The Accidental Terrorist : Extras : Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mormon
            

This is the way my life goes:

In early 1998, I took a job as a computer programmer for the Children's Television Workshop, producers of Sesame Street. I worked on Broadway on the Upper West Side, across the street from Lincoln Center. The restaurants there are too expensive, but it's a pleasant enough area. I saw celebrities on the street all the time: Mandy Patinkin, Danny Aiello, Paul Shaffer, Ryan O'Neal. It's a little on the tony side there, but not insufferably so. That's the charm of it all—nice neighbors, opera crowds, and a manageable number of tourists.

Maybe that's why the Mormons have a chapel, genealogical library, and visitor's center right there at Broadway and 65th. Oh, and a major missionary hangout, too: nice young men with dark suits, short hair, and name tags, in and out all day long, walking around in pairs or fours or sixes, stopping the odd passerby to proffer a free copy of the Book of Mormon.

I understand that some combat veterans have unpleasant flashbacks to their wars. I came all the way to New York to escape the church, and walking from the subway to my office had now become my flashback.

#

I was born in Los Angeles in 1967, eldest of what would be eight children. My parents had met two or three years earlier as students at Brigham Young University, my father pushing thirty, my mother not terribly far out of high school. They carried on a long-standing Mormon tradition by starting their family not long after their marriage in 1966.

My father grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in L.A., and it was there he returned with his pregnant young bride shortly after earning his master's degree in education. That degree was a triumph, to be sure—on any trip to his home city, my father is fond of pointing out the various community colleges that expelled him as an undergraduate. When I came along, my father was teaching shop at South Pasadena Junior High and attending UCLA on the side as a doctoral candidate, an accomplishment that made him something of an anomaly in his blue-collar family.

My mother could claim a rather less colorful past than my father, having spent much of her youth in the small town of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, daughter of a kindly electrical engineer who also happened to be the local Mormon bishop. For her, BYU was not an improbable port of call but an expected way station after high school. She descended from a long line of Mormon pioneer stock—as did my father, but my mother's side of the family tended to greater gentility and devoutness.

That's not to say my father was not devout. Like many who flirt with the wild side as youths, when he returned to the fold he embraced it all the more zealously. This devotion ran deeper than mere church attendance and prayer. When my father taught me to count, for example, each number came with a doctrinal concept attached: "One, for the one true church on earth. Two, for the two personages who appeared to Joseph Smith. Three, for the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon. Four, for the first four principles and ordinances of the gospel. Five for the five books of Moses. Six, for the six days of creation . . ."

I wanted to be like my father, and one of the most important things I knew about him was that he had served as a missionary in Germany. (This episode fell somewhere in the vague chronological mist between his adventures in junior college and a four-year stint in the Army.) His copy of Das Buch Mormon fascinated me as a small child, and I searched the strange text for correspondences with our English scriptures as assiduously as if my own potential future as a missionary were recorded there, awaiting decipherment.

#

I only dimly recall a time when I was unaware of the existence of missionaries. They are a fact of Mormon life as inescapable as tithing and green Jell-O. Likewise, my foreordination to join them was something never in doubt. Missionary service is by far the largest and most imposing way station on a Mormon boy's road to manhood. It looms massive on the horizon, occluding his view of events beyond, and all of Mormon society conspires to bend him toward it.

Awareness, however, does not necessarily translate to understanding, and my understanding of missionaries progressed by definite stages.

#

This is 1972. I'm almost five years old, a scrawny kid with glasses and a big head. I have three little sisters, one that was just born. My dad teaches industrial arts at South Pasadena Junior High, but most people call it shop. I like to get my hair cut just like his, really, really short, because it feels neat to rub the fuzz on the back of his head. I think it's the best when my dad takes me to the planetarium. I've been reading for nearly two years, and I love books about science and outer space. I'm going to start kindergarten soon. This is what I know about missionaries:

  1. Missionaries are nineteen years old, but sometimes they're older, like twenty.
  2. Some missionaries go to Germany, and some come to California.
  3. Missionaries always go around in twos.
  4. Missionaries wear Sunday clothes every day.
  5. Missionaries like to come over to your house for dinner.
  6. Missionaries teach people about Joseph Smith, usually after dinner is over.
  7. Missionaries like to do magic tricks for little kids, like pulling quarters out of your ear.
  8. Missionaries always ask you if you're going to be a missionary too when you grow up.

Some things I'm not sure about are where missionaries come from, and why one missionary sometimes goes away and gets replaced by a new one. I used to wonder why the missionaries bothered teaching us about Joseph Smith when we already know about him, but my mom told me they need to practice.

In Primary every week, we sing "I Hope They Call Me on a Mission." I can't wait to be a missionary, though it seems like forever from now. I hope I get to go to Germany like my dad, and not California.

#

This is September 1975. I turned eight in August, so I've just been baptized into the church. Mormons don't baptize little kids until they turn eight, because that's the age of accountability. It's evil to baptize little babies, because little babies haven't sinned yet and don't know right from wrong. They can't be held accountable. But I'm old enough to know right from wrong, so I got baptized and made a covenant with God that I would always obey. My sins count from now on, so I have to be really careful not to be bad.

We live in Bountiful, Utah, which is close to Salt Lake City. I'm in fourth grade now, because my parents skipped me ahead when we moved a couple of years ago. We moved from California because my dad finished his doctorate at UCLA, and Los Angeles isn't a good city for kids to grow up in. He wants to get a job as a principal, but because of nepotism he's still a shop teacher. Nepotism is when people only give jobs to their friends or relatives, and my dad doesn't have friends.

I just got a new baby brother named Tim, so there are five of us kids now. Since I'm the oldest, I have to set a good example, especially for my new brother. That means obeying my parents and not lying and being nice to my sisters, but it also means going on a mission when I turn nineteen.

We don't see very many missionaries anymore. That's because almost everyone here is Mormon, except some of my friends at school like Danny Hooper and Lester Morrison. Everyone wants the missionaries to come over for dinner, so it's hard to get to know them. Utah would be a good place to be a missionary because you get dinner so much, but they don't let you go on a mission where you live.

I know a lot more about missionaries now, though. You go on a mission when you turn nineteen, and you go for two years. It was two and a half years when my dad was a missionary, and he says before that it was three or four years, which seems like way too long to be away from home. I'm glad it's only two years now.

You don't get to pick where you go on your mission, because God already has a place in mind where He wants you to go, and that's what He tells the prophet when they talk. Uncle Earl, my mom's younger brother went to Colombia, and he brought back a ruana for me, which is like a warm fuzzy poncho. My cousin Phil got sent to Korea, and when he got back he could do origami.

I have to learn to eat everything on my plate, because missionaries have to eat what people give them. Some people invited Phil for dinner, and when they gave him his soup it had the fish's eyeballs floating in it. They thought it was the best part of the fish, so they gave it to him, and he had to eat it so they wouldn't think he was rude.

If they send me someplace cool like Korea, then I can write all about it later. I've decided I'm going to be a writer when I grow up, and a doctor too. My dad says I can be anything I want to be when I grow up, except a school teacher. He says he'll disown any child who becomes a school teacher.

But I have to be a missionary before anything else.

#

This is the fall of 1979. We live on Westbrook Road in a subdivision of the half-rural, half-suburban town of Kaysville, about twenty miles north of Salt Lake. My dad still teaches shop in Bountiful, and I have another new little brother, Lee. I'm twelve years old, I'm in the eighth grade, and I've just been ordained a deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood.

Most people think of priesthood like a big group of priests, but that's not how it is to Mormons. The priesthood is literal power, the power to act in the name of God, and it gets transferred from one man to another by the laying on of hands. At my ordination, I sat in a chair while my father stood behind me. The bishop stood behind me too, and one of his counselors, and they all laid their hands on top of my head. Then my father said a prayer, and the priesthood power just sort of poured into me. I didn't feel any different, and I don't feel any different now, but I don't doubt the power is there.

The priesthood is organized into two divisions, Aaronic and Melchizedek. The Aaronic is the preparatory priesthood, and the lowest rank in it is deacon. That's me. I'm nothing special, either. Every boy gets ordained a deacon at twelve, and a teacher at fourteen, and a priest at sixteen. That's just how it works.

The bishop says he's proud of me, that I'm a good boy and that I'll be a leader some day. I don't know about that, though. Ever since I was baptized, I've been falling behind in my repentance. I've lost track of all the bad thoughts I've had, all the lies I've told, all the quarters I've stolen from my sisters' piggy banks, and if I don't repent of them and somehow make up for them, they're going to stain my soul when I'm dead and I'll never get to the Celestial Kingdom. I don't know how I'm ever going to catch up.

I know my father doesn't think I'm good. When I'm not practicing the piano, I'm in my room with the door closed, reading books or writing stories or drawing comics, but he doesn't like it when I close the door. When I was eleven, he found a novel by Andre Norton on my dresser that I had checked out from the school library. The novel was about a clone, and my father said that cloning is evil. Messing with human genes usurps the power over life that only God should have, and that's blasphemy. So he told me I couldn't read science fiction anymore, even when I told him most of it's just about exploring other planets, or traveling in time to see the dinosaurs, not about cloning. But he didn't listen. He only told me not to talk back.

A week later he caught me in my room before church, still reading the book. I had trouble sitting down afterward.

I haven't stopped reading science fiction, but I have to hide it better now, and that makes me disobedient. Even if my father doesn't know it, I know it, and God knows it. And what's more, I'd rather read Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury than the Book of Mormon and the Bible. I know it's not right, but I keep doing it anyway.

My mission is seven years away. That's still a long time from now, but it's close enough to start becoming worrisome. I know more about being a missionary now than I used to. For instance, missionaries all have to call each other Elder instead of their first names, so when I go out I'll be called Elder Shunn. That's because you have to be an elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood to be a missionary. At least, the boys do—girls get to be missionaries too, but they can't have the priesthood. If my sister Seletha went on a mission, she would be Sister Shunn, but if you're a girl you can't go until you're twenty-one, and you can only go for eighteen months. That's because the church would rather have you get married and start having babies instead of going on a mission. Missions are only for old maids.

Actually, elderly couples can go on missions too, after they're retired and have nothing better to do. They might get called on six-, twelve-, or eighteen-month missions, depending on how decrepit and senile they are.

Missionaries always go around in pairs—boys with boys, and girls with girls—and when you see two missionaries together, they aren't just together for the day. When you get assigned to another missionary as your companion, you're with that other person all the time. You live together, you study together, you work together, you shop together, you do everything but shower and shave together. You never get to be alone.

I don't know what I'll do if I can't be alone. And I don't know what I'll do if I can't read things other than the scriptures, if I can't listen to music or go to movies or watch TV, because I've heard that those are some of the other rules missionaries have to live by.

And then there's the fact that you actually have to walk around knocking on people's doors and trying to talk to them about your beliefs. I'm so shy I can hardly speak to people I know, let alone perfect strangers. And you have to do it all day, every day of the week.

I know, it's all for the sake of saving souls, and there's nothing more important than that. I know what God said to Joseph Smith in a revelation: "And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my father! And now, if your joy will be great with one soul that you have brought unto me into the kingdom of my Father, how great will be your joy if you should bring many souls unto me!"

Sounds pretty cool, and I do want to feel that kind of joy, believe me. It just doesn't sound like a barrel of monkeys getting there.

#

By the fall of 1984, my mother had produced two more little girls, bringing the total number of kids in the family to eight; the church had shortened the term of service for male missionaries, again, from two years to eighteen months, perhaps to attract a greater number of recruits; and I had graduated from high school and started attending the University of Utah on a full academic scholarship. I planned to study biomedical engineering, but only to pay the bills until I could get my writing career in full swing. Besides, what better background for a science fiction writer than a thorough grounding in one of the most intricate and demanding of technological disciplines?

For me it was science fiction or bust. Nothing rivaled the sense of infinite wonder and possibility I felt when reading it, except possibly the challenge of writing it. That's what I'd been doing for a couple of years, emboldened by the example of a writer named Orson Scott Card.

When I stumbled across Card's collection Unaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories in my high school library, I was wrestling with the certainty that no Mormon could ever make a name for himself writing science fiction. How do you project the course of civilization several centuries into the future without taking into account the ever-looming Second Coming of Christ? How could a self-respecting Mormon posit any other future—and how could he possibly be taken seriously in the genre if he didn't? But from the flyleaf of Card's book, which mentioned his having lived in Utah and worked as a missionary in Brazil, I could only deduce that he was the very thing I thought could not exist: a successful Mormon science fiction writer.

That was all the spur I needed. If one Mormon could write and publish science fiction without God striking him dead—especially work as visionary and troubling and gritty as this—then so could another. And there was no reason that other couldn't be me.

I poured everything I had into my writing after that, and even my father came to accept this pastime as more than a passing phase. He actively encouraged me, and to his credit even hunted down magazines for me that might possibly buy the kind of stuff I wrote. It may have surprised him when my first rejection letter—a photocopied form letter from Shawna McCarthy at Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine—failed to discourage me, and my second, and the next two dozen after that, but he never showed it. When he saw how much it meant to me, he just kept telling me to try again, and that if I kept trying then I was certain to sell something someday.

During my senior year of high school, an editor named Benjamin Urrutia did accept one of my stories for a small-press anthology—LDSF-2, second in a series of science-fiction collections "by and for Mormons." I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing my name in print, but since I was to be paid in copies, not cash, I didn't count this as a real sale. I kept on sending my stories to the best markets first, and I kept my fingers crossed.

My father was right: eventually it did pay off. It just didn't happen as soon as I had hoped.

#

My father and I drove to California together at some point early during that first year of college. I don't recall now what the occasion was, but I recall one of the conversations from that trip as clearly as if it happened yesterday.

My father loves to drive to California, and he'll gas up the car and go on the merest whim. California is where he grew up, and I think the long desolate stretches of road between remind him of his days at Brigham Young University, when he would do the drive home with buddies in kamikaze sessions of ten hours or less. He stopped driving so fast when he acquired a family, but he still likes to have company on his trips, which is why I know the roads between Kaysville and Los Angeles as well as I know the route to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Which is to say, I can do it with my eyes closed, and frequently did.

I wasn't there to help with the driving. My father doesn't like to have help with the driving. When I was small, my nominal role was to read the road signs out loud, but what I was really there for was to play the attentive heir and to soak up wisdom at the elbow of my father. At age seventeen, that role hadn't changed, but I sure had. I didn't want to spend time with my father. I didn't want him asking me questions about my life. If I was going to California, I wanted to sit behind the wheel. I wanted a girl on the seat beside me and a can of Fanta Red Cream Soda in my hand. I was seventeen and an introvert, paranoid, ashamed of every thought, and resentful because of it. I wanted my father a million miles away.

It was on those trips that I perfected the art of silence: of staring at unbroken desert vistas without speaking until the need to say something stretches almost to the breaking point—and then pulling out a book and starting to read. It was on those trips that I learned to fake sleep.

On this particular trip, the moment I was dreading caught up me with somewhere in the desert east of Victorville, on the abraded back highways my father had once prowled in his legendary Corvette convertible. My father spoke. He asked me a question. My father asked me, "Son, do you want to serve a mission?"

The question threw me. Did I want to serve a mission? Did I have a choice? My time was less than two years away. Some of my friends were already sending in their mission papers, skittish draftees counting on me to join them in combat. I had worked three miserable summers as a cabinet maker in a job my father arranged for me, my paychecks going directly into the bank account that would fund my mission. Eldest now of eight, my responsibility as an example was graver than ever. My entire life as a Mormon had been rehearsal for this seminal rite of passage, the imprimatur without which no self-respecting church girl would ever deign to marry me. For Pete's sake, how many times had I sung "I Hope They Call Me on a Mission" growing up? How in hell could I just not go?

Over the years I had watched countless boys leave on missions, only to return changed—calm, solidified, aged in wood, somehow more plugged in to whatever force provides stability and stolidity and clearheadedness in the universe. Compelling as this transformation was, the boys who didn't serve missions were the ones who most fascinated me. I heard the whispers, the innuendo. How could they remain so monumentally indifferent to what the community must think of them? How could they not care that their spiritual deficiencies were hanging out for greedy public consumption? How could they live with the shame? They horrified me.

As little as I wanted to serve a mission, I could not—would not—put myself in their shoes. Skinny and shy, my social deficiencies were legion enough. I could allow no one to see the ultimate shortfall—the true sad state of my soul.

This is why, when my father asked me that question, I instinctively tried to weasel around it. In 1974, the Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball said: "Every young man should serve a mission. It is not an option; it is your obligation." I must have heard that quote repeated a thousand times in church, and it sprang to mind right when I needed it.

"It's what I'm supposed to do," I said to my father, and the dusty California landscape churned past. "It's what I'm supposed to do."

If I thought that answer would satisfy, I was wrong. "No, son," he said, hunched over the steering wheel with a look like he was gnawing his tongue. His vehemence startled me, even as accustomed as I was to his bursts of temper. His eyes blazed. "That's not how you should be thinking. This is a very serious question. Do you want to go on a mission?"

My ears roared. Startled, all systems pinging with alarm, the reptile in me—firstborn, example, martyr—curled its scaly armor around the underbelly of my hidden self.

"Yes," I said. "That's what I want."

"Why?"

Every Mormon knows there are right reasons and wrong reasons to go on a mission. Some boys go because their fathers promise to buy them a car when they get home, or pay for college. Some boys go at the insistence of their proper girlfriends, with the promise of marriage at the far end. (Heck, even some bad girls are looking to bag a returned missionary, thinking it their magic ticket to salvation.) Some go out of simple inertia, or boredom.

None of those factors described me. I had about a zillion things I wanted to do with my life, and none of them included turning myself into a monk for eighteen months.

"I want to serve God," I said, and tried to make myself believe it. "I want to spread the gospel, so other people can feel this same joy."

"It's a solemn responsibility," my father said. "Not to be undertaken lightly."

"I know."

He watched me balefully for a moment, then returned his attention to the road. "Okay then." A milepost or two ticked past. "The church is true, son," he said, his face painted with that infusion of cynicism, grief, and resolve that passed for solemnity on those occasions when he invoked his faith. "If it weren't, the missionaries would have destroyed it long ago."

And that, mercifully, closed the subject.

#

It never occurred to me to ask my father—even in light of that cryptic cliché—what his mission was like. Did he savor the experience? Did he find joy and success? Did it bring him closer to God? I was so focused on defending the borders of my teenage self that I couldn't imagine him as anything but a marauder at my gates, a colonial governor, a totalitarian regime. He wasn't a person to me—he was an institution, a force of nature. His life stories were the myths and legends of my childhood, carved in columns of stone. I couldn't imagine there was anything I needed to know about him or his time as a missionary that I hadn't heard by the age of five.

Too bad, too. Not only was it a disservice to my father, but a serious talk about his mission to Germany might have made things turn out differently. My lie might not have come back to bite me so hard in the ass.

Things still may have turned out the same, but possibly not. There's always that chance.

#

Scant days after this conversation, the First Presidency of the church announced that the length of mission calls for young men would be extended from eighteen months to two years again. They had found, it seems, that a missionary is just reaching the peak of his effectiveness at eighteen months. Why send him home just as he's starting to get it right? (Never mind that sister missionaries were still stalled—as they always had been—at the eighteen-month limit. Apparently everything was fine with them as it stood.)

I suspect as well that the church had seen no particular swelling of the missionary ranks as a result of the reduced term, though no statement to that effect was ever issued. Be that as it may. While this news was greeted with rejoicing in some quarters, it hit me like a pile driver to the solar plexus. Two years earlier I'd been given a reprieve, a commutation, a reduction of sentence. Now the original judgment was back in force, and it harrowed me all the more for having for a time been struck down. Why had they taken away those six months if they were just going to put them back again later? What kind of prophet made a goof like that?

I tried to erase the blasphemous thought, but the only alternative was to call God the taunt, the tease, the Indian giver. And if He could pull something as inconsistent as this, then nothing was safe. Nothing in the world.

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About the Book

What happens when an ambivalent young Mormon missionary is pushed to the limit in a challenge to prove his faith? Hint: the outcome is explosive. The Accidental Terrorist is the long-awaited memoir from Hugo and Nebula Award–nominated author William Shunn, based on his popular podcast. Available now from Sinister Regard!