The Believer

A God-obsessed mother gone mad. A once-devout father turned cynical. The only thing as challenging as growing up in a faith-fractured home is carrying your devotion into adulthood. Especially if you happen to be Mormon.

April 2007

My only mission, my mother told me, was to keep her praying a secret. I was seven years old at the time, which is roughly when my father declared that God was no longer welcome in our home. I was too young to understand; as far as I could tell, Dad had simply had enough of Him. Mom’s appetite, on the other hand, was insatiable. A lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, her faith had always been earnest. Recently, however, it had taken on a desperate and unnerving quality. She decoded divine communications in the most mundane occurrences—God timed the streetlights and directed the play of shadows on the sidewalk. Considering the sheer quantity of time Mom spent on her knees, hands clasped and eyes closed, biting my tongue was a full-time job. Unfortunately, my secret-keeping abilities were limited by my lack of focus. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.

Before he fell in love with Mom, my father had been a believer, a descendant of Mormon pioneers, a man of prayer and devotion. By the time I was born, he had stopped attending the Mormon chapel around the corner from our suburban Salt Lake City home. By the time I accepted Mom’s mission, Dad had begun to see faith as a resilient weed, and he wanted it out by the roots. One evening, I ran downstairs to the basement to find Mom kneeling, once again, by my bed. Rather than disturb her, I headed back to the living room and engrossed myself in a book. Dad peered from behind the newspaper, suspicious of my quick return. He asked where Mom was. My eyes remained fixed on my reading material, and I simply told him, “She’s downstairs praying.” Later, after the yelling, I met Mom by the medicine cabinet, where we took our daily doses—fluoride for me, Haldol for her. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I forgot.” Her response was measured and forgiving, but I can still feel the weight of her disappointment as she said, “You’ll just have to remember next time.”

I don’t remember any next time. One night in late May of 1985, shortly after my eighth birthday, Mom walked out the front door and didn’t come back. Two weeks passed before police found our Ford Galaxy, locked and neatly parked at a trailhead in the Uinta Mountains, near the Wyoming border. Reaching elevations of 13,000 feet, the Uinta range is the highest in Utah, white-capped well into June. For the next two weeks, while I sat at home pretending everything would soon return to normal, a group of police officers, family, and friends searched the primitive area on foot and on horseback, calling her name, peering under the bushes, slowly losing hope.

Dad explained her absence to my sister and me. "She's not thinking well," he said. Later, I don't know exactly when, I heard him utter the word he'd been keeping secret for many years—"schizophrenia." That's what the Haldol was for. He would eventually tell me about a previous incident, when Mom had driven 350 miles to Winnemucca, Nevada, crashed the car, and been taken into police custody. Later the next night, after Dad brought her home, she snuck out of their bed and headed again to the driveway. Instead of leaving, she put the family pickup truck in neutral, released the emergency brake, ran to the end of the driveway, and lay down in the vehicle's path. She wanted the truck to roll over her head; she misjudged the angle and broke her pelvis. Psychiatrists diagnosed her the next day.

Throughout my mother's psychiatric saga, Dad's routine had cycled between hope and despair, the antipsychotic medications keeping time. They all worked wonders, until they didn't. Inevitably, Mom would lose herself again, going AWOL for days, confusing herself with God, Satan, and most everything in between. Schizophrenia is a psychotic disorder marked by delusions and hallucinations, often of a paranoid nature; Mom's were almost entirely faith-based. The world she inhabited was ever on the verge of ending. God was always at the window, sending secret messages. One night, waiting in line to see The Empire Strikes Back, Mom turned to Dad and, apropos of nothing, said, "Jesus Christ will come by dawn." In the chilling shade of Mom's twisted beliefs, Dad's own faith withered. The more Mom became God's instrument, the less Dad had any use for Him. By the time Mom disappeared that day in 1985, my father was devoted to the visible, the certifiably nondelusional.

But somehow my mother gave to me what she stole from my father: faith. Today, sitting in my Denver apartment, 20 years and several hundred miles away, I'm still trying to make sense of that faith, the seemingly foolish decision to accept what so many others find ridiculous—to believe in things unseen, things I hope to be true.

It's a Tuesday night in late January and Elder Littlewood is crammed into the passenger seat of my Honda Civic as we motor through a blue-collar neighborhood southwest of Denver. Littlewood, a burly 20-year-old from a small town outside Boston, joined the Church a few years back. His right-hand man, Elder Nunes, is folded into the back between the door and the baby seat. Twenty-one years old and rail-thin, Nunes is from Texas, where he was born to faithful Latter-day Saint parents. "Elder" is a title used by LDS missionaries—and like most missionaries they will spend a dozen hours a day for a total of 24 months, annoying many but helping some. They have been sent to Colorado and Wyoming, where they usually set out by foot or bike. They'll wear a suit and tie. They will carry the Book of Mormon and the Bible. They'll knock on doors and stop people on the streets. "Hi, we're missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Every so often, someone will invite them in.

We're on our way to the home of a recent convert, a single mother of two, who, along with her sister, was recently baptized after several weeks reading the literature, coming to church, and listening to Littlewood and Nunes. It's a routine checkup, with me, an LDS veteran, serving as transportation and sidekick to the two elders. We'll ask the two women how their prayers and scripture study have been going. We'll share a message on Jesus Christ and the Book of Mormon. We'll also share our "testimonies"—summaries of things we've studied, prayed about, and accepted as truth. "The Book of Mormon, like the Bible, contains the word of God," I'll tell them. "Jesus Christ was God's son," Nunes will add. We are following, to some extent, an example from the Book of Mormon, which describes a church whose members "did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls." It's the sort of thing that is so easily parodied that I'm already wondering if my description is a disservice.

As we pull into the women's driveway, I field pleasant flashbacks from my own mission a decade ago. In a series of small towns in central Chile, I worked remarkably hard to produce gatherings precisely like this one. They were, in all seriousness, my idea of a really good time. As we went about shoring the faith of our new converts, the heavens seemed to open, the spirit descended, and doubts—about God, the Church, the strength of our individual commitments—scattered like cockroaches when the lights come on. At such times it was no mystery what Mom had been seeking all that time on her knees. But I would wonder how my father could have turned away.