Book Review: Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, Martha Beck (2006)

April 20th, 2009 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

“Your religion is crazy!”

five out of five stars

Growing up the daughter of an infamous Mormon apologist can’t be easy; doubly so when you’re raised in a cloistered, uber-evangelical conservative Mormon community in Provo, Utah. Just ask Martha Nibley Beck, whose now-deceased father Hugh Nibley made a career out of twisting (and sometimes even fudging) the facts for the Mormon church.

In LEAVING THE SAINTS, Beck remembers her child- and young adulthood. One of eight children, Beck and her siblings lived in near-poverty. Though her father was well-respected in Mormon circles, an academic job at Brigham Young University (BYU) is considered “God’s work” – and thus is its own reward, with an appropriately paltry salary. Beck married her husband John at a young age (twenty-one – that’s old maid in Mormon years!), and the two left Provo so that Beck could attend Harvard, where she eventually earned a PhD in sociology. The two returned to Provo after the birth of their second child, Adam, who has Down Syndrome; Beck felt that her choice to have Adam would be met with greater support in Provo. While living in Provo, Beck finished her thesis at Harvard, gave birth to her third child, and took a part-time teaching job at BYU. Within three years, Beck experienced repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse; soldiered through academic repression and intellectual purges at BYU; and, along with her husband, resigned from BYU, left the Mormon church, and fled from Provo. (Though it’s not revealed in LEAVING THE SAINTS, both Mr. and Mrs. Beck later divorced and “came out” as homosexuals.)

Beck’s most contentious claim is that her father sexually abused her from the ages of five to eight. The feminist in me tends to believe women when they say they were sexually assaulted, abused or raped: the rate of false reports of sexual assault are no higher than that of other crimes; the rates of report, investigation, prosecution and conviction in sexual assault cases are notoriously low, i.e., victims are unlikely to report such crimes and, when they do, the likelihood that they’ll find justice is nil; and, finally, such cases are rife with victim-blaming, such that women who report sexual assault are put on trial themselves. Given these circumstances, I find it highly improbable that most women would simply “make up” stories of sexual assault, for whatever reason.

However, I also find recovered memories suspect, particularly if they’re recovered during psychotherapy. Elsewhere, Beck says that, while she did undergo psychotherapy, this was only after her repressed memories began to resurface. Additionally, physical evidence (including extensive vaginal scarring) does point to past trauma. Beck also claims to have elicited a confession of sorts from her mother when she initially told her of the abuse. Unlike the childhood memories of sexual abuse, it’s unlikely that Beck’s mind manufactured this memory; so either she’s lying or she isn’t. Though her mother later recanted, this might be easily explained both by Mormon culture and the fact that Mrs. Nibley is wholly dependent on her husband for support.

Whether you believe Beck’s recovered memories to be real or not, LEAVING THE SAINTS is nevertheless a fascinating look at the Mormon religion and culture. Unlike older religions like Christianity and Islam, Mormonism is so young that it’s been documented – extensively – in modern history. Contemporary news reports reveal founder Joseph Smith as a con artist and fraud, and his own accounts of church teachings and personal revelations show that he was also an egotist and philanderer. For this reason, I find Mormonism (and similar “young” “religions” like Scientology) remarkably interesting. (Full disclosure: I’m a heathen vegan feminist.)

Most of the exposes I’ve read previously have focused on fundamentalist, breakaway Mormon sects which still practice plural marriages (see, for example, Jon Krakauer’s UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN). In contrast, LEAVING THE SAINTS looks at mainstream Mormonism – and reveals it to be just as wacky, dysfunctional and misogynist as the excommunicated cults. For example, Beck’s account of a women’s forum held at BYU, which she moderated shortly before leaving the church, is jaw-dropping – and actually has one Mormon scholar blaming children for their own sexual abuse!

Beck recounts her journey – leaving the saints and finding her faith – in a series of flashbacks, interspersed with a conversation/confrontation she had with her elderly father in a hotel room shortly before writing LEAVING THE SAINTS. Beck is a master story teller, and though the reader can posit a guess early on as to the source of Beck’s trauma, the details are no less surprising once Beck’s repressed memories come flooding back with ferocity. As an atheist, I had some trouble relating to Beck’s spiritual journey, but these sections are written beautifully, and non-practicing religious/New Age readers will no doubt enjoy Beck’s quest for a more intrinsic, less prescribed sort of faith.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

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