I first met Bill Shunn last year at World Fantasy 2014 in Washington D.C. when I had dinner with him, his agent Barry Goldblatt and my friend Scott Edelman. As we savored the cocktails and curries of Rasika, Bill relayed his experience as a Mormon missionary and how it led to him accidentally committing a terrorist act in order to keep one of his fellow missionaries — sometimes known as a “companion” — from fleeing his two-year mission. He explained that publishers seemed reluctant to put out the memoir he’d written about it because of the “T” word, which I could totally believe.
Luckily for us, he self-published the memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, and it’s simply fabulous. I’m not going to spoil the climax of this page-turner, but I will say that it’s the perfect “companion” (see what I did there?) to Deborah Laake’s terrific Secret Ceremonies: A Mormon Woman’s Intimate Diary of Marriage and Beyond, which I’d read some time ago during my own deconversion from Christianity. And like Laake’s book, I could relate strongly to much of The Accidental Terrorist, even though my family had only been Mormon for a few months. Religious insanity, it turns out, is alarmingly similar among both orthodox and heterodox sects. Who knew? (I did, that’s for damned sure.) All I know is that, as I read, I found myself wishing I’d seduced some Mormon missionaries in my younger days.
For those who don’t know, every 19-year-old young man in Mormonism is pretty much forced to leave school and go on a two-year mission. The Church chooses where they’re sent, with no input from the missionary or his family. The consequences for bailing on this expectation are enormous in Mormon culture, affecting everything from future career potential and church stature to marriage options and reputation.
A budding science fiction writer and silent doubter, Bill was destined to suffer as he tried to carry out this expectation. In TAT, he gives both a hilarious and painfully honest description of his struggle under the threatening heel of both his abusive father and his church community. I especially loved that he weaves into his personal narrative an engaging retelling of the history of the Mormon Church. As a former, two-minute Mormon myself, I recognized much of that story, between what the missionaries that had taught us at our house and the heretical books I’d devoured in my post-Moroni years. Bill even draws some subtle and ironic parallels between his own crisis and the days before Joseph Smith’s death.
Bill takes unflinching responsibility for the nearly 30-year-old incident that permanently banned him from Canada. But as he so aptly quips, “it takes a village” to bake the crisis he created, and it’s so fucking true. The unrealistic expectations of the Church, crushing conformity and relentless spiritual expectations coalesced with his immaturity to cripple Young Elder Shunn’s decision-making skills to make a disaster where there should have been no more than a shrug.
As I tore through this book, an old friendship haunted me. Back at CSU Sacramento, I had a friend and ally in my Creative Writing class whom I called Mike the Mormon. (I could never remember his last name.) Like Young Elder Shunn, Mike was a super-talented science fiction writer. When the class read my first horror story, “Presents,” the professor and students mostly didn’t get it. Told from the cat’s perspective, “Presents” was about a cat who, like normal cats, left dead presents for its humans on the doorstep. When the humans would inevitably reject the gift, the cat would raise the small animal from the dead to play with some more. When the cat’s female human died, the cat used its abilities to make its male human feel better with predictably catastrophic results.
As I mentioned, most of the class didn’t get it. But when the professor started bashing it, Mike leaped to his feet and announced the story was “freaking awesome,” that “any pulp horror magazine currently in print would publish it.” (The class thought the cat in the story wasn’t really raising its prey from the dead, just dreaming. Fucking morons.) It turned out a few other students — also horror lovers — understood and enjoyed the story. My professor apologized profusely and even let me teach a class one day in fiction writing.
I adored Mike the Mormon. We had a fantastic talk one day on campus where we hashed out our respective religious perspectives. And when I finally got to read his work, I was totally blown away. He’d blushed as he admitted he was a fan of Poul Anderson and felt like he was simply imitating that legend’s work. Even if he was to some extent, Mike was clearly a ridiculously talented guy.
Which made it particularly soul-crushing when he told me his family was forcing him to quit school, marry his girlfriend, and get a job (or two) to support his new family. After reading TAT, I now realize that, unlike Elder Shunn, Mike had managed to get out of his mission so he could write and marry his “Katrina.” But it still didn’t go the way he’d hoped. Not by a long shot.
I remember him breaking the news to me, the light in his eyes dim and distant. Strangled by panic, I totally lost it. “You can’t do that!” I’d argued. “You have to stay in school! You have to write!”
His family had already won that argument. I vaguely recall that Mike’s fiancee was still living at home, and that her own abusive father had taken away her piano — the one thing she loved in this life besides Mike — to punish her for some disobedience. When Mike had told me that story, I was devastated for her. I was no stranger to physical and emotional abuse of that magnitude myself, and was currently lying to my parents about my major. They didn’t want me to study English composition, much less major in it, and would have kicked me out if they’d known.
Mike disappeared from campus right after that. A few years later, I ran into his gaunt, haggard figure on campus. I’d have recognized that blue windbreaker anywhere except now it was wrinkled and faded, and he wore no backpack. He looked like a vagrant who’d wandered onto campus by mistake, staring at a magazine rack outside the student union like it was the burned remains of his family home. My heart broke all over again when I saw him. I waved and shouted to him, but he said nothing. He just lifted his hand in greeting with an air of defeat and crept away.
That last memory of him, his face a blur of depression, has haunted me my entire adult life.
I really appreciated Bill’s description of how he wriggled out of the grip of religiosity. My own doubts swelled and surged at times when I was an evangelical. The closer I came to my true self and sexuality, the harder it was to stay in the fold. I ultimately broke free not because I was tired of dealing with Christianity’s myriad contradictions. (Believe me, there are shit-tons.) Rather, I escaped after a miracle happened — a series of miracles, in fact, that contradicted the Bible outright and everything I’d ever learned.
That’s when I decided it was saner to drop the entire Christian mindset, which had never served me anyway, and build my own worldview based on the powerful spiritual events I was experiencing. For the first time in my life, I felt alive and entirely at peace. “No Jesus, Know Peace.” That would have been my bumper sticker. Hell, man, that’s still my bumper sticker.
My marriage ended (for reasons that had almost nothing to do with this) and I was ostracized by people I’d called friends, yet my family remained oblivious and I had plenty of real friends who supported me no matter what. (All pagans and atheists, as it turns out.) So, I didn’t suffer nearly what a Mormon would have if he or she had committed apostasy. For that I’m truly grateful.
Anyway, go out buy Bill’s memoir pronto. And after you read it, go rent Orgazmo or see The Book of Mormon if you haven’t already. You’ll thank me later.