • Lisa Butterworth “Feminist Mormon Housewives Founder” (Ep. 129-131)
  • Peter and Mary Danzig “Faith Transition Story of a Musical Couple” (Ep. 119-122)
  • Joanna Brooks (Ep. 112-113)
  • Linda King Newell “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken: Washing, Annointing, and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women” (Ep. 67)
  • Margaret Merrill Toscano (Ep. 62-65)
  • Richard Bushman “Experiences of a Mormon Historian” (Ep. 47-51)
  • Grant Palmer “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins” (Ep. 30-33)
  • Darron Smith “Black and Mormon” (Ep. 22-24)
  • Todd Compton “An Introduciton to Mormon Polygamy” (Ep. 12-14)

A Thoughtful Faith by Gina Colvin

  • Gina Colvin “For New Beginnings” (Ep. 300)
  • Lesley Butterfield “Women’s Abuse, Oppression, Trauma in the Patriarcy (Ep. 297)
  • Gina Colvin “Section 132 Read in Plain English” (Ep. 289)
  • Tim Kosnoff “Taking Mormons to Court: Defending Sexual Abuse Victims Against the LDS Church” (Ep. 258) “Boy Scouts, the LDS Church, and Sexual Predators” (Ep. 288)
  • Sara Hughes-Zabawa “Revisiting Fowler’s Stages from 0-6: Stages 0-1” (Ep. 231) “Revisiting Fowler’s Stages from 0-6: Stage 2: Myths and Symbols” (Ep. 241) “Revisiting Fowler’s Stages of Faith: Stage Three–A Synthetic-Conventional Faith” (Ep. 253) “Fowler’s Stages of Faith: Developing a Healthy Individuative-Reflective Faith” (Ep. 266a); “Fowler’s Stage 5: A Complex Spirituality” (Ep. 274); “Fowler’s Stage 6: A Universalizing Faith” (Ep. 285)
  • Joanna Brooks and Kalani Tonga “We Hold Your Name” (Ep. 283)
  • Craig Vernon “To Win at All Costs: The Church and Its Heartless Legal Machine” (Ep. 278)
  • Newell Bringhurst “Uncovering a Doctrine of Black Priesthood Denial” (Ep. 244)
  • Thomas McConkie “Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis” (Ep. 124) “A Compassionate Response” (Ep. 151) “Mormons and Meditation” (Ep. 228)
  • John Bonner “Dancing Like No One’s Watching” (Ep. 194)
  • Bryndis Roberts “Awakening the Mother God” (Ep. 158)
  • Joanna Brooks “Mormon Feminist Writings and Other Stuff” (Ep. 128)
  • Jana Riess “Roots of a Vibrant Faith Life” (Ep. 117)
  • Kate Kelly “A Conversation with Kate Kelly: Feminist and Optimist” (Ep. 63)

As I said, these resources showed me what went wrong. They taught me to identify and challenge the systems, thoughts, and beliefs that fed my illness. They gave me the tools to deconstruct the false-self. However, try as I might, they could not give me the language to explore, let alone experience, what was inside me, though they did clear the way.


Part 2: Dis-Covering and Building a Relationship with the True-Self

  • Irish poet John O’Donohue talks about how psychology is so powerful for untying illness, but that we need poets and mystics for language that speaks to the myster of who we are. These books/podcasts helped me with that.
  • Anam Cara by John O’Donohue
  • Beauty by John O’Donohue
  • On Being podcast with Krista Tippets

Mary Oliver showed me how to find beauty and trust in the day to day; she pointed me to the “new voice,” “which [I] slowly recognized as my own.” She also showed me the source of song-life: “Song being born of quest he knows this: he must turn silent were he suddenly assaulted with answers.”

Rumi showed me that “Having the idea is not living the reality.” He helped me loosen the death grip of thought.

Walt Whitman pointed me to the infinite within. “These immense meadows, these interminable rivers, you are immense and interminable as they.” And he urged me on. “Whatever you are! Claim your own at any hazard!”

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address coaxed me away from imitation; challenged me to be true to what was inside me. “Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone . . . . The imitator cannot go above his model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The imitator bereaves himself of his own beauty to come short of another man’s.”

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ clarified the suffering caused by believing that my church was the only source of Truth; pointed out the “deliciousness” of exploring truth in every tradition; taught me to keep the touchstones of the faith of my upbringing, to make peace with them; showed me I could touch the kingdom of heaven right now.

Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You pointed me to a basic choice in life: hardness or softness. “The problem isn’t the beliefs themselves but with how we use them to get ground under our feet, how we use them to feel right and to make someone else wrong, how we use them to avoid feeling the uneasiness of not knowing what is going on.”

Samuel Allen’s Harriet Tubman (a.k.a. Moses) taught me to move. “Moses pulled out her revolver and she quietly said: | Move or die. |You ain’t stoppin now |You can’t stop now |You gonna move | Move or die.”

Bill Moyers’ interviews with Joseph Campbell, found in The Power of Myth, offered new ways to consider my relationship with intuition and taught me to reconsider symbol. I reclaimed the symbols of my faith, removed them from the stain of abuse. Perhaps most importantly, Joseph Campbell helped me regain my ability to trust my intuition again.

Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, Mike Birbiglia, Nick Offerman, and Bengt Washburn helped me laugh. And I needed to laugh! Seriously, I can’t overstate how important these brilliant comic minds were to my well-being.



For me, music remains so important to my spiritual life. I recognize that my taste in music is far from mainstream. Several of these are projects that I was involved in. So much of my music came out of the trauma and rebirth of my faith transition.

  • Divine Colors by Justin Nielsen – A portrait of the divine by my brother. The final movement, Peace, moves me to my core every time I hear it. A musical theophany that features cello quartet, voices, and jazz sextet.
  • Weeds in the Wall by Sister and Brothers – An album produced by my siblings and I in the folk/bluegrass/Americana genre. Most of the songs were written by my sister, Nicole Upchurch, and arranged by my brother, Justin Nielsen. “At the Veil” uses the imagery of the temple veil as a spiritual threshold. “Quiet Times” explores belonging and loss. “Wild Sorrel and Strawberry” finds hope in a simple garden. “Requiem” is a song I co-wrote with my sister, and uses the imagery of a tree as a metaphor for faith transitions and loss. “Perennials” gives us something to believe in “I believe in perennials; I believe in the spring.” Love my sister’s writing!
  • Sky Blue by Maria Schneider – A spirit journey by one of today’s most remarkable composers, I would listen to this whenever Rexburg felt just a little too hard J
  • Season of Changes by Brian Blade – Hope in loss, rebirth through change.
  • Gift of Breath by Ryan Nielsen and Ra Kalam Bob Moses – Many of the pieces on this album came out of the challenges of finding wholeness within my faith transition. Matsevah is inspired by a poem by Robert Brown, and explores the idea of a cairn being both a sanctuary and a marker of grief. The Lioness is part of my longing for the divine feminine. Already Gong is a blessing of sorts. I was super excited when this album was named a 2017 Recommended New Release by the New York City Jazz Record.
  • Movement by the Kobie Watkins Grouptet – Creating with these brothers of mine continues to be a soul-enlivening experience, and has been critical to finding my own resilience. It’s always about spirit, dance, and truth-telling with these guys. I especially love the title track, Movement, and Falling Upward, which, to me, is a musical portrait of a spirit journey. We were thrilled at the international critical acclaim this project garnered, which received a 4.5 star rating on All About Jazz, and was named one of the 10 best albums of 2018 by the Chicago Tribune.
  • The Preacher’s Wife by Whitney Houston and the Georgia Mass Choir – My favorites are “I Love the Lord,” “Joy,” “Hold On, Help Is on the Way,” and “Joy to the World.” A mega-dose of hope and resilience. Love it!
  • Prayer for Peace by Justin Nielsen, featuring the Kobie Watkins GrouptetAs close to prayer as I have been able to get . . . pleading for peace as we move through challenging thresholds.


I hope these resources feel helpful as you continue your journey. I know that they have been tremendously helpful to me.

Ryan Nielsen



  1. Randal April 7, 2020 at 1:33 pm - Reply

    This has been for me one of the most profound podcasts I have experienced on Mormon Stories. Kyle touched on so many really deep salient points regarding Church membership and what is really going on under the floor. Thanks to him and his wife who also inspired me with her clarity.

    • Ryan April 26, 2020 at 12:18 am - Reply

      Hi Randal —

      Thank you so much for those kind words. I’m so glad that our story felt like something you could connect with. All our best to you on your continued journey —

      Kind Regards,

      Ryan and Holly

  2. Maggie Rayner April 8, 2020 at 2:04 am - Reply

    I found the content of these interviews difficult while appreciating Holly and Ryan’s willingness to share their experiences. Listening, I was continually reminded of how closely the Mormon Church parallels the characteristics of psychopathy – and with that, the long lasting spiritual, emotional, and sexual harm to anyone who is, or has been, in a relationship with a psychopath. I was pleased to hear Holly (in Episode 7) talk about claiming herself as her own authority and Ryan describe the healing nature of creativity. His words, in describing Mormonism: “When there are no questions, the song dies,” sums up the religion for me so well. My ancestors, and my parents lived in the made up world of Mormonism and raised my six siblings and I in it. So far, five of us have hatched into reality.

    • Ryan April 26, 2020 at 10:14 am - Reply

      Hi Maggie —

      You and me both! Living the content of these interviews was difficult (Ha!) . . . . and I’m so glad to have found more health and well-being now. The further away I get from BYU-I et al., the more I realize just how damaging it was for me. What’s been hard since the interview is having people contact me, sharing their experiences; more stories of ecclesiastical abuse; more stories of spiritual abuse. More stories of John’s theory about Rexburg holding true . . . . Some small part of me wanted to believe that these experiences are somehow unusual, or anomalies. To your point, they really aren’t, are they?

      Your comment got me thinking . . . . along the lines of the “song dying.” As a believing mormon musician, I always wondered . . . . given that we were the only people on earth with the complete truth, why don’t we have our own music? (What we think of as our music — the hymns, TABCATS — is really the sounds of 19th-century Western Europe mixed with some film scoring.)

      I think John summed it up beautifully in the interview . . . . where there are no questions, no curiosity, there cannot be intimacy. If there is no sense of mystery, if you already have all the answers, then where will the song come from? Without mystery, the song literally dies, not just metaphorically! ( There are so many wonderful LDS musicians in the world . . . . some who are truly world class. I love so many of the hymns, and so many of the songs of my upbringing. I have so many brilliant colleagues and friends who are incredible musicians and are still in the church. But, to be fair, the ones who are remarkable musicians are not “typical” or “orthodox,” and have found their own very authentic ways of stay connected to the faith that allows for an expansive sense of mystery and grows roots in the soil of a love that finds expression in the universal and the particular.)

      But it’s still fascinating to me that no original musical sounds evolved from what I once believed to be the only group/culture on the earth that was still connected to the “source,” to the beginning of all human life (I mean, we are the ONLY people with the same cultural practices as Adam and Eve . . . but when we go to participate in them at the temple, we hear more of Western Europe and Film Scoring :-)

      Mormon music was, and remains, Western European (mixed in now and then with the sounds of film scoring). In fact, the rules regarding “appropriate” music for worship are literally designed to keep African-American sounds OUT of our worship. (I don’t think the folks that make those rules realize that’s what they’re doing . . . but it is–100%–what they’re doing. The official institutional stance of the church music committee (albeit unconscious . . . I hope . . . ) is that African-American music “has it’s place” . . . just not when it really matters; not when we really need to feel the spirit ;). Have mercy! And, to be clear, I have SO MANY Mormon colleagues who don’t think this way, and who push against those restrictions all of the time.

      The closest we ever get to bringing African-American sounds into our worship is when the TABCATS (i.e. MoTab) sing an African-American spiritual in “Music and the Spoken Word.” . . . in deeply concerning ways . . . with no respect for tradition of the black church . . . . They basically strip it of every African-American innovation when they sing “spirituals” to make it “appropriate” for that setting. No swing. No blues inflections. No groove.

      I’ve had people suggest that the TABCATS, “Just can’t sing it more authentically.” This, itself, is a profoundly concerning argument to make, rooted in centuries-old racist tropes. To which I reply, “You mean to tell me that the TABCATS just aren’t good enough musicians to go deeper into that style? Please. They just aren’t willing to.”

      In a stunning irony, our quintessentially “American” religion rejects the only authentic “American” music (i.e. African-American music). We tolerate it . . . we embrace it in our “cultural celebrations.” But it is supposed to stay over there . . . . It just can’t occupy our sacred spaces. . . . by which we mean our white spaces. (It appears the writers of, “Stranger Things” may have their finger on the pulse of this one. . . . :-)

      I don’t mean to suggest that this is intentional . . . I certainly hope that it isn’t . . . . But that’s how racism works; not as a feeling of hatred, but as a system that we remain blind to. And again, I have SO MANY Mormon friends and colleagues who see this clearly, and are working for change. They inspire me.

      I do see beautiful movement among my mormon-artist peers right now. With the grip of correlation and orthodoxy giving way, there are creative expressions emerging that are compelling to me. It will be interesting to see how that evolves.

      Anyways . . . . your concept of the song dying being a summary expression of your experience of the religion sent me down this thought-path. Thank you so much for sharing! And thank you so much for listening. I am so, so glad that you are not alone in your faith transition with your siblings.

      Kind Regards,


  3. Bliss Doubt April 10, 2020 at 2:29 pm - Reply

    I so enjoyed listening to Ryan Nielsen speak in his poetic way. That was a musician talking, about the old revelatory dream, the scarred tree, the falling branch and his other inspirations from nature, his deep understanding of “the grip of patriarchy”. I could go on and on. This kind of thinking is where music comes from. He is the first one I’ve heard in these podcasts who looked for the impulse to suicide within the faith. I could listen for hours and hours more. Thank you so much.

  4. emma April 11, 2020 at 8:20 am - Reply

    It was very interesting to hear more about BYU I and what’s really going on with students and teachers

    Remember the church is a cult based on complete obedience to leaders. That is why JS created the temple oaths. The foundation for everything It is what defines the Mormon religion

    Also I didn’t “give up certainty“. . I loved knowing that I would be with loved ones forever Certainty was torn from me— ripped out of my heart— by learning the truth. I now face that fear. It will not go away or become easier to bear . some of us choose to have our own hope for the next life — knowing it cannot be proven either way

    Thanks John

  5. Jessica Brown April 12, 2020 at 8:03 am - Reply

    Love your story. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Tracy Austin April 12, 2020 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    Hey – this is great and sorry for the trauma. Sorry they wanted you out of BYU I.

    Get out of Utah quickly for your kids sake. Come to WA where you can be free. It is not a healthy space for you to stay there and please know there are other options. I’d love to help if this is an option. We have a economy with lots of good, kind and thoughtful ex Mormons and you can live in a world that doesn’t give a fig about Mormonism. Plus women are not treated as subservient and are seen as having a right to using their brain power (I mean, like duh). Hang in there, you got this mate!

  7. Penni D Eads April 13, 2020 at 2:01 pm - Reply

    I have a dear friend from high school who is on the music faculty at BYUI, Jon Linford. I was his accompanist in high school and for 1 year at Ricks College. You must be acquainted?

  8. Timmy April 14, 2020 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    Ryan should look at one of the church’s early “official” definitions of the word “faith”, as explained in the “Lectures on Faith”. It has been misused by the modern church to argue that faith is “a principle of action”…..that somehow by acting, ones faith can be tested and increased. This puts the cart before the horse and misinterprets what is intended to be conveyed by the “Lectures” in this respect. When read accurately and in-context, the Lectures on Faith explain that faith is “THE” principle of action in all intelligent beings (I’m paraphrasing from memory)………I take this to mean that action by intelligent beings is evidence of their faith. When an intelligent being acts, we can be sure the being had faith in the outcome of that action. It cannot be forced, it just happens. Thought this might add to Ryan’s view of the concept of faith.

  9. Penni D Eads April 24, 2020 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    Ryan, you touch me deeply in the 1st 6-9 min. Thank you! I want to be the bird that sings, too, because of the questions. I will listen to the rest after my piano students this afternoon. So inspirational. Thanks again, Ryan.

  10. Penni D Eads April 25, 2020 at 2:56 pm - Reply

    I loved the 1st 6-9 min of part 6 and the ending of part 6 about the piece you were able to finish! Hope we get to hear it!

  11. Penni D Eads April 25, 2020 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    I love your conversation with yourself at min 24. So helpful to me. Thank you!

  12. David Egan Evans April 27, 2020 at 6:47 pm - Reply

    The comment about Packer’s different stage, in part 2, as ultimately being “an act of violence” to the self was so profound for me, bringing back memories of my experience as a teen struggling with the testimony that I was supposed to have but could not obtain. Though socially, post-Mission, leaving Mormonism as a young adult was sometimes an ostracizing hell, similar to my school time bullying I experienced, it was liberating in finally being able to let my sceptical, curious thoughts be OK by the person I had become.

    Ryan is a thoughtful man. I’m glad I’ve listened to his experience.

  13. Nicole September 24, 2020 at 1:13 pm - Reply

    This has been my absolute favorite interview. I loved every minute of it and felt so moved.
    I was one of the fortunate BYU-I students to have Ryan Nielsen as a professor (I took his Intro to Jazz class in the summer of 2007). He was an amazing professor that put so much love and passion into his subject. I hardly remember any of my college courses, but I remember his. There was a particular day that still stands out to me…
    Brother Nielsen had prepared a beautiful lesson on tolerance. It was inspiring, emotional, and moving. But at one point, a young man in the class raised his hand and said something along the lines of “Why are we learning about this? I signed up and paid for this course so I could learn about Jazz.” It was beyond disrespectful and the rest of the class was simply shocked. Brother Nielsen pulled up a picture on his slide show of Black men being treated horribly and in a firm voice said, “Until you understand the injustices done toward these people, you will not understand the heart and soul that shaped Jazz.” It was a powerful moment and one that has stuck with me, even 13 years later. As I listened to this podcast, I simply started crying as I thought about the important lessons he taught me so long ago and now he’s once again enlightening me and teaching me things that I really need right now. This whole process is so hard and so burdensome, but being able to listen to this professor again in his loving and soft voice gives me such hope and encouragement that it will all be ok. Thank you so much Ryan and Holly. You both are inspirational and for at least the moment I feel that everything will be ok. I hope I’m able to confront my own hardships and be as open and vulnerable as the two of you have been. Thank you thank you thank you.

  14. Keziah November 1, 2023 at 9:25 pm - Reply

    Nicole, that comment about ryan’s lesson on tolerance broke my heart wide open. What a beautiful lesson. They’re such a powerful couple.

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