Book Review: Leaving the Saints by Martha Beck

No wonder many Mormons feel persecuted and misunderstood. When I searched for audiobooks in my local metropolitan library system using the keywords “Mormon” and “LDS,” Leaving the Saints by Martha Beck was one of only a handful of books to show up. I would have preferred something by the Brethren, or maybe The Work and the Glory, but I decided to give this ex-Mormon story a shot.

Now, ex-Mormon stories can be quite good: well thought out, fair, presenting facts and personal experience and leaving to the reader (or listener) to decide the merits of the Church on their own.

But this book was just plain weird. It’s an odd combination of (1) the story of one woman’s spiritual visions/hallucinations and pursuit of constant spiritual bliss and (2) a series of hard-to-believe allegations of childhood sexual abuse against a leading church apologist (the author being the only victim, having absolutely no memories of the incidents until undergoing hypnosis 20 years after the fact, and having established herself as an extremely unreliable narrator early on in the book). The book had very little to say about the Church itself, other than a few jabs about Mormon history, doctrine and culture that generally fell into one or more of these three categories:

  1. False
  2. Misleading
  3. Mean-spirited

For example:

  • She states, in present tense in a book published in 2005, that women are not allowed to wear shorts at BYU. This may have been the case when she taught at BYU, but by 2005, shorts that reach the knee were permitted for both men and women and had been for years.
  • She further states that men have to wear socks “on the premise that the hair on human ankles can be thought of as an extension of pubic hair.” The idea of ankle hair being an extension of pubic hair has nothing to do with the sock rule.
  • She claim that all references to ex-Mormon feminist Sonia Johnson had been removed from the BYU library, including all articles she searched for in BYU’s microfiche copies of secular newspapers. The microfiche claim cannot be verified or disproven because Beck doesn’t provide names, publications or dates of the articles she was searching for; but other researchers have found and corroborated the existence of material by and about Sonia Johnson in easily accessible areas of BYU’s collections.
  • She presents spiritual experiences (the sense that spirits are touching her, miraculous healings unverified by doctors, etc etc.) as indisputable fact.
  • She discusses blood atonement as a part of mainstream, modern-day LDS theology. It is not.
  • She misrepresents the temple ceremonies of the 1980s, describing the temple penalties as a threat of execution if a person reveals temple secrets. In fact, the language at that time was “rather than do so [reveal temple secrets], I would suffer my life to be taken” (and it had been that way for many decades – more about temple ceremonies here). It’s not the happiest language (and no longer exists in the ceremonies today), but it’s a pledge not to reveal the secrets even if someone threatens to kill you. That’s quite different from “kill me if I squeal.” (I can see how people would confuse the two, but people who are trying to explain the temple ceremony should not present confusion as indisputable fact.) She further claims that the reason she will never reveal the secrets in print is because she fears that she will be murdered. Seriously? Thousands of people have discussed temple secrets in print and broadcast and are still alive today.
  • She’s under the mistaken impression that Mormons are weirder than they actually are. For example, she goes on at length about how crazy it is that Mormons believe in the resurrection of the dead, and spends way to much effort trying to show how whacked thus idea is by making off-color jokes along the lines of “if a soldier is blown to smithereens in Afghanistan, still his body magically come back together at the resurrection?” She seems to be unaware that the resurrection of the dead is standard Christian doctrine, or that LDS doctrine accounts for injuries and sickness by teaching that our resurrected bodies are perfected to be suitable for the kingdom for which they’re bound. If you lose an arm during life, you get it back. If you were infertile or sterile during life and are headed for marriage in the Celestial Kingdom, you’ll be able to reproduce in the afterlife. How can someone who was raised in the church not know this stuff? Is she purposely misleading the reader, or does she just have a really crappy memory?
  • (Aside: For someone who established her philosophy of life is “believe anything until it’s proven wrong” in the first or second chapter, her attacks on the Mormon faith seemed bizarre and hypocritical. If you “believe anything until it’s proven wrong,” you need to accept ridiculous concepts like the celestial teapot. Are the Endowment, Celestial Marriage, or the deification of mankind more ridiculous than the celestial teapot? They certainly don’t seem so to me, and yet the author makes fun of them mercilessly.)

While listening, I often wondered about the skewed understanding I would have of the Church if this had been my only exposure to it. Fortunately, the author also says a lot of weird things that should establish her as an untrustworthy narrator even to reader who know nothing about the LDS Church:

  • She claims to know what is going on in other people’s heads, and spends more time detailing their private motives (unknown even to themselves, in many cases) than she does talking about her own.
  • She claims to be able to picture people as various shades of blue when they are lying. If they are telling the truth, they appear to her as their natural skin color. If they are telling a little lie, they get a slight blue tinge. If they’re telling a whopper, she sees them as deep blue. However, she makes no indication that she’s ever put this amazing talent of hers to the test; rather, when she suspects someone is lying to her, she tells us that their skin is blue. Yup, that’s it, and we’re expected to believe it.
  • She presents long sections of quoted dialogue as fact, even in cases where she had no implied means to record the conversations and in some instances where she specifically indicates the conversations were not recorded.
  • She talks about a medically detailed conversation she had with her father’s neurologist about the cause of a brief case of amnesia he experience in the 1970s. She was 11 at the time. I can imagine no doctor giving such information to an 11-year-old child. 
  • She uses the phrase “spiritual technology” to refer to prayer, meditation, and hope, as well as a few dangerously irrational behaviors. I’m not usually one to bring out my dictionary to argue with people, since words often have subtler and more nuanced use in real life. But I feel it’s safe to say that, for most people, “technology” refers to “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes,” and that “science” refers to the “systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” I’m not sure how praying and then taking a 30-hour nap at home when your placenta ruptures falls under these definitions. To me, it just sounds like reckless stupidity.
  • Her “believe anything until it’s proven wrong” philosophy, which I mentioned above, further establishes her as an unreliable narrator.

And those are just a few examples from the first third of the book. I had to stop reading when I got that far, because I felt like a voyeur watching a psychological trainwreck. That was also the point of the book where the child abuse accusations began. It felt morally wrong to continue reading because she was either:

  1. Telling blatant lies, in which case I shouldn’t listen.
  2. Telling the truth, in which case I shouldn’t listen because I was at the point where I couldn’t believe a single word she said, and I would be spending the rest of the book rolling my eyes disbelievingly at someone else’s experience.

The only usefully interesting bit I got out of this book were the author’s memories of her first visit to a temple. I’m including notes below even though their veracity, like the veracity of everything in the book, is questionable:

  • She didn’t name the temple, but implied Provo?
  • describes the floors as thickly carpeted
  • temple workers were elderly people in all white, including white polyester slippers; men in jumpsuits, kept speech to a minimum and quiet
  • She got her temple clothes at the temple, not ahead of time at the distribution center. Green apron is green satin with embroidered fig leaves.
  • Initiatory – closed booth, bull’s horn filled with sacred oil and lots of incantations.
  • Found out her bra was the wrong color – ivory – not permitted in temple, even if not visible to others; it needed to be pure white – someone dug up one for her.
  • During the endowment, brought in bundle of clothes, taking them and putting them on (robes, aprons, veil) when instructed to.
  • Garments should not touch the floor or ground.
  • men wear hat that makes them look like Pillsbury Doughboy
  • Sealing room – mirrors on all four walls – to represent generations of posterity that would follow them

If you’re interested in reading the book, I recommend also reading the following:

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