Response to Leaving the Saints

Review of Martha Beck. Leaving the Saints: How I
Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith.
York: Crown, 2005. ix + 306 pp. $24.95.

Response to Leaving the Saints

Reviewed by Boyd Jay Petersen

Kirkus Reviews assures us that Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the
Mormons and Found My Faith
“is not a
trashy exposé but a loving, sad account of coming home again.”[1] However, those familiar with the “trashy Mormon exposés” of the
nineteenth century will find in this book all the familiar chestnuts of that
genre: the horrors of polygamy, the strange secrets of the temple, the
dictatorial rule of church leaders, Joseph Smith’s obvious failures as a
translator of Egyptian, and his strange account of Native Americans being
descendents of ancient Israelites. Even the Danites make their required
appearance. Like other exposés, this book’s treatment of most historical events
amounts to little more than caricature.[2] Rather than investigating complicated
historical events, Martha provides one-dimensional portrayals of those events
to show how silly, patriarchal, and violent Mormonism really is.

There are, however, two significant differences between this
exposé and its antecedents. First, this book is surely one of the best written
exposés I have encountered. As a teacher of literature, I found myself admiring
the way Martha weaves this narrative. The book is well-paced, the writing is
lively, the descriptions are vivid, and the wit sparkles. On the other hand,
Martha has an annoying habit of placing herself rhetorically above everyone
else in the narrative and sneering at all that is
“not-Martha”—especially all that is Mormon. As a practicing
Latter-day Saint, I found this off-putting. Despite its lively prose and Kirkus‘s claims to the contrary, Leaving the
is still, at its core, an exposé.

The second difference between this book and previous exposés
is the focus of its narrative: the book recounts Martha Beck’s recovered
memories of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, unnamed in the book but
recognizable to most Mormons as Hugh Nibley. As Martha’s brother-in-law and
Hugh Nibley’s son-in-law and biographer,[3] I feel compelled to
respond. At the outset, however, I must make four things perfectly clear:

1.   This is not and should not be read as a review of the book as much as a response to it. I make no attempt to include all the
requisite elements of a standard academic or popular book review.

2.   Because of my proximity to this story—I
have lived with its effects on my family for over a decade now—I cannot
be dispassionate; I have a stake in this debate. But I also have insights
others do not have that are both relevant and, I believe, compelling.

3.   This response should not be seen as the
“official” position of the Nibley family. While I cannot help but be
influenced by my wife and her family—and I have tried to be sensitive to
their feelings—this response represents my opinion.

4.   My goal is not to discredit or further
alienate Martha. I sincerely wish her well. I have made every effort to confine
myself strictly to matters of evidence from which a reasonable conclusion can
be drawn about the credibility of her story.

Martha’s Claims

Picking up roughly where her previous memoir, Expecting
left off, Leaving the
chronicles how Martha and her
husband, John, retreat from the high-pressure world of Harvard to the more
compassionate and supportive atmosphere of their native Utah Valley following
the birth of their Down syndrome son, Adam. Both Martha and John began teaching
at BYU, where, she claims, they witnessed “the Church’s ruthlessness as it
silenced dissidents and masked truths that contradicted its published
beliefs” (dust jacket). More disturbing is that, after beginning
meditation and having a “white-light experience” while undergoing surgery,
Martha began to remember sexual abuse at the hands of her father that is
supposed to have occurred when she was between the ages of five and eight.
Martha is quite explicit about her accusations of abuse but is mostly implicit
about the details.

Among the explicit claims are (1) that she believes her
father was likely a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his mother and
(2) that he was further traumatized on the grisly battlefields of World
War II. In preparing my biography of Hugh, I noted that his mother and especially
his grandmother were both fond of strange homemade “cures,” some of
which were likely painful and frightening, but I found no evidence of abuse,
either physical or sexual. World War II was no doubt painful for Hugh, but he
must have worked through these issues before I began asking him questions about
the war. I never noticed any symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in any
of the many interviews I conducted with Hugh about his war years.

(3) Martha alleges that in 1967, when church
authorities asked Hugh to translate the Joseph Smith Papyri, he was placed in a
double-bind situation that caused him to crack. He knew, Martha claims, that
the church wanted him to assert that the text contained the Book of Abraham,
but he also knew it to be the Egyptian Book of Breathings. As she puts it,
“He could either lose his job, his livelihood, his social standing, his
bully pulpit, by publicly revealing information that would undermine the very
foundations of Mormonism, or he could lie flat out. In a way, I admire him for
choosing the only other alternative: he went crazy” (p. 148). Martha
makes these assertions in the face of facts that show just the opposite. She
neglects to note that it was Hugh who first called scholarly and public
attention to the fact that the papyri contained the text of the Egyptian Book
of Breathings rather than the Book of the Dead.[4] She also fails to
mention how Hugh, who confessed that for a period he was merely
“skirmishing and sparring,” immediately launched into a series of
monthly articles for the Improvement Era
which ran during 1968-70 while simultaneously publishing more scholarly
articles in Dialogue and BYU
[5] She further omits mention of the fact
that Hugh focused right from the start on what Klaus Baer stated was the “only”
argument that “will get the Mormons out of the dilemma”—that it
is not the Egyptian text but the English one that can provide evidence for its
authenticity. And while Hugh did not rush into print with his own translation,
in 1968 he did a translation of the papyri’s close cousin, “Book of
Breathings, P. Louvre 3284,” which he circulated widely. And in 1975, Hugh
included this translation with similar selections from the Joseph Smith Papyri
in The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment. What is especially noticeable about this omission
is that Martha herself helped to illustrate this book[6]—an
odd task to undertake for someone who claims to have had a “lifelong
strange reaction to all things Egyptian,” who had repeated nightmares,
“one in which [she] was trapped in the two-dimensional world of an ancient
papyrus drawing . . . as the corpse of a dead man scuttled along
behind me, right on my heels” (p. 146). It is also clear, from both
Hugh’s publications and private correspondence, that during the years in
question, he was at the height of his career; there is no indication of
psychological breakdown. Furthermore, Hugh never lost “his job, his
livelihood, his social standing, [or] his bully pulpit” for telling the
truth while simultaneously defending the church.

Martha’s book mostly hints at the details of Hugh’s alleged
breakdown, but evidently she believes that her father ritually abused her while
reenacting Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, all the while wearing an Egyptian
costume of Amut the Destroyer (pp. 121-22, 146-47).[7]
Part of the reason it is so difficult to determine exactly what Martha believes
happened is that she does not always distinguish between her memories and her
dreams. In reading her book, one gets the feeling that Martha herself may not
be able to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Further, before
setting out these strange memories/dreams, Martha contends that the very
strangeness of these details somehow proves their truth: “The peculiar
details of my memories had at first made me doubt myself—they were so weird—but in the end, reinforced my conviction that
I hadn’t unconsciously made something up” (p. 146).

Innuendo and an apparently superdeveloped ability to read
facial expressions and minute changes in skin color are among Martha’s main
sources of insight. During a contrived meeting in a hotel room, when she
confronts her father with the question, “What were you doing with all that
Egyptian stuff? I mean, when you were performing your ‘Abrahamic sacrifices’ on
me?” Martha then has her description of Hugh’s facial expression condemn
him: “The blow lands right on target; my father flinches, his face
flashing an expression that tells me a great deal. It isn’t just frightened. It
certainly isn’t confused. It’s knowing,
in a way that both chills and reassures me. It tells me that, while I can’t
trust him, I can trust my own memory” (pp. 121-22). Could it
possibly be that Hugh did not flinch at all, or if he did, that he flinched
because he found Martha’s words so horribly strange and sad and alarming?
Martha’s leading questions and her ability to “know” the minds of her
interlocutors allow her to drive her points home with a forcefulness and
conviction of “accuracy” that readers must see is just not there.
Martha describes several other instances that demonstrate her ability to read
the minds of others by the expressions on their faces and illustrate the
precision of her personal skin-color lie detector (for example, pp. 88,
107, 127). She imagines that people turn different shades of blue, depending on
the enormity of their lies: “powder blue for small lies, periwinkle for
naughty fibs, cobalt for outright deception, and so on to deep navy”
(p. 85). When she asks her father about whether he is afraid of death, he
replies, “‘of course not,'” and “the skin all over his entire
body [turns] as blue as his eyes” (p. 88). Such things may convict in
Martha’s courtroom, but in the world I live in, most lies and half truths are
not so easily revealed.

Another way Martha uses innuendo is by creating a causal
chain of (often erroneously reported) events and then letting the reader draw a
conclusion. In one instance, after leading the reader through a series of
misreported events that hint that one of her sisters may be consciously or
unconsciously aware of the abuse, Martha adds “but I’m trained as a social
scientist, which means that I try very hard not to jump to conclusions”
(p. 207). It appears, however, that she is more than happy for her readers
to jump to conclusions for her.

Another frustrating methodological choice that Martha made
is that she never gives the real names of anyone with the exception of herself,
her husband, John, and their children. Members of her family of origin are all
referred to as “my sister,” “my brother,” “my
father,” or “my mother.” But everyone else gets a pseudonym,
even people who were in the public spotlight and who were well-known at the
time. I found this terribly frustrating, partly because it kept pulling me out
of the narrative to speculate as to who each person was and partly because it
made it impossible to corroborate many of the details in this book. I
understand the need to use pseudonyms to protect some individuals from
embarrassment or to prevent legal action against Martha or her publisher, but
why use pseudonyms for everyone? Particularly since Martha makes such serious
allegations, one would think she would want some witnesses to back up her
words. But even her “witnesses”—her two cousins hiding in the
hotel room with a tape recorder—are not named (pp. 5-6).

At one point in the book, Martha’s use of a pseudonym is
downright disingenuous. After an altercation with her first therapist, Martha
decided to go to another one who had been recommended to her. “Let’s call
her Dr. Rachel Grant,” Martha writes on page 234. On the same page, she
describes sitting in the waiting room before her first appointment with this
woman and “second-guessing [her] decision” to see this therapist,
“wonder[ing] if Dr. Grant was descended from former Mormon president Heber
J. Grant.” This gives Martha a narrative opening to tell a terribly funny
family story about how her grandfather would accompany on the piano the
tone-deaf President Grant when he sang and then change keys “in the middle
of the prophet’s performances, creating excruciating discord as the prophet
sang obliviously onward” (pp. 234-35). It is a good story.
Almost good enough for us to forget that the name Rachel Grant is a pseudonym that Martha gave this therapist only a few sentences
earlier. This account of her inner mind can be nothing but fiction.

A deep paranoia permeates Martha’s narrative. Granted, the
events Martha describes would be harrowing, if true, but the conspiracy she
describes seems to be straight out of The X-Files or The History of the Saints, or An Exposé of Joe Smith and
. Martha begins to get threatening
notes from students (p. 223); she is then called in by her unidentified
department chair after a student sends an anonymous letter to the General
Authorities (p. 237); she then receives threatening anonymous phone calls
(p. 241); and she and John then hear a “strange, intermittent
clicking sound” on their phones and “[discover] that [their] phone
line had been crossed with another line inside a phone junction box at the
nearby Mormon chapel” (p. 233). They have the line repaired, but it
starts “clicking” again. One day, she picks up the phone to hear a
strange voice threaten, “‘I think that people who speak out against the
Gospel shouldn’t be Church members. They should be dis-membered,'” the
voice pausing to emphasize the “clever word play” (p. 234).
Dissident Mormons worry about parking their cars near Martha’s house because
they do not want their license plates to be “written down by the
Strengthening the Membership Committee” (p. 251), and Martha worries
about the “foul play perpetrated by Mormonism’s lunatic fringe, which
[pops] up in the back pages of Utah newspapers on a regular basis”
(p. 224). Her therapist tells Martha, “If you do what it takes to get
over this thing [the abuse], the Mormon Church is going to ruin your life”
(p. 236). After learning that Martha intended to write this book, one
ex-Mormon friend from Utah responds, “without a trace of levity,”
“‘They’ll kill you'” (p. 191).

The stake president who comes to visit after John has had
his name removed from the church’s records threatens them: “‘Bad things
happen'” to children of “‘apostate parents'” (p. 259).
Martha even resurrects the Danites, stating that “every now and then, Utah
papers record murders with uniquely Mormon flavoring (death by
temple-sanctioned methods, for example) and the word that goes out on the
Latter-day grapevine is Danite
(p. 190). “I suspected that even though the Mormon powers that be
might not actually threaten my life, they would probably try to ruin it,”
Martha intones. “Yes, these suspicions were outlandish. Yes, they were
paranoid. And yes, they were completely accurate” (p. 182). While I
know some of these things have happened to some individuals (for example, Hugh
Nibley received threats after publishing some of his social commentary), the
extreme nature of what Martha describes is truly incredible.

Challenges to Martha’s Accounts

The most serious problems with this book, however, are
Martha’s persistent hyperbolic assertions and outright distortions of fact.
Martha’s previous memoir, Expecting Adam,
caused family members and many friends to raise eyebrows when they read events
they had witnessed described in such exaggerated, often unrecognizable, ways.
For example, when Martha described taking a year off from Harvard to read texts
from Western philosophy and world religions after an existential crisis,[8]
family members and close friends knew that she had taken the year off because
of an anorexic breakdown, which caused her parents to make her come home and
enter therapy, and that the reading assignments were all from a BYU honors
colloquium she had audited during the time she was in Provo. When Martha said
she was an atheist by the time she left for Harvard, these same family and
friends were puzzled that an atheist had attended church regularly, married in
the temple, and written an essay on maintaining faith for the Ensign. During this period, Martha had also coauthored a
book with her husband, published by church-owned Deseret Book, on recovering
from compulsive behaviors like anorexia, drug addiction, and homosexuality by
implementing gospel principles. The authors also bore their testimonies that
they “accept as inspired the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints.”[9]

Furthermore, family members were shocked by the unkind way
in which Martha portrayed them and their reaction to her news about Adam having
Down syndrome. In that book, Martha describes her father laughing in a
“loud, long, forced guffaw” and her brother commenting on how if
retarded people were allowed to marry, “the half-brains in question should
at least be voluntarily sterilized.”[10] Family members found
this to be an unrecognizable and uncharitable description of their very real acceptance
of her and her baby and their sincere respect for her choice not to abort.
Likewise, Martha’s ex-husband states in a note to me that his father and family
were offended by the way she characterized them in the book. “My Dad and
Mom were so sensitive to Adam—my
Dad went out and got books on Down syndrome as soon as he heard the
diagnosis—and [Martha] made them look like fools.” Furthermore,
Martha’s characterization of “Goatstroke,” the overly demanding and
mean-spirited Harvard professor, cost John a wonderful friendship. The real
“Goatstroke,” John writes, “got Martha into her Sociology
program, and was always helpful and kind to her.” Upon reading the book,
this professor “was devastated by her characterization” and “my
relationship with him—which was very strong—was ruined forever as
well [as was hers].”[11]

Martha begins and ends Expecting Adam by assuring readers that the events related therein
are factual. “I didn’t fictionalize anything. It’s all true,” claims
Martha.[12] The “author’s note” at the
end of the book reassures readers again that it is not a work of fiction, that
she is telling the truth, that the material has come straight from her
journals, that she has had others read the book to verify that the facts are
straight, and that she has been trained by Harvard as a sociologist to
accurately tell “‘just the facts.'”[13] Granted, the story
told in that book is extraordinary, but few memoirs go so far to assure us of
their veracity. One had to wonder whether it was the reader or Martha herself she
was trying to convince. Indeed, her ex-husband later confessed that he felt
troubled by that book. “She wrote it as fiction first,” John writes.
“It was rejected over and over again. So her editor suggested writing it
as non-fiction. She changed very little in it as she transformed it to
‘non-fiction.’ Many parts were clearly fiction (but now with our actual names
attached to them).” John continues, “So it makes me wonder about [Leaving
the Saints
] as well.”[14]

It was 1991 when Martha first told her family that she
believed she was a victim of abuse. When confronted with this charge, Martha’s
siblings and her mother did not dismiss it out of hand, but assessed its
strengths and weaknesses, and, especially as the story’s details grew, came to
doubt its veracity. Since that time, they have been wondering, “where did that come from?” After all, the Nibley’s old brick
home just south of BYU campus was small, packed tightly with eight children and
two parents. During the years in question, Martha shared a room with two of her
sisters, neither of whom had any memories of abuse. Bedroom doors were left
open, the parents’ bedroom was right next to the girls’ room, and Phyllis was
an incredibly light sleeper who would wake at the first hint of a child in
distress. Teenage children were coming and going at all hours of the day and
night. There was little privacy and no chance for secrecy. No one has any
memory of any inappropriate contact between Hugh and Martha. The children all
know their mother was not the kind of dominated housewife to allow one of her
children to be hurt while she was present. They know that differing
intellectual and personal views were not only allowed in their home, but
encouraged. And some of them have had regrets and anger about the way their father—obsessed
with his research and writing, and constantly in demand to lecture, to write,
and to travel—neglected them in their youth. Martha’s siblings range from
agnostics to believers. And each of them is extremely forthright about family
problems. Yet each of them, on his or her own terms, came to doubt Martha’s

After reading Leaving the Saints, many in Martha’s audience will likely be asking
“where did that come
from?”—the same question her family has been asking. One has to
doubt the reliability of Martha’s memory when confronting the internal
inconsistencies in this book. Some events recounted in this memoir seem
implausible but cannot be verified one way or the other. For example, Martha
claims that when she was working on her dissertation, she went to the BYU
library and discovered that someone had censored all the articles about Mormon
dissident Sonia Johnson from the newspapers (p. 83). I cannot prove this
did not happen, but it seems highly unlikely. Just by searching the library’s
online catalog, one gets over forty hits for information on Sonia Johnson, and
Johnson’s book From Housewife to Heretic[16] is
located both in special collections and in the general stacks where any
undergraduate can check it out. While I have not checked the microfiche that
Martha refers to (and cannot, since she does not give specific dates and
articles she could not find), I have consulted with several librarians who have
been at the Harold B. Lee Library for many years, and they all tell me that no
effort has ever been made to censor information from newspaper articles.

Some less important details also give one pause, such as the
occasion when Martha’s Utah Valley hairstylist “checked [her] left hand
for a wedding ring, then reported [her] request [to have her hair cut
“boy-short”] to the owner of the salon, who asked [her] to call [her]
husband to ascertain that [she] had his permission to change [her]
hairstyle” (p. 193). I have no idea whether this detail is true or
not, but my wife has changed her hairstyle many times; most recently she got it
cut extremely short, and I have never had a stylist seek my permission, nor has
my wife reported such a strange request being made. Or what about when Martha
says the Primary president of their LDS ward tried to lure their daughter,
Katie, into getting baptized after John had left the church by bribing her with
cookies and telling her about a “baptism party” at the church
building (p. 274). Again, this cannot be verified, but it just does not
sound right. I served as a ward mission leader for a couple of years and know
that you cannot baptize a minor without his or her parents’ consent.

More important, Martha describes Hugh’s “episode of
amnesia” and states that she “talked to the neurosurgeon who examined
[her] father during the spate of forgetfulness,” who told her that
“there was no stroke, no brain lesion, no physiological explanation at
all” and “concluded that the amnesia was psychogenic, a mental mist
that rose from some psychological or emotional conflict too intense for [her]
father to bear” (p. 21). I have no idea with whom Martha spoke, and
unfortunately both doctors who attended Hugh at that time are now dead, but
several things ring untrue about the way she describes this event. First of
all, Martha distorts the events surrounding this episode by stating that Hugh
was “supposed to deliver an address on certain issues related to Mormonism
and Egyptology” (p. 21). However, the event in question was actually
a BYU forum that took place on 21 May 1974, in which Hugh was interviewed
by Louis Midgley. Hugh was extremely nervous about this interview. It was held
in the BYU Marriott Center (BYU’s basketball arena) and was going to be
completely spontaneous, with no note cards, no prewritten text, and no
prearranged questions. Midgley’s goal was to capture the spontaneity of Hugh’s
wit. Hugh is good with “off the cuff” comments, but when appearing
before a crowd he always had note cards or a prepared text to read from. All
these factors had Hugh feeling extremely anxious about the event. During the
interview, all sorts of topics were discussed, including the temple, education,
the environment, and politics. Hugh did briefly refer to Egyptian texts, but it
was not the focus of his remarks.[17]

I have shared Martha’s description of this event with a
medical school faculty member at Indiana University who thought that the way
Martha describes these events is overstatement. First, it was highly unlikely
that a neurosurgeon would be consulted unless there were “some sort of
surgical lesion,” and family members confirm that the two doctors who saw
Hugh at this time were internists, not neurosurgeons. Second, Martha is correct
that the most likely prognosis for Hugh’s symptoms was not a stroke since there
were no other symptoms besides the amnesia, but this “amnesia” is
usually brought on by stress, not some “mental mist” arising from
emotional or psychological conflict. The stress of the forum was clearly
sufficient to induce this condition. I also find it highly suspect that a neurosurgeon
would deem it appropriate to discuss the cause of this amnesia with Martha,
either at the time (she would have been only eleven) or years after the event.
I tried to get information from doctors about Hugh for my
“authorized” biography, and all of them told me that it would breach
medical ethics to speak with me without a signed authorization from their
patient. Finally, I doubt any neurosurgeon would be willing, or feel competent,
to diagnose a psychological explanation as detailed and complex as Martha

Some events described in Leaving the Saints are disputed outright by Martha’s siblings, her
ex-husband, and unrelated witnesses who either were present when the events
took place or were confidants of Martha’s at the time. For example, Martha
maintains that after she began to recover these memories of abuse, one of her
“chief criteria for choosing” her first therapist, whom she names
Mona, was to find someone who “didn’t know [her] father from Bonzo the
Chimp” (p. 162). Martha claims that she “nearly choked on [her]
fibrillating heart and was hugely relieved when [Mona] actually accepted [her]
memories without so much as a twitch” (p. 210). This is disingenuous.
In conversations Martha had with her sisters at the time, Martha told them that
she had read many self-help books, performed self-hypnosis to
“discover” the hidden memories of incest, and then sought out a
therapist who “specialized” in recovered memories of sexual abuse.
She also tried to persuade her sisters and husband to use the same techniques
to discover hidden trauma. “Martha always was hypnotizing herself and
trying to hypnotize me,” states John. “She tried getting me to go
under on multiple occasions. I guess I was a tough subject.”[19]
The therapist that Martha calls Mona in her book (who met with Martha’s sisters
and a brother in a therapy session she describes in her “Gang Bang”
chapter) was Lynne Finney, who had in 1990 already published her book Reach
for the Rainbow,
which claims to help
survivors “recover memories” of abuse and provides “advanced
healing for survivors of sexual abuse.”[20] Clearly Martha knew
she was going to someone who would be disposed to accept her stories. To say
that she was shocked that Mona believed her and that her only thought was to
find someone who did not know her father is not telling the whole truth.[21]

Two of the central points of the book are also disputed by
Martha’s now ex-husband. Martha describes in quite explicit detail scars that
she maintains confirm her having been abused. However, John states that at the
time of her premarital exam performed at Harvard, “Martha never claimed
the doctor saw scars. He just asked what kind of contraception she’d been using
up to that point. When she said she wasn’t having sex, he gave her a disbelieving
look.” This could be simply because he could not believe that she was not
sexually active since she was of college age and engaged to be married. And in
a later exam, a Provo doctor not only did not notice scars, but he warned Martha to start “loosening up” so
that sexual intercourse would not be uncomfortable. If the Harvard doctor saw
anything to indicate previous sexual experience, John suggests it may have been
caused by a neighbor boy who molested her when she was a young girl. This
incident in itself could very well be the source of the memories that Martha
has come to embellish with strange details and to associate with her father.
While several of her sisters knew about the molestation from the time it
happened, John never learned about it until the early 1990s, when Martha began
having memories of abuse. “After she told me about the neighbor incident,
she never doubted that memory,” states John. “But she often expressed
doubt about her memories of her father abusing her.” He stresses Martha’s
reluctance to believe herself. “She literally said to me on many
occasions: ‘I’m such a bad person to have made up those terrible memories about
my father.'” John characterizes the fact that she does not mention this
incident of sexual molestation by the neighbor in the book as “a huge ‘oversight.’ “[22]

Another detail that John disputes is Martha’s claim that she
and John left the church because of their growing dissatisfaction with the way
the church was silencing dissidents. Martha’s presentations at the BYU Women’s Conferences
in 1992 and 1993, which are published in the official proceedings, certainly do
not reveal any great disenchantment with the church or its leaders. In her 1993
presentation, Martha argues that Mormon women need to learn to be stronger,
speak the whole truth, and listen to the Spirit of Christ. There is no sense of
paranoia in the talk, no sense of Martha being disillusioned with the church or
its teachings, and no hint of her being abused. Parts of the talk, where she
tells the audience “anything I say might be absolutely wrong,” and
where she talks about a study by Solomon Asch, sound like material mentioned in
Leaving the Saints, but all are given a
very Mormon context in the speech.[23]

There was, however, another reason for Martha and John’s leaving
the church: their sexual orientation. Until recently, Martha has only hinted
about this detail, and she does not reveal it in the book, but has outed
herself on the book’s Web site. John states that, “One of the reasons we
both left the Church is because we are gay.” He continues, “Martha’s
leaving the Church was very tied up with
the affair (mostly emotional affair, but some physicality involved) that she
was having at that time.” John stresses that both Martha’s affair and her
sexual abuse by the neighbor boy are “huge variables,” and “if
she were doing a regression analysis as a sociologist, she’d have to include
them in the equation to explain the correlations.”[24]

There are too many other events that are disputed by family
and friends to cover here. But Martha’s characterizations of her mother Phyllis
as “the reigning terror of [her] childhood” (p. 44), of Martha
being one of the “favorite targets” of Hugh’s “violent
temper” (p. 125), of Hugh having war “flashbacks”
(p. 89), of Phyllis corroborating the abuse and then denying it
(pp. 130-31), of church leaders frequenting the Nibley home
(p. 31), of Hugh never speaking of his near-death experience
(pp. 85-86), of Phyllis never babysitting Martha’s children
(p. 99), of there being a family motto of not touching any child over four
(p. 119), of the Becks’ phones being tapped (p. 233), of Phyllis not
liking the word mom (p. 139), of
Hugh being afraid of death (pp. 88-89), of the church
“controlling” and “owning” Hugh (p. 169), of Hugh
being concerned with money (p. 148), as well as other details, are
contested by siblings, colleagues, friends, parents, and her ex-husband.

Other events described in the book are disputed by the
facts. For example, in chapter 24 of Leaving the Saints, Martha asserts that she met a man who “‘had a
job for [her] dad’s publisher'” as “‘one of the flunkies who checked
his footnotes'” (p. 165). This “Man in Tweed” told Martha
that her father “‘makes [his footnotes] all up,'” that “‘conservatively,
90 percent of them'” are not real. “‘I helped cover it up,'” he
says (p. 166). She asserts that this man gave her a list of other note
checkers and that when she “contacted them [she] heard unanimous
confirmation that a great many of the footnotes in his works were splendiferously
fictional” (p. 169). I have contacted many of the note checkers and
editors of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (I cannot contact
“Tweedy” since I have no idea who he is, if he exists at all), and
they all confirm that, while Hugh has been sloppy—at times mistranslating
a text or overstating his case—he does not make up his sources.[25]

Martha also reports that BYU professors were told not to
publish in “‘alternate voices'” journals—which she describes as
anything from “the Christian Science Monitor to Hustler” (p. 79).
In fact, BYU professors are encouraged and their tenure status requires them to
publish in peer-reviewed academic journals. The only places where there is any
concern for BYU professors is when they publish in Sunstone or Dialogue, journals that church leaders apparently feel may undermine the mission
of the church. However, BYU professors still do publish in these journals. I have published in both
and continue to teach part-time at BYU, and the cover story for the October
2004 issue of Sunstone was
written by Duane E. Jeffery of the BYU Department of Biology.[26]

Martha also writes that BYU would “have a hard time
legally firing [her] from [her] job. [She] was a known rebel, but still a
member of the BYU faculty” (p. 259). This is also false. Martha was
part-time faculty at BYU. As a part-time faculty member of BYU’s honors
program, I know that we are hired on a semester-to-semester basis at the will
of the department and university. If there are no sections to teach, I get no
contract. If I say or do something in the classroom that is inappropriate, they
can choose not to offer me another contract. There are no promises, no
long-term contracts, no benefits, and no tenure track for part-time faculty.
BYU can choose not to offer a contract to any part-time faculty member at any
time, and it is perfectly legal, as it is at any other school, public or

Martha claims that after the Joseph Smith Papyri were
acquired by the church on 27 November 1967, “the papyri were kept
under lock and key, shown only to those who could be absolutely trusted to
support Joseph Smith” (p. 158). This grossly distorts the truth.
While few people got to see the papyri themselves (it is not uncommon for
libraries not to show ancient documents to just anyone since they are usually
extremely fragile), the church did publish, “with commendable
promptness,” as non-Mormon Egyptologist Klaus Baer stated, sepia-tinted
photographs of the papyri in the church magazine, the Improvement Era, in February 1968, less than three months after the
church acquired them. Baer, writing to Jerald and Sandra Tanner, called the
reproductions “quite good ones” and stated that the timely
publication was especially impressive “when you consider that such an
important Egyptological discovery as the Abusir papyri was jealously guarded by
assorted public and private owners for 75 years during which they neither
studied them nor let anyone else work with them.”[27]

Martha also maintains that her father “had never
studied Egyptian” and that it was only after the discovery of the papyri
that he was “hustled off to study Egyptian with experts at the University
of Chicago” (p. 158). It appears she got these false ideas from
Charles Larson’s book, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the
Joseph Smith Papyri
.[28] Both
of these details are wrong and unfair. It is impossible to pin down exactly
when Hugh first began studying Egyptian; he maintained he first started
dabbling in the language in 1927 at the age of seventeen. It is clear, however,
that Hugh was working with Egyptian texts in his PhD dissertation in 1938 and
in articles he published in 1945, 1948, 1949, and 1956.[29] He
spent a sabbatical during the 1959/60 academic year teaching at Berkeley and
studying Egyptian with Klaus Baer. And his 1966/67 sabbatical at the Oriental
Institute at the University of Chicago was actually completed before the papyri
had been discovered.[30]

The most amusing disputable “fact” Martha provides
is her claim that men at BYU are required to wear socks “on the premise
that the hair on human ankles can be thought of as an extension of pubic
hair” (pp. 77-78). While socks were part of the BYU dress and
grooming standards between 1982 and 1992 (they are no longer mentioned), the
only official justification for the rule was to “reflect the
language” of the church’s For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. The pubic-hair justification is nothing
more—at most—than BYU folklore that Martha presents as fact.[31]

Martha states that her “family’s code” prevents
her siblings from believing her, that she is “the traitor to our family’s
code of conduct, the enemy of everything we once stood for together. [Their]
father was [their] claim to fame, [their] saving glory. Turning against him in
such a shocking way was like using a burning flag to set fire to our supreme
commander” (p. 217). I find this to be a grossly unfair accusation. I
came from a family that did keep
secrets—nothing major, but my parents cared deeply that the neighbors not
know that they did not live by “cookie-cutter Mormon” codes. I was absolutely
shocked when I married into the Nibley family because if there is anything bad
to be said about the family, it is the Nibley family that will say it. They
will tell you exactly which members are disenchanted with or have left the
church; they will tell you that they grew up in a messy house where Hugh’s idea
of yard work consisted of mowing carefully around the dandelions; they will
tell you that their father would add yeast to the apple cider to make it
“virtuous”; and they will wax eloquent about their own neuroses and
personal hang-ups. They will tell you very openly about every dysfunction of
their family—and their
efforts to overcome them. The fact that none of Martha’s siblings support her
claims of incest is the result, not of some family code, but of her siblings
finding her claims simply unbelievable.

Martha’s “desperate thirst for data in any area related
to [her] father” (p. 3) is also disingenuous since she quite
obviously never read any of her father’s correspondence, never interviewed any
of his colleagues and friends, never watched the documentary made by her
brother, and read only one page—the one referring to her allegations,
which she also misrepresents—of my biography of her father. In addition
to distorting details of Hugh’s Egyptian studies and episode of amnesia, she
gets most of the details of Hugh’s life wrong, including his war stories,
near-death experience, and “five o’clocks” (which were prescient
moments, not flashbacks). And Martha’s lack of familiarity with Hugh’s writings
and thought is simply astounding (although one is tempted to believe she used
her father’s satirical “How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book [A Handbook for
Beginners]” as a writing manual).[32] Martha writes about a
man she knows only through her own, very muddied, memories. And, given her
unreliability on so many fronts, I would suggest that her accusations are of
things that only happened in her very troubled mind.


Martha describes herself in several places as one committed
to solid scholarship and hence persuaded only by evidence: “Thus began my
love affair with evidence” (p. 5); “I followed the Baconian
model of believing nothing until it was proven true” (p. 9); “I
became almost maniacally committed to . . . precise wording and
conditional assertion” (p. 209); “[My] strict sociological
education served me well in investigating the return of my repressed
memories” (p. 209). Throughout this book, as with her other books, it
is obvious that she distorts the record as much as or more than she reports it,
jumps to conclusions more than provides evidence leading to conclusions, and
blurs fact and fantasy. But to stick to the facts requires more than simply
assuring readers that you do. You actually have to stick to
them—something, it seems, that Martha seldom does.

Considering the nature of her allegations, it seems strange
that Martha is not more careful in recounting her story. As readers confront
the hyperbolic language, the inaccurate characterizations of Latter-day Saints,
the factual errors, and the distortions in this book, I believe they will be
forced to conclude that Martha Beck is not a reliable narrator. She is,
however, a fabulous storyteller. Perhaps we can learn something from Fawn
Brodie, who once wrote that, “A man’s memory is bound to be a distortion
of his past in accordance with his present interests, and the most faithful
autobiography is likely to mirror less what a man was than what he has
become.”[33] Martha has a very different life now
than she did when she and her now ex-husband collaborated on Breaking the
Cycle of Compulsive Behavior.
To retell her
past in such a distorted way may be nothing more than a heartbreaking attempt
to justify her leaving the Saints.

As Things Stand at the Moment:
Responding to Martha Beck’s
Leaving the Saints

I find myself in a strange predicament today. I had not
intended to discuss Martha Beck’s book Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith. FAIR did not ask me to speak about it, and,
personally, I would rather talk about something—anything—else. I knew that some might want to hear what
I have to say on the topic, that others might prefer not to hear what I have to
say. I also believe that, even though my position is obviously biased, I have
access to information that others do not have that documents the factual
distortions in Martha’s book. I understand this apologetic need to respond to
Martha’s allegations and feel it keenly. But as a family member, I also share
with my wife, her mother, and her brothers and sisters frustration and
resentment that all but one of the newspapers ran obituaries about Hugh Nibley
in which his significant life and legacy were overshadowed by the hideous lies
from Martha’s book. Furthermore, the timing of this whole ordeal has made it
horribly painful to us all. The New York Times brought Martha’s allegations to national attention
on 24 February 2005, the very day Hugh Nibley passed away.[34] So
please understand that I harbor great resentment about both the book and the
timing of its release.

Furthermore, I feel like most of what I have to say I have
already said in my response to her book. So I wanted to move on, to focus on
Hugh’s life and legacy, and to get beyond the shadow cast upon it by his
treacherous daughter. However, on 16 July, the Deseret News published an article about the Sunstone Symposium and FAIR’s conference, which said there
would be sessions at Sunstone
discussing Martha’s book and that I would be speaking about Martha’s
accusations here at FAIR’s conference.[35] The article went on to
note that Sunstone’s editor, Dan
Wotherspoon, had “considered inviting Beck to the conference but decided
against it, opting rather for a variety of panelists to offer their assessments
from praise to criticism.” It is true that Wotherspoon decided against
inviting Martha. His reasoning was that she did not meet the criteria of the Sunstone mission statement, which calls for a
“responsible interchange of ideas that is respectful of all people and
what they hold sacred.”[36] While Sunstone has had critical voices at its symposium,
Wotherspoon felt that Martha’s book is not just critical of Mormon culture, but
that the book mocks that culture and its temple rituals in a mean-spirited way.

As to my speaking about Martha here, I do not have a clue
where the reporter got that idea since the official conference program said I
would be speaking about Hugh Nibley. What makes this all so difficult is that
immediately following the publication of the Deseret News article, both FAIR and Sunstone received threatening letters from an attorney
representing Martha Beck and her partner Karen Gerdes, admonishing them that my
response to Martha’s book should not be discussed. It is not the first threatening letter FAIR and Sunstone have received from this attorney, nor is it the only
threatening letter he has sent out in an effort to silence critics. When my
response first appeared on Sunstone’s Web site, Beck and Gerdes threatened Sunstone. Martha’s ex-husband, John Beck, whom I quote in my
response, received a similar letter. To avoid any legal entanglements, I
personally asked Sunstone to
remove my response from their Web site, and I asked FAIR if they would be
interested in it. Not long after my response went up on FAIR’s Web site, FAIR
received a letter similar to the one Sunstone had received. John Beck and FAIR have both,
admirably, stood their ground. Evidently, there is material in my response that
deeply bothers both Martha Beck and Karen Gerdes. But I want to assure you that
there is nothing in that response that I know to be untrue. I believe it is, in
the end, the truth they do not like.

I find it deeply ironic that in her book Martha claims that
Latter-day Saints silence dissenters since Martha keeps trying to silence those
critical of her book. I find it equally curious that it is somehow all right to
trash the reputations of Hugh Nibley, the Nibley family, and the Church of
Jesus Christ with lies and unsubstantiated allegations, but it is not all right
to take issue with those lies by revealing the truth. Incidentally, at the July
2005 Sunstone Symposium, Martha sent her
cousin Sylvia (in Martha’s book, she is the cousin in the closet—it is
nice to know she has finally come out of the closet). Sylvia passed out a press
release stating that Martha was not invited to attend either of these
conferences because both Sunstone
and FAIR are “‘faith affirming’ for Mormons and apologist [sic] in nature.”[37] I think this may come
as a surprise to some, but I think it illustrates just how out-of-touch Martha
is. Furthermore, I am fairly confident that Martha could have walked through
those doors at Sunstone just as
easily as her cousin did. But perhaps she was afraid of those Sunstone Danites.

I also want to mention that Martha’s legal threats have not
been reserved only for those who respond to her in writing. We, as the Nibley
family, also received a threatening letter from Martha’s attorney warning us
not to contact Martha or Karen directly, but only through their lawyer. I want
everyone to know that it is not the Nibley family that has cut off Martha, but
Martha who has cut off her family. Despite this controversy, I do not want to
spend my time here rehashing the significant and numerous inconsistencies in
Martha’s book. But since Martha has thrown down the gauntlet, I do not want it
to appear that I am caving in to her demands. So let me take a few minutes to
analyze how this whole story seems to have played out to this point and to
clear up a few misconceptions that some readers of Martha’s book have had.
Before I do, however, let me state that my views are mine alone. They do not
represent the Nibley family nor do they represent FAIR. I alone am responsible
for what I have to say. Second, I do not want this to be part of my other talk.
That will be a completely separate matter.[38]

There was a silver lining to the cloud created by Leaving
the Saints
. We were thrice blessed: First,
Martha waited ten years after she recovered these memories before publishing
her exposé. To get a feel for how things might have played out if she had
written this book in the early or mid-1990s, one should read Massimo
Introvigne’s talk from the 1994 conference of the Mormon History Association,
in which he documents the paranoia, fear, and wounds these kinds of recovered
memories created.[39] Let me share with you just one
account from a woman who experienced the type of therapy that was rampant
during those days:

I saw a therapist in 1991 who was convinced that I had
been molested as a child and who insisted I do work to “recover”
memories of the abuse. I told her I knew very well that I’d never been molested
because of my gynecological history, but she insisted there was some horrible
trauma that I was repressing and that it had already happened by the time I was
five. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be suffering from such profound depression as an
adult (as if adolescence and puberty couldn’t be reason to become depressed).
So I dutifully sent myself into a trance, and, as she directed, walked down the
street of the house where my five-year-old self lived. My young self stood on
the front porch wearing red shorts and a red gingham shirt appliquéd with a
sailboat. The big self greeted the little self, hugged her, and said, “I
love you. I care about you. How are you? If something’s wrong, you can tell
me.” The five-year-old self looked at her skeptically and said, “I
don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m very happy. I think you should come
back later.”

I thought that was really funny but the therapist got really
mad and told me I’d done it wrong, at which point I said, “You’re a
crackpot and this is not helping me at all and I’m not coming back,” which
also made her mad. But thinking about it now I feel rather lucky, when I
consider what might have happened had I had a weaker mind or a reason to want
the hypnosis to produce something.[40]

This is the “therapeutic” social context for
Martha’s recovered memories. As silly as this sounds, in the early to
mid-1990s, there were many people “discovering” memories of abuse
that never happened and many people who experienced the real repercussions for
those accusations. The accused suffered alienation of their children’s
affection, embarrassment and shame when these false allegations were made
public, family disintegration, and, for some, time in jail for crimes they
never committed. Had Martha made these claims public ten years earlier, it
would have been a very different scenario than the one that has played out in
2005 when a decade of scientific evidence has shown these induced
“memories” to be fictions created through hypnosis.

The second blessing was that Martha wrote a very bad book.
Please do not get me wrong—Martha is a fine writer. She is witty, clever,
and sassy. She knows how to turn a phrase, how to make a reader laugh and cry.
In short, she can tell a tale. But here we had a narrative presented as history
that was so full of internal and external inconsistencies that readers had a
hard time believing her. This is quite a stroke of luck, because, as Tzvetan
Todorov has argued, readers implicitly trust a first-person narrative.[41]
But Leaving the Saints had Mormons,
former Mormons, non-Mormons, and even anti-Mormons shaking their heads in
bewilderment. The sheer number of problems with this book caused me to wonder
if maybe somewhere in Martha’s psyche she actually wanted to get caught, for
the truth to be revealed. I just do not know why she felt that she could get
away with this. Without the inconsistencies, the hyperbole, and the distortion,
her story, even though false, could have been compelling. But most readers have
come away from this book expressing the feeling that “if I can’t trust her
in the small details, how can I trust her in the big ones?”

Finally, we were blessed that the negative response to this
book came initially from the very place where it might have gained acceptance.
Whether this was because of the numerous inconsistencies in Martha’s book or
because of the status Hugh Nibley holds within the Mormon community—that
he is revered for his social criticism as well as his apologetics—it was
a significant departure from the past for the criticism to originate first from
Signature Books, Sunstone, and
Affirmation. The first negative response came from the marketing director of
Signature Books, Tom Kimball, who called the book “problematic” and
“most likely heavily laced with fiction.”[42] Sunstone’s reviewer, Tania Lyon, gave the book a fair trial; at
the end of the first reading, she admitted she was “persuaded.” But
by applying the analytical tools of her trade, pitting her Princeton sociology
PhD against Martha’s Harvard sociology PhD, she came to the conclusion that
“Martha’s case against Mormonism is . . . exaggerated and
shallow, the accuracy of her narrative style . . . suspect, and her
use of hyperbole in such a devastating accusation . . .
misplaced.”[43] Even Affirmation, the Gay Mormon
alliance, objected to the book. Stung by the hypocrisy of Martha’s homosexual
lifestyle in light of her previous characterization of homosexuality as a
“compulsive behavior” that can be changed and “cured,”
Affirmation posted a news story on their Web page declaring that “Martha
Beck’s credibility as an author is now in question” as Leaving
the Saints
“is being criticized for
its alleged inaccuracies.”[44] I have even seen some people on an
anti-Mormon board lament that any one of them could have written a better book
than did Martha. My perception is that Leaving the Saints has been received favorably by only three groups of
people: (1) those who know nothing about either Mormonism or false memory
syndrome, (2) those whose rage against the Church of Jesus Christ has
blinded them to the irrational content of this book, and (3) those who
have been abused and cannot separate Martha’s false victimhood from their own
very real, very legitimate victimhood.

I would also like to clear up a few details that have
confused some readers of Leaving the Saints.
First, to make claims is not the same as offering evidence. Allegations are not
proof. Martha has claimed a lot of things, but she has proven none of them. To
say something happened does not prove it happened; to say one has physical
evidence is not to show that evidence. Martha, to date, has offered no evidence
and has proven nothing. We are still at the level of he-said/she-said. But
Martha has given us a lot of evidence with which to judge who is the most
reliable witness. Hugh Nibley’s footnotes have held up much better than her
shoddy memoir.

Second, Martha has changed her story considerably, not only
between the time when she first began to recover her “memories” and
when she published the book, but even since the book was published. Back in the
1990s, she was fairly open about her use of hypnosis. She tried to convince her
sisters and her then husband to try self-hypnosis, and she fully admitted using
hypnosis herself. In the book she makes it sound as if the memories just
“popped out.” Since the book came out, however, she told a reporter
for the New York Times that she
“practiced self-hypnosis once under Ms. Finney but that it did not play a
part in her memory recovery.”[45] Then on her Web site Martha claimed
that when her first therapist “proposed a hypnosis session, [she] refused,
for the very reason that [she] didn’t want [her] experiences tainted by any
suggestive or leading methods.”[46] This is only one example of how
Martha has had a really hard time keeping her story straight.

Third, even though many have recognized that Martha is an
unreliable narrator, they still do not always recognize that when she reports
the words of others, she is equally unreliable. I have interviewed dozens of
the people Martha quotes in her book, and in every single instance they have
said Martha got it wrong—and not just a little wrong. No, she got things
glaringly, unrecognizably, completely wrong. So those reading Leaving the
should remember that when Martha
gives the words of her parents, they are really words invented by Martha; when
Martha gives the words of her brothers and sisters, they are really words
invented by Martha; when Martha gives the words of her former BYU colleagues,
her bishop, or her stake president, they are really words invented by Martha;
and even when Martha gives the words of her ex-husband, they are really words
invented by Martha. To wit, Martha’s mother did not admit that the abuse
happened and then later deny it, as Martha reports in her book. Martha’s
brothers and sisters do not believe she was physically abused, as Martha
reports in her book; and Martha’s father’s last words were not “she was my
favorite,” as Martha has reported to the press.

Let me also say that my response to Martha’s book was not
something I enjoyed writing; I did not want to smear her or attack her. I had
much better things—my family, my teaching, and my dissertation—that
needed my attention. But I also felt that her allegations needed a response; as
her father’s biographer and a family member, I had access to information to
which others were not privy. I also admit that I felt somewhat responsible that
Martha’s book included these allegations since I published them first in the
biography of her father, albeit in a very short sentence and a very long
footnote, and with, of course, a very different perspective. I struggled over
how to handle this episode of Hugh’s life for months—if I should include
it, how I should include it, and what the repercussions would be either way.
But I felt that the only real choice I had was to put it in so readers would
not think I was covering things up. The Nibley family was in consensus about
this too. All of them felt that it needed to be addressed. The response to the
open way I addressed this and other issues in the book has been overwhelmingly
positive. As I mentioned in my written response to Martha’s book, D. Michael
Quinn reviewed my book and stated that he felt “all readers will agree
that including this [candid] discussion in an ‘authorized biography’ is an
ultimate example of the dedication to honest history by Hugh Nibley, his wife,
and their children.”[47] Nevertheless, I still felt somehow
responsible, that perhaps if I had not mentioned this episode, Martha might not
have felt the need to write this book.[48] So it was partially
out of a desire to do penance that I took on the challenge to respond.

Writing my response was maddeningly frustrating. Hugh Nibley
once told me that writing Sounding Brass,
his response to anti-Mormon literature, was the hardest, most negative thing he
ever had to do—this coming from a man who survived the Great Depression,
World War II, and teaching for several decades in the Religion Department! At
the time I could not understand why he felt writing Sounding Brass was such an awful experience since the book is, I
believe, clever, satirical—in short, hilarious. But after responding to
Martha, I think I understand. I found it so difficult trying to discern where
the truth ended and the lies began that I felt as if I were descending into
some kind of personal hell. The lack of names made it impossible to figure out
who all the people were. The chronology of her life was so different from the
book’s chronology that it was easy to get disoriented (for example, the book
has the September Six excommunications occurring before the Spring Women’s
Conference where she allegedly made her revelation public). I got so frustrated
while trying to respond to her book that I literally broke three teeth; it was
not until the third that I realized I was holding in a lot of anger and
grinding my teeth—”if I had my teeth, I would bite,” as
Shakespeare says.

Yet I expressly did not want to attack Martha—I do not
hate her. I just hate what she has chosen to do. Nor did I want to be accused
of a personal attack. But how does one tell the true story of Martha’s life
without revealing the truth, which is not terribly flattering? What has
surprised me is that, to date, the only people who have told me that they found
my response to be a personal attack on Martha have been men. I had assumed that
women would be more sensitive to personal attacks than men. I do have a theory
about why it is men rather than women who think I was attacking Martha: I think
men tend to want to stick up for the little guy when they see one being
attacked. But I would like to remind listeners that this is exactly what I was
doing. I was sticking up for a 94-year-old man who could not stick up for
himself; I was defending my wife who is portrayed as a simple-minded nutcase in
Martha’s book; I was defending my children who do not deserve to have their
fine heritage stained with these terrible lies; and I was defending my church,
which was depicted in her book as a cult just to the right of Jonestown.

Further, I was responding to a woman who has the bully
pulpit of Random House and Oprah’s Harpo media conglomerate behind her. This is
also a woman who was trained in the martial arts; who kidnapped her aging
father when he was only days out of the hospital suffering from chest pains;
who held him hostage in a hotel room for over five hours with three other women
watching guard; who left her mother unattended after she had just been released
from the hospital with an infection that we all thought might take her from us;
who, when Hugh asked permission to leave, confesses in her book, “I’m sure
any patient, high-minded, enlightened person would let him go right now. Me,
I’m just getting started” (p. 111). Let me just ask, what if the
genders in that hotel room were reversed—what if four young men took a
90-year-old woman into a hotel room, kept her there against her will, and tried
to make her confess to a sexual crime she did not commit? This is not a poor
defenseless woman I am up against; this is a poor defenseless man I was

I am now more confused than ever about how to respond to the
works of anti-Mormons without attacking the person. I sincerely believe that ad
has no place in scholarly circles
and certainly no place in religious circles, but I am also more aware that a
writer’s personal background, often unknown to the public, can and often does
motivate anti-Mormon attacks and can be very relevant to the discussion. This
seems to be especially true when addressing a personal memoir, as with this

I have learned a few things as this episode has played out
in the press, discussion boards, chat rooms, and reviews. First, apologists
need to support each other. There were times when I felt so lonely while
writing my response, and no one in my ward could possibly understand what I was
going through. Responding to anti-Mormon attacks is nasty business, and we need
to support each other emotionally as we do this. Second, I believe we should
reach out where we can to the broader spectrum of Mormonism. My sense is that
we can disagree with people and still be polite. One can be supportive of the
church and still be respectful to those who may be critical. In this particular
case, I believe, the reviews attacking Leaving the Saints that originated with these less apologetic sources
had greater credibility in the press and with the general public. And they
appeared, I believe, because Hugh Nibley, despite his apologetic work, was
loved by a broad spectrum of the Mormon public. Finally, I learned that the truth
ultimately triumphs. Even though Hugh Nibley’s life story was tarnished by
these false allegations, his life was not. He died peacefully, knowing that he
had committed no evil. And, ultimately, most of the public is coming to realize
the same thing.


The first part of Petersen’s response to Beck’s book appears at (accessed 1 November 2005). The second
part, “As Things Stand at the Moment: Responding to Martha Beck’s Leaving
the Saints
,” pp. 240-51, is a
follow-up to the previous response and was presented at the 2005 FAIR
Conference. The text appears at
(accessed 1 November 2005).

[1]     Kirkus
72 (15 December 2004): 1174.

[2]     The one
exception to this is Martha’s treatment of the history of the Joseph Smith
Papyri (pp. 150-60), where she does give a fairly detailed account;
however, here she appears to rely mostly on Charles M. Larson’s By His Own
Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri
(1985; repr., Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious
Research, 1992), and she repeats several of Larson’s mistakes. A more
responsible approach is found in both John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph
Smith Papyri
(Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), and
Michael D. Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and
(Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002).

[3]     Boyd Jay Petersen, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life (Salt Lake City: Kofford Books, 2002).

[4]     Hugh Nibley, “Getting
Ready to Begin: An Editorial,” BYU Studies 8/3 (1968): 245-49.

[5]     Hugh Nibley, “A
New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” ran in the Improvement Era from January 1968 through May 1970; “Phase
One,” Dialogue 3/2 (1968):
99-105; “Prolegomena to Any Study of the Book of Abraham,” BYU
8/2 (1968): 171-78;
“Fragment Found in Salt Lake City,” BYU Studies 8/2 (1968): 191-94; “Getting Ready to
Begin,” 245-54; “As Things Stand at the Moment,”
BYU Studies
9/1 (1968): 69-102;
“What Is ‘The Book of Breathings?'” BYU Studies 11/2 (1971): 153-87; “The Meaning of the
Kirtland Egyptian Papers,” BYU Studies 11/4 (1971): 350-99.

[6]     Hugh Nibley, The
Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment
(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975). Martha is
acknowledged for her help “drawing some of the pictures” on page

[7]     Since this response was first written, Martha has
objected to this characterization of her memories, stating that it makes light
of her allegations. But if I made this assumption, I was not alone. Many of the
early reviews mentioned it. While there is nothing explicitly linking the dream
sequence about Amut the Destroyer and the ritual abuse described in Leaving
the Saints,
the way Martha tells the
story implies a causal chain of related events.

On page 146, Martha asks
Hugh, “But I’m not at all clear how the Egyptian stuff ties in.
. . . It was so bizarre. Do you remember that?” Then she says,
the “peculiar details” of her memories—”they were so weird“—caused her to doubt herself, but “in
the end, reinforced [her] conviction” that she had not made them up. She
states that “the flashes of memory included hearing him mention Egypt
repeatedly, and this aspect of my memories baffled me at first.” Then she
discusses her nightmare of Amut the Destroyer standing outside her room. Later
she talks about encountering her “nemesis” in a child’s book. Then
she talks about asking her father “do you remember my alligator dreams?
. . . The nightmares I had every week or two?” She says that his
response was that she “was being ‘pursued by an evil spirit'”
(p. 147).

As Meier Sternberg (or any Reader Response theorist for
that matter) would argue, every act of reading is a process of gap filling, of
putting together pieces of information that make sense of the text. And every
reader is forced to make sense of a text by following the directions given by
the writer. Here Martha may or may not have intentionally wanted us to believe
that her father wore an Egyptian costume while he is supposed to have abused
her, but the causal chain produced by juxtaposing this material together
certainly leads the reader to this conclusion. If it is a misreading, it is a
result of sloppy writing, not of sloppy reading.

[8]     Martha Beck, Expecting
(New York: Times Books, 1999), 169.

[9]     See Martha
Nibley Beck, “Cultivating Faith: LDS Students at New England
Universities,” Ensign, July 1984,
32-36. Martha Nibley Beck and John C. Beck, Breaking the Cycle
of Compulsive Behavior
(Salt Lake City:
Deseret Book, 1990), xi.

[10]   Beck, Expecting Adam, 243.

[11]   John Beck, e-mail
correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 8 January 2005. In fact, Martha’s paper
trail of exaggeration goes back to her very first published article, Martha
Nibley, “A Tale of Two Universities,” which appeared in BYU Today, November 1982, 3-6. There she compared the
intellectual rigor and “Creeping Cynicism” of Harvard with the
“safety” and intellectual indolence of BYU, where she was attending
while taking her year off to get counseling for anorexia. For example, she described
a comparative literature class in which overwhelmed students complained about
being given a syllabus with a whole page of readings. Comparing it to Harvard,
Martha lamented, “I can check out some supplementary stuff to make this
feel like a class” (ibid., 5). Her credibility was tweaked by a
letter to the editor from George S. Tate, then chair of the Department of
Humanities and Comparative Literature, in the March 1983 issue of BYU
. Tate confessed that Martha’s essay
was “delightful, reflective, and remarkably mature,” but objected to
Martha’s “distortion of fact” since the syllabus was, in fact, four
pages long, and “the teacher of the course received his training and
taught at Harvard before coming to BYU, and if anything characterizes his teaching,
it is a conscious effort to transplant the best of the Harvard tradition to
BYU” (ibid., 49).

[12]   Beck, Expecting Adam, 7.

[13]   Beck, Expecting Adam, 327.

[14]   John Beck, e-mail to
Petersen, 8 January 2005.

[15]   Furthermore, it was with
the full knowledge and support of Hugh, Phyllis, and other family members that
I included Martha’s accusations in my Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, 400 and 400-401 n. 13. A family that feels it
has something to hide does not make such revelations public. In a recent review
of my biography, D. Michael Quinn stated that “including this discussion
in an ‘authorized biography’ is an ultimate example of the dedication to honest
history by Hugh Nibley, his wife, and their children,” in review of Hugh
Nibley: A Consecrated Life,
by Boyd Jay
Petersen, Journal of Mormon History
30/2 (2004): 261.

[16]   Sonia Johnson, From
Housewife to Heretic
(Garden City, NY:
Doubleday, 1981).

[17]   BYU Forum interview of
Hugh Nibley by Louis Midgley, 21 May 1974. A transcript of the event has
been available through FARMS as “Nibley the Scholar.”

[18]   Dr. Russell D. Meldrum,
e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 20 January 2005; 21 January
2005. This doctor described a similar episode he encountered in his
professional duties. The daughter of one of his patients was diagnosed with ovarian
cancer, and the stress of this situation proved too much for the mother, so she
“forgot” that she had a daughter. The situation at hand can easily
bring on the symptoms of amnesia.

[19]   John Beck, e-mail
correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 17 January 2005.

[20]   Lynne D. Finney, Reach
for the Rainbow: Advanced Healing for Survivors of Sexual Abuse
(Park City, UT: Changes, 1990).

[21]   Following the
“memory wars” of the 1990s, Finney is now a “retired
psychotherapist” who bills herself as an “author, educator, life
coach, motivational speaker, [and] lawyer.” See her Web page at (accessed 2 November 2005).

[22]   John Beck, e-mail
correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 8 January 2005; 18 January 2005; and
8 February 2005.

[23]   “Adult Spiritual
Development: A Conversation with Francine R. Bennion and Martha N. Beck,”
in Women and Christ: Living the Abundant Life, ed. Dawn Hall Anderson, Susette Fletcher Green, and Marie Cornwall
(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993), 145-66; Martha N. Beck,
“Invincible Summer: Finding Grace Within,” in Women in the
Covenant of Grace,
ed. Dawn Hall Anderson
and Susette Fletcher Green (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994), 79-94,
especially 87 and 93.

[24]   John Beck, e-mail
correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 8 January 2005; 8 February 2005.
Although Martha has not been eager to share this information, I want to be
clear that I am not “outing” her. She hinted at this detail on the
dust jacket to Expecting Adam, which
states: “She lives in Phoenix with her husband, three children, and best
friend, Karen.” In an article published for, she wrote about
buying a house with both John and Karen and described Karen as being “her
other mother,” someone who is naturally able to nurture both Martha and
Martha’s children (,
accessed 2 November 2005). Even though Martha never discusses this in Leaving
the Saints,
the Web site accompanying the
book states that Martha “lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her three
teenagers; her partner of ten years, Karen Gerdes, a professor of social work,
and their two dogs” at (accessed
2 November 2005).

[25]    Todd Compton, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen,
8 January 2005; Glen Cooper, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen,
25 December 2004; John Gee, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen,
27 December 2004; William Hamblin, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen,
24 December 2004; Stephen Ricks, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen,
9 January 2005.

Likely the most damning
review of Hugh’s scholarly work has been Kent P. Jackson’s review of Old
Testament and Related Studies,
vol. 1
of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, which appeared in BYU Studies 28/4 (1988): 114-19. In that review, Jackson
critiques Nibley’s “tendency to gather sources from a variety of cultures
all over the ancient world, lump them all together, and then pick and choose
the bits and pieces he wants” and to read into these sources things that
“simply don’t seem to be there” (ibid., 115). He says Hugh takes
phrases out of context, does not provide sufficient documentation for some
sources, provides documentation “overkill” on others, and does not
give sufficient evidence for some of his assertions. Additionally, Jackson took
Nibley to task for his sarcasm and name-calling, “which have no place in
serious scholarship” (ibid., 116). But in all of this, Jackson never hints
that Nibley simply “made up” his sources. For a further discussion of
this criticism, see the review of Beck’s book by Kent P. Jackson, “Leaving
the Facts and the Faith,” FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 119-20; and Louis Midgley,
“The First Steps,” FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): lii-liii n. 96.

John Gee recently completed a
statistical analysis of one of Hugh’s articles chosen at random to establish the
accuracy of the footnotes. In looking at Hugh’s essay “Victoriosa
Loquacitas: The Rise of Rhetoric and the Decline of Everything Else” as it
appeared in its original form in Western Speech 20/2 (1956): 57-82 (reprinted in The Ancient
[Salt Lake City: Deseret Book
and FARMS, 1991], 243-86), Gee discovered that “87% of the footnotes
were completely correct, 8% of the footnotes contained typographical errors, 5%
were wrong in some other way (e.g., frequently right author, right page, wrong
title). In no case could I determine that any of the errors in the footnotes
were intentional or that any of the footnotes were fabrications” (John
Gee, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 13 January 2005).

In a later study, Gee
analyzed the footnotes in one of Hugh’s Egyptian works, Message of the
Joseph Smith Papyri.
Selecting a
chapter from the book at random (chapter 3, the second-longest chapter in the
book), Gee found that “94% of the citations were correct, 4% were
typographical errors, and 2% were wrong.” It was Gee’s determination that
“the results seem to show that Nibley was more accurate when dealing with
a Mormon topic, that his Egyptian work was more accurate than his classics
work, and that his work on Message
was better than normal, not worse.” Further, Gee stated that “I have
never seen any case where Hugh Nibley ever fabricated or made up a source.
After looking up thousands of citations, I have seen him make just about every
mistake I think one could make, but I have never seen him make up anything”
(John Gee, e-mail correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 14 March 2005).

Todd Compton wrote to me (e-mail, 8 January 2005):
“I was very disillusioned with Nibley’s scholarship when I checked his
footnotes carefully. However, I believe he was misinterpreting, not making
things up. Furthermore, I believe that saying that 90% of his footnotes were
wrong is a wild overstatement, based on my experience editing Mormonism and
Early Christianity
.” As William
Hamblin has pointed out, “sloppiness is not dishonesty; it is not good,
but it is not fraud” (William Hamblin, e-mail correspondence to Boyd
Petersen, 12 January 2005).

[26]   Duane E. Jeffery,
“Noah’s Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions,” Sunstone, October 2004, 27-45.

[27]   Klaus Baer,
correspondence to Jerald and Sandra Tanner, 13 August 1968, copy in my

[28]   Larson, By His Own
Hand Upon Papyrus,
54, states falsely that
Hugh studied Egyptian only after he learned about the papyri. While
Martha does not name the sources she used for her research, Martha recommends
Larson’s book on the book’s accompanying Web page at (accessed 2 November 2005).

[29]   See Hugh Nibley,
“The Roman Games as a Survival of an Archaic Year-Cult” (PhD diss.,
University of California, Berkeley, 1939); “Sparsiones,” Classical
40/9 (1945): 515-43
(reprinted in Ancient State,
148-94); “The Book of Mormon as a Mirror of the East,” Improvement
April 1948, 202-4; 249-51
(essentially reprinted as “Men of the East,” in Lehi in the
Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites
[Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988],
25-42); “The Arrow, the Hunter, and the State,” Western
Political Quarterly
2/13 (1949):
328-44 (reprinted in Ancient State, 1-32); and “Egypt Revisited,” which ran in the Improvement
from March through June 1956 (reprinted
in Lehi in the Desert,
308-49). Thanks to John Gee for his research on Hugh’s use of Egyptian,
which he published in his review of Larson’s book, “A Tragedy of
Errors,” FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 4 (1992): 93-119.

[30]   While it is unclear
exactly when Hugh first learned for certain of the papyri’s existence, the
first time he discussed rumors of the papyri’s existence is when he wrote to
Klaus Baer that “recent evidence has been claimed that [the Joseph Smith
Papyri] escaped the [Chicago] fire and are still kicking around somewhere”
(10 August 1962); by March 1963, Hugh wrote Baer, “Somebody here has
just located a pile of unpublished and unknown Egyptian manuscripts that were
in the possession of Joseph Smith. I haven’t seen them yet, but there may be
something significant” (29 March 1963). Baer was, at the same time,
apparently aware of the papyri’s existence. Baer later stated that he saw
photographs of the papyri as early as 1963 (Klaus Baer, correspondence to
Jerald Tanner, 13 August 1968). So it is very likely that by the time his
1966/67 sabbatical rolled around, Hugh was aware that the papyri existed and
that the church might acquire them. However, Baer later wrote that he doubted
“very much that [Hugh’s] stay in Chicago had anything to do with
purchasing the papyri” (Klaus Baer, correspondence to Wesley P. Walters,
29 August 1967, my private collection). Regardless, to suggest that Hugh’s
interest in and study of Egyptian began after the papyri were acquired is
completely incorrect. See my treatment of the events surrounding the discovery
of the Joseph Smith Papyri in Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, 314-24.

[31]   See Kallee Nielsen,
“Modesty a Given for Most Students,” BYU Newsnet, 15 March 2002,
(accessed 28 November 2005). Just to be certain, I spoke with Gordon Daines,
the university archivist at BYU, about this allegation. He went through all the
relevant official papers from the period on the Honor Code and found nothing
about pubic hair and socks.

[32]   Found in Tinkling
Cymbals and Sounding Brass
(Salt Lake City:
Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 474-580. For such a comparison, see the
review of Beck’s book by Gregory Taggart, “How Martha Wrote an Anti-Mormon
Book (Using Her Father’s Handbook as Her Guide?),” FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 123-70.

[33]   Fawn M. Brodie, No Man
Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet,
2nd ed. (New York: Knopf, 1971), 275.

[34]    Edward Wyatt, “A Mormon Daughter’s Book Stirs a
Storm,” New York Times,
24 February 2005, E1. The following day, the same reporter wrote the
obituary for the Times. Edward
Wyatt, “Hugh Nibley, Outspoken Mormon Scholar, Dies at 94,” New
York Times,
25 February 2005,
A21. Although the obituary was very respectful, Martha’s claims were front and

[35]   Carrie A. Moore,
“Smith is Focus of 2 Annual Gatherings: Sunstone and FAIR Conferences Plan
Variety of Topics,” Deseret News, 16 July
2005, E1.

[36]   Found at (accessed 20 November 2005).

[37]   “Best-Selling Author
Responds to Conferences’ Panel Discussions and Sessions Based on Her
Controversial Book, Leaving the Saints,
27 July 2005. Distributed at Sunstone panel #162 “How Reliable Are
Our Memories? Memory Creation and Retrieval in Relation to Martha Beck’s Leaving
the Saints,
” 28 July 2005.

[38]   “What I Learned
about Life, the Church, and the Cosmos from Hugh Nibley” at (accessed 16 December 2005).

[39]   Massimo Introvigne,
“A Rumor of Devils: Allegations of Satanic Child Abuse and Mormonism,
1985-1994″; see (accessed 2 November 2005).

[40]   Holly Welker, e-mail
correspondence to Boyd Petersen, 16 July 2005.

[41]   Tzvetan Todorov, The
Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973), 84: “The
first-person narrator most readily permits the reader to identify with the
character, since as we know the pronoun ‘I’ belongs to everyone.”

[42]   Tom Kimball’s review is
available at (accessed 2 November 2005).

[43]   Tania Rands Lyon,
“An Exhausted Memoir of Reading Leaving the Saints,Sunstone, March 2005, 62-67, specifically 63 and 67.

[44]   One of the three central
case studies in her book Breaking the Cycle of Compulsive Behavior is a homosexual. See Jason Clark, “LDS Couple
Who Dubbed Homosexuality ‘Addiction’ Come Out,” 27 February 2005, at (accessed 2 November 2005).

[45]   Wyatt, “A Mormon
Daughter’s Book Stirs a Storm.”

[46]   Martha Beck,
“Setting the Record Straight: Physical Evidence and Memories from My
Childhood” (accessed 2 November 2005).

[47]   Quinn, review of Hugh
Nibley: A Consecrated Life,

[48]   Martha told a reporter
from the Arizona Republic that “I
only decided to publish after my family put their account out there. Two years
ago my brother-in-law (Boyd Jay Petersen) wrote a biography (Hugh
Nibley: A Consecrated Life
) that deified my
father.” Susan Felt, “Tale of Abuse Draws Fire from Church and
Family,” Arizona Republic, 16 March
2005. If my book “deifies” her father, that is not the sense most
readers have come away with, since they have unanimously told me that they were
surprised by the “warts-and-all” way I told the story. But then I
suspect Martha only read one page of the book.