I’m on the books as being a fan of Jon Krakauer, so as someone who is not very familiar with Mormonism beyond that South Park Episode, I was beyond curious to read his take on the history of Mormonism and the ways that certain ingrained aspects of the faith can somewhat naturally progress into the type of extremism that causes two brothers to brutally murder their sister in-law and her child because they believed they were following God’s orders.
In general, one of the ways that Krakauer excels as a nonfiction author is the way that he tweaks the linearity of a narrative and builds emotional stakes both how a fiction author would, to increase drama and engage the reader. Here, he utilizes the 1984 murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty as the modern terminus of the detailed and complex history of Mormonism and its various fundamentalist offshoots. When you first read the statements from killers Ron and Dan Lafferty, you almost scoff; they sound like religious kooks who you wouldn’t take seriously if it weren’t for the fact that they actually killed people. But as Krakauer delves into how Mormon theory enables any man to, in essence, declare himself a prophet and do as he likes in the name of God, you begin to understand how these brothers weren’t “crazy” in the sense that they made everything up out of nowhere and believed it was real. Their religion, whose founder Joseph Smith was himself just some local nobody who then personally talked to angels and got everyone to believe that they gave him the third testament of the Bible on ancient golden tablets, invites and promotes that no individual member of the faith needs the Church to translate God’s word for them, because everyone can personally speak to God and his representatives. When you grow up deeply believing that, it’s not actually so twisted that the voice in your head that doesn’t seem to be in anyone else’s could be God speaking directly to his chosen prophet.
Couple that with a demonstrable history of violence against any supposed threats to early Mormon settlements, misogynistic beliefs, and explicit racism, and you get white men like the Laffertys who feel superior to everyone and answer to no one except God. And if your mouthy sister-in-law isn’t doing as she’s told, why wouldn’t God want you to “remove” her from your righteous path?
Understandably, this book has some Mormons plenty pissed off. From my view, Krakauer does a good job distinguishing between modern mainstream Mormonism and the fundamentalists sects that are responsible for some of the more shocking, abusive, and arcane practices occurring today in the name of faith. However, he rightly concludes that there is a certain appeal to a certain kind of narcissist of a religion that, in its very foundations, promises the return of “The One Mighty and Strong” to lead the people, and leaves whomever that is open to interpretation (except that he’s DEFINITELY a white man.)
Like all of Krakauer’s books, this is well-researched, provocative, and engaging. Though his approach here isn’t completely unbiased, he treats his subjects fairly and doesn’t condescend to current and ex-Mormons that he interviews. In total it’s, as expected, a fascinating read.