Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Who to Believe: Hugh Nibley or Martha?

I was doing some research online today, prompted in part by my last conversation with my brother-in-law Darrin, and I came across some interesting references.

Five years ago, Hugh Nibley was in failing health. Nibley is personally interesting both because he played such an important role in development of church studies at BYU and elsewhere, and because of his link to our common ancestor, Alexander Neibaur, who was rather prominent in church history contmporary with Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other early church leaders during the Nauvoo era.

Nibley was an important figure in his own right, having established a well-respected discipline of LDS church-related studies and interests, stemming from all kinds of distant fields like archaeology, cultural anthropology, ancient languages and linguistics, ancient and modern religion culture and practices, through every conceivable connection, some cabinet curiosity-types, and some very meaningful parallels. Nibleyƛ work was unorthodox and disturbing to many more conventional academic types, too frenetic and frenzied and altogether too religious for the staid school of agnostic scholastic professors, and too complex for most Mormons to understand the big words. He challenged us every step of the way. A brilliant, dynamic man, driven to heights not oft achieved in LDS academic circles.

The thing that struck me was one facet of Nibley and his personal life, if we might presume to know something about that. It seems that, as Nibley lay in failing health, one of his daughters claimed to be recovering memories from her childhood of ritual sexual abuse. She had supposedly repressed these traumatic memories for, until later with the assistance of her professional psychiatrist spouse, she was able to coax from her reluctant mind these long-buried ugly family secrets. Martha Beck talks about her discovery and gradual evolution of the case in a sensational book, Leaving the Saints The Deseret News article reviews the book here.

Martha is as accomplished as Hugh at spinning stories, but unfortunately not as good at maintaining an even keel. Whether or not she is telling an honest story, you judge for yourself -- chances are, you can check the book out at the local public library. I found it to be internally flawed and substantially over dramatized, at least in the parts I have personal understanding of. All in all, I judged that the story did a great deal more to discredit and invalidate Beck than it did to hurt Hugh Nibley, the church, or BYU.

But that was my impression. You must draw your own conclusions.


Billy Bob Bambino Bombabious Baby the Third said...

At the risk of sounding snarky (Alas, unintended snarkiness does have a way of happening, despite our best intentions!) I wonder what the "tell-all" story of our family would be like...

The last two paragraphs of the review are strangely appropriate in the current world. It actually sums up how I feel about much of life... Or, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, as quoted in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure: Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes!

Seriously, though, I don't know why people who feel like they have had issues or problems think it's bookworthy. Who DOESN'T have issues/problems? Is writing a book about "leaving the saints" the best way to heal? Why? Who said that? If people want to leave, there's the door... God will force no man (or woman) to heaven...

Just my $0.02...

Benjamin said...

Could the core motivation for Martha Becks multiple books be essentially... to gain attention and to sell as many copies as possible, and thereby to make as much money as possibe? Inflammatory stories sell!
Obviously the conservative early books she wrote did not gain as much attention as the latter. She moved from a smaller more conservative audience to a much larger audience, and more profitable. She said herself, that the accusational book about her father was first written as a fiction. It was denied by the publisher many times when presented as it's original purpose, to be a fictional writing. It wasn't until it was "altered" to become a nonfiction that is was accepted by publishers.

Benjamin said...

Could the fact that Martha was verifyibly molested as a child by a boy in her neighborhood have anything to do with her "memories" of her father?
I find it interesting that she leaves out this important information about her life.

Jim Cobabe said...


Not being personally acquainted with any of the parties involved, I would tend to put little weight in the testimony of a woman who authors scandalous exposes. Hugh Nibley, on the other hand, may have been a peculiar man, but he was honest and true, a faithfu member of the church. I would trust him over a scurrilous gossip-bearer any day. Martha discredits herself simply by the medium she chose to bear her message. This is of far more importance to me than determining whether Martha had some psychological rationale for her own casting of aspersions.

Jim Cobabe said...


I think speculating about the molestation issue can get us nowhere. Honestly, it is tedious and tendentious in the extreme to even discuss. The only ones who know what happened are not objective witnesses, so believe what you will about it.