This is a reposted book review I wrote for Epinions.com in May 2006. It’s being reposted as/is.
“The choice to believe or disbelieve, that’s what makes you free.”
I didn’t know it when I purchased it last week, but the book I’m going to review today, Martha Beck’s Leaving The Saints: How I Lost The Mormons And Found My Faith (2005) made a lot of waves when it came out last year. Of course, having never been a Mormon myself, I had no reason to be scandalized by the subject matter in Martha Beck’s book, nor did I have an inkling that I would be reading a somewhat scathing indictment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I didn’t know anything about Martha Beck or her famous father, Hugh Nibley. While I don’t claim to be anywhere near an expert on the subject of Mormonism, I have known a few members of the church in my lifetime and most of them have, at least on the surface, been fine people. In fact, I even married a member of the LDS church, although he very recently formally resigned from the faith. In any case, I was looking for something interesting to read when I found Martha Beck’s book, and indeed, I did find something interesting.
Leaving The Saints begins in the early 1990s, as Martha Beck and her husband, John, decided to move back to Provo, Utah after their second child, Adam, was born with Down Syndrome. They left their home in Massachusetts, even though Martha was finishing up her doctoral degree in sociology at Harvard University. The Becks longed for the security and sense of community they would get in Provo, Utah, where both John and Martha had grown up and where many of their family members still lived. They knew their son, Adam, would be universally accepted by their neighbors and they would be around people who would understand and support them. Like most of the people living in Provo, the Becks were devout Mormons. Martha Beck is the daughter of the late Hugh Nibley, a very famous and much revered man in LDS circles.
Beck writes that when she and her husband arrived in Provo, they were given the sort of enthusiastic welcome they had been expecting when they made their decision to move. Both Martha and John Beck started teaching at Brigham Young University (BYU); Martha taught on a part time basis while she finished up her doctorate. Before too long, she and John welcomed their third child, a girl named Elizabeth. For awhile, the Becks assimilated into life in Utah.
Beck became disenchanted with Mormonism when she started to discover how much the LDS church influenced the curriculum at BYU. She watched many of her most brilliant and talented colleagues get fired from their jobs simply for voicing opinions that undermined the church’s teachings. She both experienced and witnessed blatant gender bias on the job and claims that the church actually censored controversial topics. Despite the fact that she worked in what she describes as a very repressive environment, Beck counseled her students to question whatever didn’t ring true to them. However, according to Beck, BYU was not the intellectual bastion it was purported to be, as professors anxious about losing their jobs stifled themselves in order to keep church officials happy.
The bigger bombshell within this memoir, of course, is the fact that Beck openly accuses her father, the beloved Hugh Nibley, of sexually abusing her when she was a child. She writes about the memories of the abuse, which she recalled after she and her husband moved back to Utah. She also writes about some of the physical evidence of the abuse which was supposedly discovered during medical exams. Because Hugh Nibley was so well regarded within the LDS church, this aspect of the memoir is particularly scandalous, and if what Beck writes is true, quite damning.
Beck confronted her father before he died and intersperses the story of how that meeting went between anecdotes about her marriage, career, children, and the local culture. Toward the end of the book, she writes the story of how she and her husband left Mormonism and Utah. Evidently, the couple was forced to start their lives anew once they resigned from the faith. By Beck’s account, they were lucky enough to have the ability to start over elsewhere; apparently, other LDS members who doubt the veracity of the church do not have that luxury, mostly due to career or family constraints.
I found Beck’s writing to be very colorful and interesting; in fact, it was also often very funny, even as she lambasted the LDS church and made serious sexual abuse allegations against her father. Although at times Beck’s writing has a sarcastic, angry flavor, she’s able to temper her edginess with humor and warmth. Beck uses a lot of hyperbole to get her point across, which may actually make her account less believable to some readers. After all, when a person often exaggerates in order to make a point, it becomes harder to know where the exaggeration stops and reality begins. However, even though Martha Beck accuses her father of molesting her, I still got the idea that she still loved him and on some level, respected him. Even as she confronts him, she still is able to relate to him in a bittersweet way.
Before I read Leaving The Saints, I had heard of Hugh Nibley, but I didn’t really associate anything with him, positive or negative. For instance, I did not know that Hugh Nibley was a revered LDS apologist and scholar, nor did I know anything about his distinguished career at Brigham Young University, the premier institution of higher learning among devout Mormons. More importantly, I had also never heard of Martha Beck, herself a Harvard educated scholar, author of several books, Oprah Winfrey darling, columnist, and life coach. This is important, because in the few days it has taken me to read Beck’s book, Leaving The Saints, I have run across a number of different opinions about the book. Some people have praised it, calling it a moving, well-written memoir and heralding Beck as a brave heroine for sharing her intensely personal story. Other people have called the book an unfair, inaccurate, and hurtful attack against the LDS church and Hugh Nibley. I want to note that many of the people whose opinions I’ve read have had some direct exposure to the LDS church, either as current or past members. Again, I’ve never been a member of the church, so I’ve based my opinion only on how I feel about the book, instead of trying to determine whether or not Beck has written the truth.
Frankly, whether or not Leaving The Saints is an entirely true account, I found it a fascinating and engaging read. It appears to me, however, that if Beck did not write the truth, she paid quite a price for writing this book. First of all, Martha Beck and her husband, John Beck, are now divorced, a fact that she does not reveal in Leaving The Saints. John Beck has even posted a negative review of Leaving The Saints on Amazon.com, claiming that she lied about some of the content. Secondly, Beck’s family has publicly come out against her, accusing her of lying about the alleged sexual abuse. I don’t know if Martha Beck is telling the truth or not. At this point, I have no reason to disbelieve her, since I don’t know anything about her aside from what I’ve read. And again, since my religious faith is not being attacked in this book, I have no reason to criticize what Beck has written about the LDS church. I can only base my opinion about her allegations against the church on what I’ve heard and read about from other people. Based on those aspects alone, I’m inclined to believe at least most of Beck’s story. Even if what she wrote isn’t entirely true, it’s still a hell of a story.
That leaves me to explain the title of this review. I found the above quote toward the end of Leaving The Saints. John Beck had just resigned his church membership and it had been all over the local news. Martha Beck was still a member in good standing and was moderating a women’s issues forum being held at BYU. The forum was discussing domestic violence and sexual abuse in a roundabout way. Some of the attendees were getting upset, claiming that no one on the panel had ever experienced sexual abuse and therefore none of them knew what they were talking about. Martha Beck had, up until that point, been portrayed to the women as a blueblooded Mormon above reproach, even though her husband had just left the church and privately, she was often “counseled” about her outspokenness. As the angry women in the crowd continued to grumble among themselves, Martha Beck stood up and announced to the attendees that she was an incest survivor. And after she told them about her personal experience as an incest survivor, she said those empowering words, “Choose to believe or disbelieve, that’s what makes you free.”
The aftermath of Beck’s public confession was not exactly what she had expected it to be. After the conference, she was swarmed by appreciative women who thanked her for sharing her story. Now that her story is in print, many others have also thanked her for sharing her story. It’s clear to me that even if Martha Beck hasn’t told the truth, she has helped a lot of people who have lived with the shame of sexual abuse and moved many others who haven’t lived that unfortunate reality. If she has unfairly tarnished her late father’s name, I suspect she will answer for that someday.
I doubt most devout Mormons, especially those who admired Hugh Nibley’s work, would enjoy reading Leaving The Saints. Martha Beck certainly does not cast the LDS church in a flattering light and I suspect that many Mormons will feel that she is attacking their beliefs. Personally, I liked this book. Now that I’ve finished it, my husband Bill will read it and hopefully he will add his own review from the perspective of someone who has direct experience with Mormonism.
Martha Beck’s Web site: https://marthabeck.com
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