By Elna Baker
I’M 28 YEARS old and I’m flying to Siberia to tell my parents that I recently lost my virginity. Most children wouldn’t do this. Most parents don’t want you to do this. But my family is Mormon and we’re very close. And Mormons believe a very specific thing, which is that sex before marriage is the second most serious sin next to murder. Murder, a terrible thing. Sex, something that—as it turns out—is pretty great.
During the time that I ventured away from being Mormon and eventually had sex, I was terrified of what would happen if my parents found out. I mean, worst-case scenario, they’d disown me. I’d heard of people that this had happened to and I didn’t want to be one of them. And eventually I worried about it so much that I decided the only way to find out how they’d react was to just go and tell them face-to-face.
But there was another reason I wanted to tell them. A big reason. I had written an article about losing my virginity for Glamor magazine. It was going to come out in three months, so whether I told them or not, they were about to find out.
I wrote the article because I had never read anything explaining what it’s like to make the choice to lose your virginity later in life. I wanted to put that into words. So I spent a lot of time trying to write an article that was true to my experience. But then, of course, Glamor got their hands on it, and they called it “Guess What? I’m not a Virgin Anymore!” And there’s a photo of me dangling a cherry over my mouth—which, to be fair, I did have to pose for. I should have realized that that was a bad idea. But my favorite part is that underneath the photo it says, “Elna Baker: author and former virgin.” Barack Obama: president and former virgin. Not a byline.
To make matters worse, this article was coming out the same week as my younger sister’s wedding in the Salt Lake Temple. And the last thing I wanted to do was upstage the wedding. You know, all the relatives would be there saying, “Julia’s getting married! Elna’s going to hell!” So I decided, with a few months to spare, I would go tell my parents and try to salvage our relationship.
My parents live in Siberia where my dad runs a titanium factory. That’s not a joke. That’s his real job. He’s an evil villain. And it had been a dream of mine to visit and run down the halls of the factory, knocking stuff over while chanting, “It’s Daddy’s factory!” in a British accent. So, aside from telling them I had lost my virginity, I also wanted to do that.
It takes three days to get to Siberia, so I had plenty of time to prepare my speech. My goal was to tell them right when I got there so that we would have two weeks to hopefully repair our relationship. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t disown me, but I knew that I was probably going to disappoint them beyond heartbreak.
My parents are very Mormon, and they really love this idea of the eternal family. We had an embroidered “Families Can Be Together Forever” hanging on our living room wall. Every time a relative passed away, Mom and Dad would say, “It’s OK, we’re going to be together.” But I was now in a position of having committed the second most serious sin next to murder—meaning I wasn’t going to be together forever with them. So I was essentially flying there to tell them, “We only have a little bit more time together. Sorry.”
My plan was to tell them right when I got there and then go into repair mode, but the first thing my mom said when she saw me was, “You look different!” And I thought, It’s because I don’t have a hymen! She knows! And the plan went right out the window. I can’t tell them now! So I decided I’d wait and tell them in the morning.
The next day we went on a hike up this mountain and eventually reached a place that had a beautiful view of snowy white peaks. And I thought, This is so scenic and peaceful, I can do this! I’ll tell them now. And just as I was opening my mouth, my mother turned to me and said, “Look at all that pure, white snow.”
So I didn’t tell them.
And for the next two weeks, I was just on a vacation with my parents. It was the most fun I’d ever had with them. You appreciate something so much more when you realize that you might never have it again. I was afraid that after this, I would never have the same relationship I’d had with my parents my entire life.
So I savored every minute. They were proud of me. I was the same as them. We were together.
And then it was the last day of the trip, and I still hadn’t told them. My dad woke up early to go to work. And while I was at breakfast with my mom, I decided, “OK, I can tell Mom, and then she can tell Dad.”
My mom had made eggs over easy. I cleared my throat and was about to say something, but I cut into my egg and the yolk splashed up and hit me in the eye. I put my hand to my eye and said, “Oh my God!”
My mother dropped her silverware and said, “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain in front of me. Do you know how much that hurts me?”
And I started to cry. Is this what it’s like to be a grownup? You can’t tell your parents anything that’s happening in your life? Because when you’re Mormon and you’re following church standards, you’re living a PG to a PG-13-rated life. So there’s no barrier between what your life is and what you can talk about with your family. And now that things had gotten R-rated, I could no longer share who I was with my family.
IT WAS A three-hour drive to the airport and my parents wanted to spend more time with me, so they decided to escort me. When we got into the car, I thought, All right. I flew all the way here. I have to tell them.
But the driver and my father immediately started making friends. So apparently, I now had to tell my parents and the driver.
When he found out that my parents had been in Russia for a few years, the driver asked my dad, “If you could change anything about Russia, what would it be?” And my father immediately said, “The alcoholism. It’s ruining this country.”
The driver said, “Yeah, but how do you change that?”
My father’s response was, “You never take the first sip. I have an addictive personality. I can never have just one brownie. So if you never take the first sip, you never open yourself up to temptation.”
I was sitting in the front seat and decided to pipe up. “Dad, you used to teach me that growing up. But, you know I drink now, and it’s totally possible to do it in moderation.”
I turned around and saw my parents’ faces. They were white.
My father said, “What? You drink?”
And I was like, “Uhhh, you didn’t know that?”
And they said, “No.”
“But I told you I was on a break from Mormonism. My rumspringa. What did you think that meant?”
“We thought it meant that you weren’t going to church on Sunday.”
We were not on the same page.
I got the idea of taking a break from watching the documentary The Devil’s Playground which is about Amish kids and how at 16 they have a rumspringa: they go out into the world and do anything they want to with no religious consequences. Then, at the end of a year, they can decide whether to go back to the faith or stay in the outside world.
I had been struggling a long time with my testimony. And every time, I was told to just be more Mormon. So I would fast, and go to all three hours of church, and I’d stop buying Diet Dr. Pepper on Sunday. And it would work. For a little bit. But I kept finding myself back in the same place. And one day I finally said, “Do I really never want to know what the outside world has to offer?” And the funny thing is, I genuinely thought that if I took a year off and tried things, I would totally go back to being Mormon but with a better understanding of what was out there. And so, I took my own rumspringa.
It was very slow going at first because I was afraid to do anything permanent—anything that would take away my ability to go back to being Mormon. But the more I introduced things into my life, the more they changed my life.
And now I had to try to share this new life with my parents.
They were so upset about my drinking that they gave me the silent treatment for the entire three-hour ride to the airport. And then, as we were saying good-bye, my dad hugged me and said into my ear, “This break of yours. Is it worth it?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
I got on the plane and realized I had flown all the way to Siberia to tell my parents that I had lost my virginity, but instead had told them that I drink in moderation.
TRAVELING BACK TO New York, I had a long time to think about my dad’s question. “Is it worth it?” And I wasn’t sure, genuinely.
But in the year that I had been on this break, I’d had one real moment of clarity. But it’s not the sort of story you would ever tell your father.
When I first started drinking, I would only ever have one drink because I had seen infomercials for Girls Gone Wild and I didn’t know how many they’d had. So I was always wondering, “How many ‘til I show my boobs?”
But I was at a holiday party, drinks were free, and a boy I really liked was there, and it turned out that he liked me, too—and we kissed. Then later that night, he said, “Let’s go somewhere. Let’s check in to the Chelsea Hotel.”
The Chelsea Hotel is this famed hotel in New York where Sid Vicious killed Nancy—so it’s romantic. I still hadn’t done very much with my rumspringa. And I thought, It won’t count; you’re on a break; you can do this. So I said, “Yes. Let’s check into the Chelsea Hotel. But not for sex. Just to hang out.”
It was four in the morning. I still remember the sound my heels made on the marble floor as we approached the front desk. There was an old woman with frizzy hair behind the counter; her back was to us and she was filing the mail. So I leaned in and in a polite whisper I said, “Excuse me. Is it too late to check in?”
She turned around. A cigarette was hanging out of her mouth, there was smeared red lipstick across her face and she had this growly deep smoker’s voice: “Actually, most people check in right about now.”
And I couldn’t help but laugh. It felt like I’d entered another dimension of the city. Like she was welcoming me to the Hotel California, and in spite of how hard I’d tried to be good, I was always meant to end up there.
So we went upstairs. And we didn’t have sex. But it was the first time I was ever naked with someone. Which was very scary. And, surprisingly, very nice. Well, maybe not that surprisingly.
We both fell asleep, and then an hour later the Mormon in me woke up.
I shot straight up, gasping. What am I doing here? I thought. What did I just do? What have I forfeited in my future? What have I given up? It’s amazing how many things can go through your mind in two seconds. Maybe it’s a lifetime of collecting all those object lessons they teach in Sunday school and Young Women’s. They’re all queued up and ready to go. But in this moment of sheer panic, I looked out the window at the city with its skyline and sparkling lights. I felt suddenly calm. It wasn’t all dark. There were still so many lights on.
I think the reason I was so afraid to not be Mormon was because I was really attached to this idea of light. My favorite scriptures were the ones about light and truth. I believed that God was light and truth and that sin was darkness. So if I stepped away from being Mormon, I was willingly letting darkness into my life. And if I did that, I would become a fundamentally different person. I would lose my light.
But in that moment while I was looking out the window, I realized, “Oh. I still have my light. That doesn’t belong to the Mormon Church. It belongs to me. And even if I don’t know exactly the right things to do or how to do them, I can keep my light.”
I GOT BACK to New York, and a few weeks before the article came out, I phoned my parents and told them about it. And it was really, really hard. I think I cried half the time. They did not disown me. Their response was best-case scenario. They said, “We are incredibly disappointed. We don’t think you’ll ever be happy. But you’re our daughter and we will always love you.”
Later, a gay friend of mine told me that the speech I gave them is the same speech every gay person gives their parents. “There’s this thing about me. I’ve been keeping it from you. I feel like we’ve been at a distance because of it. I’m not doing this to hurt you. But I’m 28 years old and I’ve had sex . . . with a man.”
The next time I saw my parents was at my sister’s wedding at the Salt Lake Temple a few weeks later. And since I wasn’t actually practicing, I wasn’t allowed to go into the wedding itself. But I was a bridesmaid so I had to be there for photos after. Which meant I had to spend the two-hour ceremony in a car, in the parking lot, shivering in my bridesmaid’s dress.
And it was so cold. And I remember sitting there, staring up at the Salt Lake Temple, which, to me, is beautiful. And thinking, What if Mormonism is true? What if everything I was given was the truth and I’m the one walking away from it? Is this what the afterlife is going to feel like? My entire family is together, happy, in this beautiful, glowing, white, majestic place, and I’m in a bridesmaid’s dress—in the parking lot—for eternity?
I also started thinking about the break I had been on. I had said I would do it for a year, and it had been a year and three months. I still hadn’t made up my mind.
There are people who can make an impulsive decision and stick to it. And then there are people like me, who waver back and forth because there are things on both sides that you love so much. And you wish they could all be in the same place. So you try to hold on to both of them, but the more you do, the further and further apart they get. Until eventually you have to let certain things go.
So I did it. I let go.
My family is the most important thing to me in my life. But eventually I had to try to live my life. And in the end, I just hope I let go of the right things.