Martha Nibley Beck, Ph.D. is a frequent Oprah contributor and has written several books. Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith is a memoir about the ritualistic sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her father, Dr. Hugh W. Nibley. The late Dr. Nibley was professor emeritus of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University (BYU, the “Lord’s University”) and arguably one of the leading authorities on Mormon (LDS) teaching.
He was the LDS’ apologist. When someone “cast aspersions on the Mormon belief system,” it was his job to defend it ~ to find a “legitimate-sounding argument to keep Joseph Smith [the church's founder] from being successfully discredited.” His pay was low, but his status within the church was very high. His children paid the price:
I’d never really understood why my father’s work was so important. All I knew was that the faith of many Latter-day Saints had been strengthened because of what my father did for a living and that it was my duty to uphold his image and reputation. [Martha Beck]
Do you know what we were living on when I started teaching at BYU? Just a little more than $2,000 a year. Imagine! [Hugh Nibley]
You know what really kills me? It kills me how much of you the Church bought for that little lump of money. [Martha Beck]
Dr. Beck confronted her father twice ~ with witnesses present ~ about his sexual abuse that started when she was five years old. She needed to “clear out my own psychological carburetor.” Dr. Nibley engaged a variety of strategies from intimidation to flight to avoid the conversation and deny it had happened. But, he could not and would not explain the physical scars which were clear evidence it had happened:
Well, then, nothing left an awful lot of scars. It’s not the kind of scar tissue a kid gets playing on the jungle gym. Someone put it there. [Martha Beck]
Oh, that was the Evil One. . .It was prophesied that Satan would take from me even my most beloved child. Anything to stop my work. It’s the price you pay for defending the Gospel. . .To think that my own child would act in league with Satan. It’s the Salem witch trials all over again. Satan creates these ridiculous allegations, and the Lord’s servants are the first targets. [Hugh Nibley]
The New York Times interviewed the family-member/witness, who affirmed the veracity of Dr. Beck’s allegations:
I believed Martha from the beginning because the memories she had of elements of the abuse ~ memories that never went away and were always part of her history ~ also fit with the outward signs of the abuse I saw in her growing up. [Speaking to Dr. Beck's parents about it since] has only served to strengthen my belief in the veracity of her reporting of her experience.
Dr. Beck’s siblings recounted how the children had been physically assaulted by their father, but Dr. Beck could not recall the abuse of her that they said they witnessed.
The Mormon church is a mystery. Dr. Beck does an excellent job of describing church history and cultural norms. Members whose ancestors were the earliest disciples of founder Joseph Smith have a higher status. Dr. Beck’s ancestor, who was Jewish, was Mr. Smith’s personal dentist and instructed him in German, Hebrew, and Jewish mysticism. Dr. Beck’s father was 52 years old when she was born.
Since my youngest sister is LDS and the widow of a man from a prominent Mormon family, I was fascinated by how the church maintains discipline. I finally understood why she had little contact with our family and was guarded during phone conversations. I was very sad to discover why it isn’t likely this very beautiful and loving young widow will remarry. Since I respect her choice of religion, I’m not going to divulge church practices. If you want to know about them, read the book.
The Mormon church is exceedingly patriarchal at the core. Although this is also true of the Catholic church and most fundamentalist “Christian” sects, I was chilled by this passage:
It’s virtually impossible to describe how thoroughly Mormon culture still maintains the standard of submissive, obedient women, and powerful, infallible male leaders. . .particularly true when you’re talking about anything related to sex. . .men are to be pleased and protected. . .women are to do what they’re told. . .excusing or ignoring sexual shenanigans. . .siding with the male authority figure in any “he said, she said” conflicts. . .Tradition of winking at sexual “abominations” committed by men in the leadership structure. . .helping cover up any remaining gossip and condemning the women involved as untrustworthy and devious.
While this next passage is equally troubling, it isn’t unique to the Mormon church:
Women who sought advice or help after being sexually abused were most often told to be silent, keep their secrets, and ask themselves whether they were really sure it wasn’t their fault ~ or their imagination. They experienced what psychologists call sanctuary trauma, the result of their running for protection to the very places and people who reaffirmed the message of the original abuse.
Dr. Beck suppressed the memories of sexual assault until physical symptoms and a horrendous PTSD flashback forced her to confront what had happened:
I am five years old, my hands are tied, and my father is doing something that feels as though it’s ripping me in two. I am stretched out on my back, legs spread, like a frog on a dissecting table, unable to see or understand what is happening ~ rush of strange words ~ Abrahamic sacrifice ~ none of it makes any sense. . .
The first horrific flashback was like a nuclear detonation. I screamed and struggled. . .my memory blasted me like a fire hose. My analytical mind had prudently taken a vacation to a galaxy far, far away during the bizarre tumult of the flashback.
The flashback triggered other memories that forced her to acknowledge what had happened:
I didn’t want to believe it. . .couldn’t stop the corroborating evidence from popping into my mind. . .mental tumblers falling into place. It continued all day long. . .my grotesque trip down memory lane. . .titanic surges of grief shuddered through me ~ poison draining from my mind. . .A week after my first flashback, I’d entered a phase called the flooding stage of dealing with trauma. . .my soul had swallowed some hideous toxin 20 years before.
Where was their mother?
Her mother, Phyllis Nibley, who was a good Mormon wife, bore eight children and spent most of her adult life in a fugue of depression. The Nibley children were on their own ~ in a house devoid of emotion ~ to rear themselves as best they could. Dr. Beck had symptoms of PTSD and insomnia, was anorexic and depressed, and contemplated suicide.
After the flashback, her mother at first acknowledged that it had happened. Then, she recanted and suggested that Dr. Beck should make her father a birthday cake.
Dr. Beck was exiled from the family as the black sheep. She had discredited the family’s “crowning glory.” Dr. Beck felt suicidal: “my skull was about to implode under the weight of so much shame.”
Ironically, she was set free by one of the women in the Relief Society, the female safety net for Mormon families. Dr. Beck consulted a therapist recommended by Dr. Finney and was warned:
If you do what it takes to get over this thing, the Mormon Church is going to ruin your life.
A stranger confessed that he had been the fact-checker for her father’s publisher and that 90% of her father’s infamous footnotes were fabricated. He too warned her that the Mormon church would sacrifice her to protect her father.
Her final liberation, ironically, came at the 1993 LDS Women’s Conference panel discussion on domestic violence. A “seditious” physician was concerned that 1/3 of his female patients had experienced sexual abuse. The audience was so enormous that they had to expand seating into BYU’s student union theater and pipe in the session to the over-flow audience. When the physician on the panel prescribed forgiveness, discontent erupted:
He might as well have tried to douse a fire with kerosene. . .I knew, right to my bones, that every moment is a chance to choose either freedom or captivity. Every moment.
Dr. Beck decided it was time to tell her own story to these rooms packed with fellow survivors. She advised them to listen to their own instincts. She told them that freedom springs from what we choose to believe. When she was finished speaking, she felt euphoric and decided it was time to resign from the church. Her therapy group advised her to “run for the border” of Utah. Her father called her for the first time in her life to do damage control.
She reflected on the life of author Virginia Woolf:
I never had any trouble understanding why Virginia Woolf killed herself. I’d read biographies describing how the writer was molested by a cousin during childhood and developed a classic case of posttraumatic stress disorder, which seems to have left her half sentient, never fully engaged with the events around her. She could see beauty but not feel connected to it, yearn for love but not participate in it. She experienced things flattened, diminished, once removed. She was anesthetized to physical suffering but also to happiness.
Psychologists call it psychic numbing or, in Virginia Woolf’s words “Living behind a pane of glass.”
Like Virginia Woolf, I’d numbed everything connected to sensuality, to physical sensation, because I associated it with trauma. Feeling is a package deal. For most of my first three decades I felt almost as though I were living in a sensory deprivation chamber. I wanted to feel more. . .simply couldn’t. . .world seemed strangely flat and gray. . .tepid reality. . .dull longing to experience joy. . .didn’t seem much different from being dead. Having been numb a long time, I was unprepared for the vividness of life without my pane of glass. Sensation poured back into my body the way blood flows into a limb after a tourniquet is removed.
She finished her Ph.D. and taught career development at a business school in Phoenix. She quit teaching to become a life coach, a job she loves. This is what she has to say to her fellow survivors:
People who hide a history of traumatic experience live shorter, less healthy, less happy lives than those who tell their stories. I know what keeping secrets did to me. . .
Even if I never know the explanation behind what happened to me as a child, I am free. . .always have been. . .free to accept my own reality. . .free to trust my perceptions. . .free to believe what makes me feel sane even if others call me crazy. . .free to disagree even if it means great loss. . .free to seek the way home until I find it. All the great religions hold that this irrevocable soul-deep liberty is the key to the end of suffering and the beginning of joy.
Dr. Beck expressed her views about the Mormon church’s characterization as a “cult” and Mitt Romney’s candidacy for president in an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post on October 17, 2011.
- Martha Beck
She survived. She’s thriving and has found joy.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Please join me in wearing your purple and celebrating survivors.