Leaving the Saints by Martha Beck
By Bjorn Watland
Mormon, atheist, Mormon and then spiritualist. How? Martha Beck, a Harvard graduate of Sociology, now a life coach, tells the story of her life growing up Mormon, leaving for Harvard, turning atheist, giving birth to her son Adam, who has Down syndrome, returning to Utah and the warm embrace of Mormon hospitality, and eventually leaving the Saints. An easy read, it may be a good break from deep theology or philosophy.
Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith is for Mormons and non-Mormons alike. If you are curious about Mormonism, you’ll find value. If you are Mormon, you may relate to the struggles of Beck, and even have the same concerns, but choose to practice Mormonism to change things from the inside.
Forgiveness, hope and compassion are the strongest subjects Beck presents. It’s these lessons that the author cherishes, despite the hardships described in her story. The book is more about forgiveness than it is about Mormonism. The opinion Beck has of Mormonism and Mormons is pretty positive.
People in Provo, Utah, home to Brigham Young University (the place to go if you’re a Mormon itching for higher education), are genuinely nice to each other. Beck recalls how amazingly nice everyone was, from the movers who moved them into their new house, to the members of her Ward and how they fawned over her little son Adam (who was headed straight to the best part of the Celestial Kingdom). If you don’t know anything about Mormonism, this can be a good starter. You’ll get a little glimpse of one person’s family life, a greater view into the quirks of Mormon doctrine, and a peek at the end into the dark side of Mormonism.
While in Utah, Beck embarks on a serious spiritual quest. Driven by experiences she had while pregnant with Adam, she seeks to find the source of this overwhelming feeling of compassion. She begins to explore the universal myth of a spirit world, diving into Eastern religions, practicing meditation, and earnestly praying to a God she is sure is there. Throughout her story, she has several supernatural experiences, mostly in childbirth or under anesthesia. It’s these experiences, her lust for truth, and finally her reconstructed memories of sexual abuse, that urge her to pack her bags and leave the Saints.
As quickly as Beck fell in love with Mormonism and its Saints, she turns on them. As a teacher at BYU, she had grown tired of the censorship there, the efforts to control what people could learn, especially about Sonia Johnson and the Equal Rights Amendment. She felt she could not be open about criticism of BYU, even outside of campus, without being “called in.” While she only taught part-time, her coworkers had more to
lose. The thought was that once you had been at BYU for five or six years you were tainted and no school outside of Utah would hire you. Beck does leave the school, but not because she is unhappy there. Her exodus is triggered by “lost memories,” which resurface after an examination by a gynecologist. Her recollections involve her father and herself, when she was five, mumbling in an ancient language, and sexual abuse. She was her father’s Isaac.
The method Beck uses to tell her story is to weave the retelling of an uncomfortable meeting to confront her father in a hotel room, before he dies, and the rest of her experience. The telling is tragic. You really feel envy for Beck’s life when she first moves back to Provo. Everyone is genuinely nice. But, by the end, you feel that women are treated as second-class citizens, the LDS employ ex- CIA to spy on members who go astray, and there is a giant cover-up of sexual abuse in Utah. The intent of the book is to tell a story, not to bash Mormonism, or convince others to leave. Beck takes the time to show Mormons whose love and compassion embody everything good about Mormonism, and whose values she believes are worth emulating.
While Beck used to be an atheist, you could view her as nonreligious. There is no serious mention of her deciding she was atheist. However, her spiritual questioning and quest for truth are noble. If you are an atheist, you may find yourself skeptical of her supernatural experiences while her body is under extreme stress, or under chemical influence. If you are not an atheist, you may find truth in a belief that everything is connected, and hold out hope for a place where “all our hearts will sing in unison.”