Big white trucks with tinted windows crept behind us ominously as we drove. It was freezing that night, 24 degrees, as we cautiously made our way through the little town where Colorado City, Arizona, meets Hildale, Utah—the hub for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).
The town is called Short Creek, though the locals know it as "the Creek" (pronounced crick). The FLDS settled here over a century ago, when they broke away from Mormonism in order to keep practicing polygamy after it was outlawed by the mainstream church. Since then, the Creek has been an isolated community of many wives, governed by the word of God, as interpreted by cult leader Warren Jeffs. Jeffs was convicted of raping multiple child brides over seven years ago, but the town still lives in his shadow.
A friend of mine, Willy Steed, had grown up here and volunteered to show me around while he was visiting with his new girlfriend. I grew up Mormon—not FLDS, though I did briefly follow a cult leader who practiced his own version of polygamy—so I felt like I was familiar with the culture. I had always imagined that life in the Creek would look like the boisterous houses in Big Love or the well-to-do suburbia of Sister Wives—weird, sure, but still cozy. Short Creek wasn't like that at all.
There's a single gas station in Short Creek, with some quiet-looking housing tracts nestled into the mountain on the other side of the road. At first, it looked like any other shitty desert community, but when we started looking a little closer, something felt... off. Houses sat half-completed, and the town was eerily stark and neglected-looking, though here and there was the occasional sprawling mansion. Framed portraits of Jeffs were displayed prominently on walls in many of the homes—so big and brightly lit that we could see them from the street at night. The women in pastel dresses, who could be seen rounding up their children during daylight hours, were all in for the night, leaving just the men in the trucks known as the "God Squad"—the church's security force designed to intimidate outsiders and maintain control.
Willy had left the Creek three years ago, when he was 18. He still spoke with a soft Southern accent, but since I'd seen him last, he'd grown his hair long and bought a leather jacket. He grew up here with three moms and 38 siblings; church leaders had sent him to work in construction when he was ten, traveling and building houses with other young "plygs" instead of learning to read. But he was a rule-breaker, and since the church has a way of kicking out men who might compete with the truly faithful for wives, he made the first move and escaped.
Willy's girlfriend, Alyssa Bistline, has barely been out a year. Her birth father was exiled from the Creek when she was a kid, so she was assigned an extra mom and a new dad who constantly told her he was going to marry her, too. He had a habit of beating her brothers and slamming the piano on her fingers when she tried to play non-religious music. But like Willy, she was a rebel—or at least that's how she puts it. Her defiant activities included watching Anne of Green Gables, sneaking off to a library, and, after finding it on a hard drive, secretly watching the music video for Michael Bublé's "I Just Haven't Met You Yet." (She had "never seen someone that cute," she gushed to me over IHOP pancakes. "He's, like, sliding around, dancing and stuff. Oh my God. I LOVE Michael Bublé.")
When their living conditions went from bad to worse, Alyssa and her birth mother took a risk and Googled "FLDS escapee." They found a video of Willy on 20/20, talking about life post-FLDS and modeling at a photo shoot. Alyssa was floored—he looked happy. She'd dreamed of being a model and musician, but she'd never fathomed that it could actually be possible. Two weeks later, she and her mom snuck out in the middle of the night. Willy and Alyssa met at a party later that year, and they clicked.
So here they were, coming back to Short Creek together, rebellious attitudes in tow, to visit the few family members they were still allowed to see.
They took me to the duplex where they were staying. The biting cold didn't let up when we walked in, and the lights didn't go on—there was no electricity. Because Willy and Alyssa are both considered apostates, their FLDS neighbors, who share the other half of the duplex and the utility bill, had cut the wires to literally freeze them out.
Shivering but intrigued, I was given the grand tour, the pitch-black dimly illuminated by our cellphones. It was a small, two-story place, bare except for some cheap furniture. We saw the mattress they slept on, near the closet where they kept wine and groceries (the freezing cold weather rendered a fridge unnecessary, which was convenient since it didn't work). Even in the dim lighting, I could see that the kitchen walls were stained with mold; the floor and stairs were in a state of disrepair. I asked if this was a typical home for the Creek. The answer was a resounding yes.
"Look," Alyssa said as she showed me a video of her old room, which she'd captured on her then-forbidden cellphone. In the video, she lifts a shoe and a cockroach scurries out. She lifts another and out come two more. She shakes her sheets, points the camera under her bed—more and more roaches. It's broad daylight in the video. The whole thing was horrifying. "[They] were so thick they were like a carpet every night," she told me. "They'd crawl over me in my sleep, like into my nose, into my sheets... every night."
Things weren't always quite this bad. In the past few years, Short Creek has become bisected by two big "judgments." At the command of Jeffs and his brother Lyle, the leaders interviewed everyone and decided who was worthy—and not worthy—of joining an elite institution called the United Order, or the UO. You could be judged unworthy for basically anything—having a miscarriage, playing sports, or not wanting to marry a man old enough to be your grandfather—and if you were judged unworthy, you were demoted to a lower, slave-like class.
Many people didn't make it into the UO even when their kids did. If those kids were over the age of eight, they were taken away to be raised by other mothers or sent out on unpaid work crews, like Willy was. Hundreds of families were split up, sometimes never to see each other again. Those who didn't make it into the UO, children included, were sent to live with a group of other "unworthy" people in crowded homes similar to the duplex, or in a series of large tents now being built for the unrighteous. We drove past the tents. They sat unsheltered in the freezing temperatures.
Alyssa and her mother did not make it into the UO. They were sent to live in a non-UO house, the one with the roaches, where 22 other children were living. "We had two ten-year-olds [living there] who weren't with their parents. Just orphans. 'Cause they were unworthy," Alyssa explained. "It was like the most horrible whack to their self-esteem... They didn't know what they did bad."
Free choice is not a tenet of the FLDS. Your spouses, home, job, hairstyle, sex positions, how much food you get every week—it's all determined by the men in charge, who enforce the prophet's bizarre edicts from God. Willy and Alyssa listed some of the things that have been outlawed in Short Creek: toys, books, movies, sports, the color red. At one point, when the prophet announced that pets were sinful, all the families' dogs were gathered into a pit and shot. Even the water and power were controlled by the FLDS until one shunned family won a lawsuit for being denied utilities for over five years.
The local police force has a longstanding reputation for returning fleeing victims to their abusers and generally enforcing the church's law over the government's. I heard stories about Alyssa's cousin, whose children were taken away and whose failed escape led to her complete isolation and now-unknown whereabouts. I heard about Willy's mom's six escape attempts. The town is shrouded in a culture of silence, where speaking up means losing your family as well as your place in Heaven, so you learn to nod and smile and keep your mouth shut.
It all sounded like a dystopian nightmare, and it was amazing to see the outside world through Alyssa and Willy's eyes. Alyssa told me she loves Taylor Swift and Avril Lavigne. They can't wait to see Nickelback together in the summer. They're learning how to speak openly about their lives and use the word "fuck." Even Willy's sense of humor has sharpened in the two years I've known him. As we drove around the Creek, a town with one gas station and little connection to the wider culture, it became clear just how much their lives had expanded since they left.
Follow Lola Blanc on Twitter.