Not many members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints speak publicly. Prior to Thursday, the last example of it happening without the FLDS member receiving a cold call from a reporter was after the 2008 Texas raid.
So Mother Irene's two-part interview with the "Year of Polygamy" podcast is a pretty big deal. The follower — she identified herself only as Mother Irene — said she'd like to dispel some myths about the FLDS.
But she confirmed more than she contested. Foremost, she loves her prophet, Warren Jeffs. He is in Texas serving a prison sentence of life plus 20 years for sexually abusing two girls he married as plural wives. Irene believes he and the FLDS have been persecuted.
She also confirmed a few church leaders are left in Hildale, Utah, and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz., collectively known as Short Creek. There aren't many men, at all. Many of them are working elsewhere. She said the mantra for FLDS women is "Keep Sweet."
At one point in the two-part podcast interview, Irene started explaining that giving money to FLDS followers doesn't mean that money will go to the church. Then she described precisely that.
Irene said when she receives a paycheck, she pays a tithing. Then she pays her bills. If anything is left over, that money is consecrated to the church, she said.
Before I discuss the podcast further, I should make a disclaimer that is pertinent to something Irene said. A few weeks ago, I received an inquiry on whether I wanted to visit with FLDS members. The catch was it would be over the phone and I wouldn't be told the members' names.
I'd like to talk to FLDS members, but I declined. I said I would need to meet the members and know their names, which I would publish. The Salt Lake Tribune doesn't quote anyone under the circumstances offered me. I had a particular concern about doing anything like that with the FLDS, even off the record.
When sect members talked to reporters after the 2008 raid in Texas, it was a coordinated effort to curry public sympathy. Nurses who worked in the birthing house at the Texas ranch stood in front of cameras and denied there were any underage marriages or pregnancies.
Not long after that, a Salt Lake Tribune reporter and photographer arranged to visit an FLDS home in Colorado. A few years later, after some of the people in that home fled the sect, I was told by one how the FLDS moved certain people out of the house and others into the home to make the living conditions look better.
Lindsay Hansen Park, the producer and interviewer on the "Year of Polygamy" podcast, asked Irene if there had been any lying or manipulating of reporters. Irene said no. At that moment, my choice to not speak with FLDS members under their terms was affirmed.
A few other thoughts:
• An underlying theme of Irene's interview was combating the notion FLDS women are perpetually unhappy and hungry. She expressed happiness at being part of the FLDS community. In so many words, she said there is enough food to go around and that when someone is having trouble and needs food, help is provided.
• Irene said the FLDS doesn't interact with the world because of the persecution it has received. Later, she encouraged listeners to shop at FLDS stores in Short Creek.
• It's time to retire the notion that the FLDS doesn't consume mainstream media. Sure, they aren't supposed to. Yet every former FLDS member I've talked to tells me about how, when they were in the church, they were sneaking popular music, television shows or movies on iTunes. Irene, with no specifics, criticized media coverage of the FLDS while claiming she doesn't watch or read the news.
• Irene professed education is important to the FLDS. That doesn't mean the FLDS does it well. The public schools in Short Creek have programs to accelerate the learning of kids exiting the FLDS because they test so far behind their grade level. Irene, who I judged to be middle-aged, said she attended college, as did many former FLDS people of a similar age that I've met. But I have never encountered a former FLDS member currently younger than 30 who has told me he or she went to college.
• There was a lot of discussion about evictions in Short Creek. The United Effort Plan, a land trust once controlled by the FLDS and seized by the state of Utah in 2005, is evicting people who refuse to sign occupancy agreements, which are kind of a cross between a rental contract and what you sign up for with a homeowners association. I was waiting for Irene to give a doctrinal or theological reason for not signing agreements. The closest she came was saying the UEP is controlled by apostates and the FLDS wants nothing to do with them.
• You can trace this back to a discourse Brigham Young gave on apostasy. Apostates should be let "alone severely," he said. Former FLDS members have told me antagonism toward apostates increased on orders from presidents Rulon and Warren Jeffs. So while there is a historical underpinning for the refusal to interact with the UEP, former members say the policy toward apostates also has to do with ensuring the faithful don't interact with people who might encourage them to leave the church. For that matter, the FLDS leaders have periodically set aside put the ban on apostates aside and allowed its members to sign with the UEP, which is something even Irene referenced.
• Irene described the evictions as sudden and uncompassionate. But Utah and Arizona law doesn't allow landlords to just boot people living on their property even if they are squatters. Multiple notices spread over months must be given. The UEP ran afoul of those laws shortly after the Utah takeover and were corrected by the courts. If the UEP still is taking short cuts, FLDS members have legal options. Yet I am not aware of any evictions that have been contested in court in recent years.
• Even if the eviction processes are followed, Jeff Barlow, the executive director of the UEP, told me Tuesday that the UEP typically make occupancy agreements contingent upon working out an arrangement with the current occupants. In other words, if someone shows up with an eviction notice, the FLDS could call the UEP and strike a deal to stay in the home. On a few occasions, Barlow said, such a deal with FLDS occupants has been reached.
• Maybe the most interesting part of Irene's interview was in discussing the FLDS culture that hasn't made headlines. They have prayer meetings in the morning. They bake. They sew. They play with their children and love them. There was discussion on the podcast of whether that culture would survive.
• As for former FLDS members, Irene described them as repeating the same false stories. She made them sound like they are all actors reading the same page in "Prometheus Bound." In journalism, we have a word for when people tell the same stories: corroboration.
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