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Sins of a "Good Mormon Boy"

Each year, the church asked me the same question: "Do you touch yourself?" Each year I lied, and hated myself more.


I grew up Mormon, and every year I endured a hair-raising interview to get my “temple recommend.” (Think of it like Mormon “security clearance.”) It was a firewalk in the guise of an annual interrogation. Everyone in my life would know if I failed. I’d be excluded from joining my family and friends in Temple rituals. Rumors would flood my neighborhood in Utah Valley. And every year, the same question threatened to consume me with shame.

“Do you touch yourself?”

Each time I lied, I plunged into a very Mormon kind of hell.

I was not born a bad Mormon. My great-great-grandparents were among Utah’s earliest Mormon pioneers. Like Mitt Romney, I have ancestors who fled to Mexico to practice polygamy after Utah outlawed it. Other ancestors were martyred during the Mormons’ 1,300-mile westward trek to “Zion” in search of religious freedom. Others fought against U.S. armed forces in the 1857 Utah War to protect this freedom.

My path was also clear. From the time we’re in kindergarten, Mormon boys know that when we turn 19, we’ll serve a mission for the church somewhere in the big world. When adults asked my playmates and me where we wanted to serve, most of us said, “China!” Even then we knew that after we returned from our mission, we would look for a wife. Few of us would turn 23 unmarried.

But at the age of 12, one autumn afternoon in 1997, along with my cohort of 12- and 13-year-old neighbor boys, I received my first copy of “ For the Strength of Youth.” We sat in a circle of metal folding chairs in our Sunday school classroom and each of us read aloud a section from the pamphlet. My turn came:

The Lord specifically forbids certain behaviors, including all sexual relations before marriage, petting, sex perversion (such as homosexuality, rape, and incest), masturbation, or preoccupation with sex in thought, speech, or action. Homosexual and lesbian activities are sinful and an abomination to the Lord.

I read the last sentence in a croaky whisper.

As if the point weren’t clear enough, my Sunday school teacher hammered it home by explaining that sexual sins were among the most grievous, and as proof cited a passage from the Book of Mormon:

Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?

Until that autumn afternoon, I’d thought of myself as a good kid. I didn’t cheat in school. I seldom lied. I never stole so much as an extra Tootsie Roll from an unguarded bowl of Halloween candy. (In my neighborhood, older folks who didn’t stay up late could leave Halloween treats by their doorsteps without worrying that a trick-or-treater might grab more than his or her fair share.)

“For the Strength of Youth,” however, said I was guilty of a sin far worse than lying, cheating, or candy stealing. My sin was only a little less severe than murder. And I sometimes did it twice daily. And my close calls with spiritual homicide involved lurid imaginings of Bruce Willis and, of all people, Dan Lauria from “The Wonder Years.”

I walked into that Sunday school lesson a light-hearted Mormon boy, and I walked out of it a very unhappy young man, but one possessed by the resolve — the determination — to move forward no matter how high the cost. I was a grizzled Mormon pioneer.

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