Abused sisters stand as witnesses to harms of polygamy

Vancouver Sun/November 24, 2010

This story contains graphic descriptions that some readers may find objectionable.

When lawyers talk about the harms of polygamy, there's scarcely one that Kathleen and Rena Mackert haven't personally endured.

The sisters have had front-row seats in B.C. Supreme Court for the opening week of the constitutional reference case to determine whether Canada's anti-polygamy law is valid.

"It's a redemption to feel that we can make a difference," Kathleen said during the Tuesday afternoon break. "To go through all the abuse we endured for most of our lives and turn it around for future generations is very redemptive."

Rena agrees and says it's also part of her long healing process.

Both are witnesses for the B.C. attorney-general, who has filed their video affidavits as evidence. Both support Stop Polygamy in Canada and run a non-profit in Anacortes, Wash., that helps victims of domestic violence and polygamy.

The sisters are seventh-generation polygamists. Their ancestors have practised polygamy since soon after Joseph Smith had his revelation in 1843.

Their father had four wives, 27 children and four stepchildren. Their mother was his third wife and she had seven children. Rena is one of her older children and she was born in a chicken coop near the Utah-Arizona border.

That's where their mother lived and was grateful for a place of her own, even if it was unheated and had no running water or electricity.

Rena says her father began molesting her when she was three.

Kathleen can't recall when her father began molesting her. But by the time she was six it had become so intense that she tried to kill herself by taking an overdose of pills. Later, she remembers her mother turning a blind eye to the blood in another sister's diapers.

The children were also neglected. No doctor was called when Rena had measles, mumps and chickenpox all at the same time, or when her ear infection was so severe that it left her profoundly deaf in one ear. Her father blamed the illnesses on Rena and her mother lacking faith and being disobedient.

Their mother, who remains a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, never spoke up when the prophet arranged for both Rena and Kathleen to marry their half-brothers. Rena had only 36 hours to adjust to the idea that her half-brother was soon to be sharing her bed; Kathleen had a week.

Rena was able to finish high school and was the first female FLDS member to get a driver's licence, but only because her husband granted his permission.

On the eve of their fifth wedding anniversary, Rena's husband left her and the group. It was 1977 and a few months later, 23-year-old Rena fled, after the prophet tried to force her to marry a man in his mid-50s. She left her children behind, believing what the prophet told her: that the children didn't belong to her, but to him because they were the product of plural marriage.

Nearly a year later, Rena went back in the middle of the night with a sheaf of legal papers and demanded that her father hand over her children. She grabbed them and "drove like the devil was on my tail."

She was the first woman to leave the FLDS and take her children with her. Nine years later, Kathleen followed her sister's path and left with her children.

Rena has spoken against polygamy as has another sister, Laura Chapman, co-founder of the American group Tapestry Against Polygamy.

Both have received death threats, which is why Kathleen -- whose children are younger -- stayed out of the controversy until two years ago.

But now she's fully engaged. "It's important for Canada and the

U.S. as well that the law is upheld," says Kathleen.

"If the law is repealed, you will see an increase in trafficking of girls ... as well as an increase in child labour and increased violations of human rights and civil liberties."

As pleased as they are that the issue is before the court, both sisters know that the law could be declared invalid because it breaches the guaranteed rights to freedom of religion, association and expression.

If that happens, the sisters won't be happy.

But, they say, at least they will be content knowing that they have done everything they could to make people understand what polygamy looks like from the inside.

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