Deborah Laake grew up believing that her passport to the higher levels of Mormon heaven was marriage to 'the One', her predestined marriage partner. 'My success in this life and the next was dependent upon it,' she says.

Ms Laake is now an ex-Mormon, living in Phoenix, Arizona, and the author of a book in which she breaks the most sacred of the church's vows by revealing the marriage rites at the core of the faith.

In her book, Secret Ceremonies, first published in the US last summer, she tells of the misery of donning the hideous undergarments she was supposed to wear, as protection from the Devil, for the rest of her life; the bizarre ritual of secret handshakes and passwords and the travesty of a wedding night that had her telephoning her mother the next morning, pleading to be rescued from a man to whom she was pledged not merely for life but for eternity.

'Those undergarments are an integral part of Mormon life and are always referred to as 'garments',' Ms Laake says. 'The ones I wore on my wedding day in the temple were just like long johns - the fabric was thick and white, reaching to the wrists and ankles.

'I was told I must wear them night and day, that they represented the garment that God gave to Eve in the Garden of Eden, and would be a shield against the power of Satan until we finished our work on Earth. But I felt I was leaving behind me for ever the worlds of desirability and youth. I was a freak.'

Before her book, it seems, no one had ever written about the emotional impact of Mormon life on the average woman. She was astonished, though, when it reached number four in the New York Times best-seller list.

One reviewer described it as 'an absolutely riveting account of marriage, mysticism, mumbo-jumbo, Mormonism and, finally, growth and wonder'. Another said: 'The first thing any religion worth its salt controls is its women, and when one of them speaks out she makes a strange and poignant sound.'

She would have written the book sooner, she says, if she hadn't kept losing her nerve. So was it fear of the church that held her back?

'It was never fear of the church,' she says quickly, 'it was my family I was worrying about. In the end, I realised I had lived this untold story and simply had to write it.

'It was turned down by 12 publishers before it found a home - most of them found it boring and thought it wouldn't sell. But then Cosmopolitan published an extract, the Literary Guild got hold of it, Phil Donahue did a television show on it, and it just took off.

'The church was forced into a defensive position. The first thing they did was excommunicate me. Then they ran a campaign discrediting me: 'This woman did it for the money; she's exploiting church temple ceremonies in order to build her own career; she's clearly unstable; she's been institutionalised; every Mormon woman in the world but her is supremely happy . . .' ' She bursts into peals of giggles.

She has received hundreds of letters from Mormon women thanking her for 'writing my story' and telling her how she had helped to free them from the constraints of their lives. At the same time, she was appearing on television talking about Mormon life and being booed, hissed and called a liar by other Mormons.

As a child, in Florida, she remembers being totally obedient to the teachings of her elders. 'Because of the patriarchal order in the Mormon church, the pronouncements of older men carry enormous weight. When, for example, my father said we should use reusable condoms, it did not occur to me to question his wisdom.

'After use we would lather our hands and scrub them inside out, leaving them on top of the toilet tank, shrouded in tissue. Whenever we needed one, we had the choice of several, all by then as unbendable as fire irons. My husband would throw one into a basin of water to soak and, when it was pliable, would check it for leaks. He rarely found any. I would recommend reusable condoms to anyone. The original package of 12 lasted us the entire year]'

To begin with, she tried hard to make a success of her marriage to Monty (whose face is blacked out in the photograph to prevent identification, at her request). 'But in trying to scale the heights of Mormon womanhood and become a model helpmeet, I had to will myself into meekness. And because, like the vast majority of young Mormon women I knew, I believed that God wanted me at home, I set out to perfect my calling as a homemaker, even though I had no talent for it.'

Even so, she failed and her divorce from Monty took place only nine months after the wedding. 'I soon found myself engaged in a battle against a hierarchy of gentlemen who were determined to hold my failed marriage against me. I was in no doubt that my sex life would be my church leaders' sole interest until I either remarried or died.

'Was I dating again, they wanted to know? Was I dating anyone other than Mormon men? Where did I allow my beaux to touch me? I realised they thought that a woman, once awakened, would always need to be watched extremely closely.'

Even though Deborah Laake was still a follower of the Mormon faith, she was prepared to challenge the authority of the church by fighting for an equal divorce. 'According to Mormon law,' she explains, 'before a divorced woman can remarry, she must get what is called a 'cancellation of sealing' - this ensures that she is divorced, not just in this life, but in the next life too.

'This rule does not apply to men. Men can marry 'for Eternity' in the temple again and again. When they lose a wife through death or divorce, she is still married to him in the next life. So in effect there's a policy of polygamy for men in the afterlife . . . and polygamy is what the early Mormons practised, only giving it up under pressure from the government.'

This unequal arrangement, she says, has caused a great deal of sorrow to many Mormon women. 'They know that in the next life they will be forced into a polygamous relationship with their divorced husband.'

But Ms Laake was not the only one dissatisfied with the patriarchal attitudes of the Mormon church. Last year, the church excommunicated six more of its most outspoken intellectuals and feminists. This was followed by an announcement declaring that the church's three primary enemies were intellectuals, feminists and gays.

At the same time, Steve Benson, the eldest grandson of the president of the Mormon church, publicly declared that he and his wife could no longer remain members of a church that indulged in such emotional tyranny.

Then, two months ago, the church announced, out of the blue, that in future men, too, were to go through the 'cancellation of sealing' procedure if they wanted to remarry. 'This was a revolution,' Ms Laake says.

But was she not upset that she had to be expelled for women to enjoy this victory? 'Well before I was excommunicated, I had burnt those garments, which had once meant so much to me, scattered their ashes on the grass. I hadn't considered myself a Mormon for a decade. What I did mind was the imperious, patriarchal way it was done.

'It began with a phone call from a local church official I'd never even heard of. He said: 'I've called to arrange a meeting in my office.' It never occurred to him I might not want to meet him.

'Eventually I said: 'I don't want to meet you, but, if you insist, you must come to my office.' The ironic thing was that, at that stage, the book was anything but a success.

'So they held a trial, I was invited but didn't attend - I knew I would be talking to deaf ears.

'Then the news of my excommunication arrived, in a letter, in which I was informed that they had appointed one of the church's officials to defend me. Defend?

'He said that as I had broken my vows, none of my family could ever trust me again. In fact, my family has been enormously supportive during this time.

'As I stood there reading all this, I felt incredibly frustrated and powerless. This was the exact feeling I'd had as a Mormon woman. These men believed they had done the most terrible thing to me by excommunicating me, they thought they had ruined my eternal life . . . and they had done it viciously and without any insight into their own motivations.

'It was not pleasant being at the centre of all this controversy, but as I look at the changes that have come out of it, I think it was worth it. None of this is about me any more. It's about bigger issues and a church I'm no longer a member of, thank God.'

How, I ask, does she look back on the good Mormon girl she once was? 'With affection. It's a bittersweet feeling. Yeah, I feel protective, but also very separated from her. I've moved on.'

'Secret Ceremonies' will be published by Souvenir tomorrow, price pounds 14.95.

(Photograph omitted)

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