The following is an abridged and edited version of a review I wrote for Irreantum, a periodic review of Mormon literature.
I purchased Grace Notes: The Waking of a Woman’s Voice after hearing author Heidi Hart speak about her interfaith marriage. Hart was raised a Mormon, was married in the temple, and converted to Quakerism eleven years later. Her husband remains committed to Mormonism. As an active Mormon who is curious about Quakerism (and who attends the local liberal Quaker meeting on occasion), I was interested in hearing the story of her conversion and hoped to find it in the pages of Grace Notes.
Hart’s conversion to Quakerism is just one thread of many running through the richly textured tapestry that is Grace Notes. In it we are invited to view the painful but ultimately healing journey that Hart has taken to find her voice, reclaim her body, and to live a more authentic spiritual life. She carefully traces the personal history of each of her spiritual and emotional maladies, sometimes tracking its roots back several generations. She finds healing by coming to terms with the constraining voices of authority, tradition, religion, and family.
Grace Notes explores a variety of themes and weaves them together masterfully. For example, Hart struggles with accepting her body. She traces the source of her ambivalent and sometimes hateful attitude towards her body back to her grandmother, who hides her “disgusting” body under perfumes, and to her mother, whose “body was a diary of shame and fear” and who taught her daughter to hide her body under a thick mask of makeup. She uses her newfound voice to reclaim her body: “I could ‘word’ my way back to my body. I could try to see from inside my own skin, not as I’d viewed it from the outside since I was ten, as a bleeding burden or as church property or as my husband’s private treasure…[then] I came to the poem I knew I had to write. Revisit the moment of your most passive silence, came a whisper inside of me. Give the girl you were a voice.” Hart then launches into a harrowing account of her pre-marriage hymenotomy, the violent taking of her virginity by a patronizing physician. By giving voice to this girl, long silent and long silenced, Hart grants others a voice‚Äîshe says the things that others may lack the courage to say.
Much of Hart‚Äôs struggle is against the institutions that are at the center of Mormon religious life. Hart’s journey is essentially a long struggle against conformity, against the claims which Mormonism, men and culturally mandated role of the “Angel in the House” had on her body and spirit. She reacts against the expectations placed on her in favor of a more individually-based spirituality. She wonders early on that “there must be a way to have a rich spiritual life without being fed all the answers and told exactly how to live.” When she prays to know if it is time for her to leave the LDS Church, she says that
I knew what the depth of my being needed. It was time to leave…I felt peace. My heart was not bound. I could be free of the institution that had made my faith a rote performance. I did not have to stay because the church needed me. The changes I longed to see were so radical that they seemed at least a hundred years away. I needed to live in the present. I needed to take responsibility for my spiritual life.
Grace Notes poses important questions to those who find security in a structured, hierarchical religion like Mormonism. Does the institution sometimes do more harm than good to the spiritual development of some of its members? Is it possible for someone like Heidi Hart‚Äîespecially women‚Äîto find a place within the Church without sacrificing authenticity? Or is silence part of the price that one who disagrees (or doubts) must pay for membership? Is there a valued place for non-conformists in the Church?
In spite of her struggles with Mormonism and the traditions of her family, I found Hart’s critical treatment of family members and Mormonism even-handed and even humble. She makes a bitter pill easier to swallow. In her presentation at the Sunstone symposium, she quoted Quaker author Muriel Bishop: “How can we in truth and lovingly help one another in this? Because we must remember that truth without love is violence. And love without truth is sentimentality. We do need both.” Although she was speaking about her marriage, I believe that she has followed this principle in her writing as well. While Hart is not afraid to be critical of authoritarian and constraining tendencies of the LDS Church, she also carefully acknowledges how she values her Mormon friends, neighbors and even (former) religious leaders. Her reflective and even introspective criticism is a refreshing departure from angrier and more violent attacks that seem to make up the bulk of other personal memoirs by those who have left the Church.
There is so much more that Hart weaves into her narrative that I could discuss: her journey across the country to find her voice; her description of the shining shards of God’s spirit, shattered and scattered throughout creation for humans to discover; her discussion of female friendship and intimacy. All of this, and much more, is contained in a scant 230 pages, in beautiful but accessible lyrical language. Because of its rich layering and interweaving of themes, because of its vulnerable honesty, because of its treatment of issues of institutional religion versus personal spirituality, Grace Notes is valuable reading for a wide range of thoughtful readers.