In Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, Martha Beck recounts her experiences in the Mormon church. As the daughter of a highly respected Mormon apologist, the Mormon faith played a foundational role in Beck’s life. She left Utah to study at Harvard, then moved back to teach part time at Brigham Young University while completing her doctoral dissertation in sociology. She returned in part because she found the Mormon community to be more accepting of her young son with Down Syndrome than her friends and colleagues in Boston.
The Mormon community’s acceptance of her child’s disability was admirable, but most of the other things she described about Mormonism, from her wedding ceremony with threats of death if she betrayed its secrets, to the polygamy which is still part of church teaching (while Mormons are no longer supposed to have multiple wives on Earth, they can have them in Heaven), to the extremely patriarchal class structure, were disturbing in varying degrees. Beck’s description of the academic limitations placed on BYU professors reads like something out of 1984. While researching Sonia Johnson
, a feminist Mormon who challenged the church’s teachings, she found that all references to the woman had been systematically removed from the BYU library. When she looked up citations in newspapers, the sections were missing. If faculty members challenged church teachings, they could be fired and excommunicated. As they had been instructed to publish only in official Mormon publications, regardless of their academic area, it could be nearly impossible for them to find positions in other academic institutions after leaving BYU.
The parts of this book dealing with Mormon history and doctrine were fascinating. Beck was less convincing, however, when discussing her struggle recovering a repressed memory of being sexually abused by her father as a child. Not surprisingly, this revelation creates a major divide in her family as well as within the church, which seems to treat survivors of childhood sexual abuse in a dismissive fashion.
Beck does not come across as the most reliable of narrators. Her eagerness to embrace certain types of phenomena like near-death experiences and astral projection does not seem consistent with her stated insistence on empirical proof. She talks about having a dream that someone named Dana will come to her aid, and then speaks of meeting Diane and Miranda two days later, with several of the same letters as the name Dana, as if that is fulfillment of a psychic prediction. This type of thinking makes her come across as a bit flaky. Beck’s (now ex-) husband left a one-star review of this book on Amazon, challenging her statements that they received phone calls and letters threatening violence and death when he left the Mormon church. Notably, however, her ex-husband does not challenge her statements about what happened at BYU.Leaving the Saints
is a well-written account of several controversial subjects. Beck’s allegations paint a disturbing picture of the hierarchy of the Mormon church, but the book suffers from questions about her credibility.