|Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith
Loss and Sadness Among the Saints: A Review of Leaving the Saints
by Allen L. Wyatt
Judging by Leaving the Saints, Martha Nibley Beck has led a tortured life. The one lingering emotion that I took from reading the book was an overpowering, permeating sense of loss and sadness.
Reading the almost manic rollercoaster of emotions expressed by Beck, I am fascinated by the buoyant descriptions of exuberant joy and crushing recounting of depression. She describes a fractured childhood, a suicidal and anorexic adolescence, an early adulthood of confusion and turmoil, and a midlife of dissidence and discovery. Her writing is fluid and engaging, but the sadness still remains, at least for this reader, long after the last page was completed.
Martha Beck, daughter of famed LDS scholar Hugh Nibley, has written what amounts to an “insider’s exposé” that documents her disillusionment with her family and her former faith. Her writing held immediate interest for me, as I’ve been interested in “all things Nibley” for years and years. Hugh Nibley, in LDS circles, holds a place of special interest as an amazingly erudite scholar. His intellect and memory are legend (as noted by Beck; she considers herself cut from the same intellectual cloth), and a few of his voluminous works hold a place of honor on the bookshelves in my home.
After reading Leaving the Saints, it is fair to say that Beck despises her father, or, more correctly, that she loves the man but despises what he stands for. One of several dismissive summaries she makes concerning her father appears near the end of her book, after her children were accidentally exposed to a television program in which Hugh appeared:
I didn’t mention to the kids that the man they’d just seen was their grandfather, because I’m not sure it was. That figure was the marionette, the puppet owned and operated by a complex religious culture. Even if my children watched every speech my dad ever gave, even if they visited him every day of their lives, they wouldn’t have known their grandfather. I didn’t know him. I don’t think he ever did himself. (pg. 294)
Not knowing her father, in the end, did not stop her from writing what amounts to an indictment against him and his family. A chief reason that Beck is dismissive of her father and his work is that she sees it as core to the abuse she describes in the book. While her father was the “actor” in the abuse, she lays the blame for that abuse squarely on the broad shoulders of the organizational Church and Hugh’s choice to become an apologist for the Church.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must begin by stating, right up front, that I am an LDS apologist. I am not paid by the Church, and I don’t work for any branch or educational institution of the Church. I examine criticisms of the Church and respond to them because I find incongruity between those criticisms and my deeply held beliefs. I disclose this fact because some people may find it important; indeed, some may discount or dismiss my words based solely on this fact. (“Oh, what he says doesn’t matter–he’s just an apologist.” Trust me; it happens. If Beck did it with her father, others can certainly do it with me.)
Never mind that in the broadest sense of the word, we are all apologists. We all form opinions and then present evidence for those opinions or mount defenses of them, as we see fit. In fact, Beck’s potboiler can be viewed as an apologetic work for her view of her life. She presents her evidence and asks the reader to understand her choices, and how they have taken her to where she is. She cloaks her apologetic in words that convey humor, sarcasm, mystery, and mystification, but they are apologetic nonetheless.
I have no desire to contest the veracity of the evidence presented by Beck throughout the book. I am sure that there are intimate family and friends who can do that quite adequately. What I can do, however, is look at the quality of the evidence provided, along with its internal consistency and credibility. In some instances, I can even apply the same tests that Beck says are reasonable; the same tests she purportedly used in leaving the faith of her father. “The Mormon Church,” she says, “traces its roots to recorded history, leaving the claims of its leaders open to factual testing” (pg. 4). The same can be said of Beck and her now-recorded history. Her claims can also be tested, analyzed, and either accepted or dismissed based on their veracity and credibility.
Setting the Stage
In Leaving the Saints, Beck slowly unfolds what she sees as the central defining moment in her life: sexual abuse as a child. This abuse was not remembered, uninterrupted, from her youth. It sprang full-blown into her consciousness after a series of painful introspective bouts were catalyzed by extreme anger at her husband in late 1990 or early 1991 (pg. 113).
The recovered memory told Beck that she had been ritualistically abused. She was tied up and laid on a table like a “frog on a dissecting table” (pg. 113). Her father would allegedly use Egyptian paraphernalia to repeatedly rape her. All the while, he was supposedly dressed as Amut the Destroyer, complete with an alligator head and the body of a lion (pg. 147). This abuse took place, according to Beck, from the time she was five years old until just before she turned eight, when she was baptized. (Because, in her words, “if it happened after I was baptized, the sin would stay with me” [pg. 130].)
After further introspection and study, Beck concluded that her father went literally insane at about the time she was five years old. It was at that time that the Church, in her analysis, placed inordinate pressure on Hugh to defend the Book of Abraham. This pressure supposedly forced Hugh ‘over the edge,’ where he teetered precariously after being raised by a ‘monstrously abusive’ mother and suffering posttraumatic stress syndrome from his experiences in World War II.
Depictions of Mother
Beck’s depictions of her own mother–Phyllis Nibley–are, unlike those of her father, bipolar in nature. She is depicted either as an unenlightened victim of her Mormon culture or as a raving lunatic; there is no happy medium:
My mother was the reigning terror of my childhood. I both loved her desperately and found her infinitely horrifying, like the Hindu mother-goddess Kali, the source of essential nourishment and malevolent destruction. I didn’t understand that she was probably profoundly clinically depressed, that her behavior was perhaps the result of circumstance rather than innate personality. I only knew that my mother often went for days without changing out of her nightclothes, that she almost never laughed or went outside, that she spent almost all her time lying on her bed, crying. Things were even worse when she got up, erupting from her room like lava from a volcano, screaming with fury, tearing at the hair she usually wore in a teased-up beehive (pg. 44).
In Beck’s accounting, Phyllis is the type of woman who is so subservient to her husband–as Beck believes is demanded by Mormon culture–that when she was asked to watch Beck’s children when she was scheduled for emergency surgery, Phyllis instead chose to make dinner for Hugh (pg. 99). Perhaps Beck’s assessment of her mother was closely allied with her assessment about the state of womanhood within Mormonism:
A good Mormon woman has elaborately curled, longish hair until middle age and a permed, upswept coiffure in later life. Either way, the highly sprayed hair moves as a unit, like a padded, shellacked helmet, protecting the brain from injury or information (pg. 193).
But it isn’t just Mormon women in general that Beck chooses to denigrate, but her own mother’s choices, specifically:
I’d now read enough feminist literature to believe I understood my mother… While the world had opened up for girls of my generation, my mother kept grinding away at the one occupation recommended for Mormon females: breeding well in captivity (pg. 45).
Beck recounts how, when her mother learned of her recovered memories, Phyllis accepted the memories and even said that they must be true. Beck even recounts that Phyllis said she was abused as a child. Beck concludes “I might have guessed; this history was typical of women who end up married to abusers” (pg. 137) without providing even a single piece of evidence that Hugh had been abusive to Phyllis or any of the other children.
The support of her mother was not to last, as Phyllis soon (within three days) emphatically stated that she did not accept Beck’s version of history, that Hugh would not do any such things. Beck proceeds to lay the groundwork about how her mother, her female friends, and most Mormons only desire that the “truth” be hidden, that the Nibley name, and the name of the Church, be protected for the greater good (Chapter 21). In some grand conspiracy to protect the testimonies of countless thousands, Beck must choose to be forever silent about such matters. In her words, “my entire community [Mormonism] … seemed to be part of one huge dysfunctional family, heavily invested in protecting my father” (pg. 162).
Confrontations with Father
The framework for Leaving the Saints is an interview Beck conducts with her unsuspecting father in a Provo hotel room. Her deep-seated fears concerning Hugh (who was ninety years old at the time) lead her to plan the blindsiding with a helpful cousin, and secret another cousin in the room’s closet. Hugh was taken to the room by deception, where he was confronted by Beck for who knows how long. Judging by the narrative, Beck and her cousins held all the cards, and Hugh was not free to leave until they decided the confrontation was over.
Despite Beck’s assertions to the contrary (“My whole life is shadowed by doubt. The only conviction I embrace absolutely is this: Whatever I believe, I may be wrong” [pg. 6].), she has no doubt when it comes to the abuse she says was repeatedly perpetrated by Hugh. Through the course of the interview, Beck acts as accuser, witness, judge, and jury. Leaving the Saints is, in many respects, her one-sided indictment and verdict that her father is guilty of what only she remembers.
If we are to believe the reports of Beck’s siblings and other family members that Hugh is innocent, if we are to accept the witness of domestic help intimate to family affairs that he did not do what Beck insists he must have done, if we are to trust the recollections of long-time neighbors concerning family matters, then where does that leave Hugh?
Unfortunately, Beck’s allegations place Hugh in a double-bind, the same sort of quandary that Beck criticizes Hugh for using when it comes to defending the LDS faith. How is he to best react to what must appear to him as the insane ranting of a wayward child? If he admits something he did not do, he feeds her neuroses; if he denies her accusations, he is vilified for “lying.” In such a no-win situation, there is little that the father can do, but grieve for his daughter and hope that others will see the truth of the matter.
I found it odd that when meeting with Hugh in the hotel room, Beck would need to have one of her cousins hide herself in the room’s closet. (Hugh never did know she was there.) Supposedly the cousin was there to ‘counteract’ any advantage held by her father. Beck wants witnesses, because with secrecy she feels her “father will win walking away” (pg. 2).
Yet, a decade earlier there was a familial confrontation in Beck’s therapist’s office, recounted in Chapter 38. Did Beck feel her father had won that confrontation, “walking away?” What of the witnesses there, of Beck’s own choosing? If those witnesses leveled the playing field (in her eyes), why the need for a surreptitious confrontation a decade later? Beck never really makes the case for her chosen subterfuge. Perhaps it is indirectly revealed, however, when she says that Hugh “lives in a web of lies, a craziness so pervasive it pulls other people into it like a spiritual black hole, so dense no light can escape” (pg. 289). Was the subterfuge somehow necessary to avoid being sucked into the spiritual black hole that somehow surrounded this monster of a man?
Beck has supposedly forgiven her father for his sins, whether real or imaginary. If that is indeed the case, then the very publishing of this book seems oddly unnecessary. Beck paints a picture of a damaged child, born into a dysfunctional family, reared by an insanely monstrous, cold and distant father and angrily submissive, hurtful mother, along with a cabal of conspiring siblings that seek to hide the truth that only Beck is capable of telling. There is little of forgiveness to be found in the picture that Beck paints.
Beck points out, over and over again, that she and her father are cut from the same cloth; that they are “almost the same person” (pg. 198). She points out that she considers her father a victim of a monstrously dominating and sexually abusive mother, the degradations of war, the unrelenting effects of poverty, and the unrealistic demands of a manipulative Church.
Yet, such likeness presumably doesn’t extend to her less flattering characterizations of her father as Dr. Jekyll or his “enormous anger.” Indeed, Beck always presents her own anger as therapeutic and beneficial while her father’s anger is always damaging, hurtful, and a tool for control. Anger or fury expressed by others is either adolescent (in the case of students angry about the way Beck teaches [pg. 238-239]), manipulative (in the case of her stake president [pg. 258]), or visibly comical (in the case of Phyllis Nibley [pg. 279]).
Central to Beck’s thesis as to why she was abused by her father is her assertion that Hugh literally went insane in the late 1960s:
I’ve thought about it a thousand times, the absolute dead-end my father had faced when I was five, the year I suspect he got a fateful assignment from the brethren in Salt Lake City. 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. With eight children to feed (eight!) what options were open to him? He could either lose his job, his livelihood, his social standing, his bully pulpit, by publicly revealing information that would undermine the very foundations of Mormonism, or he could lie flat out. In a way, I admire him for choosing the only other alternative: he went crazy” (pg. 148).
Repeatedly, Beck assures her readers that she has the situation all figured out; she knows why her father abused her. She even confronts Hugh with her analysis, stating that she understood why he did what he did; that it’s “what you might expect from anyone with your psychological history” (pg. 145). Yet, she states that she never truly knew her father (pg. 294), that he was distant and aloof at all times, that he spoke to her only in allegories, that he was absorbed in his work to the point of ignoring his children, and she didn’t know Hugh’s mother, who died before Beck was born. Despite such seemingly fundamental knowledge, Beck’s claim to an accurate assessment of Hugh’s psychological history seems far-fetched. Such analysis shows a degree of omniscience that Beck doesn’t even attribute to the superior intellect of her father.
At the same time that she was discovering the abuse in her childhood, Beck feels she was at the beginning of a spiritual journey. Judging by Leaving the Saints, her journey seems to be all over the map. At various points she describes herself as a Mormon, an atheist (pg. 5), a ‘relativistic agnostic’ (pg. 9), an ‘addict of religion’ (pg. 9), and someone who has a “loosely defined but bone-deep belief in some sort of God” (pg. 21). The time periods for these phases of belief and disbelief often overlap, with agnosticism extending from the time she was an adolescent until she was twenty-eight, overlapping the time she was an atheist (presumably about age eighteen, while a freshman at Harvard), and through it all she developed her “bone-deep belief.”
Never mind that atheism and belief in a God–any God–are mutually exclusive. What emerges from Beck’s disjointed self-characterizations of her state of spiritual affairs is that she didn’t know what she believed or disbelieved. Despite growing up in the heart of a staunchly Mormon world, Beck never attained beliefs that spiritually rooted her in her ‘DNA Mormonism’ (pg. 241). Leaving the Saints covers the time period she lived in Provo–1988 to 1994–in an effort to establish those roots after years of co-existent agnosticism, atheism, and belief. Beck may have wanted to believe in something, but desire for belief is not, by any stretch of the imagination, bona fide belief.
The book has a strong theme of “new ageism” that runs through it. We learn of Beck’s encounters with the White Light, the Silence, and the Stream, all euphemisms for a God that is “a universal constant, like gravity or magnetism” (pg. 194). We learn of Beck’s epiphany in learning that God lives in all things, including water, pizza, salad, and ice cream (pg. 300). She pictures herself, now, as a “leaf in the stream,” and, indeed, her spiritual life seems to have been just as aimless.
Beck’s experiences during her spiritual journey did not always make logical sense, even for a leaf in the stream. At one point Beck describes an interesting near-death experience she had while under anesthesia during an operation to remove a genital cyst. In her encounter with the Light, Beck stated that
every dear thing I had ever lost or thought to lose was mine again, forever. Every bygone sweetness was still present and always would be. Every bitter moment was there, too, but touched, healed, and comforted by the light (pg. 103).
Hyperbole aside, it would appear that Beck’s assessment of this 1991 experience–even in 2005–is not accurate. The Light didn’t restore everything to her; it obviously didn’t provide her with her repressed memories. Those came later, after (according to Beck) getting extremely angry with her husband one day. Nor were her bitter moments touched and healed, as she spends a large part of the book’s balance describing how she came to peace with her newly recovered past.
Beck further implies that her interaction with the Light “instantly” pulled skeletons out of her past:
Ever since my own White Light experience, I’ve believed that when my father encountered the Being of Light he’d be flooded with the kind of unconditional love I’d felt when I saw it. I fantasized that this experience would instantly pull all the skeletons out of his closet and transform them into healthy living things (pg. 110).
What rational basis there would be for such fantasy is unstated, since the Light didn’t do the same thing for Beck. And, of course, such a fantasy presupposes the idea that there were skeletons in that particular closet that could actually be pulled out.
Building a Preemptory Defense
At various places in her narrative, Beck seems intent on establishing a preemptive defense against those who may take exception with her stories. I have no doubt that my criticisms will be lumped together with those of others. It appears that Beck will categorize me with good company when she says that “my siblings’ truth, as well as that of all other Latter-day Saints, would always be based on group consensus” (pg. 220). Such categorization may reflect more of paranoia than cogent analysis, however.
At one point, Beck tries to sway her readers to look suspiciously on the testimony of her father’s defenders by blaming any defense on the typical “circle the wagons” mentality of Mormons. She positions herself as a modern-day David fighting a favored Goliath, stating that “the image of the slandered patriarch, accused of sexual misconduct by malicious villains, is one of the central archetypes in Mormonism” (pg. 180). She further establishes her case:
It’s virtually impossible to describe how thoroughly Mormon culture still maintains the standard of submissive, obedient women, and powerful, infallible male leaders. This seems to me to be particularly true when you’re talking about anything related to sex. Men are to be pleased and protected, both in fundamentalist Mormon homes and in blue-blood pioneer families, and women are to do what they’re told. This includes excusing or ignoring sexual shenanigans on the part of the patriarch and siding with the male authority figure in any “he said, she said” conflicts (pg. 178-179).
Thus, the Beck incarnation of David hurls her smooth stone in the direction of not just Goliath, but all those who would come to Goliath’s defense. In Beck’s view, such defenders are not expressing reasonable doubt about her veracity, but are playing out their religiously indoctrinated mandate to protect men at the expense of women.
Caricatures of Mormonism
Beck indicates that she fundamentally believes that all faith is equally valid; that (if you will) ‘all paths lead to God.’ Such a belief may hearken back to her self-described period of being a ‘relativistic agnostic’ (pg. 9). In her teaching at BYU she would tell students that “there was no logical way to ascertain absolute truth, that they should make their own best guesses and keep their minds open” (pg. 237), and that “from a social science standpoint, there was no way to either confirm or disconfirm religious dogma” (pg. 221). Yet, it is interesting that the ostensible reason for Leaving the Saints is to document Beck’s journey out of Mormonism toward what she considers absolute truth. She spends considerable time attempting to ‘debunk’ the elements of Mormonism that she finds peculiar or downright ‘idiotic,’ all the while seemingly contradicting the points she stressed to her students.
This leads to a fascinating effect: In many places Leaving the Saints reads like a classic anti-Mormon book, rife with religious conspiracy, skullduggery, assassination squads, and even wiretapping. Beck helpfully states that there “are layers and layers of Latter-day Saint culture, and niceness is only the top layer.” She asserts that “no one talks about the layers that lie beneath the surface, so most outsiders never know they exist” (pg. 11). Beck is, of course, willing to share her discoveries about those secret layers, since they were integral to her abandoning her faith.
What emerges is not so much exposé as it is caricature. Her secrets, after all, are not really secrets; they’ve been proffered and pandered in anti-Mormon books since the days of Joseph Smith. What is different is that this time “an official Daughter of the Utah Pioneers” who was “blissfully oblivious to the complex subterranean foundations” (pg. 11) of Mormonism is the one discovering the secrets.
Beck’s caricatures are evident in many places throughout the book; the following are just a few, in no particular order. (Each item represents an individual quotes from Beck, and are shown in bold.)
- “Temple rituals are considered necessary for salvation in the afterlife” (pg. 12). Mormons believe, as do other Christians, that salvation comes only in and through Jesus Christ. Temple rituals are not considered necessary for salvation, but are essential for exaltation–the two are very different in Mormon theology.
- A “murder/suicide pact” is part of the temple ceremony (pg. 17). I’ve been going to the temple longer than Beck (I went first in 1976, she in 1983), and I can find nothing that even hints at murder and suicide. There are voluntary agreements to keep the essentials of the ordinance secret, to the point of valuing such secrecy above one’s own life, but is such a profession of belief materially different than Jesus saying that anyone who “hate not…his own life” (Luke 14:26) cannot be His disciple?
- “Men are allowed to marry without ‘temple-divorcing’ their previous wives, because their eternal unions are expected to be polygamous” (pg. 18). Some people may expect this; many do not. The LDS do believe that families are eternal, but makes no stipulation that such families must be polygamous.
- “The pioneer Saints originally organized Utah as a literal theocratic kingdom, with the Mormon prophet crowned king” (pg. 31). I haven’t seen this allegation crop up in years. It first surfaced in 1889 as a statement by Andrew Cahoon, who said that Brigham Young proclaimed himself as king to the 1847 pioneers. (Cahoon was excommunicated in 1874 for apostasy.) There is no other historical documentation to support such a statement.
- “When the Mormons were first gaining a foothold in the Utah Territory, young men were advised to marry as many women as possible, since this increased the likelihood of their being appointed to high Church offices” (pg. 31). I can find no such indication that gaining Church office was given as a reason for any person practicing polygamy.
- “Mormons believe in a literal Father and Mother in Heaven. (In fact, a whole bunch of heavenly mothers, since the Father is supposed to be impressively polygamous. Each Mormon man, if exalted after death, is supposed to be given his own worlds–that is, planets–to populate. You can’t do that working with just one woman, so the more chicks per man-God, the better.) (pg. 75). Another incarnation of the incorrect belief that LDS relationships in the afterlife must be polygamous.
- “Latter-day Saints never cremate their dead” (pg. 86). LDS are not prohibited from cremation, but it is not encouraged. I know many LDS who have chosen to either be cremated or have their dearly deceased cremated; it is their choice, and they suffer no ecclesiastical repercussions from so choosing.
- “The celestial kingdom has a central zone called the kingdom of the firstborn, reserved for Mormons who live the ‘true and eternal principle of plural marriage’ (polygamy). Each man in this kingdom gets to rule his own planets, populating them by copulating with his many wives, who give birth in the spirit world to infants ‘as numberless as the sands of the sea,’ who will later be incarnated on Dad’s personal real estate throughout the universe” (pg. 87). In Mormon theology, there is no place called the “kingdom of the firstborn;” no such division in the Celestial Kingdom. The majority of this caricature is, again, recitation of the incorrect belief that LDS in the afterlife must practice polygamy.
- “I knew that Joseph Smith had been tarred and feathered by a mob but not that they were there because he’d had sex with the fifteen-year-old daughter of a man who had rented a room to Joseph and Emma” (pg. 180). This charge is often made by anti-Mormons who are fond of quoting Fawn Brodie’s use of a supposed quote by Eli Johnson in No Man Knows My History. He supposedly said that the reason for the attack was that Joseph was “intimate” with his sister, Marinda Johnson. Truth of the matter is, Marinda Johnson didn’t even have a brother named Eli, and recorded in her own journals that Joseph made no untoward advances toward her. (Discussed in Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy: A History, pg. 13, and Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, pg. 231-232.) In addition, Simonds Ryder, leader of the mob that attacked Joseph, indicated in later testimony that the attack was made for economic reasons, not sexual (Van Wagoner, pg. 13).
- “Mormons are discouraged from reading any materials about the Church that are not produced through official channels and approved by a panel called the Correlation Committee, notorious among Mormon authors (including my father) for its strict censorship” (pg. 176). Such claims are absurd. Not only are such statements at odds with the popularity of her father’s books among the LDS (books that didn’t go through the Correlation Committee), but they are anathema to the healthy functioning of Deseret Book Company and several other publishers, none of whom submit their book line to correlation.
- “The Latter-day Saint attitude toward physical desire is more what you’d imagine hearing from Queen Victoria if she’d lived in the 1950s and joined the John Birch Society. Mormon leaders rarely speak out about sex, except to state that it is directly forbidden to anyone who isn’t sealed in the covenant to that one special man (or forty-eight special women)” (pg. 201). Forgiving the repetitive mischaracterization of polygamy as an abortive attempt at humor, such statements concerning intimacy are not true. Mormons do insist that physical intimacy occur only between husband and wife, but it is a misstatement to say that such intimacy should occur only between those sealed in the covenant (sealed in the temple) or that leaders are somehow hesitant to speak about sex. (A quick search of the Church’s Web site finds well over 200 matches for the terms “sexual relations” or “intimacy.”)
- “Latter-day saints believe that no woman will ever get to the celestial kingdom on her own–both her connection to the present God and her passage to eternal glory rely on her soon-to-be-divine husband. If a woman dies unmarried, she must be ‘sealed’ to a worthy Mormon male (it is to be hoped that she’ll catch a live husband, but if necessary, she can be posthumously sealed to the partner of her descendants’ choice) before she can proceed toward salvation” (pg. 255-256). In Mormon theology, both man and woman stand equal before God. Salvation is available to both individually, and both stand excluded from exaltation individually. In the temple, both parties are tested individually, to see if they have done all they should do to enter into God’s presence.
- “Until John [Beck] repented or I remarried, my bishop and the men above him in the Mormon chain of command had become my only links to God” (pg. 256). This is unrecognizable as Mormon doctrine. Any person’s (man or woman) link comes through a personal relationship with the Father. Communication is done through prayer, fasting, and meditation, none of which is removed by having an unfaithful spouse. In addition, single women (and married women with reluctant, unworthy, or unbelieving spouses) go through our temples every day to receive the ordinances offered there.
This is not a comprehensive laundry list of all the caricatures Beck employs in her book. It should be enough, however, to make one wonder in which religion Beck really was raised–judging by these examples, it doesn’t appear to have been Mormonism. She states “I’m trained as a social scientist, which means that I try very hard not to jump to conclusions” (pg. 207), yet seems unable to resist the urge to do so when it comes to her abandoned faith.
In an almost ironic example of pots and kettles, Beck asserts that “the history of my people was taught to me, and to all my childhood peers, as a tale of pure victimization” (pg. 181). This, presumably written with a straight face, while she recounts her own history as a victim of abuses she lays at the feet of the Church and her father.
Book of Abraham Discoveries
The Book of Abraham, a portion of the Pearl of Great Price and a part of the LDS scriptural canon, features prominently in Beck’s stories. She proposes that it was the task of defending this (in her estimation) indefensible book that drove her father insane and led to his abuse of her.
It is not my desire to mount a defense of the Book of Abraham. Such defenses exist, although Beck seems to have either ignored them or examined them and found them unconvincing. (In light of her belief that her father was somehow acting out portions of the Book of Abraham while repeatedly raping her [pg. 148-149], one can understand how Beck would refuse to give the book any credence at all.)
In providing her narrative on the genesis of the Book of Abraham, Beck makes several errors. In describing the importance of the original acquisition of the Joseph Smith papyri in 1835, Beck states “the Mormon Church now owned the original, physical manuscripts upon which the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Torah or Old Testament) had been written” (pg. 154). Such an assertion, of course, is ludicrous and only goes to demonstrate that Beck is not as conversant with the Old Testament as she may believe. The Pentateuch contained the writings of Moses, who came much later than Abraham. If some of the Saints believed they had the actual, physical writings of Abraham, such writings would have predated the Pentateuch by millennia.
After describing the provenance of the Joseph Smith papyri that were acquired by the Church in November 1967, Beck places herself in scholarly company and summarily dismisses both the papyri and the Book of Abraham:
Unfortunately for Mormon scripture’s reputation in the scholarly world, modern Egyptologists have never found Smith’s explanation [of the drawings] convincing. Actually, that’s something of an understatement: Dr. Arthur Mace, the Metropolitan Museum’s assistant curator in the Department of Egyptian Art, offered a typical scholarly comment when he called Smith’s account “a farrago of nonsense from beginning to end.”
Beck doesn’t bother to explain to her readers a little more about Dr. Arthur Mace. Yes, he was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum. Yes, he said what she says he did. However, he said it in a 1912 New York Times article without ever having examined the papyri, not after the 1960s recovery of the papyri, as her narrative would lead one to believe.
In addition, some things in Beck’s narrative about her own knowledge about the Joseph Smith papyri don’t make sense. Beck states that she knew nothing about the discovery of the Joseph Smith papyri until she was over thirty years old (pg. 150), and that she “knew virtually nothing about the origins of the Pearl of Great Price when I started having flashbacks” (pg. 161). Beck states that after first encountering a mysterious ‘man in tweed’ in the frozen-food aisle at the grocery store, she “began reading about the origins of Mormonism, learning for the first time how the Pearl of Great Price came to be” (pg. 169).
Yet, Beck also states that “I grew up hearing stories from Saints (my father’s acolytes) who were particularly interested in the discovery of the Joseph Smith papyri” (pg. 157). Which are we to believe? Are we to believe the more numerous statements that she didn’t know about the papyri or the single statement that she heard stories (plural) about the papyri while she was growing up? To me, it seems inconceivable that Beck could have grown up in the Nibley household, in the 1960s and 1970s, without hearing about (and learning about) the Joseph Smith papyri, so I am more apt to accept the second version of Beck’s story rather than her contradictory denials of that version.
She indicates that when her father was asked to study the Joseph Smith papyri and to defend the Book of Abraham, “he had never studied Egyptian” and that “during the months after the rediscovery of the Joseph Smith papyri became public, my father was hustled off to study Egyptian with experts at the University of Chicago” (pg. 158).
Either Beck really doesn’t know her father (which, in fact, she states on page 294), or she is deliberately ignorant of his studies. The truth is that Hugh studied Egyptian as early as 1959 to 1960, before Beck was even born. On sabbatical at UC Berkeley, Hugh studied Egyptian with Klaus Baer. Still, Beck wonders
what my father must have thought as his able mind soaked up Egyptian and he began to read Joseph Smith’s famous papyri. According to Egyptologists I consulted during my research, no informed scholar could possibly believe that the papyri matched Joseph Smith’s interpretation (pg. 158).
If Beck wanted to know what he thought, all she had to do is read the articles he wrote for the Church’s magazine, The Improvement Era, starting in January 1968. It is amazing that the papyri were given to the Church in late November 1967, and two months later there were pictures and commentary on the papyri already being published by the Church. (This runs counter to Beck’s assertion that “the Latter-day Saint organization’s first official response to modern Egyptologist’s reports about the papyri: silence” [pg. 158].)
Granted, the Church’s official magazine is not Sunday school curriculum, but the fact that her father published articles about the Book of Abraham and the Joseph Smith papyri over the course of almost two and a half years should cause Beck to reconsider her assertions that “the Church seems committed to preventing frank discussion of the issue, brushing over it in manuals for seminary and adult Sunday school students and leaving it out of historical accounts” (pg. 161). Sinister aspersions notwithstanding, the information is available, if people are interested.
Beck concludes her dismissal of the Book of Abraham and affirms her belief that it was the lynchpin that confirmed her father’s lunacy in this way:
Preserving the innocent faith of the majority requires silencing the few nitpickers who worry about testing Joseph Smith’s claims, and this ultimately meant the sacrifice of my father’s time, his mind, his career, the last half of his life. To the Mormon authorities, I’m sure this fell under the category of acceptable losses. I may be the one person on earth who sees it only as a waste. Such a terrible, terrible waste (pg. 160).
While such tidy wrap-ups are convenient for Beck’s memories, they don’t reflect the truly fascinating history of what was really going on with the papyri. The entire story of Hugh and the Joseph Smith papyri, along with his study of Egyptian, his relationship with others of the same period are well documented in Chapter 20 of his biography, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, by Boyd Petersen. (That Beck is aware of the book is evident by her reference to it two times in Leaving the Saints. Unfortunately her references only focus on how the book describes her, not the documented way in which it describes Hugh’s experiences with the Joseph Smith papyri and the Book of Abraham.)
Paranoia Runs Deep
In true exposé style, Beck discloses that she is not only fighting the Goliath of her iconic father, but also the organizational Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Beck’s second therapist makes the cautionary statement “Make no mistake about it: If you do what it takes to get over this thing, the Mormon Church is going to ruin your life” (pg. 236).
Of course, Beck had already come to this conclusion. Leaving the Saints spends some time plumbing the depths of Beck’s personal paranoia. In Chapter 27 (aptly entitled “Paranoia”) she discloses reportedly little-known information about the infamous Danites:
Joseph Smith had personal henchmen…who assassinated people who got in the way of Joseph’s power or reputation. Brigham Young formalized and anointed these assassins as the Danites, whose mission included espionage, suppression of information, and quietly, permanently disposing of people who threatened the Mormon prophet or the Latter-day Saint organization. Again, not many Mormons know this detail of Church history, but every now and then, Utah papers record murders with uniquely Mormon flavoring (death by temple-sanctioned methods, for example), and the word that goes out on the Latter-day grapevine is Danite (pg. 190).
Besides the logical contradiction in such a statement–how could something go out on the “grapevine” if not that many people knew about it–Beck has her history wrong. There never was any historical proof that Joseph Smith had “henchmen” who assassinated people, although the popular pulp fiction during that era loved to tell such tales. Further, the Danites were a group that was organized and disbanded during the Church’s Missouri period. The record shows that they were not organized by Joseph, but they were disbanded by him–long before Brigham Young assumed the lead of the Church. (For those desiring more accurate information on the history of the Danites, may I suggest referring to the not-so-secret “Danites” article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, available online at http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Danites. The article’s bibliography provides additional resources that, despite assumptions to the contrary, are also not secret. Beck should have been aware of such a resource, since she wrote at least one article for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.)
The fact that the Danites have been relegated to the folklore of Mormon history doesn’t stop Beck from providing what she considers as the prime example of modern-day Danites: the Lafferty murders, recently featured in another popular potboiler, Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. In the very next paragraph Beck states:
This [talk of Danites] was the case, for example, in the murder of one Brenda Lafferty, killed along with her infant daughter by her fundamentalist brothers-in-law, who had broken away from modern Mormonism… I had a feeling of constant unease about the volatility of the whole central Utah community, which, it seemed to me, was probably sprouting new Danites all the time (pg. 190).
Perhaps some of the Danites specialized in cutting not just throats, but hair. No doubt Beck’s feelings of paranoia were fed even further when she tried to get her hair cut “boy short” in a personal act of defiance. She reported that in 1993 she
went into a mod-looking beauty salon, found a male stylist, and told him to make my head look like his. The stylist checked my left hand for a wedding ring, then reported my request to the owner of the salon, who asked me to call my husband to ascertain that I had his permission to change my hairstyle (pg. 193).
Danite expertise was not limited to checking appearance changes with spouses, but apparently extended to interfering with the phone system, as well. Beck reported that during that same year there were weird clicks on their home phone line.
When the sound persisted for several days, we called the phone company, who sent out a repairman. He discovered that our phone line had been crossed with another line inside a phone junction box at the nearby Mormon chapel–something, the repairman said, that could not have happened accidentally. He separated the wires. The clicks went away. A few days later, they came back. We didn’t even bother to get the phone fixed again. Instead, we started saying howdy to the good brothers on the Strengthening the Membership Committee. Just in case” (pg. 233).
Beck never provides any clarification as to why her phone lines would run through a nearby Mormon chapel, or how such routing occurred. It is enough, one supposes, to simply assert that such was the case. How the “Strengthening the Membership Committee” could be competent and pervasive enough to engage in illegal wiretapping, without being able to silence those pesky giveaway clicks on the line, is undoubtedly one of the remaining mysteries of the kingdom.
In American jurisprudence (and professional ethics) there resides a historically unique concept: client privilege. In its most recognizable form, it means that a professional, such as a doctor or lawyer, cannot divulge anything about their interactions with a patient without the express permission of the client.
For a trained sociologist and life coach, Beck seems blissfully unaware of such privilege, and in fact seems to violate it quite regularly throughout Leaving the Saints. It is certainly permissible for a client–Beck–to release details concerning her own consultations with professionals, but quite another for her to presume to do so in behalf of others or to profess that others have done so with her concerning their patients.
Consider Chapter 30 as a case in point. Delicately entitled “The Gang Bang,” the chapter tells about an encounter between some of Beck’s siblings and one of her therapists whom she calls “Mona.” Beck blithely recounts the episode in some detail. While providing details about the session as it relates directly to her may be ethical, identifying others in the session or commenting on the things they shared would seem to be unethical. Yet, Beck provides details that allow us to easily recognize the clients in the privileged setting: older sisters who tell stories about raising siblings or a younger sister that blames her “neglected childhood on living in [Beck’s] shadow” (pg. 215-216).
One cannot help but wonder how Beck’s siblings will feel when they read something that was presumably shared under the umbrella of client privilege. But Beck, ostensibly under the banner of ‘sharing truth,’ seems to see no ethical quandary in sharing such details about siblings she hasn’t spoken to, except in a perfunctory manner, in the intervening years.
Another example occurs when Beck starts attending a new therapy group, this time headed by a therapist Beck calls “Rachel Grant.” Beck recounts the story offered by one member of the group:
After one woman breathlessly speculated that she might have been ravished by her dentist, her driving instructor, and a cable repair guy, all in one day, Rachel mildly asked her if she read a lot of comic books, since her allegations sound like slightly skewed accounts of a superhero cartoon. I remember being a bit scandalized (in those days, it wasn’t considered politically correct for any therapist to question a sexual-abuse story) but also relieved. The woman’s story had sounded disingenuous to me, too, though all the other women’s words rang true (pg. 235).
The interesting part is that this recounting occurs mere sentences before Rachel reminding those present that “what’s said in this room stays in this room” (pg. 236). The therapist’s statement is consistent with client privilege, but Beck’s writing is not.
In another example, Beck spends Chapter 38 (“The Tempest”) recounting a therapy session in which she met with Rachel, Hugh and Phyllis Nibley, and a therapist invited by the Nibleys. Beck provides detailed reminiscences about not only her part of the session, but also those of her parents. Again, the parent’s privilege seems to take second-seat to Beck’s tell-all desire.
Still another example occurs when Beck describes–in several places–her father’s supposed occurrence of amnesia in 1974, when she was only eleven. Beck states:
I’ve talked to the neurosurgeon who examined my father during this spate of forgetfulness. He told me there was no stroke, no brain lesion, no physiological explanation at all. The doctor concluded that the amnesia was psychogenic, a mental mist that rose from some psychological or emotional conflict too intense for my father to bear (pg. 21).
My first thought was why a doctor would be talking to Beck–a third party–about the diagnosis and prognosis of a patient. Presumably such discussion did not occur when Beck was only eleven, but at a much later age. Is client privilege subject to a statute of limitations? With her father still alive at the time, is it reasonable that a doctor would breach his medical ethics to discuss this matter with Beck? Now it is not only Beck violating privilege, but also asserting that a medical doctor was willing to do the same.
My second thought was to question why a neurosurgeon should be involved at all. Perhaps it is only a misstatement on Beck’s part, but it would seem that a neurologist would do any examinations of Hugh (if warranted) and then only refer him to a neurosurgeon if it appeared that surgery was necessary. Assuming that the doctor really did break client privilege, such referral would seem unnecessary.
When acting as a life coach, Beck tells others to “do whatever work feeds your true self, even if it’s not a safe bet, even if it looks like a crazy risk, even if everyone in your life tells you you’re wrong or bad or crazy” (pg. 295). Leaving the Saints can be viewed as a risk on Beck’s part. Is she being true to herself in publishing it? It would be presumptuous to assume otherwise. Will she be told by others that she is “bad” or “crazy?” No doubt.
Beck’s tale is a fantastical journey. It starts with a damaged adult projecting meaning into the distant life of a damaged child. It winds through the self-congratulatory path that many follow when leaving the deep-held faith of their childhood, arriving at a state of greater enlightenment achieved through studying and coming to grips with information that is hidden to the uninitiated. It ends, like so many stories, with the heroine arising from the ashes of a lost innocence, phoenix-like, to declare that she has found a better way; that she has left the monstrous past behind and survived to herald a new day of greater joy and deeper meaning. She eagerly dismisses or derides as idiotic rantings the claims of others who still cherish the faith they chose to discard, claims which tell of greater joy and deeper meaning achieved by following the path rejected.
In the end, it all boils down to “he said, she said.” In the final analysis, one cannot maintain neutrality; one must choose whether the innocence “he said” is more credible than the tale “she said.” Readers need to determine if it is credible that Beck’s father dressed in elaborate Egyptian garb and used Egyptian artifacts to repeatedly abuse his daughter in a ritualistic manner over a span of three years in a chaotic home that had more residents and frequent visitors than most.
The willingness of readers to assign credibility to such a story may ultimately reveal more about the reader’s proclivities than the alleged abuse of Martha Nibley Beck or the purported insanity of Hugh Nibley. As for me, the permeating sense of loss and sadness remains.