What fascinates and sometimes horrifies are stories of people coerced to do things beyond their understanding. Child brides, for instance. Twin Falls resident Susan Ray Schmidt remembers well how it felt to be one of those girls. She became the fifth wife to a much older man when she was still a child. Schmidt and her family were part of a breakaway Mormon sect that left Utah for Mexico to escape anti-polygamy laws in the United States. The LeBaron clan ruled over a new church called Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Time at the settlement of Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua. At age 14, Schmidt married Joel LeBaron's younger brother, Verlan, who already had four wives and many children. She bore five children by the time she was 23. Schmidt's life with the church is described in her detailed memoir, "His Favorite Wife: Trapped in Polygamy."
"I look at it as my other life. I've moved on and haven't lost my mind. I feel very blessed," Schmidt said.
Fleeing with her children in 1976, Schmidt moved back to Utah, eventually married again and had two more children. Her departure came at a time when another brother, Ervil LeBaron, broke away from the fold to begin another sect. In a notorious case, Ervil was eventually convicted of the murder of one of his rivals. It was a violent, dangerous split and many died over the next two decades as the brothers and their followers fought for turf and power. One niece, Jacqueline Tarsa LeBaron, is still on the FBI's Most Wanted List for her alleged involvement in the family's crimes.
"It was difficult, but I was raised with (plural marriage and child brides)," she said. "I look back, and it just makes me shudder. I have a granddaughter who is 15 years old. I look at her and think of me at that age. She's just a baby."
Schmidt's story is utterly engrossing. It gives a searing portrait of life within a cult that often seems incredible.
"I'm so glad I got away from them. I was 23 when I left. I went to Utah (to family) who had never joined. I told my brother: 'I want out. I want to get away from this.'"
Eventually, two of Verlan's other wives also left him. "We're very glad to be out and away from it. I think I started a trend," Schmidt said.
"There was quite a bit of drama after I left. I went back to school and got my high school diploma. I worked and tried to raise my kids. I had to go on welfare for awhile. I hate to admit it, but I was trying to make it on my own. It ended up being a happy story."
Schmidt is very aware that the book was released at a curious time. Fugitive and Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs was recently apprehended for allegedly arranging marriages between older (married) men and underage girls.
"My heart goes out to Warren Jeffs' people," she said. "I'm glad they caught up with him. He's evil, and the sad thing is his followers don't even know it. It's about keeping women in the home. Marry them before they get an education. It's a travesty. I hope somehow, something can be done. These people are very brainwashed, just as we were. My goodness I barely get the book published, and Warren Jeffs goes and gets arrested."
As a result of her tell-all book, she has been recruited as a kind of expert on the subject of polygamy. She will appear on the Dr. Keith Ablow talk show in the near future to discuss the subject. The show airs at 10 a.m. on ABC.
"When I left Mexico I was so torn, confused and still brainwashed. I felt relieved on one hand and guilty on the other. I couldn't sleep at night. I'd pace the floor and cry. I felt like I'd left my family and loved ones. So I started jotting my thoughts down, trying to understand. Then I realized this is an amazing story.
Besides writing, prayer helped her through the difficult times, she said. "I had no one to talk to. If God loved me, he'd help me get it out. Eventually, I became a Christian. That was a big change for me, but a good change. I felt compelled to write the book. I hope it can help someone."
Schmidt said two of her sisters and one brother still live in polygamy. "They would swear on a stack of bibles they are doing the right thing."
The LeBarons love the freedom they feel in Colonia LeBaron, Schmidt said of the family. "It's not the same as when I grew up there. It was a small town. Now there are pecan orchards that are bearing now. These people are becoming wealthy and building big mansions and ranches. They take in a lot of money, I think it will go on, and they'll take over that valley. Even after I remarried, my kids went to visit their father's family, the kids and other wives, so I was in touch with them.
"They are still waiting for a new prophet to take over the mantle. Maybe a dozen kids were the rule in each woman's family. Many have left. Many work here and send it back. They're all over the place."
Schmidt is on a Northwest book tour, of which this signing is her first stop. She did appear at the Barnes & Noble store in Twin Falls. Managers said it was the biggest book event they'd ever had.