Thursday, November 17, 2011

I Am the Crazy Uncle

The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof. - Richard Bach

I feel like I have become the Crazy Uncle of my family.

The timing is about right. My Crazy Uncle passed away about seven years ago, around the time I moved to Seattle, and about that time it was starting to be clear to most of my family that I wasn't Mormon anymore, and wasn't ever going to be again. My strange family has always tended toward estrangement. We were always too busy with our own activities, or caught taking sides in a who-hurt-whose-feelings war. But after that, whatever distance was already there just grew and grew.

My Crazy Uncle was weird because he took myth too far, with his conspiracy theories and demons and conspiracy theories about demons. He would call my mom every few months to talk her into buying gold or silver, or to invest in garnet mines or whatever scheme he'd gotten into his head. Because the economy was about to collapse, any minute, he'd say. Edgar Casey was right, he'd say. Mt. Rainier is going to blow up so you guys need to move to where it's safer, in Ohio. He'd had a vision, he'd say, and plead with my mom to take this action or that.

And now and then, she'd even be convinced by him, just a little. I remember the time we bought silver at $4.25 an ounce, and waited for it to shoot up in price like he said it would. We waited for the world to end so it would be worth something. But there it stayed at $4.25 an ounce for years.

I grew up in a system of thought that was waiting for the world to end anyway,
and that was all right, as long as it was in the context of scripture, and you didn't go around selling your house or making any other rash decisions. You were supposed to wait for the Prophet to tell you to make a rash decision. We waited for the call to leave our house and move to Missouri. And we always had one year of food storage… two if when we were extra-righteous. That was within the realm of sanity, but my Uncle took it a step too far, and thus he was the Crazy Uncle.

I am weird because I take reason too far. I don't believe in demons at all (although they are possible). I don't believe in God at all, or scripture. My minimum level of proof is set pretty high. I'm willing to believe a few supernatural things now and then, if they actually happen to me, but those are my special moments in life, and I take my own meaning from them. I share those experiences only rarely, and don't expect anyone else to believe me, and I only take them half-seriously at best. My Crazy Uncle and I are quite a bit different.

And yet I felt a kinship with him when he died. He lived 3000 miles away. I rarely talked to him over my lifetime, and frankly, I was scared of him. As he lay dying of cancer and my mom drove to visit him, I wondered if I was wrong to fear him. I feared his insanity (he was diagnosed schizophrenic). I feared the booby traps he was rumored to have set up in his room, my grandparent's attic. But more than that, I feared his demons and magic spells. Because those were just as real to a Mormon kid in the 1980s as schizophrenia. More real.

But as a thirty-year-old ex-Mormon living in my own apartment in Seattle, the only one of my huge family to ever leave the church (except for my Uncle who was a convert anyway), I started to feel some kind of kinship with my Crazy Uncle. At the time, I took a little pride in being the "black sheep", and in a way, realized I did fill his shoes. I wasn't crazy, but I'd shirked the traditions of my family, gone away to live a wild life in the big city. I experimented with life and beliefs, explored other religions. I read books on paganism and dabbled in tarot, because these things no longer scared me. They were myths perhaps, or marginalized non-Christian activities even if they were real. Totally harmless.

And in that, I finally "got" my uncle.

But I was still a little afraid of him.

I thought of writing a letter to him then. I don't think I ever wrote it, and if I did, I know I didn't send it. Inside I was still a little kid, and he the scary, smoking, coffee-drinking, multiple-time divorcee, occult-believing, demon-hearing old man that might set off a bomb if I dared enter his room. He would send evil spirits after anyone who got on his wrong side, so I was always supposed to speak very nicely to him.

My childhood fears got the better of me, and I did not write him a letter.

And now he is gone.

And I feel the cold-shoulder from my family.

It could just be the same level of distance that has always been there, this weirdly insular vibe of people too busy, people with lots of defenses, added to the 280 miles that separate us. It could be that usually I still feel like the little kid, the youngest sister, the teased and picked on nerd. Everyone else feels taller than me, more interesting, more talented, and more powerful. That is the place where I often fit in my imagination, even though I'm thirty-seven and have three kids of my own.

It could be my own powerful defenses are still raised up high. After all, I did spend years hating my family. And even more years feeling like I didn't belong. I probably hated them because I felt I didn't belong.

I don't reach out to them often myself.

But when I do? The line seems dead.

And it's sad, because my family is actually very cool. I should belong in my family. My nieces and nephews are all very smart. Somehow, in spite of the personal and emotional distance, even though I only saw them once or twice a year as they grew up, I have a lot in common with so many of them. Internet, computers, geek culture, science, art, creativity and senses of humor. I am old now, and have a lot to share about what it was like growing up geek in a time when geek wasn't cool. I know the roots of the memes they love so well. I see them from time to time, on Facebook or Twitter, sending links of this or that, getting into shows I've always loved or will love, creating and building really cool things.

But in spite of what we have in common, I sometimes forget there is one important thing we don't have in common. It is too strong a detractor.

I seem normal enough to myself. I'm in Seattle, living the life I've always dreamed, happy with an awesome family of my own, with normal problems and normal interests… Out here, it's not too unusual to be agnostic. And it's only a little unusual to be openly bisexual. And most people around here are not too disturbed about the polyamory thing. They could never imagine living that way themselves, but they're okay with it.

Around here, you can disagree on just about anything, and still be friends with someone.  Because they are more likely to see what you do have in common.  They see past the odd lifestyle.  Those things aren't my identity more than my love of sci-fi and fantasy, my excitement when I hear about some new science breakthrough or at the launch of a new gadget or video game.  Even people I know who are straight, Christian, and part of traditional families know that my chosen lifestyle is only a small part of who I am.  It confuses me to see them like and accept me, to joke with me and share common interests with me, when my own family will hardly give me the time of day.

And then I remember what it was like to be a Mormon. I imagine my 18-year-old Mormon self looking at me here in the future. And now even being agnostic is cause for alarm. The tea I'm enjoying right now, the occasional cigarette, or the cocktail I have at the restaurant. Those things set me apart enough.

Then as I peel away the layers, looking deeper, I see the half-hearted paganism. Very creepy. (There could be evil spirits in my house right now just because of that.) I see the girlfriend and the boyfriend, and now I am off the edge. Crazy.  Hedonistic.  Immoral.  Sex-crazed.

The differences my Mormon-self sees are greater than the things in common, monsters that reel up and block my view of the real human being who stands behind them.

And suddenly the cold shoulders and the distance and the uninvite from family Thanksgivings makes a lot of sense.

But no less sad. Because all of these things are who I am. I made these choices because they are a part of me, my psyche, a part of my spirituality, my destined path. To act otherwise would be to deny myself, to pretend and put on a show for the sake of others. And since honesty and integrity and openness are my highest values, I can make no other choice.  I love my new family, too, and we have normal family problems, school, work, finances, arguments, chores, choosing between right and wrong.  Just like everyone else in the world.

It's lonely, being the only one in my family to not be Mormon.

That is not true. There is one more now. One of my nieces left, a few years after me.

I tried to reach out to her once.

See, no one understands what it's like to be ex-Mormon. Non-Mormons don't understand — they were never Mormon. Mormon-hating mainstream Christians don't understand, because they could have told you all along Mormons didn't worship the true Christ. And Mormons most of all don't understand, because how could someone know what they know, and then stop believing?

There was a time in my life, when I'd send wall-of-text pages-long emails to ex-Mormons I thought would understand me. It was my way of saying, "We're alike! I get you! You're not alone! I'm not alone! OMG Let's be friends please please please!" Sometimes that actually worked, and I'd get a great wall-of-text email back. But regretfully, more often than not, I just scared people off.

But I hadn't learned that lesson yet, and of all the people who could understand my unique experience in life, I had hoped it would be my niece — someone who understood not only what it was to be ex-Mormon, but also someone from my unique family.

Nevertheless, the wall-of-text email I sent her went unanswered. A missed connection, a possible friend in my family, and I scared her off with my pages-long email rant. It's something I deeply regret, because she has as many interests in common with me as any of my real-world Seattle friends. 

I do have a couple of nephews, almost-brothers because I grew up with them. I should still be close to them. One has been accepting of my choices, but still distant. No wonder. I've lost track of how many daughters he has, and he's a nurse. Very busy. The other nephew has been less accepting of my choices, and is just as busy with his own huge family and job.

My parents have been wonderful. After the initial troubles, they can't see enough of me, and I have to beat them off with a stick. My mother's weakness is her love. She loves every member of her family a little too much. And my dad is the same, only he tries his best not to show it.

But they're my parents, and that's their job to love me.  Their daughter could never be their Crazy Uncle.

I could reach out to them, my extended family of origin, my brother and my sister, nieces and nephews, and nephews who are like my brothers. And I do, now and then, in timid little ways on Facebook and Twitter. I'll respond to a tweet or say happy birthday on Facebook. My sister and brother or one of my nephews will argue with some of my political Facebook posts now and then. And it's nice. I like to think that they're reaching out, saying that they care in their weird little ways. The same way I reach out and say I care in my weird little ways. Who can fault them for acting just like me?

I have a new family now, and my own Thanksgiving.  We will fill the house with candles and food and music and joy and two-dozen people, just like any normal family would.  I have more love and life than anyone could ever ask for. But I don't have my genetic family. Was it worth it? Was it worth giving up my family as the price of losing my religion?

Yes, absolutely. I'd rather have a good relationship with myself, be true to myself and my new family who loves me for who I am, than have a family of origin I have to pretend around, just so my facade can be loved instead of the True Me.

But that doesn't take the sting out of it. And it doesn't make me feel any less like I must be the Crazy Uncle.


  1. I definitely relate. My religious isolator is fundamentalist Christianity rather than Mormonism, but nearly everything else you said rang a bell deep within me at a visceral level.

    Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thanks for writing this. I know it was pretty personal.

    I relate to a lot of what you said, possibly because we walked down similar paths (but not the bisexual one :) I walked back, mostly, but I think I understand a lot of what you went through and how you feel.

    For me, belief was a choice, I guess it is for everyone but I went for a long time feeling hurt and angry at God. I guess I still feel like that a little but I chose him because he reached out to me. (long story and not nessisarily one you'll be interested in, I know.)

    Anyway, I like you for the things we have in common and becuase I can tell you're a good person. We can disagree without hissing and spitting at each other :)

    Family is wired into us. I don't like my family. But I love them. But I put a couple mountain ranges between us. Family knows us too well, they can push our buttons.

    I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and I've very glad you still feel your parent's love. Don't give up, if you still feel a lack from those family member's you've lost track of, keep trying to be in touch. Focus on what you share, not your differences. Who knows, there's always hope.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Mark. When I mentioned Christian friends whom I could disagree with and still be friends, you were one of the people I had in mind. It's interesting to hear you've taken both routes, left faith and returned to it. I actually believe in synchronicities (in the half-serious way my inner skeptic will allow me), because many have happened to me. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear, and I don't (try not to) begrudge anyone their personal spiritual experiences that lead them to an answer they seek. Especially when they don't begrudge others who have arrived at very different conclusions through their own spiritual experiences or lack thereof.

    I could certainly make more effort to reach out to my family. At this point, I don't have anything to lose. :) I'm letting that idea simmer.