There Is U-235 in My Soul Today

By Karen Rosenbaum

In early 1951 the U.S. government began testing atomic bombs on Frenchman Flat, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas and about 90 miles northwest of the U.S. Bureau of Mines station in Boulder City, where we lived and where my metallurgist father researched uranium. This is why, very early one morning, my brothers and I—still in our pajamas— woke to find ourselves being bundled into the back seat of our Pontiac. My parents drove us to a viewing spot before dawn so we could become first-hand witnesses of this historic event. Alas, neither my brothers nor I remember seeing the enormous mushroom blooming over the desert.

In those years, scientists were obsessed with both uranium’s destructive and peaceful uses, and extraction of element 92 from uranium ore was of crucial importance to the United States. Some forms of uranium are malleable and ductile; others are volatile and combustible. Uranium is an apt metaphor for the person I have become—and am still becoming

When I was a very young child, my somewhat relaxed Mormon mother taught me to pray and to read and write. She sent her three children to Sunday School and Primary. I was about 11 when I discovered—in that pre-three-hour-bloc world—that there was such a thing as sacrament meeting. My agnostic Jewish father read fantasy books to us before bedtime and didn’t mind that his children spent a few hours at the ward building Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons. There wasn’t a synagogue in Boulder City anyway. We lived one state away from the Mormon relatives, two states away from the Jewish ones. My brothers and I accepted as true the stories we were told about Moses and Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith. We also accepted as true the stories about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. I was a malleable child.

After I completed sixth grade, my father was transferred to the Bureau of Mines station in Salt Lake City. My mother increased her church attendance, and my father consented to sit in the chapel once a year when the East High School a cappella choir put on the sacrament meeting program. I still had good friends who weren’t Mormons, but now everyone was conscious of who was and who wasn’t. Some of my friends were downright devout and I admired them for their faith, intelligence, talents, and good nature. I accepted as true most of the stories in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. Besides, David O. McKay was the president and prophet, and he was so easy to esteem. I was uncomfortable in my affluent ward, but I was a teachable, though somewhat troubled, teenager.

My mostly true-believing testimony was probably preserved a little longer because I attended the University of Utah, not BYU, where, I suspect, the combustible traits in my character might have ignited. My English and philosophy teachers introduced me to exhilarating words and ideas without seriously endangering my Mormon worldview. But about that time, I acknowledged that though I believed in God, Christ, even the Mormon hierarchies past and present, I did not believe in Satan, except maybe for the wonderfully literary Satan in Paradise Lost.

In graduate school, I was exposed, for the first time, to several individuals for whom Mormonism had not worked. I liked these individuals and reevaluated how Mormonism worked in my own life. At the same time, however, I became close to the iconic England family; Gene and Charlotte exemplified how Mormonism could work.

In the years since then, I have continually asked myself, can Mormonism work for me? Can wanting make it work? How can my soul accommodate the bleak things?  How can I choose simplicity when complexity so irresistibly calls to me? As my world has expanded and my soul has dilated, I have become resistant to panaceas and injunctions. When the church has campaigned about art (suspiciously close to “smut”), the ERA, homosexuality, a heavy dome descends on me, and my soul erupts.

I have found a place where my soul can be its most stable. I live in the Bay Area among like-minded Mormons and former Mormons. I participate in Sunstone symposia. I read and contribute to the Mormon fringe publications that acknowledge the enormity of my questions and the quandaries of my answers. I have fervently sought a faith which embraces my experiences. I have been only partially successful: my faith is not a secure, solid element, but it is vibrant, almost vibrating.

Energy is one of the great gifts bequeathed to my brothers and me by our parents. Energy has enabled me to teach the way I would want to be taught. Energy enables me to learn. Energy enables me to share. Energy enables me to write. My challenge has been to direct my energy, my volatility, into positive channels.

I cannot enumerate all the influences on me, but inside me is a core combining the Mormon and non-Mormon aspects of my life. This core is changeable, even turbulent, but it tells me what seems true—for me—and that involves the sanctity of the human soul, the magnificence of the gifts of life and learning.

My husband suffers, from time to time, from restless leg syndrome, which he describes as an almost-impossible-to-control urge to jiggle and shake. At these times, he is an objectionable bedmate.

I suffer, almost all of the time, from restless soul syndrome. When I feel confined by mandates and mores from church headquarters, I want to break out, shout out. I am, however, a well-behaved woman of certain years, so the people in my extraordinarily tolerant ward don’t usually consider me an objectionable pew mate. They don’t know that beside them is a volatile element struggling with forces within and without—trying, without causing too much collateral damage, to shape a thing of beauty out of a potential mushroom cloud.