Reviewing Brotherson: Starting Thoughts

I first saw Laura Brotherson’s book  And They Were Not Ashamed four years ago, and frequently I’ve seen it recommended in the LDS Sexuality forum as a resource to help wives overcome the culturally-programmed frigidity that the book brilliantly diagnoses as “Good Girl Syndrome.”  I think helping Mormons overcome the bad effects of their cultural conditioning is a laudable goal, and yet I had some “you’ve got to be kidding me” moments when I browsed this book those four years ago.

But not having read it through yet, I thought it would be fair to make the attempt, and do a review of it as I did so.  Recently I got my own copy of it, so here we go.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were [had been] naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

. . . and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art [goest] thou?

And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I [beheld that I] was naked; and I hid myself.

Genesis 3:7-10/Moses 4:13-16

I start my review with this quote, because one of my sticking points is the Genesis/Moses verse she quotes – out of context – for her title and a central part of her argument.

Not that I’m entirely opposed in principle to the idea of enacting an Eden myth of wholeness without shame in a marriage (I think of Peter Gabriel’s song “Blood of Eden”). In fact, I’d be glad to see a thoughtful discussion of the Eden myth applied to marriage, informed by depth psychology. Brotherson alludes to that briefly, but like in so many other instances, only pauses briefly at the door she’s just cracked before moving on. Maybe that’s all this book has time for, but the short shrift the Eden story gets in it shows evidence not of conscientious trimming but of incomplete consideration.

So let’s consider: Adam and Eve are married in the Garden of Eden (after Eve is created out of Adam’s rib, a passage that some Mormon scholars have gone to great lengths to try to interpret in a way that doesn’t sound like a blatant assertion of patriarchal wish over the realities of nature), and live in a state of bliss, unashamed of their nakedness. Let’s leave Lehi’s extrapolations/expoundings aside for the moment and focus solely on the Genesis/Moses account. They’re doing just fine until they eat of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil and suddenly discover that they’re naked – and therefore, when God comes to visit, they feel ashamed and make the aprons (covering precisely their genitals). So a thoughtful reader of the scriptures (rare among Mormons) might ask: “wait a minute. If God created and ordained the sexual union as a vital part of the sacrament of marriage, and if being naked and not ashamed means that they felt no shame in having sex, then why are they suddenly ashamed when God comes calling? Why should they suddenly feel ashamed of this partnership with God, this procreative power?”

Is the eating of the fruit not only the sudden knowledge of good and evil, but the instantaneous download of a social program such as Brotherson laments and is hoping to dismantle: the shame associated with sex, even in a godly marriage? There’s no assertion of a factual timetable here, and in light of the presentations of the story accessible to us we may assume that when God comes to visit them, they have just barely woken up. Therefore their reaction of shame and fear at their nakedness – and their covering their genitals with fig leaves – does suggest an innate or essential shame and fear associated with the genitals and with sex which Adam and Eve immediately intuit as a result of their eyes opening.

Or it could simply be a reflection of the cultural attitudes which informed the carriers and writers of the myth: that shame and disdain towards sex and the body which Brotherson so laments as an unintended consequence of the Church’s teachings about purity and chastity. I’m sure this kind of suggestion is distasteful to faithful mainstream Mormons who view scriptural criticism as blasphemous, so I’ll leave off on this for now, and go back to the question of where Adam and Eve suddenly picked up on this shame and fear. If the innocence of little children is so complete – and anyone who has had much experience with them knows how utterly shameless they truly are (Brotherson includes quotes to this effect, counseling parents not to freak out when their toddlers play with their own genitals) – then in order for Adam and Eve to feel shame and fear at the prospect of God seeing them naked, they must have left this childlike lack of shame far behind by the time the confrontation and expulsion occur.

In her “scriptural journey” of Chapter 2, Brotherson charges sexual shame to societal/Satanic pollution of “God’s light and truth” which “surrounded sexuality in the beginning, when Adam and Eve were in a state of innocence” (p. 33) – a theme she touches on repeatedly, though never with much depth (what about Lehi’s commentary? He explicitly states that their primal innocence was lifeless and stagnant, and would have rendered creation useless had they remained therein). She quotes Doctrine and Covenants 93:38: “Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God.” I don’t know how much clearer this verse can be that it is talking about the innocence of babies and little children. She seems to be addressing this in her commentary which follows, blaming sexual shame on faulty societal conditioning engineered by Satan. It seems inescapable to conclude that between the eating of the fruit and God’s visit, Adam and Eve were bamboozled in a similar manner, convinced that their nakedness was something to be ashamed of before God. The scriptures as we have them don’t show Satan planting this poisonous seed in their minds, but the Temple drama does. It’s probable that Brotherson was reluctant to point to that, judging it to be too sacred to mention. She might have trusted her LDS readers to connect the dots, but surely if this is what she’s getting at there could be even a brief reference to further revealed truths we have in the Church which show that it was Satan, and not God, who made them ashamed to appear naked before their maker so soon after their awakening from innocence. That would have greatly reinforced her other arguments, which so far as of Chapter 2 rely on often shaky foundations.

I’m making an editorial decision not to dwell on this episode too much longer. To summarize: the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden (especially as recorded in Genesis) does not work as neatly as Brotherson tries to make it work as an illustration of how uninhibited we should be in our married sex lives in God’s eyes. It betrays a sloppy scriptural interpretation but that is not her fault: as a Mormon she’s heir to lazy and incomplete analysis of scripture as a cultural tradition, if not a requirement. This is part of why Mormons still don’t know how to deal with sex – or children.

In God’s eyes: what would it do for married couples to imagine a literal realization of their partnership with God as they took part in the Sacrament of Sex – I mean, to imagine God watching from above as they got it on?

The notion of returning to a blissful primal state (and assuming again a childlike ignorance or at least an erasure of the hard boundaries and distinctions that make adult life so painful) is a deep yearning in the sexual instinct, and it deserves some careful consideration – maybe in connection with the directive, spoken by Jesus and Benjamin’s angel, to become as a little child. Innocence, experience, guilt, shame, conscience and conditioning: sharp minds have been investigating these matters for centuries. And They Were Not Ashamed could have been greatly enriched by some acknowledgment, let alone engagement, with the wealth of rigorous inquiry recorded.

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