Sculptor and Sculpture - Lauren Cox

Creative Writing Awards 2024: Prose Winner

A Performance Essay
(creative nonfiction)

ENTER BISHOP, stage left, a man dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and tie. He pulls up a
chair and sits, facing stage right He pulls out a binder and flips through its pages. This binder
holds questions that churchgoers must answer in order to receive a temple recommend, a
document that allows access into the holiest buildings of the church: the temple.

ENTER LAUREN, stage right, a young woman wearing a modest dress and nice shoes. She
stands a few feet away from BISHOP, preferably standing at a podium as if addressing a
church congregation. She is facing the audience while BISHOP faces her. They are in two
different worlds, although in the same interview.

BISHOP: Let’s start with a prayer.

LAUREN reverently bows her head in deference to the audience and closes her eyes as if in
prayer. She may also decide to get on her knees and fold her arms while doing this, but still
faces the audience. She says her prayer in this position.

BISHOP folds his arms, bows his head, and closes his eyes in response.

LAUREN: Dear Earthly Friends, Lovers, Community Members, Family, Artists, Creators, I don’t
believe in a god anymore, but if I did, it would be Thee.

LAUREN opens her eyes, looks directly at the audience, and gestures toward them. She then
resumes her prayer posture as if nothing happened.

LAUREN: Community is my religion; creation, my temple. Thou art so unlike that austere white
marble towering over everything around it, smugly lording its sterile, glossy purity in the midst
of a lowly neighborhood. I thank Thee for blessing me with a voice, for the courage to carve my
own path out of the cornerstone.
Please bless me with strength as I revisit this moment in my life. He’s not really here–
(she gestures to BISHOP, eyes still closed) –but his voice, these yearly questions, are tattooed on
my brain. Their watchful eyes still haunt me and bring with them the weight of my eternal fate. I
invite Thee to partake with me as I lay myself at Thine altar, an offering in exchange for
freedom. Amen.

The congregation murmurs amen. LAUREN and BISHOP exit prayer mode and return to their
original positions.

BISHOP: Welcome, Lauren. Before we begin, let’s read a scripture to invite the Spirit here today.
(He pulls out a set of scriptures and begins to read.)
Matthew 16:25. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his
life for my sake shall find it.
Now, let’s begin. Do you feel ready?

LAUREN: (addressing the audience directly) When I was two years old, my parents took me to
the reopening of a historic Illinois temple from the early days of the church. It’s the temple that
my ancestors helped build, painstakingly carving the beautiful details into the exterior marble,
only to be forced to cross the wilderness from Illinois to Utah less than a year after its

construction. In my room is a tiny slab of marble, a piece of the original temple. It’s both my
birthright and my destiny. I was born to be ready.

Do you have faith in and a testimony of God, the Eternal Father; His Son, Jesus Christ;
and the Holy Ghost?

I broke up with God.

It was one of those situations where all my friends were going, “girl, you deserve better,”
and I was like, “you just don’t know him like I do.”
He was always right, and I was always wrong. I was inherently wrong, he would tell me,
and I should always ask him before doing anything important because my little mind couldn’t
make big decisions on my own. Anytime we had a fight, it was entirely my fault and I had to beg
for forgiveness to get him to talk to me again. I often threatened to leave. But then, he would hug
me and tell me how much he loved me, he loved me infinitely, in fact, more than any other
human being was capable of loving, and that I should remember to thank him every day for
bestowing this majestic love onto such an undeserving and sinful wretch as I.
Supposedly, we’re always just one or two missed days of scripture study away from
Satan’s grasp until we’re full-fledged, cold-blooded “ex-Mormons,” the Mormon equivalent of
whatever vampires are to Catholics. Well, I haven’t grown fangs yet, but there’s still time.
What they’ll never believe is that it wasn’t missing scripture study that did it. I was trying
desperately to stay. I’d stay up for hours, praying, weeping, begging for it to make sense. I
searched every scripture, every document, trying to find some sign that my ever-expanding
morality and thirst for justice could be squeezed back into the box it came in.

People in the church tell me that leaving was the easy way out. Nothing could be further
from the truth. How easy would it have been for Michelangelo to leave his block of marble
uncarved? They say he used to spend hours just staring at it. Not sketching, not sculpting, just
staring. It would have been much less work to feel satisfied with its squarish beauty. But he
couldn’t leave it that way, could he? He could hear the cry of the statue within, desperate to be
The blinding agony of stepping out of Platonic stone walls turned my world upside down.
It was the metaphysical equivalent of carving my own heart out and holding it in my hand,
chiseling and reworking some bits, and then plunging it back again. I’ve sawed off my heritage
and my community. But I have the same ache that Michelangelo had: the itch to expand, to
reach beyond the box we’re given.

Do you have a testimony that Joseph Smith was a Prophet, and that he restored the
fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

I returned to Nauvoo, Illinois only once more after that first trip as a toddler. I was
seventeen this time, much more capable of remembering. Nauvoo is a bit like Mormon
Disneyland. A lot of the church’s time and resources have gone into restoring and preserving
parts of the original city that Mormons founded before being forced west by their persecutors.
There are historical-reenactor-missionaries everywhere, and every explorable shop or home has
a book that descendants of the original inhabitants can sign. We added our names to more than
one of these.

The climax of this family vacation was a visit to Carthage jail: the place where Joseph
Smith was murdered. We don’t really like to talk about the reason he was in jail, but it’s very
important that he was a martyr. Remember that.
The founder of our religion, the catalyst for the lives of generations of my ancestors,
Joseph Smith was the keystone that made every other aspect of the church true. If Joseph really
was visited by God to create the one true church, then the Book of Mormon was true, and every
prophet after him was the rightful mouthpiece of God, and everything they’ve ever said was also

An a cappella rendition of “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” somehow begins. Perhaps the
bishop is singing it, or LAUREN plays it from her phone, or a choir of angels sings it from
above, or the ghost of a martyred prophet haunts us with it. Performer’s discretion.

The guided tour culminated in the very room where, nearly 200 years ago, a mob’s angry
bullets flew through the wooden door to kill Joseph. We sat in heavy silence until, from the
corner of the room, a man’s skilled voice rang out. I instantly recognized his song as the very
same that legend tells Joseph and his jailhouse companions sang together just before the mob
broke in.
Everyone in the room wept, myself most of all. I was so overcome with emotion –with
the Spirit– that I knew without question: Joseph Smith was surely a prophet of God.
Just a few years later, In the midst of my religious turmoil, the experience in Carthage
had made such an impact on me that it was miraculously holding together the pieces of my
broken faith.
In my scramble to make sense of this chaos, I found solace in an unexpected place:
Tracy, the mother of my new boyfriend, Nick. At the time, he and I had been together for about
six months, and it was quite the scandal, since he was not a member of the church. (Considering

I’d come out as bisexual earlier that year, however, I felt that my parents should be grateful it
was at least a man.)
Like her son, Tracy’s presence was disarming– I always seemed to automatically open up
to her with a vulnerability I wish I shared with my own mother. Nick’s parents were wary of
religion after their own restrictive experiences with it and had raised their family religiously
lukewarm. They could give me the type of support that my own parents still struggled with.
“The one thing I still know for sure is that Joseph Smith was a prophet,” I explained on a
visit to her one day. “Everything else just feels… wrong, though. I don’t know how to reconcile
After I recounted to her the story of my godly witness in Carthage jail, Tracy was silent
for a moment. “Well, that makes sense,” she said thoughtfully, “Anyone would feel strongly
about something so significant to you and your family. But,” she added with a piercing look,
“Having an emotional reaction to something doesn’t have to mean anything. You know that
right? You don’t have to let people define your feelings for you.”
And just like that, my keystone crumbled.

Do you sustain the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the
prophet, seer, and revelator and as the only person on the earth authorized to exercise all
priesthood keys? Do you sustain the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the
Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators? Do you sustain the other General Authorities
and local leaders of the Church?

We have to physically give each church authority a sustaining “vote” every few months,
where we raise our hands to signify that we support him. It’s not really a vote though– it’s more

like signing a contract promising to always be on his side. To sustain a leader of the church
means to obey him even if you’re not sure you agree with him.
You’re supposed to pray to “decide for yourself” if the prophets are speaking the truth,
but… they say God will always tell you to follow the prophet. So, when activist group “Ordain
Women” claimed they felt spiritually inspired that women should be granted priesthood
authority in the church, of course the church leaders responded that God couldn’t possibly have
said that.
When I was 13 years old, I went to a fashion design summer camp. I made myself a
beautiful purple scarf (aka, a strip of pretty fabric that I hemmed on both sides using an
industrial sewing machine). It was thrilling for a girl obsessed with doodling pretty clothes on
pretty girls.
Not long after, I was at my grandparents’ house and it was time for general conference: a
weekend of sermons from the prophets broadcasted worldwide. It never interested me much,
but this was a special session just for women.
I was eager to attend with the grown ups. It wasn’t often that there was an event just for
women. Such a special night deserved a special outfit. From my suitcase, I unfurled my magnum
opus: the beautiful purple scarf. I spent 15 minutes in the mirror figuring out the optimal way to
drape it over my shoulders and neck before bouncing out to the car.
What I didn’t know was that Ordain Women had asked supporters to wear purple to the
women’s session to protest gender inequality in the church. Doing any sort of protest in the
church is unequivocally Not Allowed, because it means that you aren’t sustaining the prophet,
which means that you’re sinning against God. My mom and grandma delicately explained this to
me once they saw my purple scarf.
“You wouldn’t want anyone to think you agree with that,” my mom said. “We have to
sustain our prophet.”

It didn’t make sense to me. “Why are they mad about that?” I asked. It was the first I’d
ever considered anyone being unsatisfied with the church.
“You’re right, it makes no sense,” said mom. “God has given us motherhood, and men
leadership. Imagine trying to be a mom and the bishop!” She laughed. My dad was our bishop.
I removed my scarf. I felt that this was my Abraham and Isaac moment– except my scarf
was Isaac, and I actually had to go through with the sacrifice. It hurt, but I wanted to be good.
No one at the meeting wore purple.

The spirit of the bishop rises out of his physical form. LAUREN winks at the congregation
before taking a seat in the front row (or pew).

GHOST BISHOP glides over and haunts the podium, a place his physical self has visited more
times than his own home. He reads monotonously from his binder.

GHOST BISHOP: We have called Lauren Cox to serve as a Righteous Woman, a calling that
doesn’t exist and won’t be formally recognized, but we are bestowing the weight of our high
expectations upon her anyway, and propose that she be sustained in that calling. Those in favor
may manifest by the uplifted hand.

Audience members may, if they sustain Lauren in this calling, manifest it by raising their right
hands. It is very weird if you do not give your sustaining vote, so please feel uncomfortable
social pressure to do so. LAUREN raises her right hand. BISHOP also raises his right hand.

GHOST BISHOP: Those opposed, if any, may manifest it.

Audience members may, if they are opposed, raise their right hand, however, it is highly
discouraged and uncommon. Those who were in favor should give these individuals a dirty
look. If anyone is feeling really rebellious, they can shout, OPPOSE! but they will be
immediately escorted out.

GHOST BISHOP leaves the podium and slips back into his physical self, sitting in the
interview. BISHOP resumes looking at his interview questions. LAUREN gets up from her seat
in the audience and goes back to her podium, giving a small wave to the congregation as she
does so.

Do you understand and obey the Word of Wisdom?

Apparently, God wanted to give us a “word of wisdom” about what we’re allowed to eat,
so that’s how we ended up with a piece of scripture that has been inconsistently interpreted by
whichever prophet is in charge. Among the banned substances: coffee.
The summer after I came out, the first and last coffee anyone ever bought me was an iced
lavender oat milk latte, the gayest coffee, according to my benefactor. But maybe I really wasn’t
gay enough because I couldn’t, wouldn’t, drink it.
My friend Gabe was exasperated and confused when I refused to drink it. It just sat
there, collecting condensation as it slowly watered itself down. I stared at it, and it stared at me.
Minutes later I was on a random porch step three blocks away from Gabe and the coffee.
My partner Nick sat down beside me as I buried my head in my hands.
It was so embarrassing, so stupid. It’s just a beverage. Millions of people even drink it
every day. So why was I hyperventilating?

“You must think I’m ridiculous,” I said to him. He’d bring me to a party and I wouldn’t
even sip his beer, much less try anything more illicit than that. But coffee? I felt like a child.
“If you feel like this relationship isn’t working out, I understand,” I told him. I wanted to
put myself in the coffee grinder and boil until my bitterness became drinkable. I couldn’t believe
he’d want to keep dating me when I was so unpalatable.
Nick just kissed my forehead and held me. He preferred to pour cream, sugar, and
caramel into his coffee in order to enjoy the acrid taste. I was a bitter cup, but he did not ask to
be removed from it. He so loved me, his world, that he gave of himself to make me whole. Only
he could sweeten my view of myself and help me take my time developing my taste for a new

The Lord has said that all things are to be “done in cleanliness” before Him (Doctrine
and Covenants 42:41). Do you strive for moral cleanliness in your thoughts and behavior? Do
you obey the law of chastity?

It was 2am and I was naked, limply twirled on the edge of the bed like a cold, shaking
spaghetti strand. Nick stroked my back timidly, as if I was a dripping kitten he found on the
street. I recoiled at his touch but didn’t shrug him away.
My sobs made the sheets wetter than the sex could. After a year of keeping him at arms’
length, I was ready to be done with the church and its life of self-denial. Ready to let him touch
me– except every attempt had ended like this.
He’d been beautifully patient all this time, patient in a way not even the horny,
guilt-wracked Mormon boys ever were to me. I hated those boys for the way they pushed their
shame onto me even as they took more than I wanted to give, but huddled here in the dark I felt

a twinge of pity for them. The weight of this shame was crushing the air from my lungs and I
didn’t even believe anymore.
Nick stroked my hair, and I loved him for it. God, I loved him, and I wanted to kiss him,
touch him, I wanted him to touch me, I wanted to give him this bit of autonomy that I swore I’d
never give, I wanted him to break my curse with his kiss. But even though my mind felt free, my
body hadn’t gotten the message. It reacted to pleasure with revulsion, numbing my skin and my
thoughts until I was consumed by the wailing and gnashing of teeth. Suf ering is holy, it
Mormon folklore tells of the gluttonous revelry that so tempted the sinners who left the
church, and promises that while it might look fun now, it will be their demise in the end. Well, I
was prepared to face eternal damnation in exchange for temporal freedom. But the twisted truth
was that I couldn’t even relish my own indulgence. My soul was still locked in a cage, unable to
connect with the barest parts of its own humanity.
I wept into my lover’s bare shoulder for the better part of an hour. At first, I couldn’t
even touch him when I had these panic attacks; it just reminded me of my shame. My need for
comfort got the better of me after awhile, though, and he just held me as I cried myself to sleep.
“You’re not dirty, you’re still a good person,” he whispered to me over and over. My mind
believed him but my soul didn’t. In my head I was dragging myself to the bishop’s office, ready
to face chastisement and be asked to skip the weekly sacramental bread and water ritual until I
was clean again.

LAUREN walks over to BISHOP, and kneels in front of him. For the first time, BISHOP and
LAUREN are directly connecting with one another. The bishop begins to say what LAUREN
imagines he’d say if she had kept up with repentance protocol, and there’s a sense of
familiarity as he speaks, as if these lines have been going through LAUREN’S head for years.
They have.

BISHOP: Thank you for telling me this. The Lord is proud of you. As you know, the prophet
Alma in the Book of Mormon taught that sexual sins are more serious than any other sins except
murder. You will have to live with the weight of this iniquity for the rest of your life. You can
seek forgiveness, but you can never undo what you’ve done. Do you understand that?


And of course, LAUREN does understand. If her body is a temple, then she’s no longer the
pearly, gleaming stone pillars aimed at the sky. She’s taken a hammer and drilled through her
polished surface, leaving pockmarks and cracks running up and down the once unblemished
edifice. More than that, she’s unworthy to set foot in the real temple– her former likeness now
shuts its sterile, cold doors in her face.

The congregation is allowed to pity her, but only as they view her through the stained glass of
the celestial room on the top floor of the temple.

BISHOP: You must flee immediately from situations that may lead to sin. Pray for constant
strength to resist temptation and control your thoughts. Your guilt and shame is a good thing;
this pain will keep you pure. Repentance is difficult, but it is possible. Lauren, you used to be so
righteous. Do you remember what your favorite scripture was?

LAUREN (monotonously): Psalms 31:10. Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far
above rubies.

LAUREN goes back to her position at the podium. As she resumes her monologue, she appears
visibly shaken. She looks around at the audience, hoping not to see her mother. She would
rather a white marble spire topple and crush her underneath it than allow her mother to
perceive her this vulnerably.

Do you support or promote any teachings, practices, or doctrine contrary to those of The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

After hours of contemplative inaction, Michelangelo could finally hear his sculpture
calling from inside that block of marble, praying for release. I, the sculptor, heard myself calling
from within that impenetrable pillar the day I realized I was bisexual. In that moment I knew,
before even beginning to carve, that no matter how hard I tried, I could not unsee this vision. I
was doomed to avalanche the life I knew in search of an unrealized potential, no matter how
much I wished I could leave it alone.
I came out to my family a few months later, but it was sort of pointless, because their
stony reactions to the news left me tiptoeing around them anyway. It didn’t help that I was
trapped at home due to the pandemic, and I was single and lonely. I still wanted to stay in the
church, to cling to what I’d always thought was real. I knew it would be rocky, but I couldn’t
commit to swearing off my “same sex attraction” until I’d at least had a taste of what could’ve

ENTER the gayest looking woman that can be sourced for this production. She probably has a
carabiner on her belt loop, and tattoos are a must. She should own at least one drill and one
cat. She must play at least two sports, preferably soccer or hockey. This woman is not here in

the same way the bishop is not here: she is merely a heavy spirit that is present whenever this
story is recounted. She stands silently on one side of the stage, looking at LAUREN.

I was having a friend over. At least, that’s what I told my parents. I was gay now, so lying
seemed like a pitiful sin to worry about in comparison. I’d been dating girls for a few months by
this point, but it usually involved me driving over an hour to see them. This time, I’d decided I’d
like a date to come to me. It was a desperate move, but I’d managed to have a few undetected
makeout sessions with nice Mormon boys on the basement sofa in high school, so I’d felt
confident in my sneakiness.
This “friend” was a heavily tattooed 23 year old with her hair twisted up to reveal the
buzzed underside of her head. She wore basketball shorts over her thick, tan thighs and a t-shirt
that read “Ladies Adult Soccer League, 2019.” Be still my soul.
(LAUREN fans herself, glassy eyed.)
She picked the movie to watch in my basement, a truly horrible rom-com that I only
endured because I didn’t take in more than 10 seconds of it at a time– my heart was beating too
quickly and I was too focused on trying to breathe normally.
(LAUREN pauses and takes some deep breaths, like she learned at Queer Yoga Club. In,
Out. In, Out.)
I knew it was a terrible idea. I knew it. But her hand was on my thigh, tracing circles and
my heart was about to cause a landslide and her hair just brushed my cheek–
and her lips were on mine, and the voices screaming BAD IDEA were extinguished like a
pinched flame and her tongue was in my mouth, on my neck and I was euphoric. I wanted to
sing hymns to her, her body was a temple, so soft and smooth and just dif erent and I suddenly
knew who I was, I found my name inside her mouth and I swallowed it, her hot breath a prayer
in my soul and then–

The ghostly woman makes a strangled noise that’s somewhere between a scream and a sob.
It’s not clear if she produced the sound, or if LAUREN’s mother did it, or if it’s the sound that
was made when the two bodies ripped apart in urgent torment. Either way, LAUREN turns to
face the woman for a moment, then looks back at the audience.

a scream. I whipped around to see my mother standing at the foot of the stairs, eyes
filling with tears. As she disappeared as quickly and silently as she appeared, I turned to my
“friend” and my body filled with ice. She was staring at me with wide, perfect eyes, and
wordlessly shook her head.

Our ghostly friend shakes her head and EXITS. She does not reappear.

In what would become the worst moment of my life, we held each other and sobbed as I
agonizingly comforted her for this horrible, horrible situation I have put upon her. She forgave
me. I didn’t deserve it. I walked her to her car and kissed her goodbye. Her mouth tasted like
That night, I was up till the witching hour having a screaming match in my parents
bedroom. “Homosexuality will never lead to happiness!” they cried. “How can you throw away
eternal life for a distortion of love?”
I know in my heart that they are wrong. They’re wrong, God is wrong, everyone’s wrong.
I have never felt so holy as when I had her face in my hands and not even God can rip that away
from me.

Are there serious sins in your life that need to be resolved with priesthood authorities as
part of your repentance?

On one unusually hot October day, I was atop a hill in the middle of a grassy meadow
near my house. It’s the hill where Nick asked me to be his girlfriend a year before. Now, I was
back to atone for my sins.
My therapist’s voice echoed through my mind: the way to leave the guilt behind is to
confront it.
After an hour of lying faceup on the hill, gathering courage, I got to my knees and began
to pray. “Dear Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother, Universe, whoever’s out there,” I whispered.
I didn’t speak again for a long time. Slowly, I felt the familiar sense of warmth I used to
ascribe to a divine presence. It felt feminine. Was this my inner self? Who knew. The grass was
sticking to my calves as I knelt.
I listed every single one of my “sins.” I told Her exactly how I was breaking the rules. I
told Her about the women I’ve dated. I told Her about Nick. And most of all, I told Her about the
guilt. The crushing shame I felt with every breath I took. I asked Her if this is divine. If the guilt
is my cue that I’m going the wrong way, that I needed to return to dogma and rigidity.
And suddenly, my mind was flooded with memories of my transgressions. But I couldn’t
conjure the shame. Instead I was bathed in sweet reflection, as if the finger of God had touched
each moment and caused them to glow. I felt the gentle brush of a lover’s hand on my cheek and
the moment melted away from me, leaving behind an inner warmth like the last sip of a hot
drink. I was left alone on the hill, baptized anew in the breeze.

Finally, do you consider yourself worthy to enter the Lord’s house and participate in
temple ordinances?

I did have to lose my life to find it, just like the apostle Matthew said. I had to lose an
entire identity, a way of being. I had to place it like a leaf in a stream and let it float away.
Active church members complain that we apostates “just can’t leave the church alone”
once we’ve defected. But really, it can’t leave me alone. I carry with me scars from the pain of
conformity. I can’t make decisions without help. I can’t go a week without my parents sending
me a scripture or quote that might magically revive my testimony.
But God-damn it, I am worthy. I am worthy even when church leaders condemn my
faithlessness. I am worthy even though my family thinks I’ve been led away by the adversary. I
am worthy when I gag at the taste of alcohol, and I’m worthy when I take a sip anyway. I’m
worthy when I buy cheap lingerie because it’s easier to be touched when there’s a barrier
between our skin. I’m worthy when I wear a tank top because it’s hot outside and I don’t have to
be responsible for the thoughts of others. I’m worthy when I wear baggy clothes and a shirt
under a strapless dress because showing off my body makes me want to throw up. I’m worthy
when my mouth feels strange forming swear words, and I’m worthy for saying fuck when it
probably doesn’t work in my sentence.
Like Michaelangelo I am the Creator, I am the Sculptor, little by little removing the
marble squareness from around the beauty that was always within. But I am also the Creation,
the Sculpture, patiently waiting for the fullness of myself to be revealed. Amen.

The audience murmurs amen. Lauren stares at the audience and they stare back. The bishop
stares at Lauren. EXIT LAUREN, stage right. After a few moments, BISHOP closes his binder,
pushes out his chair, and exits stage left.

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