Hugh Nibley

By now word has spread across the bloggernacle of Hugh Nibley’s passing. I’d just add that Sunstone has created a page with links to different articles, both in Sunstone and recent article on Hugh’s death. But the gem is a review of Martha Beck’s recent book by Tania Rands Lyon. This review essay is a really in-depth, fair and thoughtful look at Beck’s work. Check out the pdf file here.


  1. Thanks for the link.

  2. I am pretty sure that her use of “begs the question” is incorrect. Frequently what is meant is “raises the question”. This of course raises the question of whether I know what I am talking about.

    I really enjoyed that review though. It reinforces my opinion that Martha’s desire to be the center of attention outweighs any need to be accurate.

  3. a random concurrer says:

    Yes, the use of “begs the question” is incorrect. “Begging the question” is a description of a logical fallacy wherein the committer assumes from the outset what he or she is proving.

    Unfortunately, it’s been hijacked, mostly because the correct usage isn’t very intuitive.

  4. Tom Manney says:

    Thank you for the link. The whole issue provokes a number of simultaneous, conflicting thoughts and emotions, most of them sad and some of them angry. But I don’t know what to say that won’t sound fatuous, so I’ll just leave it at thanks.

  5. What I like about her review is her cautious approach when handling the sexual abuse allegations. Too many people are quick to dismiss them because it’s Hugh Nibley. The sad reality is, he wouldn’t be the first prominent Mormon to be guilty of such charges. However, when you look at what she’s saying, the story just doesn’t add up. And it’s just sad that we’re dealing with two bright, intelligent people, and one of them is lying about an extremely serious topic, and that lie is going to (or already has) shatter the other person’s life. Terrible stuff.

  6. In another place, a man wrote of his vivid memory of finding something and taking to his mother…yet it never happened. As Lyon quotes Beck, memory is a fragile thing. She may not be lying, but that doesn’t mean it happened.

  7. Has anyone here ever heard the leg hair as pubic hair thing before? I have heard of people of my great-grandparent’s generation never removing the garment, though I’ve never heard anyone advocate that. In any case, some of these things are pretty out there and I consider myself to be moderately well-informed about the out there stuff. Is there any basis for any of this other than rumour?

  8. John, it was widely joked about during the period Beck was at BYU. As I recall it got started from an article in the Student Review. I’ve tried to check that but haven’t been able to. But that’s my memory – although it may have had some origin before. The context, as I recall, was a standing joke about the honor code. This was around the time Rex Lee changed the dress code on campus with feedback from the students.

    So yes, I heard it a lot. But always in the context of humor. I’m fairly confident Beck would have known that as well.

  9. Does that mean a beard is pubic hair as well since the honor code bans most facial hair?

    I guess I have missed out on some wild and crazy jokes by not attending BYU. Such a pity.

    It seems that anyone who experienced these things in the context she did would get the joke. It is very sad to see such things presented in a “those crazy Mormons” light. There are plenty of interesting things to observe about “Provo culture” without resorting to such tactics.

    I agree with John H that this entire situation is terrbily sad.

  10. Davis Bell says:

    I wonder, though, if we have to assume that one of them is lying. If Nibley did it, then yes, he is lying when he said he didn’t. However, if he didn’t do it, I think it’s quite possible that Beck isn’t lying, although her allegations are factually inaccurate. From the little I know of False Memory Syndrome, the “victim” truly does believe what they are “remembering” even though it never happened.

  11. I am glad that someone took the iniative to write an informed and generally unbiased review. I don’t believe she should be totally discredited just because her allegations are agianst Hugh Nibley, but she obviously is reaching in order to sensationalize the whole thing…which makes me wonder. Some of the instances listed (the hair stylist’s comment, ankle hair, etc)can be seen by most familiar with the church as taken out of context. I have a hard time believing that she herself believed all these things to be as she portrayed them. She would at least know that these instances could not be justly used as generalizations regarding the church.

    I feel kind of silly, but when I caught wind of Martha Beck’s pending appearance on Oprah promoting her book (who promotes the story of there abuse for a profit?)I was concerned. I actually wrote Oprah expressing my hope that her “memoirs” would be portrayed objectively and not as fact or a valid source as to the “mormom” religion. Doubt she will even see it, but I’m a nerd and make an effort regardless.

  12. It is important to differentiate between “False Memory Syndrome” and recovered memories. The first is an idea started by parents who had been accused by a adult child, who then started a foundation to promote the idea that psychologists suggest things that never happened and create false memories in their patients. They were fairly successful at publicizing their claims, although their claims have not been substantiated by research. The media focused on these claims, thus further promoting a false idea to the public and providing a great disservice to victims of abuse. False Memory Syndrome is NOT a real thing.

    For an interesting, scientific and thoughtful analysis on this, check out:
    Alpert, J.L. Professional Practice, Psychological Science, and the Delayed Memory Debate. In Sexual Abuse Recalled: Treating Trauma in the Era of the Recovered Memory Debate.

  13. Well, presuming that the False Memory Syndrome does not offically exist, does that mean that it can’t happen? I understand the need to protect those who have been abused from being discredited, but that doesnt necessarily mean that all accusations are 100% correct. Just as Martha Beck claims that her father suffered from a psychological break, couldnt she have experienced something of that nature just as well? I am definitely not an authority on the matter, so any thoughts?

  14. There is no doubt memories can be inaccurate, and can be colored by the story we tell ourselves about what the memories mean. The same author I mentioned before wrote another great article called “Story-Truth, Happening Truth” that addressed the issue.

    However, that is far different from saying that false memories of sexual abuse can be “implanted” by psychologists/ psychoanalysts, which is what the false memory syndrome people claim.

  15. Good to know Amy, I will have to check those out. Thanks.

  16. Sarah,

    The articles are wonderful (at least I think so). If you have any trouble finding them, email me and I’d be happy to photocopy and mail them to you.

  17. If you are interested in the false memory thing, you might wish to check out my blog. As for implanting false memories, there have been quite a few news stories on that in New Scientist the last year or so. There seems to be a lot of evidence that implanting false memories is easy and natural. Of course the claim that it is being done intentionally is an other matter.

  18. There are also two reviews up on including one from Tom Kimball (!).

    There appears to be general unity among Mormons of all flavors, exmormons, and post-mormons that, regardless of the truth of Beck’s accusations, her book is seriously flawed.

  19. Clark,

    The studies of cognitive psychologists generally do not investigate the real question of whether memories of sexual abuse can be created in a person who was not abused. They study whether people are suggestible, which they are. Traumatic memory is of a completely different nature than regular memory, check out prominent Harvard psychiatrist, Bessel van der Kolk for plenty of documented evidence on this. It is also well documented that people who undergo ongoing severe abuse repress their memories of it in order to survive. Single incidents or short term abuse is emblazoned in the memory, but long term abuse is usually repressed. Cognitive psychologists and clinical psychologists who work with trauma are comparing apples and oranges when it comes to memory.

  20. Amy, doesn’t Chris address those charges in his last post? It appears to me that the types of memories he is discussing precisely are traumatic ones. It seems he examined studies making the claims you do and found them wanting.

  21. Amy,
    First of all, it is not well-documented that repetitive abuse produces different types of memories than single-incident abuse. The only study that actually shows this is Terr’s own, and the flaws in her study have been thoroughly detailed in peer reviewed publications. Ultimately, it suffers from the same problems that all of the retropsective studies on recovered memories do (age confounds, bad interview questions, etc.). What’s more, when studies show that people who were abused over time (Williams, for instance, showed that people who said they had forgotten the indexed incident of abuse were likely to have been abused over time) forget one incident, they are not showing that Type II traumaitic memories are different, but the same! We would expect that long-term trauma would produce interference for single incidents.

    van der Kolk’s work, by the way, demonstrates nothing more than that people remember more sensory details for traumatic memories, a fact that we would expect from research showing that increased level of arousal produces better memories for the central details of the event. It’s also not surprising that he finds people who have little narrative content in their traumatic memories, because increased arousal decreases attention to context, making narrative difficult to produce. Most of van der Kolk’s work is with single-incident abuse, and a large portion of it with patients who were under general anaesthesia, meaning that we can’t learn much about memory for Type II trauma from his work, or even about traumatic memory in general, because patients awakening from GA are dazed and confused as it is.

  22. Chris, it’s true that the research supporting repressed memories is far from rock solid, but so is the evidence against it. The problem is that ethical and practical considerations make it difficult to conduct the type of research necessary — you can’t very well submit a random sampe of people to the same traumatic experiences just to test their memories of it.

    I’d also like to point out that the APA’s position is that memories can in fact be repressed and recovered. I don’t think anyone here is arguing that every instance of someone “remembering” a dissociated memory is true, or that remembrances should necessarily be admitted as evidence court or anything else like that. Neither do I think that anyone expressing support for the existence of recovered memories means to conclude whether or not Beck’s memories are accurate. But a lot of smart, honest people consider the phenomenon a real one, however unclear all its details and implications may be right now.

  23. Julie in Austin says:

    Ben S.–Why the (!) about Tom Kimball?

  24. Yeah, I’ll second Julie’s question. Tom’s a friend. I hope you’re not implying that just because he works for Signature he somehow loves everything that bashes the Church.

  25. Just a shot in the dark here, but my guess is the exclamation point after Tom Kimball is because of surprise that FAIR would find itself posting an article by Kimball, rather than representing any commentary on Kimball himself. Thus a new truism: Bad books make for strange bedfellows.

  26. Just a note, Chris isn’t Mormon. (He didn’t know anything about Mormons until he read my blog a few times) He just has a blog on cognitive science that I make a point of reading. He commented here just because I asked him a question.

    I read through some of van der Kolk’s papers and at least from my perspective there were lots of questions I’d have had over his experimental methodology. (Admittedly it is unfair to apply a physicist’s eye to social sciences – but I do think that frequently there is a bit too much “loose” interpretation from limited and uncontrolled data)

    The issue really isn’t Beck. (I think Beck’s actions with regards to her book provide prima facie reasons to simply discount her comments independent of the phenomena of recovered memories) Rather it seems to me a very interesting issue of methodology between two disciplines and questions of science itself. Admittedly my geekiness is coming out now, since I love discussions in philosophy of science. But this appears to be one of those places. But I’ll fully confess my biases up front in that I am rather dubious about psychotherapy in general as a discipline. But that’s me, not Chris.

  27. Thanks for the link. I thought the review was excellent. And as outrageous as some of Beck’s descriptions of Mormonism and Mormon culture apparently are, the item from the reviewer’s content analysis that left me shaking my head was the bit about the therapist “Rachel Grant.”

  28. Nate Oman says:

    Another apparent gaff is Beck’s claim that every single reference to Sonia Johnson in the BYU library had been removed. A key word search reveals 53 entries, most of which refer to books or articles critical of the Church’s actions against her. Maybe they have all be taken off the shelf but not out of the catalog, but I find this unlikely.

  29. john fowles says:

    These things are so ridiculous that it seems hard–almost impossible–to believe that Beck could actually believe these things herself. That ankle hair is inappropriate pubic hair? That people don’t remove garments while bathing? That hairdressers in Provo won’t provide service to a woman unless her husband gives permission? That the BYU Library has purged all references to someone enlightened enough to say the Church is bad?

    The absurdity of these claims implies bad faith on Beck’s part. She can’t possibly believe these things herself. I know no Latter-day Saint, even in East Germany, who thinks one must wear garments while bathing. Ditto for all of the other things on the list.

    Even the person most unwilling to give the Church or Hugh Nibley the benefit of the doubt (or consider him innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt) should be able to admit that these claims are patently false. Here, then, is the question: if Beck is being disingenuous with these claims, which are patently false, how can she maintain any credibility at all with the claims of sexual abuse? Why don’t the glaring untruths create a presumption against the validity of her other claims? In other words, why does someone like the reviewer need to read the book a second time to convince herself that Beck’s story about the abuse doesn’t add up? We are back to this issue of presumptions, and the direction that the presumptions run. When someone deliberately propounds distortions or blatant misinformation about the doctrines or tenets of Latter-day Saint belief, culture, and lifestyle, as Beck does in these absurd statements, why not proceed under a presumption that the rest can’t be trusted either?

    Having said all that, I agree with the overall point here that what Beck has done is truly unfortunate for legitimate victims of sexual abuse. I side with Clark and Chris on the reliability of “recovered memories,” but that, really, is tangential, because regardless of her reliance on recovered memories (and her attempt to get her sister to “get her own” recovered memories), the real damage to legitimate victims comes as a result of propounding glaring and mean-spirited untruths about Latter-day Saints at the same time she asserts her claims. It makes it look like what it is: she is using these sexual abuse claims as a vehicle or an opportunity to damage the Church, both by drawing readers in with the bizarre details of LDS life and then serving up sexual abuse, and by cicuitously blaming the Church for HN’s alleged sexual abuse (he did it b/c of the pressure the Church put him under to translate the Book of Abraham, the JS translation of which, Beck, the authority on such things, claims is indefensible).

  30. These things are so ridiculous that it seems hard–almost impossible–to believe that Beck could actually believe these things herself. That ankle hair is inappropriate pubic hair? That people don’t remove garments while bathing? That hairdressers in Provo won’t provide service to a woman unless her husband gives permission? That the BYU Library has purged all references to someone enlightened enough to say the Church is bad?

    What is really interesting is how Beck has responded to criticism, basically stating that the book is about her, not the Church, so these things don’t matter.

    Part of the problem is that her style is much like PJO (famous for “Eat the Rich” and “Parliment of Whores”) who always bends to humor when facts are in conflict. As a result, when truth and a chance for sarcastic humor conflict, she sees no problem letting truth suffer.

    What a sad mess.

  31. Boyd Peterson has up his response and has lots more errors – many from interviews with Beck’s ex-husband who disagrees with many of her portrayals.

  32. Clark,

    Thanks for the link — I’ve been wondering what the ex-husband would have to say.

    Maybe he will write a book next.

    Looks like Beck has not recovered from her anorexia on her web-site photographs. Wonder when we will hear from the hidden cousins with the tape recorder next.

    Does Beck really believe people turn shades of vibrant blue? I’ve yet to see that, but maybe I never see people lie.

  33. There’s still more to come out. What is interesting is seeing how some of the ex-Mormons are reacting. I took a look this week at some of their forums and it was more than a little shocking. (It’s always funny when you find people talking about you too) Bob McCue, for instance, posted some stuff on my blog today trying to make Beck’s case that was actually interesting in a way.

    What I think the family would like is to have Oprah put them on her show if, as is now expected, she has Beck on. I’m honestly not convinced that is a good thing. One thing academics sometimes miss is that what works in an academic setting can turn “regular folk” off. Unless I’m mistaken, Beck has the public speaking thing down pretty good in those environments.

  34. jayneedoe says:

    Actually, my great grandparents were very proud of the fact that they never fully removed their garments, even when bathing. They’d remove a portion of the garment, wash that part of the body, put that portion back in place, and repeat, making sure they were never completely off their bodies. This has become family legend at reunions.


  35. What I think the family would like is to have Oprah put them on her show if, as is now expected, she has Beck on.

    I’ve been on vacation, so maybe I missed something. When did it become “expected” that Oprah is going to have Beck on her show?

  36. john fowles says:

    great grandparents — need I say more?

  37. Interesting to read Boyd Peterson’s response.

    I especially like the part about the “grizzly” battlefields of World War II (see p. 3).

    Being something of an amateur student of WW2 history, I was surprised that I had never heard about the battles of the bears.

    I know the Russians were sometimes referred to as “the Russian bear”, but I don’t suppose anyone was thinking grizzlies, since I don’t think grizzlies live in Eurasia. Just regular old black bears.

    Maybe it was another of Churchill’s “out of the box” ideas. I mean, he did propose towing a large iceberg south, plowing a runway atop it, parking it somewhere off the coast of occupied Europe and using it as an aircraft carrier from which to launch attacks on the German war machine. (Never happened.)

    He also proposed the “mulberries,” the artificial harbors created off the coast of the Normandy beaches to land men and materiel. (That idea, by the way, was adopted, and was essential to the Allied war effort.)

    But, grizzly bears? Never heard of that one. I suppose it’s been suppressed to keep the SPCA folks (either the “A” version or the “R” version of that organization) off the backs of the gov’mint. I mean, it’s ok to conscript young men right out of high school and stick them on the business end of a 75mm cannon, but not a poor dumb bear.

  38. Before I even heard about the content of the book, an Oprah watcher told me that Beck was going to be on the show promoting it. Not that that would make it official. I tried to verify it, but all I can find are listings for the proceeding weeks shows. Oprah is promoting it on her website though.

    Peterson’s review is eye opening. He openly admits that some of his findings may be biased due to his relation with the family, but no more so than Beck’s. I found it interesting that the family is bewildered at some of her allegations towards the family and discriptions of events. The fact that her ex-husband felt the same says something. And did Beck just conveniently not mention prior sexual abuse? Or her sexual preferences? Many might say that is her perogative in speaking of her personal issues. I, however, feel that such a “tell-all” expose trashing the most intimate details of her family and possible abuse by her father and then disregarding issues that might not support her theory highly unprofessional.

  39. Mark B., you are hysterical. Merciless, but hysterical.

  40. Liz Hansen says:

    I don’t really have an opinion either way on the sexual abuse allegations- with Nibley dead and Beck’s credibility on the ropes, how is one to ever know? What I’m most interested in is Beck’s allegations that Nibley’s footnotes are inaccurate and sometime fictitious. Has anyone checked to see if this is true?

  41. “…the exclamation point after Tom Kimball is because of surprise that FAIR would find itself posting an article by Kimball, rather than representing any commentary on Kimball himself.”

    I haven’t been back to this thread for a while, but that is indeed why I put a (!) up there.

    I met Tom (and Dan Wotherspoon) in November at the Society of Biblical Literature conference in San Antonio. They had a small book display up, and when the conference was over, gave me the display copy of “Conflict in the Quorum.” Nice guys.

  42. Mark B. says:


    See the review of the book by Boyd Peterson referred to in Clark Goble’s comment of March 1. He deals with the footnote allegation, and puts it to bed with the rest of the fiction.

  43. To second Mark’s comments, I went through a lot of footnotes of Nibley and was impressed with them. I didn’t find any errors. I did find many times that I disagreed with Nibley’s reading of them. But they were, in my experience, far more accurate than say Quinn (an other prolific footnoter).

  44. My favorite credibility issue relates to Beck’s homosexuality. The New York Times review of the book noted that Beck wrote a book in the early nineties that condemned homosexuality as compulsive behavior that could be overcome. She latter reversed her opinion, and revealed that she is gay. That doesn’t exactly establish her credibility.

    As a sociologist, I can’t help but be annoyed by Beck’s use of her Harvard sociology credentials to seemingly establish her as an authority in arenas unrelated to her training. She writes therapy columns for Oprah under the title of Dr. Beck, leading people to believe that she has credentials as a therapist. She doesn’t. It is dishonest, much like “Dr. Laura.” Beck May be a good writer, but she was always a lousy sociologist. None of her books received more than 2 citations in academic journals. From what I can find, she never published in an important peer reviewed journal. She doesn’t have the credentials to get tenure at North Dakota State, much less a real University. She wasn’t even full faculty at BYU. I just can’t stand it when people use their PhD credentials to establish themselves as an authority in other disciplines, when they were nothing more than a hack researcher in their home field.

  45. jayneedoe says:

    John Fowles: “great grandparents — need I say more?”

    I agree. I just wanted to note that not removing garments while bathing had, at some time, been the belief and practice of at least some Mormons.

    I was not in any way using my great grandparent’s actions to substantiate Martha’s claims.


  46. Michael E says:

    I’m surprised the Elizabeth Loftus’s name has not come up as providing evidence relevant to the false memory debate. She has successfully shown that memories–even of moderately traumatic events–can be “implanted” even though that’s probably the wrong word for it. If you are interested in looking for her work, she’s currently at UC Irvine. She has spent years studying how memories can be changed and how pseudomemories can be created, and she has found that much of what believers in recovered memories have claimed provides support for the veracity of recovered memories can be identified in pseudomemories she has created in the laboratory.
    By the way, the idea is not that pseudomemories (or false memories) are implanted, but that the source is confused. To determine whether a memory is of a real event or an imagined event, we need to be able to identify its context. As a memory is rehearsed, recalled, and repeated it becomes associated with other memories, and hence, other contexts. Most often these different associations and contexts are innocuous, but not always. For those of you who doubt that complex traumatic memories can be implanted, I encourage you to listen to Act 1 of “Ask An Expert” from This American Life. (To do so, click on the real audio icon after following the link.)

  47. Mark B. says:

    What did poor old North Dakota State ever do to you, Kevin, to deserve that kind of slur?

    Not a real university? What criteria do you use, anyway?

    It may be a small school, from a small, god-forsaken state, but there are those that love her. Probably.

  48. Didnt Boyd Peterson’s response to the book make the correlation between Beck’s recurring nightmares of being stuck in 2 dimensional egyptian papyrus and the alleged nature of the ritualistic abuse by her father. Furthermore, her ex-husband said she started recovering these memories by self hypnosise, which has to leave some room for error. Couldnt she have gotten some stuff mixed up in this process?

  49. a non-mouse says:

    If Martha Beck took seriously the leg hair jokes at BYU then for heaven sakes don’t anyone tell her the joke about the chicken crossing the road!!! That’s all we need, people thinking those “crazy Mormons” and the chickens!!!

  50. I am formerly LDS, having left the LDS in 1985. I read the Beck book last week; I ordered it after reading the obituary of Nibley in the LA Times.

    I read the book and enjoyed it and assumed Beck was being truthful in general, other than to have minimized her own responsibility for the hell she was in at BYU. Then a friend sent me the review by Peterson.

    Now, I actually wonder if Beck turned the tables on Nibley and the LDS by allowing herself to “lie.” That is, I think she perceived that Smith and Nibley were both wilful deceivers, and she may have chosen to pay them and the LDS back in kind.

    by the way, people can definitely “believe” things that they themselves have “made up.” They can and do create memories of events or visions, and then react to them emotionally as if they are or were happening.

    Right now, I am reading on the life of Kierkegaard, who offers us many examples of the phenomenon, but in a way that we can check it and observe it. Just read his journal and compare it to events objectively reported by others. He claims, for example, that he consistently lost money by publishing his various works but the financial records show that he was making money in his book publishing. Who knows? Perhaps SK lied to himself about losing money on publishing to disguise to himself and others the real cause of the disappearance of his inheritance: spending a lot of money on his own lifestyle. (That that was the cause of his “losing money” was hidden so well several of the first biographers of SK missed it; it was only later established by others who started poking around the financial records of SK.)

    In Kierkegaard’s journal entry for Oct 13, 1852, he says about his previous journal entries:

    About Myself

    In all that I wrote about myself in the journals from 48 and 49, something of the literary often slipped in. It is not so easy to keep that sort of thing segregated when one is poetically productive to the extent that I am. . .

    The difference between Soren Kierkegaard and many others (Joseph Smith, Nibley, perhaps Martha Beck, a number of other accusers of their parents of molestation, perhaps the Michael Jackson accusers) is that Kierkegaard’s own journal later documents his own awareness that his earlier self-reporting in his “journal” was in whole or in part fictitious. In the other cases, we don’t have such obvious admissions that we can’t believe their own life stories.

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