Deborah Laake, former staff writer, columnist, editor and executive at New Times, died Sunday in Charleston, South Carolina. She took her own life, ingesting an overdose of pills.
Laake, 47, was best known for her best-selling book Secret Ceremonies: A Mormon Woman's Intimate Diary of Marriage and Beyond. The book, published in April 1993, spent 15 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, rising to No. 8. There are more than 500,000 copies of the book in print.
After her book was published, Laake was diagnosed with cancer, and she left New Times to spend much of the remainder of her life battling for health. In her last years of full employment at New Times, Laake served as executive managing editor, helping to oversee the then-five-member New Times Incorporated group of alternative weeklies.
Laake, who also worked as a columnist for the Dallas Morning News in the '80s, was a decorated journalist. She was named Arizona's Journalist of the Year in 1988. A judge for that competition said Laake's work possessed "extraordinary power, range and emotion." Another lauded "powerful and vivid writing that I seldom see in many newspapers." In 1983, Laake won a special citation from the University of Missouri for her feature writing. She won Arizona's feature column writing award in 1987 and first place from the National Headliner awards for feature writing in 1991. She was a finalist for the Nixon National Newspaper writing award in 1991 as well.
"Deborah Laake was a fearless writer," says her friend and colleague, New Times executive editor Michael Lacey. "As an editor, she offered insightful guidance. I depended on her. Even during her worst moments -- in her struggles with cancer and depression and mental illness -- she was a lucid editor. I trusted her completely.
"I can remember her working on a story of mine while she was confined to a sanitarium following a breakdown. She had a phone in one hand, a flashlight in the other and a blanket pulled over her head so the guards wouldn't notice the after-hours activities.
"She was a wonderful friend, larger than life. When she wasn't driving you to drink with exasperation, she was invariably the most unforgettable person you'd ever met. My wife and I are crushed by her premature departure."
New Times editor Jeremy Voas called Laake "a singular journalist. As a writer, she was a model and inspiration for us all." He said Laake had hoped to regain the strength to return to a life of writing. She had done freelance writing and editing for New Times newspapers in the past few years. Her final piece for Phoenix New Times was published in March 1998.
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Secret Ceremonies is Laake's coming-of-age story about her life as a Mormon wife and woman. The book lifted the veil on the church's marriage rites and delivered searing and often funny commentary on what she viewed as a patriarchal and repressive social structure. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicated Laake for apostasy.
She is survived by three brothers.
Funeral arrangements are pending. A Phoenix memorial service for Laake is being planned. Information on that memorial service can be obtained by calling 602-744-6556.