Under the Hammer of Heaven
A recent television series brings a grisly Mormon murder case to life, though questionable renditions of history overshadow its more thoughtful aspects.
In 1998 I was amusingly reminded that Latter-day Saints are, as they like to put it, a “peculiar people.” At the Brooklyn bar I frequented, another regular—a cigarette-smoking, whiskey-pounding, foul-mouthed Orthodox Jew—had just learned that I was a Mormon.
His verdict? “That’s weird.”
There are about 7.5 million Jews in the United States, and nearly 6.8 million Latter-day Saints—around 2.4% and 2.0% of the country’s population, respectively. The numbers are similar, yet the cultural visibility of the two groups is so vastly different that a representative of one can, with some justification, call a representative of the other “weird.” How weird is that?
Mormons have typically been depicted in popular entertainment either as monsters, deviants or buffoons. The first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, propagated an image of the Saints as murderous kidnappers and slavers, as did the 1922 silent film Trapped by the Mormons (still sometimes shown as a midnight movie). In westerns, they were mostly backgrounded either as weird polygamists or meek types in need of protecting from outlaws and savages.
The first cinematic acknowledgment of Mormonism I specifically recall from my own moviegoing came in the form of a throwaway joke in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Having traveled back in time to 1986, Kirk explains Spock’s odd behavior by invoking the ’60s, saying, “I think he did a little too much LDS.” I for one was so hungry for the existence of my people to be recognized—what today we call “representation”—that the line burned itself into my memory. (It’s a line I still use myself on occasion.)
But be careful what you wish for. Twelve years later I sat down in a Manhattan movie theater to watch Trey Parker’s Orgazmo, the extremely raunchy story of a Mormon missionary in Los Angeles who knocks on the wrong door and becomes an accidental porn star. The only other person in the theater besides me and my Jewish lesbian friend was an elderly woman, and the three of us laughed our eyeballs out. Seriously. This was despite the fact that the movie came nowhere close to knowing the first thing about the actual lives of Mormon missionaries.
In 2006, along came HBO’s Big Love, the smarmily charming story of a family man trying to live a polygamist lifestyle while keeping one foot squarely in mainstream Salt Lake society. In 2011 came The Book of Mormon, the smash Broadway musical that proved how little Trey Parker and Matt Stone had bothered or cared after Orgazmo to learn about missionaries. Both shows were popular successes. Mormons had never been more conspicuously showcased, and yet neither production depicted the reality of life as lived by everyday Latter-day Saints.
Now we have the FX on Hulu series Under the Banner of Heaven, which may offer the nearest thing yet to a peek into a normal Mormon family—well, as normal as it can be when the father is a suburban police detective investigating a horrific double murder.
Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) is a fictional creation, but his murder case is not. On July 24, 1984, Allen Lafferty came home from work to find his wife Brenda and their 15-month-old daughter Erica dead, their throats slashed. The murders shocked the town of American Fork, the state of Utah, and the nation, especially when it began to appear that two of Allen’s older brothers, Ron and Dan—supposed fundamentalist Mormon prophets—had enacted the killings after a revelation from God.
The television series is, of course, based on Jon Krakauer’s 2003 true-crime bestseller, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, though it takes liberties with the story. What it does most effectively is immerse viewers in the world of early ’80s Utah, the little particulars and peculiarities of life in Mormon households in that time and place. It does this so thoroughly and accurately, in fact, that I sometimes wondered if viewers without an LDS background would find themselves completely lost.
Like the book, the television series makes the case that the Lafferty murders were rooted in the bloody history of Mormonism itself. This is where it both stumbles and shows its hand. Pursuing his investigation, Detective Pyre returns to the police station time and again to interrogate Allen Lafferty, who always has an elaborate explication of obscure Church doctrine to offer. These discourses inevitably segue into awkward historical flashbacks that land more like Pioneer Day cosplay than credible drama.
Worse than just stopping the momentum of the present-day story, many of these episodes illustrate incidents of dubious historicity. For instance, in one scene we witness Mormon prophet Brigham Young giving the order that leads to 1857’s Mountains Meadows Massacre. This was a real and sickening crime in which an entire wagon train—120 innocent men, women and children—was slaughtered in cold blood. The problem is, there’s no definitive evidence that Young gave that command, and historians still argue over whether or not he bears responsibility.
This failure to acknowledge the ambiguity of the historical record is a signal that creator Dustin Lance Black has chosen shrillness over subtlety. Every incident in the 19th century timeline takes on the most lurid possible interpretation, with early church leaders smirking, leering, and practically twirling their mustaches in feral glee. Sure, you could argue that what we’re seeing is Allen’s interpretation of history, but there is no counternarrative to make the case that he might be wrong.
If you’ve read my memoir The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, you know that I cover many of these same incidents in it, and that I’m no apologist for the LDS Church. Things might have happened the way Black suggests, but by effectively presenting supposition as fact his narrative makes no allowance for that possibility.
Such naked axe-grinding opens the series to criticisms like those McKay Coppins levels in The Atlantic, when he calls Under the Banner of Heaven “one of the most openly hostile treatments of a minority religious group to appear in popular American entertainment this century.”
This is a shame because the Oscar-winning Black (who wrote the screenplay for Milk) is very effective at telling a truer, more contemporary story. This one is about the power that authoritarian organizations like the Mormon Church wield in the lives of their adherents. That power is all about coercing members to act, often against their better instincts, in ways that protect the institution. That power is social reinforcement pressuring the boat-rocker to get with the program. That power is the threat of the loss of family and status, possibly for eternity.
I am not one to shout much at the television, but—as my girlfriend can attest—I shouted at the television a lot as we watched Under the Banner of Heaven. The pressure on Detective Pyre to stop digging into a murder that might reflect badly on the Church. The pressure on Brenda Lafferty to bring her heretical in-laws back in line with orthodox doctrine and practice. The pressure on real-life wives to stay in abusive marriages, on real-life needy families to cough up a tenth of their income, on real-life LDS bishops—as reported earlier this month in a damning investigation by the Associated Press—to refrain from reporting confessions of ongoing child sexual abuse to law enforcement.
A lot of Mormons I know have been on the receiving end of that pressure. I’ve been on the receiving end. When I was a miserable 19-year-old Mormon missionary stuck in a miserable Alberta town with a miserable companion, the entire institutional might of the Church arrayed itself against me to keep me from going back home to Utah, even though my own inarticulate instincts for self-preservation were screaming that I needed to get out of there.
When I hopped on a bus, missionaries and local church leaders were dispatched to towns along my route with orders to intercept me and send me back to Calgary. When I got back to Calgary and still wanted to go home, I spent five hours defending myself against an onslaught of “compassionate” persuasion from my mission president, who insisted going home early would set in motion a cascade of failure from which my life would never recover. Five hours of browbeating and abuse. Nothing I said in my own defense made any difference to that uninspired bureaucrat, or to the machine behind him. No glimmer of the “free agency” touted as such a cornerstone of the gospel we professed to cherish was granted to me. Of course I gave in. Of course I learned my lesson. Of course I hated myself for it.
I learned my lesson so well that two months later, rather than stand by idly while a fellow missionary attempted to exercise his free agency to go home early, I phoned in a false bomb threat to keep his plane on the ground.
I am not saying that the Mormon Church forced me to call in a bomb threat. That desperate innovation was mine and no one else’s. What I am saying is that I never would have been standing on that precipice, where the idea of a bomb threat sounded remotely logical, if the Church had not done everything in its power to silence my cries of distress, crush me into compliance, and convince me it was for my own good.
I was 19 years old. I could have gone to prison for ten years.
I ultimately do not agree with McKay Coppins that Under the Banner of Heaven is hostile toward Latter-day Saints as a group, any more than I would agree that Spotlight is hostile toward Catholics. No, Under the Banner of Heaven is hostile toward the unrighteous exercise of power, whether by people or by institutions—something Joseph Smith himself warned against. At the same time, it reserves great sympathy for the Saints who struggle to live by both their beliefs and their consciences.
For me the point of the show is not that obscure bits of dogma make Mormons uniquely susceptible to violence. The point is that the authoritarian power structure of the Church creates conditions in which Mormons are just as susceptible to unconscionable acts as anyone else.
It’s not only the character of Detective Jeb Pyre—a good man embraced by a loving family even after he loses his faith—that demonstrates where the story’s heart lies. It’s the real hero of the saga, Brenda Wright Lafferty, a woman who keeps doing what’s right and never loses her faith, despite her cavalier treatment at the hands of the Church and evil treatment at the hands of her in-laws.
That’s the true embodiment of a Saint, as history should make clear, and it’s more than worthy of representation. ∅
My memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, is available from all the usual sources online, though I would encourage you to order it either from your local independent bookstore or from Bookshop.org.