All Things Compounded in One

My faith died with the hands of a priesthood holder on my head, as I received the blessing meant for some other woman.

Libbie Grant
19 min readJun 8, 2022

By Libbie Grant

One of my earliest memories takes place in the basement playroom of the house where I spent my early childhood in Rexburg, Idaho, one of the strongholds of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the religion into which I was born and which my ancestors helped create. In this memory, I am looking down with dismay, almost with horror, at a baby doll in a toy cradle. There’s an adult in the room. It’s not my mother, nor is it my father, which leaves one of my many aunts or uncles, or one of my grandparents. Whoever the adult is, they’re trying to get me to pick up the doll and play with it — mother it. I don’t want to do it, and they’re growing frustrated with me, maybe a little angry. I am two or three years old.

Even when I was a baby myself, I wanted nothing to do with babies. I found their sudden, high-pitched noises frightening and unpredictable. They made me feel anxious — not only because of their unpleasant sounds, but because of the strange, gravitational force that surrounded them, a cultural pressure that seemed to be pushing me inexorably toward babies even though I preferred to stay far away from them. It didn’t matter where I turned within my small, homogeneous world. Because I was a girl, I wouldn’t be permitted to escape my fate — not for long. I was meant to have babies, created by God for the express purpose of using my body to make more human beings, and I had better get used to that fact, because nothing could change it.

I was a strong-willed person from the start, however. Around the age of three or four, I began to display clear preferences in the way I presented myself to the world. I rejected anything “girly” — no dresses, no ruffles, no pink — and insisted that I would dress the way my male cousins did, in jeans or Osh Kosh corduroy overalls with plaid shirts. I was very proud of my black-and-white saddle shoes, miniature imitations of the Oxfords fancy gentlemen wore in old movies. My mother did convince me to wear dresses to church on the grounds that it would be “irreverent” for a girl to dress like a boy, but church was the only place where I would consent to a classically feminine presentation.

Around that age, I began identifying with male characters in books and movies, too — pretending to be these characters for weeks on end, never answering to my real name but only the name of the identity I’d assumed.

I never pretended to be any female character; the very thought repulsed me, for it was the 1980s and the broader culture wasn’t terribly far ahead of the Latter-day Saints when it came to depicting women as independent, fully actualized people. In most media, female characters were thoroughly passive. They had no stories of their own; they existed as motivation for male characters, who got to embark on adventures and be heroes. The message I was absorbing from movies and TV was clear: men had real lives, and women were for men to use as props or rewards or something worse. To be a man was to be alive, active, real. To be a woman was to scarcely exist at all.

Illustration: Antonio Rodriguez

Within my culture — that is, the Latter-day Saint faith as it existed then in eastern Idaho — the picture of womanhood was even more grim. There was only one kind of woman in my immediate world, and she stayed home, raising children. Men had careers — sometimes very interesting careers, like my father, who was a professional artist. Men made things happen in the world; they made things — paintings and music and buildings and medicine and the rockets that flew to space. Women only made babies. That was all God wanted women to do, according to my family’s religion — according to every person I knew. And in this culture of rigid expectation, this featureless landscape that offered me neither choice nor personal interest, I was growing more belligerent and anxious, more certain by the day that no matter how many songs I was made to sing in primary school proclaiming that all I wanted was to become a mommy, the very last thing I would do with my life was become a mommy.

If you were reading the Ensign … this story would end with my becoming a mother. But this isn’t the Ensign, and I am not a faithful Mormon. This story has a different ending.

When I was five or six years old, my grandparents and aunts and uncles had begun commenting on my alarmingly masculine tendencies. It had been okay to let my unfeminine habits slide when I’d been a toddler, but now that I was approaching school age, my extended family warned my parents that they needed to teach me how to be a proper girl. I was growing in the wrong direction, and the whole family was concerned for my eternal soul. If I didn’t grow up to marry a righteous man, get sealed to my husband in the temple, and have lots of children, I wouldn’t spend eternity in the Celestial Kingdom — the highest order of Heaven.

If my parents had been more righteous themselves, our family’s dire predictions about my eternal fate probably would have scared them into compliance. Fortunately for me, my parents weren’t willing to take the matter any further than forcing me to look like a girl whenever we were inside a church. May whatever god exists bless them for standing strong in defense of their daughter. It couldn’t have been easy for them, raising a gender-nonconforming child within a culture whose very raison d’etre is rigidly defined gender roles. I have no doubt that my mom and dad suffered in their own ways for their defense of my free spirit, but despite whatever social discomfort it caused them, they allowed me to be myself Monday through Saturday.

I suppose it isn’t surprising, though, that my mom and dad stood up for my self-expression. They were both rebels themselves, or tried their best to be.

Illustration: Antonio Rodriguez

My dad struggled to define his own identity within our restrictive culture. Some of his beliefs about what was right and wrong never quite meshed with Latter-day Saint tradition, though he contorted himself in mental knots, trying to make his heart and his faith sing in some ragged harmony. When it came to appearance and behavior, Dad pushed the boundaries of what the culture allowed, growing his hair just a little too long, dressing just a little too hippie-ish, reveling just a little too much in secular rock and roll.

My mother wasn’t exactly an outsider to the religion; her family had converted when she’d been eight years old, and she’d been baptized as a child. But Mom had grown up in the Seattle area, where even the most conservative Mormons are astonishingly liberal compared to those in Rexburg. Mom had been raised by a divorced mother who’d found self-actualization in having a career, and my grandmother’s life of independence had made quite an impression on my mom. She may have been a member of the church, but Mom wasn’t feminine enough for Rexburg or for her in-laws, and almost no one in my father’s family ever really accepted her. She was always an outsider, watched with keen mistrust. In my late twenties, after I’d left the church, Mom told me with a laugh how my father’s parents had accused her once of being “a secret lesbian” because she’d only had two children.

I felt the room jolt around me, felt reality slide into a strange, dissipating haze. How could God not know that I wanted no part of motherhood?

What my father’s family never knew was that both he and my mother were secret proponents of Zero Population Growth — a social movement that reached its peak of popularity in the 1970s. People like my parents, who believed families should have a maximum of two children, were considered such an existential threat to our religion that the church embarked on a media campaign to fight back against the idea, culminating in a truly ridiculous musical called Saturday’s Warrior, which was a smash hit in Mormon-majority cities throughout the 70s and 80s, even getting a direct-to-video release in 1989 and a remake as a true feature film in 2016.

Armed with their personal convictions about responsible reproduction, yet still bearing the weight of cultural expectation, my father bought my mother a flashy sports car, which she used to drive once a month from Rexburg to a family planning clinic in Idaho Falls, some thirty miles away, to pick up her prescription for birth control pills. Even if she could find a doctor in Rexburg who was willing to prescribe the Pill to a married woman, she didn’t trust that man not to gossip about it.

It wasn’t many years after I was born that the pressure of all these expectations became too much for my father to bear. Mormonism is a religion that expects perfection; its foundational premise is that if we only live exactly the right kind of life with exactly the right kind of faith and exactly the right kind of obedience, we will ascend to godhood in the afterlife — if you’re a man, anyway. If you’re a woman, you get to be a “goddess,” which means you’ll give birth to an endless parade of spirit babies, and never do much else with your eternity.

The burden of perfection is one few people can bear without consequences. My father was no god; he was human, and he was losing his battle to live an error-free life. Plagued by guilt, he turned first to prayer, but when his mental health didn’t improve, he turned to the local doctor. The doctor prescribed opiates. I hardly need to detail what went wrong from there. It’s a story too many American families already know.

Suffice to say, by the time I was eight years old, my parents were embroiled in a nasty divorce. My mother packed everything she could into her flashy sports car — my sister and me, our photo albums, our favorite toys and clothes, our dog and our cat — and drove back to Seattle, where we moved in with my grandmother, the divorcee who’d already left the LDS church to forge her own life beyond the patriarchal grip.

Illustration: Antonio Rodriguez

I must have struggled somewhat with the divorce and the fallout from my dad’s addiction. What child wouldn’t? But now, all my memories of those days are happy ones.

Seattle was a new world, and my new school was rich with a diversity of friends from a variety of cultures. Every child I met had a unique way of looking at life, and I was fascinated by them all. No one told me any longer that I was a bad girl if I didn’t play with dolls. In fact, when my second-grade teacher asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I promptly answered, “Not a mom.” She laughed joyfully and responded, “Good for you for knowing that.”

My sister and I no longer had to go to church on Sundays unless we wanted to. Most of the time we didn’t want to, which meant I seldom had to wear dresses anymore. My self-expression flourished. I looked more like a boy than ever, and though I was too old for pretending to be characters from movies or books, I did adopt a masculine nickname, and no one batted an eye at its use.

If I’d lived my childhood in the 21st century, I would have been correctly identified as a gender-fluid or nonbinary child. I might even have been encouraged to consider whether I was transgender. I knew I wasn’t a boy, however; I was a girl who was plenty girl enough, exactly as I was, without a speck of femininity in me. If other people couldn’t understand that — well, that was no concern of mine. In the late 80s, the only word anyone could find to describe me was “tomboy,” and I wore that label with pride. It was the first time any descriptor fit me in all my life.

The divorce was chaotic, as divorces tend to be, though my mom and grandma worked hard to keep us as sheltered as they could from the proceedings. Mom wanted my sister and me to maintain positive feelings for our dad and his side of the family, including the LDS faith we’d been born into. We spent our summers in Idaho with our Mormon family, where I did my best to play the part of a proper girl — as much as I could make myself comply.

On summer days, midweek, with the dreaded Sundays far behind and far ahead, my dad would drive me out to a lone, faded country store to buy a candy bar and a soda. Away from the watchful eyes of the rest of our family, we could both be ourselves for a little while. He would crank the window down and blast his rock music, and his longish hair would blow in a wind that smelled of dry, hot dust from the potato fields. I would make crass jokes and outrageous observations, and generally allow myself to be a rough, unfeminine thing.

Despite the summers my sister and I spent back among the fold, my father’s side of the family never really reconciled themselves to my mother. The fact that she’d won full custody and was only allowing us to visit the family for our sake — not theirs — remained a sore spot with everyone. Sometimes our grandfather would lecture us about proper femininity, holding our mother up as an example of utterly failed womanhood.

I’ll never forget the time he said, “You know, toward the end of their marriage, your mother refused to sleep with your father,” to which my sister flatly responded, “Good.”

This fear that our mother would corrupt our souls with her dangerous feminism was a real source of distress to my grandparents. They earnestly believed that we would be deprived of a fulfilling eternity if we weren’t brought back to the straight and narrow, if we weren’t taught how to be righteous women. That fear very nearly led them to commit a crime: kidnapping. One morning, while my sister and I were waiting for our school bus a few blocks from our house, an unfamiliar car pulled to the curb. The passenger door swung open. My grandparents were inside, beckoning to us, promising to drive us to our school, trying to get us into that vehicle.

They were our grandparents, but still we felt instinctively that we must not get into that car under any circumstances. As the school bus approached, they drove away, and that night, I lay awake for hours thinking about the incident — wondering why they’d driven from Rexburg all the way to Seattle, wondering how many days it had taken them to find our house, to stake out our bus stop, learn the lay of our neighborhood, memorize our morning routines.

Illustration: Antonio Rodriguez

One might think, between my rebellious parents and the upheaval of my childhood, I would have grown farther from my culture of origin as I entered my teen years. In fact, the opposite happened. I felt drawn toward the LDS faith, interested in scripture and the history of my church. I was beginning to gain some awareness, as young adults often do, of reality’s complex and nuanced nature. I sensed the numinous standing just behind the mundane, and I was driven to seek and understand the spiritual world.

I still staunchly refused to perform the least aspect of femininity — that just wasn’t my style — yet all my friends knew I was a Mormon and respected my faith. I went to church often, though not every Sunday. I kept the Word of Wisdom, avoiding alcohol and all drugs, including caffeine. I made friends with other kids like myself — not only LDS youth from my ward but Baptists and a handful of non-religious “nerds” who simply had no interest in the sex/drugs/booze trifecta of 1990s teenage life.

But despite my careful avoidance of the standard teen pitfalls, I’d begun to struggle with my mental health, especially in my late teens. At the time, I feared I was doomed to become as troubled as my father was. Looking back from the perspective of middle age, I think the struggles I experienced then were not unusual. The teen years are hard on everyone. But I was frequently wracked by anxiety, to the point that I was sometimes debilitated by it. My relationship with my mother had deteriorated badly and I was fighting without much success to discern some path into an independent, fulfilling future.

But I could still sense that spark of the divine behind every ordinary thing. I thought if I could find the right way to tap into the spiritual source, I could ask It for guidance, and if I followed Its advice, I would end up where I needed to be — where I could find happiness, or at least relief from my constant mental struggles.

I’d been raised to believe that there was a way to ask the Divine for guidance, and to receive a very personal and specific response: the patriarchal blessing, which could only be bestowed by a priesthood-holding man of my church.

There was just one problem for me. In the chaos of my parents’ divorce, I hadn’t been baptized — which usually occurs at age eight for Mormon children. Before I could receive my patriarchal blessing and learn exactly what God intended for my life, I had to obtain a baptism, and since I was technically an adult by that time, that meant I had to go through the Discussions with two missionaries of the church.

Illustration: Antonio Rodriguez

My missionaries were kind, fun boys only a year older than myself. We got along well, though I’m ashamed to admit I can’t recall their names now. I do remember that one of them had red hair and a great laugh. We laughed often while we went through the Discussions together, and they never passed a judgmental comment or even a curious glance at my boyishly short hair, my immodest tank tops, my oversized cargo pants from which the men’s underwear I wore peeked out ostentatiously above the waistband. I asked them hard, cutting questions about the faith and its doctrines. They were always ready with a good answer.

By the time our discussions were finished, I felt confident that I was making the right choice and making it from my heart, independent of my family’s influence. I would become a member of the church because I felt it to be true, not because I’d been raised within the culture — and then I’d be able to ask the Divine Source for guidance to lead me out of this disturbing darkness that had drawn in around me.

I asked my mother’s friend Lyle to baptize me. He and his family had been a bulwark to mine during the divorce — and after, while my mother had struggled to get back on her own two feet. And after Lyle immersed me in the holy baptismal waters, I asked him to administer my patriarchal blessing.

A couple of days after my baptism, Lyle called me to make the arrangements. He would fast and pray, and when God had told him what my destiny was to be, he would come to my house and deliver the blessing.

The hour arrived. My sister placed a chair in the middle of our living room. I sat and bowed my head in reverent prayer. Lyle placed both his hands on my head and began to pray, reciting my full name and then speaking the words God had given him, the words meant just for me.

“You will raise your children in the church,” Lyle said.

I felt the room jolt around me, felt reality slide into a strange, dissipating haze. I didn’t raise my head, but it cost me some effort to hold still and keep quiet.

I don’t remember anything else Lyle said during the blessing. This is an unusual experience in the LDS faith, for this kind of prayer is recorded carefully, word for word, and referenced throughout one’s life. A patriarchal blessing is a sacred thing because it’s supposed to be a personal thing; because the one who bestows — a holder of the holy priesthood — asks God in all earnestness to speak directly to the heart of the individual who receives the message.

How could God not know that I wanted no part of motherhood?

If you were reading the Ensign, or another church publication, this story would end with my becoming a mother, with a proclamation that God knew best after all; I was destined to raise a righteous family within the church, just as my patriarchal blessing specified. I would tell you that I found fulfillment at last within the clearly defined boundaries of femininity, that indeed I hadn’t even known true happiness until I put aside my selfish desires and accepted my role as mother and wife.

But this isn’t the Ensign, and I am not a faithful Mormon.

This story has a different ending.

Illustration: Antonio Rodriguez

I knew myself then, at age nineteen, as surely as I know myself now, as surely as I knew myself at age two, when I’d looked down in quiet horror at the baby doll in the cradle. I was not going to be a mother; I didn’t care what any man of the church said. I didn’t even care what God Himself said. I had made up my mind, yet somehow God hadn’t got the message.

I had received a patriarchal blessing meant for some other woman, and the implications of that fact shook my faith — indeed, my very concept of reality — to its core. The mix-up could mean only one of two things: either God wasn’t all-knowing, or the whole religion — perhaps every religion — was too flawed by human invention to be true.

Every fiber of my newly baptized self rejected those thoughts. I had only just committed to this faith; it couldn’t fall apart so soon. I moved out of my mother’s house, to a town where there was no LDS church. I would have had to drive twenty miles each way to attend church, and I didn’t have enough gas money for that, but nevertheless my commitment to the religion was stronger than ever.

I read my Quad from cover to cover — the complete LDS Scriptures, including the Holy Bible and the Book of Mormon — poring and praying over every chapter and verse. When I’d finished the whole thing, the essential question remained: how could an all-knowing God not know me?

So I read it all again, concentrating harder, praying with more diligence, struggling to fit the pieces of this puzzle together, to find within my religion an image of a God who saw me clearly, who loved and accepted me as I was. Between the ages of 19 and 23, I read the entire Quad six times. But still, I found no God within its pages that made sense, given what I knew about myself, given what I knew was the truth.

These years of scriptural study weren’t without their benefit. I found comfort and justification in the words of 2 Nephi, Chapter 2, where Lehi says to his son Jacob:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so… righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be compounded in one.

Those words didn’t seem to say that strict singularities or binaries were righteous. Indeed, I read in that scripture the opposite: an acknowledgment of the sacred in anything which was both and neither at once.

In those words, I found the holiness of myself. I was not a perfect woman; not even close. I was masculine and feminine, compounded in one, and without rare, precious contradictions like myself, nothing could come to be.

2 Nephi continues:

And if ye say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If he shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not, there is no God.

I was engaged to my first husband when I far too young, as is tradition for good Mormon girls. He wasn’t LDS, but I still was, or so I told myself. Shortly after our engagement, I came home from work to find my fiancé sitting stiffly on the couch, looking lost and uncomfortable. He told me I needed to call my mother right away.

Tearfully, Mom told me that my dad had died. The pressure of perfection, of fitting himself into the small mold God had made for him, had proved too much, in the end. He was forty-nine years old.

Illustration: Antonio Rodriguez

After I received the news, I shut myself in my bedroom and knelt to pray.

No prayer came, however. I sensed an emptiness all around me, but it wasn’t a hostile expanse. It was full of memories of my father — those drives to the dusty old store for candy bars with the tape deck in his car blaring Nirvana, with the wind blowing his dangerously long hair.

I tried to pray, and instead I dwelt again in memory: this time of a wheat field in Idaho, my father and myself walking in parallel furrows with the crop ripening between us. He stripped kernels of wheat from a tassel, rubbed them between his palms.

He told me: God said, I will separate the wheat from the chaff. Like this.

He blew into his palm, and the golden chaff flew off across the field, dazzling and bright in the summer sun.

I rose up from my knees with my prayers unsaid. I was fine with the silence, the empty space where my faith had been. It had already left me, I realized, when I’d sat in that chair with the hands of a priesthood holder on my head, when I’d heard the words of a blessing meant for some other woman.

In the privacy of my room, alone with a grief that was both as fresh and as old as I was, I knew I had become exactly what my family had feared I would be: the wrong kind of woman, one who could walk in strength beyond the boundaries of her faith. I’d been raised to believe that disobedience to God’s law, rejection of God’s precise and holy order, would lead me only to sorrow. I felt sorrow for my father, of course — but none for myself.

My self was free.



Libbie Grant

Libbie Grant is a writer from the PNW. Her most recent novel is The Prophet’s Wife, a literary exploration of the founding of the Mormon faith.