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Robert L. Millet

They Leave It, But They Can't Leave It Alone

The memoir of a disaffected Mormon.

In Leaving the Saints, Martha Beck, popular "life coach" and author of a regular column in Oprah Winfrey's monthly magazine, recounts her disillusionment with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in which she was raised. Her memoir commences with her journey back to Utah (after receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees at Harvard), where Beck and her husband John reunite with family and friends and become employed at Brigham Young University, and concludes with their painful exodus from BYU and the Church some five years later. Latter-day Saints and those somewhat familiar with the faith who choose to read the book will cringe, roll their eyes, and even chuckle, while those who are thoroughly unacquainted with the faith will cringe, roll their eyes, and chuckle. But for different reasons. Beck is a fine writer who blends her eloquent prose with a nifty wit. So if one is not terribly concerned with what really took place, this book is a good read: it would make for great fiction.

Beck seeks to equate weird anomalies in Mormon culture with the norm. For example, the "niceness" of Mormon folk is really only the "top layer" of the LDS lifestyle; Latter-day Saints are robotic and Pollyannaish; they "make the Trapp Family Singers look like Hell's Angels." LDS women believe that making cakes from scratch will lead to a higher reward hereafter than using a mix. When not baking cakes, they keep "grinding away at the one occupation recommended for Mormon females: breeding well in captivity." All Mormons agree with the current president of the Church that mothers should not work under any circumstances. And their menfolk? "Men [at BYU] must … wear socks, on the premise that the hair on human ankles can be thought of as an extension of pubic hair." Mormon speakers often get weepy when talking about "stockpiling ammunition for the Apocalypse." This is plain ole nonsense.

How did Beck arrive at this point? She tells us. During a period of excessive frustration over what she perceived as stifled academic freedom at BYU, she retired to the university library to read all she could find on Sonia Johnson, the former Mormon who had fought the Church so vigorously over the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s. To Beck's utter amazement, there was nothing there. All of the articles, essays, and press releases on Johnson were nowhere to be found; they had all been carefully and mysteriously removed from the library, Soviet-style. This is ludicrous. Imagine the futile effort required to do such a thing. Imagine what a story the discovery of such a cover-up would have made. Thankfully, the stolen goods have been returned since then; the browser can read of Sonia Johnson to his heart's content!

Further, Beck speaks of a sneaky group of sleuths innocuously known as the "Strengthening the Membership Committee" but in reality—so Beck says—"a squad of investigators who work for the Church. Very hush-hush. A lot of ex-CIA guys." This is paranoia at its best (or worst). The Strengthening Church Members Committee is actually made up of a small group of general Church authorities who evaluate polemical materials against the Church and find ways to reach out to the disaffected. But Beck seems to be a magnet for improbable happenings. Consider her account of a time when she decided to have her hair cut short. A good Mormon woman, she notes, always has long, curled hair until middle age. Hence, she relates, "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." Get out of town! I've never heard of anything like that in 57 years of Church membership.

Memoirs by disaffected members of this or that religious group appear regularly, generally to little notice. But apart from her platform, which guarantees an audience, and her superior skills as a writer, there's another reason Beck's memoir has received far more attention than the typical product of the deconversion genre. Her father, Hugh Nibley, is known throughout Mormondom as perhaps the most significant LDS apologist of the 20th century and one of our finest social commentators. In Leaving the Saints, Beck accuses her father of academic fraud and sexual abuse. Beck claims to have learned from a strange man in a tweed sport coat (called "Tweedy," a kind of Mormon Deep Throat) that her father's books are a hoax and that a good 90 percent of his footnotes are totally made up. The problem for Beck, of course, is that the books are still in print, still available for examination. If they weren't checked properly thirty years ago, they can be checked today. Further, I know personally many if not all of the source checkers; they are outstanding academics from such BYU departments as Ancient Scripture, Asian and Near Eastern Languages, Law, the Library, English, and Classics.

But at the very heart of this book is Beck's effort, in a Provo motel room, to confront her father about a kind of Egyptian ritual abuse (which she claims took place between ages five and eight) and elicit from him an admission of the heinous deed, to allow him to rid himself of the guilt before he dies. (Hugh Nibley did, by the way, pass away in late February of 2005.) Beck artfully weaves this uncomfortable scene of confrontation throughout the narrative.

How trustworthy a narrator is she? About herself Beck appears to be candid to a fault. She speaks of bouts of anorexia, thoughts of suicide, and insomnia mixed with nightmares. Yet one matter was completely left out of the book—a terribly important omission. Contrary to the impression she seeks to leave with the reader, Martha and John Beck did not leave BYU and the Church merely because of the "purge" of campus dissidents and a spirit of paranoia pervading the institution. They left because they both chose to come out of the closet as practicing homosexuals, which lifestyle is in violation of the BYU Honor Code and the teachings of the Church. Beck has since chosen to strike out against a Church that maintains a moral standard with which she obviously disagrees. As Hugh Nibley observed to his daughter in a conversation recorded in this book, so often "people leave [the Church], but they can't leave it alone. Always attacking, always lashing out, because you can't get away from the fact that it's the Lord's work."

On February 22, 2005, Beck's siblings issued a statement that said in part:

We are saddened by the book's countless errors, falsehoods, contradictions, and gross distortions. … Martha's most egregious accusation—that our father molested her over several years and the family covered up the crime—is not true. While salacious accusations sell books, the reader should know that in this case it simply did not happen. These allegations dishonor real abuse survivors who lose credibility and suffer increased anguish when false accusations are exposed. … Intellectual honesty is a fundamental value of the Nibley family, and sadly we do not see that tradition reflected in Leaving the Saints.

As one of my colleagues recently pointed out, there are only so many options when it comes to evaluating Beck's claims of abuse at the hands of her father: (1) it happened, just as she said it did; (2) she was sexually abused, but by someone else; (3) she was not abused, but believes she was; and (4) she was not abused, and knows she was not. I have served for many years in a pastoral capacity, and so I am prone to come to full attention when a person claims to be a victim of vile or perverse activity. I am not one to make light of such accusations, and in many cases the truth can never be determined with certainty. In this instance, however, given the statement of Beck's own family, the massive misrepresentations throughout the book, and the noble character of Nibley, I choose to disbelieve the accusations of abuse.

Hugh Nibley's funeral was held on March 2, 2005 in the Provo Tabernacle. The messages by friends and Church leaders were laudatory in behalf of a beloved champion of the faith. The thing that touched me most deeply, however, was the remarks of Hugh's children, seven of whom were present (Beck did not attend). Each one of them paid moving tribute to "Daddy."

According to Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune, Beck "felt her father's presence for two hours Thursday morning [the day he died]. 'He was so beautiful, full of love and joy,'" Beck said. And then came this fascinating remark: "'I hope I can live the rest of my life to honor his memory, as paradoxical as that seems.'" Paradox is seeming contradiction. Beck's book is certainly more than a seeming contradiction. It is a slap in the face of one of Mormonism's greatest intellectuals and yet another roadblock to a religious tradition seeking to be better understood in a world that is desperately in need of understanding.

Robert L. Millet is Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University and the author of A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints, just published by Eerdmans. Readers may contact robert_millet@byu.edu for a more extensive version of this review.

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