The girl in the 19th-century clothes at the gas station on the Utah-Arizona state line started to change the focus of Jon Krakauer’s book research. The encounter with the unrepentant murderer in the Utah State Prison altered it altogether.
The former Seattle writer had in mind to write a book that he had thought about for years, something about the nature of religious faith, a book that would follow his huge Mount Everest best seller, “Into Thin Air,” and take advantage of his new-found clout with publishers. Krakauer had settled on an examination of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its conflict with its stormy, sensationalist past.
Then came a stop for gasoline in Colorado City, where, in the 104-degree heat, the station attendant turned out to be a girl around 12 who was wearing a long dress with bloomers, as if she were part of some period Western drama. The writer decided to drive around town, where he soon was astonished by a succession of mansions, as well as the police car that tailed him. He returned to the gas station in puzzlement before a guy in a National Park Service truck informed him that this is the main locale of fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy.
The meeting with the murderer followed. Krakauer had written to a convict notorious for two fatal bombings as part of a forgery scam on the LDS Church. The writer heard back instead from the convict’s cellmate, a guy named Dan Lafferty, who told Krakauer, “Believe me, you want to interview me. Because I’m the most fanatical believer you’ll ever meet.”
Krakauer soon sat across a prison table from the media-savvy Lafferty, who asked him, “You want to hear about the murder? In what kind of detail?” No interview that Krakauer had ever done would prove “more upsetting or chilling,” as Lafferty proceeded to calmly detail how he and his
brother Ron had used a 10-inch boning knife to slit the throats of their sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty, and her 15-month-old daughter. Murders these fundamentalist Mormon brothers committed, Dan Lafferty said, because they had been ordered to do so by God (“And it is My will that they be removed …”).
The writer walked out of the prison in stunned disbelief about the way Lafferty had recounted the gruesome murders from 1984 “in such clinical detail that it was as if he was giving directions on how to rebuild an engine.” But Krakauer also knew instinctively that his book would have to focus on fundamentalist Mormons who are not recognized by the church but are still utterly convinced that they are following the central precepts of their faith, including polygamy. And the centerpiece of his book would have to be the Lafferty murders.
“This was the most compelling narrative strand I could find, although I worried about it,” Krakauer said last week from his home in Boulder, Colo. “I didn’t want to do some true-crime book that would be pitched as a lurid murder tale, although I probably failed in that because Lafferty is the most compelling and sensational part of the book — it’s the narrative engine that pulls the rest of it along. But I still see the book as an inquiry into the nature of faith, although a lot of others don’t seem to see it that way.”
Spotlight on church
Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” (Doubleday, 339 pages, $26) is a sweeping, yet relentlessly paced volume with lurid and violent undertones, a complex mix of history, investigative journalism and current-day reportage that may put the Mormon Church and its breakaway fundamentalists under the greatest glare of attention since the world press corps descended on Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“Under the Banner of Heaven” has just debuted near the top the national best-seller lists as a result of Krakauer’s megastar byline, a massive first printing of 350,000 copies and prominent coverage in the national media after a few, selective interviews with the author.
The book’s greatest strength is Krakauer’s brilliant reportage about life inside fundamentalist enclaves, primarily the twin communities of Colorado City-Hildale, with 9,000 fundamentalists along the Utah-Arizona border; and Bountiful, B.C., a town with 700 fundamentalists just across the border from Idaho.
Krakauer writes that life in these communities bears “more than a passing resemblance to life in Kabul under the Taliban.” The fundamentalist prophet/leader’s word is both doctrine and law in these religious city states. Followers are forbidden to watch television or read magazines or newspapers. Only recently, Krakauer related, celebration of the Fourth of July was banned in Colorado City, as were all basketball hoops, both considered immoral.
Polygamy is the norm in these enclaves, despite government laws against it. And the fact that polygamists usually have a marriage license with just one spouse while being “spiritually married” to others means that there are many “single mothers” in the government view.
So one-third of the population of Colorado City receives food stamps and this polygamous community receives more than $6 million annually in funds from the government. This widespread scam is honored by fundamentalists who consider it “bleeding the beast.”
Even more damning is the portrait that Krakauer paints of polygamous families themselves. To outsiders, Mormon polygamy might suggest Norman Rockwell scenes of family life with a few extra places at the dinner table set for additional wives. But in practice polygamy means mandated marriages and the end of schooling for many pubescent girls. These girls, scarcely into their teens, are forced to marry and begin sexual relations with men many times their age, often including near-relatives and stepfathers. Violence and abuse often result, as happened in Bountiful, where one young wife was so traumatized by her marriage that she burned down the house of her abusive husband.
Krakauer stressed, “People might think that if a man wants to live with seven wives, no one should care. It’s not anything that the government should be involved in. But the answer to that is that it is not so much a question of polygamy as the abuse that comes with it. When you have fiftysomething men marrying 13-year-old girls and pulling them out of school in sixth grade, is that freedom of choice? Is that religion? I don’t think so.”
Elizabeth Smart case
Elizabeth Smart‘s rescue from her kidnappers prompted headlines after Krakauer already had finished his manuscript, but he hurriedly researched and wrote an additional chapter on the sensational case. The parallels to what happens with other girls in polygamous marriages were too strong to ignore, especially since Smart’s kidnapper was a Mormon fundamentalist who felt compelled to take her as his “second wife.”
Reports from Salt Lake City after the teen’s rescue were guarded in their descriptions of her ordeal, but Krakauer provides a graphic account of the 14-year-old being forced to disrobe at knifepoint and engage in sexual relations with a 49-year-old stranger only hours after being abducted from her bedroom.
“This was child rape and it does not do anyone a favor to not say what it is,” Krakauer related. “I thought long and hard about that since the girl has gone through hell, but once what happened to her was included in public criminal records, it needs to be said. Her kidnapper may think she was his ‘wife,’ but this was not anything like marriage. It was slavery and rape. If I had left it out of the book, it would have been unforgivable.”
Krakauer alternates chapters on the fundamentalists with chapters on the tumultous and violent history of the early Mormon Church in the 19th century. It is an account that often seems sensationalist, but also happens to be true — from the charismatic presence of founding prophet Joseph Smith (“one of the most remarkable figures ever to have breathed American air,” in Krakauer’s words), a sometimes reckless religious leader who probably had 40 wives and was murdered by a mob; to the infamous Mountain Meadows massacre in which Mormons slaughtered 120 members of an Arkansas wagon train passing through Utah in 1857 on their way to California.
No direct links
“Under the Banner of Heaven” may not establish a direct cause-and-effect link between the more sensational aspects of Mormon history and the course followed by fundamentalists more than a century later, but it certainly suggests haunting similarities in how their beliefs were translated into actions. Krakauer, so long a reporter, leaves it to the reader to draw such conclusions, perhaps a shortcoming for someone who spent three years researching and thinking about his subject and has earned considerable authority as an author.
“I struggled over how much to leave unsaid,” Krakauer acknowledged. “But I still believe it is better for readers to come upon conclusions themselves, rather than being lectured to. That way, things resonate more strongly. Plus, I’m sincere in saying I haven’t figured everything out myself.”
The 49-year-old writer has no certainty about his own religious beliefs. He was raised in Corvallis, Ore., by a Jewish father and a Scandanavian mother who was a Unitarian. He had many Mormon friends, acquaintances and coaches and always admired “the way they raise their families and their generosity of spirit.”
Krakauer is still not sure whether there is a God, although he sometimes finds himself praying in moments of distress or despair or displays of great beauty in the wilds, as he reveals in some “author’s remarks” at the close of “Under the Banner of Heaven.” What worries the writer is religious certainty and what that can produce, from the Lafferty murders to the Smart kidnapping to two planes intentionally crashed into the World Trade Center.
“I don’t have answers, I have questions,” Krakauer emphasized. “I brought some of those questions to the fore in this book because I wanted to make people think about religion and its good and bad sides. But I still have to say there is a lot that scares me about religion. Once you believe that God is speaking directly to you, there is no discussion.”