Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith. Crown Publishers, 2005; 320 pages; $24.95.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: In a thoughtful examination of faith, Martha Beck chronicles her decision to leave the Mormon church and her struggle to overcome a dark secret buried in her childhood.
While growing up as "Mormon royalty" within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Martha Beck was raised in a home frequented by the church's high elders -- known as the Apostles -- and her existence was framed by their strict code of conduct. When her son was born with Down syndrome, she and her husband left their graduate programs at Harvard to return to Provo, Utah, and the supportive Mormon community of Martha's youth. But after Martha began teaching at Brigham Young University, she saw firsthand the church's ruthlessness as it silenced dissidents and masked truths that contradicted its beliefs. Most troubling of all, Martha was jolted into recovering memories of sexual abuse at the hands of one of the church's most respected leaders. Life coach Beck writes a monthly column, "Beck on Call," for O, The Oprah Magazine, and appears regularly on The Oprah Winfrey Show She lives in Phoenix, Arizona.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
The New York Times: The daughter of one of Mormonism's most prominent religious scholars has accused her father of sexually abusing her as a child in a forthcoming memoir that is shining an unwelcome spotlight on the practices and beliefs of the much-scrutinized but protectively private Mormon religious community. Beck, a sociologist and therapist, recovered memories in 1990 of her ritual sexual abuse more than 20 years earlier by her father, Dr. Hugh Nibley, professor emeritus of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and arguably the leading living authority on Mormon teaching. Mormons around the country have participated in an e-mail campaign against the book, sending more than 3500 messages to Oprah Winfrey, who has featured Leaving the Saints on her Internet site and in the March issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Publishers Weekly: Beck follows her bestselling spiritual memoir Expecting Adam with this shocking accusation of sexual abuse and betrayal. The book is full of Beck's laugh-out-loud hyperbolic wit..., but it also has a hard, angry edge.... The book also describes how institutionalized religion can do terrible wrong to some adherents while still being a force of good for others. It will devastate faithful Mormons, satisfy disenchanted ex-Mormons, and offer hope to those who believe they have suffered from ecclesiastical abuse.
Kirkus Reviews: A riveting account of a journey home, a family crisis, and a spiritual search. Memoirist Beck returns to Mormon-land with her husband and two small children. Her younger child was born with Down syndrome, and the Becks decided that their hometown in Utah would offer a better environment for raising young Adam than the cutthroat world of Harvard Square (where everyone had pressed the Becks to abort as soon as the amnio results were in)... Though Beck is critical of the LDS Church -- its attempts to cover up sexual assaults in Mormon homes, its refusal to deal with historical and archaeological finds that challenge orthodox doctrine -- this is not a trashy exposé but a loving, sad account of coming home again, however sure it is to spark controversy in the corridors of power in Salt Lake City.
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR: Ms. Beck and I spoke early one weekday morning, she from her home in Arizona and I from home in California.
I opened, saying, "You write about those terrible things that happened to you and then you crack jokes."
Ms. Beck, laughing, said, "Well, what are you going to do? If you can't laugh, you might as well just get off the bus."
Ms. Beck, one of eight children, grew up in the ultraconservative college town of Provo. Ms. Beck left Provo for Harvard and Cambridge, the latter surely one of America's liberal strongholds. I asked, "What was it like for you to go from Utah to Harvard?"
"A huge culture shock. I couldn't have picked two more extreme places in the United States. They both had strange cultures. Harvard is so rationalized and so liberal and so nontraditional. In an interesting way, people at Harvard were just as doctrinaire; there was a lot of mental rigidity, a lot of dogmatism, a clever atheism. If you broke that faith, if you spoke against the faith, you knew you'd be attacked with withering scorn and ostracism.
"Fundamentalism is fundamentalism. Wherever it exists. So I think any extreme environment has that dogmatism in common. It was just a complete reversal. And it puts you in a position, I think I say in the book, 'a man with one watch knows what time it is, a man with two watches is never sure.' So that's kind of what it did to me."
Why did Ms. Beck think that religions were tending more and more to a fundamentalism?
"I think it's in response to the encroachments of science on traditional ways of explaining the world. As a sociologist, I'm full of theories, none of which are provable. But there was a flurry of religious activity in the colonies, beginning in the 1720s and reaching its peak in the 1740s."
"Right. The Great Awakening."
"Exactly. Then in the 19th Century, Darwin publishes and there is a response among the religious to the rise of rationalist science. The Origin of Species was published in 1859. People were freaking out, particularly people on the American continent because here was an entire unknown world, that the Judeo-Christian tradition didn't even address. The world started out in the Middle East, and the Europeans managed to pull themselves into it, but what do you do with the United States? What do you do with the Americans? So that's one thing Joseph Smith's theories did -- they made everybody feel like, 'Oh, these people are just immigrants from the Holy Land and Jesus came to them and it's all okay.' So, ironically, people of some learning and intelligence tended to gravitate toward the new religions, and they become as locked in with their bizarre explanations. But now that those explanations are testable, people's worldview is being rocked. I've seen people burst into tears when they heard that the earth was more than 6000 years old."
I read to Ms. Beck something Harold Bloom had written about Mormonism in his book The American Religion: "Mormons have repeated in a deep sense the pattern of the Jews. They are a religion that has become a people." What did Ms. Beck make of that statement?
"That's very true. I think Mormons would be very flattered by that. There are similarities that structurally made the Mormon church go from a cult to a mainstream religion, and most of it was feeling driven out. That's what they share with Judaism: the sense of being cast out and homeless and wandering in the wilderness. One thing I actually like about Mormonism, it's one of the few Christian religions that is not anti-Semitic. That's in the plus column. There's a strong sense of wanting to be identified with Judaism."
"I find it difficult to understand how people who proclaim themselves as religious can be so mean," I said.
"Weirdly enough, the bloodiest and most horrendous wars in history have all been fought in the name of God. I think it's because the impulse towards faith is a very intense impulse. I was just reading a fascinating book called Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, it's about the neurobiology of mystical experience. The authors write about what happens to the brain during a religious experience.
"It's consistent; the brain does the same thing in every culture. The responses are extraordinarily intense when you feel them. There are two different ways the brain accesses this, and one is by misidentifying with reality completely, which is like what Buddhists do. They just sit down and meditate until reality melts away.
"There's a hyperattention state where you're focused on a statue of Christ or something. Now this may be far-fetched. But what the author of this book claims is that if you identify completely with this one object, and everything seems to disappear but that object, what you can do is use that to make yourself feel certain that that's the only important thing in the world. At that point, you start to become exclusionary. It's a bit of a push for me, though. Probably, it's just that people want to be right. They want to be right. And they don't want to have to change.
"There's a true resistance to change. I particularly like Buddhism because of the noble truth of impermanence. The first thing they do is accept that no one changes. And there's no God, no dogma. And if you meet the Buddha on the road your instructions are to kill him. Ironically, you get Buddhists who go to war with each other over little issues like when you meditate, is it better to focus on the tip of your nose or on your abdomen?"
Ms. Beck laughed, and then laughed again. "You gotta focus. But people get as far as feeling validated, and they don't go the additional step, which is that in every great religious tradition you lose the self and the sense of certainty. And when you stay in that first step, you just feel justified in bashing people on the head for not being like you."
"I think, too," I add, "that one reason for the rise of small home churches whose theologies are extremely fundamentalist and strict is that people don't have families anymore. These churches become 'homes away from home.'"
"That's very true. Many of the technological advances have made mobility so much the rule that people are rootless. Families are breaking down also because of advances in the role of women. My dissertation looked at the way the changes in social roles have pressured men and women. It's extraordinarily difficult for people to get themselves together psychologically because the expectation is now that both members of a couple will work. But they also have to raise children, and the way the roles have been set up, it's virtually impossible to do all this. So many people live on the edge in extreme anxiety without a support system. This makes people starved for certainty and encourages a return to a very simplistic form of religion.
"It's just very comforting. And there's a sense -- this is also in this book on the neurobiology of mystical experience -- that ritual of any kind where people get together and do certain unusual things in a kind of rhythm has an extremely comforting effect. So the whole idea of being with other people is very comforting. The systematic nature of worship is very comforting. There are all these things that people need more and more as their lives become more fragmented. The irony is that people thought that modernization will cause religion to wither. And the country is so polarized politically. It's very frightening."
I asked if Ms. Beck had begun to take any of her three children to church.
"I've never taken them to church, and they have no interest in going. But I tend to talk to them about pretty much everything that I think about religion. They have very active and interested minds. Adam, who has Down syndrome, likes to go to Catholic services with his friend who's Catholic. The girls, well, I got Why God Won't Go Away from my 18-year-old, who is quite a character. She's brilliant. She reads obsessively."
"What," I asked, "does a life coach do?"
"Basically, I try to get people to let go of their preconceptions and find out what it is to which they're responding to innately. I try to get them to a point where I can confuse the belief system that they've got and not replace it with anything. Who knows what other life coaches do? I have no idea. But my whole process is that I try to get people to a place where they feel that some strategy they've been using, some belief that they've been using, isn't working. I call it 'disorientation.' I try to get them disoriented enough that they let go of preconceptions. Then I say, 'What's the truth for you?'
"Let's say you're a doctor and you hate your job and you hate your life, and you've been trying for 20 years to be a good Jewish boy and be a good Jewish doctor for your mom. How's it working? You know, you thought it would make you happy. Is it working? And the answer is 'No,' or they wouldn't be in my office. And then I say, 'Okay, so you don't have to be a doctor. What has worked? What do you want? What do you feel?'
"Often this is, like, 'This is so crazy it just might work.' They haven't thought for a minute about what they really in their hearts are experiencing. So then I say, 'Okay, we're going to try a different strategy.' We experiment until we find something that makes them happy. So it's very much the same process I went through. But I try to do it more gently."
"Do you see more women than men?"
"No, I see more men than women. I think it's because they'd cut their throats if someone knew they were going to a psychologist or a psychiatrist; a life coach, it's a manly thing -- 'I'm going to see a coach.' I think that's one reason. But also men have been squished into this incredibly narrow definition of self or they're so identified with their jobs. And yet jobs have become far less secure. Layoffs are far more common. Women are fragmented by role demands right now. Just pulled in a million different directions. But men feel so trapped. I think an obvious symbol of it is clothing. Women can wear a whole range of clothing. Two hundred years ago we would have been, like, burned as witches for wearing trousers. But now we can wear anything. And men, especially at work, they either have a laborer's uniform or a suit and that is it. Through most of history men's clothing was far more flamboyant and varied than women's wear. And now it's been reversed.
"Everywhere Westernization has succeeded to any large degree you see men losing their traditional clothing and dressing in the same damn uniform -- the gray suit or blue, if you want to get crazy. I think that's symptomatic of a general narrowing of male experience. Many men are desperate to find out who they really are."
Mormons wear what seem to us outsiders rather bizarre undergarments. I asked Ms. Beck what she did with her sets of Mormon underwear when she left the Saints (go to Google and type in "Mormon undergarments" and you can learn all about these underclothes, which, according to one site, are not to be taken off except for "the three s's: shower, sports, and sex").
"For a long time I just didn't put it on, and it just stayed in the drawer, and then I just threw it away. No burning, no chopping up. At that point, it was a piece of cloth and not an attractive piece of cloth at that. So I just threw it away.
"Nobody talks about the underwear or the temple weddings. I know people who have been out for decades, intelligent people, who are afraid to talk about any of this out loud. They're afraid.
"What's so funny about Mormonism to me is that they'll take metaphorical statements and interpret them literally. It's the most literal of all Christian religions. God has a body -- yes He does -- and this is what it looks like. You know, I don't mean to sound condescending, but it is a very childlike way of believing in God. That God is a literal, physical Daddy, who acts pretty much like Daddy does. I went with metaphor. It wasn't a popular opinion.