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, Martha Beck, a sociologist and therapist, recovered memories in 1990 of her ritual sexual abuse more than 20 years earlier by her father, 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.”
Alex Nibley, one of eight Nibley children, said in a statement that his father had been aware of Beck’s accusations for several years and maintained that they are false. As part of a defense of their father, 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: “Martha Beck’s book is seriously flawed in the way it depicts the Church, its members and teachings. Fair-minded readers will find it at best unconvincing, at worst mean-spirited and at times absurd.
“We encourage all who seek an understanding of the Church and the gospel of Jesus Christ to read and study works by reputable authors and scholars, together with the scriptures, in order to build their understanding of the truth,” the statement said.
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 Beck, who has a doctorate from Harvard.
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 past 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.”
Leaving the Saints, 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 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, Beck said, and the incident was interrupted by her father, who was in the neighbor’s house at the time. She said the incident was cut in the editing of her book.
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 was sexually abused as a child. In the early 1990s, 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, Beck said she consulted Finney only after having recovered the memories of abuse.
While 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 became openly homosexual, something each acknowledged in interviews.
Abuzz on the Internet
Those and other facets of 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, (http://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, 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 in a sometimes mocking tone that has infuriated many devout Mormons.
“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 my system.”