Takes readers in search of one woman?s truth Oct 21, 2008
“But is it true?” That’s the question that kept repeating in my mind as I eagerly read Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith. Part memoir, part spiritual guidebook, and part religious exposé, this compelling book by Martha Beck centers on the author’s assertion that her father sexually abused her as a child. What makes the accusation particularly scandalous—and the reading particularly intense—is that the author’s father was Hugh Nibley, perhaps the preeminent scholar in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (better known as the Mormon church). Within the world of Mormonism, Hugh Nibley, who died last year at the age of 94, is regarded as a singularly wise and towering figure.
Why would a daughter attempt to fell her Goliath of a father? Is she crazy, or is she right? Throughout Beck’s memoir, I wrestled with such questions. My struggle was compounded by the fact that Beck and I share (and later fled) the same hometown of Provo, Utah. We attended the same high school together and eventually abandoned the same fundamentalist church. We weren’t friends; I’m not sure we even ever conversed. But having such an unusual culture in common caused me to relate very much to her history, which resonated on many levels. Our shared heritage also enabled me to experienced her account from a more critical perspective—the eye of the former Mormon. With that eye, I sometimes wondered whether Beck was a little superlative in relating certain encounters or feelings, causing me to question whether she was playing up occasional scenes for emotional effect. Then again, working your way out of post-traumatic stress and then confronting its perpetrator must be an emotional Everest.
In the end, I realized that Beck wasn’t attempting to topple the giant who was her father. The account of her abuse is the central incident of the book, but that’s not what Leaving the Saints is “about.” The thread that binds the pages together is Beck’s journey to a spiritual center and a personal authenticity. Her life has been more devastating due to the abuse, certainly, and the experience of reconciling her painful past was compounded by the close, constricting culture of Brigham Young University, Provo, and the Mormon church. But Beck’s book is about finding and embracing her own truth. Beck is the only person alive who truly knows whether her accusation is true, and she encourages each reader to decide for themselves. Mormons, non-Mormons, and ex-Mormons alike will find doing so to be a fascinating experience.
For me, reading her account was a process of affirmation. I never felt like Beck was tearing down her father. True, she accused him (while he was alive) of something heinous. True, his legacy is now marred, at very least, by the shadow of her assertion. However, I felt like she, with levelheadedness and even love, was pursuing truth and understanding, not scandal. In the end, that pursuit left her standing outside her beloved family and her cherished, if challenging, hometown culture. But it did leave her standing, firmly planted as a survivor and an advocate for living authentically.