Holly Welker is an award-winning poet and essayist living in Arizona. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Best American Essays, and other publications. She recently answered some questions about the edited collection Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage.
Q: What was the inspiration for the collection?
Holly Welker: Many things made me decide that I wanted to put this collection of essays together, but there were two situations in particular that made it seem urgent. The first was that I moved to Utah in the summer 2008, as the fight over California’s Proposition 8 to amend the state constitution really heated up. The mobilization of individual Mormons was instrumental in the passage of Prop 8, and it got me thinking about why the church would ask its members to take this political stand.
The other event was the death of my mother in 2010, six months before my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. In my grief over that loss, I started thinking about how different her life was from mine, and wondering about expectations she’d had for her life that might not have been fulfilled. I began asking friends for stories about their marriages in the hopes of gaining further insight into my parents’ marriage, even though I had been a witness to it all my life and knew it well.
Q: You write in the introduction of the book “It’s hard to be a Mormon and not think a lot about marriage.” What do non-Mormons not understand about the role of marriage in the LDS community?
Welker: That it’s not just a good idea but a commandment, and that it’s supposed to last for all eternity, not just until death parts a couple. As I write in the intro, “Marrying ‘for time and all eternity’—which happens when a couple is ‘sealed’ in an LDS temple in a special ordinance that yokes people together in a covenanted relationship intended to survive death—is both the reward for living a righteous life and a primary method by which righteousness is demonstrated.”
When you understand that, some of the political positions of the LDS church become easier to understand as well—its opposition to gay marriage, for example. There’s a strong element of homophobia, certainly. But it’s also about wanting to make sure that the institution central to both its concept of the afterlife and social organization on earth—meaning marriage—remains comfortably under its control.
Q: How did you reach out to these women to invite them to share their own stories?
Welker: Nothing very glamorous, I’m afraid. I asked basically every Mormon woman I knew to write an essay; some I flat-out nagged. I asked women who weren’t willing to write an essay themselves if they knew anyone with an interesting story. I asked the women who sent me essays if they knew anyone who might be willing to send me an essay. I sent emails to blogs catering to Mormon women. I sent emails to women I hadn’t seen in years. I sent emails to women I didn’t know. I made public posts on Facebook asking for essays. About half the essays are by women I’ve never met in real life and didn’t know before we began working on their essay together.
I’m currently doing the same thing in hopes of finding essays by Mormon men on marriage for a companion volume. It takes a long time.
Q: Given the church’s definition of marriage, were any of the contributors hesitant to write about their marriages, especially if their marriages failed or they diverged from church teachings?
Welker: Absolutely. That’s one reason some of the contributors used pseudonyms. Some women wrote essays and then told me, “I’ve decided I can’t publish this after all.” That was disappointing, but I certainly understood. There was even a woman who told me, “I have to stop. If I keep going with this essay, I think my marriage might be over.”
There were also women who were eager to explore the ways their marriage didn’t fit the mold—women who felt they’d been misled about what the mold even was, or women who felt that their marriage succeeded precisely because it didn’t fit the mold. Some women who’d had difficult marriages felt an obligation to discuss those difficulties in the hopes of making others more comfortable in raising questions about how to deal with problems that aren’t anticipated by the standard discourse on marriage.
Q: What do the essays reveal about the role of divorce in a Mormon woman’s life, and the church’s approach toward divorce?
Welker: In my introduction, I cite research showing that devout Mormons married to another devout Mormon tend to divorce at rates lower than the average for the rest of the country, but marriages between a devout Mormon and anyone else—even a Mormon who lost their faith—have a very high rate of divorce. So one thing the essays reveal is that Mormons are like everyone else in that basic areas of compatibility—like religious beliefs—affect the stability of their marriages.
Divorce has never been forbidden in the LDS church, but that doesn’t mean it’s commonplace or free from stigma. Everything in Mormonism is geared to cementing marriage and making it last forever, so a decision to end a marriage is never taken lightly. The essays demonstrate just how bad things have to get before a woman will decide to leave her marriage. But they also show that once that decision has been made, subsequent events can make it clear that it was the right thing to do.