July 28 2014 04:56 PM

Spooky hell, urine baptisms and other memories exorcised by the Broadway play

awkward 7-30-14

They were wearing white shirts and black ties. I recognized them immediately: Mormon missionaries. 

I put a hand to my face, breathed against it and smelled the remnants of a cocktail from lunch. Paranoia seeped in; it was familiar. My past is riddled with hiding sins while in the company of the righteous.

But something was off: These weren't the acne-riddled kids who stand on your doorstep, killing you with kindness—not those child-soldiers of a holy army, their auras so bright and untarnished that even God is, like, "Damn."

These missionaries stood in line for concessions. It was intermission during the matinée performance of the musical The Book of Mormon at the San Diego Civic Theatre. 

At the front of the line, they ordered beer. 

A week prior, Kinsee Morlan, CityBeat's arts editor, had seen the musical and said something along the lines of, "It would be interesting to see it with a real Mormon." 

A real Mormon. It shined in bright contrast against these fakers in their costumes, guzzling beer and behaving un-Latter Day Saintly. These men were playing tourists in the religion that I've spent my life trying to distance myself from yet still feel obligated to defend against so many jarring misconceptions.

A real Mormon. The term seared in the part of my brain that hasn't been contaminated by vices, the section that will persevere no matter how much nudity, booze and horror I cram in there, because, for all intents and purposes, I once was that real, honest-to-gosh, baptized Mormon. Even typing that feels overdramatic and Pinocchio-esque, as if, instead of Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder to guide me toward my realized agency, it's a tiny Jesus Christ and—holy shit look at those initials! 

It's always been apparent that The Book of Mormon's cowriter Trey Parker knows his shit when it comes to Mormonism. There have been countless references strewn throughout South Park, not to mention an entire episode devoted to the religion's founder, Joseph Smith. Orgazmo, Parker's second feature film, centered on a missionary-turned-porn star / superhero. He's done his homework. 

Yet, The Book of Mormon is broad. Funny, yes, but one doesn't have to know anything about Mormonism further than pop-culture stereotypes to enjoy the jokes. 

In fact, the only part that resonated was a song called "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream"—a dream sequence in which the main character gets sent to Hell, represented by dancing skeletons and garish, Meat Loaf-style rock theatrics. It's the perfect distillation of the religion's ability to coat grave issues and deep-seated fear with a shiny veneer and amusement-park whimsy. Certainly, burning in Hell is not preferable to Heaven, but, hey, at least it could be as fun as an Oingo Boingo concert.

The effect of "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" stuck with me long after the play was over. Memories I'd shined over broke through that candy coating and emerged uncanny—recognizable, hilarious, sad and shameful. 

My family stopped going to church when I was about 12 years old. For my mom, who was raised in the church, it was as dramatic as a fall from faith could be, fraught with heartbreaking repercussions from family and the community. 

But for me, it meant a newfound freedom to sleep over at friends' houses on Saturday night and go skiing on Sundays, and that was about all I remembered until "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" triggered a wave of memories, bullet-pointed like the holes in my angel wings.

· The first time I saw the word "cunt" was during a Mormon church service. Out of all my memories, this is the most vivid. I was reading a Stephen King book (Cujo, I believe) during the sermon. I knew that, in terms of swear words, that one was a biggie. I slammed the book quickly, afraid that my mom or dad would look over, but kept the tip of my finger on the page, marking the spot. It felt like I was secretly mainlining sin.

· Former Utah Jazz player Mark Eaton was in our ward, and everyone was very proud of that. Even during the sermon, the bishop would give accolades to Eaton's performance—an insinuation of Jesus' interest in sports, as well as His patience with mediocrity (Eaton wasn't very good). Eaton also lived in my neighborhood, and, one day, my brother and I knocked on his door to ask for money so we could buy candy. He gave us some. I'd like to think that he did it out of the Christian goodness in his heart rather than the jarring sight of a middle-class 6-year-old panhandling.

· After the sermon, children under 12 were sent to Primary, where we learned songs and moral lessons. One time, our Primary teacher asked the class something along the lines of, "Where do you want to serve your mission?" This being the early '90s, during a barrage of media exposure to the civil war in Somalia—a situation I didn't understand—I said, "Somalia." The teacher erupted in laughter and then caught herself. For years afterward, I considered this my ultimate punch line, often whispering it to myself as a reminder of my joke prowess. Somalia

· I remember feeling repulsed at the feeling of water flooding into my pants during my baptism. When my dad dunked me, I got water up my nose and choked on my salvation. I peed a little, too. 

I can't imagine how many Mormons have been baptized in my urine, but that, strangely, brings me more peace than religion ever could.

Write to ryanb@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @theryanbradford


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