'So Help Me Gosh,' You'll Laugh Until You Sigh

Brooke Barker, the creator of 'Sad Animal Facts,' finds the sad-funny truths in growing up Mormon and converting to Judaism.

Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly. 

Rachel Smalter Hall: I'm Audible Editor Rachel Smalter Hall, and I'm so pleased to be here today with Brooke Barker. Brooke Barker is a writer and illustrator, and the creator of Sad Animal Facts. Her work has previously appeared in The Guardian, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times, and her new Audible Original, So Help Me Gosh, is a memoir about her journey from a Mormon childhood to a Jewish adulthood. Brooke, welcome to Audible.

Brooke Barker: Thanks so much for having me.

RSH: It's really fun to talk about this topic, which is near and dear to my heart. Right off the bat, I have to tell you that I grew up in the Mormon Church and I could relate to so much of what you wrote about in So Help Me Gosh, and I was really impressed by how you described these unusual concepts like priesthood blessings and church callings. What was it like to try to explain Mormonism to outsiders?

BB: It was hard because when I knew I was starting to write this book, it was hard to decide how much to incorporate and how much not to, because as you know, Mormonism has all this extra language that might not be apparent to the casual listener, like priesthood blessings, like you said, and beehive presidents, and firesides, and callings and all sorts of things. I didn't want the entire audiobook to feel like a dictionary. So, it's hard to know exactly how to weave these things in. And it's interesting, too, in my editing, to learn what things did need explaining. For example, I talk a lot about a testimony in the audiobook, which to me, I was like, "Well, everyone knows what that is," but in the editing, my editor, Lara, was like, "You need to explain what a testimony is."

I have this running dialogue with myself and I'm still always looking for little accidents or little miracles everywhere.

RSH: So, it sounds like having those first readers and other people to give you feedback was really helpful in that process.

BB: It helped a lot, with the right amount of explaining... A testimony is believing that something is true, just because you have the belief in yourself and it's been shown to you that it's true. I remember the first time I bore my testimony, I was like 6 and it was my first time public speaking. And so, the idea of a testimony is so ingrained in my whole life that I just assumed it was a word everyone would know.

RSH: You mentioned testimonies, so I have to jump right into this next question, which is that I really felt for tween Brooke, who was trying to make sense of abstract concepts like the Holy Ghost and testimonies. In this story there's almost this personal failure that you felt around them. And as I was thinking of you as this 8-year-old or this 12-year-old, it was breaking my heart. I wonder if you think So Help Me Gosh might be the book you wish you'd had as a child.

BB: I think it is, I was trying to write the book that I wish I'd had, because so often when people are trying to encourage you, they give you examples of what it feels like to get it. I just wish I'd had some examples of people saying, "It's okay when you feel like you haven't gotten it yet." And you're trying to make sense of so many things growing up and you're hoping things will click. You're hoping you haven't tuned in to the right frequency yet. And so, it's always this patient listening and waiting, and it was hard to get settled into this feeling of, "What am I, if I just... If I don't hear anything yet, then who am I, just the way I am?"

RSH: Yeah. For those who haven't listened yet, with the way you talk about the Holy Ghost, in Mormonism, there's all this talk about how you'll hear this still, small voice, and you were really waiting for a literal still, small voice. Do you still connect with those feelings that you had as a kid?

BB: I think I still do. I think, growing up, I always framed myself as the hero in my own story, in a way that I think was really positive. "God has this larger plan for me, so if I'm having a bad day, it's not just a bad day, it's a trial." And, "If I'm alone right now, I'm not really alone. Someone's listening and watching." It was fun. I felt like I was always keeping this personal narrative going, which gave me a voice as a kid, even if I wasn't talking out loud. So now, even though my life's a lot different than it was then, I still feel like I have this running dialogue with myself and I'm still always looking for little accidents or little miracles everywhere.

RSH: So, I really love losing-my-religion stories. I have a soft spot for memoirs and that's one of my favorite genres. And a lot of those kinds of stories feel tortured and tragic. I thought you brought a really fresh humor to the genre. Why do you think you chose that direction for your story?

BB: I think there's something sort of funny about having this pubescent phase later in life. Everyone goes through something in their life where they realize they have to do things over a bit. And it's funny to go through it as a 26-year-old, and you're trying to take out these bottom Jenga pieces in this tower you've built that you've based everything on and there's something fun and silly about it. And I guess, even though I had a losing-my-religion story, it had a lot of positive and funny moments. There are a lot of things to laugh at about losing your religion and discovering who you are. And the world is a pretty weird place, both at the beginning and end of it. So, it felt like I didn't want to tell the story if it wasn't going to be something where I could laugh at myself during it.

RSH: It seems like that's been a tool that you've used a lot in your creative work. Tell me a little bit more about that humor and your outlook as a creative person.

BB: I like making people feel sad and making people laugh. It's been something that I've always liked doing, so just playing with the two opposite ends of that emotion. I feel like sometimes things are sad enough to laugh at, or funny enough that they're actually a little sad. And it's funny to hear people laugh.

...Sometimes things are sad enough to laugh at, or funny enough that they're actually a little sad.

RSH: I think that's a perfect framework for talking about a story like this. Having people laugh and be sad at the same time. I really liked that. I actually want to go down a path that might be a little bit more sad. Early on in your story, I was really touched by how you talked about your dad and how he nurtured your intelligence and curiosity as a young girl. And as someone, also a girl who grew up in the Mormon Church, I know that certainly wasn't the case in all Mormon families for daughters to have that nurtured in them. But I noticed that your dad wasn't as big a part of your story after your parents' divorce. And you tell that story a little bit in So Help Me Gosh, but I wonder if it was hard to open up about your family in certain stories.

BB: It was. I think it was hard to open up about my family mostly because I've kept them out of my story in my own life as I've been losing or changing my religion. My family is really important to me, and so I never wanted to put them in a position where they'd have to make a choice if they were going to support me or not, or maybe if we'd get into an uncomfortable scenario where they'd try to convince me to do one thing or the other. And most of all, I just wanted them to be friends with me and love me, so it's something where I kept them out of a lot of my own decisions as I was choosing what to do next. And so, looking back, I wish I'd given them a chance to support me and have that option to do it and kept them a little closer. But they have always supported me and been really into just supporting our intelligence and thinking.

RSH: It seems like your mom has stayed really close to you throughout all of your questioning and changing. It sounds like you were able to talk to her as you were having some doubts about Mormonism, and I wonder if she has had a chance to read the manuscript or listen to the recording yet.

BB: She hasn't yet. She's excited to, and she's really the biggest fan of everything I do. And the nice thing about my mom... Well, there are a lot of nice things about her, but ever since we were little, she's always gone almost too far in saying she'll love us no matter what. She's just like, "If you kill someone, I'll help you bury the body." She's just the ultimate supporter of us, which is a great thing to have in a parent, knowing that they'll always like you.

RSH: How are you feeling about her listening to the story?

BB: It feels a little nerve-wracking to think of anyone listening to it, honestly. It feels like a big exposure that you listened to it, Rachel! It just feels like this… it was so fun to write and so silly to think of the ways to tell it and to make people laugh, but now that it's out there, it does feel like such a strange feeling. But I'm excited for them to listen. And my family helped a lot in the book in helping me remember different things. There are a couple of math jokes in the book that are pretty subtle, but everyone in my family is a mathematician, and so they helped nail those math references. I wasn’t the one to do it.

RSH: I really enjoyed the math jokes. Everyone's going to love listening to this story. I can't wait for everyone to hear it. I was completely fascinated by your tales of dating at BYU. I was only Mormon until my mid-teens. I did not go through that experience of dating as a Mormon. But you tell a story in particular about a conference speaker who makes some truly bizarre dating recommendations to the female student body. I don't want to give too much away because it's such an experience listening to that story, but I wonder how you feel about these experiences now that you're "out."

BB: There's so many layers to the dating experience at BYU that is really honestly hard to explain to someone who hasn't done it. I know when I've talked about it in the past, it sounds like I'm bragging when I say I went on 50 dates in a semester. It's like, "Whoa, don't show off." But it really is just that a lot of people are going on 50 dates in a semester, and it's just a world that you're in.

I didn't realize or think back until later that it's like, "Well, there are a lot of things wrong with this that I don't even know how to unpack." At the time, you're just so in it. All of my peers were equally... No one was really to blame for not saying anything, but you're just in this world, and you're just doing the next step and not really stopping to question it. One fun thing about dating at BYU is that you go on so many dates that the definition of a date becomes pretty loose, where you can have like, "Okay, we'll shop for pasta together" date night, or, "We'll go rake leaves" date night. Anything's a date.

RSH: I bet you've been on more different kinds of dates than most of us can even imagine.

BB: I've been on a lot of dates. And I think I also have a skill that I can pick out a Mormon date, if I see someone in a comment section describing their first date with their partner. The other day, I read... Someone wrote, they were describing their first date and they said they found an expired chicken with their partner. A frozen rotisserie chicken, and they decided to see how far they could throw it. And I was like, "That's a Mormon date. I've been on that date before."

RSH: That is totally a Mormon date. And I will say that there were elements of your humor, too, that I was like, "Oh, this is so Mormon." I don't know if other people would hear those jokes that way… Just to get serious again for a moment, you tell the story of how you left the Mormon Church. It's when you were in college. I think it was when you were in college or maybe shortly after, and you were really unable to accept its evolving views on LGBTQIA+ people. And I wonder—this is a tough question, especially if you haven't had time to think about it—but I wonder what you might say to any LGBTQ church members who might still be there and might be hurting.

BB: Gosh, that's a good question. When I was talking to people when I was Mormon, and when I was talking to my more open friends about my struggles with the church's stance on a lot of things around that time... And they continue to have pretty much the same stance now. If I found anyone I felt I could talk about it with, they would usually say, "Well, it's complicated. It's a complicated issue. It's pretty complicated." And I just realized that I didn't want my ability to love or accept someone to start with, "Well, it's complicated." That shouldn't be complicated, I think. And I don't think it is, so for anyone in the church that's feeling like, "Well, this is complicated," I think you should start at, it shouldn't be complicated to love yourself and like you how you are.

If there's something in your life that's making it hard or making it seem complicated, then that's the problem. You're not the problem, because no one's self-worth should be a complicated issue. That's everything we have, really. And that was when I realized I wanted to make a change in my life. That's what I hope anyone who is having any journey, whether they're in the church, or joining the church, or have left the church—that liking yourself and being able to love other people and love your friends shouldn't be the complicated part.

RSH: I wanted to ask one more question about this religious arc that you had. A lot of the story is you talking about your Mormon childhood and then your changing views, but then there's a really nice section at the end where you talk about your conversion classes. You met the person who would become your partner and he was from a Jewish family. I'm wondering if you can, just for the purposes of this interview, talk a little bit about how you think a Mormon childhood prepared you for this new life in a Jewish family.

BB: There are a lot of things I really liked about... Well, I liked everything about my Mormon childhood. And there are a lot of things I feel grateful for growing up Mormon. I respond pretty well to having structure and some rules, and so leaving Mormonism, I was happy to let go of the rules, but I was happy to find that, in Judaism, there are some rules you can pick and choose from. It's fun to observe Shabbat and decide, "Now, I'm going to wait until sundown.” It feels very ancient. You feel like you're connected to all these other people. So, I feel like it gave me this readiness for checking if the food is kosher if I'm bringing it somewhere. All these little fun rules that you can incorporate into your life.

If there's something in your life that's making it hard or making it seem complicated, then that's the problem. You're not the problem, because no one's self-worth should be a complicated issue.

There's a lot of similarities between Mormonism and Judaism. They both have about the same number of members in America, so they're both known, but not incredibly in the majority. And they both have all these songs and rituals that you know about growing up, that you have to keep track of in your head, whether other people know about them or not. Which is a big thing for me, and participating in the world, you have to remember, "Do other people know that today's Shabbat? Do other people know that today's Pioneer Day?" So, I think there's something nice about each. I love being Jewish. I feel like, being Jewish now, maybe I was always Jewish. I feel like it's something that came natural.

RSH: I want to talk a little bit more about the way the story sounds. And I have to compliment you on your writing style. You write the way that people actually talk, which is not always an easy skill. It made your story so fun and easy to listen to. It's really delightful in audio. I wonder how you prepared to really nail that voice.

BB: Well, thanks so much. I would like to think I even, maybe, write better than I talk, so anyone listening should really go check out the audiobook. I promise… I like practicing reading my writing out loud a lot, either just for my dog or I went on a book tour last winter, and so I got a chance to practice performing or reading a few of the pieces, which I think was helpful. It makes you realize that certain things don't land as well or need to be changed. And so, yeah, I think I always wrote it with the intention of reading it out loud. And so it was fun to perform it.

RSH: Do you think there are any one or two big tricks that you learned through that experience of speaking your work out loud on the tour?

BB: I've noticed, and this is just me, that I usually talk too fast. So I need to brace myself and talk a little slower, and give people time to think about things. A lot of times when you read a sentence in a book, you can reread it if it didn't quite make sense, but if you're talking out loud, they've only got one chance, so you have to slow down a little bit. When you're talking out loud, that's the original form of storytelling, really. Before there were books, we were just telling stories to each other. So, it has a nice closeness, and you can really be a little more vulnerable and let people into your own story a bit. It feels a little like a story you're telling around a fire, or it feels a little more like a story between friends in a way that I like.

RSH: Yeah. I love what you just said about how in our oral storytelling, you only have one chance to understand it as a listener. It works really well when you write sentences that are easy to understand, and that came through in So Help Me Gosh, so well done on that front. And then, I just want to close with a question about the music. The memoir opens and closes with this amazing trumpet solo. Can you tell me a little bit more about the score and how it came to be?

BB: The trumpet solo came together in a way I think no one expected. One of the pieces talks about my sister Brynn, who is amazing at everything, and one of those things is trumpet, and she just picked up "Ma'oz Tsur" one Hanukkah so she could accompany us as we lit candles. And it was something I wanted to incorporate into a piece, and my editor, Lara, was like, "Well, maybe we could record her and have it in there." And Brynn's good at trumpet. I think she's great. But in the end, with lockdown and everything, she couldn't get to a recording studio. She has a lot going on. So actually, one of the Audible producers plays trumpet and played it, and it is much, I think, better than my sister, even. So it sounds great. You can tell people it's her. It sounds like her with a couple more hours of practice.

RSH: There you go. And definitely inspired by her.

BB: Yeah.

RSH: 100%. Yeah.

BB: ...And it was nice to have the trumpet in there to have some of that... For me, it's a memory of her playing trumpet, and for other people, it's just a future memory of listening to trumpet.

RSH: There you go. Well, Brooke, thank you so much for talking to me, and to everyone listening, make sure you check out So Help Me Gosh, the Audible Original available on Audible.com and in the Audible app.

BB: Thanks, Rachel.

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