April 11, 2005 12:00 PM

When Martha Beck receives the shattering phone call that everyone with an elderly parent half expects, she is sitting in her kitchen in Phoenix, talking about her provocative memoir Leaving the Saints. Author of the 1999 bestseller Expecting Adam, about her experience with a son born with Down syndrome, Beck has crafted a new book documenting the spiritual disenchantment that led to her break with the Mormon church. And there is more: In her book Beck alleges that she was molested by her father, Dr. Hugh Nibley—a prominent Mormon scholar and historian.

Now, on Feb. 24, one of Beck’s seven siblings is calling to say that Nibley, 94, has died. Wiping tears from her blue eyes, Beck, 42, says that she was told her father’s last words were, “I love Martha so much. She’s my favorite.”

Even as Nibley lay dying in Provo, Utah, he knew that Beck—a Harvard Ph.D., sociologist and O magazine columnist who calls herself a “life coach”—was going public with the accusations of “ritual sexual abuse” that she had made privately years before.

Now Beck confides that she had felt “an overwhelming wave of peaceful-ness” when she was meditating earlier that morning. “It would have been when he was dying,” she adds softly.

But if Beck is feeling at peace, it is in spite of the maelstrom around her. Even before her book, subtitled How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, was published on March 8, Mormons rushed to protest the fact that she wrote about sacred rituals, including her wedding (to John Beck, now 45 and the father other children Kate, 19, Adam, 16, and Lizzy, 14). They also hastened to defend Nibley, professor emeritus of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. Church members conducted a campaign to send anti-Beck e-mails to Oprah, and Kim Farah, a church spokeswoman, told PEOPLE, “Fair-minded readers will find [Leaving the Saints] at best unconvincing, at worst mean-spirited and at times absurd.”

In addition, all of Beck’s siblings have signed a statement claiming that the “portrayal of our family [in the book] is false.” Says brother Alex, 49, a filmmaker: “We stand together and say we saw no evidence of this abuse.”

By Beck’s account her siblings never witnessed the molestation, which began when she was 5 and continued until she was 8. “What I remember [of the first incident] is this,” she says now. “My mother had taken my little sister to the doctor and my other siblings were at school. My father told me that I had to have a special bath …and then,” she sighs, “he tied my hands together and put them over my head. He was saying it was an Abrahamic sacrifice he had to make.”

Beck describes “having my legs shoved apart” and experiencing “this horrible, horrible pain” that would produce ragged scar tissue gynecologists would note in later years. The memories did not stay with her; though she says she suffered from anorexia and depression, she remembered nothing of the abuse during the first eight years of her marriage to Beck, a professor and author, while they were studying at Harvard and later teaching at Brigham Young. (The two separated in 1993; Beck and the children now live with her partner, Arizona State University professor Karen Gerdes, 48.)

It was in 1991, when her daughter Katie was 5, says Beck, that she began having “these vivid flashbacks that crashed in on me like a wave.” Seeing her elder daughter at the same age, she theorizes, triggered the memories of the abuse: “It was sensory, it was visual, it was overwhelming.”

Knowing that the images were connected to her father, Beck first called her mother, Phyllis (who, Beck claims, initially said she believed the charges and then recanted); she then confronted her father in 1993. His response, she says: “To think that my own child would act in league with Satan…”

But if her family brushed off Beck’s claims, others have not. Steve Benson, an editorial cartoonist for the Arizona Republic, has known Martha and John Beck since 1993, and, like them, he and his wife, Mary Ann, have left the church. “I believe Martha,” he says now. “Years ago she told us about the sexual abuse. She wasn’t sensational about it. She also told us her family was in deep denial.”

Like any memoirist who claims the title of life coach, Beck—whose oeuvre also includes self-help guides like The Joy Diet and Finding Your Own North Star—is able to see the hope that shines through the horror of her story. “It was hard as hell to write it,” she says, “but with every page there seemed to be a more clear space in me where there had been pain.”

Michelle Green. Vickie Bane in Phoenix