Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Book Review - "Leaving the Saints" by Martha Beck

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I don't do a lot of book reviews, but I thought my recent read deserved a place where I could give overall impressions instead of interacting idea by idea. It is a book I had never heard of before I spotted it at the local library. I sort through the new books in the faith section every month or two, trying to find something intriguing that I might have missed. This one caught my eye, as it was about a woman who had left the Mormons. I didn't know the name, but thought it would be something different for my evening reading.

It turns out that the book, Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found my Faith, was written by Martha Beck, daughter of famed Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley. This book caused quite an uproar early this year in the Utah area for the simple reason that Beck accuses her father (who passed away in February) of sexually abusing her for three years as a child. That was the lightning rod of the writing, but there is a lot more to look at within the pages.

Beck's story is one of an intelligent woman who moved east to pursue her education and begin a family. After the birth of her second child, who was born with Down Syndrome, she longed to be back among the people who would lovingly accept her and especially her baby boy. Yet as she became a part of the Mormon community again, she wrestled with the beliefs of the Mormon Church -- beliefs which her father had boldly defended. She was the daughter of a hero of the faith among the Latter Day Saints. Yet she had her doubts, especially with issues like the role of women in the church and in the family.

Throughout a short time, Beck begins to recover memories of her father performing some kind of weird Egyptian ritual over her as she was tied naked to the bed. The memories were backed up by physical scars which obstetricians had assumed were from childbirth, but were much older than that. Eventually figuring out what had happened to her, she called her mother who pretty much confirmed everything before changing her story a few days later.

Mixed into this story is Beck's search for faith, which begins with attempting to reconnect with her roots but moves into an exploration of many religions. Always a voracious reader and a curious student, Beck ends up taking portions of many schools of thought and putting them into her own mixture of mysticism, Eastern philosophy and New Age thought. Her thoughts are typical of many who refuse to disavow anyone's truth but claim it is simply truth for one person but not another. If you're looking for Beck to find Christ and recognize the truths of Scripture, this isn't the book to read. But considering how much she has survived in her life, it's amazing she has any deistic belief at all.

The sexual abuse angle grabs all the headlines. After all, Nibley was regarded as Mormon royalty, as it were. Think of Josh McDowell, Simon Greenleaf, Walter Martin and a half-dozen other Christian apologists rolled together and you'll start to see how important Nibley's work is to the Latter Day Saints. Beck also hints that sexual abuse is much more prevelant among the Mormons and it is hushed up because the men hold religious authority over the women. There are too many consequences for a woman to speak against a man in the church. But what really opens eyes are the academic claims made in the book. Beck describes the situation at Brigham Young University in the early 1990's where faculty were being called before church officials for such things as writing for non-church-approved professional journals or expressing doubts about official Mormon doctrines in front of students.

The charges include one involving the legacy of her father's work. She describes being told by a fact checker from Nibley's many writings that around 90 percent of the attributions in his books were either completely out of context or made up entirely! This is passed off as ridiculous by the Mormons, but I cannot find any direct study which would prove or disprove the accusation. One would think the Latter Day Saints would get somebody working on that and publish the findings, assuming they are false. However with the portrait painted by Beck of her gifted, but incredibly eccentric father, it isn't tough to believe that he would play fast and loose with the truth.

Add to the attribution claims, the story of the Book of Abraham -- part of Mormon scripture, alledgedly translated by founder Joseph Smith. When the original papyri were discovered, they were proven to be nothing like Smith wrote down as his "translation" and which Mormons accept as truth. Nibley had been called upon to defend the Mormon version as true in spite of huge amounts of evidence to the contrary, but eventually came up with an nonsensical circular argument. All of that happened around the time Beck was supposedly experiencing her sexual abuse at her father's hands. All very strange.

After I finished the book, I turned to Beck's websites to find out more about her story. She includes a section of letters she has received since writing the book. Many are from women thanking her for coming forward with her story because they are facing the same kind of situation. Still others spew hatred with Beck for her accusations or for simply speaking out against the Mormon church. Here are a couple of samples:

I wish you love and peace and luck on your journey down your stream. And I thank
you for helping to strengthen me on mine.
Name Withheld By Request

You are a disgusting piece of filthy garbage.

In the 1980's my husband and I discovered our son-in-law and others in our ward in Bountiful had abused seven of our grandchildren (his own four children and his nieces and nephews) as well as other children in the neighborhood. Among the participating adults in this "sex ring" were the daughter and son-in-law of an Apostle of the Mormon Church [name withheld]. About six years later, we discovered our son-in-law had also abused three of our daughters when they were small children when he first met our daughter whom he married. Ours is a horrific story and pretty complex. Our lives and those of our entire family were blown apart. To some extent, they still are although I believe most of our family is at a very good place now... The reaction of LDS ward, stake and general authorities was appalling...I share this morbid tale with you so you can know how much your book has meant to us. My approach to child abuse has always been skeptical caution until the facts are known. Martha, dear child, I know you were abused by your father in the nightmarish ways you remember. Your story rings totally true to me, and I assure you, many people's do not. I understand why you had to write it and I believe it will be a gift to many people including perhaps, in time, some in your own family of origin and certainly your own children...Your openness has to be an example to all the "church intellectuals" teetering on the edge of despair.
The Church has certainly improved in its attitudes about abuse and I believe has been forced to be less protective of perpetrators among its members and more realistic about the extent and nature of abuse among the Saints. But in a system where image must always come first, there's a long way to go. Hopefully, you've given them a shove along the way.
Name Withheld By Request

What you write in your book is a disgrace to not only the Mormon faith but society in general. Why do you chose to taint a faith that millions of women, including myself, count as the greatest influence and gift in their lives? You are entitled to your own beliefs, but the things you write should not be shared in a national book. They are better shared in private with your psychologists to help you appropriately work through the "trauma" the Mormon faith has apparently caused you. Why keep others from experiencing the same joy I and many others find in living the Mormon faith. It is simply wrong and distasteful.
Laura B.

From what I've read, you've been through the temple, you've experience all that we have, you KNOW what REALLY goes on and you know the truth, yet you make up these stories and lies, hoping to make a bestseller list with your book? You're an idiot Martha, just because a couple of people offended you, doesn't mean that all Mormons are that way. You're small minded and very selfish. I will smile the day you burn in hell for all the lies you've made up. You must really be friends with Satan, oh wait no, you must be screwing Satan - is that it? Is he promising you salvation if you write this book and screw him? Shame on you Martha, you know better.
Nathanael & Melissa S.

Interesting stuff, huh?

I cannot pass an accurate judgment on Beck's claims of sexual abuse. Her siblings and mother claim she is a victim of a false repressed memory. She presents a good case, but I'm in no position to confirm or deny. But what I do know is that Beck is an excellent writer. She alternates between retelling her journey and describing a conversation/confrontation between herself and her father ten years after she first made her accusation. She approaches some very heavy subjects with just the right amount of humor to take the edge off for the reader. According to the book jacket, Beck is now a "life coach" (a title given her by someone else) and writes a monthly column for O: The Oprah Magazine.

One last note that caught my attention: Beck's husband is an interesting character in the book. The product of a Mormon family also, he supports his wife through a ton of persecution and the expected family difficulties. He leaves the church before his wife, but the two of them work well as a team through a long series of crises. Then in the acknowledgments of the book, Beck mentions that somewhere after the events described in the book, the two of them "decided to live our lives separately, but continue to raise our children together." How odd that after surviving so much together that the couple would then choose to separate.

The book is a good read if you would like insights into the beliefs and especially the secrecy of the Latter Day Saints. But if you're looking for a life coach, I'd look elsewhere.

1 comment:

waynecarle@adelphia.net said...

It's a well written review, true to the contents and factual in its comments. Unfortunately, the excerpts from letters Martha has received did not appear on my screen. Perhaps the blog background coloring is too intense. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.