On Their Own: FLDS exiles learn to cope with life after polygamy

The Spectrum/August 1, 2007

Hurricane -- Marc can still remember the events that took place on Feb. 18, 2004. After a long day working, he was cooking up spicy lemon chicken for his dinner when two of his brothers said they had to have a talk.

His brothers informed him he had to leave, not just leave home, but the community where he had lived since third grade. Going up to his bedroom, Marc found his mother crying while packing his belongings.

Marc was only 17 years old with a sixth-grade education when his world collapsed and he joined many other young men and women who were no longer found as desirable residents of Colorado City - a community primarily made up of followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints where the members practice polygamy as one of their tenets.

The FLDS church is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which denounced polygamy in 1890.

"I lived in a dream world the next six months," Marc said. "I was kicked out in February but didn't leave (in mind and dress) until July or August."

Marc said the "offense" that led to his being asked to leave the community was for "being human" - wearing a short-sleeved shirt, listening to music or maybe glancing at, or worse, talking to a girl.

Many of those who either leave or are told to leave the twin cities of Hildale and Colorado City end up in trouble.

Some find themselves in the court system for drugs, alcohol and theft. Others end up on the streets of Las Vegas selling their bodies for cash, said Elaine Tyler, with the Hope Organization, a group dedicated to those looking to leave polygamy.

While there is help for these kids looking to rebuild their lives outside the community, it's often difficult because they have had little formal schooling and don't know how to meet the day-to-day challenges of life.

Michelle Benward, founder of the New Frontiers program, is now running a home in St. George dubbed by the kids as the "House Just off Bluff," which will provide transitional housing for those leaving or those who have been told to leave Hildale and Colorado City.

In a previous interview, Benward said there are literally hundreds of kids from the twin cities who need help. They often stay together, many to an apartment that they call "butt huts" because of the numerous kids sleeping all over the apartment with the exception of the bathroom.

Although every community has teen pregnancies, child abuse, spousal abuse and substance abuse problems, because statistics from the polygamous community are sketchy, there are no hard figures and facts of abuses in the communities.

Those who have left have different stories and different views of what life is like in the twin cities. But there are similarities.

Most of those told to leave are young men, which the boys claim is in part to keep the young women or girls in the community available for the older men or the young men in the prophet's favor, although older men and women have been asked to leave as well.

Lacey, 20, was one of the girls asked to leave at 16 by followers of Warren Jeffs, leader of the FLDS Church, until she gained her belief in the religion.

Kevin, 19, was told to leave for his wicked ways - having a television and a small refrigerator filled with alcohol in his bedroom.

Kevin said he never liked Colorado City, yet he wasn't prepared for the unstructured living once he was told to leave.

"I got into drugs and alcohol," Kevin said.

Even though Kevin worked as a teenager in the construction trade, all the money he earned was turned over to his father. He was not used to dealing with finances.

"I ran myself into debt," Kevin said. "I'm a frugal guy now."

Like many of the kids who leave the community, Kevin said he got into trouble and had a hard time keeping a job. He lived in an apartment with about 12 other kids.

"When I first left, I was always getting into trouble, but the novelty wears off," Kevin said.

He has become accustomed to life outside the Colorado City community. Running into him on the street, no one would ever know he once was a member of the FLDS church.

His hair is longer than it could have been in the twin cities and during a recent interview, he was wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, which showed off his tattoo.

Kevin has worked in the construction trade for years and said he is used to working 14-hour days and has a strong work ethic.

"I can outwork any kid out here," Kevin said.

Starting work at 14 was liberating, Marc said.

He got to go out with the men where it was new and exciting and didn't have to be doing what the moms always told him to do. All the money earned went to his father to pay for family expenses, which Marc shrugs off.

"I had older brothers that did that for me," Marc said.

Benward said she has mixed feelings about the kids going out at such a young age - often at age 9 or 10 - to work primarily in the construction field.

"The kids (from Colorado City and Hildale) have a good, strong work ethic, but it's sad that the kids are pulled out of school and are working 10- or 12-hour days," she said.

Benward said another problem is that the kids work, yet the money is all turned over to the family and the kids don't see much, if any, of the money they earn.

Benward also said she knows of at least one teen who worked but was paid through a 1099 form and after he left the community, found out he had a huge tax debt that accrued when he was a child.

Kevin said he still doesn't agree or believe in the FLDS religion or its principles, but said there are a lot of good people out in the twin cities. Many may no longer believe in the teachings of the church, but to say anything means losing everything, he said.

Lacey said she does stay in touch with her dad and two sisters who still live there but is no longer part of the community.

"I don't have a problem with polygamy. This is the United States and people have the right to live their religion, but I don't agree with the marrying of underage girls," Lacey said.

Marc said he was lucky when he left Colorado City. He had family members to stay with but still had many adjustments to make.

Although Marc is still mindful of those family members who still believe in the FLDS religion and in the church leadership - namely Jeffs - he has no desires to go back.

"I grew up thinking I would work like my dad and have a big family," Marc said.

Marc said many of the changes took place when Jeffs came into power but said there has always been a big break with a new leader with multiple views.

Now, since he has been removed from the society, Marc wants to stay in school and possibly move to Australia.

Going back to school with only a sixth-grade education may be daunting for some, but Marc, after a serious brush with the law when he was busted with illegal drugs, knew it was the only way to get ahead.

Before he went to school, Marc said his goal was learning how to learn first by earning his GED and eventually getting enrolled in Dixie State College where he takes classes in business, computers and communications.

He said he's already been to the school of hard knocks so going to school during the day and working nights is nothing.

But Marc said looking at his life, he feels like he has lived two different lives.

"When I go and try and think back to my childhood, it's like having someone else's memories," Marc said.

Although his beliefs have changed, Marc says he can understand why people still do believe - including other family members who have been forced to leave the community.

While people may struggle to understand how one person can hold so much sway over so many, Marc points out the similarities to others who have strong religious beliefs and especially about what's beyond this life.

"This is a testing ground, a second in our existence, and when that is taken away, you go through struggles, but if you look at it (the after life) in the religious sense, it works," Marc said.

Marc still looks up to his businessman father whom he calls his hero. His goal is still to be a businessman like his father.

Marc had to learn to live with himself and by doing so, had to completely annihilate his values just to live, he said. By getting rid of his values, literally by blocking out all he had been raised to believe, Marc also found himself in trouble with the law for selling illegal drugs.

Marc points out that everyone from the community, whether still living there or not, has their own views and perceptions of what happened in the communities over the last few years and although he doesn't have hard feelings against those still living the life, Marc said he has a new life.

His run-in with the law, which landed him in jail for a few days, taught him quickly that he had been, in effect, not only boxed in by a lifestyle he was exiled from, but because of his own choices, had boxed himself in again. He made the decision that he was never going back to either way of life.

He started searching and found the tools available to get help through the Division of Child and Family Services and Elaine Tyler with the Hope Organization and Michelle Benward.

Marc said both Michelle and Elaine are doing a lot of good for people like him.

He said the two women have helped him and others like him from the community by helping them find help but not giving a handout.

"They would feed us, teach us a class and that's the attitude the boys need," Marc said. "Those looking for a handout will still be looking for a handout five years from now."

One thing Marc hates the most is the Lost Boys label. It's part of a stigma and Marc said he would rather be called a polyg kid than a Lost Boy.

"Hey, I'm a polyg kid. I have more than one bellybutton," Marc said with a joking reference to his several moms.

While Marc has a different view about what he left behind than some of the others, he points out that if you go to visit Chinatown in New York City, you know it's Chinatown with a different subculture, but you don't treat it like a different country.

Marc said Colorado City sometimes feels like a different country and that it is a place where a white person could go and feel just as discriminated against and uncomfortable as an African-American would going into a Caucasian community.

Marc is grateful to those who have helped him, particularly Elaine and Michelle and the family that took him in and helped him learn the unspoken language of middle class and what it was like to be outside the sub-culture and treated normally.

But for those who want to help people like Marc, he's got one bit of advice: Cut back on the questions. He understands people are curious but said it gets monotonous answering the same questions over and over.

"We still breathe and have a pulse, we are just a little unorthodox," Marc said.

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