Woman describes childhood in polygamous household

CNN/August 1, 2007
By Amanda Townsend

Charlotte, North Carolina -- When polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs appeared in a Las Vegas courtroom last August, Kathy Jo Nicholson, a former member of Jeffs' sect, felt fearful even though she was only watching him on television.

"It devastated me. It elated me. It made me afraid. I looked at this man that was so powerful in my life ... and he was just so thin and pale," she said.

Today, as Warren Jeffs sits at Utah's Purgatory Correctional Facility awaiting trial, Nicholson has started talking publicly about her childhood in the church Jeffs led -- the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). She hopes that by sharing her story she will help others struggling with similar issues.

"My hope is that they, they'll see it, and it'll mean something," the 36-year-old said. Nicholson recently co-authored an article about leaving her polygamous community for Glamour magazine and is planning to write a book as well.

Jeffs, whose approximately 10,000 followers practice polygamy mainly in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, is charged in Utah with being an accomplice to rape by arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin. He faces additional charges in Arizona. Go inside Warren Jeffs' world »

As a child, Nicholson had three mothers and 12 siblings. She considers it a typical FLDS home. At the age of 14, Nicholson started sewing her wedding dress in anticipation of getting married. She knew that at any moment she could be whisked away to meet her husband and that her future likely would include at least two "sister wives."

But Nicholson had doubts whether she could live the life before her.

"I've always liked a lot of attention. And when it hit me that I could possibly and most likely absolutely would be sharing my husband, I began doubting that I could live that way," she said.

That perspective got Nicholson in trouble at Alta Academy, the FLDS-run high school whose headmaster was Warren Jeffs.

"He beat the kids there. He humiliated the kids there. And as time went on and I wasn't so devoted to being perfect and sweet, he held me up as an example and humiliated me," she said. Jeffs would force children -- Nicholson included -- to stand on a chair in front of the class and flex their buttocks muscles, according to Nicholson. She doesn't know how he came upon this particular punishment.

"As I got more and more rebellious, he would come up behind me while I was in a group and seize me by the back of the neck and lean down and whisper in my ear, 'Are you keeping sweet or do you need to be punished?' " she said.

Jeffs wrote a letter to Nicholson's parents saying that he was concerned about her and a friend, because "when around boys, and even younger boys, they would outwardly show their cuteness, seemingly to have the younger boys relate their cute behavior to older boys."

After getting caught passing notes to a boy, Nicholson was expelled from Alta Academy. She began working in an FLDS-owned factory full of other youths who openly questioned their religion. It was a common destination for FLDS kids kicked out of high school.

At 18, she eloped with a young man from within the community. Their marriage was not accepted by the FLDS or their families because they had gone outside of the church, to a justice of the peace, for the ceremony. So they packed up a U-Haul and headed toward California.

"That's when I cried the very most," she said tearfully. "Because I was leaving my family, everything that I had ever known, my friends and God behind. And I was choosing it."

That marriage fell apart, but in 2003 Nicholson persuaded her family to allow her brother to come live with her. He never went back. Within months, her birth mother came for a visit and she also never returned to the church.

Nicholson feels fortunate she helped two relatives leave the church, but this has not been without consequence. The FLDS no longer permits Nicholson's relatives to communicate with her and she doesn't even know where the rest of her family lives.

As glad as Nicholson is to see Jeffs behind bars and awaiting trial, she finds it unsettling to see a man who led the community in which she was raised now reduced to such a pathetic state. Still, she recalls a moment during Jeffs' first court appearance that showed he's not an entirely broken man.

"He had the downcast look that he would have when he was very disappointed in somebody, right before he'd start a beating or whatever or give a scolding. ... And then he looked up at the camera and gave this smirk, and that was the smirk that he would give before he damned you straight to hell or gave you the beating of your life or altered a rule that would absolutely devastate your household," Nicholson said.

The FLDS broke from the mainline Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, over the practice of polygamy. The Mormon church, which gave up plural marriage more than a century ago, has no ties to Jeffs' group.

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