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Book Forum: Biography   |    
The Sword of Laban: Joseph Smith, Jr., and the Dissociated Mind
Am J Psychiatry 1998;155:1790-1790.
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Durham, N.C.

by William D. Morain, M.D. Washington, D.C., American Psychiatric Press, 1998, 238 pp., $23.95.

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William Morain, a retired plastic surgeon from Dartmouth Medical School, has written a psychological history of Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Mormon faith. As with most such histories, there is a story behind the story. In this case, Dr. Morain discovered that Dr. Nathan Smith (no relation to Joseph Smith, Jr.), the founder of Dartmouth Medical School, once performed a surgical operation on the leg of 9-year-old Joseph Smith, Jr. Morain was "raised in more than casual association with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints" in that his great-great-great grandmother married Joseph Smith’s son, Joseph Smith III.

Morain identifies two events in the history of Joseph Smith, Jr., which he proposes shaped the form and the substance of Mormonism. First, Smith underwent surgery on his leg without the benefit of anesthesia. A published report of the surgery from the perspective of Smith’s mother suggests that he was unusually calm and that he behaved most unlike what one would expect of a child his age. Nevertheless, Morain proposes that this surgery underlies many of the violent metaphors inherent in the Mormon faith, not the least of which is found in the title of the book—the sword of Laban. The Laban referred to is not the Biblical Laban but, rather, the son of the patriarch Lehi in The Book of Mormon. Laban, an evil young man, is decapitated by his more virtuous brother, Nephi, with a "wondrous sword." Thus, Nephi is enabled to acquire engraved brass plates with the Judaic record and genealogy of the family. Morain discovers Freud all over this account, and, from the psychoanalytic perspective, his discoveries are not surprising. The second event targeted by Morain is the sudden death of Smith’s older brother when Smith was a teenager. Morain suggests that bizarre bereavement fantasies, another focus in the Book of Mormon, contributed to the formation of Mormonism.

Whether one can write a true psychohistory/psychobiography is open to debate. Even if we assume that under favorable conditions such a history can be written, this volume is written under less than favorable conditions. First, reducing the spirit of a religious leader to the psychological is fraught with problems, whether that leader is Moses, Jesus, Mohamed, or Joseph Smith. Second, Morain must rely predominantly on two sources—the sacred books of Mormonism and secondhand accounts regarding Joseph Smith. The few primary writings of Smith, other than his "translations," are remarkable for how little they reveal. Third, the history of the Mormon faith is a young history, and perhaps Morain is too close to this history (especially if he traces his own roots easily to the marriage of the founder’s son).

Nevertheless, this is a fun book to read. The narrative moves. The interpretations are clear, although those who are well-grounded in the history of the Mormon faith or in psychodynamic psychiatry will find them simplistic. Morain has attempted an honest inquiry and has dedicated many hours to this pursuit—not bad for a surgeon.




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