Under the Banner of Heaven is a Fascinating Examination of Ex-Mormon Issues

Under the Banner of Heaven, the new true crime series on Hulu, delves deep into the story of Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a Mormon woman who was murdered along with her baby in 1984 in a Utah suburb. The case is portrayed through fictional detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), and includes flashbacks to the life of the victim and the suspects. It also folds in seminal scenes from Mormon history in an attempt to contextualize the horrific crime. 

Written by Oscar-winning ex-Mormon Dustin Lance Black (Milk), the series is sure to rankle some Mormon feathers. The first two episodes (which are streaming now) depict a broad range of Mormons, from jack Mormons to fundamentalists, lascivious men to naive women. I’m sure much will be written by Mormons and other former Mormons about the accuracy and authenticity of the show’s portrayal of Mormons. (For the record, I thought the show nailed it, which may have to do with my having grown up not far geographically or temporally from where Black spent his own adolescence in Northern California). What struck me most, however, was what this show has to say about us ex-Mormons.

The most prominent ex-Mormon so far in the show is the aggrieved husband/primary suspect, Allan Lafferty (Billy Howell). Lafferty is initially given the benefit of the doubt by Garfield’s devout Mormon detective. However, the moment Lafferty reveals that he has left the church, Pyre’s leniency evaporates. The detective cannot understand how anyone could deny his temple covenants and then not be a murderer. Those of us who have left the Mormon church have often been on the receiving end of this judgment, though probably not to this same degree. We’ve overheard whispers about how the light of Christ has supposedly vanished from our eyes or worries about keeping younger siblings safe from our influence. We know there’s no hell worse than the Outer Darkness reserved for sons of perdition, those who have denied the Holy Ghost.

Amusingly, Allan Lafferty is also the character most invested in proselytizing. Mere hours after he discovered the grisly remains of his wife and baby, he’s offering up clumsy segues to arguments ripped from the CES Letter. Questions about his possible motive are answered with a diatribe about Joseph and Emma Smith. Rather than defending himself at all, Lafferty spends the majority of his screen time bringing up the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the treatment of women in the church. To a non-ex-Mormon viewer, this probably looked like an unrealistic attempt to shoehorn in exposition and theme, but this is perhaps better viewed as a semi-satirical indictment of the ex-Mormon zealotry that leads us to pin every evil on the church. For a people who have fled a culture known for its missionaries, we tend to be an evangelical bunch. Even if the real Lafferty wouldn’t have jumped to making his wife’s murder about the church, we can see that Dustin Lance Black can’t stop himself from doing so.

Just as ex-Mormons can find it easier to leave behind specific church doctrine than general missionary zeal, we tend to cling to the orthodox Mormon mistrust of our institutions. The Lafferty clan is seen repeatedly railing against taxes, traffic enforcement, zoning laws, the feds, etc. We also see Joseph Smith embroiled in a similar conflict in flashback. Although he has left the church, Allen Lafferty maintains his skepticism, but has now extended it to include the major institutions of his life:  Mormonism itself and his family. Many people who have left their religions have a heightened sense of paranoia about authority figures and institutions, but Mormonism’s history of fleeing governments and claiming persecution compounds that mistrust.

Especially exciting for ex-Mormons are the scenes that portray moments in church history. We’ve all seen portrayals of these moments from the Church and its adherents: Brigham Young’s mission to England, Joseph Smith’s romance with Emma, his tarring and feathering at the hands of disaffected mobs. Where these are traditionally presented onscreen as melodramatic moments in the lives of great men, here everything is a little more sinister. We get the obligatory shots of Joseph sticking his head in a hat for revelation. The tarring and feathering has been recontextualized as a response to Smith’s sexual indiscretions with a teenage girl. While the casting and costuming make these moments resonate with anyone familiar with LDS cinema, the lighting and music and acting, as well as an emphasis on violence, lend a sinister air to these scenes. The first vision is presented with Joseph staring into a bright, alien light. In one inspired moment, it’s implied that he may have made the whole thing up to convince Emma to marry him. For people who are used to the sanitized version of these moments being presented in a sacred light, these scenes feel revolutionary.

Hand-in-hand with the church’s opaque history, its treatment of women and minorities is a major reason many of us have left. The show seems aware of this intersection. I can only conclude that the inclusion of Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), a fictional Paiute partner for our lead detective, will eventually serve as a conduit to further exploration of the racist Mountain Meadows Massacre, Similarly, discussion of the women’s place in the church will undoubtedly lead to an examination of polygamy, which is clearly already creeping in at the edges of this narrative both in the Lafferty family flashbacks, and in Joseph Smith’s.

The show wisely declines to rest solely on historical examples of Mormon bigotry. The casual Mormon racism and sexism the characters face in the present is an accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a member of a disenfranchised group in Utah. They experience uncomfortable moments with the crotchety old white men they encounter. Brenda Lafferty experiences some disturbing quid-pro quo sexism from a BYU professor, while Taba tries to maintain his dignity after a ranger refers to him as a “Lamanite.” The Lafferty family exemplifies several outdated attitudes, like their stunned reaction when Brenda jumps in to offer the men a hand in clearing a field while the women serve refreshments. But even our more sympathetic and less extreme Mormon detective Pyre gets called out on his casual racism and sexism.

This story by no means centers the female or minority experience of Mormonism, but the themes are present and sadly still relevant. The attitude toward Mormon women, particularly, feels like pity, which honestly is the most charitable emotion I can usually muster for women, minorities, and queers still participating in the church. There isn’t much space in my exmormon worldview for Mormons who are neither victimized nor complicit. I don’t know whether it’s possible (or even correct) to highlight the deleterious effects of institutional racism and misogyny without making the women and minorities in the story come across as victims. The point is that they are, not that they’re to blame.

So as this series progresses, I will be watching with an eye on whether Black was able to transcend the problematic white male gaze of Mormonism, or whether the women and minorities (well, minority singular so far) are just being used to further the arc of the white male cop. Pyre’s own inevitable faith journey has already been explicitly tied to the idea that he’s leading his wife and daughters into a church that would diminish them. The quick cut between matching husband/wife poses (Sister Pyre embraces  her husband from behind in the shower, Brenda holds onto Allen on his motorcycle to meet his family for the first time, and Emma holds onto Joseph on horseback as she flees her father’s house for a life of suffering and polygamy) took my breath away. Will Pyre’s wife eventually show some autonomy here, or is she merely motivation for her husband’s eventual apostasy? We shall see.

Overall, I really enjoyed these first two episodes. While I believe Black’s primary intent was to make people look more deeply at Mormonism and religious fundamentalists in general, I found a lot here about what it means to be ex-Mormon, trying to find peace in a world that has shifted beneath our feet, trying to heal from wounds that are still being inflicted on those we left behind.

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10 Responses

  1. @Monya_PostMo says:

    Thank you for making me think! It is such a tough balancing act for me – I know why I left the Church in the `90s), I’ve seen it do both harm and good.
    All those parallelisms you describe really resonate

  2. Donna Banta says:

    Interesting take on the ex-Mormon experience. Those early years after leaving such a controlling faith can be difficult. It’s hard to find one’s footing both emotionally and intellectually. I’m interested to see how the next episodes play out. I understand Black drew on his own experience–seeing his mom counseled by church leaders to stay with Black’s abusive step-father.

    I hope you’ll weigh in with further insights!

  3. chanson says:

    Wow, this makes me wish I had Hulu!

    I’m particularly curious about the scenes from LDS history, though I imagine that the faithful will regard such scenes as their personal persecution.

  4. Leah says:

    Wow, so thoughtful and well written! I’m curious now to watch.

    This: “There isn’t much space in my exmormon worldview for Mormons who are neither victimized nor complicit.”

    Yep.

  5. Cathy Jones says:

    Granted, it has been years since I read the book, but I recall it being more about an offshoot, and extremist practicing of Mormon principals gone haywire. I don’t have Hulu, so I haven’t seen the show and much of John Krakauer’s book has fled my memory, but I recall it being about fanaticism, extremism, obsession and delusion. How far from the book does the movie stray?

  6. Holly says:

    Hi Cathy–

    You ask how far from the book the TV series strays, and the answer is: pretty far, and some of the deviations are very problematic if not downright nonsensical.

    For starters, in the miniseries, Jeb Pyre calls the Laffertys “the Kennedys of Utah” and Brenda tells her parents that the Laffertys are basically “Mormon royalty,” There’s no support for this at all. They’re just middle-class chiropractors who have been in the occasional bishopric. Krakauer even writes that “before actually carrying out the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, Ron hadn’t done anything that was terribly outlandish, or unique, according to the cultural norms of Utah County.” That’s definitely pretty obvious in the the show, so its claims that they are so unique and special feel bizarre.

    In the book, Allen knew that his brothers had threatened to kill his wife and child, and claimed he would defend them–but the easiest way to defend them would be to tell Brenda what his brothers planned, and he did not bother to do that. The show not merely keeps him ignorant of his brothers’ plans, but through Jeb Pyre, absolves Allen of any responsibility for what happened to Brenda and their daughter.

    I personally found the show shockingly misogynist. In his OP, Robbie wonders “whether Black was able to transcend the problematic white male gaze of Mormonism, or whether the women and minorities (well, minority singular so far) are just being used to further the arc of the white male cop.” I think DLB fails to spectacularly to transcend the white male gaze of Mormonism, and essentially fridges a real woman who died within living memory in order to create a faith crisis for a white male patriarch. DLB even goes so far as to remove a real woman on the Lafferty brothers’ supposedly divine hit list, Chloe Low, and substitute her husband. He actually erases the agency and decency of a real woman in order to make the story about her husband’s ecclesiastical authority.

    That’s also why the show inflates the status of the Laffertys and keeps Allen ignorant of his brothers’ plans: so that the church can be blamed for “setting Brenda on a collision course with Dan and Ron” (or some similar phrasing that Jeb uses). The church had no investment in the two oldest Lafferty brothers at the time of the murders they committed; they’d already been excommunicated. But DLB wants the church to be the biggest bad in the story, and the truth is not as important as the story he wants to tell.

    The great irony is that DLB has responded to criticism of his work the same way the church responds to criticism of its work. In an interview with Slate, he complains that people who find the show problematic are just “defensive, negative, trying to pick at any little detail they can find that they can claim is not accurate.” That could be a verbatim response from the GAs to people who object to official accounts of LDS history. I can practically hear DLB saying, in response to a list of inaccuracies and distortions and untruths, “Some things that are true are not very useful,” just like Boyd K. Packer.

    Well, ok. But just because you can glibly dismiss the truth doesn’t mean everyone else who cares about it can’t see the big picture. Maybe your willingness to distort the truth for a story you like better and think will bring you a bigger audience and earn you more money means YOU can’t see the bigger picture.

    I think he would have had a better chance of successfully depicting and navigating the misogyny if he hadn’t diminished the role of Chloe Low and elevated the role of her husband, and if he had told the story of Brenda’s death more honestly, including how her husband’s behavior failed to prevent it.

  7. Suzanne Neilsen says:

    I’ve always wondered how factually accurate “true stories” must be. I thought the miniseries “Unbelievable” was excellent, and they made some stuff up to serve the truth of the narrative. It made a more compelling drama. Perhaps this is okay since the gaze remained on the Marie and survivors of sexual assault. (Geez, how many shows depict rape through the eyes of the rapist)
    Been a few years since I read the Under the Banner of Heaven, and have yet to see the show. From what I remember, calling the Laffertys Mormon royalty is ludicrous. They seemed like ordinary bozo’s you’d find in any ward. (Now there’s a scary thought.) What I found unbelievable was that anyone would follow them. If someone said, “Here’s a list of people to kill. Let’s go for a drive.”, I’m driving to the police station and turning them in.

  8. Holly says:

    Hi Suzanne–

    I also thought “Unbelievable” was fabulous, as was the ProPublica article it was based on. https://www.propublica.org/article/false-rape-accusations-an-unbelievable-story

    There are all sorts of ways to tell a “true” story that includes a lot of fiction, and one way to do that successfully is simply to be honest with the reader about what you’re doing. For instance, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston is a memoir that is full of fabrication, especially in the first section, “No Name Woman,” where Kingston stresses that because her mother won’t provide details about what happened to her aunt, she can’t fully understand the story and so tries to flesh it out by making things up. https://www.sevanoland.com/uploads/1/1/8/0/118081022/nonamewomankingston__1_.pdf

    Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy’s autobiography, consists of individual essays published in magazines and collected to form one narrative. McCarthy includes a brief response to each essay, explaining what she got wrong or fudged a bit for the sake of drama of simplicity, and underscoring what was absolutely the truth.

    But people got pissed when Jame Frey completely made up things that never happened and then pretended he didn’t in A Million Little Pieces, that everything he discussed actually happened.

    Dustin Lance Black et al have no obligation to remain faithful to the events in Under the Banner of Heaven. There was a disclaimer before or after each episode–or maybe both–acknowledging that the events in the miniseries were inspired by Krakauer’s book and included characters and dialogue that weren’t real.

    The issue is that he then insisted that anyone in the Mormon community who cared about nonsensical fabrications was just being, as I mentioned already, “defensive, negative, trying to pick at any little detail they can find that they can claim is not accurate.” He goes on to add, “But for the most part, I think they’re wrong and I know they’re wrong.” He insists on the authenticity of his text. He tries to have it both ways, and he doesn’t admit that some of his fabrications are just bad writing. It wouldn’t be so stupid to call the Laffertys “Mormon royalty” if the show actually supported that claim. But it doesn’t. They’re super unremarkable, middle-class chiropractors without fame or fortune.

    In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James discusses the criteria for scripture:

    Thus if our theory of revelation-value were to affirm that any book, to possess it, must have been composed automatically or not by the free caprice of the writer, or that it must exhibit no scientific and historic errors and express no local or personal passions, the Bible would probably fare ill at our hands. But if, on the other hand, our theory should allow that a book may well be a revelation in spite of errors and passions and deliberate human composition, if only it be a true record of the inner experiences of great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of their fate, then the verdict would be much more favorable. You see that the existential facts by themselves are insufficient for determining the value; and the best adepts of the higher criticism accordingly never confound the existential with the spiritual problem. With the same conclusions of fact before them, some take one view, and some another, of the Bible’s value as a revelation, according as their spiritual judgment as to the foundation of values differs.

    I’m perfectly happy to accept that “a book may well be a revelation in spite of errors and passions and deliberate human composition, if only it be a true record of the inner experiences of great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of their fate,” and under that definition, the BOM could be both scripture AND a work made up by Joseph Smith.

    But if your claim to authority is that the BOM is a translation of a history recorded golden plates and you insist that for 200 years, and then you’re like, “OK, well, it’s just this other kind of scripture, and you still have to believe all the other stuff we’ve said,” well, you’re trying to avoid admitting that you’ve been part of a fraud. It’s dishonest in a way that writing fiction is not.

  9. Suzanne Neilsen says:

    Holly
    Thanks for responding to the meanderings of my mind. One of these eons I may have clarity. (Hopefully not because the Army Corp of Engineers has channelized my brain. I much prefer fens and hope nutrients are restoring my addled brain)
    Back when I was a child, I was transfixed watching Star Trek “Devil in the Dark”. The revelation of the monster illuminated my 6 year old mind. Now an adult, I rewatched the original series on my big screen TV. I hit the off bottom on my remote, and staring at my reflection, saw my raised eyebrow. (That’s not factual. It was too dark. But I frequently raised an eyebrow.)
    But this talk of fraud and dishonesty, hmmm. There are raging arguments about the meaning of Star Trek and violations of canon. And “true” trekkies deriding NuTrek. And defending previous incarnations. And Gene Roddenberry as a flawed man with a vision. And Star Trek being a product of it’s time. And so on, for hours.
    So it seems, many people see writing fiction as dishonest in that way.

  10. Suzanne Neilsen says:

    Well I finally got around(over a year later) to watching “Under the banner of Heaven”, so I am finally responding. Oh, Boy.

    First, can I say how appalled I was that it looked nothing like great state of Utah. With all the running around in the forest, I expected someone to trip over a stargate. Only Stargate had better music and didn’t sound like a d grade horror movie. Maybe there should of been Zombies. Zombies with revelations

    While I liked the disclaimer, “inspired by a true story”, why didn’t the show go full on fictionalization? If you’re inventing a male detective protagonist, who finds a “brother” in poor poor Allen, the murder victims husband– why use real names orat all? And if there are to be zombies, call them zombies.
    I watched all seven tedious hours, to find it a story of a dude undergoing a “faith crisis”. set against a background of Zealots and an evil corporation. (V for Vendetta managed to do it in 2 hours, so kudos there)
    I would look up the murder victims names, but Brenda and baby daughter Erica only exist narratively so the dudes can have their story.
    As for strong women, humm. Did I mention I watched all seven hours. Yet very little screen time of women interacting. Why would Brenda care about Dianna ,or why Dianna(who is a very fast driver) cares about Matilda. I guess it is because they magically care, cuz they be strong women and something about the plot. So Dianna goes full Rambo (or rather Ripley) and saves Matilda from zombies. A cool moment. Too bad it wasn’t in episode 2.
    So seven long hours of male protagonist getting to say–patriarchy bad. The movie “Women Talking” did it in 104 minutes

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