Under the Banner of Heaven
by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Under the Banner of Heaven / 1-4000-3280-6
I read "Under the Banner of Heaven" in the same weekend as "Escape" and "Stolen Innocence", and found it an interesting contrast to the two memoirs. Where "Escape" and "Stolen Innocence" both provide a woman's view of the community and how difficult escape is from the abusive institution of FLDS plural marriages, Krakauer attempts to provide a scholarly overview, with brief zooms into individual lives. The result is a fascinating book but, on reflection, I wish it had been edited a little differently.
The format of this book is slightly problematic for me. Krakauer initiates with a relatively 'current' event - the 1984 Lafferty killings - and uses that as a launching board to discuss the beginnings of the Mormon religion, the life (and faults) of founder Joseph Smith, and some of the more bloody incidents in the history of the religion. In theory, there is nothing wrong with the format, but the disjointed narrative makes it difficult to follow at times. I think that probably Krakauer made the best of a difficult subject - if he had simply started with Joseph Smith and worked chronologically towards the Lafferty brothers, the reader interest might not have been hooked; if he had dealt completely with the Lafferty brothers without the occasional sidetracks into the history of the religion, a lot of important pieces would have been lost on the reader in the case of the Lafferty killings.
So if I do not care for the layout of "Under the Banner", I cannot suggest a different one - I *do* suggest tackling "Escape" or "Stolen Innocence" prior to reading Krakauer's scholarly approach, as I believe these memoirs will clarify why so many women feel powerless to leave these abusers. Krakauer tries to underscore this issue, by explaining that most of the women are unskilled, uneducated, unaware of their rights, and unwilling to abandon their children to abuse, but the memoirs bring these issues home more closely. Krakauer also touches on the physical abuse of women rampant in the religion - he mentions the "spankings" one woman receives (in full view of her children), as well as the rampant sexual abuse of women and children alike, and I would like to see a later edition of this book take time to note that FLDS women are subjected to high rates of physical abuse - a fact that might explain why so many women are afraid to attempt to leave. And, of course, the whole book centers around a case where a woman and her child are brutally *murdered* in retaliation for helping a sister-in-law escape an abusive marriage.
If Krakauer's excellent book has a failing, I would suggest that failing becomes apparent in his dealing with faith in general. Krakauer makes some statements that some will find problematic - in his initial introduction, he intimates that the Lafferty murders are the result of an "irrational belief [in God] [carried] to its logical end". In the later chapters, he scoffs at a court decision that the Lafferty case was mishandled by rushing to the judgment that the Laffertys were sane and orders the lower courts to revisit the issue of insanity before retrying the Laffertys - Krakauer makes light of this decision by conflating "belief that God talks to people" with "belief that God talks to people and orders them to kill their sister-in-law and her baby" and then states that if belief in God is a priori insane, then 90% of America should be institutionalized. Yet in a rather clear case of Strawman Has a Point, I couldn't help but feel that the higher courts were doing the right thing to determine whether or not the men were sane before rushing them off to the (literal) firing squad. Whether the Laffertys are sane or not I personally cannot say, and indeed Krakauer is in a much better position to claim an opinion on the subject, due to his research on the subject, but I am proud to live in a country with a robust justice system that thoroughly investigates the state of mind of our most disturbed killers, so that the societal response is the best possible one.
Having said all that, as a religious person myself, I greatly recommend this book. There is a good deal of important scholarly research and important criticism available here, and I would urge any person, regardless of religious preference, to read this as a cautionary tale. No religion is served well by secrecy or covert covering of any flaws; no society is served by the systematic abuse of its most vulnerable members.
~ Ana Mardoll
View all my reviews