Sister wives from Bountiful, B.C., offer rare glimpse into 'cult'

Brenda Jensen and Lorna Jean Blackmore share stories at conference of Canadian Society for the Investigation of Child Abuse

Calgary Herald/May 6, 2010

They were taught to trust no outsider. That, in fact, given the chance, non-believers would seek them out and murder them in their own beds.

The deep slumber of childhood sleep was an unknown luxury for Brenda Jensen and Lorna Jean Blackmore.

"You were always on guard," says Jensen. "We were terrified about what you, the outside public, were going to do to us."

It was a terror with absolute certainty at its foundation; to think anything different would have been in direct opposition to their upbringing, their faith, and the men who ruled their lives with an iron fist -- a life that demanded complete obedience.

The two half sisters, who no longer follow such rigid doctrine, despite systematic brainwashing, were in Calgary on Wednesday, speaking before a crowd of about 200 about their experiences living in a polygamist sect.

Jensen and Blackmore, the daughters of Harold Blackmore and two of his wives, sisters Florence and Gwen, grew up in Lister, B.C.

That's where Harold established a polygamist sect, Canadian Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known today as the community of Bountiful, B.C.

They were asked to speak to a gathering of social workers and other child advocates at a conference sponsored by the Canadian Society for the Investigation of Child Abuse. As they talk about their experiences, they provide a rare glimpse into the world of polygamy, and the effects it has on the children born into them.

The sisters' voices join a growing chorus that focuses attention on a world that up until recently was virtually unknowable to members of greater society.

In 2008, Vancouver Sun reporter Daphne Bramham's book, The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada's Polygamous Mormon Sect, provided a thorough account of this offshoot of Mormonism, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago. The practice is illegal in the United States and Canada.

The book details the sect's abuse of women and children, along with far reaching influence on what's been estimated to be up to a million North Americans.

The British Columbia government tried to press criminal charges against two polygamist religious leaders, but the charges were thrown out of court.

On Wednesday, the two strong women pull no punches, especially Jensen, who today runs from her home in Utah the HOPE Organization, a non-profit group devoted to helping survivors of abuse within polygamous relationships.

Jensen hands out copies of photographs showing the late Rulon Jeffs, then in his 90s and posing with his two teenage wives on their wedding day.

"Look at those girls' eyes, they are dead," she says.

Jensen goes on to describe the systematic mind control that begins not long after birth.

Jeffs, who died in 2002, was the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

"We are not individuals, we are not persons," Jensen says. "Our hearts and souls are killed before we even get a chance to know ourselves."

While not all children are subject to physical and sexual abuse, Jensen says that all -- boys and girls -- are victims of mental abuse. The goal, she says, is to make sure they are "empty vessels, so that righteous brothers could fill you up and lead you to exaltation.

"This is not a religion," says Jensen, who managed to avoid marriage to her "assigned" 60-year-old husband when she was 16, and married a young man from another sect after the family had moved to Arizona.

"This is a cult, and should be treated under the law both here and in the United States, as such."

Blackmore, who today lives in Creston B.C., a few kilometres from grandchildren she hasn't seen in years in nearby Bountiful, married her assigned husband in her late teens and had five children. Since leaving several years ago, she has housed and helped scores of young people (many of them her own relatives) who have escaped, or been excommunicated from, Bountiful and other sects.

"I never had love in that relationship," says Blackmore, who on this day is speaking publicly for the first time about her experiences. "But we'd been taught that our marriages were ordained by God."

Despite their own trauma, and the difficulty of returning to those painful memories, both women feel it necessary that people understand that polygamy is not an issue of religion, but one of abuse.

Canadians need to step up and put a stop to the abuse, says Jensen.

"Discontinue that school at all costs," she says of the private school in Bountiful attended by children of the sect. "We're not taught to contribute to this country and the United States ... we're taught to shatter it."

If we continue to turn a blind eye, she insists, society will simply churn out more damaged children, who learn that the outside world is evil, and that man-made laws don't pertain to them.

"I've come a long way," Jensen says of her own trauma in this rare, first-person revelation.

"But I still have trouble sleeping ... there isn't any area of life that polygamists don't abuse."

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