|Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith
Leaving the Saints or Leaving Reality?
by Scott Gordon
A new book by Martha Nibley Beck, daughter of Hugh Nibley, is just now hitting the stands, but it is already causing a furor. In Leaving the Saints, Beck accuses her father of putting on an Egyptian costume and ritually abusing her, something all seven of her siblings deny. Beck has made similar claims for several years, and the claims were even addressed in the biography of Hugh Nibley written in 2002.1 Beck also makes many claims about Mormonism and Mormon culture. Interestingly enough, even some critics of Mormonism have expressed concern about this book.
There are three issues I’ve chosen to address in this review:
- The Oprah Winfrey e-mail campaign that has been popularized on the Internet
- Martha’s allegations of molestation
- Martha’s claims about Mormonism
The Oprah Winfrey E-mail Campaign
Over the past several weeks, e-mails have been flying fast and furious on the Internet asking people to either write to Oprah Winfrey and ask her not to promote Beck’s book or claiming that Church Public Affairs has spoken with Oprah Winfrey’s people and is, in turn, asking people to please not send e-mails.
To set the record straight, FAIR has checked with representatives of the Church’s Public Affairs department, and we’ve been assured that there has been no contact whatsoever with Oprah Winfrey or her representatives relating to any e-mails or campaigns. Public Affairs has issued no request, one way or the other, to either send e-mails or to not send e-mails. The only communication from the LDS Church has been the following statement:
Martha Beck’s book is seriously flawed in the way it depicts the Church, its members and teachings. Fair-minded readers will find it at best unconvincing, at worst mean-spirited and at times absurd.
We encourage all who seek an understanding of the Church and the gospel of Jesus Christ to read and study works by reputable authors and scholars, together with the scriptures, in order to build their understanding of the truth.2
Martha’s Allegations of Molestation
It is always important to take allegations of molestation seriously. It doesn’t matter what the rank or status of the accused or accuser is, the allegation still needs to be investigated. Unfortunately, we don’t have access to all the information; we have only allegations and denials. But we can look at some information that Martha and other family members provide.
Martha claims (page 147) that her father dressed up as the Egyptian god Amut the Destroyer by putting on a costume with an alligator head and a lion’s body and molesting her between the ages of 5 and 7.3 He did this at 4 o’clock in the morning, while others slept. She didn’t remember this happened until the memories returned under self hypnosis many years later as an adult. She states that the memories were so weird that they must be true (page 146).
To support her claim she said her mother initially supported her in a phone conversation, but then her mother completely denied this the next day. She also has a chapter (chapter 18) that describes memories of doctor’s comments of vaginal scarring and memories of early bleeding. In many ways the discussion is quite convincing.
But then there is the rest of the story: those things that are not included in the book but are provided by other family members. In fact, all of the other family members deny that events Martha describes happen in the way she describes them. All of the other family members deny the abuse happened at all.
Additionally there is the question of opportunity. Zina Nibley Petersen, who shared a bunk bed with Martha as a child, is quoted in The Salt Lake Tribune as saying “I don’t believe it, not remotely.” The article goes on to say:
Martha had the upper bunk. One day when they were very small, the two were playing on the top bunk when the slats shifted and the mattress collapsed, dumping them on the floor and knocking out two of Zina’s teeth.
“That was with two little wispy girls,” Petersen recalled. “To say nothing of an adult trying to manipulate a child into sex.”
Their room was next-door to their parents’, she said, and their mother was a light sleeper. Doors were always open and walls were thin, she said.”
Christina Nibley Mincek, the eldest daughter, said Beck’s details of her abuse grew after she first started telling them the story in the early 1990s. She added the Egyptian elements and vaginal scarring later, Mincek said. She believes Beck’s experience corresponds to someone who had a false implanted memory.4
It was a small house. Opportunity would have been difficult and the events Martha describes are so outlandish that it is likely someone would have noticed the Amut the Destroyer costume hanging in the closet.
Martha blames the whole incident on the stress of having to defend the Book of Abraham when Nibley knew it was a fraud. She says, “He was a fifty-two year old Mormon apologist–a profession that didn’t even exist outside of Utah–with virtually no possibility of getting a job outside of Mormon run BYU” (page 148). That sounds like a stressful situation until you realize that there are no paid Mormon apologists, even within Utah. Hugh was paid for teaching college classes. He was a college professor, who had other job offers. Just at the time the Joseph Smith papyri surfaced, Hugh received an offer to teach at Clarion State College in eastern Pennsylvania, but he preferred to stay at BYU. We have to remember that this was a professor who, when he first applied at BYU listed the languages he could work in as German, French, Arabic, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Russian, Dutch, Italian, Old Norse, Hebrew, Coptic and Egyptian. Finding another job really wasn’t a problem for such a person.
Martha seems sure of her claims in the book, but family members say she has questioned her own claims and has stated that she wasn’t sure if they are really true. Given what we know so far, it seems they probably aren’t. Her sister Zina Nibley Petersen says it best:
Suffice it to say that so far, none (not one) of people whom she “records” conversations with in this book have verified that her representation of their words is accurate. Some “characters” and conversations are harder to pin down than others, because she changes names. But changing the names means that the entire burden of proof is on her. She is not going to be able to withstand or bear that burden.
My father is innocent, completely, of her charges.5
Martha’s Claims about Mormonism
As I read Martha’s claims about Mormonism, the words “tall tale” came to mind. Her claims are so outlandish that it is difficult to believe a reasonable person who is familiar with Mormons would believe them. But then the more I read, the more the word “exploitation” came to mind. I can’t imagine a publisher allowing a writer to embarrass herself in this fashion unless they were simply exploiting her. This book could easily be a gossip newspaper at the supermarket checkout with the headline, “Space Aliens Ate My Sister’s Brain.” This kind of book shouldn’t be coming from a Harvard Ph.D. that is described by Oprah Winfrey as the “smartest woman I know.” Martha appears to be paranoid. The family confirms that she suffered an anorexic breakdown at one point in her life, and could be suffering from other disorders. The publisher should never have let this book be printed.
Throughout the text, Martha drops so-called “bombshells” about the LDS Church or Mormon beliefs. Other reviews have addressed many of Beck’s assertions, and there are a cornucopia of mischaracterizations from which one could choose. I won’t try to provide a complete list of them, but there are a couple that I wanted to comment on.
At one point (pages 77-78), Martha claims that male students at BYU must wear socks on the premise that the hair on the human ankles can be thought of as an extension of pubic hair. Other students and faculty that I’ve talked to, present at BYU during the same period as Martha, denied such an outlandish allegation. One member of the sociology department that I checked with (where Martha taught part time) assured me that he wears socks to keep his feet warm with his sandals, and that pubic hair has nothing to do with his choice.6
In another instance (page 83), Martha claims that all references to Sonia Johnson (an ex-Mormon feminist) have been expunged from the BYU library. Not just the books, mind you, but even the microfilm copies of the newspapers had been removed. She states, “The articles were simply missing. All of them. Someone in the BYU library had spent an enormous amount of time and effort to excise every single reference to Sonia Johnson that had ever appeared in print.” Then she states, “People really do underestimate the capacity of things to disappear.”
This seemed so outrageous (and easy enough to verify) that I decided to contact the library. Mike Cooper, Communications and Public Relations Director of the BYU library, flatly denies this claim. He said there are over forty references to Sonia Johnson and none of them have ever been purged. “We are a scholarly library and we don’t do that.”7 The references can all be checked online.
On balance, Martha’s claims about Mormon culture and custom do not reflect reality. At times they are wrong, and at other times they are just plain bizarre. In no case do they seem worthy of a Ph.D. who prides herself on knowing how to do research. The mischaracterizations do nothing but undermine her credibility, something I think she would desire to maintain when making molestation charges against her father.
Having read Leaving the Saints and examined Martha’s words and claims, it is easy to conclude that she is a troubled person. I hope that she one day finds peace, but this book will not bring any peace to her life. It is difficult to find anything of value in its pages.
1 Boyd Petersen, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2002), 400. Petersen states “The most distressing incident occurred in 1991, when, after reading several popular self-help books, visiting a poorly-trained therapist, and using self-hypnosis, Hugh’s daughter Martha accused him of abuse. While no one in the family took these allegations lightly, Phyllis and all of Martha’s siblings eventually concluded that Martha’s ‘memories’ were false. Martha went on to sever her relationships with most of her family and eventually leave the Church. For his own part, Hugh knew Martha’s accusations were false and felt great pain that they had come between his daughter and him.”
In the footnote, Peterson further writes,
I must confess that I have spent considerable time stewing over how to approach this topic, or even whether I should approach this topic. I find myself in a no-win situation, especially since we live in a cultural atmosphere where doubting the story of an alleged victim is frequently seen as blaming the victim. However, even though Martha has not published an expose about her alleged abuse, she has not kept silent. So to not deal with this episode would lead some to believe that I’m covering up a family secret. But here are the facts: Martha was one of eight children who grew up in the Nibley household; two of her sisters shared a room with her until she was a teenager; yet only Martha believes Hugh was abusive. No one witnessed any inappropriate activities between Martha and her father, and the Nibley home was too small for the family to keep many secrets from each other. Martha’s siblings range from active Latter-day Saint to completely disengaged, from believing to agnostic. And all have some complaints about the way Hugh fulfilled his role as father, so their rejection of Martha’s story does not come from a desire to preserve the reputation of their father or the Church. Furthermore, it can be documented that Martha has not been very consistent in reporting on her own past. For example, in their book Breaking the Cycles of Compulsive Behavior (Salt Lake: Deseret, 1990), she and her husband John write that they “accept as inspired the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (xi), while in her book Expecting Adam (New York: Times, 1999), she states plainly that she hadn’t believed in God since she was a teenager and describes the very people who bought her first book as “religious fanatics” (50). It must also be remembered that False Memory Syndrome was part of the general zeitgeist of the early 1990s, with many noted celebrities publicly confessing their status as victims of abuse and a whole subculture of primarily women using hypnotherapy to “uncover” the buried abuse in their past. Thousands of families were shattered during this witch hunt. Since then, reputable psychologists and psychiatrists, while maintaining that abuse is a significant and often over-looked problem in America, now distrust the use of hypnosis for uncovering memories, understand better the malleable and inaccurate nature of memory, and advocate some real-life confirmation in cases where accusations of abuse are made. The American Medical Association has officially declared that it “considers recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse to be of uncertain authenticity, which should be subject to external verification,” and the American Psychological Association has asserted that “at this point it is impossible, without other corroborative evidence, to distinguish a true memory from a false one.” For a good overview of the history behind FMS see Julia Gracen’s “Truth and Reconciliation: Incest Accusations of the Recovered-Memory Craze Tore Families Apart. Now One of its Leaders Wants to Let Bygones be Bygones.” 22 May 2002 at http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2002/05/22/davis/index.html or visit the False Memory Syndrome Foundation website at www.fmsfonline.org.
2 Edward Wyatt, “Mormon Daughter’s Book, Charges Ignite Firestorm,” The New York Times (26 February 2005), accessed online at http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/0226mormon26.html
3 Beck claims that the last molestation occurred just before Beck turned 8, when she was baptized into the Church.
4 Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Rebel Mormon’s Memoir Ignites a Furor,” The Salt Lake Tribune (24 February, 2005), accessed online at http://www.sltrib.com/utah/ci_2555256
5 FAIR Message Board, February 1, 2005, http://www.fairboards.org/index.php?showtopic=6129&st=60&#entry169307
6 Phone conversation with Dr. R.A. Vaughn, Thursday, February 24, 2005. Dr. Vaughn is Department Chair of the BYU sociology department.
7 Phone conversation with Mike Cooper on Friday, February 26, 2005.