Forgive and survive

Everybody should have a chance to tell their own story, but few will manage to do it as well as Martha Beck. Best known as an advice columnist for O, Oprah Winfrey’s women’s magazine, Beck is what they call a “life coach.” She helps other people become the person they want to be.

Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith is a very personal story. Like so many memoirs that involve recovered memory, it contains the discovery of sexual abuse by Beck’s father, Hugh W. Nibley. In this case, though, the dysfunction and abuse of Beck’s childhood occur within the larger context of her father’s role as one of the most famous apologists for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS).

Nibley is almost as well-known in Mormon households as Joseph Smith; for decades, he was the go-to guy for the church hierarchy when they needed a scholarly defense. His place as the pre-eminent apologist for the Mormons was set with his 1946 book, No Ma’am, That’s Not History, a rebuttal of Fawn Brodie’s famous biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History.

Beck frames her story around a hotel-room conversation she had with her father a few years ago, at a time when she hoped he would acknowledge the harm he’d done her and allow reconciliation between them. While that reconciliation was not to be, Beck’s book is unusual among the memoirs of abuse survivors in that it is far more concerned with finding a way to heal than it is with recounting her survival.

Beck uses a surprising amount of laugh-out-loud humor, and she’s scathingly iconoclastic, especially when it comes to the inner workings of the LDS. And, while it’s apparent that Beck loved her father, she is unflinching in her criticism of his failures as a father, husband and scholar.

Perhaps the most intellectually interesting part of the book is the insider’s view of life as a Utah Mormon. As a Harvard University Ph.D. and faculty member at Brigham Young University (BYU), Beck had a catbird seat for the intellectual “witch hunts” on campus that led to the excommunication of a number of Mormon scholars in the mid-1990s. The tense atmosphere and intolerance for intellectual freedom that persisted on the BYU campus led both Beck and her then-husband to finally leave the church.

Nibley denied Beck’s accusations until his death, and her siblings have established a Web site in which they defend their father. They claim that Beck used hypnosis to recover her memories, making them suspect; that recovered memories are untrustworthy in general; and that the therapist Beck used has been discredited. Beck doesn’t address any of these criticisms in the book.

There also are a host of complaints about the book from Mormon apologists who claim she misrepresents the church and got the details wrong. A certain amount of backlash is to be expected, especially when the alleged perpetrator had such standing in a religious community.

But by far the most worthwhile aspect of Leaving the Saints has less to do with either Mormonism or child abuse and more to do with following one’s own spiritual path. Beck’s memoir focuses on the steps she took to ensure that she would not only survive, but also thrive.

The most valuable thing in Leaving the Saints for survivors of any kind of abuse is the way Beck illustrates the power of forgiveness: that we don’t forgive because the other person has earned it or deserves it, but because he or she needs it. In finding her way, Beck has illustrated forgiveness as a prerequisite for peace of mind and spirit.