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Rebel Mormon's memoir ignites a furor

Published February 5, 2005 4:13 am

Accusations: Author Martha Nibley Beck claims her father, a respected LDS intellectual, abused her
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A daughter of famed Mormon intellectual Hugh Nibley has accused him of ritually abusing her as a 5-year-old, possibly wearing some kind of Egyptian garb and imitating the sacrifice of the biblical Abraham.

Martha Nibley Beck makes this and a host of other allegations against her aged father, mother, siblings, Brigham Young University, Mormons in general as well as leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in an explosive new book, Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith.

Beck, author of the best-seller Expecting Adam, takes the far side of often virulent debates about recovered memories of sexual abuse versus false memories, dissidents versus the LDS Church, scholarly debate about the veracity of Mormon truth claims, and feminists versus patriarchal religions.

For many, especially non-LDS readers, it will be a compelling tale, enlivened by hilarious as well as agonized dispatches from Mormon country.

Beck's "sarcastic self-scrutiny and laugh-out-loud prose elevate her story far above the run-of-the-mill dysfunctional family memoir," said a Dec. 15 review in Kirkus.

But Publisher's Weekly said the book was "marred by shallow, formulaic anti-Mormon criticisms." And Tom Kimball, a Utah marketing director, compared it to "a 19th century anti-Mormon narrative of Utah where women claimed to have jumped into the Great Salt Lake from the towers of the Salt Lake Temple and swam to safety."

Kimball worries that such an approach will "undermine the credibility of those who have been legitimately abused by family and others and . . . that apologists will use Martha's exaggerations and fabrications as an excuse to discredit legitimate Mormon scholars who are critical of traditional or orthodox Mormon claims."

Adds BYU sociologist Marie Cornwall: "If you believe 'Desperate Housewives' is an accurate reflection of American society, then you'll believe this book."

Leaving the Saints is scheduled to be published on March 8, the same month that Nibley will turn 95. Beck, a columnist for Oprah Winfrey's magazine O and a "life coach," will be promoting the book on a national tour - which won't be stopping in Utah - hoping to sell the first printing of 75,000 copies.

Though the book is not yet available to the public, Beck said Friday that she has been receiving "a lot of nasty e-mails."

Most of the large Nibley clan, including Beck's seven siblings, have read parts or all of it. They have known about their sister's accusations for more than a decade, but only heard about the book last November from her ex-husband, John Beck. At that time, several of her sisters tried to talk her out of publishing what they see as outrageous lies about their father and their family.

"I don't believe it, not remotely," said Zina Nibley Petersen, the next-youngest sister who shared a room and a bunk bed with Beck for much of their childhood.

Martha had the upper bunk. One day when they were very small, the two were playing on the top bunk when the slats shifted and the mattress collapsed, dumping them on the floor and knocking out two of Zina's teeth.

"That was with two little wispy girls," Petersen recalled. "To say nothing of an adult trying to manipulate a child into sex."

Their room was next-door to their parents', she said, and their mother was a light sleeper. Doors were always open and walls were thin, she said.

Christina Nibley Mincek, the eldest daughter, said Beck's details of her abuse grew after she first started telling them the story in the early 1990s. She added the Egyptian elements and vaginal scarring later, Mincek said. She believes Beck's experience corresponds to someone who had a false implanted memory.

Beck read Courage to Heal, a kind of how-to book about unleashing recovered memories that was popular in the early 1990s, and was in therapy. And she experimented with self-hypnosis, Mincek said.

"Martha wanted to teach me and her sisters how to recover these memories," she said.

None did.

Even Rebecca Nibley, whom all siblings agree is Beck's strongest supporter in the family, doesn't believe their father abused anyone.

"The one thing she wanted so badly was for us to say, 'it happened to me too,' " she said. "But we couldn't because it didn't."

And Nibley, four years older than Beck, is surprised that her sister failed to mention several key facts in this memoir: that Beck and her husband are divorced and that both are gay.

"When the key issue in the book is her sexuality and how she got the way she is, to leave that out is going to make her look foolish," Rebecca Nibley said.

Beck responded that she left out that information because Leaving is a memoir of her life between the ages of 25 and 30.

"At the time, I knew that my then husband John had struggled with homosexual attractions and behavior for most of his life," she said.

The family has hired Christopher Barden, a psychologist and lawyer who has testified in court cases on False Memory Syndrome. He has compiled affidavits from all the Nibley siblings, some in-laws and their mother, Phyllis. They are considering legal action against Beck or her publisher, Random House in New York.

Hugh Nibley has been bedridden for two years and is mostly lucid, Alex Nibley said. He is aware of the accusations and vehemently denies them.

Mormons have been feverishly circulating excerpts of the book on the Internet. An editor's note mentioned it at the bottom of Beck's column in January, and Nibley family friend Linda Smith has launched an e-mail campaign to dissuade Oprah from giving Beck an additional platform in her magazine or on her show to promote the book.

Such an organized reaction is "really surprising," Beck said by telephone from her home in Phoenix. "I don't feel I'm significant enough."

But just about anyone else would have predicted the onslaught.

Her book makes many exaggerated claims about Mormons and Mormonism: that the governing First Presidency maintains a "death squad . . . to deal with malcontents," that the incidence of sex abuse among Mormon families far exceeds any other group, that "virtually all Mormons agree with the current prophet that mothers should not work under any circumstances," that the church wire-tapped her home phone, that BYU removed all mention of Equal Rights Amendment Mormon activist Sonia Johnson from its library and that a Provo hairdresser insisted Beck get permission from her husband before cutting her hair.

But more than anything, this book is about her view of one of the church's most favored sons: Hugh Nibley.

For more than 50 years, he was leadership's go-to scholar on LDS claims about the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon. The BYU-based Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) has spent the last couple of decades building on his research.

Beck writes that 90 percent of his books' footnotes are invented, a fact disputed by numerous proofreaders. And she blames the LDS Church for putting her father in a bind by demanding that he prop up indefensible history.

"He could either lose his job, his livelihood, his social standing, his bully pulpit, by publicly revealing information that would undermine the very foundation of Mormonism, or he could lie flat out," she writes. "In a way, I admire him for choosing the only other alternative: he went crazy."

Beck's family says she's the unstable one.

"She has a long history of mental illness, especially anorexia and depression," Mincek said. "I am worried about her. [The negative mail] is probably throwing her into a total panic."

On the contrary, Beck is at peace with her book.

"I write memoir and self-help because trusted editors and my own heart seem to push me toward dealing with the most difficult issues of real life," she said. "I wrote this book now because it is about an experience that taught me more than any other experience of my life about fear and pain as a path to compassion, forgiveness, and hope."

pstack@sltrib.com