Triumph and Freedom – Fighting the FLDS

An American religious cult based in the far west, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) is a polygamist group that split from the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) more than a century ago. For decades the FLDS has attracted concern and attention from law enforcement, often because of its sexual abuse of girls and casting out young men. The FLDS believes that its leader is the one and only voice of God. Accordingly, FLDS membership, family structures, work, and nearly all aspects of life is controlled and directed. The current leader, or prophet, of the FLDS, issues edicts from prison, where he is serving a life sentence for sexual assaults and other crimes. The FLDS has been covered extensively in the media, from news stories to documentaries. More is on the way as people escape the cult and attempt to create new lives, integrating into the modern world. A nativist domestic cult that has harmed thousands, the FLDS has patriarchy and the subjection of women at its core, along with violence and white supremacy. The FLDS is an evil organization.

Two memoirs, promoted at a local library, opened a window into life in the FLDS. Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and My Father, Warren Jeffs, by Rachel Jeffs, is the story of life in the cult and the author’s escape. Carolyn Jessop’s Triumph: Life After the Cult – A Survivor’s Lessons is written from a different place, as the author left the FLDS years before and is now working to free others from its grasp. Both Jeffs and Jessop hail from FLDS leadership families. Both authors had extremely difficult childhoods, were abused, and were forced into arranged marriages. Family ties – and through FLDS practice of arranged marriages and multiple wifes, the connections are very complex – supported and constrained both women. They love their children and their family members, yet at the same time, so many of the extended family and FLDS practices were toxic. Both women are heroes, fighting for agency and independence. The journey to agency, though, is neither quick or nor linear. It is no surprise that both actively resist being labeled as victims.

It is fascinating to learn how both women, and their friends and family, have wrestled with their personal histories and gaining independence. We are, by nature, social and our understanding of ourselves and our world is shaped by those around us. Change is difficult, and for these authors, it has required time and great strength. One cheers for them as they fight for decency and agency.

For those interested in what life was like in the FLDS, Jeffs’ account is the more immediate. To better understand how the FLDS used laws and structures to maintain power, Jessop’s book is more helpful. Read in conjunction, the two memoirs offer something else – a lesson on how extreme patriarchy functions. It is toxic, antithetical to democratic values, and denies people – especially women – anything akin to real humanity. This is not abstract academic gender theory. One does not need to study the Taliban or ancient history. The FLDS offers a close to home primer on the malevolent ways that religion, sex and family structures can persist, even today, while causing great harm.

The books are harrowing, frightening, and very personal. These are memoirs. The authors write directly, from the heart. Despite the hardships portrayed, ultimately, both books affirm the power of individual growth, choice and agency.

David Potash

Rage, Dread and Love

Miriam Toews‘ novel, Women Talking, engaged me instantly, from the very first page. It stayed with me, leading to research on the web and a second reading. Days later, it is still with me, ready to summon a powerful mixture of feelings and sentiments. It is an intense work.

Women Talking is based on a horrific history: the serial raping of women in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. For years, women in the community would awake bleeding, disheveled and bruised, the victims of sexual attacks. Their complaints were ignored in their isolated, insular and extremely patriarchal world. Men called them imaginary “ghost rapes” or the work of devils. When women finally captured one of the rapists, they learned that they were being drugged by a spray and assaulted. Eventually, through years of investigation and trial, nine men were convicted of rapes. The trail cites 135 victims, from ages 3 to 65, but unofficially there were probably many more.

The sect’s misogyny enabled the crimes and compounded the harm. Most of the women had lives of limited opportunity, illiterate and in secondary status. The religion limited access and understanding of basic sexual health. A closed culture of shame made things worse, and the community’s faith and power structure bound the women further. The women were denied basic civil and human rights, like so many others in the world. But that does not mean that the women lack agency or have nothing to say.

From this horror Toews, herself a lapsed Mennonite, gives us a novel of women in this community talking. It is a novel of conversations. The women talk of options, of revenge, of harm, of their children, their families, and of love. Toews lets us listen to the women as individuals with strengths, weaknesses, ideas and fears – not as objectified victims – and that “reality” makes the evil they endured all the more terrible. It’s an extremely well-crafted work of intimacy and care, told in a situation of almost unimaginable evil. But the evil isn’t unimaginable – it happened. And that makes it all the more awful.

Women Talking is a powerful indictment of patriarchy. It gives voice to those that we might not hear. It is an extremely good novel.

David Potash