Losing Religion, Gaining a Friend

“People didn’t really understand what it was like to grow up the way we grew up. It was so great not to have to explain that to Ariane.”

The Atlantic/April 12, 2019

By Julie Beck

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two women who became roommates at the University of Utah, at a time when they were both questioning the Mormon faith they grew up with. After spending their young lives in tight-knit Mormon communities, they both decided to leave the Church as adults, and supported each other through the difficult transition to what they call a more “mainstream” life. They discuss their instant connection in college, the challenge of leaving behind the Church’s built-in social circle, and what it means to have a friend who has borne witness to a major evolution in your life.

The Friends

Stephanie Hatzenbueller, 41, a therapist and social worker who lives in Hailey, Idaho

Ariane Le Chevallier, 41, a marketing director who lives in Portland, Oregon

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julie Beck: You were both raised in the Mormon Church—could you give me a bit of your background with the faith, and what your experience was growing up?

Ariane Le Chevallier: I was raised in Utah. I was a third-generation Mormon. Most of my friends were Mormon, my entire family is Mormon, and I was active in the Church my entire childhood. Everyone in my life was Mormon, with the exception of one friend who was Catholic. It was really all I knew growing up.

There were varying degrees of involvement in the Church, and I would say my family was moderately involved. My family was on the less traditional side—my parents got divorced. We definitely went to church every Sunday. I went to seminary when I was in high school, which is a class that you take outside of school.

Stephanie Hatzenbuehler: I grew up in southeastern Idaho, in Pocatello, Idaho. Pocatello when I was growing up was probably 60 or 70 percent Mormon. Like Ariane, almost everybody I knew was Mormon—though there were definitely people in the city who weren't, because of Idaho State University. A lot of the professors, and the professors’ kids, weren’t Mormon.

The feeling in Pocatello was that there were Mormons and there were non-Mormons, and that’s how people were identified. My family was very, very active in Church. My dad was a bishop. We did the whole Sunday, and then we would go to meetings throughout the week, for kids above 12. It’s called Mutual.

For Mutual, they separate the boys and the girls. The boys always got to do really awesome, fun stuff. One time, they went to the courthouse to do a mock trial, and the women were baking pies. I remember getting in a huge fight with my leaders because I wanted to go with the boys. Their answer to me was, “Well, what would your father say about you wanting to not do what you are supposed to do?”

And we would always go to the school or the church gym to play basketball. It was really the hub of everything social. Ariane, did you ever go to church dances?

Ariane: Yes. Those were quite the scene. You had to dance at arm’s length, to have room for the Holy Ghost in between you. They were fun. I really loved that.

I was part of Mutual as well. It was a social gathering; it was where I saw my friends each week outside of school.

Stephanie: You were definitely supposed to stay within the Mormon community. They would often say “You date who you marry,” or “You marry who you date.” These dances were kind of a big deal. You were staking out boyfriends.

But I was always really interested in non-Mormon kids in my neighborhood. My grandma’s next-door neighbors were a Catholic family who moved to Pocatello to teach at the university. That was my husband’s family—we grew up together. I loved all those Catholic boys that went to the private school at Saint Anthony’s.

From a very young age, I always had questions about some of the tenets of Mormonism. I was drawn to diverse groups of people who I could talk to about different ideas. I still tried my best to do what I was told. But sometimes, when everyone would disperse to their Sunday-school classes, I would walk out the back of the church and hide for an hour. I was just trying to get through it.

Beck: When did you two meet, and where were you at in terms of your faith at that time?

Ariane: My junior year at the University of Utah, I was looking for a roommate, and I answered Stephanie’s ad from the university’s Institute program, which is like seminary but for college. My parents had divorced a few years earlier. That was hard for me, because most of my friend’s parents hadn’t been through divorce. After the divorce, both my mom and dad left the Church. I was still struggling with my faith. Steph, now I’ll turn it over to you. I love how you talk about how we met.

Stephanie: I love this story too. Ariane’s posture is always very forward. She has a lot of excited energy. I open the door, and she’s leaning forward. She has these huge brown eyes, and this gorgeous red hair, and she was just like, “I’m here, I’m your best friend, we found each other, let me move my stuff in right now.” I was like, This is my girl.

Ariane: Needless to say, she chose me as her roommate. We immediately became best friends.

Stephanie: I will say, even if you are questioning your faith, it’s really normal for high-school and college kids to still be trying to assimilate to the culture around you. Ariane, I had no idea you were questioning, none. People knew about me because of John, the Catholic who lived next door to my grandma. We had decided to be together after our freshman year. We did long distance; he was at Notre Dame, and I was at University of Utah. Back to the old theory of you marry who you date, it was problematic, but no one ever really told me I couldn’t date him, because I was 20. You can’t really tell an adult what they can and can’t do. We decided that we didn’t care about the Romeo and Juliet vibe we were getting from everyone, and we were just going to be together.

Beck: So when you guys were younger, your parents didn’t really approve?

Stephanie: No, we just sort of knew. They didn’t have to be explicit about it. You just know that you don’t marry outside of your faith. They didn’t need to be specific about John. But they liked him, and they liked his family.

Beck: People knew that you were dating John, so they knew maybe you were not as close to the faith as they were?

Stephanie: Yeah, but I was still passing. I was still going to church and doing all this stuff to remain worthy. Ariane, do you remember that conversation when I was ironing? We’d lived together for a couple of months. You asked me, “So you are not going to get married in the temple?” I was like, “I don’t think so.” It was so traumatic for me to say that out loud.

That’s also when I started getting the sense that you were so smart and curious and worldly, and that it would be difficult for you to just get married and have babies. There’s a lot of people for whom that’s a very happy eventuality, but it didn’t seem like it was your eventuality.

Ariane: It was hard for me because I wanted to graduate from college, I wanted to have a career, I wanted to leave Utah. But I had this really strong community of friends and family. It was hard to think about leaving all of that. I was scared that if I left the Church, a lot of my friends would not talk to me anymore, and my extended family would be disappointed. But because my immediate family had decided to leave, I knew I was going to be okay if I had my immediate family members behind me.

I got an internship in Washington, D.C., my senior year of college. It was a big deal because I had not spent a ton of time outside of Utah.

Stephanie: Can I interrupt? It’s important to note just how unusual this is. I can’t tell you another Mormon woman who did this. No one ever went on their own and found a career, and lived across the country and was independent. I’m not trying to puff you up, but I just want to be clear about what a huge, massive leap that was. There weren’t any examples of that. For me, marrying a Catholic, that didn’t happen either. For Ariane, a single woman, to live across the country and go to grad school and develop her career was just really extraordinary. I was always so impressed by her.

Ariane: After my internship, I came back to graduate. I think at that time, Stephanie, you had graduated, and—

Stephanie: Married my Catholic boy.

Ariane: I had known Stephanie at that point for like a year, and there was no way I was going to miss out on this Catholic-Mormon wedding. I was so excited. I also had just graduated. Their wedding was amazing and beautiful. It was so great to see her find that love, and to be bold and make that decision to marry John, regardless of the circumstances or what her family thought. It was really an indication of her strength. I was very impressed with her decision to do that, and the wedding was epic.

Stephanie: It was epic, but there was no booze.

Ariane: There was no alcohol at the wedding, but all of her husband’s friends brought flasks, so needless to say we enjoyed the wedding. We were imbibing in the women’s bathroom.

Beck: A classic place to do so.

Stephanie: It was awesome.

Beck: What role, if any, did your friendship play in your decisions to ultimately leave the Church?

Ariane: I eventually returned to Washington, D.C. At that time, I think we definitely had a lot of conversations about making decisions to consciously no longer practice the Mormon faith.

Stephanie: We just didn’t have the belief. I was still trying to lessen the blow of my choices for my family. I just sort of passively stopped going to church. Once I got married, my husband was in med school in Seattle, and I was working for the University of Washington doing Alzheimer’s research. So we were not living in Idaho anymore, and they didn’t have to know that I wasn’t going. Although they kind of did know. They would send missionaries to come try to fellowship us.

Beck: What does that mean?

Stephanie: Mormon missionaries come and try to support you, talk to you about your questions, and get you to become active again. My family would get online or call the local church, and send the missionaries to me. They were trying to help us. I used to just smile and shake their hands and then send them on their way. I didn’t want to be mean or anything.

Ariane: When I moved to D.C., it was easier for me to part ways with the Church, because I was not involved in a Mormon community there. I just stopped going to church, and built a life for myself in Washington, D.C. I made all new friends. But I still kept very close to my family and my friends who are in the Mormon faith.

Even to this day, when I see Mormon missionaries, I always say hi. I let them know I’m from Utah. The work they’re doing is hard. There’s this little soft spot in my heart for them. For me, it was just redefining what my life looks like without the Mormon Church involved. I made a clean cut. I think with Stephanie, it was more complicated.

Stephanie: I would come visit Ariane in Washington, D.C., and we just started to live our lives a little bit differently—more what we would describe as mainstream. It was super fun. She was my only friend I could do that with. Because of the pushback that I got around my decision to marry John, I had to create some boundaries around old friendships and with family, and it was really hard.

With Ariane, I wouldn’t say that we did a ton of talking about religion. It was more like: We knew what we had gone through, we were so proud of each other, and we were trying to re-assimilate ourselves into a different kind of life. To have someone with you to do that, I cannot explain to you how essential and important that has been to the well-being of my whole life. Even if it wasn’t explicitly spoken, we were the witness to each other’s lives as we were making these decisions.

Ariane: We really had to redefine what our lives looked like.

Stephanie: Especially as women.

Ariane: I feel like growing up in Utah, there wasn’t a lot of support for outspoken women. When I was in college, I had a supervisor who laughed at me when I said, “I’m going to break the glass ceiling.”

That evolution of my political beliefs gave me strength in a different way. I was able to find meaning in life, and to do good work. I ended up working on the presidential campaign for Howard Dean, and became a very active Democrat when I moved to D.C. I think politics became my religion. It was the place where I met friends. I don’t think I would have had nearly as many opportunities had I not moved to D.C. and left Utah.

Stephanie: Amen. As Ariane was developing, I was supporting my husband through med school and then eventually we had some babies, and I went to grad school to become a therapist. During all this, people didn’t really understand what it was like to grow up the way we grew up. It was so great not to have to explain that to Ariane. When I feel misunderstood by people, I can call Ariane. She was the witness to my whole adult life, and she knows exactly what I’ve been through and what it all means.

Ariane: During these small moments in our lives when we maybe don’t have all of the confidence that we need, I look to Stephanie.

I met my now-husband in Washington, D.C., and we had decided that we were going to move to Portland, Oregon, where he is from. Stephanie was 100 percent on board. She flew down to D.C., and drove with me across the country. It was just me and Stephanie; my husband was coming out later than I was.

Stephanie: She called me, and within a week I was down there.

Beck: How was the road trip? Any highlights?

Ariane: I can’t remember where it was, but there was some street art of a compass with North, East, South, and West. We put our feet in it, and we felt a little bit like Thelma and Louise. Knowing that through all of these years, we’d been able to sustain a friendship that got us through a lot of hard times, and helped us to become the people we are. We just sat there and looked at this compass and laughed, and took a picture.

Stephanie: We knew we were going to go places. We were still going.

Ariane: We were still going.

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