You may know author Martha Beck from her bestselling self-help titles such as Finding Your Own North Star and Steering by Starlight. Both of those books were of immense help to me during difficult transitions in my own life, but I had no idea when I was reading them just how hard-won were the insights that Beck shares in those books. No idea how dark were the caves from which she had to emerge in order to catch a glimpse of her own North Star. Only just last week did I discover her soul-piercing memoir Leaving the Saints, which, although its subtitle says it’s about “How [She] Lost the Mormons and Found [Her] Faith,” is in truth about so, so much more.
Beck grew up in Utah, the daughter of one of the intellectual heroes of the LDS church. She went away to study at Harvard and stayed on to get a doctorate in sociology. It was while she was working toward her PhD that she and her husband discovered they were pregnant with a baby who had Down syndrome. Beck’s community in Boston was less than supportive of her decision to keep her baby, and it was then that she and her husband decided to move back to Utah, where they knew the Mormon community would embrace their child with open arms.
Beck was filled with relief to be coming back to a community of such extreme kindness and helpfulness, and was also filled with a personal desire to throw herself back into a religion she had somewhat scorned as a free-thinking teenager. During her recent pregnancy, she had had some amazing spiritual experiences that convinced her there was more to the world than the material plane, and she was intent on dedicating herself to finding a way to commune more wholly and constantly with the overwhelming Love she had fleetingly glimpsed. With this goal in mind, she threw herself wholeheartedly back into Mormon religious life.
But, as she did so, something disturbing began to happen. With each passing day, she seemed not to be getting closer to Heaven but to Hell. She found herself afflicted with hair-raising nightmares, which had her repeatedly screaming in her sleep and sometimes leaping out of bed and raising her hands as though to protect herself from some unseen attack. During the day, she was becoming increasingly immobilized by inexplicable pain in her thighs and lower back, as well as her hands, to the point where she could barely hold a pencil. And yet doctors couldn’t seem to find anything physically wrong with her.
It wasn’t until one day when she and her husband were leading a workshop in group process at Brigham Young University that the truth began to show its face. During the free discussion that was part of the group process demonstration, several students began opening up about having been sexually abused. And it was as Beck listened to their stories that her pain suddenly intensified to its most horrifying level ever. She staggered from the room just in time to feel a giant rip tear through her private region and then fell to the floor unconscious.
In the days following this episode, Beck began to remember things. Memories starting at the age of 5, which involved being tied to a bed and trying desperately to focus on the pain of the cord biting into her wrists instead of the pain of what was going on down there. And most disturbing of all, these memories involved…her father.
Suddenly, so many things from Beck’s past began to make sense. Including the fact that at her first OB/GYN visit, the doctor had scoffed at her insistence that she had never been sexually active. Or the fact that her father had never managed to hold an actual conversation with her.
Unsurprisingly, processing this information was a long, hard road for Beck, as it would be for anyone in similar circumstances. And yet underlying her entire memoir is a strong current of compassion, for herself but surprisingly also for her father. Very prominent is her desire to understand her father, his own background of abuse and his own tortured internal life. Woven through her entire book is an account of her last attempted conversation with her father, which led to some surprising revelations.
One of the things Beck wanted to do in this conversation was to let her father know that she did not think God would punish him for what he had done. While undergoing surgery following her collapse at the group process session, Beck had had a near-death experience, complete with an encounter with an unutterably beautiful and compassionate Light. She wanted to share this experience with her aging father, hoping it would give him some comfort when he thought about the afterlife. To her surprise, when she broached with him the topic of near-death experiences, he revealed that he too had had one–with some fascinating differences from her own. And yet despite being willing to share a few confidences like this one, Beck’s father refused to admit that he had ever abused her. He preferred to call her a liar.
The most heart-breaking thing about Beck’s memoir, aside from the initial childhood abuse, is the persistent refusal of her entire family as well as the LDS community to acknowledge that it ever happened. As her years in Utah wore on, Beck heard from more and more people about their own experiences of sexual abuse within Mormonism and became more and more dismayed by the church’s unwillingness to speak about the problem. The Mormon code of silence related to all things sexual–and in fact to anything at all that might be damaging to the church or its high-ranking officials–became unbearable for Beck. And for her own honesty about her childhood, she was rewarded by being ostracized from the community she once found so supportive and welcoming. Ultimately, she and her husband felt they had no choice but to resign their membership in the LDS church and, to protect themselves and their children from the backlash, move to another state.
Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints is the keenest, most informative memoir I have read about life within mainstream Mormonism. But even more than that, it is a superb testimony to the power of truth to heal a person both physically and emotionally. And to the surprisingly supernatural ways in which Love can make itself known in the direst of circumstances.