What Joy Downer Still Appreciates About Growing Up Mormon

Even though the dream-pop artist unofficially left the church, she’s carried some values with her.

I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I know — it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, which is why members are more popularly known as Mormons. I’m often asked what it was like. Being that this upbringing is all I know, all I can offer is a little glimpse through my own lens. Obviously my perspective is limited to my own, and I don’t speak for every Mormon.

I’ve never left the church in any official way. I just stopped going over the last 12 years. While the church and all its teachings are not something that fits for me personally, I’m not so anti-Mormon that I’ve felt the need to officially pull my records and denounce myself as a member… After all, some of my core values come from the church and have largely impacted my life in a positive way. 

I’ll start with marriage expectations, which is only to be between a man and a woman. It was made clear from a young age that my life role looked very different than my brothers. My main function seemed to be caretaker to my many children and an obedient wife to my husband. For some years I thought I could be happy in that role, as I love kids, but I hadn’t really been shown any other options at this point. While I was being taught how to get a husband, to be worthy of a husband, to be a homemaker, the boys were being taught how to be somebody, and taught all they were entitled to so long as they remained worthy. Being worthy meant many things: no ding ding before the wedding ring, no using the Lord’s name in vain (needless to say, my song “Goddamnit” didn’t go over well), no thinking bad, dirty thoughts, or even thinking about thinking bad, dirty thoughts, no gambling, no drinking alcohol (or coffee or tea), no profanity, no dressing inappropriately (a rule that seemed to be limited to females). Your body is your temple and it’s to be kept clean and pure. This often confused me when most dishes consisted of mayonnaise and Cool Whip and hot dogs… Not to say I minded. Mormon dishes are still my comfort food.

And here might be a good segue to the positives, the things I love and miss. MUSIC for starters — singing hymns and other music is such a big part of church. I loved this part. Everyone seemed to either sing or play an instrument. All my sisters played piano and read music. Our house was always filled with it. My mom is a gorgeous piano player and writes the most spellbinding melodies. I am convinced that in a life without six kids, she could have been an accomplished composer. In my eyes (and ears), she is like John Williams and Andrew Lloyd Weber. My brother Jon played guitar and had a punk rock band; he was very, very cool (still is). I was no doubt influenced and inspired by all the musical people in my family.

Something else I really miss is the community. As in most churches, the community it provides is one of the biggest draws. And the Mormons have that in heaps. The volunteering, the gatherings, the holiday parties, the camp trips, the amount of generosity to those in need.

Mormons show up for each other in a way I’ve not seen anywhere else. You had a baby? Sister Pearce, Sister York, Sister… you don’t even remember her name, but that doesn’t matter because she’s bringing you homemade meals and now you love her. You need help moving? No need to hire a moving company, because every returned missionary and their uncle is coming to move you for free, with a smile included. 

That’s another thing: Almost every Mormon I know has a pleasant disposition, a nearly unshakable happiness that you could feel energetically. Sometimes they show up out of nowhere just to check in and see what they can help with… for free. I’ll admit, this is something I’ve somewhat abused in the form of helping me clean my house or helping me move. And while the church is something I’ve distanced from this past decade, it is still and always will be a large part of who I am. I live by the teaching “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” I try hard to live by that and believe in it wholeheartedly.

I don’t intend to give the impression that because the church is not for me, it’s not good or right for some. I have a lot of love and respect for all my family and friends still in the church. It makes them happy and that’s all I could want for them. That said, tables turned — carry the guilt and burden of taking a different path with me always. I feel I don’t deserve good things because of my life choices and all my “sinning.” I feel like a bad daughter for letting my dad down. He lives with the burden of sadness that some of his 10 children have “gone astray,” mainly because this means we will not get to be together after this life, as there are different levels of heavens and I’ll supposedly be in the lower of them… But here’s a funny lil’ kicker: He and my mom are still married for ETERNITY despite having been divorced since I was 2. Awkward, but very entertaining to think of — definitely a reality show I could get into. Might pitch it to Netflix. 

Joking aside, it does take its toll on me. I suppose for now, all I can do is try my best to enjoy the current mortal life I have made for myself. It’s filled with family, music , and love. It’s a pretty wonderful life, and I intend to cherish it. Maybe I’ve taken the aspects from church that felt meaningful to me and have lived by them on my own terms. I figure that all I can do is try to be better in each new day, treat others as I wish to be treated. and to keep doing what I love and work hard. After all, I want to show my daughter that she can be somebody, not just get somebody. 

Joy Downer is an LA-based musician whose latest album, Paper Moon, is out now.