Jon Krakauer did not setout to write about murder. After publishing "Into Thin Air," his best seller about a 1996 Mount Everest expedition that went fatally awry, he began researching a book about faith, focused on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, America's most successful homegrown religion. "There are more Mormons in this country now than Presbyterians," he notes over breakfast in a New York hotel. "Worldwide, they outnumber Jews." In the course of his reporting he wrote to Mark Hofmann, a Mormon who had lost his faith, turned to forgery and then murder and was serving time in a Utah state prison. "I got a letter back from his cellmate saying, 'Mark won't talk to you, but you should talk to me because I'm the most fanatical believer you'll ever meet'." The cellmate was Dan Lafferty, a fundamentalist Mormon who, with his brother Ron, had been convicted of murdering their sister-in-law and her baby daughter in 1984. They said they'd committed the murders under orders from God.
Krakauer listened to Lafferty's story, and by the time he'd reached the prison parking lot he knew he had a different book. "I couldn't believe what was coming out of his mouth," says Krakauer. "And more than that, the way it was coming out of his mouth. He was describing how he pulled this poor woman's hair back and slit her throat and let the blood drain. And he's describing it all with utter dispassion, as if he's describing planting cucumbers." The book, "Under the Banner of Heaven," is superficially a break from the author's other books about mountaineering and outdoorsmen--but only superficially. The wiry Krakauer, 48--who still climbs himself--has always written about obsessives who push things just a little too far. If fans of "Into Thin Air" are surprised by this new book, fans of his 1996 "Into the Wild" will feel right at home. "Into the Wild" told the story of the intelligent, intemperate Chris McCandless, who went to Alaska to face nature and paid with his life; his narcissistic monomania is close kin to the religious zealotry that led Dan Lafferty to murder.
Scrupulously reported and written with Krakauer's usual exacting flair, "Under the Banner of Heaven" is both illuminating and thrilling. It is also the creepiest book anyone has written in a long time--and that's meant as the highest possible praise. But to make sense of Lafferty's story, Krakauer first has to explain the Mormon fundamentalists who still embrace polygamy, the superiority of the white race, the imminent end of the world and the right to commit homicide in the name of God. As many as 100,000 Mormon fundamentalists live in North America, many of them in remote Western communities. They rarely make the news, but when they do it's usually on page one above the fold--like Brian David Mitchell, the man accused last year of breaking into 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart's bedroom and kidnapping her to be his wife.
Dan Lafferty and his five brothers grew up in the mainstream Mormon Church, --but in the early '80s they drifted into the fundamentalist fringe. They were promptly excommunicated by the LDS Church, which is so opposed to the fundamentalists that it even denies they are Mormons. As Krakauer points out, "Nobody cracks down on polygamy like the LDS Church." The Laffertys hunkered down to prepare for the last days. In March 1984 the eldest brother, Ron, claimed to have received an order from God to kill four people, including their niece and her mother, the one member of the family who talked back to the brothers. Four months later, Brenda and Erica Lafferty were dead. Found guilty of the murders, Dan Lafferty was sentenced to two life terms. Ron Lafferty is on death row.
Krakauer never denies that the Laffertys represent the extreme fringe of modern Mormonism. But in what is already proving a controversial point, he argues that their violence has roots in mainstream Mormon history. "This religion was persecuted like no other faith in America," he says. "The church was the object of great violence--in the 19th century, the American government declared war on Utah--and eventually they responded in kind." Brigham Young, he notes, preached that some sins were so heinous as to justify the murder of the sinner. This "blood atonement" was the justification the Laffertys used for their murders.
Two weeks before the book's publication, Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the family and church-history department of the LDS Church, circulated a five-page critique of "Under the Banner of Heaven." Krakauer acknowledges several small errors Turley pointed out, but he thinks the criticism dodges his larger point. "Turley says most Mormons now and in the 19th century are peaceful and law-abiding," Krakauer says. "I don't doubt that. But he also says Dan Lafferty is an aberration and that I've chosen this one exceptional moment in the church's history and written a book about it. Well, it's not that much of an aberration. There is this small but significant percentage of fundamentalists for whom violence is a logical way of doing business."
In the end, Krakauer's book does turn out to be a story of faith, as well as a true-crime story where the mystery deepens the farther you get into the tale. Krakauer never questions the sincerity of people like Dan Lafferty, but he makes a point of putting his own agnosticism on record and clearly has no patience with Mormon fundamentalism. "I asked Dan, 'So in the end, what's the difference between you and Osama bin Laden?'" Krakauer says. "It was the one time while he was talking when I saw a flicker of doubt. But then he came back real quick and said, 'I'm right and he's wrong.' Which is essentially what all religions rely on. Everything comes down to faith. And when people rely on faith rather than rational thought for important decisions, the world becomes a much more frightening place." No one who reads this invaluable--and, yes, very frightening--book will disagree with that.