Though the Mormon Church has officially disowned the fundamentalists, the FLDS trace their lineage all the way back to founding Prophet Joseph Smith. John Y. Barlow (whose last name is claimed still today by many of his descendants) was the first leader of the FLDS, until his death in 1949. He was succeeded by a series of men; more recent was "Uncle Rulon" Jeffs, who died in 2002 and was famously succeeded as Prophet by his son Warren.After crisscrossing the country to evade police, and ultimately landing himself on the FBS's 10 Most Wanted list, Warren Jeffs was captured in Las Vegas in 2006. He had 78 wives at the time of his arrest—a third of them under the age of 17. In 2011, Jeffs was successfully convicted on two counts of felony child sexual assault for the rapes of just two of his child brides, ages 12 and 15. Yet, despite that fact that he is currently serving a sentence of life plus 20 years from state prison in Palestine, Texas, Jeffs continues to control the cult from behind bars, using his loyal brother Lyle Jeffs as a proxy and mouthpiece.In the years since his arrest, "Uncle Warren" has issued new rules from jail. Easily the most disturbing is that physical contact between a man and his wives is utterly prohibited, and physical intimacy––meaning sex––is expressly prohibited. In current-day FLDS, a woman can only become pregnant by one of the 15 "seed bearers" appointed by Warren to carry out their worthy bloodlines. According to court documents filed by Lyle Jeffs' former wife as part of a divorce case, "It is the husband's responsibility to hold the hands of their wives while the seed bearer 'spreads his seed. In layman terms, the husband is required to sit in the room while the chosen seed bearer, or a couple of them, rape his wife or wives."
Inside the Holm Sunday School Building in Hildale, Utah, rows of folding tables were laden with iced sugar cookies in every color and shape. Other tables offered an array of crafting supplies: paper and paste, glitter, pipe cleaners, and all manner of kid-friendly art supplies for DIY ornament making. There was also a booth set up and staffed by volunteers from Premier Pediatrics, a southern Utah-based healthcare provider for mothers and children. Though not as exciting as a dense puff of cinnamon divinity, their presence was a blessing for these young families, whose healthcare and medical needs are flagrantly ignored inside the FLDS, as Carolyn Jessop details in her memoir Escape.Onstage, dressed as Santa, ex-FLDS volunteer Clinton Holm (whose family owns the building) posed for pictures and handed out stockings filled with handmade toys and small candies to the hundreds of children who had been brought by their mothers for their first-ever Christmas celebration. For the kids, the lavishing of such kindness was literally unbelievable. "This is my very first doll!" said one little girl, shocked by the free toy. All of these women and children had left the FLDS within the past four or five years, some as recently as just a few months ago. For many, it was the first large, purely social gathering they had ever attended.
People say there is a cloud over the town. I planned the First Christmas to bring happiness and help that gray cloud get dispersed by love.
Now known as the America's Most Wanted Bed & Breakfast, the building is owned by Jeffs' former bodyguard Willie Jessop, who purchased the whole compound at an auction. He has expressed hope that, in his hands, the property will help reunite families who fled under Jeffs's control. Willie was nowhere to be found, however, and for many of the women I spoke with here, his absence was a relief. Willie is "a really bad dude pretending to be a good one," I'd been told by a Los Angeles-based film producer who has worked in the community.
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Depending on their answers, individuals would either be ushered into the United Order (UO), the group of elite FLDS, or deemed a non-member and put on probation. Many families were split up after the Judgment, with children separated from their parents in just about every home. For some, though, it offered women and children the perfect exit from a bad living situation. One woman recalled being asked whether she'd ever touched herself sexually. Others were asked whether they had been intimate with their husband. Many recalled being asked whether they had any anger; as one woman explained: "It eventually got down to 'Have you ever even had a bad thought enter into your mind."Going into it, "my heart wasn't pounding. I was peaceful, as far as I knew peace at the time." said 40-year-old Misty Taylor*, who has warm brown eyes, a quick smile, and an unusually bubbly personality given the recent events of her life. Misty finally left the FLDS in May 2015. She equated her choice to jumping off a cliff: "You get to a certain point in life where you're ready to either jump off a cliff or keep going, and you just keep going until you're ready to jump." But, she stressed, you have to be ready—even though rock bottom can be difficult to identify when one's life has always been miserable. "That's why a lot of my sisters are still there. They feel like they're almost there––because that's what they've been told. And that the lifting up is almost here; the prophet is almost out of jail." Crazy, they all now agree. Of course Jeffs is never getting out. But, said one woman, "my mom has been out of the religion since February and she still believes he is going to get out; she won't listen."
This is my first-ever wrapped Christmas present, and I'm 37!
"When you're told your whole life that it's Him, he –– the Prophet –– is the One," explained Misty, "and you've been told he is pure and clean… That's exactly what we're being told: He's pure and clean, and He talks to God, and He visits with God. So here we are, striving so very hard, because there is a remnant this is going to be lifted up to heaven at the very end of the world, whoever is left standing. You can understand the fervency, even when your father is gone and your mother is gone."Over the course of a year and a half, Misty, her sister wife and all of their children had their memberships revoked. Being deemed a non-member doesn't equate to being kicked out of the FLDS, it simply means you are not "good" enough to be part of the United Order of supreme FLDS members; non-members still live in the community and must follow all the rules, but in lesser homes consisting of children and parents from many different families. When the family patriarch is absent—as was the case for Misty and her sister wife, since their husband had been kicked out of the church completely and sent away on a "repentance mission"—the family is assigned a male caretaker. "Because there is not a father there," Misty explained, "you need a man that is over the family," meaning, essentially, that women without husbands need authoritarian male babysitters.
You get to a certain point in life where you're ready to either jump off a cliff or keep going.
After breakfast, Misty left to pick her children up from school; it was the last day before winter break, and the kids got out even earlier than their scheduled half-day dismissal. But Lynette had a free day, so she drove me around Hildale and Colorado City, which were still covered in a light snow from the previous days' falling. The striking south-western landscape felt like North Korea on Mars: dusty red dirt roads and glowing red sandstone cliffs; vast homes in various stages of near-completion (not finishing construction, homeowners are able to avoid paying property tax); a zoo in the middle of town, vacant but for a few glum buffalo. At the old-looking playground there was not a child in sight. Rather, kids who looked as young as twelve barreled down the streets in big rigs trucks and SUVs, and little ones keeping close to the tall fences outside their homes flipped us off for no reason at all. They are taught to hate outsiders and apostates alike, believing us to be Satan's people.Two week after I'd returned home from Short Creek, I received an update from one of the Christmas volunteers: Two more women had left the cult and are now working with lawyers to get their kids out, too. And at a Christmas Eve party held in Short Creek on the 24th, four young FLDS women had shown up unannounced, similarly emboldened by grapevine stories they had heard of the December 16 festivities. That, in itself, is progress. And it was also the point: by hosting the First Christmas party in the very town were thousands are still under the prophet's thumb, Christine Marie and her co-organizers were showing the town that they can experience joy and receive kindness from the outside world. They were demonstrating that when you jump off the cliff, you're actually taking a step higher.As one of the FLDS escapees I spoke to at the event sees it: The brainwashing within the community is too strong for many people to overcome; instead, we must continue to offer glimpses of how good life on the outside can be, because they are paying attention.* Name has been changed
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