What do we call those who trade belonging with truth, so they can be free of the legacy of childhood abuse or domestic violence, if not warriors? Martha Beck is such a woman. Her memoir, Leaving the Saints, is a sequel of sorts to her bestselling book, Expecting Adam. This time the story is about Martha, who could not have imagined the confluence of events that would open her mind to the unimaginable truth about her past.
After the birth of her child Adam, Martha and her young family return to Utah, the heartland of the Mormon faith where she grew up. She settles into the supportive Mormon community, and takes a position at the Brigham Young University. Lecturing in feminism was never going to be easy for Beck here – it was an act of courage that came with the risk of losing her job, if not her association with everyone she knew and loved, including her family.
Although Beck acknowledges the selfless good deeds of many Latter-day Saints (as the followers of the faith call themselves), she also shows Mormonism up to be the ‘difficult parent’, who demands loyalty at the expense of a member’s ‘mind and soul’. And for female followers, the sacrifice can also include the flesh. Eventually she is shocked by the apparent wide-scale evidence of sexual abuse of girls in the faith. She says, “It is virtually impossible to describe how thoroughly Mormon culture still maintains the standard of submissive, obedient women, and powerful, infallible male leaders.”
As a result of her meticulous research, Beck discovers the depth of fraud behind the scriptures of the Mormon faith, a religion created by Joseph Smith in the 1830s, which is now followed by over 15 million people world-wide. She is sickened, as is the reader, by the magnitude of the contract of pretence and censorship that its followers are forced to comply with.
On a personal level, we watch as Beck is drawn into the slow-burn of what psychologists call sanctuary trauma, “the result of … running for protection to the very places and people who reaffirm the message” of the original trauma.
It is in this context that Beck also explores her relationship with her father, a prominent Mormon elder with a very public profile. By the time Martha’s story takes place he is a very old, emotionally supressed man, possibly suffering from PTSD. Even when Martha was young, he proved himself to be so self-absorbed that he would sometimes break into one of the many languages he is proficient at in the middle of a conversation, in total disregard for his listener. He also goes to surreal lengths when called on to discuss difficult topics by quoting from classic literature rather than using his own words, to which Beck, with a similarly keen intellect, is able to respond in kind.
The endurance of Martha Beck in her efforts to hold on to her family of origin without forfeiting herself, and what she knows to be true, are nothing short of epic. Deeply curious, Martha continues her quest to understand her father and the faith that consumes him. Her wisdom and personal maturity seem to develop within the pages of this book. Towards the end, her deep desire to reconcile her experiences with her religion generates an accumulation of wisdom and a personal philosophy of life that emanates off almost every page. She is not vengeful or bitter about her losses – the greatest losses that any human can suffer – but rather develops a profound appreciation for what it means to be a spiritual being, and how, beneath our fears and armour, we all are.