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Nibley siblings outraged over sister’s book

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Tell-all books written by Joan Crawford or Ronald Reagan's daughters are expected to include sordid details of their public parents' private lives. But a sordid tell-all book by the daughter of Hugh Nibley — Brigham Young University professor-emeritus, noted LDS scholar and cultural gadfly — is a genuine shocker.

Yet Crown Publishers, a subsidiary of Random House in New York, has announced the March 8 publication of the explosive autobiography "Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith," by Martha Beck, 40-year-old daughter of the greatly respected Nibley.

Beck is one of the eight adult children of Nibley and his wife, Phyllis, and they all grew up in an unpretentious, tiny, green-painted family home in Provo. Beck is a life coach with a doctorate in sociology from Harvard University who writes columns about everyday life problems for Oprah Winfrey's O Magazine.

Her book, made available to the media in advance editions, is, as the title suggests, an anti-LDS screed, with specific bold, angry accusations about her father, alleging he sexually abused her when she was a child, from age 5 to 8.

Beck declined to speak with the Deseret Morning News, but her siblings were eager to talk about their sister's book.

"None of the family agrees with her story," said Boyd Peterson, who is married to Beck's sister Zina (and who authored a Hugh Nibley biography). "And the Nibley family is itself pretty diverse. Probably 50 percent of the brothers and sisters are no longer members of the LDS Church, or they are members in name only. All of them have issues with their father. The boys are angry about his being a big Mormon celebrity who was too often absent from the family."

Peterson considers it "a nasty book" that has Beck unfairly attacking her parents and her church. He considers the material concerning Mormonism to be "bizarre — she thinks the Danites are going to come and kill her."

All of Beck's siblings nonetheless maintain a united front, each expressing disbelief that their father ever sexually abused their sister. Christina, the oldest daughter, called Beck's book "a work of fiction" and said she is "outraged" that her sister would write it. "I'm extremely disappointed."

A brother, Alex, is preparing a documentary film memoir of his father's World War II experiences, to be called "Sgt. Hugh Nibley, Ph.D." He is convinced that Martha's assertions in the book that the sexual abuse may have been triggered by her father's post-traumatic-stress syndrome is "absurd." Alex has interviewed his father for more than 20 hours on videotape and walked through various war sites with him, and said "he never had flashbacks, physical sensations, hypersensitivity or any other symptom of post-traumatic stress syndrome."

Oddly, the book's 19th century-style and acid-tongue characterizations of the LDS Church resemble something more commonly seen in anti-LDS works written by 19th-century Mormon haters. And though the attacks on her father are pointed, she never names him — or anyone else in her family. She simply refers to them as "father," "mother," "sister" and "brother."

Beck also leaves her maiden name off the book's cover, though earlier books she has had published refer to her as "Martha Nibley Beck."

Despite these strange elements, "Leaving the Saints" is ingeniously crafted, if written in too lighthearted a manner. The book begins with the author, Beck, allegedly meeting with her father in a hotel, where they can be isolated long enough for her to confront him with her claims of abuse. Hoping for an apology, she speaks of the alleged abuse in veiled terms — and asks him why he dressed up in Egyptian clothing and re-enacted the biblical Abraham sacrificing his son, Isaac. In the book, the then 91-year-old Nibley replies that such accusations are "ridiculous."

Then chapters alternately continue this hotel-room confrontation, while other chapters have Beck recalling her youth, family life and church experience. Gradually, the stories of abuse are revealed, which Beck says she had forgotten until many years later, when they were restored by "recovered memory."

Beck is a 40-ish divorced mother of three, though in the book it appears she is still married.

Filled with cliches, "Leaving the Saints" is, much of the way, a light, sometimes satirical story of young people making the best of being trapped in a strange family controlled by a rigid, fire-and-brimstone, powerful church.

The venerable, now bedridden Hugh Nibley turns 95 on March 27. His mind, according to family members, is not as sharp as it once was, but he is lucid most of the time.

Paul, the oldest son, considers the book "vicious" but he was in the Coast Guard during Martha's adolescence, so he saw her very little during those years. He is upset that Martha made a false reference to him, claiming he was restricted to "only three outfits a year from Deseret Industries." Paul said, "My mother never bought clothes at the DI — my dad did. But my clothes came from Penney's, and I never felt deprived."

Tom, a brother, said he spent most of Martha's teen years in California, but he considers the book to be "totally false. She needed a scapegoat for her own problems." Michael, who is nine years older than Martha, said the book has "many factual inaccuracies" besides the allegations of abuse. "She sees us as a group of half-grown Vikings."

Alex called the book "utterly false. She claims the family always made decisions in lockstep with the church, but Hugh Nibley was one of the major liberal voices in the church. To portray him as a part of 'groupthink' is ridiculous."

Zina, a sister two years younger than Martha, said the two girls spent their adolescence together, sleeping in the same room in "incredibly rickety bunk beds, her on top. They could barely support the weight of two wispy little girls." The tiny house with thin walls, she said, had bedrooms in which the doors were never closed, with essentially no privacy.

"I was very close to her," said Zina. "I was her sidekick. I saw nothing at all to indicate any abuse taking place. None of us idealized our father. None of us think he was a great father. He was funny and sweet, but he was not emotionally approachable, not a good father for teenagers, but he was not guilty of abuse."

The only hint of division within the united family front is Rebecca, who is four years older than Martha. She said the sexual abuse allegations "are not true" and attributes them to Martha's "emotional sensitivities — but (Martha) is brilliant and funny. Martha and I are very close. I'm the only one in the family she sees regularly, so I have a more current view than the other siblings. I am emotionally closer to her than to my other siblings. I want to be close to her, so I call her a lot. There is no one in the world as enjoyable to be with and as loving as Martha.

"But My dad has always been my biggest fan. I was nurtured more by him than I was on the maternal side. Both Dad and Martha are high-quality people. My dad is as righteous a man as I can ever imagine. I wish I could be on both their sides!"

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com