What Te'o And A Former Mormon Leader Have In Common

For Tell Me More's 'Faith Matters' segment, host Michel Martin talks with Mormon blogger Joanna Brooks. They discuss a parallel between the debacle surrounding Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o, and a famous Mormon elder.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality, and as you just heard, the Barber Shop guys were talking about the very strange story involving Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o. He's in the news because the story of his girlfriend's tragic death and the girlfriend herself turned out to be a hoax.

Now, we don't know whether he was a participant in this hoax or a victim of the hoax, but before it all came to light, he talked about this young woman in a very emotional and intense way. Here is an interview with Comcast Sports Network back in November.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

MANTI TE'O: It's tested my faith. It's tested, you know, my belief in heavenly father and knowing that everything's going to be OK, and although I may not be able to see them and hear them, I have faith that I will see them again.

MARTIN: Now, one of the most fascinating responses we've seen to this story was an essay called "Famous Mormon Fictionalizes Life." It's author, Joanna Brooks, also with "The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith." As I mentioned earlier, Manti Te'o is a member of the Mormon faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and she's spoken with us before about, you know, being a Mormon and various aspects of what's going on in the Mormon faith right now.

So Joanna, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

JOANNA BROOKS: Michel, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, once you got past - one of the things you say in your essay is that once you got past - and on your blog - is once you got past the oh no, he's a Mormon aspect of it, which members of - you know, lots of minority groups feel when a member of their group is, you know, in the news for one reason or another - you talk about the storytelling traditions of your faith.

BROOKS: Right.

MARTIN: I'd just like to read a short passage from it. You say from the time we are four years old - no joke - we stand behind podiums and we tell stories we pull out of our guts. We tell them hard. We hope they'll work. We hope they'll bring people to tears, to help them feel the spirit.

Now, do you think - and I know you don't this young man directly. Do you think that that is in part about what this might be about?

BROOKS: I do. You know, Manti Te'o comes from a really tight knit, predominantly Mormon community, Laie, on the North Shore of Oahu, and I've been speaking to Mormon Pacific Islander folks this week who tell me this is a young man who, from the time he's very young, has been called on to give back, both to his Hawaiian community, his Samoan-American community, and to his Mormon community. He's been asked to show up at school assemblies and church meetings, devotionals, and deliver time and time again as a role model and to tell a faith-promoting story. He's been doing that for a long time, and it's possible to see how he might have got caught up in telling quite a faith-promoting story with the dead girlfriend hoax.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about the role of storytelling in the Mormon tradition, you know, if you would. You tell an interesting story in your piece...

BROOKS: Sure.

MARTIN: ...about a figure who - Paul H. Dunn, who was a figure in the 1980s who was a - no, a figure who was, you know, really significant in the - sort of the history of Mormonism in this country who was later discovered to have made up a lot of his own personal story too.

BROOKS: Right. You know, in the Mormon faith, it's important to know, we don't have paid clergy. We don't have paid preachers, paid theologians, so laypeople teach and preach to one another all the time, and so we do. We pull these stories out of our lives and we bear testimony, we talk about life experiences, often involving the death of a loved one, in order to inspire and help others feel.

Now, during the '70s and '80s, Paul H. Dunn was a fairly high-ranking church leader who was beloved as a motivational speaker. He wrote 50 books and in his books he would tell these amazing stories - about his time playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, others drawn from the battlefields of World War II, a war buddy dying in his arms, prayers on his lips. Dunn buries him there on Okinawa.

Well, in the late '80s researchers uncover evidence that Dunn fabricated a number of these beloved faith-promoting stories, and in 1991 he apologized to the Mormon people.

MARTIN: What reaction are you getting to your essay?

BROOKS: Well, very, very mixed. I mean, you know, again, Manti Te'o has been positioned as a role model, has carried a lot of weight for his community, both his Mormon community, his Mormon Pacific Islander community, so there's a lot of defense and protection. You know, there's also folks who are rightly saying, really? Is this the national scandal we need to be focusing on? You know - yeah - he crossed a line. The evidence suggests that he was complicit, at the very least, in a fabrication, you know, and so there was a line crossed there.

But you know, folks are more and more picking up on this story, for example, that Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post is telling about. Not fake dead girlfriends, but actual patterns of sexual violence against women connected with Notre Dame University and the Notre Dame football program. So people are saying, what kind of stories are we really interested in and demanding? You know - yeah, it's easy to climb on this hoax story and get drawn - you know, caught up in the curiosity of it, but is that where we need to be focusing? All this energy.

MARTIN: That's true, and I understand that. No, I understand that. And what I meant by that's true is I understand that that is, in fact, a very strongly held view that a number of people have argued, you know, in the wake of this. And I do want to repeat again that Manti Te'o himself says that he did not participate in this hoax, that he was a victim of it, that someone - and that's been - has a suggestion about who...

BROOKS: Right.

MARTIN: ...that, you know, directed this toward him for their own reasons, which remain to be seen. But finally, Joanna, as a person of faith yourself, though, do you worry that, when stories like this are revealed to be false or flawed, that this leads people to doubt not just the storyteller but the faith that he represents?

BROOKS: Well, sure. I mean, and it would be, you know, overstating the case to say, ah, Mormonism made Manti Te'o fabricate his girlfriend story. You know, look, in all communities of faith - and frankly, is sports culture in this country not a religion? There is a hunger for inspirational stories and there are people we look to time and time again to deliver, and oftentimes they get so caught up in answering the needs of their audiences and their constituencies that they lose their grip and we're seeing a young man here who may have lost his grip on a story that got out of control that we all fed off of and continue to feed off of.

MARTIN: Joanna Brooks is the author of "The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith." She's also a senior correspondent at ReligionDispatches.org and she was nice enough to join us from San Diego.

Joanna Brooks, thanks so much for joining us. As I said, it's a fascinating essay and a perspective on this that I don't think that we've heard a lot of, so thank you so much for sharing it.

BROOKS: Oh, thank you for having me, Michel.

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