by Boyd Jay Petersen
Kirkus Reviews assures us that Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith1 “is not a trashy exposé but a loving, sad account of coming home again.”2 However, those familiar with the “trashy Mormon exposés” of the nineteenth century will find here all the familiar chestnuts of that genre: the horrors of polygamy, the strange secrets of the temple, the dictatorial rule of Church leaders, Joseph Smith’s obvious failures as a translator of Egyptian hieroglyphs, and his strange account of Native Americans being descendents of ancient Israelites. Even the Danites make their required appearance in this book. Like other exposés, this book’s treatment of most historical events amounts to little more than caricature.3 Rather than investigating the complicated forces of historical events, Martha provides one-dimensional portrayals of those events to show how silly, patriarchal, and violent Mormonism really is.
|Book Title:||Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith|
There are, however, two significant differences between this exposé and its antecedents. First, this book is surely one of the best written exposés I have encountered. As a teacher of literature, I found myself admiring the way Martha weaves this narrative. The book is well-paced, the writing is lively, the description is vivid, and the wit sparkles. On the other hand, Martha has an annoying habit of placing herself rhetorically above everyone else in the narrative and sneering at all that is “not-Martha”–especially all that is Mormon. As a practicing Mormon, I found this off-putting. Despite its lively prose and Kirkus’s claims to the contrary, Leaving the Saints is still, at its core, an exposé. The second difference between this book and previous exposés is the focus of its narrative: the book recounts Martha Beck’s recovered memories of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, unnamed in the book but recognizable to all Mormons as Hugh Nibley.
As Martha’s brother-in-law and Hugh Nibley’s son-in-law and biographer,4 I feel compelled to respond. At the outset, however, I must make four things perfectly clear:
(1) This is not and should not be read as a review of the book as much as a response to it. I make no attempt to include all the requisite elements of a standard, academic or popular book review.
(2) Because of my proximity to this story–I have lived with its effects on my family for over a decade now–I cannot be objective; I have a stake in this debate. But I also believe I have insights others do not have which are both relevant and compelling.
(3) This response should not be seen as the “official” position of the Nibley family. While I cannot help but be influenced by my wife and her family, and I have tried to be sensitive to their feelings, this response represents my opinion, and I alone am responsible for its content.
(4) My goal is not to discredit or further alienate Martha. I sincerely wish her well. I have made every effort to avoid criticizing her personally, confining myself strictly to matters of evidence from which a reasonable conclusion can be drawn about the credibility of her presentation in the story.
Picking up roughly where her previous memoir, Expecting Adam, left off, Leaving the Saints chronicles Martha and her husband, John’s, retreat from the high-pressure world of Harvard to the more compassionate and supportive atmosphere of their native Utah Valley following the birth of their Down syndrome son, Adam. Both Martha and John begin teaching at BYU, where they witness “the church’s ruthlessness as it silenced dissidents and masked truths that contradicted its beliefs” (dust jacket). More disturbing is that, after beginning meditation and having a “white-light experience” while undergoing surgery, Martha begins to remember sexual abuse at the hands of her father that is supposed to have occurred when Martha was between the ages of five and eight. Martha is quite explicit about her accusations of abuse, but is mostly implicit about the details.
Among the explicit claims are (1) that she believes her father was likely a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his mother and (2) that he was further traumatized on the grisly battlefields of World War II. In preparing my biography of Hugh, I did note that his mother and especially his grandmother were both fond of strange homemade “cures,” some of which were likely painful and frightening, but I found no evidence of abuse, either physical or sexual. The trauma of World War II was no doubt painful for Hugh, but he must have worked these issues out before I began asking him questions about the war, because I have never noticed any symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome in any of the many interviews I conducted with Hugh about his war years.
(3) Martha alleges that when, in 1967, Church authorities asked Hugh to translate the Joseph Smith papyri he was placed in a double-bind situation that caused him to crack. He knew the Church wanted him to assert that the text contained the Book of Abraham, but he also knew it to be the Egyptian Book of Breathings. As Martha puts it, “He could either lose his job, his livelihood, his social standing, his bully pulpit, by publicly revealing information that would undermine the very foundation of Mormonism, or he could lie flat out. In a way, I admire him for choosing the only other alternative: he went crazy” (148). Martha makes these assertions in the face of facts that show just the opposite. She neglects to note that it was Hugh who first called scholarly and public attention to the fact that the papyri contained the text of the Egyptian Book of Breathings rather than the Book of the Dead.5 She also fails to mention how Hugh, who confessed that for a period he was merely “skirmishing and sparring,” immediately launched into a series of monthly articles for the Improvement Era which ran during 1968-70 while simultaneously publishing more scholarly articles in Dialogue and BYU Studies.6 She further fails to note that Hugh focused right from the start on what Klaus Baer stated was the “only” argument that “will get the Mormons out of the dilemma,”–that it is not the Egyptian text but the English one that can provide evidence for its authenticity. And while Hugh did not rush into print with his own translation, in 1968 he did a translation of the papyri’s close cousin, “Book of Breathings, P. Louvre 3284,” which he circulated widely. And in 1975, Hugh included this translation with similar selections of the Joseph Smith Papyri in The Message of the Joseph Smith Papryri: An Egyptian Endowment. What’s especially noticeable about this omission is that Martha herself helped to illustrate this book–an odd task to undertake for someone who claims to have had a “life-long strange reaction to all things Egyptian,” who had repeated nightmares, “one in which [she] was trapped in the two-dimensional world of an ancient papyrus drawing…as the corpse of a dead man scuttled along behind me, right on my heels” (146).7 It is also clear, from both Hugh’s publications and private correspondence, that during the years in question, he was at the height of his career; there is no indication of psychological breakdown. Furthermore, Hugh never lost “his job, livelihood, social standing, or bully pulpit” for telling the truth while simultaneously defending the Church.
Martha’s book mostly hints at the details of Hugh’s alleged breakdown, but evidently Martha believes that Hugh ritually abused her while reenacting Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, all while wearing an Egyptian costume of Amut the Destroyer (121-122; 146-147).8 Part of the reason it is so difficult to determine exactly what Martha believes happened is that she does not always distinguish between her memories and her dreams. In reading her book, one gets the feeling that Martha herself may not be able to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Further, before describing these strange memories/dreams, Martha contends that the very strangeness of these details somehow prove their truth: “The peculiar details of my memories had at first made me doubt myself–they were so weird–but in the end, reinforced my conviction that I hadn’t unconsciously made something up” (146).
Innuendo and an apparently super-developed ability to read facial expressions and minute changes in skin color are among Martha’s main sources of insight. When she confronts her father during a contrived meeting in a hotel room with the question, “What were you doing with all that Egyptian stuff? I mean, when you were performing your ‘Abrahamic sacrifices’ on me?” Martha has her description of Hugh’s facial expression condemn him: “The blow lands right on target; my father flinches, his face flashing an expression that tells me a great deal. It isn’t just frightened. It certainly isn’t confused. It’s knowing, in a way that both chills and reassures me. It tells me that, while I can’t trust him, I can trust my own memory” (121-122). Could it possibly be that Hugh didn’t flinch at all, or if he did, that he flinched because he finds Martha’s words so horribly strange and sad and alarming? Martha’s leading questions and ability to “know” the minds of her interlocutors allow her to drive her points home with a forcefulness and conviction of “accuracy” that any objective reader must see is just not there. Martha writes of several other instances that demonstrate her ability to read the minds of others by the expressions on their faces (e.g., pages 88, 107, 127), and of the precision of her personal skin-color lie detector. She imagines that people turn different shades of blue, depending on the enormity of their lies: “powder blue for small lies, periwinkle for naughty fibs, cobalt for outright deception, and so on to deep navy” (85). When she asks her father about whether he is afraid of death, he replies “of course not,” and “the skin all over his entire body [turns] as blue as his eyes” (88). Such things may convict in Martha’s courtroom, but in the world I live in, most lies and half truths are not so easily revealed.
Another way Martha uses innuendo is by creating a causal chain of (often erroneously reported) events and then letting the reader draw a conclusion. In one instance, after leading the reader through a series of misreported events that hint that one of her sisters may be consciously or unconsciously aware of the abuse, Martha adds “but I’m trained as a social scientist, which means that I try very hard not to jump to conclusions” (207). It appears, however, that she is more than happy for her readers to jump to conclusions for her.
Another frustrating methodological choice that Martha made with this memoir is that she never gives the real names of anyone with the exception of her, John, and their children. Members of her family of origin are all referred to as “my sister,” “my brother,” “my father,” or “my mother.” But everyone else gets a pseudonym, even people who were in the public spotlight and whose cases were well-known at the time. I found this terribly frustrating, partly because it kept pulling me out of the narrative to speculate as to who each person was, and partly because it made it impossible to corroborate many of the details in this book. I understand the need to use pseudonyms to protect some individuals from embarrassment or to prevent legal action against Martha or her publisher, but why use pseudonyms for everyone? Particularly since Martha makes such serious allegations, one would think she’d want some witnesses to back up her words. But even her “witnesses”–her two cousins hiding in the hotel room with a tape recorder–are not named.
At one point in the book, Martha’s use of a pseudonym is downright disingenuous. After an altercation with her first therapist, Martha decided to go to another one who had been recommended to her. “Let’s call her Dr. Rachel Grant,” Martha writes on page 234. On the same page, she describes sitting in the waiting room before her first appointment with this woman and “second-guessing [her] decision” to see this therapist, “wonder[ing] if Dr. Grant was descended from former Mormon president Heber J. Grant.” This gives Martha a narrative opening to tell a terribly funny family story about how her grandfather would accompany on the piano the tone-deaf President Grant when he sang and then change keys “in the middle of the prophet’s performances, creating excruciating discord as the prophet sang obliviously onward” (234-235). It is a good story. Almost good enough for us to forget that the name Rachel Grant is a pseudonym that Martha gave this therapist only a few sentences earlier. This account of her inner mind can be nothing but fiction.
A deep paranoia permeates Martha’s narrative. Granted, the events Martha describes would be harrowing, if true, but the conspiracy she describes seems to be straight out of The X-Files or An Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism. Martha begins to get threatening notes from students (223); she is then called in by her department chair after a student sends an anonymous letter to the General Authorities (237); she then receives threatening anonymous phone calls (241); she and John then hear a “strange, intermittent clicking sound” on their phones and “discover that their phone line had been crossed with another line inside a phone junction box at the nearby Mormon chapel” (233). They have the line repaired, but it starts “clicking” again. One day, she picks up the phone to hear a strange voice threaten, “I think that people who speak out against the Gospel shouldn’t be members. They should be dis-membered,” the voice pausing to emphasize the “clever word play” (234). Dissident Mormons worry about parking their cars near Martha’s house because they don’t want their license plates to be “written down by the Strengthening the Membership Committee” (251), and Martha worries about the “foul play perpetrated by Utah’s lunatic fringe, which pop up in the back pages of Utah newspapers on a regular basis” (224). One friend tells Martha, “If you do what it takes to get over this thing [the abuse], the Mormon Church is going to ruin your life” (236). After learning that Martha intended to write this book, one ex-Mormon friend from Utah responds “without a trace of levity,” “They’ll kill you” (191).
The stake president who comes to visit after John has had his name removed from the Church’s records threatens them that, “Bad things happen” to children of “apostate parents” (259). Martha even resurrects the Danites, stating that “every now and then, Utah papers record murders with uniquely Mormon flavoring (death by temple-sanctioned methods, for example) and the word that goes out on the Latter-day grapevine is Danite” (190). “I suspected that even though the Mormon powers that be might not actually threaten my life, they would probably try to ruin it,” Martha intones. “Yes, these suspicions were outlandish. Yes, they were paranoid. And yes, they were completely accurate” (182). While I know some of these things have happened to some individuals (e.g., Hugh Nibley received threats after publishing some of his social commentary), the extreme nature of what Martha describes is truly incredible.
Challenges to Martha’s Accounts
The most serious problems with this book, however, are Martha’s persistent hyperbolic assertions and outright distortions of fact. Martha’s previous memoir, Expecting Adam, caused family members and many friends to raise eyebrows when they read events they had witnessed described in such exaggerated, often unrecognizable, ways. For example, when Martha described taking a year off from Harvard to read texts from Western philosophy and world religions after an existential crisis (Expecting Adam 169), family members and close friends knew that she had taken the year off because of an anorexic breakdown, which caused her parents to make her come home and enter therapy, and that the reading assignments were all from a BYU honors colloquium she had audited during the time she was in Provo. When Martha said she was an atheist by the time she left for Harvard, these same family and friends were confused that an atheist had attended Church regularly, married in the Temple, and written an essay on maintaining faith for the Ensign. During this period, Martha had also co-authored a book with her husband, published by Church-owned Deseret Book, on recovering from compulsive behaviors like anorexia, drug addiction, and homosexuality by implementing gospel principles. The authors also bore their testimony that they “accept as inspired the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (xi).9
Furthermore, family members were shocked by the unkind way Martha portrayed them and their reaction to her news about Adam having Down syndrome. In that book, Martha describes her father laughing in a “loud, long, forced guffaw” and her brother commenting on how if retarded people were allowed to marry “the half-brains in question should at least be voluntarily sterilized” (243). Family members found this to be an unrecognizable and uncharitable description of their very real acceptance of her and her baby, and their sincere respect for her choice not to abort. Likewise, Martha’s ex-husband John states in a note to me that his father and family were offended by the way she characterized them in the book. “My Dad and Mom were so sensitive to Adam–my Dad went out and got books on Down syndrome as soon as he heard the diagnosis–and [Martha] made them look like fools.” Furthermore, Martha’s characterization of “Goatstroke,” the overly demanding and mean-spirited Harvard professor, cost John a wonderful friendship. The real “Goatstroke,” John writes, “got Martha into her Sociology program, and was always helpful and kind to her.” Upon reading the book, this professor “was devastated by her characterization” and “my relationship with him–which was very strong–was ruined forever as well [as hers].” 10
Martha begins and ends Expecting Adam by assuring readers that the events related therein are factual. “I didn’t fictionalize anything. It’s all true,” states Martha (7). The “author’s note” at the end of the book reassures readers again that it is not a work of fiction, that she is telling the truth, that the material has come straight from her journals, that she has had others read the book to verify that the facts are straight, and that she has been trained by Harvard as a Sociologist to accurately tell “just the facts” (327-328). Granted the story told in that book is extraordinary, but few memoirs go so far to assure us of their veracity. One had to wonder whether it was the reader or Martha herself she was trying to convince. Indeed, her ex-husband later confessed that he felt troubled by that book. “She wrote it as fiction first,” John writes. “It was rejected over and over again. So her editor suggested writing it as non-fiction. She changed very little in it as she transformed it to ‘non-fiction.’ Many parts were clearly fiction (but now with our actual names attached to them).” John continues, “So it makes me wonder about [Leaving the Saints] as well.”
It was 1991 when Martha first told her family that she believed she was a victim of abuse. When confronted with this charge, Martha’s siblings and her mother did not dismiss it out of hand, but assessed its strengths and weaknesses, and, especially as the story’s details grew, came to doubt its veracity. Since that time, they have been wondering, “where did thatcome from?” After all, the Nibley home was incredibly small, with eight children and the two parents packed tightly in a small brick house just south of BYU campus. During the years in question, Martha shared a room with two of her sisters, neither of whom had any memories of abuse. Bedroom doors were left open, the parents’ bedroom was right next to the girls’ room, and Phyllis was an incredibly light sleeper who would wake at the first hint of a child in distress. Teenage children were coming and going at all hours of the day and night. There was little privacy and no chance for secrecy. No one had any memory of any inappropriate contact between Hugh and Martha. The children all know their mother was not the kind of dominated housewife to allow one of her children to be hurt while she was present. They know that differing intellectual and personal views were not only allowed in their home, but encouraged. And some of them have had regrets and anger about the way their father–obsessed with his research and writing, and constantly in demand to lecture, to write, and to travel–neglected them in their youth. Martha’s siblings range from agnostic to believing Mormon. And each of them is extremely forthright about family problems. Yet each of them, on their own terms, came to doubt Martha’s story.11
After the publication of Leaving the Saints, many of Martha’s readers will likely be asking the same “where did that come from?” question Martha’s family has been asking. One has to doubt the reliability of Martha’s memory when we confront the internal inconsistencies in this book. Some events recounted in this memoir seem implausible but cannot be verified one way or the other. For example, Martha claims that when she was working on her dissertation, she went to the BYU library and discovered that someone had censored all the articles about Mormon dissident Sonia Johnson from the newspapers (83). I cannot prove this didn’t happen, but it seems highly unlikely. Just by searching the library’s online catalogue, one gets over forty hits for information on Sonia Johnson, and Johnson’s book Housewife to Heretic is located in both special collections and in the general stacks where any undergraduate can check it out. While I have not checked the microfiche that Martha refers to (and can’t, since she doesn’t give specific dates and articles she couldn’t find), I have consulted with several librarians who have been at the Harold B. Lee Library for many years and they all tell me that no effort has ever been made to censor information from newspaper articles.
Some less important details also give one pause, like when Martha’s Utah Valley hair stylist “checked her left hand for a wedding ring, then reported [her] request [to have her hair cut “boy short”] to the owner of the salon, who asked [her] to call [her] husband to ascertain that [she] had his permission to change [her] hairstyle” (193). I have no idea whether this detail is true or not, but my wife has changed her hair style many times, most recently she got it cut extremely short, and I have never had a stylist seek my permission, nor has my wife reported such a strange request being made. Or when Martha says their ward’s Primary president tried to lure their daughter, Katie, to get baptized after John had left the Church by bribing her with cookies and telling her about a “baptism party” at the Church building (274). Again, this cannot be verified, but it just doesn’t sound right. I served as a ward mission leader for a couple of years and know that you cannot baptize a minor without his or her parents’ consent.
More importantly, Martha describes Hugh’s “episode of amnesia,” and states that she “talked with the neurosurgeon who examined [her] father during the spate of forgetfulness” who told her that “there was no stroke, no brain lesion, no physiological explanation at all” and “concluded that the amnesia was psychogenic, a mental mist that rose from some psychological or emotional conflict too intense for [her] father to bear” (21). I have no idea who Martha spoke with, and unfortunately both doctors who attended Hugh at that time are now dead, but several things ring untrue about the way she describes this event. First of all, Martha distorts the events surrounding this episode by stating that Hugh was “supposed to deliver an address on certain issues related to Mormonism and Egyptology” (21). The event in question was a BYU forum that took place on 21 May 1974, in which Hugh was interviewed by Louis Midgley. Hugh was extremely nervous about this interview. It was held in the BYU Marriott Center (BYU’s basketball stadium) and was going to be completely spontaneous, no note cards, no prewritten text, and no prearranged questions. Midgley’s goal was to capture the spontaneity of Hugh’s wit. Hugh is good with “off the cuff” comments, but when appearing before a crowd, he always had note cards or a prepared text to read from. All these factors had Hugh feeling extremely anxious about the event. During the interview, all sorts of topics were discussed, including the temple, education, the environment, and politics. Hugh did briefly refer to Egyptian texts, but it was hardly the focus of his remarks.12
I have shared Martha’s description of this event with a medical school faculty member at Indiana University who thought that the way Martha describes these events is overstatement. First, it was highly unlikely that a neurosurgeon would be consulted unless there were “some sort of surgical lesion,” and family members confirm that the two doctors who saw Hugh at this time were internists, not neurosurgeons. Second, Martha is correct that the most likely prognosis for Hugh’s symptoms was not a stroke since there were no other symptoms besides the amnesia, but this “amnesia” is usually brought on by stress, not some “mental mist” arising from emotional or psychological conflict. The stress of the upcoming Forum was clearly sufficient to induce this condition. I also find it highly suspect that a neurosurgeon would deem it appropriate to discuss the cause of this amnesia with Martha, either at the time (she would have been only eleven) or years after the event. I tried to get information from doctors about Hugh for my “authorized” biography, and all of them told me that it would breach medical ethics to speak with me without signed authorization from their patient. Finally, I doubt any serious neurosurgeon would be willing, or feel competent, to diagnose a psychological explanation as detailed and complex as Martha describes.13
Some events described in Leaving the Saints are disputed outright by Martha’s siblings, her ex-husband, and unrelated witnesses who either were present when the events took place or were confidants of Martha’s at the time. For example, Martha maintains that after she began to “recover these memories” one of her “chief criteria for choosing” her first therapist, whom she names Mona, was to find someone who “didn’t know [her] father from Bonzo the Chimp” (162). Martha claims that she “nearly choked on [her] fibrillating heart and was hugely relieved when [Mona] actually accepted [her] memories without so much as a twitch.” (210). This is disingenuous. In conversations Martha had with her sisters at the time, Martha told them that she had read many self-help books, performed self-hypnosis to “discover” the hidden memories of incest, and then sought out a therapist who “specialized” in recovered memories of sexual abuse. She also tried to persuade her sisters and husband to use the same techniques to discover hidden trauma. “Martha always was hypnotizing herself and trying to hypnotize me,” states John. “She tried getting me to go under on multiple occasions. I guess I was a tough subject.”14 The therapist that Martha calls Mona in her book (who met with Martha’s sisters and a brother in therapy session she describes in her “Gang Bang” chapter) was Lynne Finney, who had in 1990 already published her book Reach for the Rainbow, which claims to help survivors “recover memories” of abuse and provides “advanced healing for survivors of sexual abuse.” Clearly Martha knew she was going to someone who would accept her stories, and to say that she was shocked that Mona believed her and that her only thought was to find someone who didn’t know her father is not telling the whole truth.15
Two of the central points of the book are also disputed by Martha’s now ex-husband, John Beck. Martha describes in quite explicit detail scars that she maintains confirm her having been abused. However, John Beck states that at the time of her Harvard premarital exam, “Martha never claimed the doctor saw scars. He just asked what kind of contraception she’d been using up to that point. When she said she wasn’t having sex, he gave her a disbelieving look.” This could be simply because he couldn’t believe that she was not sexually active since she was college age and engaged to be married. And in a later exam, a Provo doctor not only did not notice scars, but he warned Martha to start “loosening up” so that sexual intercourse would not be uncomfortable. If the Harvard doctor saw anything to indicate previous sexual experience, John suggests it may have been caused by a neighbor boy who molested her when she was a young girl. This incident in itself could very well be the source of the memories that Martha has come to embellish with strange details and to associate with her father. While several of her sisters knew about the molestation from the time it happened, John never learned about it until the early 1990s, when Martha began having memories of abuse. “After she told me about the neighbor incident, she never doubted that memory,” states John. “But she often expressed doubt about her memories of her father abusing her.” He stresses Martha’s reluctance to believe herself, “She literally said to me on many occasions: ‘I’m such a bad person to have made up those terrible memories about my father.'” John characterizes the fact that she does not mention this incident of sexual molestation by the neighbor in the book as “a huge ‘oversight.'”16
Another detail that John disputes is Martha’s claim that she and John left the Church because of their growing dissatisfaction with the way the hierarchy was silencing dissidents. Martha’s presentations at the BYU Women’s Conferences in 1992 and 1993, which are published in the official proceedings, certainly do not reveal any great disenchantment with the Church or its leaders. In her 1993 presentation, Martha argues that Mormon women need to learn to be stronger, speak the whole truth, and listen to the spirit of Christ. There is no sense of paranoia in the talk, no sense of Martha being disillusioned with the Church or its teachings, and no hint of her being abused. Parts of the talk, where she tells the audience not to believe anything she says (93), and where she talks about a study by Solomon Asch (87), sound like material mentioned in Leaving the Saints, but all are given a very Mormon context in the speech.17
There was, however, another reason for Martha and John’s leaving the Church: their sexual orientation. Until recently, Martha has only hinted about this detail, and she does not reveal it in the book, but has outed herself on the book’s web site, and John states that, “One of the reasons we both left the Church is because we are gay.” He continues, “Martha’s leaving the Church was very tied up with the affair (mostly emotional affair, but some physicality involved) that she was having at that time.” John stresses that both Martha’s affair and her sexual abuse by the neighbor boy are “huge variables,” and “if she were doing a regression analysis as a sociologist, she’d have to include them in the equation to explain the correlations.”18
There are too many other events that are disputed by family and friends to cover here. But Martha’s characterizations of Phyllis as “the reigning terror of [her] childhood” (45), of Martha being the “favorite target” of Hugh’s “violent temper” (125), of Hugh having war “flashbacks” (89), of Phyllis corroborating the abuse and then denying it (130-131), of Church leaders frequenting the Nibley home (31), of Hugh never speaking of his near-death experience (85), of Phyllis never babysitting Martha’s children (99), of there being a family motto of not touching any child over four (119), of the Beck’s phones being tapped (233), of Phyllis not liking the word “mom” (139), of Hugh being afraid of death (88-89), of the Church “controlling” and “owning” Hugh (169), of Hugh being concerned with money (148), as well as other details, are contested by siblings, friends, parents, and her ex-husband.
Other events described in the book are disputed by the facts. For example, in Chapter 24 of Leaving the Saints, Martha asserts that she met a man who “had a job for [her] dad’s publisher” as “one of the flunkies who checked his footnotes” (165). This “Man in Tweed” told Martha that her father “makes [his footnotes] all up,” that “conservatively 90 percent of them” are not real. “I helped cover it up,” he says (166). She asserts that this man gave her a list of other note checkers and that she “contacted them all and heard unanimous confirmation that a great many of the footnotes in his works were splendiferously fictional” (169). I have contacted many of the note checkers and editors of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (I cannot contact “Tweedy” since I have no idea who he is), and they all confirm that, while Hugh has been sloppy–at times mistranslating a text or overstating his case–he does not make up his sources.19
Martha also reports that BYU professors were told not to publish in “alternate voice” journals–which she describes as anything from “the Christian Science Monitor to Hustler” (79). In fact, BYU professors are encouraged and their tenure status requires them to publish in peer-reviewed academic journals. The only places where there is any concern for BYU professors is when they publish in Sunstone or Dialogue, journals that some Church leaders apparently feel may undermine the mission of the Church. However, BYU professors still dopublish in these journals. I have published in both and continue to teach part-time at BYU, and the lead story for the October 2004 issue of Sunstone was written by Duane E. Jeffery of the BYU Biology department.20
Martha also writes that BYU would “have a hard time legally firing [her] from [her] job. [She] was a known rebel, but still a member of the BYU faculty” (259). This is also false. Martha was part-time faculty at BYU. As a part-time faculty member of BYU’s Honors program, I know that we are hired on a semester-to-semester basis at the will of the department and university. If there are no sections to teach, I get no contract. If I say or do something in the classroom that is inappropriate, they can choose not to offer me another contract. There are no promises, no long-term contracts, no benefits, and no tenure track for part-time faculty. BYU can choose not to offer a contract to any part-time faculty member at any time and it is perfectly legal, as it is at any other school, public or private.
Martha claims that after the Joseph Smith Papyri were acquired by the Church on 27 November 1967 “the papyri were kept under lock and key, shown only to those who could be absolutely trusted to support Joseph Smith” (158). This grossly distorts the truth. While few people got to see the papyri themselves (it is not uncommon for libraries not to show ancient documents to just anyone since they are extremely fragile), the Church did publish, “with commendable promptness” as non-Mormon Egyptologist Klaus Baer stated, sepia-tinted photographs of the papyri in the Church magazine the Improvement Era of February 1968, less than three months after the Church acquired them. Baer, writing to Jerald and Sandra Tanner, called the reproductions “quite good ones” and stated that the timely publication was especially impressive “when you consider that such an important Egyptological discovery as the Abusir papyri was jealously guarded by assorted public and private owners for 75 years during which they neither studied them nor let anyone else work with them.”21
Martha also maintains that her father “had never studied Egyptian” and that it was only after the discovery of the papyri that he was “hustled off to study Egyptian with experts at the University of Chicago” (158). It appears she got these false ideas from Charles Larson’s book, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri.22 Both of these details are wrong and unfair. It is impossible to pin down exactly when Hugh first began studying Egyptian; he maintains he first started dabbling in the language in 1927 at the age of seventeen. It is clear, however, that Hugh was working with Egyptian texts in his Ph.D. dissertation in 1938, and in articles he published in 1945, 1948, 1949, and 1956.23 He spent a sabbatical during the 1959/1960 academic year teaching at Berkeley and studying Egyptian with Klaus Baer. And his 1966/1967 sabbatical at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago was actually completed by the time the papyri had been discovered.24
The most amusing disputable “fact” Martha provides is her claim that men at BYU are required to wear socks “on the premise that the hair on human ankles can be thought of as an extension of pubic hair” (77-78). While socks were part of the BYU dress and grooming standards between 1982 and 1992 (they are no longer mentioned), the only official justification for the rule was to “reflect the language” of the Church’s For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. The pubic hair justification is nothing more than BYU folklore that Martha presents as fact.25
Martha states that a “family code” prevents her siblings from believing her, that she is “the traitor to our family’s code of conduct, the enemy of everything we once stood for together. [Their] father was [their] claim to fame, [their] saving glory. Turning against him in such a shocking way was like using a burning flag to set fire to our supreme commander” (217). I find this to be a grossly unfair accusation. I came from a family that did keep secrets–nothing major, but my parents cared deeply that the neighbors not know that they didn’t live by “cookie-cutter Mormon” codes. I was absolutely shocked when I married into the Nibley family, because if there is anything bad to be said about the family, it is the Nibley family that will say it. They will tell you exactly which members are disenchanted with or have left the Church; they will tell you that they grew up in a messy house where Hugh’s idea of yard work consisted of mowing carefully around the dandelions; they will tell you that their father would add yeast to the apple cider to make it “virtuous”; and they will wax eloquent about their own neuroses and personal hang-ups. They will tell you very openly about every dysfunction of their family–and their efforts to overcome them. The fact that none of Martha’s siblings support her claims of incest is the result, not of some family code, but of her siblings finding her claims simply unbelievable.
Martha’s “desperate thirst for data in any area related to [her] father” (3) is also disingenuous, since she quite obviously never read any of her father’s correspondence, never interviewed any of his colleagues and friends, never watched the documentary made by her brother, and read only one page–the one referring to her allegations, which she also misrepresents–of my biography. In addition to distorting details of Hugh’s Egyptian studies and episode of amnesia, most of the details of Hugh’s life she gets wrong, including his war stories, near death experience, and “5-o-clocks” (which were prescient moments, not flashbacks). And Martha’s lack of familiarity with Hugh’s writings and thought is simply astounding. (Although one is tempted to believe she used her father’s satirical “How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book: A Handbook for Beginners” as a writing manual.)26 Martha writes about a man she knows only through her own very muddied, memories. And, given her unreliability in on so many fronts, I would suggest that her accusations are of things that only happened in her very troubled mind.
Martha describes herself in several places as being committed to solid scholarship and persuaded only by evidence: “Thus began my love affair with evidence,” (5); “I followed the Baconian model of believing nothing until it was proven true” (9); “I became almost maniacally committed to…precise wording and conditional assertion” (209); “My strict sociological education served me well in investigating the return of my repressed memories” (209). Throughout this book, as with her other books, it is obvious that she distorts the record as much as or more than she reports it, jumps to conclusions more than provides evidence leading to conclusions, and blurs fact and fantasy. But to stick to the facts requires more than simply assuring readers that you do. You actually have to stick to them, something it seems Martha seldom does.
Considering the serious nature of her allegations, it seems strange that Martha is not more careful in recounting her story. As readers confront the hyperbolic language, the inaccurate characterizations of Mormons, the factual errors, and distortions in this book, I believe they will be forced to conclude that Martha Beck is not a reliable narrator. She is, however, a fabulous storyteller. Perhaps we can learn something from Fawn Brodie, who once wrote that, “A man’s memory is bound to be a distortion of his past in accordance with his present interests, and the most faithful autobiography is likely to mirror less what a man was than what he has become.”27 Martha has a very different life now than she did when she and her now ex-husband collaborated on Breaking the Cycles of Compulsive Behavior. To retell her past in such a distorted way may be nothing more than a heart-breaking attempt to justify her leaving the Saints.
|Editor’s note. A follow-up to this rebuttal, presented by Boyd Petersen at the 2005 FAIR Conference can be found at this page.|
1 Martha Beck, Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith (New York: Crown, 2005).
2 Kirkus Reviews (15 December 2004): 1174.
3 The one exception to this is Martha’s treatment of the history of the Joseph Smith papyri, where she does give a fairly detailed account; however, here she appears to rely mostly on Charles Larson’s By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri (Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 1985 rpt. 1992) and she repeats several of Larson’s mistakes.
4 Boyd Jay Petersen, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2002).
5 “Getting Ready to Begin” BYU Studies 8.3 (Spring 1968): 245-247.
6 “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price” ran in the Improvement Era from January 1968 through May 1970; “Phase One,” Dialogue 3.2 (Summer 1968): 99-105; “Prolegomena to Any Study of the Book of Abraham,” BYU Studies 8.2 (Winter 1968): 171-178; “Fragment Found in Salt Lake City,” BYU Studies 8.2 (Winter 1968): 191-194; “Getting Ready to Begin,” BYU Studies 8.3 (Spring 1968): 245-254; “As Things Stand at the Moment,” BYU Studies 9.1 (Autumn 1968): 69-102; “What Is ‘The Book of Breathings?’,” BYU Studies 11.2 (Winter 1971): 153-187; “The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers,” BYU Studies 11.4 (Summer 1971): 350-399.
7 The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1975). Martha is acknowledged for her help “drawing some of the pictures” on page xiii. See my treatment of the events surrounding the discovery of the Joseph Smith Papyri in Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, 314-324.
8 Since this response was first written, Martha has objected to this characterization of her memories, stating that it makes light of her allegations. If I made this assumption, I was not alone. Many of the early reviews mentioned it. While there is nothing explicitly linking the dream sequence about Amut the Destroyer and the ritual abuse described in Leaving the Saints, the way Martha tells the story implies a causal chain of related events.
On page 146, Martha asks Hugh “But I’m not at all clear how the Egyptian stuff ties in… It was so bizarre. Do you remember that?” Then she says “the peculiar details of my memories had at first made me doubt myself-they were so weird-but in the end, reinforced my conviction that I hadn’t unconsciously made something up.” She then states that “the flashes of memory included hearing him mention Egypt repeatedly, and this aspect of my memories baffled me at first.” Then she discusses her nightmare of Amut the Destroyer standing outside her room. Then she talks about later encountering her “nemesis” in a child’s book. Then she talks about asking her father “do you remember my alligator dreams? … The nightmares I had every week or two?” She says that his response was that she “was being pursued by an evil spirit.”
As Meier Sternberg (or any Reader Response theorist for that matter) would argue, every act of reading is a process of gap filling, of putting together pieces of information that make sense of the text. And every reader is forced to make sense of a text by following the directions given by the writer. Here Martha may or may not have intentionally wanted us to believe that her father wore an Egyptian costume while he was supposed to have abused her, but the causal chain produced by juxtaposing this material together certainly leads the reader to this conclusion. If it is a misreading, it is a result of sloppy writing not of sloppy reading.
9 See Martha Nibley Beck “Cultivating Faith: LDS Students at New England Universities,” Ensign (July 1984), 32-36. Martha Nibley Beck and John C. Beck, Breaking the Cycles of Compulsive Behavior (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1990).
10 Personal e-mail, John Beck to Boyd Petersen, 8 January 2005. In fact, Martha’s paper trail of exaggeration goes back to her very first published article, “A Tale of Two Universities,” which appeared in BYU Today (November 1982). There she compared the intellectual rigor and “Creeping Cynicism” of Harvard with the “safety” and intellectual indolence of BYU, where she was attending while taking her year off to get counseling for anorexia. For example, she described a comparative literature class where overwhelmed students complained about being given a syllabus with a whole page of readings. Comparing it to Harvard, Martha lamented, “I can check out some supplementary stuff to make this feel like a class” (5). Her credibility was tweaked by a letter to the editor from George Tate, then chair of the department of Humanities and Comparative Literature, in the March 1983 issue of BYU Today. Tate confessed that Martha’s essay was “delightful, reflective, and remarkably mature,” but objected to Martha’s “distortion of fact” since the syllabus was, in fact, four pages long, and “the teacher of the course received his training at Harvard before coming to BYU, and if anything characterizes his teaching, it is a conscious effort to transplant the best of the Harvard tradition to BYU” (49).
11 Furthermore, it was with the full knowledge and support of Hugh, Phyllis, and other family members that I included these accusations in my Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, 400. A family that feels it has something to hide does not make such revelations public. In a recent review of my biography, D. Michael Quinn stated that “including this discussion in an ‘authorized biography’ is an ultimate example of the dedication to honest history by Hugh Nibley, his wife, and their children. Journal of Mormon History 30.2 (Fall 2004): 261.
12 A transcript of the event is available through FARMS as “Nibley the Scholar,” FARMS Preliminary Report.
13 Russell D. Meldrum e-mail to Boyd Petersen, 20 January 2005; 21 January 2005. This doctor described a similar episode he encountered in his professional duties. The daughter of one of his patients was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and the stress of this situation proved too much for the mother, so she “forgot” that she had a daughter. The situation at hand can easily bring on the symptoms of amnesia.
14 John Beck to Boyd Petersen, 17 January 2005.
15 Following the “memory wars” of the 1990s, Finney is now a “retired psychotherapist” who bills herself as an “author, educator, life coach, motivational speaker, [and] lawyer.” See her web page http://lynnefinney.com/about.htm.
16 Personal e-mail, John Beck to Boyd Petersen, 8 January 2005; 18 January 2005; and 8 February 2005.
17 “Adult Spiritual Development: A Conversation with Francine R. Bennion and Martha Beck,” Women and Christ: Living the Abundant Life, edited by Dawn Hall Anderson, Susette Fletcher Green, and Marie Cornwall (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Comapny, 1993), 145-166; “Invincible Summer: Finding Grace Within,” Women in the Covenant of Grace, edited by Dawn Hall Anderson and Susette Fletcher Green (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1994), 79-94.
18 Personal e-mail, John Beck to Boyd Petersen, 8 January 2005; 8 February 2005. Although Martha has not been terribly eager to share this information, I want to be clear that I am not “outing” her. She hinted at this detail on the dust jacket to Expecting Adam, which states “She lives in Phoenix with her husband, three children, and best friend, Karen.” In an article published for Salon.com, she wrote about buying a house with both John and Karen and described Karen as being “her other mother,” someone who is naturally able to nurture both Martha and Martha’s children (http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/1999/05/04/karen/ index.html). Even though Martha never discusses this in Leaving the Saints, the web site accompanying the book states that Martha “lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her three teenagers; her partner of ten years, Karen Gerdes, a professor of social work; and their two dogs” (http://leavingthesaints.com/author.html).
19 Personal e-mail, Todd Compton to Boyd Petersen, 8 January 2005; Glen Cooper to Boyd Petersen, 25 December 2004; William Hamblin to Boyd Petersen, 24 December 2004; Stephen Ricks to Boyd Petersen, 9 January 2005; John Gee to Boyd Petersen, 27 December 2004.
Likely the most damning review of Hugh’s scholarly work has been Kent P. Jackson’s review of Old Testament and Related Studies, Volume 1 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, which appeared in BYU Studies 28.4 (1988): 114-118. In that review, Jackson critiques Nibley’s “tendency to gather sources from a variety of cultures all over the ancient world, lump them all together, and then pick and choose the bits and pieces he wants” and to read into these sources things that “simply don’t seem to be there” (115). He says Hugh takes phrases out of context, didn’t provide sufficient documentation for some sources, provides documentation “overkill” on others, and doesn’t give sufficient evidence for some of his assertions. Additionally, Jackson took Nibley to task for his sarcasm and name-calling, “which have no place in serious scholarship” (116). But in all of this, Jackson never hints that Nibley simply “made up” his sources.
John Gee recently completed a statistical analysis of one of Hugh’s articles chosen at random to establish the accuracy of the footnotes. In looking at Hugh’s essay, “Victoriosa Loquacitas: The Rise of Rhetoric and the Decline of Everything Else” as it appeared in its original form in Western Speech 20 (1956): 57-82 (reprinted in The Ancient State [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company and FARMS, 1991]: 243-286) Gee discovered that “87% of the footnotes were completely correct, 8% of the footnotes contained typographical errors, 5% were wrong in some other way (e.g. frequently right author, right page, wrong title). In no case could I determine that any of the errors in the footnotes was intentional or that any of the footnotes were fabrications” (personal e-mail, John Gee to Boyd Petersen, 13 January 2005).
In a later study Gee analyzed the footnotes in one of Hugh’s Egyptian works, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1975). Selecting a chapter from the book at random (Chapter 3, the second-longest chapter in the book), Gee found that “94% of the citations were correct, 4% were typographical errors, and 2% were wrong.” It was Gee’s determination that “the results seem to show that Nibley was more accurate when dealing with a Mormon topic, that his Egyptian work was more accurate than his classics work, and that his work on Message was better than normal, not worse.” Further, Gee stated that “I have never seen any case where Hugh Nibley ever fabricated or made up a source. After looking up thousands of citations, I have seen him make just about every mistake I think one could make, but I have never seen him make up anything” (personal e-mail, John Gee to Boyd Petersen, 14 March 2005).
Todd Compton wrote me that he “was very disillusioned with Nibley’s scholarship when I checked his footnotes carefully. However, I believe he was misinterpreting, not making things up. Furthermore, I believe that saying that 90% of his footnotes were wrong is a wild overstatement, based on my experience editing Mormonism and Early Christianity.” As William Hamblin has pointed out, “sloppiness is not dishonesty; it is not good, but it is not fraud” (personal e-mail, William Hamblin to Boyd Petersen, 12 January 2005).
20 Duane E. Jeffery, “Noah’s Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions,” Sunstone, October 2004, 27-45.
21 Klaus Baer to Jerald and Sandra Tanner, 13 August 1968, copy in my possession.
22Charles Larson, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Institute for Religious Research, 1985, rpt. 1992) states falsely that Hugh studied Egyptian only after he learned about the papyri (54). While it is unclear exactly when Hugh first learned for certain of the papyri’s existence, the first time he discussed rumors of the papyri’s existence is in 1962 in his correspondence with Klaus Baer; Baer wrote Hugh in 1963, after hearing rumors about what he believed was another set of papyri (see my discussion of these events in Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, 314-324. While she does not name the sources she used for her research, Martha recommends Larson’s book on the book’s accompanying web page at http://leavingthesaints.com/bboard.html.
23 See Hugh Nibley, Roman Games as Survival of an Archaic Year Cult Diss. Berkeley, 1939; “Sparsiones” Classical Journal 40 (1945): 515-543 (reprinted in The Ancient State [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company and FARMS, 1991], 148-194); “The Book of Mormon as a Mirror of the East” Improvement Era (April 1948): 202-204; 249-251 (essentially reprinted as “Men of the East” in Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There were Jaredites [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company and FARMS, 1988]: 25-42; “The Arrow, the Hunter, and the State” Western Political Quarterly 2 (1949): 328-344 (reprinted in The Ancient State 1-32); and “Egypt Revisited” Improvement Era (March-June 1956): 150-152+ (reprinted inLehi in the Desert, 308-349). Thanks to John Gee for his research on Hugh’s use of Egyptian, which he published in his review of Larson’s book “A Tragedy of Errors,” FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 4 (1992): 93-119.
24 Hugh surely suspected the papyri’s existence as early as 1962 when he wrote to Klaus Baer that “recent evidence has been claimed that [the Joseph Smith Papyri] escaped the [Chicago] fire and are still kicking around somewhere” (10 August 1962). By March 1963, Hugh wrote Baer, “Somebody here has just located a pile of unpublished and unknown Egyptian manuscripts that were in the possession of Joseph Smith. I haven’t seen them yet, but there may be something significant” (29 March 1963). Baer was, at the same time, apparently aware of the papyri’s existence. Baer later stated that he saw photographs of the papyri as early as 1963 (Klaus Baer to Jerald Tanner, 13 August 1968). So it is very likely that by the time his 1966/67 sabbatical rolled around, Hugh was aware that the papyri existed and that the Church might acquire them. However, Baer later wrote that he doubted “very much that [Hugh’s] stay in Chicago had anything to do with purchasing the papyri” (Klaus Baer to Wesley P. Walters, 29 August 1967). Regardless, to suggest that Hugh’s interest in and study of Egyptian began after the papyri were acquired is completely incorrect.
25 See Kallee Nielsen “Modesty a given for most students,” BYU Newsnet, 15 March 2002, http://newsnet.byu.edu/story.cfm/37652/1121. Just to be certain, I spoke with Gordon Daines, the University Archivist at BYU, about this allegation. He went through all the relevant official papers from the period on the honor code and found nothing about pubic hair and socks.
26 Found in Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company and FARMS, 1991): 474-580.
27 Fawn McKay Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, second edition (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1986), 275.