Former polygamists tell of isolation and brainwashing

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram/April 6, 2008

The young girls who have been taken from a polygamist compound in West Texas, their stares wide-eyed but blank as they pass the fields of TV cameras, come from an intolerant faith that turns women and their young daughters into "baby factories" ordered to obey the men who abuse them or suffer the wrath of God, former polygamists said Saturday.

The heavy law enforcement presence at the compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 45 miles south of San Angelo, is eerily reminiscent of what happened on July 26, 1953, when police staged a massive raid on the Arizona polygamist community of Short Creek, taking away more than 300 women and children.

"Here is a community dedicated to the wicked theory that every maturing girl child should be forced into the bondage of multiple wifehood with men of all ages for the sole purpose of producing more children," Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle said at the time.

Religious-rights defense

But authorities retreated then, and they may be at risk of retreating again, because polygamist groups have largely been successful in arguing that such intervention tramples their religious rights and breaks up their families, said John Llewellyn, a retired Salt Lake County sheriff's lieutenant in Utah, where polygamists are most prominent.

"This is a good opportunity where maybe Texas will show the rest of the country what Utah should have done years ago," said Llewellyn, 74, a former polygamist who has renounced the practice and is finishing his fifth book, tentatively titled //Mormon Polygamy, A Virus of the Mind//. (The mainstream Mormon church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.)

A real challenge, Llewellyn said, will be to convince the children and mothers taken from the West Texas compound that they have been abused by an unholy faith.

"They intentionally isolate themselves away from mainstream society so they can control information for their women and the children," he said, adding: "They teach these young women and girls that they are living the holy cause" by sharing husbands and bearing children.

'I wasn't in love with him'

Rowenna Erickson said it took her 34 years as a "plural wife" to realize she had been lied to by a religion she once thought protected her.

Once a member of the Kingston polygamist group in Salt Lake City, Erickson said she was 20 -- comparatively old for her clan -- when she was ordered to marry a man who was already married to her older sister.

"So I just figured that was what I was supposed to do," she said Saturday from her home in Taylorsville, Utah, 10 miles south of Salt Lake City. "I numbed myself out. I was obedient. I wasn't in love with him.

"I had eight children."

Erickson said she left the Kingston group in 1992, after realizing she did not want her two sons and six daughters raised by polygamists.

Once believing her role in their religion would "get me eternal salvation," Erickson now says she believes she was brainwashed. She has since co-founded an organization, Tapestry Against Polygamy, which tries to help people like those taken from the West Texas ranch.

"I really feel bad for them, but I'm so glad they went in there and got them out," Erickson said.

Threats for renunciation

The group in Texas is an offshoot of the one in Short Creek, the site of the 1953 police raid which has since been renamed Colorado City.

Rowena Mackert was born in Short Creek the year of the raid, then moved to Salt Lake City with her polygamist family when she was 6. Fleeing the sect in 1977, following years of abuse as a youth, she is now forced into hiding after receiving death threats for her public renunciation of polygamy.

Two of those threats, Mackert said, came from Warren Jeffs, the polygamist leader who was sent to prison last year for his role in arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.

Mackert said she was an "old maid" at age 17 when she was ordered to marry a man. He never took on another wife and eventually left the group in 1976, she said.

Soon afterwards, Mackert was called into the office of Roy Johnson, the polygamist leader at the time.

"He wanted me to marry his brother who was also married to one of my sisters," she recalled. "I told him I couldn't, that I was traumatized by a lot of things. I told him that my father had been molesting me."

Johnson accused her of lying, she said. "He told me that I was to follow the revelation that God had given him.

"And I told him to go to hell."

Mackert, now 54, said she respects the 16-year-old girl in Texas who alerted authorities about being abused within the walls of the polygamists' compound.

"I just can't fathom the courage," she said, noting that such disloyalty, however justified, can come at a heavy price.

"You're told you can do all but kill a child for deliberate disobedience, " Mackert said, remembering one day in her youth. "I stole a candy bar when I was 13, and I had bruises and welts from my waist down to my knees."

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