The Latter-Day Secret Sharer

One of the key doctrines that distinguish Mormonism from all other religions is its belief that only married couples can attain the highest reaches of heaven. For those couples so exalted, heaven is an eternal round of reproduction of "spirit children" destined to populate other planets. Obviously, the Mormon afterlife is no place for singles, which explains why the Latter-day Saints put so much emphasis on earthly marriage and the family. But what can a Mormon woman look forward to when she fails in marriage?

Fortunately for ex-Mormon Deborah Laake, author of a sudsy new autobiography, "Secret Ceremonies" (240 pages. Morrow. $20), enough readers want to know the answer. Her book has zoomed to fourth place on The New York Times best-seller list. Laake was raised a Mormon and in the early '70s attended Brigham Young University, where, before graduating, she married a man she says she never loved. Now 39 and an editor of an alternative weekly newspaper in Phoenix, Ariz., Laake blames the church and its patriarchal priesthood for her inability to enjoy marital intercourse, for her three failed marriages, for her attempted suicide and for the two months she spent in a psychiatric institution.

What separates Laake's self-pitying volume from other pray-and-tell books by former Mormons is her lengthy and derisive description of the church's secret temple rituals (hence the title) by which marriages are "sealed" for all time and eternity. Derived in part from Masonic rites which founder Joseph Smith learned, the ritual includes secret handshakes, secret names, white undergarments and a staid sacred drama-now presented by video-in which temple workers play the parts of God, Jesus, Satan and other figures from the Mormons' sacred Scriptures. In Laake's telling, the "nutty" temple exercise was the beginning of her eventual apostasy. But for church authorities, who finally excommunicated her last April, Laake's unpardonable sin was to break the vow all Mormons make not to reveal what happens inside the temple.

Feminist blow: Apart from disciplining the author, the church's all-male hierarchy has prudently chosen to ignore the book. Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon historian of the church at Indiana-Purdue University in Indianapolis, suspects that the book is being snapped up by anti-Mormon Protestants as further proof that the Latterday Saints-particularly because of their temple rituals-cannot be considered authentic Christians. For her part, Laake regards her work as a feminist blow against a misogynist church; her excommunication, she says, is good "public relations" for her book.

For all the publicity she has attracted, Laake fails to be fair-or even very literate-in treating the highly complex relationship between sexuality and salvation in the Mormon religion. Nowhere does she mention that women can and do preach from Mormon pulpits, lead congregations in prayer and in some organizations even give orders to men. These are freedoms Joseph Smith would not have tolerated. Theologically, Mormons remain committed-in the next life even more than this-to male privilege. But if Mormon men are challenged to become reproductive gods, they also know that they cannot do so without the willing support of equally divine consorts.