Juvenile Instructor » Mormon Teen Lit: Susanna Morrill on Shirley Sealy’s “Beyond this Moment”
 


Mormon Teen Lit: Susanna Morrill on Shirley Sealy’s “Beyond this Moment”

By: Amanda - August 09, 2012

JI is currently doing a series on Mormon teen literature and what it tells us about the history of Mormon girls. So far, the series has looked Johnny Lingo and Jack Weyland and has considered ideas about the body. I am excited to present the next post in this series, in which Susanna Morrill, a professor at Lewis and Clark College, explores Shirley Sealy’s “Beyond This Moment.” Susanna received her PhD from the University of Chicago in Religious Studies and “White Roses on the Floor of Heaven: Mormon Women’s Popular Theology, 1880 – 1920.”

I’m a newcomer to modern Mormon romance literature, but am excited to expand my horizons a bit. I decided to read Shirley Sealy’s Beyond This Moment (Provo: Seventy’s Mission Bookstore, 1977).  Amanda began the series talking about what young adult books had taught her about her body. So, when I finished Sealy’s book, I asked myself the same question: What did the book want to teach a young Mormon woman in the 1970s about her body and, more broadly, her physical existence in the world? A lot, as it turned out!

The book charts the journey of a young Mormon woman, Jane, as she moves from Utah to live with her Aunt Julia (an inactive Mormon) and Uncle Lawrence (a good, but non-Mormon man) in Connecticut and to work as a secretary in her uncle’s building company. She’s trying to recover from losing her fiancé, Kip, who was killed three days before the wedding. Along the way Jane falls for Kelly, an ambitious young man who works for her uncle; who acts like a Mormon, but actually isn’t one; and who hates women in an obvious and ostentatious way, being given to say such things as: “You’re a woman and women never think” (4) and “I don’t know why women do any of the dumb things they do” (6). By the end, of course, Kelly converts and wedding plans are under way, but not until he’s lost the ability to walk due to a fall suffered when he was trying to save Jane’s alcoholic cousin, Cam, from tumbling off of a half-made house. I could go on…

The book preaches messages that are clearly part of the contentious conversations in the Church in the 1970s about proper gender roles: Don’t marry outside the church, don’t be too bossy and overbearing with your husband, keep going to church because that’s the key to having a healthy family. Yet, for all this obvious push against feminism, Jane is presented as a character who is sure of herself and her convictions and who seems comfortable in her body—not exactly a wilting violet (she’s compared to an apple blossom at one point), but not your typical, liberated Mary Tyler Moore, either. A Mormon Mary Tyler Moore, perhaps. She stands absolutely firm in her beliefs. As a pivot point after which their romance begins, she gives Kelly quite an earful about his misogyny, physically pushing him down in a chair several times, in striking contrast to the way she typically interacts with men, usually allowing them to take her arm and guide her through crowds, help her into cars, and even carry her over rough ground. She surrenders her physical direction to men who are worthy to guide her—not very subtle symbolism reinforcing the larger themes of the book. Still, Jane is quite physically active and strong. She spontaneously makes a long and difficult trek with Kelly to see a building spot,ruining her hair, clothes, and shoes and getting scratched up along the way. She loves boating and swimming and dancing and rarely seems physically unwell. Most of the time, she is the caretaker of others’ bodies—her relatives’ certainly, but also her patients. She is training to be a nurse and, at the end of the book, spends time taking care of children in a hospital in Utah

Not surprisingly, the book condemns sex outside of marriage. Jane assures Kelly she is pure and that she will only marry a pure man. Jane is physically attracted to Kelly and frequently dreams about him and wishes he would embrace her, but when she is in his embraces and he proposes pre-marital sex, she feels physically repulsed and breaks away from him: “An incredible conception was forming in my mind, a feeling of fear and degradation beneath anything I’d ever imagined before. I felt faint. I stepped back a little and waited for control before I spoke” (99). Her body loses control not because she is in Kelly’s arms, but when she intellectually realizes his proposition. Good women, this episode suggests, will know in their bodies that pre-marital sex is not right, the clarity of the book reinforcing in the readers’ minds a reality that might not be so physically clear to them in a similar moment in their real lives. Jane provides the reader a roadmap for correct behavior, of course, but she also dictates what they should be feeling in their body in a moment when they might be feeling, in fact, the exact opposite of the ideal. Reading becomes a kind of private, ritual reinforcement of what the reader may well have been hearing in church, in her community, her family. (I could call on Foucault and Bourdieu here, but will refrain.)

Indeed, Jane’s experiences consistently connect bodily, physical reality with intellectual and spiritual knowledge. For instance, Jane visits the Sacred Grove during a rain shower. As she is leaving, the rain stops and for a moment sunlight streams through the trees and she experiences a moment of “unspeakable joy,” one that revives her testimony and is echoed in the last sentence of the book when, finally reunited with the now converted Kelly, they embrace and she feels the right combination of physical and emotional responses: “He took me in his arms, and the room filled with light as if the sun had burst through a cloud to brighten our path to a tomorrow of unspeakable joy” (206). It’s tempting to point to the oft-highlighted connection in Mormonism between spiritual and material reality to explain the way Jane experiences nature, her body, and spiritual truth.

I wondered if I saw this spiritual-material connection in one of the sub-textual lessons of the book: That through self-sacrifice, caring for others, and living one’s faith humbly, you will become the center of people’s lives, and this will have great material benefit for you—a simultaneous self-effacing and self-aggrandizement that’s not unusual in U.S. women’s literature of any era. Everybody loves Jane.  Even Aunt Julia’s non-Mormon, but good Christian housekeeper, Mary, recognizes her as something special: “Miss Jane pulls the best out of all of use. She has that winning way with us all” (148). While Jane’s “winning ways” produce, ultimately, better family relations for her relatives, they also make her the center of attention in their lives, a reality from which she reaps many material benefits: jaded Aunt Julia buys her clothes and takes her on trips; her cousin Roy takes her out to dinner and makes sure she has fun and excitement in her life, even buying a boat so he can take her out on the lake; her uncle makes her his private secretary and allows her to take off whenever she wants. Self-sacrifice, obedience, faithfulness creates a kind of irresistible aura of attraction around Jane and she gets to have a lot of fun and enjoyment as a result. I’d say this is more about the shift to a consumer mentality in late-nineteenth-century America (that Leigh Eric Schmidt and others have
documented) than about the Mormon material-spiritual connection, but perhaps that connection makes the lesson even stronger.

Like Jane who experiences an assurance of her testimony, I came away from the book with assurance of what I already knew—that popular literature is a treasure trove for cultural history, particularly cultural history about women and gender.  But I also came away with some healthy doubts. On the blank page opposite the last page of the book someone had carefully written in lavender ink in the loopy cursive of a teenage girl “Leesa-n-Brad.” I had spent time uncovering what I thought the book taught, but what, if anything, had Leesa learned from it? Had she even read it? Did her inscription show that she was reading her relationship (real or wished for) with Brad through the model of Jane and Kelly? Had she written this as a statement of protest, a way of establishing the legitimacy of a relationship that looked nothing like the ideal one in the book? I’ll probably never know, but that inscription reminded me to be humble and circumspect in my scholarly conclusions.



15 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Susanna. I agree with you that popular literature is an incredibly rich source for cultural history, but that it needs always to be taken with a grain of salt. We can say what we think the producers of such literature wanted readers to get out of it, but we can’t know if the readers actually did take away the message the author(s) intended.

    On a different note, this reminds me that, much as I’ve written off *Twilight* since the conclusion of the series (yes, I’ll be the one to go down the *Twilight* path), I’m still impressed by one of the things that struck me about it on first read: Bella WANTS Edward. Bad. For all that Edward (and his venom) imposes strict chastity within their relationship — just like we would expect a good man should — he and Bella both WANT more, and they aren’t condemned for it. Rather, they’re presented as normal and then praised for their self-control. I have many problems with the *Twilight* series and its representation of a young woman’s place in the world and in relationships, but I still very much appreciate that Stephenie Meyer was willing to say to her readers that girls, too, have a sex drive, and it’s not a bad thing.

    Comment by Cristine — August 10, 2012 @ 10:41 am

  2. Cristine, I agree with you on all points. We can’t know how readers interpret the popular literature that they read. I really liked that the inscription at the end reminded me of this–it’s so important to remember. It would take different kind of data–journals, diaries, oral history maybe?–to track this and even then it would be imperfect. And I also agree about “Twilight.” So much of that book is about self-control and using your free will wisely. And, yes, not real condemnation of physical responses. Pretty interesting!

    Comment by Susanna — August 10, 2012 @ 10:58 am

  3. I think that the idea, which you mention, of an aura of iresistablity is important and a common cultural/theological trope.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 10, 2012 @ 11:52 am

  4. This is great, Susanna; I’ve always thought the best forms of cultural history are those that show how religious, intellectual, and moral ideas play out at the ground level, and I can’t think of much better examples than teen lit during this period. An able explication of a fascinating topic!

    This is quickly becoming my favorite series on the blog–perhaps the bloggernacle.

    Comment by Ben P — August 10, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

  5. Susanna, I really love this, especially the bit about the end. I remember as a teenager that when I had my first kiss I wanted to tell someone about it, but simultaneously didn’t want anyone to know. So I grabbed a school book that I thought was awful and that no one would ever read and wrote a cryptic message about it. There was no name attached, just that note.

    I also really like your point about the attention one could receive from being spiritual. I am currently reading “Fascinating Womanhood,” and it makes a similar point — that women can control men using her techniques. She also says that anyone who tries it is responsible for her actions and shouldn’t use them to seduce married men, which I guess, is an important reminder for all of us. Married men are off limits and shouldn’t be seduced using cookies and submissiveness.

    Comment by Amanda HK — August 10, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

  6. This is great, Susanna. Thanks for participating in this great series. I wonder what, if anything, we can garner from the fact that Seventy’s Mission Bookstore published this book. Anyone know anything about the press?

    Comment by David G. — August 10, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

  7. Nice, Susanna. I wondered the same thing as David re: the Seventy’s Mission Bookstore publishing this. A quick google search suggests the press/bookstore was a joint project between four quorums of Seventy in Utah valley and whose profits went directly to supporting missionary work. So at least on a local level, this was apparently a church-sponsored publication.

    Comment by Christopher — August 10, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

  8. They’re also the press that published Lyndon Cook’s The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

    Comment by Christopher — August 10, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

  9. I once had a chat with Anita Stansfield, the reigning queen of Mormon romance, and she spoke of Shirley Sealy the way you might imagine Jimmer Fredette speaking of Michael Jordan. I suspect we should be paying as much attention to people like Sealy as we do to Nephi Anderson and Minerva Teichert.

    Comment by matt b — August 10, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

  10. I’m feeling old. So very, very old. I was a teenager during the ’70, read Sealy (but not Stansfield — she came after my appetite for romances had been sated), and the Seventies’ Mission Bookstores were a familiar part of everyday life tome, both in their brick and mortar presence after my family moved back to the west, and their presence in closets and trophy cases when they supplied the Mormon book market when we lived where there weren’t enough Church members to sustain a store. Seeing my personal experiences analyzed as history, and my familiarity with the SMBookstore discussed as an obscure artifact from the past, makes me feel old. Really old. :)

    I read Jack Weyland in the NewEra and Shirley Sealy in hardback as a teenager. I remember liking both, but I don’t remember caring all that much for the stories themselves. What I recall is the absolute thrill of the mere fact that stories with Mormon characters were actually in print. This was a complete novelty to me, except for my reading of Nephi Anderson from a much earlier generation. (This, incidentally, is why I saw “Saturday’s Warrior” several times when it came out — it wasn’t the show itself, necessarily, but the novelty of seeing something Mormon and professional on the stage.)

    I can’t imagine what, if any, effect stories like this one had on shaping my attitude toward my body. I only read a few. They were all so much alike, much more formulaic even than the other genre fiction (mysteries, science fiction, westerns) that I read, that they quickly lost their appeal. But I’m glad they were there, if for no other reason than that they showed me that my own people could really truly be found between the covers of popular fiction.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 10, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

  11. Thanks, everyone. Yes, irresistibility through internal spiritual goodness is a theme that just keeps coming up again and again in women’s lit. in the U.S., no doubt. Still trying to get my head around what to do with it. I will have to check out “Fascinating Womanhood,” Amanda. Sounds pretty appalling, but also–fascinating. And cool stuff about the publisher! Thanks for the question and information on it, Davd, Chris, and Ardis. Definitely important stuff to put in the interpretive mix… And, Ardis, I also like what you have to say about your reaction to Sealy as an author who was Mormon and who was writing about Mormon characters. I agree with the folks above that we should take popular fiction seriously when doing cultural history, but your comment reminds me that their biggest impact can be, well, maybe not what I expected. And that’s awesome to remember. Fun series, was glad to contribute to it!

    Comment by Susanna — August 10, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

  12. Fascinating stuff! This kind of cultural/pop history is really interesting and new to me; I loved the way you summed up that common trope in US women’s literature of irresistibility through internal spiritual goodness(hello Louisa May Alcott “An Old Fashioned Girl” etc!)–that sounds like a great project to explore. I’m tempted to relate it to even things like [some cases of] eating disorders (acquiring an almost impossible frailty that compels love, care, protection, etc.; similar to the self-sacrifice and submissiveness that compels affection and care, etc.) I look forward to reading more of this series!

    Comment by Rachael — August 14, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

  13. Susanna– Sorry that I’m late chiming in. I never (knowingly) read Sealy, but immersed myself in Weyland and of course, Saturday’s Warrior. I see in much of this literature a common theme of the “young woman as refiner, or softener, or converter, of wayward or not-yet-Mormon men.” Perhaps some of our other authors will explore this theme more, but I’m wondering how much of that element was present in _Beyond This Moment_. Did Mormon authors by the 1970s really begin to unwrap a cultural-gender expectation for young LDS women as civilizers in a fallen, post-Counterculture world? Would the spiritual-material benefits that you’ve explored here then translate also into the hyper-modesty issues of the 1980s and beyond, success (popularity) within the LDS social sphere, and of course, marriage to a “prince” that you also had the added pleasure of converting to Mormonism yourself?

    Comment by Andrea R-M — August 15, 2012 @ 12:37 am

  14. Andrea, yup, in this book Sealy definitely uses the woman as converter through influence theme–works it really hard. I agree with Rachael, I think the ultimate source of this is the nineteenth-century separate sphere, two-sex model discourse that was everywhere, including in Mormon literature. It’s interesting to see it translated into the 1970s context where, yes, it does seem to be in reply to the countercultural movement. Sealy is in many ways in step with changing gender expectations. Jane is depicted as an independent woman who wants to get a nurse education and help the world. But, ultimately, she realizes that this is all empty and that her greatest fulfillment is being a wife and mother. It make sense to me that this could become translated into modesty issues. In fact, there’s a fair amount of discussion between Jane and others in the book about how, though she enjoys new clothes an being fashionably dressed, she also dresses modestly and doesn’t want her aunt to be constantly buying things for her. But, again, this conversation is contradicted throughout the book as people DO constantly buy her beautiful clothes and accessories (because they love doing it for such a good person) that Sealy spends a lot of time describing in loving and great detail. A kind of you-can-have-it-all philosophy, have beautiful things and be a good and humble believer. I’m with you, I hope others pick up on these themes and explore them in more depth!

    Comment by Susanna — August 15, 2012 @ 10:34 am

  15. […] Mormon Teen Lit: Susanna Morrill on Shirley Sealy’s “Beyond this Moment”. Susanna Morrill, The Juvenile Instructor. Morrill is a professor at Lewis and Clark College. “I decided to read Shirley Sealy’s Beyond This Moment (Provo: Seventy’s Mission Bookstore, 1977). Amanda began the series talking about what young adult books had taught her about her body. So, when I finished Sealy’s book, I asked myself the same question: What did the book want to teach a young Mormon woman in the 1970s about her body and, more broadly, her physical existence in the world? A lot, as it turned out! . . . The book preaches messages that are clearly part of the contentious conversations in the Church in the 1970s about proper gender roles: Don’t marry outside the church, don’t be too bossy and overbearing with your husband, keep going to church because that’s the key to having a healthy family. Yet, for all this obvious push against feminism, Jane is presented as a character who is sure of herself and her convictions and who seems comfortable in her body—not exactly a wilting violet (she’s compared to an apple blossom at one point), but not your typical, liberated Mary Tyler Moore, either. A Mormon Mary Tyler Moore, perhaps . . . Jane provides the reader a roadmap for correct behavior, of course, but she also dictates what they should be feeling in their body in a moment when they might be feeling, in fact, the exact opposite of the ideal. Reading becomes a kind of private, ritual reinforcement of what the reader may well have been hearing in church, in her community, her family . . . It’s tempting to point to the oft-highlighted connection in Mormonism between spiritual and material reality to explain the way Jane experiences nature, her body, and spiritual truth.” […]

    Pingback by This Week in Mormon Literature, August 18, 2012 | Dawning of a Brighter Day — August 18, 2012 @ 9:52 am