I enjoy plane trips because these are the only times I get to read for enjoyment. On a recent flight my book of choice was a title by skeptic Steve Cuno and Joanne Hanks. “It’s Not About The Sex” My Ass: Confessions of an ex-Mormon, ex-Polygamist ex-wife tells the fascinating story of Joanne’s personal journey from mainline Mormon, to fundamentalist Mormon, to non-believer.
This case is interesting in that most fundamentalists are born into these groups, while Joanne and her husband chose to join a polygamist cult. Joanne and her chiropractor husband Jeff were raised as members of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). They both had family with a polygamist past. Following exposure to Second Coming propaganda, they decided that the end was nigh, and they needed to return to the original church to ensure their salvation. After shopping around for a sect, the couple and their three young children moved to Manti, Utah, and joined James Harmston’s True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of the Last Days (TLC). As per section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, Jeff took a “celestial wife” and the family was promptly excommunicated by the LDS.
The book covers many paranormal and pseudoscientific topics that will be of interest to skeptics, including creationism and alleged psychic abilities. The group’s leader claimed to be the reincarnation of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, while his wife was the reincarnation of Smith’s First Wife, Emma. Naturally, his other celestial wives (or women he coveted) were also reincarnated as Smith’s celestial wives. Other members purported to be such luminaries as Mary Magdalene, Queen Elizabeth the First, Josephine Bonaparte, and Isaac Newton. (Unfortunately, an argument once broke out when two different women both claimed to be Marie Antoinette).
You may have heard of the LDS practice of “baptisms for the dead”. In this ritual, computer-generated lists of names of deceased people are read aloud (such as the names of Holocaust victims), and proxy Mormon baptisms are performed for them to save their souls. The TLC’s version of this was the “prayer session.” Joanne accurately defined these as séances, during which they summoned deceased non-Mormons via a channeler and had a nice chat with them. Then they asked the deceased if they would like to receive a baptism, which they invariably did. They always seemed to channel famous visitors including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill. Amazingly, Martin Luther, Wolfgang Mozart, and Joan of Arc spoke fluent American English during these sessions.
For years, these strange beliefs and practices stirred skepticism in Joanne, which she shot down with her own rationalizations and the manipulation of the group. However, one incident (or lack of an incident) was too ridiculous to ignore. Harmston, as the group’s prophet, predicted that the Second Coming was going to take place on March 25, 2000. Everyone on earth would die, including mainstream Mormons, but the members of the TLC would be spared. The group planned for a massive celebration, but the day came and went without incident. Jesus was a no-show. How did the prophet explain his failure? Well, he didn’t fail! Jesus did return to earth and fulfilled the prophecy. Mercifully, God folded back time on itself by exactly one day and life carried on as usual…
False prophets and false promises were the final straws for Joanne and Jeff. They left the community and Mormonism altogether. (Jeff’s second wife had already left him and become another plural wife in Harmston’s growing harem of women.) In their search for a new church they eventually became atheists, with a little help from George Carlin and his humorous views on religion. In the end, the whole experience was destructive for the couple and it drove them apart. However, Joanne found a silver lining in her divorce. “At least,” I told Jeff one day, “I don’t have to defend chiropractic any more.”
Joanne is a highly intelligent and rational woman, demonstrating that, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, we are all susceptible to cults and charismatic leaders. The book is witty and insightful, and the authors make many self-effacing and poignant observations that highlight the hypocrisy and manipulation of cults, and their considerable dangers.
“It’s Not About the Sex” My Ass is available from Amazon in eBook and paperback formats.
Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitter here.