(RNS) — Last year when I had COVID-19, a good friend suggested I embrace my forced exile on the couch as an opportunity to indulge in truly trashy television: specifically, “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.” She assured me I’d be vastly entertained by this train wreck of a show. Also, I thought, the cost of my purchase would be tax-deductible since I write about Mormons. (Are you listening, IRS?)
I’d never seen any of the “Housewives” franchise before, and I quickly got sucked into the funhouse mirror of the lives of these six women. The show’s title is the first of its many misdirections. None of the characters is a housewife and most don’t feel particularly real, but all of them do indeed live in and around Salt Lake City — at least when they’re not jetting off to New York or other exotic locales.
Of these, one of the least train-wrecky is Heather Gay, who’s generally a clear-eyed mediator of the juvenile catfights the other characters routinely engage in. She’s sarcastic and fierce, but also vulnerable; the show’s first season picks up as Gay is reeling from a divorce from a prominent man she describes as “Mormon royalty” and fresh from her very recent split from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Both of those traumatic breakups are chronicled in Gay’s tell-all memoir “Bad Mormon,” out this week. Since I’m writing a book about former Latter-day Saints, I was particularly curious about “Bad Mormon” as the latest addition to the LDS exit narrative genre. It’s worth a read, and not just because it’s often funny. Gay hits upon some cogent observations about how tough Mormonism can be on those of us who don’t quite fit the mold.
(I feel the need to interrupt this review to say that if you’re an orthodox Latter-day Saint and you’re one to scrupulously avoid R-rated movies, you should steer clear of this book. It will only tick you off, especially when Gay spills the herbal tea on the LDS temple ceremony. Be warned: The book is at times outrageous and outspoken. Alcohol is consumed. Garments are discarded.)
(Oh and also: Don’t read it if you’re looking for literary genius. It’s not “Unorthodox” by Deborah Feldman or “Leaving Church” by Barbara Brown Taylor — memoirs that are beautifully crafted. This is a straight-from-the-hip account of one dissident’s experiences, and I suspect from a couple of small miscues about Mormonism that it may have been at least partly ghostwritten by someone who was not as steeped in the faith as Gay herself.)
If you’re still with me — not so rigid about the church that you can’t bear seeing it criticized, nor so rigid about memoir that you will cringe at overwritten metaphors — this is a compelling read.
Gay grew up as a middle child in a by-the-book LDS family out west. She did all the things: the Young Women activities and camps, the BYU degree, the mission. In her case, this was to the south of France, which she viewed as an answer to prayer, since she already had a taste for the finer things in life.
Despite some closet doubts, Gay was a hypersuccessful missionary who spouted the church’s prescribed answers to every question. And in her 20s, she met and married the man of her dreams in the temple, then had three beautiful daughters in quick succession. As a stay-at-home mom, she deferred to her husband’s wishes and tastes. This life was what she’d been taught all her life was her eternal destiny.
But always, there was another voice inside her, one insisting this wasn’t really her. She had always been different. As an undergraduate at BYU, she found she had an immense talent for working and making money outside of her classes. She worked a full-time job at a tanning salon and started a successful jewelry business that snagged accounts with DownEast Basics and Nordstrom.
Her product sales got her an honorable mention in BYU’s Entrepreneur Student of the Year competition — a major coup. “But no one cared,” she writes. “No one mentioned it. Being a businesswoman was not a mark of success in my family nor my community. If I brought it up, they just asked if I was dating someone and changed the subject.”
Gay’s picture-perfect marriage was not the fantasy she portrayed it as in her extravagant annual Christmas cards. In one of the book’s most poignant sequences, she writes that after several days of blissful sex (finally!) on her honeymoon, she realized that she and her husband were very different people. As in, they had nothing in common and little to say to each other.
It’s heartbreaking. But because they’d been conditioned that if they simply continued to play their assigned parts, they would be blessed, they went through the motions for years before he left her on the day of their eldest daughter’s baptism.
That’s a fascinating convergence of events, because her daughter entered the fold just as Gay was beginning to see no role for herself in it, even though she was serving as a Relief Society president. Her initial response when her faith came crashing down will sound familiar to many former Mormons: She thought she just needed to try harder, so she doubled down on church service. But she was in so much pain, and so isolated as a single mother, that she also began “drinking and dating whenever possible to fill the void.”
Enter the former Entrepreneur Student of the Year (honorable mention): What saved Gay was running and growing her new beauty services business. From that came the unexpected opportunity to be part of a yet-undetermined reality show. In her pre-interview auditions, Gay let the filmmakers see her life warts and all:
When producers asked me my level of happiness on a scale from one to ten, I answered “zero” without hesitation. I no longer felt obligated to be apart [sic] of the church or its trademark cult of happiness. I wasn’t plastering a smile on my face and calling it fortitude. I was broken, and I was embracing it. And yet somehow these producers had seen potential light beyond my darkness. They saw a woman in business blazers and garment-appropriate cap sleeves and said, “I want her. I want the bad Mormon.”
For the first time in my life, I felt wanted for my flaws, not just my façade.
Ironically, the manufactured “reality” of reality TV enabled Gay to finally be herself. Beyond the glitz and the gossipy catfights of the show is a coming-of-age story—only it’s a belated coming of age, one of a woman in her 40s rather than her teens. In the journey from housewife to Housewife, Gay writes, she has finally found herself.
Related: Mormon and ex-Mormon memoirs by women
New memoir unpacks what Mormon girls are taught about marriage (Rachel Rueckert, “East Winds”)
From Mormon missionary to Lutheran pastor (Katie Langston, “Sealed”)
Where do smart, sexy, single, Mormon thirty-somethings fit in the Church? (Nicole Hardy, “Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin”)
Mormon single woman’s loves, losses & laughter chronicled in new memoir (Julie Rowse, “Lies Jane Austen Told Me”)