February 24, 2005
A Mormon Daughter's Book Stirs a Storm
By EDWARD WYATT
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.
"Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith" details how
the author, Dr. Martha 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.
The book, being published next month by Crown, an imprint of Random House,
has attracted significant criticism both for its depiction of sacred Mormon
ceremonies and for the author's effort to tie her sexual abuse to what she
says were mental disturbances suffered by her father because of his role as
the Mormon Church's "chief apologist."
Dr. Nibley, who is 95, is ailing and is physically unable to respond to
questions, Alex Nibley, one of eight Nibley children, said in a statement.
Dr. Nibley has been aware of Dr. Beck's accusations for several years, Alex
Nibley said, and maintains that they are false. As part of a defense of
their father, Dr. Beck's seven siblings have condemned her assertions and
have hired a psychologist and lawyer who has worked on lawsuits against
therapists practicing recovered-memory therapy.
The Mormon Church issued a statement condemning the book, calling it
"seriously flawed in the way it depicts the church, its members and
teachings." Dr. Beck and her publisher have said she has received e-mail
messages containing death threats.
In addition, Mormons around the country have participated in an e-mail
campaign against the book, sending more than 3,500 messages to Oprah
Winfrey, who has featured "Leaving the Saints" on her Internet site and in
the March issue of O, the Oprah Magazine. The magazine includes a monthly
self-help column by Dr. Beck, who has a doctorate from Harvard.
Though other recent books have taken aim at parts of the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints, at well-known Mormons or at Mormon culture,
rarely have they focused on so prominent a figure as Dr. Nibley. In 2003,
for example, Jon Krakauer wrote about a group of renegade Mormon
fundamentalists in "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith."
As with the Beck book, the Mormon Church issued a statement condemning it
before it was published.
Recovered memory, in which a suppressed traumatic incident is recalled years
later, has been one of the most disputed topics among mental-health
professionals in the last 15 years. The American Psychological Association
states that while "there is a consensus among memory researchers and
clinicians that most people who were sexually abused as children remember
all or part of what happened to them," most leaders in the field also agree
"that although it is a rare occurrence, a memory of early childhood abuse
that has been forgotten can be remembered later."
But "Leaving the Saints," Dr. Beck's fourth book, seems as likely to be
discussed for the things it leaves out as for those it includes. Among the
omissions is an incident of sexual abuse that Dr. Beck said recently in an
interview was never suppressed. When she was about 9, she said, a teenage
neighbor barricaded her in his room, stripped most of her clothes off and
sexually assaulted her. He did not achieve penetration, Dr. Beck said, and
the incident was interrupted by her father, who was in the neighbor's house
at the time. Though she called the event "extremely traumatizing," she said
the incident was cut in the editing of her manuscript to shorten the book.
Dr. Beck also does not mention that one person she consulted about her
sexual abuse was Lynne Finney, a Utah psychotherapist who has said that up
to one out of three Americans were sexually abused as children. In the early
1990's, Ms. Finney, who is referred to in "Leaving the Saints" by the
pseudonym "Mona," was a leading practitioner of recovered-memory therapy,
including the use of self-hypnosis, a practice that some studies have shown
can result in the creation of false memories. Asked about the omission, Dr.
Beck said she consulted Ms. Finney only after having already recovered the
memories of abuse. She said that she practiced self-hypnosis once under Ms.
Finney but that it did not play a part in her memory recovery.
While Dr. Beck is now highly critical of the Mormon Church, in 1990, she and
her husband, John C. Beck, had a book published by a company owned by the
Mormon Church arguing that homosexuality is a compulsive behavior that can
be overcome. After leaving the church, however, the Becks divorced and have
lived openly as homosexuals, something each acknowledged in interviews. Dr.
Beck said she left those details out of the book to keep it focused on the
accusations of sexual abuse; John Beck declined to comment further on the
Those and other facets of Dr. Beck's story have been discussed online in
chat rooms and on bulletin boards, at sites devoted to Mormonism and at
those favored by people who have left the church and view its practices
unfavorably. The book's own Web site, www.leavingthesaints.com, has had more
than 6,500 visitors in February alone, triple the number in January, and has
received more than 200 e-mail messages, 80 percent of them expressing
outrage at the book, the publisher says.
In an interview, Dr. Beck said she did not intend "Leaving the Saints" to be
an indictment of Mormonism. Though she said her book did not reveal any
church secrets, it discusses Mormon rites like the temple ceremony, a sacred
ritual, and subjects like regulation temple garments, which Mormons wear
under their clothes - in a sometimes mocking tone that has infuriated many
devout Mormons. Her publisher said Dr. Beck had received at least one death
threat by e-mail that cited her depictions of Mormon ceremonies.
"I didn't write it to convince anyone not to be Mormon or not to join the
Mormons," she said. "I just needed to get the story of my childhood out of
Her childhood was marked, she said, by unexplained depression, anorexia and
despair that at times left her suicidal. Even before she recovered her
memories of sexual abuse, she said, she recalled suffering unexplained pain
and bleeding between her thighs when she was about 5. She writes that she
remembered thinking that "if anyone finds out about it, no one will ever
marry me." In her teens and 20's, she writes, several doctors commented on
unusual scar tissue in her vaginal area, which she cites as physical
evidence of the abuse. Later, she said, doctors confirmed to her that the
vaginal scarring was not the result of childbirth.
It was not until she was in her late 20's, however, while teaching at
Brigham Young, that Dr. Beck experienced a flashback that resulted in the
memories of what she describes as ritualistic rape by her father. During the
incident, which she believes took place in her home while her older siblings
were at school, her father recited incantations about Abraham and Isaac.
Dr. Beck's siblings, who have known about her claims for almost a decade and
several of whom attended at least one family-group session with one of Dr.
Beck's therapists, dispute her account, saying that no evidence exists of
abuse and that incidents in the book are either inaccurate or made up.
Rebecca Nibley, a sister, said Dr. Beck "encouraged me to get my own
recovered memories of being abused."
"As hard as I tried, I couldn't remember anything untoward concerning my
father's behavior toward me, and I can't validate any of Martha's claims,"
Dr. Beck twice confronted her father about the claims, once at a family
therapy session with her husband and her parents shortly after she recovered
the memories. The other time was at a 2001 meeting in a hotel, an event that
she uses as a device in "Leaving the Saints" as the story of her life and
her understanding of her sexual abuse unfolds.
Joining her at that hotel meeting was a member of her extended family who
has supported Dr. Beck's assertions from the beginning. The family member,
who is identified in the book by a pseudonym, agreed to speak only on the
condition of anonymity after receiving threats of physical violence because
of her support of Dr. Beck.
"I believed Martha from the beginning because the memories she had of
elements of the abuse - memories that never went away and were always part
of her history - also fit with the outward signs of the abuse I saw in her
growing up," the family member said. Speaking to Dr. Beck's parents about it
since, she said, "has only served to strengthen my belief in the veracity of
her reporting of her experience."