Excerpt : Chapter 2
Excerpted from The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary by William Shunn, available now!

Two years earlier, my father and I were driving back roads somewhere east of Victorville in the California desert when he sprang a terrifying question on me. “Son,” he asked, “do you want to serve a mission?”

I didn’t know what to say. I must have fielded that question hundreds of times growing up, from relatives, family friends, or congregants at church, and the expected “Yes” was always my reflexive answer. But the look on my father’s face told me this time was different.

He wanted a truthful answer. I didn’t know how to give him one.

Two basic, foundational stories ruled my early childhood. I cannot recall a time when I was not aware of them both.

The first, appropriately, was the story of the First Vision. In the year 1820, by his own account, a fourteen-year-old boy in upstate New York named Joseph Smith was confused about which of the many nearby churches to join. Half his family went to one church, half to another, and they all kept trying new ones. Joseph hiked into the woods to pray about what to do. But no sooner had he knelt and opened his mouth than a terrible dark force fell upon him, stopping his tongue so he could not speak.

Afraid for his life, Joseph cried out mightily to God in his heart. The dark force released him as a pillar of light descended from the sky. Two glorious personages stood in the light. The first pointed to the second, saying, “Joseph, this is my beloved Son. Hear him!”

The second personage told him he should join no church on earth, for they all were fallen and corrupt. That was the beginning of Joseph’s life as a prophet of God. After this he would go on to bring forth the Book of Mormon and restore the true gospel of Christ to the world.

I was one of the privileged few who knew this story. Most children were not lucky enough to be born into families like mine, which had the truth.

I said there were two stories. The second was about my father. As a younger man he’d been a missionary in Germany. He spent months learning the language just so he could teach the people there about Joseph Smith. This was his duty. Because he knew the truth about Heavenly Father and Jesus, he needed to share it with other people. One day when I was big enough, I would follow in his footsteps and do the same.

Oh, how I looked forward to that day.

When I was small we lived in Los Angeles. My father and I shared a close bond there. I was named after him—my birth certificate reads donald william shunn ii—though instead of Don he called me Bill, which was the name of his favorite uncle. As firstborn I occupied a position of privilege in the family hierarchy. My favorite of the German phrases he taught me, in fact, was good only for asserting that position: Ich bin der Erste (“I am the first”). I always loved tagging along with him, whether to the school where he taught or the college where he took classes. He seemed to be friends with every colorful character in town, from the Protestant minister next door to the gas station attendant down on Eagle Rock Boulevard. Once, at his favorite barbershop, I insisted on having my hair cut just like his—and he was nearly bald on top.

My parents sometimes invited the local missionaries over for dinner. I adulated those clean-cut, smiling young men, even if my understanding of their day-to-day lives was vague. We called them “Elder” because they were special, while the other men at church were just called “Brother.” After dinner the missionaries would set up a flannel board in the living room and practice teaching us the story of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. I would watch enraptured as they moved their cutout figures through the familiar contours of the tale. Sometimes they would ask my little sisters or me to fill in what happened next. I never hesitated. I could tell the story almost as well as they could.

It was with some confusion that I began attending Good Shepherd Lutheran School in 1972. An affordable alternative to public school in our largely Latino neighborhood, Good Shepherd was where I first smacked heads with a competing religious philosophy. I was a good student in most respects but drove my poor teacher crazy with my frequent contradictions of her morning gospel lessons. Once for show-and-tell I proudly brought the German edition of the Book of Mormon that my father had carried as a missionary. I couldn’t understand the puzzled looks this drew until Miss Schaeffer attempted to make clear to us that not all faiths use the same scriptures. Actually, what she said was “Oh, is that one of your Mormon books?”

The realization that I shared a Bible but not much else with my classmates was quite unsettling. I lay awake at night puzzling over what would have happened had my spirit been sent down from heaven to a Lutheran family instead. Would I have been raised believing a false religion?

My childhood was a minefield of mixed messages. I’d been reading since the age of three, and my father, shop teacher by day and doctoral candidate by night, filled our shelves with discarded math and science books from his school library. Trips to Disneyland alternated with visits to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Yet my father insisted, despite what I read in those books and learned from planetarium shows, that my beloved dinosaurs had never existed, and that Earth was a mere six thousand years old. His firm pronouncement on the subject of cavemen—no such thing!—made me feel profoundly sinful when I sneaked peeks at the scary Neanderthal skulls in my book on early man.

The harshest of these messages were delivered at the end of a leather belt. Inside this same man who called me his beloved son, who gathered his family together every Monday evening for lessons in goodness and grace, raged an unpredictable temper. One day he might settle a spat between my sisters and me with patient calm, the next with whippings to our bare asses. The mere threat of the belt was enough to send us into spasms of sobbing and pleading. When these punishments were over, it was impossible to sit.

Late in 1973, when I was six, we relocated to Grantsville, Utah, a tiny desert town south of the Great Salt Lake, which my parents hoped would prove a better place than Los Angeles to raise their growing Mormon family. I’d been working well ahead of my first-grade class before the move, so my mother enrolled me directly in second grade at my new school. It sometimes bothered me that my classmates were a year older than I was, but what I found truly strange about Grantsville was that the kids I saw at school were the same ones I saw at church. The border between the two domains blurred. It was sometimes hard to know where one ended and the other began.

My father had landed a mid-year job teaching shop at the local high school. It wasn’t the kind of position he ultimately wanted, but he had high hopes it would serve as a stepping-stone to bigger and better things—a career as a principal, an administrator, a figure of consequence and cachet here in the Promised Land. I do remember, though, how proud he was of the dr. shunn nameplate on his classroom door.

Born in 1936, my father had dragged himself up from his poor California roots through hard work, stubbornness, and a big assist from some mentors in his local Mormon leadership. Though exposed to the church as a child by his mother, he hadn’t thrown himself into it until early adulthood, after both his parents were dead. He credited the church with rescuing him from a life of liquor and other louche pursuits. And typical of a faith forged under extreme circumstances, his bordered on zealotry.

If the church became my father’s lodestone, then its emphasis on education was his compass north. Between a stint in the Army, missionary service in Germany, and teaching gigs in both L.A. and Salt Lake City, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Brigham Young University. His doctorate from UCLA, the culmination of a decade and a half of struggle, was going to be his young family’s ticket into security and respectability.

But in Utah that dream began to curdle. My father had taken a fifty-percent pay cut and lost all his seniority to move us to this backwater, where now it became clear that advancement wasn’t in the cards. He was, by his own admission, impatient and abrasive with his superiors, especially those he considered incompetent. Trapped, he scoured the back pages of educational journals for an escape route, sending job applications as far away as Guam.

Meanwhile he grew more physically abusive. I earned the belt for walking the wrong route home from school, for repeating novel and interesting words I’d learned from my classmates, for crimes my sisters falsely pinned on me. I remember getting an erection once while trying to pee, and the terror of trying to hide it when my father blundered onto the scene. The situation wasn’t what it looked like, but that hardly mattered to the belt.

Most people seem to understand that perfection is not achievable by mortals. My father was not one of them.

We moved a few more times, settling finally in Kaysville, a town of about 10,000 to the north of Salt Lake City, and I pulled further away from my father. The arbitrary and often unearned disciplining, the belittling corrections when I offered an answer or opinion he didn’t like, and the constant sense that I was doing something wrong taught me to keep my mouth shut around him and drove me to avoid him as much as possible. The physical abuse tailed off as I grew older, but the damage of course did not. I took refuge in science fiction and schoolwork, earning top grades despite the painful awkwardness of the age difference between me and my classmates.

My father had found a stable teaching job, though not the advancement he sought. The family grew to eight children, large even for our Mormon community. The fact that I would one day serve a mission was never questioned, particularly since I was expected to set an example for my two much younger brothers. When I was fourteen, between my sophomore and junior years of high school, my father arranged a cabinetry job for me so I could start saving money for my mission. Missionaries are expected to pay their own way if at all possible, so every paycheck I earned went straight into the bank. My father called this a “consecrated fund,” since it was earmarked for service to the Lord. Occasionally I took some cash out to spend on myself, but every withdrawal felt like embezzling from God.

As a child I’d looked forward to the adventure of a mission, dreaming of the exotic lands I might visit, but as I grew older I came to dread and resent the two-year imposition looming at age nineteen. A missionary’s time is not his own. He can’t watch TV or movies, can’t read newspapers or any but a handful of approved books, can’t listen to music other than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and, most dauntingly, can’t undertake personal projects of any kind. By my junior year my love of science fiction had developed to the point that I’d begun submitting my own short stories to magazines. Two years without the chance to work at my craft was as awful a prospect as two years without a novel to read. The only upside might be learning another language, but there was no guarantee I’d be called to a foreign mission. The church would send me where it needed me, not where I might want to go.

I fantasized about skipping out on mission service, but I couldn’t see a way to make that happen in real life. I was too afraid of my father’s reaction, too reluctant to shame myself before my family, too unwilling to shame my family before the community. And I couldn’t overlook the fact that a lack of mission experience would damage my chances of finding a suitable Mormon wife. The church cautioned its young women to avoid serious relationships with men who were not returned missionaries.

My misgivings made me feel wicked, ungrateful, hypocritical. I confided them in no one, not even my closest friends. The only course I could see was to pray to God to change my heart so I could find the joy in doing what I knew was right.

I graduated from high school in 1984, still two months shy of my seventeenth birthday, with a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Utah in hand. My parents would have preferred to see me attend their beloved alma mater, Brigham Young University, but they accepted my choice because I could live at home and commute the 25 miles to the Salt Lake City campus. As my father liked to remind me, I was hardly ready to think about living on my own.

It was not unusual for my father to drag me off on a road trip to California. He loved long drives, and he’d make the run to Los Angeles, where crash space with relatives was plentiful, on the flimsiest of pretexts. He preferred back roads, maybe because they reminded him of his early student days when he would barrel home from Provo in his storied Corvette convertible. In his company, those desert highways had become as familiar to me as the route from my bed to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

As hard as I’d tried to wriggle out of this latest trip, there I was riding shotgun, lodged deep in the uncomfortable silence that always reigned when my father and I were alone together. When he broke that silence to ask if I wanted to serve a mission, my first instinct was to throw myself out the car door and take my chances in the gray desert.

I never for a moment considered giving an honest answer. Where that might have led, what it might have changed, I do not know.

I groped for a plausible evasion as the dusty landscape churned past my window. The words of the prophet Spencer W. Kimball rang in my head: “Every young man should serve a mission. It is not an option; it is your obligation.”

With what I hoped was a casual shrug, I said, “It’s what I’m supposed to do.”

“No, son,” my father snarled. He hunched over the wheel of our old brown station wagon like he was gnawing his tongue off. I cringed, though he hadn’t laid a hand on me since I was ten or eleven. His eyes blazed blue as he fixed his gaze on me. “That’s not the kind of answer I want to hear. Do you want to go on a mission?”

My ears roared. My lungs burned. 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?” he demanded.

Boys go on missions for a lot of different reasons. Some because their parents promise them a car or college tuition when they get home. Some at the insistence of their girlfriends, who would otherwise marry someone more devout—and often do, anyway. Some out of inertia, or boredom, or to put off other, more momentous life decisions. It’s the path of least resistance.

I often heard it said at church that there are no wrong reasons to go on a mission, only wrong reasons to stay. But I needed a right reason. Though he rarely said much about his own mission, I was sure that my father had gone for the right reason. In his day, missions lasted two and a half years—itself down from three or even four in earlier eras. You don’t do that for the sake of a car.

“I want to serve God.” The words were ashes in my mouth. “I want to spread the gospel, so other people can feel the same joy we know.”

“It’s a solemn responsibility,” my father said, eyes narrowed. “Not to be undertaken lightly.”

“I know.”

He gazed at me balefully, then returned his attention to the road. “Okay, then.”

A green milepost ticked past.

“The church is true, son,” my father said, staring down the asphalt into the future or the past, his face painted with that jumble of cynicism, grief, and resolve I’d learned to recognize in him as solemnity. “If it weren’t, the missionaries would have destroyed it long ago.”

I usually chuckled at this, as if I understood the joke. But this time it didn’t sound funny.

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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!