A Sordid Tale of Fanaticism and Murder: “Under the Banner of Heaven”

I’ve been on a fundamentalist Mormon exposé reading kick lately. This happens when you read a book like Escape. You want to keep prodding at the open wound with fascinated horror. I already had Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven on my reading list, so I ordered it and got to reading.

Word of advice: don’t read this right after Escape. It can’t measure up. It’s a book written by an outsider. It’s a great work of journalism, but it is journalism, and the style of the detached, objective reporter giving it to you straight loses its power in the face of a harrowing personal account.

That said, it’s a very juicy true-crime story about murderous polygamists, so it’s absolutely not boring. If you’re in the market for gore, this is your book.

Cover of Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

Krakauer explores the murders of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica, who were killed by Brenda’s brothers-in-law. The dudes were miffed at her for trying to help their wives stand up to them and their newfound fanatical polygamist religious beliefs. Funny how God’s enemies turned out to be the Lafferty bros’ enemies, innit? After a “revelation from God,” the two brothers brutally murdered their beautiful young sister-in-law and their adorable 18 month-old niece, and then went to Vegas to gamble. This isn’t a whodunit, so don’t worry that I’ve given the mystery away. It’s a whydunit. Krakauer not only investigates the brothers’ descent into fundamentalist Mormonism and religious fanaticism, but weaves it into the history of mainstream Mormon faith, showing how it’s possible to get violent cultists out of the religion of the Saints. In the process, some grim and gory mainline Mormon history is brought to light.

Krakauer was a bit too credulous in his reporting of Mormonism’s origins for my tastes, but he ended up pissing off the Church mightily, so bravo! He must not have been as gentle as he appears to this anti-theist. There was some stuff in there I didn’t know, like the whole pageant thingy that still gets put on at Hill Cumorah. The book contains plenty of salacious details about the origins of polygamy, and how Mormons discarded it for respectability, and how some sects cling to it today. All of it is seamlessly tied to the Lafferty brothers, so we can see the certain logic of their beliefs, and how those beliefs led them to do horrific things. It was a sobering reminder that even seemingly reasonable, rational people can be badly warped by faith. Put it like this: the brothers weren’t always on a trajectory to become homicidal maniacs.

I wasn’t enchanted by Krakauer’s stylistic choices. The multiple newspaper reports on the murders at the beginning bog the story down – there’s not enough momentum established in those opening pages, and those interminable articles drag everything to a crawl. He also keeps cutting from present to past without powerful enough parallels to support such weaving. I think it would have worked better as a simple frame story: begin with a firm establishing of current events, switch to the past to show the origins of those events, and then return to tie everything to the present and finish the tale. As it was, you’d barely get settled in the happenings in one time period only to be pulled out and dumped into the other, several times, and it wore on me. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

But despite that, this is an eminently readable book, and a fascinating look into fanaticism. The end of the book, where we see the chilling, undiminished faith of Don Lafferty, is worth every quibble I had with the rest. There’s something compelling about looking into the mind of a murderer. All of us need these glimpses into the motivations of religiously-motivated killers from time to time. It’s like getting a booster shot that will help us avoid catching the same disease.


Don’t forget to get your copy of Escape if you want to read along – I’ll be starting the in-depth review posts on that one within the next two weeks.

A Sordid Tale of Fanaticism and Murder: “Under the Banner of Heaven”

3 thoughts on “A Sordid Tale of Fanaticism and Murder: “Under the Banner of Heaven”

  1. 1

    Escape was horrifying. I read it after I had read Under the Banner of Heaven, so no disappointment for me. Have you been following the Justice Department’s human rights case against Hilldale & Colorado City? (They were denying utilities to anyone not a member).

  2. 2

    Have you read Fawn Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History”??

    It’s utterly bizarre to read about the invention of mormonism (Fawn Brodie was raised mormon) from a historical perspective. It’s head-shaking WTF stuff, I mean “OMG are people really that dumb?” I guess it’s a testament to The Sunk Cost Fallacy that Smith’s followers continued to believe in him more than a couple weeks at most, and they stuck with him in spite of some suspiciously timely ‘revelations’ about god wanting him to get married again whenever he saw a pretty girl…

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