Flora Jessop and Kathy Nicholson know firsthand what it's like growing up in a polygamist family. The two women escaped a sect compound in Colorado City, Ariz., as teenagers but say they will forever carry the scars of a traumatic childhood with them.
At what was termed a "friends and survivors" picnic Saturday, Jessop and Nicholson joined K. Dee Ignatin, executive director of Americans Against Abuses of Polygamy (AAAP), at Glenmore Park. The event was held to invite the public to discuss polygamy with women who have experienced it firsthand. Jessop has written a book on her life with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the same sect that owns the now-famous YFZ Ranch in Schleicher County.
The FLDS, which believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
Ignatin said Americans should not be fooled by what she says is the media's incorrectly favorable portrayal of the polygamist lifestyle. The women's tour was prompted in part by featured treatment of the YFZ Ranch group on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
"It's true of the Taliban and it's true of the FLDS," Ignatin said. "Every instance of polygamy in any culture always forces women and children into poverty, restricts women's choices, travel, and education, leads to the molestation of both boys and girls, and results in child brides."
Ignatin said she sees no difference between a burqa - the body-covering garment worn by Muslim women in Afghanistan - and a prairie dress, the trademark garb of the FLDS women. She said she hopes that through AAAP - the organization's Web site is tripleap.org - she will be able to bring awareness, influence action and help to expose what she says is governmental corruption at both the state and federal level.
Complaints and evidence have pointed to abuse of children in the sect, but "no one has done anything about it," Ignatin said. "We're basically telling those children that, yeah, we know you're being abused, but we don't care. Go back and endure."
One of 28 children, Jessop recalls images from her childhood that she believes are emblematic of life in the sect.
She and other children were allowed to smile, but they were not permitted to laugh.
"When I was a little girl, my grandmother gave me a doll that talked," she said. "My aunt saw the doll and smashed it to bits because she said it was possessed. "We didn't have baby dolls as children. We had real babies instead."
Now out of the FLDS for more than 20 years, Jessop has two grown daughters that she says will never be forced into anything. Nicholson also has children and a new life. Now living in North Carolina, she said has helped her mother and younger brother to begin new lives with her.
One of 14 children, Nicholson says that she feels no ill will toward her family, just toward the institution of polygamy and those who perpetuate it.
"I love my siblings unconditionally, but I wish they could find the courage to leave," she said. "We all have that seed of courage within us. I hope it will blossom within them."
Towards the end of Saturday's picnic, Jessop and Nicholson posed for a picture at a picnic table shucking corn with a sign reading "Texans know a load of corn when they see it, Oprah!" behind them, a response to what Ignatin said was Oprah Winfrey's role in promoting a false image of polygamist life.
"In 1953, Life magazine did a 5-page spread about a FLDS man named Clyde Mackert posing with his concubines, shucking corn, and grinning for the camera," she said. "That solidified a positive image of FLDS life in the hearts of America. Now, over 50 years later, we feel that Oprah is taking over the role of Life magazine, and that is shameful."
She said she hopes people will soon realize the horrors of plural marriage and move to take action.
YFZ Ranch spokesman Willie Jessop and YFZ legal counsel Rod Parker did not return phone calls for comment on this story.
"When the evidence of women and children facing systematic abuse surfaces, anyone in San Angelo who in any way supported (the FLDS) will be sick and angry that they were duped into giving the children back to those people on the YFZ ranch," she said.
Activity in court arising out of the April 2008 raid on the Schleicher County FLDS compound continues. All custody actions have been resolved, but 10 men in the sect still face criminal charges involving underage marriage and child abuse.
Lawyers for the sect argued in mid-May that evidence gathered in the raid should be suppressed. Judge Barbara Walther on May 16 gave attorneys for both sides 30 days to file written briefs.