As of last Sunday, Deborah Laake's book Secret Ceremonies sat at No. 11 on the New York Times Bestseller List for paperback nonfiction after nine weeks on the list. Laake is a staff writer for New Times and an executive managing editor for the five cities in which New Times has newspapers, though for nearly a year she has been on medical leave fighting breast cancer.
Secret Ceremonies, for those who have not yet read it, documents an earlier struggle in Laake's life: coming of age in the Mormon church, then failing to conform to its rigid dogma, especially its subjugation of women. After a pair of divorces--and the sexual suspicion and humiliating "rehabilitation" that followed--and two psychiatric hospitalizations, she fell away from the church altogether and saved herself from someone else's idea of salvation.
To date, there are more than 500,000 copies of the book in print; it spent 15 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list for hardcover nonfiction, rising to No. 8 last summer. The paperback edition hit the list in April and shot to No. 3. Secret Ceremonies has been published in England, Germany and Bulgaria. Editors in South Africa called to request assistance securing photographs of the "Meesa temple" for a magazine excerpt.
Success brings tumult. Just days after the book came out in April 1993, a Mormon bishop showed up at New Times' office to inform Laake that she was to be excommunicated. Just as the banner "Banned in Boston" guaranteed book sales in earlier decades, the orchestrated Mormon opposition to Secret Ceremonies clinched this book's popularity. "If they had just ignored the book, it might have gone away," Laake says. "Instead, they made complete jerks of themselves, and the book has just sold better and better."
Cadres of Mormon women, hand-picked by their male priesthood leaders, appeared at book signings and on talk shows. On the Sonya Live TV show, Laake debated a former Miss America and a church authority named Beverly Campbell, whom Laake describes as a "cross between Phyllis Schlafly and Dana Carvey's Church Lady." "They both just screamed at me for the entire hour and said I was a liar," Laake says. At a local broadcast in Portland, Oregon, a packed gallery hooted and laughed at inappropriate moments, and--to Laake's mind--reacted out of proportion to what she had written. She challenged the audience, asking, "How many of you actually read my book?" Two women raised their hands, so she snapped back, "Oh, so you're angry on the basis of hearsay?"
Such encounters were frustrating to the point of comedy; Laake added an afterword to the paperback edition of the book to document them.
What she didn't document is that last August, she was diagnosed with a virulent form of breast cancer. She'd had fibrocystic disease for 15 years--sufferers of that syndrome have a higher incidence of breast cancer than nonsufferers--but still, the negative mammogram caught her by surprise.
"It's really hard, at 40, to confront the reality that you may die," she says. "I used to look at mammograms as this great thing. They're almost hyped as a cure. But the cure is terrible. The mammogram is only the first step in the worst two years of your life."
She underwent a mastectomy, followed by debilitating chemotherapy, which left her sick and wasted. She lost her trademark red hair, her strength and, at times, almost, the oversize laugh that follows so closely behind her sense of humor.
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"I looked like a Buddha with an eating disorder," she says. Well-wishers would gushingly express relief that the doctor had caught the cancer in its early stages. "There were days when I thought, 'Why the hell are they glad they caught it early?'"
Now, nearly three months after her last chemotherapy treatment, her hair has begun to grow back, and though she is wracked with lingering arthritis and a heightened sense of mortality, her spirits have returned, and she looks forward to "moving back into my life."
Often, she is asked if she thinks that the stress of the book tour and the fights with the Mormon church might have triggered her cancer. "People ask me that as though you can summon up cancer in a few months; cancer takes years to grow," she says. "If they're nasty, they ask me if I have any lingering suspicions that God is cursing me with this. . . . I feel sorry for those people."
But she finds affirmation in her uncertain future, which she feels refutes the lock-step truths of her Mormon upbringing.
"There is so much emphasis on control," she says, "and so little recognition of the vitality that accepting uncertainty brings into your life. The experience of cancer gave me insight into what happens when you don't change. When I got cancer, I thought, 'There are really some changes I need to make in my life.' I don't want to be brittle and defensive. And seeing the church up close like that, I saw a correlation.