Secret grief

Deborah Laake went from arrogance to talk shows to misery after publishing her indictment of Mormon practices, "Secret Ceremonies." And then she killed herself.

Published October 27, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Seven years before my colleague Deborah Laake slaughtered herself, she wrote a famous Mormon-bashing book, "Secret Ceremonies: A Mormon Woman's Intimate Diary of Marriage and Beyond." After it was published in the spring of 1993, Laake's book was an immediate success, whizzing onto the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for 15 weeks. (It still sells well in predominantly Mormon towns like Gilbert, Ariz., or Park City, Utah.) When Laake first heard she'd made the bestseller list, she was in a bar in Texas. She jumped atop a table and joyfully relayed her literary accomplishment to the other patrons.

Her book was one of the first to cash in on the ongoing memoir craze and was best known for Laake's mocking, detailed revelation of top-secret Mormon temple ceremonies and, oddly enough, for her lengthy account of years of obsessive-compulsive masturbation, which she blamed indirectly on Mormonism. Laake even became a hit on the talk show circuit, where, beyond fielding questions about masturbation, she tried to explain why her religion very nearly destroyed her.

But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not react happily to "Secret Ceremonies." After its publication, church leaders excommunicated Laake for apostasy.

There were reasons Mormon elders couldn't abide the book, which makes them -- and Mormonism -- seem silly and cruel and dangerous. For instance, Laake describes a series of Mormon bishops, or spiritual advisors, as stupid, rigid, insensitive and occasionally voyeuristic. She makes fun of little old ladies called "Temple Helpers" who dressed her for the first time in "garments," or holy underwear, which she was instructed to wear all her life. (Throughout the book, she makes fun of her garments, which she finally sheds for good a few years later.) She details her Mormon Temple wedding, which includes a ceremony in which her fiancé "Monty" pulls her through "the veil" with a secret grip during a pre-wedding ceremony. "Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter you into the joy of the Lord," she recalls Monty telling her.

The book is still controversial; just log onto Amazon to see the emotions the book elicits. Even today readers either trash Laake for whining endlessly about her problems or elevate her to sainthood for writing a tell-all book about the Mormon Church.

I remember standing in the bookstore after buying the first edition of "Secret Ceremonies," leafing through the pages, being taken aback when I saw that Laake had put my name in the acknowledgments. She said I was part of a "community of writers" who "provided unstinting help and encouragement whenever [she] needed it." I was even more surprised when she signed my copy of the book this way: "I miss you like hell. Love, Deborah Laake." I did not recall our working years together during the late 1980s and early 1990s at Phoenix New Times as being particularly warm, intimate or deserving of "Love, Deborah Laake," and I did not think she had any reason to miss me "like hell" when she went on her book tours.

Looking back on it, I realize I failed to recognize the extent of her mental illness, which often took the form of extreme self-absorption and out-of-control boastful egotism. When Laake won a top state writing award in 1989, she ordered an editorial assistant to bring a dozen long-stemmed American Beauties to the awards ceremony so Laake could clutch them to her bosom during an offensively self-congratulatory acceptance speech. The award has been passed out for decades, and no winner before or since has ever demanded roses.

Laake was a close friend and protégé of Michael Lacey, the paper's owner and executive editor, and because of their relationship I think she believed she could pick on other staffers with relative impunity.

And she did. She challenged those few editors and other writers whom she perceived as threats to her self-imposed status as the paper's alpha female and/or best writer. For instance, the first week Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Tom Fitzpatrick arrived at our paper from Chicago, Laake attacked him for stealing an idea she'd already chosen for her column. The two never spoke again.

Laake also picked fights with Paul Rubin, an enormously popular writer with readers. Like Laake, Rubin frequently wrote crime stories with strong narratives. We other writers often wondered aloud if Laake was threatened by Rubin because he had won more national and state awards than she.

I never clashed with Laake, because I was best known for my investigative reporting and Laake told me several times she "would never" do my kind of journalism. No one reads that stuff, she said. I, on the other hand, was a fan of Laake's writing, a combination of great details that made readers squirm (like her explicit accounts of her masturbation bouts), languorous Southern rhythms and unexpected gonzo punches. Laake liked to think of herself as a brutally honest journalist, and she was, except when she wrote about herself.

After reading "Secret Ceremonies" for the third time, shortly after her suicide, I realized she had blamed Mormonism and the men in her life for her mental illness, for the terrible dark spells that followed the giddy manic highs. "Secret Ceremonies" is nevertheless a fascinating and compelling read about Laake's struggle to survive waves of self-destructive depression.

Sadly, the book was Laake's last serious writing effort; she developed breast cancer shortly after it was published. Although she recovered from the cancer, she blamed the lingering side effects of chemotherapy for preventing her from writing again. I often wondered whether she was actually paralyzed by depression.

She tried to run. During the last years of her life, Laake moved from Phoenix to Charleston, S.C., back to Phoenix, then back to Charleston, where she finally killed herself.

During her last stay in Phoenix, the depression deepened. She remained isolated, reached out, then became isolated again. As I began to understand that she was seriously mentally ill, and her fragility became apparent to me, I was no longer wary of her. I understood how brave she'd been to even show up at the office on days when the depression gripped her.

I also learned that when she could manage to talk herself into getting out of her house, she was a marvelous storyteller and a real listener. We had lunch, exchanged e-mails and talked on the phone. I asked her to help edit some of my columns, thinking it would help my writing and her depression, but she said she was still too sick from the chemo. She said she didn't like journalism much anymore; she worried that it was too mean-spirited and negative for her, that it would attract a negative energy -- and that that wouldn't be wise, what with her fragile health and all.

I reminded her of her successful book, her many journalism awards, and asked her if she missed the limelight.

"It all seems so long ago," she said.

At that moment I realized how much she'd changed. In the old days she'd corner me in my office and tell me about her latest coup on a talk show, or how much money her book was making, or how the Mormons hated her, just hated her, or how her readers adored her. Now, it seemed, none of these things mattered to her. Problem was, she'd found nothing to fill their place.

The last time I saw Laake was in March 1999. Her mother had died, and I had dinner with her and other friends after attending her mother's wake. She wore her trademark short linen shift, high-heeled sandals and a flowing scarf. She'd had her makeup done at Saks Fifth Avenue. During dinner, she fell apart. She wept that Mormon leaders would not allow her to eulogize her mother during an upcoming church funeral, wouldn't even let her sit in the front of the church with the family. Of course, she should have expected such a reaction after ripping into the Mormon church in "Secret Ceremonies," but she couldn't recognize the ugly logic; her mind was too clouded by depression and grief and pills. I phoned her after the funeral, but she never returned the calls. I later learned she'd moved back to Charleston.

I don't know how many pills she swallowed on Feb. 4; all I know is, she finally managed to kill herself. It was at least her fourth suicide attempt. She was 47 years old.

After Laake died, I was so furious with her that I refused to write a letter in support of her nomination for a posthumous journalism award. I said Laake didn't deserve the award. She had not influenced my writing or anyone else's, I lied. As the months passed, I realized I was angry because on some level I felt abandoned. After 14 years, Laake was finally starting to become a friend.

And I missed her -- still miss her -- like hell.

By Terry Greene Sterling

Terry Greene Sterling has written for Phoenix New Times since 1984, when Deborah Laake edited her first piece. Sterling has been named Arizona's top journalist three times and has won more than 40 national and state journalism awards. She left the paper in June to pursue other writing projects.

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