Outsiders know the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by its clean-cut image: young missionaries in white shirts riding bicycles in the neighborhood; television commercials extolling family life; a thrifty wholesomeness straight out of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Some former insiders, however, have other tales to tell. And few have such fascinating tales as Martha Beck, an author (“Expecting Adam“), magazine columnist and life coach. In her memoir, “Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith,” Beck draws us into a world of secret temple rituals, demon-resistant underwear and Stepford-like denial.
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Beck, her husband, John, and their two small children return to Utah in 1988 from Harvard, where the couple were graduate students. Forsaking friends who urged her to abort a fetus with Down syndrome, Beck was determined to raise her infant son among the unconditional love of God-fearing people.
She recalls her wedding, explaining how she was given special undergarments in a temple rite that included the oath to “let ourselves be killed” if certain details were ever divulged. The ceremony included a pantomime of the “various modes of death that would be inflicted.”
“I found it so surreal it was truly marvelous, like watching an episode of ‘Leave It to Beaver’ in which June and Ward take just a moment out of their busy day to agree that if they ever leak the family secrets, they’ll hack off each other’s limbs,” she writes.
All this seems to be mere amusement until Beck joins the faculty at church-controlled Brigham Young University.
A feminist and critical thinker, Beck runs smack into the cultural conservatism in which women are secondary.
With fundamentalism on the rise throughout the world, her words take on a larger meaning about what it is to live in a society controlled by true believers. Beck breaks from her spiritual and psychological bondage in dramatic fashion. We share the feeling of exhilarating release. Yet the book makes plain that there is often a depressing price to pay.
That Beck can write so eloquently about it without bitterness is a gift worth its weight in gold plates.