The Journey Out: Women Who Escaped a Polygamist Mormon Cult Share Their Story

Vice/January 7, 2016

By Molly Oswaks

Although its leader Warren Jeffs is spending life in jail for raping his child brides, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) remains under his increasingly harsh control. Those who escape are ostracized by their family and friends—but this year, former members of the Church held the community's first Christmas celebration.

The twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah—a border community formerly known as Short Creek, which is home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS)—are a place of immense beauty and unspeakable pain.

Founded in 1913 by Mormon Fundamentalists who broke away from the traditional Latter-Day Saints church in order to practice the principal of plural marriage, this community, geographically isolated by the Vermillion Cliffs of the Colorado Plateau, is a step back in time for anyone who drives through it. Here, women dress modestly in ankle-length, arm-covering prairies dresses and wear no makeup. Because it is believed that in heaven they will wash their husbands' feet with their hair, they keep it long and braided in elaborate ropes down their backs. Men increase their chances of becoming gods themselves in heaven, if they take a plurality of wives; the more, the better. In this community, present-day polygamy is alive, but not so well.

Though the Mormon Church has officially disowned the fundamentalists, the FLDS trace their lineage all the way back to founding Prophet Joseph Smith. John Y. Barlow (whose last name is claimed still today by many of his descendants) was the first leader of the FLDS, until his death in 1949. He was succeeded by a series of men; more recent was "Uncle Rulon" Jeffs, who died in 2002 and was famously succeeded as Prophet by his son Warren.

After crisscrossing the country to evade police, and ultimately landing himself on the FBS's 10 Most Wanted list, Warren Jeffs was captured in Las Vegas in 2006. He had 78 wives at the time of his arrest—a third of them under the age of 17. In 2011, Jeffs was successfully convicted on two counts of felony child sexual assault for the rapes of just two of his child brides, ages 12 and 15. Yet, despite that fact that he is currently serving a sentence of life plus 20 years from state prison in Palestine, Texas, Jeffs continues to control the cult from behind bars, using his loyal brother Lyle Jeffs as a proxy and mouthpiece.

In the years since his arrest, "Uncle Warren" has issued new rules from jail. Easily the most disturbing is that physical contact between a man and his wives is utterly prohibited, and physical intimacy––meaning sex––is expressly prohibited. In current-day FLDS, a woman can only become pregnant by one of the 15 "seed bearers" appointed by Warren to carry out their worthy bloodlines. According to court documents filed by Lyle Jeffs' former wife as part of a divorce case, "It is the husband's responsibility to hold the hands of their wives while the seed bearer 'spreads his seed. In layman terms, the husband is required to sit in the room while the chosen seed bearer, or a couple of them, rape his wife or wives."

This is a community where most children have never even heard of Christmas or Santa Claus, let alone celebrated the holiday (these Fundamentalists don't celebrate any "worldly" holidays). In addition, Jeffs enforced a full ban on toys in 2011 for those in the sect. "I had a neighbor that lived right across the garden from me. I watched that man stand at the side of his garbage can, as he had his small children bring out their toys and he would then, one-by-one, break them and violently throw them into the can," wrote former FLDS member Brenda Nicholson at Voices for Dignity, an organization founded by human trafficking survivor Christine Marie Katas to speak out against the abuse, exploitation, oppression, and humiliation of human beings in patriarchal polygamous cults and other related instances of ecclesiastical abuse. This ban, in part, is what inspired Christine Marie to plan a Christmas celebration, dubbed the First Christmas, in Short Creek. "People say there is a cloud over the town," she told me. "I planned the First Christmas to bring happiness and help that gray cloud get dispersed by love."

Voices for Dignity, Christine Marie's organization, was joined by the Sound Choices Coalition, Church for the Nations in Phoenix, Movies Making Difference, Safety Net, and Children's Refuge on December 16 for a blowout Christmas celebration unlike anything the people of Short Creek had ever before seen. The event was open to all ex-FLDS (as well as any current FLDS members curious about life on the outside), and it also welcomed women who'd recently fled the Kingston clan, a polygamous sect in Salt Lake City.

Inside the Holm Sunday School Building in Hildale, Utah, rows of folding tables were laden with iced sugar cookies in every color and shape. Other tables offered an array of crafting supplies: paper and paste, glitter, pipe cleaners, and all manner of kid-friendly art supplies for DIY ornament making. There was also a booth set up and staffed by volunteers from Premier Pediatrics, a southern Utah-based healthcare provider for mothers and children. Though not as exciting as a dense puff of cinnamon divinity, their presence was a blessing for these young families, whose healthcare and medical needs are flagrantly ignored inside the FLDS, as Carolyn Jessop details in her memoir Escape.

Onstage, dressed as Santa, ex-FLDS volunteer Clinton Holm (whose family owns the building) posed for pictures and handed out stockings filled with handmade toys and small candies to the hundreds of children who had been brought by their mothers for their first-ever Christmas celebration. For the kids, the lavishing of such kindness was literally unbelievable. "This is my very first doll!" said one little girl, shocked by the free toy. All of these women and children had left the FLDS within the past four or five years, some as recently as just a few months ago. For many, it was the first large, purely social gathering they had ever attended.

Leaving the FLDS is not a simple process. Most women flee without much more than the clothes on their backs and whatever belongings they are able to throw quickly into a plastic garbage bag. Once you're out, you are considered an apostate. The same goes for any children you bring with you. Those who leave the cult are shunned by all family and friends who remain in the FLDS.

After the daytime Christmas party, close to fifty ex-FLDS women were invited to enjoy a holiday meal at 240 East Utah Avenue. Originally commissioned by Warren Jeffs from behind bars, this modern mansion was intended to serve as a home for him and his many wives. (Though he's not getting out any time soon, Jeffs tells his followers that the bars of his cell will melt and that he will be delivered back to them, and all who remain loyal believe this to be true.) The walls of the many-roomed building are upholstered in the same ugly but expensive baby blue carpeting that covers the floors, and the door jams are a good 12 inches thick; these rooms are designed with acoustics in mind.

Now known as the America's Most Wanted Bed & Breakfast, the building is owned by Jeffs' former bodyguard Willie Jessop, who purchased the whole compound at an auction. He has expressed hope that, in his hands, the property will help reunite families who fled under Jeffs's control. Willie was nowhere to be found, however, and for many of the women I spoke with here, his absence was a relief. Willie is "a really bad dude pretending to be a good one," I'd been told by a Los Angeles-based film producer who has worked in the community.

Here, the women shared a meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, corn, and red wine for those who drink it. After dinner they were invited upstairs to a string of rooms, which had been packed wall-to-wall with gifts for young children and teens. There were stuffed animals, bicycles, toy trucks, boxed sets of Play-Doh, board games, books, dolls, clothes, makeup sets, and more clothing than there was square footage to display. Each woman was allowed to pick one gift for each of her children, and some collected as many as fifteen.

Adjacent to the gift rooms was a room filled with wrapping paper, gift bags, tape, scissors, and bows. Here, in the "Thank You" room, as Christine Marie dubbed it, women sat and chatted with each other, as they wrapped up presents for their children's first Christmas. "This is my first-ever wrapped Christmas present, and I'm 37!" shouted one woman to the crowd.

It had been a day of overwhelming emotion for everyone. Pretty quickly, a lively conversation developed between several ladies in attendance about the circumstances under which they made the choice to leave the church. For many, the Judgment was the last straw: In an effort to tighten his reins on the faithful and weed out anyone who might pose a threat to his absolute power, Lyle Jeffs, acting as leader in Warren's stead, devised a community-wide inquisition in 2011, referred to by all who lived through it as "the Judgment." This required every single member of the FLDS to answer a series of invasive questions.

Depending on their answers, individuals would either be ushered into the United Order (UO), the group of elite FLDS, or deemed a non-member and put on probation. Many families were split up after the Judgment, with children separated from their parents in just about every home. For some, though, it offered women and children the perfect exit from a bad living situation. One woman recalled being asked whether she'd ever touched herself sexually. Others were asked whether they had been intimate with their husband. Many recalled being asked whether they had any anger; as one woman explained: "It eventually got down to 'Have you ever even had a bad thought enter into your mind."

Going into it, "my heart wasn't pounding. I was peaceful, as far as I knew peace at the time." said 40-year-old Misty Taylor*, who has warm brown eyes, a quick smile, and an unusually bubbly personality given the recent events of her life. Misty finally left the FLDS in May 2015. She equated her choice to jumping off a cliff: "You get to a certain point in life where you're ready to either jump off a cliff or keep going, and you just keep going until you're ready to jump." But, she stressed, you have to be ready—even though rock bottom can be difficult to identify when one's life has always been miserable. "That's why a lot of my sisters are still there. They feel like they're almost there––because that's what they've been told. And that the lifting up is almost here; the prophet is almost out of jail." Crazy, they all now agree. Of course Jeffs is never getting out. But, said one woman, "my mom has been out of the religion since February and she still believes he is going to get out; she won't listen."

"When you're told your whole life that it's Him, he –– the Prophet –– is the One," explained Misty, "and you've been told he is pure and clean... That's exactly what we're being told: He's pure and clean, and He talks to God, and He visits with God. So here we are, striving so very hard, because there is a remnant this is going to be lifted up to heaven at the very end of the world, whoever is left standing. You can understand the fervency, even when your father is gone and your mother is gone."

Over the course of a year and a half, Misty, her sister wife and all of their children had their memberships revoked. Being deemed a non-member doesn't equate to being kicked out of the FLDS, it simply means you are not "good" enough to be part of the United Order of supreme FLDS members; non-members still live in the community and must follow all the rules, but in lesser homes consisting of children and parents from many different families. When the family patriarch is absent—as was the case for Misty and her sister wife, since their husband had been kicked out of the church completely and sent away on a "repentance mission"—the family is assigned a male caretaker. "Because there is not a father there," Misty explained, "you need a man that is over the family," meaning, essentially, that women without husbands need authoritarian male babysitters.

She wasn't supposed to, but on January 1, 2015, Misty sent a text to her estranged husband. "I just was chatting, just memories and feelings and la-di-da." She missed him and wanted to hear how he was doing. "I was starting to get to the done point," she explains. By then, her husband was aware of the crimes Warren Jeffs had been convicted of. "He started sending some information" about what Jeffs had done, Misty said, "and I just wasn't ready for it."

Everyone else I spoke to who has either contemplated leaving or successfully escaped the cult described feeling a similar sense of cognitive dissonance. In May 2015, she and her eight children left the FLDS for good. Misty and her husband now live with their kids in Short Creek, a seemingly happy family –– minus her sister wife and her kids, who remain in the FLDS.

The following morning, I invited Misty to join me at the Merry Wives Cafe, where I had made arrangements the previous night to eat breakfast with 30-year-old Lynette Warner, who had been married to Warren Jeffs at the age of 18 and escaped the FLDS at 26.

While Warren Jeffs was on the lam, Lynette says, his henchmen secreted her away into several so-called "houses of hiding" across the country: in Las Vegas, South Dakota, Wyoming, Texas, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. Ultimately, after Jeffs was arrested and put in jail, Lynette was placed in solitary confinement, in a trailer in Colorado City, Arizona, where her older brother acted as jailer, nailing shut her windows and inverting the doorknob. Lynette crawled barefoot out of the trailer window, which she had unscrewed and pried off its tracks, in a desperate escape that was documented by news outlets that referred to her simply as Jeffs's barefoot wife. Lynette told Broadly that she ran in broad daylight across Uzona Avenue to the Hildale, Utah, home of a trustworthy man who had recently left the church. There, they discussed what to do, ultimately deciding to call a woman named Kristyn Decker, who left the FLDS at 50 and now assists other young women fleeing polygamy through the Sound Choices Coalition.

"The day after I escaped, police went door-to-door through the town with flyers," that featured a picture of Lynette's face, she told Broadly. But by then, Lynette was fifty miles away in New Harmony, Utah, at Kristyn's home. Within months, Kristyn adopted Lynette, who now goes by the name Brielle Decker and calls Kristyn "mom".

We sat and talked for hours at the cafe, which has become something of a tourist attraction for road trippers traveling through or to the infamous border towns. Lynette and Misty had never met before, but for Misty, Lynette was something of a celebrity: Everyone in the FLDS knows her story.

One consequence of the strict hair and dress uniform prescribed to all FLDS women is that they lose their individuality, resembling thousands of versions of the same ideal. It could be easy for an outsider to imagine these women as mindless drones, dutifully fulfilling their wifely roles. But sitting in the cafe, listening to these two strangers share their stories of escape, it became clear that no matter how much dogma and brainwashing one endures, our true personality remains in our core. As with all the women I met this weekend, these two ladies are true individuals, with different attitudes and laughs and outlooks.

Though both women are in therapy to deal with their pasts, Lynette is quick to refer to the FLDS as a cult, while Misty—who still wears her brown hair long down her back and high at her forehead and dresses modestly in long skirts and long-sleeved blouses—struggles to see it that way. Lynette has started to find her voice as an advocate for women escaping polygamy, and she's studying psychology with the hope that she will one day be able to work in a professional capacity with survivors like herself. Misty, whose departure from the church is more recent, is still reluctant to come out as an escapee, preferring to go by a pseudonym to protect her image in the minds of family who remain in the FLDS.

After breakfast, Misty left to pick her children up from school; it was the last day before winter break, and the kids got out even earlier than their scheduled half-day dismissal. But Lynette had a free day, so she drove me around Hildale and Colorado City, which were still covered in a light snow from the previous days' falling. The striking south-western landscape felt like North Korea on Mars: dusty red dirt roads and glowing red sandstone cliffs; vast homes in various stages of near-completion (not finishing construction, homeowners are able to avoid paying property tax); a zoo in the middle of town, vacant but for a few glum buffalo. At the old-looking playground there was not a child in sight. Rather, kids who looked as young as twelve barreled down the streets in big rigs trucks and SUVs, and little ones keeping close to the tall fences outside their homes flipped us off for no reason at all. They are taught to hate outsiders and apostates alike, believing us to be Satan's people.

Two week after I'd returned home from Short Creek, I received an update from one of the Christmas volunteers: Two more women had left the cult and are now working with lawyers to get their kids out, too. And at a Christmas Eve party held in Short Creek on the 24th, four young FLDS women had shown up unannounced, similarly emboldened by grapevine stories they had heard of the December 16 festivities. That, in itself, is progress. And it was also the point: by hosting the First Christmas party in the very town were thousands are still under the prophet's thumb, Christine Marie and her co-organizers were showing the town that they can experience joy and receive kindness from the outside world. They were demonstrating that when you jump off the cliff, you're actually taking a step higher.

As one of the FLDS escapees I spoke to at the event sees it: The brainwashing within the community is too strong for many people to overcome; instead, we must continue to offer glimpses of how good life on the outside can be, because they are paying attention.

* Name has been changed

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