Speaker to detail life in polygamist sect

Nicholson hopes to dispel mystery behind communities

Caller-Times, Texas/September 22, 2008

In the aftermath of the state's raid April 3 at the Yearning for Zion ranch near Eldorado following allegations of child abuse, more than 450 children have been returned to their homes but the issue is far from over. For people such as Kathy Jo Nicholson, who can identify with the families affected by the raid, the culture of polygamist sects is more than a headline.

Raised in a polygamist community which she later fled, Nicholson, 36, will share her story as keynote speaker at the Ark Assessment Center and Emergency Shelter for Youth Gala to be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Congressman Solomon P. Ortiz International Center.

Nicholson grew up in a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sect billed as "The Work," named for "doing the work of God."

"We didn't draw as much attention as the Texas compound," Nicholson said.

Nicholson was born the oldest of her mother's five children and the fifth in her father's brood of 12. Her mother was the second of three wives to her father. In the reality she knew, she was happy as a child. She holds dear memories of playtime with all her siblings.

"I was a normal girl who wanted to have normal friends and go to a normal school," Nicholson said.

"We not only got inundated with horrible name-calling and very descriptive summaries of what they thought our parents (were) doing; we literally were physically abused by the kids who were our age."

Children from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would taunt the kids from The Work, throwing eggs and fireworks at them, she said.

"But that kind of served a purpose for the leaders of FLDS because they were able to say, 'See how wicked the outside world is?' At the time it just drew us closer in to our community," she said.

As a teen, Nicholson found herself at odds with her strict community. After being expelled from school in 10th grade, she began working at a factory owned by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs' family. She doubted her religion and married a man without her community's blessing.

Rather than tolerate the condemnation, the couple moved to California but eventually divorced.

"Once I got away for a little bit, I saw that the outside world and government are not wicked (as I had been taught)," she said. "I learned that there are people out there who want to help me," she said.

Her mother and younger brother eventually left the community. Nicholson now lives with her husband and two sons in North Carolina. She has made it her mission to help people affected by lifestyles like the one she left.

After the West Texas raid, she was involved in media talks and fielded questions foster parents e-mailed to her Web site.

Through speeches, such as the one she will give at Wednesday night's event, Nicholson hopes to help dispel the mystery behind the polygamist communities.

"Everywhere, there is good and there is bad. Some of these women are bad; they're just mean women. I saw it. But some of them are good," she said and added that some of the fathers might need help, too. She recalled the video footage she watched after the raid.

"As you can see, the women are taught to show no emotion, to practice full restraint," she said.

Nicholson found empowerment in education as she learned about the world she had been taught to fear. She hopes to help others in that community to see what she saw when she left.

The Edmund Burke quote posted on her Web site shows the principle behind her new work -- "All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."

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