Elevate Difference

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance

Beginning at a Halloween-themed singles dance for Mormon adults in the tristate area (the party referenced in the title of her novel) a Queen-Bee-costumed Elna Baker sets the scene for the spiritually-infused existential struggles that are soon to come. Although the attendees are adults, the event aches of prepubescent awkwardness and is plagued by the same maladies that afflict these preteen school functions: forced sobriety, abysmal music, sex-segregated clustering, embarrassing encounters with couples dancing, and sanctified social hierarchy. In a room full of college-aged virgins expectantly looking to find a future spouse before spinsterhood sets in at graduation, no one seems the least bit interested in the chubby girl dressed as a mistress of the hive, and for the fourth year in a row, Elna Baker leaves the dance alone.

Being a single Mormon gal in New York City isn’t without its unique challenges, and Baker addresses them with just the right blend of earnestness and self-deprecating humor. More Sex and the City than Big Love, Baker’s story is an uncommon version of a common enough conflict for the modern American woman: how to be yourself and nab the man of your dreams. For a liberal Mormon like Baker, religion gets added to the mix, and The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance takes us through her coming of age—and coming to terms—as she attempts to reconcile her desire to embody conflicting identities: that of a headstrong, adventurous, sexually curious young woman who wants to be desired by men (and envied by women) versus a submissive, straight-laced wife and mother.

Baker’s somewhat unrealistic relationship expectations stem from her own experience growing up in an idyllic Mormon family. They are complicated by the overlapping and contradictory messages about conventional gender roles and individual autonomy that she has gleaned from both her religion and American popular culture. The marriage Baker envisions for herself takes the shape of a traditional man-and-wife coupling where a charmingly pragmatic and devoted soulmate (Mormons only please!) passionately sweeps her off her feet in Hollywood rom-com fashion. But this is real life we’re talking about here, and even Carrie Bradshaw had to wait until SATC made its debut on the big screen to tie the knot with her perfect match.

Kissing boys is fun and all, but after twenty-seven years, Baker is ready to get to the good stuff—just not at the expense of her faith. Having been taught that sex before marriage is the second greatest sin (murder being the first), her Mormonism contributes to the manifestation of a kind of rabid marriage mania. Unfortunately for Baker, the only Mormon boys she finds in New York City are either tragically dull or playing house Dad at the “family home evening,” a weekly gathering-cum-celestial popularity contest for twenty-something Latter Day Saints who prefer wholesome entertainment—like group devotional readings—to the debauched activities on offer in the big city. When Baker finally does meet a guy with zeal, he’s a diehard atheist who doesn’t believe in the institution of marriage or the existence of a soul, much less the idea that Pocahontas was a Jew.

Baker’s lack of firm resolve about the truth of Joseph Smith’s teachings creates a flip flop effect of religious vigor and apathy, as well as an intellectual insatiability that causes her to return again and again to the unenviable position of trying to explain the unexplainable. She seeks solid ground where none can exist, and as a result, Baker can’t seem to find a sturdy core from which to build her belief.

Ambivalence is not a new condition for those who struggle with spiritual (un)certainty—or, for that matter, those who write memoirs about that struggle. After nearly three decades of indecision, Baker finally makes up her mind about her faith: she decides to hang on to God and continue to grapple with the uncertainty. For now.

Excerpted from Religion Dispatches

Written by: Mandy Van Deven, October 12th 2010