Liz Emery: the polarizing Statesman columnist discusses her life’s course


Liz Emery and brothers at her brother Sam’s wedding.

There was this one time when Liz Emery read the Book of Mormon.

Actually, that happened about 15 times before her 18th birthday. Not to mention that, as a teenager, she was the president of her Beehive, Miamaid and Laurel Young Women groups for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And, as a high school student, within a semester from applying to BYU.

Yes, Liz Emery—the same Emery that has polarized Utah Statesman readers with many of her columns and has perhaps set the newspaper’s all-time record as most-commented author—grew   up an active member of the church. That happened before a collection of events that any reader of her columns would never know just by viewing her dubious mug, featured with every one of her pieces. Before, during and after Emery’s departure from the church to the morally liberal, spiritually atheist and politically two-sided views (fiscally, she’s conservative) she holds today, Emery had a lot on her mind (neither her family, friends nor voice teacher find that a surprise). Just what has exactly churned in a mind in the past five-plus years—one whose thoughts have been described by column readers as “ignorant,” “misinformed” and “juvenile” and that has led her to be all but the official USU pot stirrer—hasn’t been a simple brew.

If you tried to put the reasons on a laundry list, you’d need a few hampers. News of divorced parents. Being shifted across the country multiple times in light of the separation. One of the greatest factors: A beautiful girl named Gabby.

When it comes to her pen on Statesman paper, it took the English senior less than a year from the time she emailed 2010-11 Statesman Editor-in-Chief Ben Wood about the appalling nature of some student-athlete scholarships to being followed to the Nelson Fieldhouse by a man asking for her autograph. “He actually hands his card to the guy like he’s coming in with me,” she said. “I’m like, ‘dude, I’m going to the gym.’ I don’t know how to say f-off, but f-off.’ He then says he just has one more question for me: ‘How do you deal with all the hate?’”

What’s more “weird,” she adds, is walking on campus knowing that others recognize her, yet she doesn’t have any idea who they are. “Some have come up and introduced themselves,” she said. “Another asked me to sign an article. What do you do? I just wrote ‘thanks for the continued support,’ and we laughed and laughed. I didn’t know what else to say.”

Family turmoil

When Elizabeth Ann Emery was born Sept. 17, 1990, in State College, Penn., little was it known that her parents would divorce four years later and that she would be whisked to four different regions across the country within the first 13 years of her life. That includes the states of Connecticut, Kentucky and Utah, outside of the Keystone State. Neither could she have known that her mother, Ann Morrell, would decide years later when to lock the fridge from the seven children living with her, outside of mealtimes. That happened when the six brothers who living with Emery were between four and 14 years old. Her parents had been active Latter-day Saints and were married after meeting at Penn State University. Her father, Doug Emery, an LDS convert of two years at the time of the marriage, had traveled to the east coast to continue his academic training after recovering from a bout with drugs that he survived, he says, due to the assistance of the LDS Church.

“Dad will tell you the Mormon Church saved him,” Emery says between putting chicken marsala into the oven and setting the table for the six brothers she cooks for every day during the week. “He was in some big trouble. It’s a good thing he pulled out of it since he has a brilliant mind.”

Well, Dad? “It kept me out of prison, taught personal discipline and how to focus life energies that have been burning civilization to the ground,” said Doug, who currently works in healthcare reform after receiving a bachelor’s degree from USU in political science before pursuing graduate school in Pennsylvania. “I don’t know; I was a young kid looking for a better way.”

Staying clean from the drugs didn’t keep Doug, however, from what eventually became one of his critical viewpoints of the LDS Church. Fearing that their eight children would be raised by an “apostate,” as Emery described, Morrell decided to transport all of those living with their parents to South Jordan, Utah, where Morrell and nearly all the rest of the Emery clan could live with their grandparents and be raised free of their father’s influence. Problem was, packing seven additional people into a home that had been accompanying two only worked so well. It would have been eight if the oldest child, Sam, hadn’t been taken by relatives in Arizona during the family separation when the new caretakers had a son on a mission. Sam himself went on a mission and is now a married undergraduate student at BYU. For the rest of the Emery children, however, moving down the street didn’t work much better since Morrell would lock food in the fridge or just move it into her bedroom altogether. But Morrell’s efforts, the boys say, wasn’t typically based upon saving the quite-finite amount for dinner. That happened maybe only once per week anyway. “It was terrible,” says Aris Emery, the fifth-oldest child. “There was just nothing right about it.”

Morrell felt the same sentiment in response to hearing Emery talk with Doug on the phone about reporting her for child abuse. Emery suddenly found herself with half of her brothers in states half a country away from them, living with their father, before Doug thought that it would be best to travel to Utah to claim the rest. Once again, Doug found himself blocks from where he had initially received his higher education training. Once in Cache Valley, Doug was able to claim all of the children who were eligible. Now Doug—and usually Emery—are more than fine with the necessity to cook for and serve at least twice as many plates. “She’s closer than anything of the maternal influence,” Doug said. “With the problems they went through, she’s an important force in their lives.”

The Change

Emery had grown accustomed to South Jordan by the time she went to the local high school for her senior year, though she fell into the age bracket of a junior. Nonetheless, neither age, lack of familiarity with coaches or a vacancy of playing experience were enough to keep the 5-foot-10 Emery from landing a spot on the girls basketball team. “I was the girl that the others hated,” she said. “Should I have expected anything different? I mean, I just walked in and got a spot.”

Only after several months of playing with the group—and not long before she was going to apply to BYU—did Emery understand something that she said initially “scared” her to the point that she didn’t eat for a week: A crush on Gabby, a “smart,” “super funny” and “incredibly beautiful” local who Emery appreciated since the two could “talk a lot about serious things and disagree but still respect each other.” Going to a movie with a group of girls, including Gabby, in late spring 2008 made Emery’s experience that more surreal. “There I was, going for the hand,” Emery said. “I was so scared.”

So the process followed: That night, Emery prayed on her bed for hours, struggling to understand her internal conflict. She met with the bishop of her ward. While these steps were fine, she became bothered by the treatment she says she receives: A lack of fellowship from the ward she was in. She was offended when a woman in the ward gave her a book about how a woman overcame her homosexual tendencies to live the life with the ideals a Latter-day Saint is expected to live.

“I was so nervous and excited,” Emery said about the prospect of being with her crush on movie night. “I had never felt toward a girl like that before. She was so happy; I thought ‘how can I be this happy?’ I followed her around. We studied together. She was charismatic, beautiful, boyish, all these things I admired in her.” It was while waiting in line for the film that caused Emery to become concerned. “Without thinking and trying, I went to hold her hand,” she said. “It scared the shit out of me. I thought, ‘I know that this is wrong, but this is how I feel.’ I cried and cried and cried pretty hard. I remember, it was so scary and literally like the floor had fallen underneath me. I thought, ‘If this is wrong, I need to know right now.’” So came Emery’s effort to repair the feelings she believed at the time were sinful.

“It was this brand-new exciting experience,” she said. “I was a whole lot more attached than I thought I would have been. I came from the position how I knew she had been dating girls but wasn’t out. You know, you can be in love with someone and not be interested. I thought that was the case. I handled it immaturely and she got scared away.”

Of course, Emery’s perception of her same-sex attraction aligned with LDS doctrine at the time, something she doesn’t understand now. “I’ve spent so many sleepless nights trying to understand why (Latter-day Saints) think the way they do,” she said. “If you are genuinely interested in knowing why (individuals with an LGBTQ lifestyle) are the way they are, you can understand where they are coming from. If I’m found wrong, I will try to admit it. But it doesn’t matter if I am wrong: (Homosexuals) can be totally happy yet (Latter-day Saints) say that that they are right.”

A New Path

Emery’s same-sex attraction, however, didn’t just cause her to consider a new direction in moral behavior. It set her on a course to re-consider everything she had considered to be spiritual truth—and everything else, for that matter.

“I prayed and prayed and there was nothing,” she said. “I decided that if I didn’t hear anything, I wouldn’t go down the path I thought was right—not because I wasn’t receptive to it. Once I started to question the Mormon Church, all doubts became very real.” Though she had read it once before, Emery started reading the Bible again, but gave up on it because she said it was “historically biased.” “I wasn’t getting any response from God when I more or less needed it most. I thought I would try different churches, but I never really felt prompted to. I didn’t find much here than I did there, and I haven’t been since.”

Emery last attended an LDS service—or any religious attendance for any “personally instrinic reason”—in June 2008. Though she acknowledged how much “getting into drinking” was enjoyable for her, the party aspect that particular side of a lifestyle offers was not the key factor alone to drawing herself towards the current views she holds, many which are reflected in her Statesman pieces. Now that Emery left the LDS Church, her views on religion in general have been that she doesn’t find a need for any of it. When it comes to the church that fostered her upbringing, Emery said that its principles ranging from “sexism” to the role of paying tithing—one tenth of your income—in order to be spiritually saved, to polygamy and the role of a hat in accounts of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon, were some main tenants of what she has since learned since leaving that were unattractive to her.

Regardless of her animosity toward the church—“I wouldn’t be truthful if I didn’t say I feel bitter towards the Mormon Church”—she said as her brothers scattered from the kitchen table—she doesn’t rule out additional new courses in life that include spirituality. But that might take a lot.

“I might get into something (religious),” she said. “Maybe when I’m older, 30, and I’m still open to it, something might feel real and logical and powerful but I don’t think it’s going to happen. All (of abandoning spirituality) sequenced. It was a process. People, I think have this idea about me. (Abandoning spirituality) wasn’t because I love to f—, to drink and smoke. It was that I couldn’t tell what I thought I was looking for, so it wasn’t without extensive thought. If you leave a church like that, it’s a huge loss. You figure out doing that, you do feel like your whole life is not with you anymore. It was very hard on my personal life.”

Emery said that among the many feelings and experiences that were “terrible, for the most part” that entailed leaving the LDS Church, she didn’t feel like those in her local ward and nearby area who had previously taught and supported her reached out. Upon learning Emery was leaning toward lesbian behavior, parents called other parents in the neighborhood to let them know that their children should not be allowed to socialize with her. “All of a sudden, I went from a very popular person at church to being completely cut off,” she said. “That was pretty tough. Right now, I couldn’t be religious if I tried. I tried to pray a few months ago in my car, but I didn’t feel like I got anything. “

Who knows? Maybe she’ll have married in the temple and have four kids and testifying of her heathen ways in 10 years,” Doug Emery said. “I really don’t control how my children think or where their ideologies take them.”

What others say

USU students and anyone who has read Emery’s articles may believe that Emery has plenty to say about other individuals’ lives. When it comes to the adults in her own life, the statement remains just as true. Debbie Emery and her husband entertain Liz in their Berkeley, Calif. home at least a few times per year, a tradition that began when Emery was 16. Though Debbie stops short of saying that her hand hasn’t reached into placing Emery where she is today, she acknowledges that her influence in her niece’s life is anything but absent. She said perhaps 10 percent of Emery’s decision to pursue the ideologies she currently follows can be attributed to her.

“The thing about Liz is that she’s incredibly mature and very level-headed,” Debbie said. “My friends were so impressed when she came over at 18 and 19 with how measured and level-headed and smart and talented she was.” Debbie’s acquaintances may have been impressed, but it didn’t mean Emery was as like-minded with the northern California residents as she may be now. “The discussion was just so different from what she was hearing in Utah,” Debbie said. “She heard the whole other part of the story. People (in the Bay Area) are so radical about their liberalism as much as others are passionate about conservatism.”

There was no shortage of emotion when Emery called Debbie to tell her how she felt towards Gabby. Debbie’s encouragement for Emery to relax—may  have in part encouraged Emery to change her lifestyle and beliefs, but make no mistake that it was her choosing, Debbie said—something that she added she couldn’t be more accustomed to. “Here, there’s a gay married couple, one black and one white. You’re talking Berkeley and Oakland here. It’s so different from what she was used to,” Debbie said. “I told her ‘just breathe.’ She had a right to be very upset. She got kicked out of her house. She got kicked out of the church. I mean, she really suffered over that and it really pissed me off.”

Emery’s change of ideological direction has led her to form associations with friends who have shared her opinions—most of the time (her columns have not made it exclusive, some say). That includes Chad Jacobs, who also used to be an active Latter-day Saint. Hanging out for the two has included drinking together and attending club meetings for USU REASON, the on-campus organization that believes in thought independent of scripture or other accounts supposedly inspired of God. It also includes E. Cooper, an openly gay man who has earned a degree at USU and has been a regular at ASUSU’s Poetry and a Beverage series. Cooper says he “adores” Emery, but took just one issue with one column : A criticism of Greek life in September that sparked dozens of comments on Facebook.

“She talked about how rich we are, but she’s driving a Mustang,” said Cooper, who met Emery at an LGBTQ dinner in 2009. “But there have been other things that have bonded us. Even if I was upset, I was able to communicate with her as a friend. Whether or not you respect columns like the Greek one,  she is a genuine person and woman who can open up and take the criticism.”

A continued search

Emery sits at Citrus and Sage, the coffee shop located near Center St. and Main in Logan, after a session of music and poetry reading has concluded. Before she completes additional thoughts about her intellectual whirlwind (tornado?) of a life, she pulls out a book about the life of Joseph Smith. Earlier this semester, Emery was doing research for an English class on a girl from the latter end of the 19th century who grew up in Hyde Park and also left the church. She was headed to Provo the next day to research “Juvenile Instruction,” a work from former LDS apostle George Q. Cannon. No, her walk of life over a handful of months doesn’t mean she doesn’t involve herself with her former religion somehow.

“I mean, it’s interesting history,” she said. “Joseph Smith is an interesting guy. (Smith’s accounts) are weird and totally crazy, but fascinating.” When asked if her interest parallels the phrases of scripture in Isaiah 29, about how the work that Joseph Smith would do would be a “marvelous work and a wonder,” Emery had an acknowledgement. “Well, it certainly is a marvel,” she said. “The study of Mormonism is fascinating. Religions like the it typically don’t last as long as they have. There were some really interesting characters who really believed in what they did. Joseph Smith was a clever man.” However, put the subject at hand with women having full access to their own health care as something she says she won’t alter opinions on too much. “I’ll never change my mind that the Mormon Church isn’t right,” she said. “That’s because of a lot of research and writings I’ve read.”

Others close to her may not be so convinced, at least when it comes to any concrete ideologies that Emery holds. Her voice teacher, Deb Sorensen, believes Emery’s columns and lifestyle are much a result of her willingness to “understand things on her own.” Her father and relatives in Berkley look forward to continuing to observe her course. Perhaps to the surprise of those who have read her columns, Emery says she is open to considering any type of ideology. Whatever direction Emery decides to follow, be assured it will come on no whim, she said—and of course, outside the mainstream or what may be expected of her. After all, she says she hasn’t ruled out staying in Utah for graduate school, has a hard time understanding how someone could stay with a spouse their whole life, and may want children later, but there will be financial reasons for it.

“I’ve always been a very logically-minded person,” she said. “When I write my articles, I show my opinion and it’s really easy to look at it and say it’s wrong. I do the same thing. It’s easy to look at something from the outside and say it is wrong, but whatever lifestyle, religion, or food you eat—meat-eaters will say vegetarianism is wrong—it’s just a different lifestyle. If you see something you don’t agree with, that’s probably why. Let’s face it, that’s why I’m not popular around here.”

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