I am trying to understand U-turns. My first morning in Salt Lake City, I freeze at a crosswalk, terrified to step into the wide street, watching as car after car accelerates into the intersection, only to spin around like a remote-controlled toy. Brigham Young designed Zion’s 132-foot-wide streets so oxen carts could turn around with ease, the 1847 equivalent of a U-turn. Except he harbored an ulterior motive, too. He wanted ox-drivers to turn around withoutresorting to profanity. It was not freedom; it was social control. Or freedom as social control.
In 2000, my husband and I stopped to rest in Salt Lake City during a self-imposed exile from Iowa to Oregon. The mountains made me feel trapped, watched, walled in: Wasatch and Oquirrh ranges to the east and west, and in the south, the Traverse range securing the valley like a gate.
I could not believe those mountains were natural. Atmospheric perspective flattened them into theatrical backdrops, as phony and one dimensional as cardboard props. The nearest ridges loomed like cobalt shadows; faraway ones dissolved into the same pale hue as the sky, obliterating the boundary between heaven and earth—exactly the way western landscape artists always painted them.
Maybe because I grew up surrounded by the forever horizons of the midwest, I always thought mountain landscape paintings seemed fake, and when I studied the Hudson River and Rocky Mountain Schools in art history, I found out they were. A landscape is never just a landscape, my professor said, illuminating a slide of Thomas Moran’s Mountain of the Holy Cross, with its miraculous white crucifix marking a Colorado mountainside like icing on a hot cross bun. Most people would probably guess the cross as the painter’s creative flourish, but they would be wrong; the snow cross really looked like that. Instead, Moran forged something else, a smaller detail to make the cross seem more revelatory, committing the 1875 equivalent of Photoshop magic: painting a waterfall in the foreground where, in truth, none existed. I place no value upon literal transcripts from Nature, he said. The truth of the landscape was the most important thing. Strange, the lie made me love that painting—not because Moran was right, but because I had to believe in it against all evidence.
And now, here were mountains that matched those landscape forgeries, surrounding me on all sides. It was hard to believe the Book of Mormon came before Salt Lake City, impossible to imagine the Mormon Zion anywhere but Utah, where the landscape looks just like the illustrated Bible I read as a child: barren, violent, vengeful.
The valley felt like a theater-in-the-round, and I had just been pushed on stage. Something is supposed to play out here, I thought.
I vowed I would never return.
Now, here I am again. It is too late to turn back. My husband signed the contract for his new job, and the old one will not be waiting if he changes his mind.
Watching the cars spin around, I wonder if the grid makes drivers do it, if the city by its very design provokes just this: the desire to return from where you came.
In the foothills overlooking downtown, the Utah state capitol dome appears to lord over the Salt Lake Temple, but do not let the juxtaposition fool you: In 1847, when Brigham Young hiked 1,080 feet to the summit of Ensign Peak and confirmed this is the place, he meant the place the martyred Joseph Smith revealed to him in a divine vision. Due south from that gumdrop hill, he laid the cornerstone for the temple, and it became meridian zero, the center from which all of Zion radiated. The capitol building does not occupy that hill because of its power; it is there because the temple forced it into the hills.
Salt Lake City makes me a pilgrim against my will. Street addresses never let me forget how far I have strayed from Temple Square, the holy heart of the City of Zion, meridian zero.Every downtown address is a latitude and longitude mapping me inside the crosshairs of Temple Square:
200 S 700 E
100 E 700 S
“200 S 700 E” translates to two blocks south and seven blocks east of the square. If I continue on that path, I risk apostasy. If I reverse direction and walk seven blocks west and two blocks north, I transform into a pilgrim again.
I linger at street corners long after the walk signal has changed, studying street signs and attempting to locate myself inside the grid. If I play this game this long enough, I imagine, the novelty of Salt Lake City will fade, and coordinates will transform into addresses. Instead, I confuse the first and second cardinal directions. Am I seven blocks south or seven blocks east? There is no way to escape the reference point of Temple Square. Now, a pilgrim in the City of Zion, I am forced to cultivate an inner compass or use the one Zion gives me.
Someday you will be buried here, in Deseret, deep inside the Wasatch Mountains, in an earthquake-proof bunker secured by 14-ton Mosler doors capable of withstanding a nuclear blast. The Mormons will deliver you here, your name gleaned from a death certificate or Census survey or marriage license or baptism record. It is the Granite Mountain Records Vault, a genealogical records archive safeguarding billions of images on 2.5 million rolls of microfilm and digital media.
In 1960, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints blasted into a cliff in Little Cottonwood Canyon southeast of Salt Lake City, drilling 700-foot long tunnels 675 feet below the surface and reinforcing them with concrete and steel. Ten-foot-tall steel cabinets line its claustrophobic corridors, its relentless drawers like cells in a honeycomb, a card catalog of every human name the Mormons have harvested so far. Volunteers around the globe photograph records, sending images back to the nerve center, where archivists preserve them in perfect 55-degree temperatures and 35-percent humidity. Viewed from the outside, the entrance tunnels and parking lot lend the only hint of unnatural activity, like a secret alien laboratory or a beehive of B-movie proportions.
Nobody except authorized personnel gets past the 14-ton doors, and once a document goes in, it never comes out. The archive shuns tours and forbids researchers access to the originals. The security of the records trumps all curiosity: The simple swishing of pant legs kicks up enough fugitive denim dust to obliterate a record. Visitors, just by walking, pose a threat as potent as a nuclear bomb.
Not even the Salt Lake City temple is so secure. When the Wasatch Fault ruptures, the earthquake will liquefy the clay and sand beneath the temple. The temple will fall. The LDS world headquarters will fall. The holy city of the saints will crumble, but the vault will live on, cocooned like a time capsule, as impervious as an escape pod to the problems of man.
At night, the beehive-shaped entrance tunnels glow as golden as honey jars held up to the sun, except lit from within by spiritual alchemy.
Someday you will see those haunted honey jars from the inside.
Someday you will haunt them, too.
In the basement of the Salt Lake Temple, Mormons baptize the dead. Living people stand in as proxies for the deceased, hoping to summon lost spirits by getting dunked on their behalf in a 500-gallon elliptical tub. The tub balances on the backs of twelve life-sized oxen statues sculpted of cast iron and arranged in a circle, horns outward, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. The ritual takes place in the basement to symbolize a tomb; the proxies reach out grave to grave.
The Apostle Paul set the precedent in Corinthians 15:29 when he asked, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?” Mormons also base the practice, in part, on I Peter 3:19, in which Jesus “preached unto the spirits in prison.” If Jesus ministered to spirits, it follows spirits can still benefit from the gospel, that even the dead can continue to develop moral character, maybe even convert.
The only obstacle standing in the way of salvation: no physical body for a proper baptism; hence, the proxies. Proxy baptisms also drive the Mormon obsession with genealogy: The church needs addresses, as it were, for those spirit telegraphs.
More than once, I have walked past the temple and wondered if anyone was down inside the baptistry, submerged under the water in the giant tub. I have wondered what it would be like to do that for someone–to believe you could do that for someone. I wished I believed in it–not the religious doctrine, just the part about telegraphing a plea to the heavens, showing a lost loved one he is wanted back. If I could convert to just that one idea, I might. I might even convert for it: the ultimate second chance.
Salt Lake City street tags:
oxen oxen oxen
lamb of god + metric
capitalism is a ponzi scheme
will you be my valentine? – oxen
VEGAN STRAIGHT EDGE “WE WIN AGAIN”
while you’re asleep, we’re exploring rooftops
while you’re at work, we’re staying true to our desire
I used to take heart in these signs. I thought they came straight from the Salt Lake City underground, secret code for, You are not alone. While you sleep, we wage an invisible insurrection. While you sleep, we are turning Zion into Salt Lake City. New tags appear every morning within a one or two-block perimeter of my home, but in the daylight hours, under Zion’s omniscient sun, the vandals disband, hide. Very few of their messages survive the city’s roving paint crews. A city clean and in order, Brigham Young decreed. Nothing happened here.
When “oxen oxen oxen” appeared, I took it as a salvo against the push and pull of this grid, the stranglehold of the LDS on this city: You are their oxen, their beasts of burden. Now, I believe the vandal is an agent provocateur. He has been pointing me to the twelve oxen in the temple basement all along like a Mad Libs parable where I have to fill in the blanks between tags on crosswalk poles.
And Vegan Straight Edgers patrol the streets like modern-day Danites, the Destroying Angels, Brigham Young’s secret police, beating up smokers and drinkers. No slashing your throat ear to ear like in the 1800s; the vegans will lay your neck on the street curb like a chicken about to be slaughtered and kick, kick, kick. They are more Mormon than Mormons, more Danite than Danites. Maybe we thought the world thinks of us as good little Mormon boys, so we act out to get away from that image, one Straight Edger told the Los Angeles Times. They are secret agents of the grid. And they win again.
I begin to circumnavigate Temple Square from a one-block radius, sometimes for hours, just close enough to feel its gravity, to feel my resistance. Just close enough to make it feel me resist.
When I first saw Salt Lake City's stark, stern grid, I knew it could quell any rebellion. I blame it on the 132-foot-wide streets and the 660-foot-long blocks. There is no way for protestors to fill them, no way to shut them down. And then there is that tractor beam, the tug-of-rope with Temple Square. The grid, like a tautology, is impervious to logic: You are a pilgrim or not. You believe or do not. You are with us or against us.
In Portland, Oregon, where I lived for nine years, the short, 200-foot blocks and narrow streets left the city vulnerable to skirmishes and insurrections. Sometimes I think the grid even provokedthem. Anarchists and protestors clogged main downtown arteries, shutting down traffic and public transportation for as long as they could hold out against police.
It could not happen like that in Zion. Protests are relatively rare and polite. Nobody dares shut down a street. Here, cars rule the city, pushing pedestrians to the fringes. Many downtown streets are so hostile the crosswalk poles offer hazard flags for pedestrians to wave like bullfighters marching into a ring. I call them Orange Flags of Surrender, and I refuse to carry them at all costs.
I never learned to drive because of my epilepsy, so I have no choice but to submit to this grid, to play on this game board, to let it test me. Sometimes, I wonder if the ghost of Brigham Young is watching from the other side of the traffic cameras, logging my coordinates, subtracting merit points, readying the Destroying Angels, watching to see if I will pick up a flag, surrender.
My first sign I live in the city of children: a toddler popping out of the elevator like a spirit baby stowaway on the cosmic dumbwaiter, sneaking down to earth before he got assigned a family. He shackles my shins with his chubby arms and cries, “Mommy!”
The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issue proclamations, warning every married couple to heed God’s commandment to Adam and Eve: Be fruitful, multiply. Elder Russell M. Nelson admonishes college students: Do not wait. Babies are shields against Satan’s attack on the family.
God wants--God commands--you to have babies.
Families are God’s plan.
Families teach you how to get into heaven.
In the land of the highest birth rate of the nation, I cannot escape the babies: strollers parked next to weight stacks in the gym, tiny fingers grasping at the cables; gangs of toddlers, tethered by ropes to their daycare teachers, puddling at my feet at the crosswalk; kickball games in the apartment corridor.
I am childless in the city of children.
In every city I have ever lived, a river divides the downtown, and I cannot understand a city without one—a city like Zion. I miss bridges. I miss the sense of expanding possibility, of ambiguity, of risk. When President Bush declared war on Iraq in 2003, Portland protestors marched onto the Burnside Bridge, sat down, and declared it liberated territory. They named this new country Burnside FreeState. Political geography had been obliterated. The passage between had become the territory between.
Here, the nearest river lies beyond the interstate, outside any strategic protest zone. Sometimes, I think Brigham Young must have known the power of river bridges, because his original Zion grid stopped at the bank of the Jordan River, the only boundary of the city that wasn't political—except maybe it was.
Where in Zion can I liberate a space when every pocket is locked in the crosshairs of Temple Square?
When LDS missionaries Andrew Propst and Travis Tuttle were kidnapped for $300,000 ransom in Russia in 1998, their captors taped their eyes and mouths closed, handcuffed them so tight one suffered nerve damage, locked them together in a cramped room, and slid an unloaded gun into their hands like a threat printed in Braille: Touch the trigger. Know how your execution will feel. They wanted to force the missionaries to hold their own helplessness in their hands.
When the kidnappers took back the gun, the transfer of power was complete, just not in the direction they believed: The missionaries handed them helplessness, and they accepted. The captors were helpless now, in the face of surrender. What power could they possibly wield against willing captives?
They set the captives free, and fifteen years later, the missionaries delivered this moral on local news: Once we submitted our will to the Lord's, it really brightened our day.
First time inside Temple Square:
I walk cross-armed, shielding myself against missionaries, but they never appear. The whole square radiates recent abandonment, as though I stumbled into a game of hide-and-seek.
Up close, the temple seems so compact, so vertical, like an icicle dripping down from a cloud or a rocket ready for launch. The battlements make it look like a plastic game piece, light enough to lift by the cornerstone and peek at the secret rituals inside.
Its quartz monzonite masonry radiates white, so bright I have to squint to look up at it: Emerald City in white. But the longer I stare, the less white it seems. It reminds me of Malevich's White on White, how if I stare at the white square in that painting long enough, hundreds of shades of ivory begin to flicker beneath the surface, and the square presses against its edges, suggesting infinity.
At first, I do not even realize I am walking toward it; it is as though I am hypnotized. I stop when I reach the carving of the Big Dipper on the west central tower. I do not know I am playing right into the temple's hands: The saints carved this constellation for lost souls. It has me exactly where it wants me.
The relentless city grid disappears.
I find relief standing on the zero meridian: nowhere, no place.
Outside the 15-foot walls, I am a ward. Inside, I escape surveillance by placing myself right under the nose of the watchtower.
I escape the tractor beam by submitting to its will of my own free accord.
But freedom is fleeting, a word on the tip of my tongue. True meridian zero lies behind the temple doors, and without a temple recommend, I am forbidden entry. As long as I live in Zion, the only way to escape the grid is to convert.
The temple is a time machine. Beginning on the fifth buttress of the north temple wall, a clockwise lunar sequence charts one year of phases: birth, death, life, and resurrection. One lap around the temple, and a whole year unfolds, the moon in time-lapse. Forty laps, forty years: the time between Brigham Young laying the cornerstone on April 6, 1853, to President Wilford Woodruff dedicating the temple on April 6, 1893.
Inside, temple ordinances erase time. Bride and groom kneel at the altar, and they do not say “till death do us part,” because that vow--the one I took with my husband--starts the tick, tick, tick of the stopwatch. Temple marriage is not marriage at all, but a sealing, a cosmic envelope mailed straight to the dead letter office in the sky, never for fingers to slit open.
Children are sealed to parents.
Siblings to siblings.
Living to dead.
Families stay together forever. Families are timeless.
By the time I moved to Salt Lake City, I had not seen my mother in seven years, my sister in ten, and my father in fifteen. Before my oldest brother died, eighteen years had passed since I last laid eyes on his red hair.
We are timeless, too.
I begin to visit the temple almost daily, circumnavigating it in the wrong direction, counter-clockwise, winding the clock backward: death to life to birth. The temple is a time machine. Inside, it takes time away. Out here, it gives it back.
What I am saying is: Can a city by its very design make you long for family?
My brother, Jimmy, is buried beneath the Town & Country Shopping Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in a fully operational underground bowling alley. When the alley closed in 1997, the owners sealed over the stairwell hole with concrete, like a tomb, abandoning every last piece of equipment: pinsetters, ball returns, rental shoes, vending machines fully loaded with potato chips and candy, the soda fountains with the ice chips that always melted too fast. Everything is perfectly preserved like some kind of Midwestern Pompeii, even the sticky handprints on the daycare window overlooking the lanes like a watchtower. You can break in through the service entrance, flip a switch, and the machines will whir back to life.
At least, that is the urban legend I choose to believe. If archaeologists dig up that bowling alley one hundred years from now, the only clues they might find to its previous incarnation are the scraps of wallpaper left behind from closing night, when patrons stripped souvenirs straight off the walls. As for the rest, the owner gutted it.
To me, though, the alley will always be sacred ground, the place where I met Jimmy for the first and last time: one handshake, the sum total of all our time as siblings. I did not yet know he was my brother, not until I caught my father clipping his obituary a few days later. “That’s your brother, Jimmy,” he said. And it was the last time he ever uttered his name.
Jimmy Higgins. My brother. Self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.
Sometimes, I picture him down there, pressing his face to the glass of the daycare window, guarding the empty lanes. Our own private Granite Mountain.
When murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner faced his firing squad at the Utah State Prison in 2010, his executioners strapped him to a metal chair, stuck a target on his heart, and blinded him with a black hood. Five marksmen counted down, aimed their .30 caliber Winchester rifles through the gun port in a brick wall, and fired.
To outsiders, the execution proved what they already believed: Utah is an archaic, barbaric outpost of the Wild West. Never mind Utah outlawed firing squads for capital cases after 2004, or that Gardner's case got grandfathered, or that Utah is not the Wild West. Here in Zion, the question was not retribution; it was redemption.
Even though modern-day LDS leadership denies local legends of vigilante justice wielded by Brigham Young’s ruthless Danites, his Destroying Angels, Gardner’s execution raised the historical specter, recurrecting a debate about an old, officially disavowed Mormon doctrine alive and well in the Beehvie State: blood atonement, the belief that some offenses fall so far outside the pale, even Jesus’ crucifixion cannot wipe your slate clean. Your only way back into the Heavenly Father’s good graces, your only way back into the fold, is a blood sacrifice. You have to become your own savior, your own Jesus.
Hanging will not atone.
Lethal injection will not atone
The electric chair will not atone.
Only, as the Danites once did, your neck slit ear to ear, your blood emptied straight into your unmarked grave.
Or, as modern-day executioners carry out the deed, a bullet piercing the unholy chambers of your heart. In 15.6 seconds: heart death.
Quicker and less painful than lethal injection.
You who stay the execution, who declare firing squads inhumane, who decry the brutality of bullets, are the only ones cruel enough to cast stones. Zion condemns for one short minute; you condemn for eternity. That is why when you are voir dired for a capital case in Utah, the ghost of Brigham Young will ask: Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed his blood?
The Mormons never wanted to come to Utah. Their true Zion—their forever Zion—was always, always in Missouri, the midwest. Had Governor Boggs not issued Missouri Executive Order 44 ordering their extermination, the Mormons never would have fled to Nauvoo, Illinois. Had a mob not murdered Joseph Smith in the Carthage Jail, the Mormons might never have become western pioneers. This Zion was only temporary until they could return, exiles no more, to their true center, their real holy heart.
High in the mountain benches surrounding Salt Lake City, you can still see evidence of Zion’s antediluvian past: the watermarks of Pleistocene Lake Bonneville, a body of water that once drowned 20,000 square miles of this desert, spilling into Nevada and Idaho. Fifteen thousand years ago, the valley where Zion lives now was not a valley at all, but the bed of that ancient lake. Sometimes, when dust as thick as fog kicks up from the parched earth or the state admonishes Utahans to conserve every last drop from the tapped-out tap because we are the second driest state, I think: Lake Bonneville is urban legend. The geologic record is a lie. There is no way this valley was born from a flood.
Rain from a wrathful God did not cause it, but like the Genesis story, a catastrophic failure on earth did: a breach of the natural dam at Red Rock Pass that drained Lake Bonneville like a bathtub until only a few remnants remained. The Great Salt Lake is a ghost of that ancient lake, a shrunken puddle of its predecessor at just 33 feet deep and 1,730 square miles.
It is a terminal basin, meaning, once water flows in, it never flows out. Evaporation is the only escape. Water has to change state from liquid to gas; it has to stop being water at all. That is what makes the lake so salty: When the water vanishes, it leaves its salt crystals behind, like fossils.
Sometimes I wonder if Zion is my terminal city. The mountains are a blackout curtain across my horizon; I have not seen the vanishing point in years. And anyway, in which direction would I vanish—east or west, Iowa or Oregon? When I left Iowa all those years ago, I swore I would never return, but now, I am not so sure.
In 2008, the 500 Year Flood drowned my hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The World Theater, where I used to shuffle my feet on the gum-spotted sidewalk below the marquee and dream about moving west, was laid to rubble. The Paramount, where I tap-danced and pirhouetted on stage as a five-year-old girl, was filled up, its Mighty Wurlitzer knocked over like a plastic toy, damaged beyond repair. I imagine flood water all the way to the proscenium, the red velvet curtains at first billowing outward, floating like Ophelia’s petticoats, until they saturated and sank, dragged down by their own weight. My mother’s childhood home in the Time Check neighborhood got carried away on the fetid current like a makeshift Noah’s Ark, never to be seen again. The Mormons believe the Biblical Great Flood baptized the earth, and now I understand what they mean. When the flood destroyed my hometown, it was the first time I ever loved it, the first time I believed it could be redeemed.
What if, like the water in the Great Salt Lake, I am undergoing a fundamental state change? What if the vanishing point is me?
If you cannot navigate your way by the North Star, the temple will navigate for you. The Big Dipper carved onto the west center tower points the way to Polaris, to true north. It is a proxy constellation for people who cannot find the real one, for lost souls. In this way, the temple is a missionary, except instead of coming to you, you come to it. At night, the temple lights up, so you have no choice: The night sky disappears, and the proxy Big Dipper is all you have. You have to hitch your wagon to a proxy star.
Inside the front cover of every Book of Mormon, eleven eyewitness testimonies appear like a holy appraisal certificate: I saw the golden plates with my own eyes – meaning the ones from which Joseph Smith translated the scriptures. Three witnesses received a divine visit from the Angel Moroni, who laid the plates before them; eight others—all from the Whitmer or Smith clans—testify that Joseph Smith showed them the golden Bible and let them touch it. Perhaps because the Book of Mormon is so recent, skeptics expect more than eyewitnesses; they expect archaeological evidence. They expect forensics as clear and conclusive as fingerprints in the margins. Smith, however, surrendered the plates to the Angel Moroni, and they never surfaced again.
In 2006, the Museum of Church History and Art succeeded where archaeology failed: It manufactured the missing artifact. Historians and volunteers worked like forensic artists, transforming testimonies into hard evidence. They dipped copper plates in acid-resistant paint, scratched Egyptian characters into the surface, and soaked them in acid solution to dissolve the exposed metal of the letters. Then, they stripped all evidence of the paint with a kerosene bath, washed off the kerosene, electroplated the plates with silver-and-gold alloy, and bound them with oversized D-shaped rings. The end result: a holy three-ring binder.
The museum chose electroplated copper not because it was cheaper, but because it could withstand scientific scrutiny: Gold would have weighed 200 pounds, far more than the weight described by witnesses. The golden binder was not evidence; it was hypothesis, and that was enough: The fake meant the real one was possible.
The only hard evidence I have of Jimmy’s existence is a black-and-white studio portrait taken with my other two brothers sometime between 1968 and 1970. Jimmy sits to the right of the frame, the smallest of all three boys, maybe six or seven, a living ventriloquist doll with a stiff smile and oversized plaid jacket. On the border of the collapsible frame just below him, my mother has written “Jimmy Higgins” in ballpoint pen.
In the middle, Greg looks dapper in a seersucker suit with vertical stripes and a black clip-on bowtie. Someone slathered his cowlick with Brylcreem, so his red hair appears far darker than I remember, and his smile—so gummy he appears toothless—already anticipates his trademark smirk as an adult.
On the far left sits Scott in gray gabardine, half-winking, half-squinting his right eye, the same way he always does. Only after moving to Utah did I find out he is Mormon. Now, I like to call him my Mormon brother, the phrase all rolled into one word, myMormonbrother, as if through that genealogy, I earn some kind of right, some kind of claim on this place.
I scan the picture left to right and right to left, examining their jawlines, their smiles, their cheekbones, searching for some kind of resemblance. By now, I know my father adopted Jimmy with a previous wife, but it doesn’t make sense. Of all my brothers, I look the most like him.
Mark Hofmann's first noted Mormon forgery betrayed his ambition to toy with the church he had forsaken: He stole the identity of Joseph Smith, penning a fake page of Egyptian characters supposedly transcribed straight from the golden plates. It was the Anthon Transcript, a document Smith created in 1828 to deliver to classics professor Charles Anthon in New York for authentication of the Egyptian characters—hence, the name.
Hofmann dreamed up and executed his con in just a few days after discovering that the transcript on file in the Reorganized LDS library did not match Professor Anthon's description: Anthon described vertical columns and a circle filled in with moons, stars, and symbols, but the RLDS copy featured horizontal lines and no circle. Hofmann surmised a source document must exist: I probably can't be lucky enough to find it. So why can't I make it?
He drew the Egyptian characters in homebrewed iron gallotannic ink on legit 1830ish paper razor-bladed out of a biblical history book in the Institute Library at Utah State, performing forensic analysis in reverse: adding flourishes to make it look like a predecessor to the RLDS copy—a trick he learned from reading studies tracing transcriptions of Shakespearean manuscripts. Then, he soaked the paper in hydrogen peroxide to age the ink and adhered the transcript inside a 1668 Bible with a mixture of charcoal, wheat paste, and drops of Elmer's glue—ordinary white glop from the kindergarten crafts bottle with the orange cap: anachronistic glue binding anachronistic documents.
It was his own kind of sealing ceremony, binding his lie to that Bible and to Mormon history forever. On the back of the transcript, he went so far as to declare it the fulfillment of the Isaiah 29:11 prophecy, in which the words of a book are delivered to a learned man, and he cannot read it, for it is sealed. For Joseph Smith, delivering the Anthon Transcript really had fulfilled Isaiah 29:11. For Hofmann, the prophecy was about to become self-fulfilling: The forger, too, would deliver a sealed book, his lies wearing the Bible like a cloak.
Hofmann's real magic, though, was the provenance he conjured from thin air. To make his lie unassailable, he duped two people into becoming unwitting alibis: First, he made sure his wife stood by his side when he discovered the sticky Bible page. Second, he delivered the Bible to A.J. “Jeff” Simmonds, Special Collections Curator at the Utah State University library, and asked for his help un-sticking the glue. We saw it stuck in that Bible with our own eyes, Hofmann wanted them to testify. The ruse mimicked and mocked the very foundational Mormon story: Joseph Smith translating from golden plates that nobody except a few eyewitnesses could authenticate.
As for the wheat paste mixture tainted with kindergarten crafts glue, far from detracting from the transcript’s authenticity, it made it seem more so. When Mark came in here, Simmonds told the Deseret News, that document was glued in. I don’t know how anyone can play around with that kind of adhesive and have it react the way it reacted when Mark brought it in here. In other words, the very act of sealing something makes it true.
But unsealing casts the same spell. Who wants to unstick the glue of a lie?
When Hofmann’s "discovery" hit the headlines in the Deseret News in May 1980, he was photographed with church counselors, apostles, and even Prophet Spencer W. Kimball, who leaned over the Anthon Transcript with a magnifying glass like a questioned document examiner. That photo turned out to be the real forgery, for in that split second when the flashbulbs ignited, Hofmann had set the whole notion of prophecy on fire, like a burning testimony: The Prophet is nothing but a man. He, too, can fall under the spell of a lie.
I did not believe, Hofmann later confessed, that someone could be inspired as far as what my feelings or thoughts were. You know, using that in the religious sense.
The Prophet and the forger had both delivered “ the words of a book” to learned men, and their secrets remained sealed. Which fulfillment of the Isaiah prophecy is true, and which is false?
In one of my few vivid memories with my oldest brother, Greg, he was fumbling with the buttons on my pajamas even though I kept shoving his fingers away. I was eight years old, delirious with fever, in and out of consciousness like a bulb on a mercury tilt switch. Greg had come to live with us between jobs, and when the doctor gave the order for an ice bath, he was the one who stripped off my pajamas and carried me naked to the bathtub.
I did not want him to see me. The truth is, I had a puppy-love crush. Ever since he arrived at our front door, he had seemed like a miracle: the brother I always wanted, someone who could appreciate my bicycle wheelies and the bug cemetery I dug under a bush on the front lawn, painting rocks for the headstones: Beetle Juiced, much missed (but not by the bike tire). Lady Bugged, smooshed in the screen door. I went out of my way to harass and tease him, provoking him into roughhousing me on the living room floor.
My feelings about the ice bath are mercurial: In daytime, the memory takes on a sweet quality, my brother taking care of me in a vulnerable moment. At night, I wake up trying to wriggle out from under him.
Not long after, my brother was banished from my life for good.
By the time he died in 2008, stricken down at the age of 51 by an unexpected heart attack, I had not seen him in 18 years, as many years as he was older than me. When the Cedar Rapids Gazette published his obituary, the author left my name off the list of surviving siblings; one day later, a corrected obituary wrote me back into the family line. Years later, I learn that my Mormon brother called in the correction, and even though he spelled my name wrong, it has to count for something.
I wonder which version Granite Mountain has filed away in its vault, which one will survive the earthquake and nuclear bomb.
Am I Greg’s sister forever or not?
In Zion, sunlight radiates unfiltered through the dry, desert air, so bright it hurts my eyes to look up. At first, I attribute the intensity of the light to living in Portland for so long, where sunlight illuminates the humid air like a soft focus bulb—when it shines at all. Then I think it must be all the empty space in Salt Lake City: wide streets, parking lots insulating every building in my neighborhood, the abandoned sidewalks. There is nowhere for the light to hide—nowhere for me to hide from it. It feels stark, omnipresent, as thin as oxygen in the mountains, the kind of light you expect in the City of God: cold, indifferent. But at our elevation of 4,300 feet, ultraviolet radiation reaches us flame-hot, omniscient as an x-ray.
All that light makes the city appear weightless, insubstantial, as though everything and everyone might float into the atmosphere like an untethered helium balloon. I cannot hold onto ideas. Words evaporate like the Great Salt Lake, leaving nothing behind but indivinable salt crystals. My thoughts want to float, along with Zion, to heaven.
Zion is not just a city. It is the earthly dock for the City of God in the sky when it returns to Earth for the apocalypse. I say return because the City of God has been here before: Enoch’s utopian metropolis, so righteous that God translated it straight to heaven, inhabitants and all. When Joseph Smith conceived the blueprint for the Zion Plat by divine revelation, he translated it to human proportions once again, and the task now, the only task we have, said Brigham Young, is to build up Zion so we are worthy of the second coming. When that day comes, the heavenly Zion will click onto our grid like matching Legos in a divine set: our streets clicked into its streets; our temple clicked into its temple, just like in Moses 7:63: We will receive them into our bosom, and we will fall upon their necks, and they shall fall upon our necks. As a non-believer, I have no visual reference, so I imagine Enoch’s metropolis hovering like the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, trumpeting to the Angel Moroni statue atop the temple’s east central spire.
Or will it plunge through the atmosphere like a chunk of the planet Kolob, slamming into us like a meteor?
But Joseph Smith designed the Zion Plat as an earthly utopia, too, clenching every urban planning maneuver tight in the church's theocratic grip. Within his original one-square-mile plat, he divided the city into ten-acre blocks, and within those blocks, half-acre lots, all identical: one family per lot; a house of brick or stone; room for an orchard and garden. No two houses ever faced one another: privacy and community in one. No dark alleys for prostitution and crime, no inequalities, and no conflict. Smith understood: grid is destiny.
Smith also envisioned an urban growth boundary long before anyone coined the term. When Zion's population swelled beyond 15,000-20,000, the grid would not budge beyond a green belt. Instead, a new Zion would spring up in exactly the same form, spreading over the surface of the earth like a circuit board, programming the world for its demise.
Brigham Young never built the original Zion Plat: He adapted it to suit Utah’s topography and his own vision. Zion might have survived minor alterations, though, were it not for rabid anti-Mormonism, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the automobile. In 1887, the Edmunds-Tucker Act punished polygamy with prison sentences and authorized federal marshals to seize all church properties valued over $50,000, unfurling the LDS fist-grip on urban development. Add to that the surge of non-Mormons via the railroad, and piece-by-piece, private interests laid siege to the holy city. Alleys and subdivisions ate through blocks like termites, and prostitutes lurked in the shadows. Later, Brigham Young's polite, U-turn-friendly streets proved all too seductive for automobiles. Suburbs spread, and the greenbelt disappeared.
Brigham Young, it turns out, was an agent provocateur, too.
For once the general detestation and hatred pervading the whole country against the Mormons is given legal countenance and direction, a crusade will start against Utah which will crush out this beast of heresy forever.
– San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin
1856: A black cloud of grasshoppers eclipses the sun. Exoskeletons click click click, stripping tree trunks of their bark like skin grafts in reverse. In Zion's streets: pop, pop, popping under the wagon wheels. Crops: nibbled to nothing. You pray for the flock of seagulls, the same miracle that saved the Mormon pioneers in 1848. But the birds never come. This time, God has forsaken you.
Brigham Young knows why the seagulls do not come. Brigham Young knows miracles only swoop down when theyare hungry, not you. Miracles, by their very nature, are predators. If your neighbor wishes salvation, spill his blood, he said.Love him enough—love Zion enough—to let him atone.Let the sinners sacrifice their blood. Let the sinners who brought this plague be our saviors when Jesus refuses.
When emigrants roll into Mountain Meadows in 1857, you are still hungry for blood and miracles. Any Arkansas wagon team is as good as guilty for the murder of apostle Parley Pratt in Arkansas just a few weeks before: If these emigrants are not killers, let them be proxies for the killers. Let them pay for the murder of Joseph Smith at Carthage, too. Let them atone.
Surround the wagons.
Wave white flags of surrender.
Promise to lead them to safety.
Make the men walk single file.
Club brains with the butt of your gun. Aim bullets straight to mothers' foreheads.
No child over the age of seven survives.
Fight like Isaac Height: Feed to the gentiles the same bread they fed to you.
It is September 11, 1857. In four days, President Young will forbid all armed forces from entering Utah, proclaiming: Any President of the United States who lifts his finger against these people shall die an untimely death and go to hell.
In four days, you will be free. There is your miracle.
What would Brigham Young say today, after Mitt Romney, great-great grandson of Parley Pratt, has stood at the podium of the Republican National Convention, surrendering to the very nation that would send its army into the Promised Land?
During winter in Salt Lake City, heaven and earth turn upside down: frigid air at the ground; warm air high in the mountains. Meteorologists call it a surface temperature inversion, blaming the winter sun sinking low on the horizon and high-pressure fronts. Inversions settle in for days and weeks, a layer of warm air in the mountains sealing the valley like a Tupperware lid.
Oil refinery and coal-powered electrical plant emissions, illicit wood-burning particulates, crematory and medical incinerator ash, mining dust, and automobile exhaust build up as if the city is attempting suicide inside a locked garage. The mountains are the garage door, standing sentry against all wind movement: no air gets in; no air gets out.
Sometimes, I mistake the blue air and the burning at the back of my throat for the aftermath of an insurrection: tear gas lingering after all the rebel forces have been rounded up.One January, after the smog clears, I discover oxen oxen oxen has disappeared, and I think: the Destroying Angels have come for him. They win again. A city clean and in order.
Inversion air tastes like sucking on a filthy penny. It leaves a film on my tongue and teeth, the oily texture of rainbows on puddles. My voice turns throaty. I am dizzy. Sleepy. Street and security lights glow like flying saucers. The mountains and sun disappear for days. Sometimes, even buildings across the street vanish. Cars and pedestrians glide out of the fog like ships on water. It feels like Blade Runner. It feels like end times. Sky, city, mountains: I accept they will never come back. During these times, I wonder if Zion has landed, if this is what happens when the holy grids no longer line up.
When friends visit, I drag them on walking tours, pointing to the street signs and asking, Do you feel that? I mean the tractor beam, the tug-of-war with Temple Square.
They regard me with suspicion. Have I converted? Am I some kind of covert missionary?
And in a sense, they are right. I ama covert missionary, a secret agent of the grid. I have to choose Zion. Many of the streets I walk every day have more than one name:
400 S/4th South/University Boulevard
500 S/5th S/Cesar Chavez
“4th South” obliterates the reference to Temple Square, but I resist the translation. In that sense, the city is not converting me; I am converting myself.
For his most devious Mormon forgery, Mark Hofmann came full circle: This time, instead of conjuring false eyewitnesses, he became one. Assuming the identity of Martin Harris, one of the witnesses in the Book of Mormon's holy appraisal certificate, he preyed on the worst fear of the LDS: that Joseph Smith was a money-digging, glass-looker con artist out to make a quick buck helping victims track treasure with magic seeing stones. Evidence does suggest Smith faced trial for money digging, so Hofmann penned the Salamander Letter to make it official church history. He also exposed hypocrisy: To translate the plates, Smith relied on a seer stone and a set of silver spectacles with Biblical Urim and Thummim lenses. This magic, however, was sanctioned by heaven.
In the letter, a white salamander guards the golden plates, not the Angel Moroni; hence, the title “Salamander Letter.” Perhaps to plant a clue to his end game, Hofmann lifted the idea from a classic anti-Mormon book, E.D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed. As with the Anthon Transcript, he conjured up a shady provenance—a ruse that, to Hofmann, boosted the letter's authenticity. Only lies come with a clean paper trail, an airtight alibi.
When the Church accepted the authenticity of the letter, it played right into Hofmann's hands: legitimizing anti-Mormon propaganda and undercutting the testimony printed inside its own holy book. However, as it had in the past when confronted with evidence to the contrary, the Church never turned its back on its foundational myth. It had also proved Hofmann right, for as he later proclaimed in his confession, it did not matter if Joseph Smith had the first vision or received the plates from the Angel Moroni, so long as people believe it.
In the end, the forger and the faithful shared the same core conviction: Belief, real belief, requires no forensics, no provenance at all.
The truth, as Hofmann wrote, is the most important thing.
James Dean Darrah: That was Jimmy’s legal name the day he died. On the day he fired that bullet into his heart, he was no longer my brother, at least not in name. Twenty-nine years after his death, with the help of a genealogist, I unearth his obituary so I can finally, finally hold the proof in my hands, and now I am left with nothing.
Jimmy Higgins. Adoption rescinded before I was born. Not my brother. Never was.
It turns out he committed suicide just a few blocks from my childhood street. I used to ride my bike past the red tow truck parked in his driveway all the time. I wonder if Jimmy ever witnessed me popping wheelies on my yellow, banana-seat bicycle—if he knew who I was. I wonder if he remembered posing for the black-and-white portrait with our brothers, if he ever held a copy in his hands. Our unofficial temple ordinance record, our secret sealing.
As for the adoption, I misunderstood: My father and his wife did not adopt an orphan. My father adopted his wife’s child from a previous marriage—his stepson. In his obituary, the list of surviving siblings is long, but no one who reads it will know he had an almost-sister named Karrie. I am left off the list.
Siblings, real siblings, have a claim on him. This should not change anything. After all, if Jimmy had showed up at our doorstep all those years ago, I would have accepted him as a brother. Not an adopted brother, but a brother. And yet, it does change things. Who am I to claim him?
Was I alive one day on this earth while Jimmy was still Jimmy Higgins? I ask my mother.
And to my surprise, I was: I was incubating in the womb when Jimmy dropped out of my family tree.
Is it overlap enough?
Take the eternal view, the Mormons would say, but I need something tangible, something to hold onto. Twenty-nine years ago, I saw that obituary, the one with his name in black-and-white: Jimmy Higgins.
Where is that obituary now, the one that made him my brother?
On the tallest spire of the temple, the golden Angel Moroni raises his trumpet, but he is not just an angel; he is a lightning rod, with cables connecting him to the temple’s grounding system. The same angel that trumpets the end of the world channels wrath from the heavens straight into the holy epicenter, saving the proxy moons and stars from the real ones.
I write Jimmy Higgins and Greg Higgins on a slip of ordinary notebook paper, fold it in half, and carry it in my palm to Temple Square.
I keep my head down as I pass through the gate, my way of bringing myself under its jurisdiction, of confessing.
I have to believe Joseph Smith would understand. His big brother Alvin was stricken down at the age of 25 by bilious colic and a lethal dose of Calomel—a remedy more toxic than the disease, pure powder of mercury chloride. Thirteen years later, in a vision of the celestial kingdom, the Prophet spotted Alvin, alive and well in eternal splendor even though he died before the restoration of the one true church. A revelation of baptism for the dead followed. Proxy baptism, then, was born in longing for a dead brother. It is not just for converting; it is also for sealing.
Under the fifth buttress of the north temple wall, where the lunar sequence begins, I commence my usual counter-clockwise walk, backward through the lunar phases: lightness to dark, death to birth, and stop at the west facade, just below the Big Dipper. This, right here, is the place. In the basement, on this side, is the baptistry. It makes sense: sending spirit telegraphs from a tomb beneath this constellation, the compass for lost souls.
I ascend the steps to the wooden doors on the right. Nobody stops me. I am inches from the portal. I touch the beehive engraved on the doorknob, the symbol of industry, of doing God’s work. In a semicircle atop the beehive, an engraving reads: Holiness to the Lord. The very act of turning this knob, opening this door, would be doing God’s work, unless of course, you have no right to be here. My Mormon brother wrote me back into the obit, I think. My Mormon brother, my Mormon brother. It has to count for something.
On the escutcheon: the seashell, symbol of water and baptism.
This spot, right here, is as close as I will ever get.
I kiss the slip of paper and, just for a second, consider sticking it through the keyhole. But I cannot force them into the temple. I have taken my request to the highest authority, and now, it is up to the temple to telegraph my heretical plea. It is up to my brothers to accept it. This stairwell, this portal, this meridian, nowhere, no place, like home.
A shorter version of this piece originally appeared in Issue 16 of Black Clock, February 2013.
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