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Book Review: Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found my Faith

By Martha Nibley Beck

Reviewed by Bill McKeever 

Leaving The Saints
Hugh Nibley has been extolled by many Latter-day Saints as the foremost scholar and apologist in LDS Church history. During his eulogy (he died on February 24, 2005 at the age of 94), it was mentioned that “he will be long remembered for his scholarly research and his varied contributions to religious studies.”

Nibley was an eccentric. Even the LDS Church News noted this in its tribute to him in the March 5, 2005 issue (p.11). Mormon Apostle Dallin Oaks noted that Nibley was prone to wear unmatched clothes and two-buckle combat boots. However, his claim to fame as a tenacious defender of the Mormon faith came about after he wrote a short rebuttal to Fawn McKay Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, a biography of Joseph Smith that failed to follow the usual “faith-promoting” guidelines expected of Mormon historians. Personally, I found Nibley’s 62-page rejoinder, No Ma’am, That’s Not History to be quite inane. It did very little to adequately respond to the research included in Brodie’s book of nearly 600 pages. Still, the fact that a response was made worked to catapult Nibley into fame and glory within LDS circles.

If Mormon President David O. McKay was right when he said that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home,” then we must wonder if all of Nibley’s accomplishments were for naught. If we can believe the words of his daughter Martha Beck, it would appear that the Nibley legacy has been greatly tarnished.

Dr. Beck opens her tome in a hotel room where she is about to confront her aged father with a series of questions regarding an event that she claims happened when she was five years old. Beck is convinced that her father sexually abused her over a period of about three years, but for much of her life, this memory was repressed. Her father assumes they are meeting in order for his daughter to disavow the charges of abuse, but she makes it clear that she stands by everything she has said (p.2).

Her father staunchly denies the accusation (as he does throughout the entire book) and is adamant that he did nothing inappropriate to his daughter. “Well, then, nothing left an awful lot of scars,” she says. Beck isn’t speaking of emotional scars. She insists that she has scar tissue that is “not the kind of scar tissue a kid gets playing on the jungle gym.” On page three she says her father places the blame for such scars on the “Evil One.” “Does he actually think I spent my childhood hanging out with Lucifer?” she asks. “Is the Evil One the name he has for an aspect of himself? If he’s suffering from a split personality or psychotic fugue states, is he aware of this intellectually, or only at some dark subconscious level? Is my father a calculated liar, or is he certifiably insane, or could he actually be empirically correct? I have no idea.”

The last two sentences jumped out at me as I read them. She really has no idea if her father is correct? Shouldn’t this doubt have been settled in her mind long before this hotel encounter? Shouldn’t this question have been settled before publishing a book on the subject? In my mind the insertion of such a question tends to undermine her credibility.

She states on page six, “My whole life is shadowed in doubt. The only conviction I embrace absolutely is this: whatever I believe, I may be wrong.” Could she also be wrong about the alleged abuse?

The idea that children immediately repress all memory of sexual abuse shortly after it occurs is incredibly controversial. Over the years such accusations have sent many people to jail. Many others on the receiving end of such allegations were later released when it was discovered that the wild imaginations of young accusers were actually baseless. It has been proven that unscrupulous therapists have actually coached young children into producing accusations that have led to the downfall of innocent reputations. It comes as no surprise that many will view Beck’s story with suspicion. I personally attended a sexual abuse workshop with my wife years ago when our eldest daughter was in elementary school. I knew the class was heading in a dubious direction when the speaker insisted that “children don’t lie about this.” History certainly does not bear this out.

However, Beck’s story is not the result of being prodded as a youngster by some angry therapist who was purposely trying to discredit her famous father. Beck’s revelation of abuse came to her as a “flashback” when she was an adult. Though she spends a considerable amount of time speaking of a non-Mormon therapist who believed her story, this person comes into the picture after her illumination, not before. Professionals tend to agree that the only way to distinguish between true and false memories is by external corroboration. Unfortunately, there are some therapists who will readily side with just about any person who insists they were abused as a child.

Beck’s narrative bounces back and forth between her confrontation in the hotel room and tales from her past. She writes very well. When she gets away from the morose subject of abuse, she displays a sense of humor that, I have to admit, had me laughing out loud at several points.

Beck doesn’t hide her fascination with mysticism. On page 53 she states, “…I wasn’t just studying mysticism to store up information. I was looking for actual methods, those pragmatic steps that, years later, I would describe to my father as ‘spiritual technologies.’ What could I actually do to invite, invoke, induce some sort of mystical state? I was willing to try anything.”

She regularly refers to her “Allusion Manager,” and her book is permeated with quotations from Eastern philosophers. “Since I’d lived in Asia and studied both Chinese and Japanese, I was particularly drawn to Eastern philosophy. I love Taoism, with its image of a vast, inchoate, benevolent Way flowing through all things. Zen appealed to me on erasing delusion, as opposed to adding knowledge.” On page 194 she says, “My God is more amorphous, more of a universal constant, like gravity or magnetism.”

On page 99 she notes how her doctor “found a large lump in what I will call the gynecological region of my body.” He ordered immediate exploratory surgery. She claims to have witnessed the operation, though she was under anesthesia, eyes closed, lying on the table (p.101). It was during this portion of the surgery that she encountered a bright light that was “about the size of a golf ball.” Though “far brighter than the surgical lights,” she said that instead of blinding her, it seemed to make her eyes “more able to tolerate the brilliance” around her. As it grew, it touched her and flowed into her material body (p.102). The light began to speak to her and said, “Hey, kid… There are some things you’ll need to remember.”

Two days after her surgery, she was at home with her husband trying to explain “the Light” (she always capitalizes it). As he hugged her, she started to go into a rage. It is then that she says her “brain seemed to erupt like a volcano, spewing a memory that was both incredibly vivid and absolutely incomprehensible.” She recalls being five years-old, lying on a bed with her hands tied:

A rush of strange words bounce around my head, words my father is saying: Father Abraham. The Book of the Dead. The Book of Breathings. The prophet Joseph. Amut the Destroyer. The prophet Joseph Smith. Sacrifice. Abrahamic sacrifice. I have a dim idea that my father has been commanded by God to do what he is doing, the way Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac. None of it makes sense (p.113).

Beck introduces her readers to her father’s obsession with things Egyptian earlier in the book. On page 38 she mentions how her father had spent more than a decade working on a manuscript that “has to do with the Egyptian papyrus once owned by the prophet Joseph Smith.” Smith’s “translation” of the papyrus was granted the status of scripture in 1880 by the LDS Church and is known as The Book of Abraham. Her father claimed, “This book is a big one. This is going to knock their socks off.” The fact that Nibley had been working on this project has been well documented. An article in the February 25, 2005 Deseret News confirmed that the manuscript was finished, though it “will take several years to be edited and published.” One can only wonder what his book will prove. Non-Mormon Egyptologists long ago agreed that Smith’s “translation” of The Book of Abraham was a total fabrication.

As Beck mulls over the experience, she starts to remember “bits and pieces” of her life that “she never quite understood,” including a visit to her obstetrician when she was 25. Upon examining her, the doctor asks if she had delivered any of her children at home. He had noticed scar tissue and concluded that whoever helped deliver her children “was asleep on the job” because they failed to properly repair a tear (p.117). She insists that she never tore during child birth, thus concluding that she must have been raped by her father.

Beck’s situation is a clear case of “he said-she said.” Throughout the book she presses her father to admit his wrong-doing, yet he is portrayed as continually denying it. She is not without some bit of external corroboration, but even this is unconfirmed. For instance, she relates a story of a phone conversation that she had with her mother and how her mother seemed to already know that her husband sexually abused their 5-year-old child. Beck relates how she is totally amazed that her mother believes her. “Why shouldn’t I believe you?” her mother says. “I know him better than you do.” While this would seem to supply some of the evidence that a reader needs in order to help draw a fair conclusion, it is all taken back in the next line. “Within days, my mother would deny that she had ever uttered these words” (p.131).

Though I have a difficult time believing the allegations of abuse, many of the other details in her book tend to be quite believable. For instance, she relates how one of her close friends, a Mormon psychotherapist, reacted when she told her what she believed happened to her as a child. Her friend advised her to keep silent about the matter since this would cause problems for the [Mormon] church and that many testimonies would be hurt. “Maybe this is your mission,” her friend says, “To protect the Church, to honor the secret.” This kind of counsel is not at all far-fetched. Disloyalty to the LDS Church and its heroes is a major sin in Mormonism. A person who is disloyal should expect repercussions.

Beck received her sociology training at Harvard, but she returned to Utah and took a job at Brigham Young University in the spring of 1990. Though she was not a professional counselor, she says that “students kept knocking on my office door, closing it behind them, and then pouring out their hearts. . . the vast majority of the stories I heard had just one, cruelly monotonous theme: sexual abuse.” She continues, “Perhaps they’d heard rumors that I claimed to be one of them. . . the stories I heard in my office, day after day, were rarely of the repressed and recovered variety.”

Sexual abuse finds its ugly way into many churches, and the LDS Church is certainly no exception. In 1999, The Salt Lake Tribune reported, “As lawsuits filed by sexual abuse victims against Catholic dioceses have grabbed headlines and reaped controversial multi-million-dollar rewards, similar litigation against the Mormon Church has proceeded quietly, usually ending in confidential settlements” (“Clergy Ignores Victims, Allege LDS Plaintiffs, 10/17/1999, A1). Consider also:

  • On July 30, 1993, the Deseret News reported that “George P. Lee, former LDS Church general authority, is expected to surrender to authorities next week on charges that he sexually abused a 12-year-old girl in 1989.” The article stated, “Investigators say he fondled the girl at his home and during official trips made as a member of the church’s First Quorum of Seventy.” Lee eventually pleaded guilty to attempted sexual abuse of a child, a third-degree felony.
  • In 1996 Lloyd Gerald Pond was arrested for sexual abuse of a fourteen-year-old girl. Pond hosted the Times and Seasons, a Mormon Church radio program. He originally denied any wrong-doing; however, he pleaded guilty on Friday, November 22 to a reduced charge of one count of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony.
  • In 1998 a Montgomery County (TX) jury awarded a teenage boy $4 million in damages in a unanimous verdict that found the LDS Church negligent for not protecting the boy from John Charles Blome, a church youth worker and known pedophile. (Houston Chronicle, “Molested boy wins more than sought against church /$4 million awarded after Mormons found negligent,” 10/9/98).
  • In 1999 four members of the Mormon Church in England were “convicted of sexually abusing children after being caught during a two-year police investigation.” Police said they made repeated attempts to gain access to documents from the church, but these “requests for help were denied as the American Mormons closed ranks to protect the English branch of the church” (London Times, “Mormons jailed for child sex assaults,” 11/27/1999).
  • In March of 2000, lawyers for the LDS Church and Raleigh General Hospital agreed to settle a $750 million lawsuit that accused the church and the hospital of failing to report a case of child sexual abuse. The settlement amount was not disclosed. In this case an LDS stake president who knew about the abuse conspired with other church officials, including the hospital administrator, to keep it secret. The LDS perpetrator worked for the administrator at the hospital (Deseret News, “LDS Church, hospital settle child-abuse case out of court,” 3/29/2000).
  • In 2001 the LDS Church was ordered to pay “$3 million to settle an Oregon lawsuit that had accused its leaders of failing to protect members from pedophiles within the church.” Sandra Scott called her former bishop to warn him that her son had been sexually abused; however, the bishop told her that he already knew that the perpetrator had a history of abuse (going back to the late 1970s) but that he was repentant. “The allegations against the LDS Church in the Scott lawsuit were similar to claims made in past lawsuits, which have alleged church leaders have failed to warn victims’ families or alert authorities to child abuse reports” (The Salt Lake Tribune, “LDS Church Settles Suit, Paying $3M,” 9/5/2001, A1).
  • The following year a child abuse victim identified only as A. Doe filed a lawsuit against the LDS Church claiming church leaders knew Mitchell Blake Young had sexually abused children for more than a decade when he began abusing Doe. Young had a long history of abusing children and was even sent home from his LDS mission after it was learned that he was molesting children in the Whitefish, Canada area. His activity was not reported to authorities (The Salt Lake Tribune, “Victim Sues LDS Church, Sex Abuser,” July 2, 2002).

Beck also talks about “the man in tweed,” a “thirty-ish man with a short beard,” who recognized her at a grocery store (p.164). “After politely asking my name, he drew a kind of deep breath you take just before you jump off the high dive and said, ‘Your father is a liar.'” When she asked the man what he meant, he said, “I used to have a job for your dad’s publisher…I was one of the flunkies who checked his footnotes.” “His footnotes. He makes them all up.” “All of them?” she asks. “No, not absolutely all,” the man replies, “But I’d say, conservatively, 90 percent of them.”

Perhaps this would be a good project for the Neil Maxwell Institute (formerly called the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies or FARMS). This group of Mormon apologists has become a kind of unofficial protector of the Nibley legacy. In light of such a strong accusation, it would be interesting to see if they would be willing to verify Nibley’s notes with the same enthusiasm they have shown toward their critics.

When she asks this mystery man why he continued the cover-up, he explained that he needed the job but could not afford being blackballed. “Not just BYU. The Church. And no, I don’t think so, I know so,” he said.

She relates that on her first day on the job at BYU she witnessed an interesting encounter between the chairman of her department and some fellow professors. “I’m sure you are all aware,” the chairman said, “that the brethren in Salt Lake City are asking BYU faculty to refrain from publishing in any journals that are considered ‘alternate voices.'”

Beck then explained that “alternative voices” meant publications not approved by the LDS leadership. One of her colleagues remarked, “But that’s ridiculous, Where are we supposed to publish? Nobody takes church journals seriously. I mean I don’t take them seriously. They’ll never let us tell the truth.” Though not mentioned specifically, I assume two of the journals considered off limits were Sunstone, and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Both publications have more of a liberal bent and often print articles that challenge the Mormon status quo. The Sunstone Foundation also sponsors a symposium that freely discusses Mormon history and doctrine. In September 1992, a Salt Lake Tribune article mentioned that some BYU faculty members were disappointed in this directive since it was “one of the few places Mormon-related research can be presented” (“Will BYU Guidelines Bring More Academic Freedom?” 9/19/92, B2).

The chairman said that he had received several phone calls from church headquarters telling professors to avoid “sensitive research.” On page 81 she listed some of these thorny issues. They included evolution, Mormon history, American archaeology, and feminism. The fact that professors are restrained from being free to offer critical analysis that posits the church in anything but a faith-promoting light has always been a blight of the school’s perceived credibility. Former BYU professor D. Michael Quinn once noted, “BYU officials have said that Harvard should aspire to become the BYU of the East. That’s like saying the Mayo Clinic should aspire to be Auschwitz. BYU is an Auschwitz of the mind” (Salt Lake Tribune, “Ex-BYU professor claims beliefs led to dismissal,” July 30, 1988). Quinn was responding to a 1981 comment made by then president of BYU, Jeffrey Holland. Holland now serves as an LDS apostle.

Her depiction of this era at BYU is not all that far off from reported accounts in local newspapers at that time. She writes of those who were “called in” by their ecclesiastical leaders for perceived suspicions of disloyalty. During this time it was not uncommon for the Salt Lake Tribune to run stories with headlines like, “BYU Tries to Juggle Faith, Free Thinking,” “BYU Sociologists Say They Fear Intimidation From LDS Leaders,” and “LDS Leaders Attack Intellectual Freedom.” Such concerns were very real since it was common knowledge that a “Strengthening Church Members Committee” had secret files on members who were known to be outspoken.

In an August 14, 1992 article, the LDS Church said Doctrine and Covenants 123 gave the church a scriptural right to keep such records. In its context, D&C 123 speaks of those who were helping the church’s enemies persecute the Saints. LDS historian Ross Peterson voiced his disdain for comparing Sunstone and Dialogue “to people who were shooting Mormons.” He said the comparison was unfair. Peterson was one of those who was grilled by church authorities for comments he made about changes in the temple ceremony (The Salt Lake Tribune, “LDS Leaders Say Scripture Supports Secret Files on Members,” 8/14/92, B1).

Beck’s willingness to discuss personal issues about her family and her former church has naturally led to her being castigated publicly. Her family complains that much of her personal life has been omitted from the book, including the fact that she has been a practicing lesbian for the past decade. I’m not sure how that fact will help determine the truth or error of what she says, but no doubt this type of accusation, which is a genetic logical fallacy, will keep many faithful LDS from even glancing at its pages.

I’m not going to say that Leaving the Faith is a must read. I probably would not have chosen to read it had I not been asked to talk about it in a radio interview. I for one have no way of knowing if her abuse allegations are true, so I can’t chime in with some of her supporters and give accolades of bravery. Personally I think her memories of abuse are highly suspect, but since I come far short of omniscience, I can’t say one way or another. Overall I think this book is a sad story that exposes a family in ruins. Mormon or not, that’s not a happy ending.

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