A new memoir detailing alleged child sexual abuse in a prominent Mormon home has been disputed by both the church and the author’s siblings.
It’s one thing for any Mormon woman to say in public that she was sexually abused, but it is quite another for Martha Beck, whose roots with the church date back to the beginning: Her great-great-grandfather was the personal dentist for Joseph Smith, founder of what is now the nation’s fifth-largest denomination.
The author of the best seller “Expecting Adam,” the 42-year-old Beck also is the daughter of the late Brigham Young University professor emeritus of ancient scripture, Hugh Nibley. In his role as a Mormon apologist, he was one of the church’s leading authorities and chief defenders against intellectual attacks. His prolific writings now number 15 volumes of collected works and will likely reach 20 volumes.
Beck chronicles her difficult and dramatic break from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, her spiritual quest and confrontations she had with her father over the alleged abuse in “Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith.”
The majority of the book details her falling out with the Mormon faith and criticizes church authorities for stifling dissent and independent thought among Mormon scholars who don’t adhere to church orthodoxy. Many scholars who have criticized Mormon teachings have either been fired, excommunicated or shunned by the church.
“Not since I’d studied Chinese, using textbooks written by the Communists, had I run into more careful censoring, more suspicious questions, more timid conversations between people who hoped they might actually be true friends,” she wrote.
“On the BYU campus, normal social interaction became a peculiar dance, like a mating ritual between storks, as each party delicately sized up the other’s level of religious conformity and opened up or closed down to reveal or conceal their own beliefs.”
But the book is drawing attention mostly because of the claims Beck makes about her father.
Nibley died Feb. 24 at age 94, but Beck and other family members said he adamantly denied the allegations of sexual abuse and vaginal scarring that Beck claims she endured.
She began recovering the memories, she said, in 1990, two days after a near-death experience during surgery to repair a spontaneous tear that had opened inside scarring in her vagina. While she was anesthetized during surgery, she said she encountered a “Being of Light.”
Two days later, she said, she had her first remembrance of the alleged abuse: She said she remembers being stretched out with her legs spread like a frog on a dissecting table. “My father is doing something that feels as though it’s ripping me in two,” she wrote in the book, recalling her father saying words such as “Father Abraham,” “The Book of the Dead,” “the prophet Joseph,” “Amut the Destroyer,” “the prophet Joseph Smith,” “Abrahamic sacrifice.”
“Everything Martha has said is absolutely false,” she quoted her father as saying. “To think she would even claim such a thing is shocking. I would never defile my own child.”
Her seven siblings discounted the book in a written statement last month.
“Martha’s most egregious accusation — that our father molested her over several years and that the family covered up the crime — is not true. While salacious accusations sell books, the reader should know that in this case it simply did not happen.
“These allegations dishonor real abuse survivors who lose credibility and suffer increased anguish when false accusations are exposed,” the family statement said.
“Recovered memory” refers to instances in which psychologists say the memory of a painful experience is suppressed to ease discomfort associated with that experience, only to resurface years later. The theory has been used to justify abuse cases in courts, but recovered memories have been attacked as unreliable and subject to manipulation.
The Mormon church also has denounced the book as “seriously flawed” in the way it depicts the church, its members and its teachings.
“Fair-minded readers will find it at best unconvincing, at worst mean-spirited and at times absurd,” church spokesman Dale Bills said.
Beck said the abuse she remembered wasn’t about lust. “It wasn’t even about sex, except as a form of torture or even symbolic death,” Beck wrote. “No, it was all about religion.”
Beck told the Associated Press in an e-mail interview that she began writing the book 10 years ago and finished the manuscript last year. She had no control over the publication date, six days after her father’s stately funeral at the Mormon Tabernacle in Provo, Utah.
Beck said she never named her father or any other family member in the book.
“I knew that Mormons might figure out the identities, but still believe most non-Mormons won’t know who I’m talking about.
“I omitted names because this book is not about accusing anyone; it is about the terrible toll exacted on human lives when details of religious dogma are considered more important than an individual human being’s sense of truth,” she said.
Beck said she doesn’t see her father as a villain, but as a tragic hero.
“He was — and I believe, is — a brilliant, sensitive person, and this book was meant to honor that while acknowledging his deep psychological and spiritual wounds,” she said.
Beck did not attend her father’s funeral. She lives with her family in Phoenix, where she is a sociologist, therapist and columnist for O: The Oprah Magazine.