The price of breaking spiritual bonds

Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith. Martha Beck. Crown. $24.95. 308 pp.

Los Angeles Times/May 22, 2005
By Ralph Frammolino

Outsiders know the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by its clean-cut image: young missionaries in white shirts riding bicycles in the neighborhood; television commercials extolling family life.

Some former insiders, however, have other tales to tell.

In her memoir, Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, Martha Beck, an author (Expecting Adam) and magazine columnist, draws us into a world of secret temple rituals, demon-resistant underwear and Stepford-like denial.

Beck, her husband, John, and their two small children return to Utah in 1988 from Harvard. Forsaking friends who urged her to abort a fetus with Down syndrome, Beck was determined to raise her infant son among the unconditional love of God-fearing people. By going back, Beck also resolved to set aside her skepticism and embrace what she calls the "hefty caboodle of beliefs and traditions I inherited from my Mormon culture."

She recalls her wedding, explaining how she was given special undergarments in a temple rite that included the oath to "let ourselves be killed" if certain details were ever divulged. The ceremony included a pantomime of the "various modes of death that would be inflicted."

"I found it so surreal it was truly marvelous, like watching an episode of Leave It to Beaver in which June and Ward take just a moment out of their busy day to agree that if they ever leak the family secrets, they'll hack off each other's limbs," she writes.

All this seems to be mere amusement until Beck joins the faculty at church-controlled Brigham Young University.

A feminist and critical thinker, Beck runs smack into the cultural conservatism of a society in which women are secondary, even in the afterlife, and where academic inquiry must adhere to church teachings.

As it happens, a battle is raging. Stung by scholarly attacks on the religion, church authorities have embarked on a McCarthyesque campaign against naysayers. Faculty members are told which research sources to use, while publications deemed "alternative voices" mysteriously disappear from the library. The defiant are excommunicated, the kiss of social and financial death in this American church-state.

Beck provides ample reason for the paranoia. Her recitation of evidence undermines the prophetic credentials of church founder Joseph Smith, who was assassinated in 1844. She is particularly brutal at debunking the claim that Smith translated an account of the patriarch Abraham from Egyptian papyri.

But it gets more personal.

The man on whom the church has relied to repel attacks against the translation, now part of the Mormon canon, is Beck's father, a leading church apologist.

Living so close to her father again triggers a reaction in Beck. Nightmares grow into screaming fits, then into flashbacks of a secret buried in her unconscious: When she was a little girl, Beck claims, her father molested her.

Beck alternates chapters and styles, juxtaposing scenes from her confrontation with her father against a more chatty exposition of Mormon life. At first this construction seems clumsy, but as the tension ratchets up, the counterpoint works well.

Beck breaks from her spiritual and psychological bondage in dramatic fashion. Yet the book makes plain that there is often a depressing price to pay. Neither her father nor his religious system will acknowledge the harm they have done to believing hearts. That Beck can write so eloquently about it without bitterness is a gift worth its weight in gold plates.

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