I Grew Up A Devout Mormon. Then A Shocking Family Secret Came Out And Shook My Faith.

The author plays the piano at her grandma's house one Sunday.
The author plays the piano at her grandma's house one Sunday.

The author plays the piano at her grandma's house one Sunday.

Chaos was a throughline my entire life. Despite being direct descendants of George Q. Cannon, an apostle of Brigham Young, we were not a typical Mormon family.

My parents grew up as devout followers, but my mother became pregnant out of wedlock at age 17 and went on to develop a taste for booze, smoking and swinger parties. 

Sixteen years and six kids later, she abandoned us when I was 8 years old. I was told Mom left because she had a nervous breakdown, and we were never allowed to discuss it after that. 

Less than two years later, my father married Mom’s sister, who was still a staunch Mormon. After that, we attended church every Sunday, followed strict dietary guidelines and adhered to the moral code that was laid out by the church. Having had zero structure previously, I felt secure and safe in this way of life. The people in my ward (congregation) offered a safe space, comfort and peace of mind during traumatic times. 

I married in the LDS Temple, as was expected, when I was 20, and made promises to God that I had no business making because I was too young and immature and uneducated to understand the consequences. I stayed active in the church until my divorce six years later in 1985. 

As a young single mother, it became more difficult to get myself and three youngsters ready to attend church meetings, pay tithing (10% of my gross income) and continue to wear the holy (uncomfortable) garments, let alone endure the embarrassment and shame of being a divorcee.

I became further conflicted when my brother came out to me as gay. The church taught (and still does) that homosexuality is a sin, but I couldn’t reconcile that with my love and acceptance for my brother. I struggled to understand how someone could be condemned for something that was beyond their control. 

I began to question my own beliefs and spirituality, but I did it quietly. I started to read books and articles about Mormonism, including Fawn M. Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History,” a biography of the Mormon founding prophet Joseph Smith that explored whether he was a genuine prophet or a gifted fabulist. I concluded the latter.

In 1986, I met my second husband (who was non-Mormon), and we married two years later. My eyes continued to open even more. I realized that I had been living in a Mormon bubble. My nonreligious husband was all too eager to show me what living on the “outside” had to offer.

But in my years of indoctrination, I had grown to believe that following the teachings of the church was the only way to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life and obtain celestial glory. The conflict between my family and the church and my own beliefs and values led to a period of depression and anxiety. I felt like I was living two separate lives — one that I presented to my family and the church, and one that I kept hidden for fear of judgment and punishment. I felt like I was constantly trying to live up to others’ expectations, not my own. 

For a while, I was caught between two worlds — the world of my family and the church, and the world of my own thoughts and beliefs.

Then, when I was 34 years old and happily raising our now-teenage children, my father drove 140 miles to visit us in Salina, Utah, and asked me if there was somewhere private we could talk. He seemed more manic than normal, chewing on his gum, smoking incessantly and throwing back tall glasses of whiskey on the rocks.

“There’s something I need to tell you. I am not your biological father.”

I didn’t hear him at first, as I was watching him miss the ashtray, flicking ashes all over my table.

“And, neither is your little sister.” Tears welled up in his eyes, so I knew he was serious.

It turns out, my real father was our former neighbor in New Mexico, where I was born. I was the product of one of those many earlier-mentioned swinger parties. Our mother had continued an affair with one of the men who had swapped with my father one drunken night.

“It doesn’t change anything,” my father told me. “As far as I am concerned, you are both still my daughters.”

I was so shocked and overwhelmed that I only had the energy to ask him a few questions. So, I’m not a Cannon? Why are you telling me now? Who else knows?

I excused myself and went to bed but didn’t get an ounce of sleep that night. At first, I thought my father was delusional and had finally lost his mind for good, but after talking with my estranged mother, and later, reading the journals she left behind upon her death, it turned out he was not lying.

It seems ridiculous now, but at the time of this earth-shattering news, my biggest hang-up was the fact that I was no longer a Cannon. Being a Cannon in Utah basically makes you Mormon royalty. It’s like having the last name Kennedy in Washington. I was always proud of my legacy as we grew up, and felt special because of our heritage. My father boasted that we Cannons were “good pioneer stock,” so the news that I was not biologically a Cannon was devastating.

I felt lost and alone in my large family and went through an identity crisis. Not only was I not a Cannon, but I had been married twice — so, like most conservative Mormons, I had taken both of my husbands’ last names, further removing me from my identity. I didn’t understand it at the time, but the impact of my identity crisis contributed to my second divorce, continuing the chaos I had come to know all too well.

I thought my father was delusional and had finally lost his mind for good, but after talking with my estranged mother, and later, reading the journals she left behind upon her death, it turned out he was not lying.

Once I had a little time to reflect on this news, I realized the blessing in it. While the church had offered structure and a safe place when I needed it as a child, I could no longer relate to what it taught. I am much too rebellious to be told what I should wear, drink, eat or believe in. I also feel the church divides people, causing segregation, homophobia and racism. It fosters a culture of constantly striving for unrealistic perfection, which I believe contributed to my already chaotic, anxious and depressive state.    

Through therapy, I was able to confront the root causes of my depression and anxiety; I came to understand how the strict religious teachings of the Mormon church had contributed to my feelings of shame and guilt. I am now free of the heavy burden of worrying about my eternal salvation and have chosen to live in the present world. 

I officially resigned from the church in 2018, which was surprisingly effortless. I was able to find a resignation template online; it took me five minutes to fill in the blanks (name, date of birth, baptism date and church membership number), have it notarized, and within four weeks, I received confirmation that I had been removed from all church records.

I didn’t experience a loss or identity crisis when officially resigning from the church, like some do. I had been estranged for so long that all I felt and continue to feel is freedom and relief.

I knew sharing my story could be potentially hurtful for the members of my family who are still devout — or who would prefer that the generational family dysfunction stays buried — but I also understood that telling the truth, my truth, about family secrets and the Mormon Church was the only way of finding my lost self and beginning the journey of recovery after six decades of trauma.

Some of my family felt that I had turned my back on God and abandoned the teachings of the church. They believed that I would be punished for my apostasy and that I was risking my eternal salvation. For a while, I was caught between two worlds — the world of my family and the church, and the world of my own thoughts and beliefs. 

It’s been a slow process, but eventually, my family came to accept and respect my choices. I have also learned to love and appreciate them all, embracing our differences.

Today, as a mental health advocate and speaker, I use my own experience to help others who have struggled with the impact of family dysfunction, mental illness and religion on their mental health. 

Since the release of my book, I have been fortunate enough to speak frequently at book clubs, on podcasts and on live TV/radio shows about mental health awareness, overcoming childhood trauma, finding happiness, and forgiveness, all of which have helped me immensely in my journey of healing. My hope is that by being vulnerable and talking openly about difficult issues, the stigma and shame of family dysfunction and mental illness will eventually go away. I feel passionate about sharing my journey for my children, grandchildren and future generations to come. 

Diana Cannon Ragsdale is an author, retired physical therapist and mental health advocate for survivors of abusive and dysfunctional families. “Loose Cannons” is her first book.

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