DATE July 30, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jon Krakauer discusses his new book "Under the Banner
of Heaven," which looks at Mormon fundamentalists
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Jon Krakauer writes about extremes. His best-selling book "Into Thin Air" was
about the disastrous storm on Mt. Everest in 1996. His best-seller "In the
Wild" was about a young man who set off for Alaska and died of starvation in
the bush. Krakauer's new book is about religious extremes. He says that
there is a dark side to religious devotion that is too often ignored or
denied; a dark side which can be used to motivate people to be cruel or
inhumane. Krakauer's new book, "Under the Banner of Heaven," is about two
brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who murdered their youngest brother's wife and
baby child claiming that they were ordered to do so by God.
Ron and Dan Lafferty are on the extreme end of Mormon fundamentalism. These
fundamentalist communities practice polygamy, which is no longer sanctioned by
the mainstream Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In fact, the LDS leadership insists these communities aren't part of the LDS
Church. Krakauer's book includes a history of the LDS and of the extremists
who broke away. The Latter-day Saints is the Western Hemisphere's
fastest-growing religion. I asked Krakauer why he wanted to examine the
history of the Mormons and the extreme fringe of Mormon fundamentalism.
Mr. JON KRAKAUER (Author, "Under the Banner of Heaven"): You know, I wanted
to look at religious extremism, and the Mormon faith, perhaps unfortunately
for the Mormons, seems like a natural to me. First of all, I grew up in a
small town in Oregon among Mormons. I mean, I had Mormon friends, close
friends, and teachers and athletic coaches, so--and they invited me to their
homes. So as much as I knew about any religion, I knew about the LDS faith.
And also, it's a distinctly American religion. I mean, this is, in some ways,
the quintessential American religion. I mean, Islamic fundamentalism, we know
about that, and some other fundamentalists' faiths, but it seemed like it
would sort of drive things home to realize that this isn't over in Afghanistan
or Pakistan or somewhere; this is in America. So that was part of the reason
I focused on Mormon fundamentalism and Mormon extremists.
But also, the Mormon religion presents really tempting opportunities for a
historian or a journalist, because the church was incorporated only 173 years
ago. This is what's becoming a major world faith. I mean, it's going to be
one of the big ones before long. And yet, it came into being in the age of
the printing press and the affidavit, you know, in the bright lights of
modernism. So the origins of this religion are really accessible. I mean,
you can easily find affidavits from people who knew Joseph Smith when he was
putting this religion together. So, you know, you can really see how a
religion begins. And all of that was interesting to me, and I thought, you
know, it was clear to me if I'm going to write about religion, the Mormon
faith is the one to focus on.
GROSS: Now how do Mormon fundamentalists' beliefs compare with the mainstream
of the religion?
Mr. KRAKAUER: It's interesting. The modern Mormon Church is very
uncomfortable with the fundamentalists. And they point out correctly that
they have--you know, there are two very distinct faiths. They say the Mormon
fundamentalists aren't even Mormons, which--I mean, the Mormon fundamentalists
say the main Mormon faith isn't even Mormons. Each claims to be the true
Mormon Church. And, you know, their origins are in 1830 when the church began
and it was all one church. But one of the doctrines of the foun--Joseph Smith
founded this religion. He was their guiding prophet; an amazing man. He's
been called a religious genius and he was certainly at least that. And one of
his doctrines was the doctrine of plural marriage, as you call it, polygamy.
He thought if you wanted to get into the highest level of the afterlife, the
celestial kingdom, you had to have at least three wives. And he called this
one of the most holy and important doctrines revealed to man on Earth. It
wasn't just a small thing; it was one of the cornerstones of the faith.
So anyway, they went to what became Utah and practiced polygamy there, and
this did not go over well with the rest of the country. Polygamy was seen as
this evil on a par or greater than slavery. So the United States government
did everything in its power to eradicate polygamy in Utah territory. The
United States actually declared war on Utah, and sent this huge army to invade
Utah. The Mormons resisted; they resisted for decades. The church finally
had no choice. You know, they had a gun to their head, in effect, and in
1890, the leader at the time, Wilfred Woodruff, had a revelation from God in
which God told him now is not the time to practice polygamy anymore, and so
the main church renounced it. Now...
GROSS: When the church renounced polygamy, did people actually stop
Mr. KRAKAUER: Well, no. Some did, but even the leaders of the church, in
secret, they still--you know, this was an important doctrine and they weren't
just gonna give it up. So for the next 15 or 20 years, even leaders of the
church kept conducting polygamous marriages in secret. They dispatched
colonies of Mormons to Canada and Mexico so if it was ever eradicated, you
know, plural marriage would continue outside the borders.
Finally, though, about 1920s, 1930s, within the church, Mormons themselves
started saying, `Enough is enough. We're gonna stop this.' So there became
this effort within the church to stamp out polygamy. And today, for example,
the Mormon Church, the LDS Church, is probably the most aggressive attacker of
polygamists and, you know, they're the ones who crack down on it. But there
was a hard core of true believers who never really bought the abandonment of
polygamy, so as the church became more mainstream and gave up polygamy, the
fundamentalists broke off and continued to practice it.
GROSS: So the fundamentalists split with the rest of the Mormons in part
because they wanted to continue to practice polygamy and they believed that
polygamy was at the center of the Mormon faith, whereas the mainstream of the
Mormon faith had renounced polygamy. But there were other beliefs that the
fundamentalists practiced that the Mormons either didn't or no longer believed
in. One of those is called blood atonement. What is that, and what is its
Mr. KRAKAUER: Well, blood atonement--I should say, first of all, the modern
Mormon Church is very, very nervous when anyone talks about that. They claim
it was just sort of an idea floated briefly and never really practiced. But
the historical record indicates that, in fact, it was an important part of the
Mormon faith in the mid-1800s. You have to remember, the Mormon faith was
extremely persecuted. They were hounded and driven out and, you know, members
killed. And at one point, Joseph Smith, and later Brigham Young, came up with
this doctrine where, for the good of the bad person, the sinner, you know, to
save his soul, his blood must be spilled upon the ground and the smoke ascend
up to heaven. So there was a sense of--it's basically some sin, some crimes,
are so egregious, the only way to atone for them is to sort of spill the blood
of the sinner. And there was a lot of bloodshed in 19th century Mormondom, as
there was in 19th century America.
But the Mormons, you know, violence was part of their culture because they
were--you know, it was inflicted on them. At first, Joseph Smith resisted it
but you know, as he was driven from place to place and armies were set upon
him and they were massacred, he fought back and, eventually, you know, this
spilling of blood became sort of codified in their doctrines and blood
atonement was part of that.
GROSS: Now how is it practiced by Mormon fundamentalists? What is their
belief about the meaning of blood atonement?
Mr. KRAKAUER: Well, the same meaning. Mormon fundamentalists today would
also deny that they practice such a thing, but you know, I've received tapes
of sermons from Mormon fundamentalists and, in fact, it is still advocated,
where, you know, if some fundamentalist does something so terrible, like
marries a black person, say, or practices homosexuality, for his own good, his
blood needs to be spilled upon the ground. Or if, you know--there's any
number of perceived sins that can warrant this.
So, you know, it's not an accident that Utah is still--you know, if you're
convicted of murder in Utah, you have a choice of execution: either lethal
injection or the firing squad. I mean, the firing squad is still there in
Utah, and many people, not just me, think that's an artifact of the doctrine
of blood atonement.
GROSS: My guest is Jon Krakauer. His new book is called "Under the Banner of
Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith." We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jon Krakauer, and he's the
author of the new book "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent
Faith," and it's about an extreme branch of Mormonism, Mormon fundamentalism.
Jon Krakauer is also the author of "Into Thin Air" about the disastrous
mountain climb during the storm on Mt. Everest.
Now your book not only looks at the history of the Mormon religion and the
history of Mormon fundamentalism, it examines one particular murder story
where two brothers, who were Mormon fundamentalists, killed one of their
sisters-in-law and her infant, her baby. The brothers were Ron and Dan
Lafferty, and they had wanted their whole family to follow their brand of
religion, their brand of Mormon fundamentalism. And they got much of their
family to go along with that, but not one of their sisters-in-law, not Brenda
Lafferty. Why didn't she want to go along with that faith?
Mr. KRAKAUER: Well, you know, both Ron and Dan were raised as conventional
Mormons, very devout. As Dan said, he was a 110-percenter. You know, he did
everything 110 percent because he was so religious. And when he was a young
adult, he learned--you know, the modern church hides the fact that polygamy
was so important, and he happened to learn about it, you know, one Sunday at a
Mormon ward house, a Mormon Church, and he was fascinated. And once he
started reading about it, he became a fundamentalist. He became a polygamist.
He quickly converted his five brothers to that.
And these brothers began enforcing this 19th-century lifestyle on their wives,
you know. They started practicing polygamy. They did things like, you know,
no books or magazines are allowed in the house. They turned off the gas and
electricity. It made life tough for the wives, and all of the wives sort of
were cowed into going along with this except for one, the youngest wife,
Brenda Wright Lafferty, married to the youngest Lafferty brother, Allen. And
she was, you know, a devout Mormon, raised in Idaho, a beauty queen. She was
runner-up in the Miss Twin Falls Pageant, very smart. She'd gone to Brigham
Young University, had a nascent career in broadcasting. She was very smart,
very articulate and she saw trouble here.
And so she had the wherewithal, she had the smarts to stand up to the Lafferty
brothers. She could argue Scripture with them, you know, at least as well as
they could. She could hold her own, you know. The other wives turned to her
out of desperation. You know, `Can you help us? Can you help us?' And this
very courageous young woman agreed to help them. So in particular, Ron, the
oldest Lafferty brother--his wife was made miserable by this. And once when
Ron announced his plans to start marrying off their daughters into polygamous
marriages, she freaked out and got very frightened. And Brenda, this young
woman, helped Diana, Ron's wife, flee the marriage and take her kids and go to
Florida. And Ron was very upset by this, and he blamed Brenda for, you know,
the fact that he lost his wife.
GROSS: Now the two brothers who committed the murder, Dan and Ron Lafferty,
said that, you know, a religious vision figured into their motive for the
murder. What kind of religious vision did they have?
Mr. KRAKAUER: Well, the Mormon Church was founded on the principle that each
of the faithful can talk directly to God. This is one of the things that made
the church so appealing, is Joseph Smith got rid of the middleman. Everyone
talks directly to God. You don't have to go through a priest; you don't have
to go through anybody. This led to trouble because soon, you know, some of
Joseph's rivals within the church said, `Well, God told me this. He told me
that I'm better than you,' and so on, so it got moderated somewhat.
But anyway, Ron and Dan Lafferty, once they became fundamentalist
Mormons--they embraced this idea of personal revelation wholeheartedly and
they were part of this school that taught the art of personal revelation. And
soon after joining this school, not long after Ron's wife left him, God began
talking to Ron. And one of the things he said was that, `Your sister-in-law,
Brenda Lafferty, the woman who told your wife to leave, needs to be removed,
and so does her 15-month-old baby daughter, Erica.' Now this was a pretty
serious thing. It was clear to all involved that by `removed,' he meant that
God was saying this woman needs to be killed and her baby needs to be killed.
So Ron Lafferty got this revelation, and he told Dan about it. And Dan said,
`Wow, that's pretty serious. You better make sure it's true.' So they
pondered it and decided it was true. Now Dan had nothing against Brenda or
Erica, but, you know, he didn't want to disobey God. You don't disobey God
lightly. Ron's motives can be argued, but Dan is a true believer, a zealot,
and they pondered this and decided that God meant Dan to do the dirty work.
Ron was the mouth of God; Dan was the arm of God. So, you know, this was
something they needed to do, was to remove Brenda Lafferty and her baby girl,
which is shocking and appalling, but that's what these true believers
GROSS: And what method did they use to actually commit the murders?
Mr. KRAKAUER: They used knives. Dan Lafferty used a knife to cut the throats
of this woman and her baby in an incredibly brutal manner, I mean, you know,
spilling copious amounts of their blood, totally in a cold-blooded fashion.
You know, when Dan told me about how he did it--I mean, he feels absolutely no
remorse for this. You know, this is--What?--in 1984 that he committed these
murders, so it's 19 years later. He feels no remorse for the deed, and he
says, `Why should I? I was doing God's will.' He's convinced of it. So when
he told me about it--I mean, he was telling me in sort of this calm, measured
tone of voice, like, `Yeah'--it was almost like he was describing a trip to
the grocery store. It was just sort of matter-of-fact, and it was absolutely
chilling because of it.
GROSS: He told you that he explained to the baby as he was killing her that
this was God's will.
Mr. KRAKAUER: Right. You know, the baby--this 15-month-old baby standing in
the crib. He walks into her room. She sees him, recognizes him, gurgles,
smiles and he says, `I don't know what this is about. You know, perhaps God
will explain it to us in heaven one day. And I'm sort of sorry.' And then he
cut her throat and let her bleed to death in her crib. Then he went back to
the mother, who was unconscious on the floor, and cut her throat and left.
And the revelation included killing two more people, so then they left and
went to attempt to kill these other people, which they never did for
complicated reasons. But then the brothers, you know, left the state and were
arrested, oh, a few weeks later in Nevada and sent to prison and underwent
very interesting trials.
GROSS: You know--now the judge of the trial, who also presided over the trial
of Gary Gilmore, said, `In my 12 years as a judge, I have never presided over
a trial of such a cruel, heinous, pointless and senseless crime as the murders
of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, nor have I seen an accused who had so little
remorse or feeling.' Now the defense in this case made the argument that the
brothers were mentally deranged. And why did they use that as a defense?
Mr. KRAKAUER: Well, it's a very complicated defense, actually, because you
know, if you're insane, you can't be put to death, even in Utah. But the
state had this difficult task of proving, `No, they're not insane; they're
mentally competent. They're just religious fanatics.' So it raised all these
really interesting questions, like: If you talk to God, does that mean you're
crazy? And if you're crazy if you talk to God, then anyone who prays and
talks to God is crazy; in effect, anyone who's religious is crazy. So it was
treading on this really sort of dangerous ground and made for a very
In the end, both brothers were found to be mentally competent; both were found
guilty. Ron was sentenced to death, the older brother who got the
revelations. Dan, the person who actually carried the murders out, received a
life sentence because two of the jurors couldn't agree on the death penalty.
So Ron is scheduled to be executed. You know, his appeal is running out.
He's sort of gone through all the avenues, and he will probably be executed
within a year or two at most. Dan got a life sentence, and he will spend the
rest of his life behind bars, but he will not be executed.
GROSS: Now do you know how the brothers felt about their own lawyers
defending them by saying that they were mentally deranged? 'Cause they
believed that they had a religious vision that they were following; they
didn't believe they were mentally deranged.
Mr. KRAKAUER: Right. And I can't speak for Ron; he wouldn't talk to me.
He's still in prison. So I don't know about him. Some of the prosecutors
think he was sort of faking his religious devotion and was faking his apparent
craziness. Dan, who I've corresponded with a lot and spoken to intensely--I'm
convinced he's not crazy. I mean, and he didn't want--neither of the brothers
wanted to be portrayed as crazy. They were insulted by this. They said,
`We're not crazy. You know, we're sane. We're as sane as any religious
person. We just believe and we're just doing what God told us. This is all
part of God's plan. You know, Jesus is coming back soon, and this is all part
of that plan.' And so they didn't want to be portrayed as crazy. And that
sort of led to--it helped contribute to their conviction because their lawyers
were sort of hamstrung. Witnesses that would have testified they were crazy
weren't allowed to, and so forth.
GROSS: Now when you interviewed Dan Lafferty, one of the two brothers behind
this double murder, did he still maintain his Mormon fundamentalist faith?
Mr. KRAKAUER: Well, Dan Lafferty now has been in prison--I guess he entered
prison in 1985, so it's been almost, I don't know, 18 years or something. And
his views have evolved. He no longer believes in polygamy. He no longer
considers himself a Mormon fundamentalist. He still thinks what he did was,
you know, the work of God. He still feels no regret. But now he sort of sees
it all as part of God's plan. He thinks God has designated him to be Elijah.
In the Bible, in Christian theology, Elijah is sort of the forerunner for
Jesus. He's the one that announces that Jesus is coming back. He announces
the Second Coming. And Dan is utterly convinced that he is Elijah; it's his
So he's sort of moved beyond Mormon fundamentalism and now has this more
fundamentalist Christian belief. I mean, his theology is really complicated,
but that's basically where he is. And he thinks this book and the publicity
he's received is all part of God's plan, you know, because he's Elijah and he
needs to get attention so he can tell the world when Jesus is coming back.
GROSS: Does Dan still believe in the vision that motivated he and his brother
to commit the double murder?
Mr. KRAKAUER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I grilled him hard, you know, and he
has no doubts. And I said, `Look, Dan, what do you think of Osama bin Laden?'
And he said, `Oh, he's an asshole, you know. What they did was terrible.'
And I said, `Well, what's the difference between Osama and you? God told both
of you to do these things.' And it's the one time a sort of flicker of doubt
crossed his face, and then he came back and said, `Well, basically, because
I'm right and Osama is wrong,' which is sort of the defense all
fundamentalists, all religious zealots use as--when it comes down to it, you
know, faith is not a rational thing. Their beliefs can't be proven
rationally. It's just `I know this is true because God told me.' And that's
Dan's defense that, you know, `Osama was listening to a false god and I'm
And he still believes that utterly, and there's no way to shake that faith,
which is a really scary thing to me because, you know, as far as I can tell,
religious devotion is on the rise in this country, that we need more faith,
you know, faith-based this, faith-based that. I don't see that a necessarily
a positive development. I think faith is great and it's inevitable in any
case; it'll always be with us. But it needs to be tempered by some sort of
critical thought or you end up with tragic consequences.
GROSS: Jon Krakauer's new book is called "Under the Banner of Heaven: A
Story of Violent Faith." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, more with Jon Krakauer about extreme Mormon fundamentalism.
Then we get a response from Richard Turley, a historian of the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Also, we meet actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, the star of Stephen Frears' new film
"Dirty Pretty Things," about the underground culture of illegal immigrants in
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jon Krakauer. He wrote
the best-seller "Into Thin Air" about the 1996 storm on Mt. Everest. His new
book, "Under the Banner of Heaven," is about what he describes as the dark
side of religion. It's about two brothers who killed their sister-in-law and
her baby claiming God told them to do it. The brothers were part of an
extremist group of Mormon fundamentalists who had broken away from the church.
It seems to me it must be a real burden, in a way, a grave responsibility, to
write about a religion in a critical way, particularly when you're not a
member of that religion, because it's so much easier to get things wrong when
you're not an insider. I'm just wondering about how you handled that
responsibility and if you felt uncomfortable talking about the extreme part of
the Mormon faith, you know, in a pretty non-flattering way.
Mr. KRAKAUER: Yeah. No, I do take that responsibility very seriously, and I
tried to be very clear in this book to distinguish between Mormons and Mormon
fundamentalists. But, I mean, this is a church that, you know, whose own
histories have been so sanitized that it warrants a critical history. I mean,
their histories are out there. People can read theirs, they can read mine.
There's many good histories of the Mormon Church. I mean, and the church
isn't just off in a corner by itself practicing its faith. It is very
aggressively trying to convert the world. I mean, they have 60,000
missionaries out roaming the world at any one time. They assert that they are
the world's one true church and try to convince people of that. So if you're
going to make that kind of assertion, you can't complain, it seems to me, when
people challenge that assertion.
And the church is increasingly powerful. I mean, you can't just say, `Oh,
it's a religion. We should leave them alone to practice as they see fit.' I
mean, I grew up with Mormons. I admire so much about their culture, their
values. Many of us would do well to adopt their values. But it doesn't mean
they are beyond criticism. I mean, I think many saints, as Mormons call
themselves, will read this book and see that it isn't an attack on Mormonism.
It's not even an attack on religion. It just raises questions. I mean, you
know, I understand the impulse. I envy that religious impulse and that sense
of belief, but it just has escaped me. So I would take issue with those who
characterize this book as an attack on religion in general and Mormonism in
GROSS: Now a lot of our listeners will know your best-seller "Into Thin Air,"
which was your documentation of the storm on Mt. Everest that killed many of
the climbers. You're one of the people who was on the mountain and survived
the storm. A lot of people in your situation, I think, would have found
themselves becoming either more religious or would have discovered a faith for
the first time. I mean, that just often happens to people who are in these
near-death, life-changing situations. Did you ever have a moment like that
where you thought maybe this was going to open the door to a newfound faith?
Mr. KRAKAUER: I was probably more--I mean, what happened on Everest and the
terrible things and the loss of friends left me sort of more inclined to
believe there is no God, there is no justice. But, you know, as I confessed
in the afterword in this book, that there have been many moments when I've
been terrified or despairing or moments when I see something of such
incredible beauty that I'm awestruck, where I find myself praying
involuntarily. You know, the old, `There's no atheists in foxholes.' I'm
sort of proof of that.
I don't say there is no God. I say I don't know if there's God. And all the
religions I've studied, some with the hope they would convince me, have left
me with a bad feeling because so many of them say theirs is the only answer,
theirs is the only faith. So that's why I'm put off by so much--religion
seems political and to have other agendas than simply explaining eternity or
why we are here. I don't know if that makes sense. But I'm still questing.
And I'm a spiritual person. I'm not this cold rationalist who thinks, you
know, there's no meaning to life; there's just this cosmic accident. I just
don't know what that meaning is, and this book was a good-faith, honest
attempt on my part to explore the meaning of existence and explore religious
GROSS: Jon Krakauer is the author of the new book "Under the Banner of
Heaven." It's about two brothers, Mormon fundamentalists, who murdered their
younger brother's wife and child claiming they were ordered to do so by God.
the book also examines the history of the Mormon Church and the fundamentalist
extremists who broke away.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Richard Turley of the Mormon Church discusses Jon
Krakauer's new book, "Under the Banner of Heaven"
TERRY GROSS, host:
When Krakauer's book was published, the Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints, disseminated a review of the book written by the
LDS' managing director of Family and Church History, Richard Turley. He
criticizes the book and accuses it of misrepresenting Mormon history and
condemning religion in general. We invited him to talk with us.
How familiar are you with the Mormon fundamentalists that Jon Krakauer writes
about in his new book?
Mr. RICHARD TURLEY (Family and Church History Managing Director): Because
these so-called Mormon fundamentalists are an entirely different people from
our own, I am familiar with them largely through news reports and books that I
have read on the subject.
GROSS: What connection, if any, do the Mormon fundamentalists have to the
Mr. TURLEY: The so-called Mormon fundamentalists are not members of the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are an entirely separate
group of people.
GROSS: Now my understanding is that the fundamentalists believe that they
have a divine obligation to take multiple wives. Do you worry that when, for
example, Elizabeth Smart is abducted by Brian David Mitchell, who wants her as
another wife, that people assume it's a mainstream Mormon?
Mr. TURLEY: Yes. The concern I have whenever people use the term `Mormon
fundamentalist' is that they are not distinguishing and probably not
understanding the distinction between the millions of peace-loving and
monogamous members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and
these so-called Mormon fundamentalists who are entirely separate and who
GROSS: Why was polygamy a part of the Latter-day Saints church at one time?
Mr. TURLEY: We look at it in very much the same terms that most Bible
believers look at the Old Testament. Abraham and many of the Old Testament
prophets practiced polygamy. We look back at our early members in much that
same light. The only difference is that ours are more recent.
GROSS: Much more recent. It was less than 200 years ago.
Mr. TURLEY: Yes. (Laughs)
GROSS: But what was the reason for it less than 200 years ago when the Mormon
leaders--you know, when the Latter-day Saints leaders did practice polygamy?
Mr. TURLEY: There have been lots of statements made about possible reasons
for it. In terms of authoritative statements, there's a statement in the Book
of Mormon that suggests that at that particular time in which the concept was
being discussed, having more children was a potential reason for practicing
plural marriage. Beyond that, there have been a lot of other reasons
advanced, but we don't pretend to give all of the possible explanations for
why it was done.
GROSS: At the center of the murder story that Jon Krakauer tells in his
book--and, again, these are murderers who are Mormon fundamentalists, which
you've said, really, have no real relationship to the Church of the Latter-day
Mr. TURLEY: Yes.
GROSS: But behind these murders was a vision, a vision that they should be
murdering a woman and her daughter, their sister-in-law and her daughter.
Does having visions play a part in the Church of the Latter-day Saints?
Mr. TURLEY: The victims in this case were, indeed, members of our church;
they were Mormons. The killers were not. And the killers purported to have
received a revelation or inspiration from God to carry out what they did.
What they did is directly contrary to the teachings of this church. We
believe in personal revelation, meaning we believe that each individual is
entitled to receive inspiration from God relative to his or her individual
situation, but that the revelation each receives cannot go contrary to the
basic commandments of God, one of which is, `Thou shalt not kill.'
GROSS: What does it make you think about when somebody has a vision or claims
to have a vision and claims that that vision is divinely inspired when that
vision is actually, you know, really evil, a vision telling you to murder
Mr. TURLEY: We believe that God will not give revelation which is evil; that
that's inherently impossible. God is, by nature, perfectly good, and,
therefore, he will not command anything that is evil. Therefore, we believe
that anyone who receives a revelation, such as the one that Ron and Dan
Lafferty purported to receive, are going directly contrary to the will of God.
GROSS: Now you wrote a review of Jon Krakauer's book, and one of your
objections to the book is that he doesn't practice any religion. Why do you
perceive that as a problem in terms of his authorship of the book?
Mr. TURLEY: I don't perceive his own religious views as being a problem.
What concerns me is the assertion that because history does not lack for
examples of faith-based violence that, therefore, there must be something
inherently violent about faith. I think that history also does not lack for
examples of violence perpetrated by godless individuals. So in terms of his
methodology and his establishment of his hypothesis, I don't think he's made
GROSS: Richard Turley is the director of Family and Church History of the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Coming up, the star of the new movie "Dirty Pretty Things." This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Chiwetel Ejiofor discusses starring in "Dirty Pretty
TERRY GROSS, host:
The new movie "Dirty Pretty Things" is about the underground culture of
immigrants who live illegally in London, people who have no papers and can't
legally work, so they work in sweatshops, the sex trade or anyplace where they
can go undetected. The film is directed by Stephen Frears. My guest is the
film's star, Chiwetel Ejiofor. He plays Okwe, a Nigerian doctor who, for
mysterious reasons, has been forced to live illegally in London. He makes a
living driving a taxi and working as a hotel clerk. He's homeless and sleeps
on the couch at the home of one of the hotel chambermaids, who is also an
illegal immigrant. She's played by Audrey Tautou, who starred in "Amelie."
The hotel is intentionally staffed by illegal immigrants, so they can be
underpaid and prevented from reporting on the illegal operations within the
In this scene, Okwe has responded to a report of trouble in one of the hotel
rooms, where he finds a toilet clogged by a human heart. He reports it to
(Soundbite of "Dirty Pretty Things")
Mr. SERGI LOPEZ: (As Juan) Okwe, everything is all right?
What's this? Lunch?
Mr. CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Okwe) It was blocking the lavatory in room 510.
It is a heart, a human heart.
Mr. LOPEZ: What?
Mr. EJIOFOR: Perhaps you should telephone the police.
Mr. LOPEZ: Police? You think I should call the police?
Mr. EJIOFOR: Senor Juan, someone is dead.
Mr. LOPEZ: OK. You speak to them. You found it, you do the talking. I will
introduce you. What's your full name, Okwe? And you never told me where
you're from or even how come you are here in this beautiful country.
(On telephone) Hello? Police? Yeah. I've got somebody who wants to talk to
Unidentified Woman: (Over telephone) Hello. Hello. Hello.
(Soundbite of phone being hung up)
GROSS: We later learn that the heart that was in the toilet is part of the
black market trade in illegal organs. I asked Ejiofor if he knows if such a
trade exists in London.
Mr. EJIOFOR: I mean, there have been cases, sort of not that have been
brought to light, that have been quite as sort of seedy as this kind of
backdoor hotel room, but even sort of more high-profiled doctors and whatever,
you know, having secret negotiations about taking out and donating organs and
people paying people to, you know, donate organs. And I think it's just the
nature of exploitation, that exploitation will inevitably lead to the greatest
exploitation, which is exploitation of actual self, physical self, you know,
because people have nothing, own nothing and, therefore, can sort of do
nothing against the system.
GROSS: Now your character plays somebody who has come to England illegally
from Nigeria, and he's an illegal immigrant there. Your parents came to
England from Nigeria. They were not illegal immigrants.
Mr. EJIOFOR: No.
GROSS: What brought them to England? Why did they leave?
Mr. EJIOFOR: The civil war. It was the Biafran civil war, which was, I mean,
obviously a horrific incident. And they left. And, also, they were going to
study and continue studies as well in Europe, and so they left.
GROSS: How old were they when they left?
Mr. EJIOFOR: I think they were sort of, you know, early 20s, mid-20s.
GROSS: So your father was a doctor, your mother a pharmacist. Had they been
practicing yet, or they were still in the middle of their studies?
Mr. EJIOFOR: I think there's conversion courses and stuff that people have to
take, but I think they got to a point whereby they were almost ready to start
practicing, you know.
GROSS: And what were some of the difficulties they faced in adapting to a
Mr. EJIOFOR: Well, I think, first of all, they had the, you know, obviously
just financial issues to deal with, and that sort of took time to start to
sort of overcome, especially when sort of studying and so on. And although
they had some family sort of further, I think, in the north of England, you
know, they still had to sort of really fend for themselves, and they weren't
really around anybody. So I think that was sort of an initial problem.
And then I think the second problem and a major problem, I think, and a
problem that never sort of went away was the attitudes of the indigenous
population, the attitudes of the people around them to them, which I think,
for the first sort of generation of somebody emigrating to our country who has
absolutely no understanding of any kind of racial situation--it's never been
something that they'd ever come across or had to deal with or, really, ever
spoken about. And so to sort of come across these things all of a sudden, out
of the blue, I think, is an incredibly sort of devastating experience, I
think. And I think some people never recover from it in some ways and will
never again be the person they were sort of in their teens and so on, these
bright, sort of effusive lights.
And, you know, it a feeling, I think, of being very kind of crushed because, I
mean, being judged on something outside your personality and person, I think,
is an extraordinary thing to face especially if you've never, you know, heard
or come across it before. So I think that was a major challenge to my
GROSS: How did you start getting interested in acting?
Mr. EJIOFOR: I think I was around sort of 13, and, you know, I was just going
through sort of the literature at school, and we were reading lots of plays
and a lot of Shakespeare plays. I think Shakespeare was the first playwright
that we were sort of really seriously kind of trying to study at school. And
I remember being sort of, you know, half interested and, you know, slightly
distracted and so on. And we were looking through "Henry IV," part one, and,
you know, there was just a fascinating monologue, you know, just talking about
people who are, you know, the young prince sort of talking about, you know,
how patiently he will try to come to eminence and, you know, I think used a
term like `on bright metal on sullen ground,' you know; that actually there's
so much within him that he wants to sort of express but feels that he can't or
feels that he doesn't want to yet or feels that his time will come.
And I remember thinking when I was, you know, just at school and sort of
getting through school that these were kind of the thoughts that I think any
teen-ager and every teen-ager kind of has. And I just thought it was put
beautifully, you know, and brilliantly. And so I started just gaining a great
interest in the work. I mean, for a while, of course, I thought I'd
discovered Shakespeare, you know. I was running through the streets telling
everybody, you know, that I discovered this great playwright, and, you know,
it turned out to be William Shakespeare.
And then, you know, I began to think that it would be interesting to see these
plays, you know, not only to read them, but, of course, you know, what they'd
be like to see on stage and then eventually, you know, what would they be like
to sort of do. And, you know, it just so happened that the school was doing
some plays, "Measure For Measure," I think. And, you know, I went in to play
Angelo, and that's sort of how I started acting.
GROSS: Well, let me read a review that you got from a performance of "Romeo
and Juliet" in which you played Romeo. This was in the year 2000, and this is
a review that was in The Financial Times of London. Tell me, was this in the
Mr. EJIOFOR: It was at the National Theatre on the Olivier stage.
GROSS: OK. So here's what the review said about you: `Ejiofor's Romeo is
attractive and impulsive, roguish and petulant. He also has that rare ability
to speak the lines as if they had just occurred to him.' When you were
preparing "Romeo" and going over the text and learning it, is there a line
that you can use as an example, or a passage, of how you kind of broke it down
and made it both comprehensible and conversational in your mind, a way that
you broke it down so that you could deliver it in a convincing and
Mr. EJIOFOR: Well, I mean, actually I suppose it's the nature of
Shakespeare. I'll take another play actually and do it with it.
Mr. EJIOFOR: I think there's another sequence which is probably better. In
the Shakespeare play "Macbeth," Macbeth arrives back at the castle having won
the battle for the king, for King Duncan. And, you know, the king sort of
embraces him and says, `It's great to see you,' and, you know, `Thank you so
much for sort of doing this incredible thing for the country.' And Macbeth,
sort of not used to public speaking, is sort of expected to kind of, you know,
sort of politely acknowledge the king and then sort of, you know, disappear.
And there's a passage which I remember as being sort of kind of easy to
overlook actually in the piece, but once sort of going back over it and
repicking it, you sort of see that it actually is one of the most important
speeches in the play.
And I think that Duncan says, you know, `Thank you so much for doing all
this.' And Macbeth says, `The service and the loyalty I owe in doing it pays
itself. Your highness' part is to receive our duties, and our duties are to
your throne and state, to your children and servants, who do but what they
should by doing everything safe towards your love and honor.' And it's a kind
of moment where Macbeth is suddenly turned around and is telling and informing
the king of what his duties are. And it's the first sort of inkling that this
play and this person is going to travel a certain line and cross a certain
line. And, also, it's a piece just of somebody getting used to speaking in a
kind of public format.
And I think that's the thing about Shakespeare, that nothing is wasted. And
actually once you break it down, some of the uses of terms, just as in that
line, `by doing everything safe toward your love and honor'--I mean, of
course, it sounds very modern. It sounds almost colloquial, you know. And I
think that's the thing about Shakespeare, finding out that about him. And
finding out how to play that can make it incredibly sort of relevant and
interesting, intriguing for audiences.
GROSS: Romeo is usually cast as a white actor. Was there any problem for you
getting the part as a black actor?
Mr. EJIOFOR: No, not really. I mean, you know, the director was Tim Supple.
And Trevor Nunn run the theater at the time, run the National Theatre. And,
you know, I read the part. I did an audition, which they both saw, which they
both enjoyed and asked me to play it.
GROSS: Another role that you had, which would usually be played by a white
actor, is the son in the Noel Coward play "Vortex."
Mr. EJIOFOR: Yeah.
GROSS: And in an interview in The Observer in England, you said, `For me, the
only way Noel Coward will survive is by making sure his plays are not just the
domain of certain people, of a certain type of actor, because that's the
surest way to kill his work off forever.' I thought that was really well put.
But did you have trouble getting the part? Did you have trouble convincing,
you know, the director of that?
Mr. EJIOFOR: No. I mean, again, I think a lot of the times these decisions
and, say, the complications perhaps of these decisions are decided, you know,
outside the actor's kind of domain, you know. When Michael Grandage came to
me with the part, I'm sure he already had all these conversations about it.
So by the time he asked me if I was wanting to be involved, I think that had
already been done, and we never really discussed it. To what extent that
would have been a problem, I don't know. I mean, I certainly know that some
of the press, you know, they sort of had various kind of issues with it I
GROSS: Well, in this instance, you know, the mother's white, and the son,
played by you, is black.
Mr. EJIOFOR: Yeah.
GROSS: So it's like, well, you know, that might seem improbable because it's
a white couple having a black son.
Mr. EJIOFOR: Sure, sure. No, no, I mean, but that is the nature of
GROSS: Yeah, right. Is that an issue, or is that not an issue?
Mr. EJIOFOR: Well, that's the thing. I mean, it's an issue if you make it
one, but it's not really. Like, so there are two white, and they have a black
child. You know, they're just three actors on the stage. And one is the
mother, that's the father, and that's the son. Fine. Let's get on with it,
You know, I mean, these plays--you know, "Nicky Lancaster," as an example, you
know, is nothing but words on a page and an interpretation, and that's it, you
know. He's a character in a play written, you know, in 1924. I mean, unless
you're going to get somebody from that time at the age of, I don't know,
80-something to come in and to play the part because he would be authentic or
whatever, you know, I don't know how you're going to get something that people
could say is the absolute, you now, genuine. Of course, it's an
GROSS: My guest is Chiwetel Ejiofor, the star of the new film "Dirty Pretty
Things." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Chiwetel Ejiofor, the star of the new movie "Dirty Pretty
Now if you don't mind my asking, you have a couple of scars on your forehead,
which are also visible in the movie "Dirty Pretty Things." How did you get
Mr. EJIOFOR: I was in a car accident.
GROSS: Was it the car accident your father was killed in?
Mr. EJIOFOR: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Oh. Was your father driving?
Mr. EJIOFOR: No.
GROSS: Do you drive?
Mr. EJIOFOR: No, no.
GROSS: Is it because of the accident?
Mr. EJIOFOR: Yeah, which doesn't really make any sense because, I mean, other
GROSS: That's right. It was another person that was driving, right. Good
point. But sense doesn't really have a lot to do with fears and phobias.
Mr. EJIOFOR: No. No, no. No.
GROSS: You must have had a period of emotional and physical recovery you had
to go through after the car accident. Did that kind of set you apart from
other people? You know, being sick or being in a life-changing accident like
that distances you from other children when you're 11. And that distancing, I
don't know, it often drives people kind of to become more introspective.
Mr. EJIOFOR: Yes. No, I mean, I think, you know, being part of a terrible
accident is going to make you a little more introspective, yeah, you know. I
mean, I think that's just the nature of it. You have to consider various
things, such as, you know, I guess, you know, what happened and why. And I
guess when you start asking those questions, you start asking, you know, from
a very early age, very serious questions about your life.
GROSS: Did that lead you toward religion or toward just more introspection
Mr. EJIOFOR: No, no. I mean, in many ways, I think it just led me towards
GROSS: What's the connection?
Mr. EJIOFOR: Well, I think the stage is, you know, a place where people can
express and writing is a place where people can express feelings and emotions
and frustrations and sometimes angers that are just simply inappropriate in
everyday life, you know. But a play and, you know, the writing of it to the
performing of it are ways of expressing self. And even the lighting of it, I
mean, and the sound engineering of it are ways of expressing self, and art is
a way of expressing self and, you know, can be very provocative.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. EJIOFOR: No, it's an absolute pleasure.
GROSS: Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in the new film "Dirty Pretty Things."
I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, actress Hope Davis. She starred in "About
Schmidt" and "Next Stop Wonderland." Now she's starring in two new films,
"The Secret Lives of Dentists" and "American Splendor," which is an adaptation
of Harvey Pekar's autobiographical comics. We'll also meet the
writing-directing team that made "American Splendor." I'm Terry Gross. Join
us for the next FRESH AIR.
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