By John Hatch
John Hatch is an editor at Signature Books. His book “What Do You Mean, Murder?” Clue and the Making of a Cult Classic will be published in 2023.
Or, download the audio here: The Mormonator and Me: A Pandemic Face-off
One Sunday morning, about eight months into the pandemic, I hit full middle-aged dad mode. Time may have warped and shifted around the virus, but it also marched on. The first hint of my change was waking up one day to realize that all my clothes were from Costco. I also rediscovered baseball and became the Guy Who Yells Out What Just Happened in Sports Games. My kids laugh at me when I burst out with such gems as, “Oh, that’s a home run!”
Anyway, I’m in my pajamas (Kirkland brand, of course), I haven’t had a haircut in a year, and I’m dealing with one of my kids’ mini-emergencies when the doorbell rings.
I put on a mask, open the door, and step back a few feet to give us space. I’m not doing this as a courtesy to the door knockers; they’ve already lost my sympathy. I mean, who the hell makes a house call on a Sunday morning during a worldwide pandemic? I’m making room for my own safety.
It’s two dudes; one older, one younger. Very clearly from the LDS Church.
Younger Dude sees me and immediately says, “Oh, I forgot my mask!” and reaches into his pocket, pulls one out, and puts it on. Older Dude says he forgot his too, in the car. He makes no move to get it.
Older Dude continues. He is “from the ward.”
At this point it’s important to know that I had my name removed from LDS Church records a long time ago. (A story for another time, and more boring and less principled than you might hope.) What this means is that I’m not LDS. So, it’s not my ward. You might as well say you’re from the local diocese. Younger Dude is already looking uncomfortable. But not Older Dude.
Older Dude has what I soon realize is a DEFCON 1 critical mission: To find out who lives in this house and if their names match those on the crumpled piece of paper he is holding. I realize that he will not be deterred. He is a Mormon Terminator: He can’t be reasoned with, he can’t be bargained with, and he absolutely will not stop. Ever.
The Mormonator starts interrogating me about the people who live in my house. Someone—I think I know who—snitched on us and had the records of my wife and her kids forwarded to this ward. But, go figure, my last name is different from my stepchildren’s last names. Since the phrase “blended family” has not entered the Mormonator’s databanks yet, he is confused. He is naming my stepkids, listing their ages, and asking if they live there. It’s weird and creepy. But the Mormonator has no idea that this is weird and creepy.
Instead of doing what I should have done—saying, “None of your business, goodbye!”—my Mormon politeness gene kicks in and I try to explain my family dynamic without confirming his information.
After a minute or two of this awkward back and forth, Younger Dude looks miserable. But not the Mormonator. He is incapable of processing shame or social cues. He keeps reading the contents of his piece of paper to me.
I try to explain that we’re not interested in going to church. But the Mormonator is not interested in my not-interested spiel. He’s reading from the paper, and I’m annoyed and uncomfortable. Here’s the thing: I don’t mind talking to people about the church. I am not one of those ex-Mormons who say, “Don’t you dare come talk to me!” In fact, I work in Mormon studies. I like talking to people about the Church. But this is not that kind of conversation. It’s one of those unannounced visits that prey on our wish to not be offish. It’s what aggressive salespeople take advantage of; and Mormons really shouldn’t do it. (Don’t worry though, I let the Mormonator have it the next day in series of retorts I conjured up in the shower.)
I look at my wife in the next room, because the kids on the Mormonator’s piece of paper are hers. It’s not my place to confirm (some might say “rat out”) this information to the Church. My wife has been listening, and it turns out that she is done. She throws on a mask, stalks over and practically yells at them, “We’re not interested!”
Younger Dude is, “Cool; we get it. Sorry.” But the Mormonator has not completed his mission. He uncrumples the paper a little, examines it, and says, “Ah, you must be . . . Joy!”
My wife says, “Yup, we’re not interested. Goodbye,” and shuts the door.
I cannot imagine how any of this was calculated to make us want to attend church.
This was one of my few in-real-life, face-to-face contacts during the pandemic. And it didn’t cheer me up one bit. Because the only other human contact I had was through social media.
Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a little obsessed with social media. Not with being on it, although I have that problem too, but with what it means for our world and our personal interactions. Social media ostensibly makes conversations and personal connections possible that were impossible in the past due to time and distance. And social media does facilitate the introduction of important social issues. Without Twitter or Instagram, the #MeToo movement would not have flourished. Without social media, the Minneapolis Police Department’s appalling initial statement on the death of George Floyd would have been the last word: Floyd “physically resisted officers” who then “noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.”
But a split-second after social media gives rise to these conversations, it flattens them into a two-dimensional, binary divide. Messy, complex topics are oversimplified, and everyone is expected to pick a side. Are you on our team or are you a soulless monster who hates truth, beauty, and baby pandas? And it is in these sudden camps where most of us find our so-called “friends.”
Many of our friendships in adulthood are friendships of convenience. We meet people at work and talk to them. We might get to know them well, even hang out with them outside of work. Then they move on to another job and we never see them again. So, we go to social media. But apparently, this does not help. Studies suggest that a big part of our current moment of political polarization is due to a declining number of adults with friends. We’ve all heard the joke: Jesus’s most impressive miracle was having twelve close friends in his thirties.
These online friendships can feel deep and intense as we bond over things like our shared love of a movie, our hatred of a political party, or perhaps our struggles as we negotiate our relationship with the LDS Church. But these friendships are terribly fleeting. I’ve seen it and experienced it: express an opinion that isn’t universally accepted by the group, and your place in the group—and the friendships that came with it—can vanish. I can’t count the number of times I have been excoriated online by someone because they learned that I didn’t think that the LDS Church is evil incarnate, or because I thought The Last Jedi was a great movie, or because I didn’t follow our Lord and Savior, Bernie Sanders. They thought I was on their team, and when it turns out that I think a little differently than they do, they lashed out.
I want to be clear that I don’t think any of this is cancel culture run amok. Women and people of color experience real harassment online; I only get called names by people who are way too invested in Star Wars or whose whole identity is “I’m a socialist!” But it does expose what these online relationships are founded on: ones and zeros. I know, I sound silly acting as if the digital world and “real life” are separate entities. Digital is real. Plenty of people meet their friends and their partners online. Some of my favorite people are ones I’ve met online. But more has to tie us together than shared love or outrage.
I’m a Gen-Xer perpetually stuck in the netherworld between the digital and the analog. I know that so much of what drives online outrage is, quite literally, life-and-death. We are bombarded daily with suffocating news—insulin prices are sky-high; an immigrant was killed in ICE custody; Black Lives Matter; January 6. These and countless other things are all causes worth caring about, worth getting upset over. But I don’t know how to reconcile the grave importance of all of these issues with the unsustainability of hating my family or neighbors because they had a bad social media post. I don’t know what to do when someone I love says “George Floyd was a thug!” on Facebook. I don’t know what to do when someone who’s shown me kindness throughout my life tweets that Anthony Fauci belongs in prison. These are not small issues; these are not opinions about whether pineapple on pizza is good. I want to honor the enormity of these things, but I don’t want to reduce other human beings to just their social media posts. I have no answers beyond seeing the human behind the ones and zeroes.
When the Mormonator came to my house, he saw the names on his piece of paper more than he saw the people attached to them. When we go online, we see the names on our screen more than we see the people attached to them. I’ve been guilty of that and I’m sorry for it. I’m sorry to the people I’ve done it to, and I’m sorry for myself. I don’t like who I become in those moments when I join the online dog pile of someone who said the wrong thing. We mock people who say they “misspoke,” and sometimes people do invoke misspeaking as an excuse to avoid the consequences of insensitivity. But misspeaking is also a real thing! Years ago I remember trying to compliment a colleague but the words “trooper” and “champ” got jumbled in my brain and I said “You’re a tramp!” She looked stunned for a second and then burst out laughing, realizing (fortunately for me) what I had meant instead of running to HR.
Humans have spent millions of years becoming social creatures. Subtle facial cues, from a tiny smile or a furrowed brow, tip us off. We are meant to have conversations with a handful of people, face to face.
The longer I am on social media, the more I am convinced that we are not evolved to cope with . . . any of it. I know that makes me an Old, but may I suggest that IRL friends may be a little more real than digital friends? Or will you unfriend me?
There’s a group I’m part of where the humans take precedence. We get together in the same room and email each other regularly. We email because that’s how long this group has been around: long before Slack, Facebook messenger, and text threads. These are people I know in real life, away from social media. Among these friends I have a place where I am welcomed and appreciated and accepted, warts and all. I even get to disagree with them while we break bread (or, rather, cheese).
This is the perfect place to tell you about some of the stuff we’ve wrestled with during all those years. Things like divorce, career downturns, religion, politics, death. A dozen examples immediately spring to mind. But here’s the strange part. Every time I think about writing one up for this essay and sending it out into the world, I feel like I’m violating something . . . sacred.
That’s not a word I use very often, not least because the LDS community connects it with the word secret. But sacred fits here in a surprising way. I’m not talking about it in a long-white-robes, hushed-voices, hymn-singing way. I’m talking about it in an . . . intimate way. (Again, a word I don’t use often because it’s a euphemism in the LDS community for sex.) The things we’ve admitted to each other in our little group, the disagreements we’ve had, the traumas we’ve been through, all of them have brought us close in a way that is completely unique in my life. My gut realizes that committing any of these stories to print or pixel would open them up to the public. And I know what happens when the public talks. It’s like when the Mormonator shows up at your door with the names and ages of your wife and kids printed on a crumpled piece of paper. An important part of your life is suddenly in the hands of someone else, inevitably reduced, made smaller, the vitality lost through retellings.
I’ll admit it. I really am old. The world of social media may be real, but it’s not real the way years of friendship are real. Just as I’m unwilling to give the Mormonator the information he wants about my family, I am unwilling to give social media this precious part of my life. You’ll just have to go out and experience an extended group friendship for yourself. You better get on it, though. It takes time. And not all of us have that anymore.