Testimony of Dr. D J Williams
Mormon Background and Culture
My entrance into the world occurred on August 16, 1966 in a Cedar City, Utah hospital. The first thing I did upon arrival was pee all over the lucky obstetrician. Such a beginning seems a bit ironic these decades later, given that my scholarship has come to focus on challenging traditional authority and its dominant, normalizing social discourses.
I was raised into Mormonism by loving, faithful parents, family, and community. I regularly attended church services and activities, despite frequent boredom. As a teen, I much preferred drumming, racing motorcycles, playing sports or chasing girls. Most any activity was more interesting than going to church. Nevertheless, throughout my youth I fully believed the Mormon religion was true. Everyone in my world back then knew that our restored church was the only way back to God and subsequent eternal happiness. Indeed, the correctness of Mormon doctrine was blatantly obvious! I, too, listened to countless testimonies and personally experienced its apparent evidence—warm feelings inside, people making positive changes that worked out well for them, and answers to prayers. I did my best to follow, including serving a two-year mission to London, England and marrying in the temple upon my return. As a Mormon believer, I had many rich and meaningful life experiences, despite encountering several bumps and rough spots along the "straight and narrow path."
Leaving the Fold
It was on my mission to England that I developed a love for learning. I will always be grateful for that. I figured that if I was going to convert people to Mormonism, then I needed to know much more about it. I read all the Mormon material I could get my hands on. Upon returning home, my reading expanded beyond official church publications to a broad range of historical and social science texts. More reading and thinking produce a better understanding. I began my college career and gained a basic understanding of the natural sciences, psychology, sociology and cultural studies. My little world was quickly getting bigger, and within a few short years I realized I could no longer be a Mormon believer for many of the same reasons that other scholars here and elsewhere have thoughtfully and eloquently discussed. There were major problems with Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, problems with a religious obsession to control and police people, and problems with the process of supposed revelation from God to Mormon leaders. Regarding the latter, it seemed to me that if Mormon leaders received direct instructions from God on how people should live, then Mormonism should be at the forefront, rather than the back end, of social change and progress. It was painfully obvious that my old religion was not what I thought it was. I was learning a powerful lesson that things are not necessarily as they appear.
Reading and pondering diverse texts while in college provided exposure to more possibilities and perspectives. Considering various viewpoints and explanations shaped what made sense and felt right to me, and what did not. However, even prior to college I had encountered a few snags in my cherished beliefs. The temple ceremony felt wrong and blatantly unethical—how can people under intense social pressure from family and friends make lifelong promises with the harshest of penalties? How can such contracts be made and enforced without informed consent? There were common missionary proselytizing techniques that seemed deceptive at the time, especially for a true religion that constantly preached about honest behavior and the importance of free agency. Then again, people are human, even religious leaders, and we all have our issues. And, it seems to be fairly common to think that our own particular view is the correct view.
Like many former Mormons who have left the fold, my experience transitioning out of the religion was lonely and terribly painful. I felt rejected, abandoned, and no longer loved. I was not just leaving a belief system, but an entire culture and familiar support system. I was becoming an "other"—but not just any run-of-the-mill outsider. To many I was becoming a follower of Satan. When my old belief system crumbled, my relationships with family members and many lifelong friends crumbled along with it. I became suicidal. It would take several long years to establish my own approach to living an ethical and productive life, re-construct personal identity, build a new support system, and try to salvage previous relationships. It is difficult for many who have not been through such a thorough, life-altering transition to understand how raw and barbaric it can be. Luckily, somehow I made it through hell.
Constructionism, Postmodernism and Poststructuralism
Like my many colleagues on this website, I have come a long way since leaving Mormonism. It continues to be the preferred system of knowledge for many family members and friends. I share several common values with Mormon people, including the importance of service to others and maintaining a strong work ethic. Despite leaving the belief system, Mormonism will always remain a part of my history and identity.
My approach to knowledge has been shaped by several influential thinkers, including Paul Feyerabend, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, and Jacques Derrida. Social constructionists remind us that objects do not have meaning until minds interact with them. Furthermore, meanings are flexible and unstable, and one can never completely see through someone else’s eyes. Perhaps an objective reality exists, yet it is approached through nonobjective processes. Ken Gergen has pointed out that objectivist forms of knowledge rely on a "mind-as-mirror" metaphor—in other words, there is an assumption that one's internal mental representation is a reflection of what is (actually) "out there." People who report consistent observations in what they observe may have their mirrors tilted the same way. Laurel Richardson and others have noted that knowledge relies on the use of metaphors that often go unnoticed. My little story here, like all sorts of other texts, is full of them. Finally, several scholars have challenged assumptions that words can directly and accurately map onto an external reality and experience. Social spaces shape how language is used and understood, and there is haze and slippage in communication. I mention these critical issues to emphasize that even with careful observation things are not as they appear!
Rather than being objective and independent, knowledge is constructed and contextual. Knowledge is dependent on, and inextricably linked to, broader social, historical, cultural and political processes. Much of traditional scientific and religious knowledge assumes there is an objective reality and universal truth, and that these can be known through certain methods and the use of specialized language (e.g., Mormon doctrine seems to advocate for an objective reality that is God’s reality, and such reality can be known through reading the Book of Mormon, praying, and precisely following Mormon prophets. However, the many pervasive social/subjective influences to this process of coming to know an assumed objective reality can hardly be overlooked!).
The philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend noted that traditional objectivist accounts privilege generalizations while shrinking or eliminating important details (including labeling them as "error"), yet details matter. To illustrate Feyerabend’s point, I once gave a lecture at a large social science conference while wearing fingernail polish and red lipstick! Yes, details apparently mattered to my audience! There were confused—and a few horrified—looks on many faces. Based on common, unrecognized, normalizing explanations of behavior, some audience members initially thought I possibly could have a mild "gender identity disorder." Others seemed to wonder about my sexual orientation (why should anyone care about that?).
Some deferred to developmental explanations, including psychodynamics, thinking my psyche may be stuck in the "child" ego state, reluctant to move "normally" into a "healthy adult" ego space (of course, this view can easily be reversed to suggest that labelers are stuck in the "parent" ego state and have a subconscious pathological impulse to police and control people who are more playful and fun than themselves!). Such explanations offer some possible insights. However, each is built from questionable assumptions and observations at every level, ignores numerous important alternative possibilities, and can serve to marginalize and oppress those who don’t follow the dominant explanations. Believe it or not, there are all sorts of potential reasons why anyone might wear lipstick and fingernail polish anywhere and at anytime! Perhaps the more interesting question is why many people react so strongly, especially to a little extra creativity and color in life!
Feyerabend suggested that knowledge systems reduce and structure an infinite complexity. There is not one, universal correct way, but innumerable ways, of constructing rich meaning. There is no firm foundation (despite the familiar Mormon hymn) that provides certainty! This does not necessarily imply that there is no universal knowledge or truth, only that it cannot be harnessed or captured through a particular method or account. It remains elusive.
While working on a doctorate degree, I finally came to accept and appreciate my huge, messy, mysterious, infinitely complex world, a world that does not rely on futile attempts to proceed toward certainty. In some ways this perspective has made my world more challenging and difficult—yet it is also more interesting and fulfilling. Nevertheless, my alternative to a stable, predictable, knowable-with-accuracy-world, I think, has some advantages. All methods and systems of knowledge are humbled. Everybody’s view matters. Possibilities expand. There is far more room for creativity, play, and fun! People can have more freedom to design their lives in ways that better meet their needs. Meanings can be played with and changed, and boundaries sometimes erased and redrawn. More people can be included in communities, and they can be loved and appreciated for both commonalities and uniqueness.
Narrative: Legitimizing and Empowering All Voices
I view all accounts as stories. Different types of stories have the potential to provide balance and keep some stories from dominating. There are scientific, cultural and religious stories that tend to privilege generalizations. These are valuable and important, though some of the assumptions behind them are open to critique and modification. There are also countless personal and community stories, which are every bit as legitimate and potentially meaningful as macro-accounts. Every story is limited and incomplete, and each has strengths and limitations. Too often, dominant, normalizing stories that are assumed to be correct serve to discount or devalue alternative stories, thus some people become marginalized and oppressed. Human history is full of these examples. Some voices are afforded social currency, while competing voices are silenced. Nevertheless, it is possible to listen carefully to the various stories of others, trying to understand the values and experiences of each human being, and to act compassionately—yet still acknowledging that we cannot completely understand. We can welcome all varieties of stories, empower voices that are often unheard, and try to act ethically based on the many diverse accounts that are available.
Finding Beauty and Spirituality in Unconventional Places
I love my life. A "straight and narrow path" model of one form or another might be the preferred approach and make sense for many people. Such an approach can bring meaning, structure, beauty and spirituality to many—yet it still does not work for some of us.
My academic research has provided opportunities to work with fascinating people who challenge convention and live adventurous lives, including radical body modifiers, serious sadomasochists, and self-identified vampires. Contrary to dominant social scripts that (mis)understand such groups as being untrustworthy, mentally unstable, dangerous, morally corrupt, or necessarily violent, I (and other scholars—no pun intended) have found these people to be rather "normal," decent, adult citizens with common human stresses and issues. Several stereotypes rooted in Judeo-Christian culture that were pounded into my head by various social institutions throughout most of my life are being exposed and refuted. I have taken some professional risks by seeking knowledge in unconventional places, yet those same calculated risks unexpectedly brought new friends and some of the most profound spiritual experiences into my life! What wonderful benefits!
Humanity seems to be part of a vast, mysterious, infinitely complex, indescribable existence. Is there a God "out there" somehow behind it all? How the hell should I (or anyone else) know! For me there are more immediate and important questions concerning contemporary society and social justice. However, I have learned time and time again that despite the accumulation of much valuable knowledge, things do not seem to be as they appear!
D J Williams completed a PhD and a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Leisure Sciences from the University of Alberta, Canada, and holds Masters degrees in Social Work and Exercise and Sport Science from the University of Utah. He is author of the book "Playing Dangerous Games," and has published numerous academic journal articles and book chapters. D J is a leading expert on deviant leisure, and is known across the world for groundbreaking research on leisure-crime relationships and gambling behavior within correctional settings. Additionally, his research on consensual sadomasochism, radical body modification, and self-identified human vampire lifestyles as possible legitimate leisure experiences presents serious challenges to common normalizing discourses that often serve to stereotype, marginalize and demonize.
D J has been a faculty member at Idaho State University (Sociology and Social Work) and the California State University at Los Angeles (Social Work). He currently works as an independent researcher/writer/consultant on specialized projects related to deviance and leisure. He was born and raised in Utah, and left Mormonism in the early 1990s after serving a two-year mission to London, England. D J and his partner, Mary, currently live in the Los Angeles area.