In July of 1984 brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty murdered their brother Allen’s wife and infant daughter. When they were arrested, they said that they were told directly from God that they had to kill the woman and child.
In “Under The Banner of Heaven,” Jon Krakauer tells the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty and dives in to the Mormon Fundamentalist groups from which they came. Though the book centers around the Lafferty brothers and their brutal crime, Krakauer spends much of the book telling the history of the Mormon church -- from its creation by Joseph Smith to its violent journey from New York and eventually into Utah. He lays out many of the original principles and much of the original dogma of the church.
Krakauer tells how the church went from a small group of followers with extreme beliefs to a group that renounced the church’s holy doctrine sanctioning multiple marriages and became one of the world’s fastest growing religions.
The renunciation of polygamy is largely what led to the separation between the church and the fundamentalist sects. Krakauer includes many first-hand interviews with family members and fundamentalist members. The believers explain how God speaks to them and how He guides them to live the lives they live.
For me, the most disturbing interview was Krakauer’s jailhouse talks with Dan Lafferty, who is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of his sister-in-law and 15 month old niece. I expected a rambling maniac. Instead, Lafferty is completely coherent and matter-of-fact about the murder - still insisting he killed on direct orders from God.
“Under the Banner of Heaven” is written with the same journalistic flair of many of Krakauer’s books. He has a talent for taking true, factual stories and writing them with such suspense that you have to remind yourself you are reading non-fiction. I found the historical texts Krakauer used for his explanation of the founding of the early religion fascinating, not only because I knew very little of it, but because it is such an unusual history.
Still, the disturbing firsthand accounts and interviews were by far the most gripping part of the book. Krakauer used present-day examples -- such as the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping -- to show the violence and sexual brutality found in cult-like sects.
Though parts of “Under the Banner of Heaven” were graphic and disturbing, I found it fascinating. Laying the reason for murder at God’s feet is not something I can grasp easily or easily understand. But, in a time when we, as a country, are also struggling with comprehending what fuels Islamic fundamentalists to kill innocent people, Krakauer shows that using the name of God as a defense for violence and murder can also be found within our own borders.
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