Responding to Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints

Boyd Petersen

As Things Stand at the Moment: Responding to Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints

Editor’s note. This update was presented by Boyd Petersen at the 2005 FAIR Conference, prior to his formal presentation. It is a follow-up to Boyd’s earlier rebuttal of Martha’s book, found here.

I find myself in a strange predicament today. I had not intended to discuss Martha Beck’s book Leaving the SaintsHow I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith. FAIR did not ask me to speak about it, and, personally, I would rather talk about something–anything–else. I knew that some might want to hear what I have to say on the topic, that others might prefer not to hear what I have to say. I also believe that, even though my position is obviously biased, I have access to information that others do not have that documents the factual distortions in Martha’s book. I understand this apologetic need to respond to Martha’s allegations and feel it keenly. But as a family member, I also share with my wife, her mother, and her brothers and sisters frustration and resentment that all but one of the newspapers ran obituaries about Hugh Nibley in which his significant life and legacy have been overshadowed by the hideous lies from Martha’s book. Furthermore, the timing of this whole ordeal has made it horribly painful to us all. The New York Times brought Martha’s allegations to national attention on 24 February 2005, the very day Hugh Nibley passed away.1 So please understand that I harbor great resentment about both the book and the timing of its release.

Furthermore, I feel like most of what I have to say I have already said in my response to her book which is posted on FAIR’s Web site. So I wanted to move on, to focus on Hugh’s life and legacy, and get beyond the shadow cast upon it by his treacherous daughter. However, on 16 July, the Deseret News published an article about the Sunstone Symposium and FAIR’s conference which said that there would be sessions at Sunstone discussing Martha’s book and that I would be speaking about Martha’s accusations here at FAIR’s conference.2 The article went on to note that Sunstone’s editor, Dan Wotherspoon, had “considered inviting Beck to the conference but decided against it, opting rather for a variety of panelists to offer their assessments from praise to criticism.” It is true that Wotherspoon decided against inviting Martha. His reasoning was that she did not meet the criteria of the Sunstone mission statement which calls for a “responsible interchange of ideas that is respectful of all people and what they hold sacred.” While Sunstone has had critical voices at its symposium, Wotherspoon felt that Martha’s book is not just critical of Mormon culture, she mocks it and its temple rituals in a mean-spirited way.

As to my speaking about Martha here, I don’t have a clue where the reporter got that idea, since the official conference program said I would be speaking about Hugh Nibley. What makes this all so difficult is that immediately following the publication of the Deseret News article, both FAIR and Sunstone received threatening letters from an attorney representing Martha Beck and her partner Karen Gerdes, admonishing them that my response to Martha’s book should not be discussed. It is not the first threatening letter FAIR and Sunstone have received from this attorney, nor is it the only threatening letter he has sent out in an effort to silence critics. When my response first appeared on Sunstone’s Web site, Beck and Gerdes threatened Sunstone. Martha’s ex-husband John Beck, whom I quote in my response, received a similar letter. To avoid any legal entanglements, I personally asked Sunstone to remove my response from their Web site, and I asked FAIR if they would be interested in it. Not long after my response went up on FAIR’s Web site, FAIR received a letter similar to the one Sunstone had received. John Beck and FAIR have both, admirably, stood their ground. Evidently, there is material in my response that deeply bothers Martha and Karen. But I want to assure you that there is nothing in that response that I know to be untrue. I believe it is, in the end, the truth they don’t like.

I find it deeply ironic that in her book, Martha claims that Mormons silence dissenters, since Martha keeps trying to silence those critical of her book. I find it equally curious that it is somehow all right to trash Hugh Nibley’s, the Nibley family’s, and the LDS Church’s reputations with lies and unsubstantiated allegations, but it is not all right to take issue with those lies by revealing the truth. Incidentally, at the Sunstone Symposium last week, Martha sent her cousin Sylvia (in Martha’s book she’s the cousin in the closet–it’s nice to know she’s finally come out of the closet). Sylvia passed out a press release that stated that Martha was not invited to attend either of these conferences because both Sunstone and FAIR are “‘faith affirming’ for Mormons and apologist in nature.”3 I think this may come as a surprise to some, but I think it illustrates just how out-of-touch Martha is. Furthermore, I am fairly confident that Martha could have walked through those doors at Sunstone just as easily as her cousin did. But perhaps she was afraid of those Sunstone Danites.

I also want to mention that Martha’s legal threats have not been reserved only for those who respond to her in writing. The Nibley family also received a threatening letter from Martha’s attorney, warning us not to contact Martha or Karen directly, but only through their lawyer. I want everyone to know that it is not the Nibley family that has cut off Martha, but Martha who has cut off her family. Despite this controversy, I do not want to spend my time here rehashing the significant and numerous inconsistencies in Martha’s book. But since Martha has thrown down the gauntlet, I do not want it to appear that I’m caving in to her demands. So let me take a few minutes to analyze how this whole story seems to have played out to this point and to clear up a few misconceptions that some readers of Martha’s book have had. Before I do, however, let me state that my views are mine alone. They do not represent the Nibley family nor do they represent FAIR. I alone am responsible for what I have to say. Second, I don’t want this to be part of my other talk. That will be a completely separate matter.

There was a silver lining to the cloud created by Leaving the Saints. We were thrice blessed: First, Martha waited ten years after she recovered these memories before publishing her exposé. To get a feel for how things might have played out if she had written this book in the early- or mid-1990s, one should read Massimo Introvigne’s talk from the 1994 conference of the Mormon History Association, in which he documents the paranoia, fear, and wounds these kinds of recovered memories created.4 Let me share with you just one account from a woman who experienced the type of therapy that was rampant during those days:

I saw a therapist in 1991 who was convinced that I had been molested as a child and who insisted I do work to “recover” memories of the abuse. I told her I knew very well that I’d never been molested because of my gynecological history, but she insisted there was some horrible trauma that I was repressing and that it had already happened by the time I was fiveBotherwise, I wouldn’t be suffering from such profound depression as an adult (as if adolescence and puberty couldn’t be reason to become depressed). So I dutifully sent myself into a trance, and, as she directed, walked down the street of the house where my five-year-old self lived. My young self stood on the front porch wearing red shorts and a red gingham shirt appliqued with a sailboat. The big self greeted the little self, hugged her, and said, “I love you. I care about you. How are you? If something’s wrong, you can tell me.” The five-year-old self looked at her skeptically and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m very happy. I think you should come back later.”

I thought that was really funny but the therapist got really mad and told me I’d done it wrong, at which point I said, “You’re a crackpot and this is not helping me at all and I’m not coming back,” which also made her mad. But thinking about it now I feel rather lucky, when I consider what might have happened had I had a weaker mind or a reason to want the hypnosis to produce something5

This is the “therapeutic” social context for Martha’s recovered memories. As silly as this sounds, in the early- to mid-1990s, there were many people “discovering” memories of abuse that never happened and many people who experienced the real repercussions for those accusations. The accused suffered alienation of their children’s affection, embarrassment and shame when these false allegations were made public, family disintegration, and, for some, time in jail for crimes they never committed. Had Martha made these claims public ten years earlier, it would have been a very different scenario than the one that has played out in 2005 when a decade of scientific evidence has shown these induced “memories” to be fictions created through hypnosis.

The second blessing was that Martha wrote a very bad book. Don’t get me wrong, Martha is a fine writer. She is witty, clever, and sassy. She knows how to turn a phrase, how to make a reader laugh and cry. In short, she can tell a tale. But here we had a narrative presented as history that was so full of internal and external inconsistencies that readers had a hard time believing her. This is quite a stroke of luck, because, as Tzvetan Todorov has argued, readers implicitly trust a first-person narrative.6 But Leaving the Saints had Mormons, former-Mormons, ex-Mormons, non-Mormons, and even anti-Mormons shaking their heads in bewilderment. The sheer number of problems with this book caused me to wonder if maybe somewhere in Martha’s psyche she actually wanted to get caught, for the truth to be revealed. I just don’t know why she felt that she could get away with this. Her story, even though false, could have been compelling without the inconsistencies, the hyperbole, the distortion. But most readers have come away from this book expressing the feeling that “if I can’t trust her in the small details, how can I trust her in the big ones?”

Finally, we were blessed that the negative response to this book came initially from the very place where it might have gained acceptance. Whether this was because of the numerous inconsistencies in Martha’s book or because of the status Hugh Nibley holds within the Mormon community–that he is revered for his social criticism as well as his apologetics–it was a significant departure from the past for the criticism to originate first from Signature Books, Sunstone, and Affirmation. The first negative response came from Signature Books’ marketing director, Tom Kimball, who called the book “problematic” and “most likely heavily laced with fiction.”7Sunstone’s reviewer, Tania Lyon, gave the book a fair trial; at the end of the first reading, she admitted she was “persuaded.” But by applying the analytical tools of her trade, pitting her Princeton Sociology Ph.D. against Martha’s Harvard Sociology Ph.D., she came to the conclusion that “Martha’s case against Mormonism is…exaggerated and shallow, the accuracy of her narrative style…suspect, and her use of hyperbole in such a devastating accusation…misplaced.”8 Even Affirmation, the Gay Mormon alliance, took on the book. Stung by the hypocrisy of Martha’s homosexual lifestyle in light of her previous characterization of homosexuality as a “compulsive behavior” that can be changed and “cured,” Affirmation posted a news story on their Web page declaring that “Martha Beck’s credibility as an author is now in question” as Leaving the Saints “is being criticized for its alleged inaccuracies.”9 I have even seen some people on the Recovery from Mormonism boards lamenting that any one of them could have written a better book than did Martha. My perception is that Leaving the Saints has been received favorably by only three groups of people: (1) those who know nothing about either Mormonism or false memory syndrome, (2) those whose rage against the LDS Church has blinded them to the irrational content of this book, and (3) those who have been abused and cannot separate Martha’s false victimhood from their own very real, very legitimate victimhood.

I would also like to clear up a few details that have confused some readers of Leaving the Saints: First, to make claims is not the same as offering evidence. Allegations are not proof. Martha has claimed a lot of things, but she has proven none of them. To say something happened does not prove it happened; to say one has physical evidence is not to show that evidence. Martha, to date, has offered no evidence and proved nothing. We are still at the level of he-said/she-said. But Martha has given us a lot of evidence with which to judge who is the most reliable witness. Hugh Nibley’s footnotes have held up much better than her shoddy memoir.

Second, Martha has changed her story considerably, not only between the time when she first began to recover her “memories” and when she published the book, but even since the book was published. Back in the 1990s, she was fairly open about her use of hypnosis. She tried to convince her sisters and John to try self-hypnosis, and she fully admitted using hypnosis herself. In the book she makes it sound like the memories just “popped out.” Since the book came out, however, she told a reporter for the New York Times that “she practiced self-hypnosis once under Ms. Finney but that it did not play a part in her memory recovery.”10 Then on her Web site Martha claimed when her first therapist “proposed a hypnosis session, [she] refused, for the very reason that [she] didn’t want [her] experiences tainted by any suggestive or leading methods.”11 This is only one example of how Martha has had a really hard time keeping her story straight.

Third, even though many have recognized that Martha is an unreliable narrator, they still don’t always recognize that when she reports the words of others she is equally unreliable. I have interviewed dozens of the people Martha quotes in her book, and in every single instance they have said Martha got it wrong–and not just a little wrong. No, she got things glaringly, unrecognizably, completely wrong. So when reading Leaving the Saints, readers should remember that when Martha gives the words of her parents, they are really words invented by Martha; when Martha gives the words of her brothers and sisters, they are really words invented by Martha; when Martha gives the words of her former BYU colleagues, her bishop, or her stake president, they are really words invented by Martha; and even when Martha gives the words of her ex-husband John, they are really words invented by Martha. To wit, Martha’s mother did not admit that the abuse happened and then later deny it, as Martha reports in her book. Martha’s brothers and sisters do not believe she was physically abused, as Martha reports in her book; and Martha’s father’s last words were not “she was my favorite,” as Martha has reported to the press.

Let me also say that my response to Martha’s book was not something I enjoyed writing; I did not want to smear her or attack her. I had much better things–my family, my teaching, and my dissertation–that needed my attention. But I also felt that her allegations needed a response, and that, as her father’s biographer and a family member, I had access to information that others were not privy to. I also admit that I felt somewhat responsible that Martha’s book included these allegations, since I published them first in the biography of her father, albeit in a very short sentence and a very long footnote, and with, of course, a very different perspective. I struggled over how to handle this episode of Hugh’s life for months–if I should include it, how I should include it, and what the repercussions would be either way. But I felt that the only real choice I had was to put it in so readers would not think I was covering things up. The Nibley family was in consensus about this too. All of them felt that it needed to be addressed. The response to the open way I addressed this and other issues in the book has been overwhelmingly positive. In his review of my book, D. Michael Quinn stated that he felt “all readers will agree that including this [candid] discussion in an ‘authorized biography’ is an ultimate example of the dedication to honest history by Hugh Nibley, his wife, and their children.”12 Nevertheless, I still felt somehow responsible, that perhaps if I had not mentioned this episode Martha may not have felt the need to write this book.13 So it was partially out of a desire to do penance that I took on the challenge to respond.

Writing my response was maddeningly frustrating. Hugh Nibley once told me that writing Sounding Brass, his response to anti-Mormon literature, was the hardest, most negative thing he ever had to do–this coming from a man who survived the Great Depression, World War II, and teaching for several decades in the Religion department at BYU! At the time I could not understand why he felt writing Sounding Brass was such an awful experience, since the book is, I believe, clever, satirical, in short, hilarious. But after responding to Martha I think I understand. I found it so difficult trying to discern where the truth ended and the lies began that I felt like I was descending into some kind of personal hell. The lack of names made it impossible to figure out who all the people were. The chronology of her life was so different from the book’s chronology that it was easy to get disoriented (for example, the book has the September Six excommunications occurring before the Spring Women’s Conference where she allegedly made her revelation public). I got so frustrated while trying to respond to her book that I literally broke three teeth; it wasn’t until the third that I realized I was holding in a lot of anger and grinding my teeth–”if I had my teeth, I would bite,” as Shakespeare says.

Yet I expressly did not want to attack Martha–I don’t hate her. I just hate what she has chosen to do. Nor did I want to be accused of an ad hominem attack. But how does one tell the true story of Martha’s life without revealing the truth, which is not terribly flattering? I was happy to have had Lavina Fielding Anderson edit my response, and I purposely asked her to watch for ad hominem and keep my tone even. The response cleared her inspection. What has surprised me is that, to date, the only people who have told me that they found my response to be a personal attack on Martha have been men. I had assumed that women would be more sensitive to ad hominem–or ad feminam–than men. I do have a theory about why it is men rather than women who think I was attacking Martha: I think men tend to want to stick up for the little guy when they see one being attacked. But I would like to remind listeners that this is exactly what I was doing. I was sticking up for a 94-year-old man who could not stick up for himself; I was defending my wife who is portrayed as a simple-minded nutcase in Martha’s book; I was defending my children who do not deserve to have their fine heritage stained with these terrible lies; and I was defending my Church which was depicted in her book as a cult just to the right of Jonestown.

Further, I was responding to a woman who has the bully pulpit of Random House and Oprah’s Harpo media conglomerate behind her. This is also a woman who was trained in the martial arts; who kidnapped her aging father when he was only days out of the hospital suffering from chest pains; who held him hostage in a hotel room for over five hours with three other women watching guard; who left his wife unattended after she had just been released from the hospital with an infection that we all thought might take her from us; who, when Hugh asked to leave, confesses in her book, “I’m sure any patient, high-minded, enlightened person would let him go right now. Me, I’m just getting started.”14 Let me just ask, what if the genders in that hotel room were reversed–what if four young men took a 90-year-old woman into a hotel room, kept her there against her will, and tried to make her confess to a sexual crime she did not commit? This is not a poor defenseless woman I am up against; this is a poor defenseless man I was defending.

I am now more confused than ever about how to respond to the works of anti-Mormons without attacking the person. I sincerely believe that ad hominem has no place in scholarly circles and certainly no place in religious circles, but I am also more aware that a writer’s personal background, often unknown to the public, can and often does motivate an anti-Mormon attack and can be very relevant to the discussion. This seems to be especially true when addressing a personal memoir, as with this book.

I have learned a few things as this episode has played out in the press, discussion boards, chat rooms, and reviews. First, apologists need to support each other. There were times when I felt so lonely while writing my response and no one in my ward could possibly understand what I was going through. Responding to anti-Mormon attacks is nasty business, and we need to support each other emotionally as we do this. Second, I believe we should reach out where we can to the broader spectrum of Mormonism. My sense is that we can disagree with people and still be polite. One can be supportive of the Church and still be respectful to those who may be critical. In this particular case, I believe, the reviews attacking Leaving the Saints that originated with these less apologetic sources had greater credibility in the press and with the general public. And they appeared, I believe, because Hugh Nibley, despite his very polemical apologetic work, was loved by a broad spectrum of the Mormon public. Finally, I learned that the truth ultimately triumphs. Even though Hugh Nibley’s life story was tarnished by these false allegations, his life was not. He died peacefully, knowing that he had committed no evil. And, ultimately, most of the public is coming to realize the same thing.

Thank you.

Notes

1Edward Wyatt, “A Mormon Daughter’s Book Stirs a Storm,” The New York Times, 24 Feb. 2005: E1. The following day, the same reporter wrote the obituary for theTimes. Edward Wyatt, “Hugh Nibley, Outspoken Mormon Scholar, Dies at 94,” The New York Times, 25 Feb. 2005: A21. Although the obituary was very respectful, Martha’s claims were front and center.

2Carrie A. Moore. “Smith is Focus of 2 Annual Gatherings.” Deseret News, 16 July 2005: E1.

3 “Best-Selling Author Responds to Conferences’ Panel Discussions and Sessions Based on Her Controversial Book, Leaving the Saints,” 27 July 2005. Distributed at Sunstone panel #162 “How Reliable are Our Memories? Memory Creation and Retrieval in Relation to Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints,” 28 July 2005.

4 Massimo Introvigne, “A Rumor of Devils: Allegations of Satanic Child Abuse and Mormonism, 1985-1994.” http://www.cesnur.org/2001/archive/mi_mormons.htm

5 Holly Welker. Personal e-mail to Boyd Petersen, 16 July 2005.

6 The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1975. “[T]he first-person narrator most readily permits the reader to identify with the character, since as we know the pronoun ‘I’ belongs to everyone.” (84).

7 The review is available at http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Reviews/Rvw200501.html.

8 Tania Rands Lyon, “An Exhausted Memoir of Reading Leaving the Saints.” Sunstone, March 2005: 62-67. Available online athttp://sunstoneonline.com/magazine/issues/136/136-62-8.pdf.

9 One of the three central case studies in her book Breaking the Cycles of Compulsive Behavior is a homosexual. See Jason Clark, “LDS Couple Who Dubbed Homosexuality ‘Addiction’ Come Out,” 27 February 2005. http://www.affirmation.org/news/2005_08.asp.

10 Edward Wyatt, “A Mormon Daughter’s Book Stirs a Storm,” The New York Times, 24 February 2005: B1+.

11 Martha Beck, “Setting the Record Straight: Physical Evidence & Memories From My Childhood” http://leavingthesaints.com/settingrecord.htm.

12 D. Michael Quinn, “Review of Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life,” Journal of Mormon History 30, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 259-263.

13 Martha told a reporter from the Arizona Republic that “I only decided to publish after my family put their account out there. Two years ago my brother-in-law (Boyd Jay Petersen) wrote a biography (Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life) that deified my father.” (Susan Felt, “Tale of Abuse Draws Fire from Church and Family,” Arizona Republic, 16 March 2005. If my book “deifies” her father, that is not the sense most readers have come away with, since they have unanimously told me that they were surprised by the “warts-and-all” way I told the story. But then I suspect Martha only read one page of the book.

14 Leaving the Saints, 111.

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