|Escape from polygamy|
I started sewing my wedding dress when I was 14 years old. Most girls would never think of marriage at such a young age, but some of my peers were already wives and mothers. I knew it wouldn't be long before I was married off, just like my mother had been, to a man who would eventually have three or more wives.
By Kathy Jo Nicholson with Jan Brown|
I was one of 13 children raised by our father and three mothers in a fundamentalist Mormon community in Utah. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) is not associated with regular Mormonism (LDS). FLDS followers practice the "Principle" of polygamy, which is now banned by the mainstream Latter Day Saints. The idea behind polygamy in the FLDS is that a man must have at least three wives in order to go to heaven. Young girls are "placed" with husbands by the church leader, or Prophet. These spiritual marriages are not legally binding, but in the eyes of FLDS members, they are sacred. If a woman serves her husband faithfully, he may invite her to join him in the celestial kingdom of heaven. But should a woman disobey the Prophet and refuse a life of polygamy, she will be damned to eternal hell.
My mother is the second of my father's three wives. On the surface it appeared that everyone got along, but there were always underlying tensions. I sometimes get a kick out of watching Big Love on TV because the rivalrous wives remind me of my mothers. (The Big Love characters' racy sex lives, however, do not ring true; in the FLDS, sex between a husband and wife is meant to be strictly procreative.) The first wife in a polygamist family is traditionally the husband's closest friend and confidante, but sometimes her preferred standing is usurped by the wife or wives who can still bear children. This is how it was in my family. Take my father's first wife, "Aunt" Barbara (we were taught to refer to our non-birth moms as aunts, so that outsiders wouldn't suspect our family practiced polygamy): Aunt Barbara was hard-working and efficient. You could count on her to bandage your skinned knee or quiet the tears of a screaming infant. But my mother was younger and prettier. She would dance on top of the picnic table or pretend you were a princess waiting for Prince Charming. She made my father feel vibrant and alive, and I could tell that he gave her special treatment for many years until he took a third wife. In the polygamous ceremony, the most recently wed wife places the hand of the new wife into her husband's hand. It was painful for my mom to give way to a younger wife. She rarely laughed after that.
Of my 12 brothers and sisters, four are full siblings. They were my best friends, my companions and my world. We fought like regular children, but we bonded together as outcasts in our town, enduring the taunts and stares of other kids who made fun of our strange Little House on the Prairie clothing and funny braided hairstyles. I still recall the pain of hearing them yell "Polyg! Polyg!" (slang for anyone who came from a polygamous family) as I walked down the street, but having my siblings with me made it easier to bear. I have fond memories of cuddling together with my sisters and whispering late into the night.
My father repeatedly reminded all his daughters to "keep sweet," but that sugary fundamentalist slogan carried bitter implications. In order to keep sweet, you could never admit to emotions such as jealousy, anger or uncertainty. The key to living the Principle was unquestioning obedience. Never question Father. Do as he says. Never question the Prophet. When I was a child, the Prophet for the FLDS was Leroy Johnson. We called him Uncle Roy. He was a frail but animated old man who prophesied that he'd live until Christ's second coming and then he'd be literally lifted up to heaven. If I kept sweet, he explained, I'd be taken with him. So I tried I kept my questions to myself, prayed every day and did my best not to disappoint my elders.
Then, in 1986, Uncle Roy died and my world fell apart. He was 98; I was 15. "Why did Uncle Roy die?" I asked my father. My father responded that the Prophet was weary of our sinful ways. "But didn't he promise us that he would live until the second coming?" I wanted to know. "How can you trust the Prophet if he doesn't keep his promise?" Enough questions, I was told. We must trust Uncle Rulon, our new Prophet. He is God's mouthpiece.
But I refused to place my faith in Rulon Jeffs, an imposing gray-haired old man. Where Uncle Roy had been loving and gentle, Rulon seemed gruff and stern. He banned the dances and sporting events that had brought the community together. Disheartened by these changes, I no longer accepted the aspects of the Principle that didn't make sense to me. Why did the Heavenly Father require men to have three wives in order to get into heaven? Why were women required to share their husbands, but not the other way around? Why did the Prophet need more than 50 wives? Increasingly, as I stitched my dress, I felt as if the needle were piercing my heart and soul. Who would stand beside me when I wore it? Would I be his first wife, his second or his third? Nobody could answer me. My fate had yet to be decided.
Angering my elders
My siblings and I attended the private Alta Academy in Sandy, Utah. The school was led by the Prophet's son, a tall lanky man named Warren Jeffs. Warren taught math, history and church history and led devotionals every morning. Some of our lessons were slightly modified versions of the truth. We were taught that man had never landed on the moon; it was all a staged show similar to the movie Capricorn One. Why teach us this strange fiction? Maybe because FLDS members believe that after death, worthy men may become the gods of their own planets; it threatened the order of things if non-Mormon astronauts could visit the moon.
Warren constantly warned us about the wickedness of this world: "I want to say to you young people: Leave television alone. Do away with videos. Do away with headphones and listening to radio. Hard metallic music is the devil," he said. Righteousness, he preached, meant wearing long underwear even in the blazing hot summer months. We girls were made to dress like women on a wagon train heading west and were constantly being groomed for marriage. "Learn how to keep a house, behead a chicken and cook it up for your husband!" Warren demanded.
The rules Warren laid down for us were always changing. Wearing certain colors was evil one week but perfectly OK the next.
My wedding dress was white. I knew I could be summoned to wear it at any moment a few days or even a few hours before the event. There would be no engagement parties or bridal showers. I would simply be whisked away and quietly married by the Prophet to someone I probably did not know, someone who might be twice maybe even three times my age. I remember the day a friend from tenth grade called me to say she had received her Placement. She had never met the man she was to marry, but she knew he was old. Her voice quivered over the phone. "Kathy Jo, I don't think I can do this!" she said.
"Of course you can," I assured her, but my stomach churned.
She promised she would stay in touch, but she became a "poofer" FLDS slang for a girl who suddenly disappears ("Poof!") from her home to be married off and moved to another polygamous community. She showed up a year later with a baby in tow, acting like she barely knew me. But I was sure her eyes sent me a warning: Don't let them do this to you.
My friend's marriage coincided with the beginning of my troubles at school. My long blond hair and warm brown eyes were a problem. Boys were not supposed to notice girls, but they liked to look at me and talk to me. I tried hard not to look back. But sometimes I did. Warren sent notes home to my parents: "When around boys ... [Kathy] outwardly show[s] [her] cuteness."
You must put a stop to this, Kathy Jo, my parents warned.
Then I was caught committing a grave sin at school: I had a water fight with several boys and a girl at the drinking fountain. We were all disciplined for misbehaving, but no one so drastically as my female classmate. Almost overnight, she too became a poofer. For some reason, I was not expelled or married off not yet, at least. A few weeks later someone reported to Warren that I had been passing notes to a boy. I would be permitted to finish the year at Alta Academy, but I would not be allowed an education past the tenth grade.
Angry and more disillusioned than ever, I stuffed my wedding dress in a closet, vowing never to wear it. I didn't know how or when, but I would find a way out. A boy named Matthew became my opportunity for escape.
A bride at 18
That fall I was sent to work at a company owned by the Jeffs family, and that's where I met Matt. There were many kids working at the factory making medical machine parts, assisting in the office or packaging the products. We were all polygs, mostly outcasts who had been expelled from the Alta Academy or from the polygamous enclave that bordered Arizona and Utah. Matt was seven years older than me, tall and handsome, with broad shoulders, blond hair and blue eyes. We laughed and talked, and for the first time since I'd been kicked out of school, I was really having fun. Matt was worldly, or so he seemed to me. He had traveled to Canada and back to work in the FLDS enclave of Bountiful, British Columbia. More important, he openly admitted to doubting the Principle.
Since my father would not approve of our blossoming relationship, we met secretly after work and discussed our misgivings about our religion. Matt was the first person who ever told me it was OK to doubt. If something were true, he believed it could stand up to our questions. If it were not true, then why bother to live your life according to it?
Over time, Matt and I fell in love. He wanted us to marry. "Will you go to Uncle Rulon and request me?" I asked. This did not sit well with Matt; Uncle Rulon, the Prophet, was his grandfather, and Matt's relationship with him was uneasy, to say the least. Several years earlier, he had gone to the Prophet to request the hand of a young girl Ill call Linda. "Ah, yes, Linda," Matt's grandfather had replied. "I'll let you know in a few days if you can marry her." But within a few days, the Prophet had placed Linda with another "more worthy" man. She was quietly married to him, leaving Matt heartbroken and unwilling to trust the leader again. "If I go to Uncle Rulon, he will give you to someone else," Matt said. "If we go to the Justice of the Peace, he can't take you away from me. We can seek the church's approval later."
Over the preceding years I had been angry and bitter. I had inwardly challenged my faith. But now that I was faced with the opportunity to break away, I was scared.
I struggled for days with my decision. To say yes to Matt's proposal would mean a life free from polygamy happiness on earth but eternal damnation in hell. To say no would mean a marriage arranged by the Prophet a life I dreaded, but one that still held out the hope of being invited to heaven by my husband. Matt listened to all my fears and logically addressed my concerns one by one. I remember him saying that God would not send us to hell, he would forgive us; we would remain in the church and eventually earn everyone's blessing. "Eventually" won out.
We were married quietly by the Justice of the Peace in Salt Lake City. There were no friends at the ceremony, no family, no rice or wedding cake or presents. And no God. What should have been the happiest day of my life was one of the saddest.
When we returned to our families as husband and wife, they were broken-hearted. Matt and I assured them that we would stay and live the Principle and try to earn back the approval of the Prophet to have him "seal" or sanctify our marriage but our words fell on deaf ears. My mothers cried. My father turned away from me. (Years later, he would rejoice at the marriage of my younger sister to a man old enough to be her father.) My older sister Barbara was devastated by my decision to marry outside the Prophet's direction. She had been my dearest friend, and now she kept me at a frozen distance. It hurt me deeply, and our relationship was never the same afterward.
Secretly, I believe, Matt had never intended to remain in the religion. He gave me time to adjust to being married, then began talking to me about moving away and starting a new life. Deep down, I knew he was right we didn't belong in our polygamous community anymore. I'd had enough of the condemning stares, the righteous attitudes. So we packed our things and quickly informed our family that we were leaving. They didn't try to stop us we were already lost to them.
At first, life in California seemed the answer to our dreams. My experience at the factory helped me to land a good job as a receptionist, and on the weekends I could wear shorts and let my bra straps show. When I caught someone staring at me, it was in admiration and not because I was some polyg freak. Matt also found work, and we rented a cozy apartment.
Our newfound freedom, however, proved overwhelming. I'd never been allowed to make my own decisions growing up, and now I needed Matt who was equally adrift to validate every one of my choices, from what to wear to whether I should polish my nails to when would be a good time to do a load of wash. And I still felt terribly conflicted about leaving my family; I wanted to help them see that they were being manipulated by the Prophet, but I feared perhaps irrationally that they would try to take me back against my will if I contacted them. So I didn't. Trying to appear carefree and "normal," I began staying out all night, partying with work friends or strangers I met in bars. I kept my past a secret; if anyone asked, I'd say that I wasn't interested in talking about it. And all the while, voices in my head screamed at me: "You're an idiot for leaving! You didn't stay sweet and obey the Prophet! Youre going to hell!" I felt as if I were becoming insane.
Matt and I began to argue and grow apart. We'd married too young, too soon, and our fragile relationship soon collapsed altogether. By 20, I was divorced and alone in a world I didn't feel prepared to face. With nothing in my life to keep me focused or grounded, I fell into a lifestyle with no boundaries, numbing my sadness with drugs and alcohol. My binges could last for days on end. Strung out, I'd miss work and sit at home, obsessed with the idea of returning to my family, but unable to face going back to that kind of bondage.
Drinking and substance abuse would dominate my life for years to come. Needless to say, my relationship choices during this period weren't healthy ones. My longest attachment was to a man named Tim, who also had substance-abuse problems. In the beginning, we bonded around alcohol, but eventually our relationship deepened and we fell in love. The best thing that came out of our time together was our child. We had a baby boy, my saving grace. I had stopped drinking as soon as I found out about the pregnancy, and getting sober helped me make peace with my mother and father. They called me one day out of the blue to ask if they could see me on a trip they were planning to California. Their visit meant the world to me, even though I felt as if I were hosting a long-lost aunt and uncle rather than my own parents. Just the fact that we could all sit in the same room together was comforting, even if our conversation didn't go beyond awkward small talk.
That year, Tim and I returned the visit and went to see my family in Utah my first time back. While we were there, my family was polite to us, but it was clear I was still an outsider. They said things to me like, "Where there is life there is hope," but I hoped for different things now: peace with myself, a free and happy life for my son, happiness for Tim and me...
My last wish would never come true. Tim's alcoholism spun out of control; we separated. After that, he stopped taking care of himself and eventually died from a staph infection that went untreated. I was a 27-year-old single mom and emotionally near rock bottom.
Love without the hurt
For my own sake and the sake of my son, I resolved to make smarter choices about relationships. That's why I decided to take it slow with a man named Brian, whom I met at work. He was among my circle of friends, but stood out as especially kind, intelligent and centered. I felt at once attracted to and comforted by this man and began to open up to him about my life. Brian helped me to see that it is important for me to feel things, not escape them.
At first I feared that Brian would leave me once he realized the full extent of my past. But he proved me wrong (and won my heart for good) by traveling with me to visit my family for the second time since I'd run away. To my surprise, my parents liked Brian. They had come to accept, as best they could, that I would never return to my old life and that it was the Principle I rejected, not them.
Two years later, when Brian and I became engaged, my birth mother gave us her full blessing. My father even obtained special permission from the Prophet for the whole family to attend our wedding in Bakersfield, California. It was awkward to have all three of his wives there since many of the guests still didn't know that I came from a polygamous family. I let them believe that my Aunt Barbara was my grandma and that Aunt Sarah Dad's latest wife was my sister. As strange as all of this sounds, I will always be grateful that my "aunts" came.
During a moment alone with my mom right before the wedding, she sat me down and told me she was happy I was living a normal life. I seized on the opening.
"Mom, you don't have to live the way you do," I said. "I am here for you if you ever want to leave." Mom didn't answer, but I saw tears in her eyes.
Minutes later, my father walked me down the aisle and gave me away. It was an incredibly proud moment for me. I felt for the first time that my family was beginning to see the validity of my choices.
A year later, on September 8, 2002, in St. George, Utah, Rulon Jeffs suffered several strokes and died. Warren Jeffs became the new Prophet. Meanwhile, it seemed my mother was not adjusting well to my father's new wife, Sarah, and their baby. Sarah was 18, the same age as my sister Rachel. My mother now felt completely pushed aside, with no place of honor. Since she could not produce more children, her only hope lay in the "lifting up" that the Prophet promised. Sure this moment was near, FLDS members would regularly meet in parking lots or on mountaintops, hoping to be pulled bodily into heaven. They'd wait all day, nothing would happen and Warren would blame them for thwarting the miracle.
My mother was also concerned that my youngest brother, Ru, named for the former Prophet Rulon, was about to be excommunicated from the FLDS. Warren was on a rampage, exiling young men known as "lost boys" from the church, the community and their families for such things as listening to rock music or wearing short sleeves. In Ru's case, the sin was giving his baseball cap to a girl. I began talking to Ru regularly. "I hate it here," he told me. I suggested to my mother that Ru live with us.
"If we do this before he is excommunicated, you can still have contact with him," I told Mom. "If you wait, he'll become a lost boy and you might never see him again." Grudgingly, my parents agreed. Ru boarded a plane and flew out to our new home in Portland, Maine, where Brian had accepted a job.
My brother made an amazing transition into public school life. By age 14, he had finished only fourth grade, but he dug into his studies and completed eighth grade with a straight-A average. My mother, however, hated being separated from her youngest child. Often she would call and just weep into the phone while I tried to comfort her. "Mom, why don't you plan a visit?" I asked her. "How about coming out for Mother's Day? She jumped at the idea, and sought permission from my father and from Warren. Amazingly, they both granted her the trip. Mom arrived that May day with her $50 allowance for the month. Our time together flew by happily, but as the date approached for her to return to Colorado City, Arizona, she grew more sullen and withdrawn. I suggested she extend her stay. She agreed.
Three months later, I sat down with her and asked, "Mom, are you happy here?"
She said she was.
"Then why go back?" I asked. Miraculously, Mom called Dad the next day to say she was postponing her return. She was getting her first taste of life with computers and cable TV. She loved shopping and had even bought herself a pair of capris, a daring move since she'd worn only skirts for the past 20 years. Her visit stretched on, and ultimately she decided to stay with us indefinitely. My mom has struggled to make friends and feel confident in her new world, but she has made tremendous progress. She has a wonderful job as a receptionist and is embracing her changed life without totally rejecting her history. Mom remains in touch with our family within the FLDS and is still supportive of their lifestyle choices. I was officially declared an apostate when my brother and mother came to live with us. This means that I am banned from seeing anyone inside the religious community. There is no heartbreak so great as losing the tie to one's family. Is it worth it? Some days yes, some days no. But I would not give up my freedom to go back.
In May 2006, Warren Jeffs was placed on the FBIs 10 Most Wanted list for crimes against children, but he avoided capture for many months. Then, in late August 2006, he was arrested near Las Vegas. Among other charges, Warren faces two felony counts of rape for performing the spiritual marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin in Utah. He is awaiting a trial date. Technically, Warren is still the Prophet, but it's been reported that record numbers of people are abandoning the FLDS.
My feelings about Warren's arrest seesaw, day to day, from satisfaction to pity. Even though I consider him an enemy, it is difficult to see a man who was once an icon of power in my life reduced to the pathetic figure now in the newspapers. Reading about his case is a constant reminder that my young nieces and nephews are still trapped in a repressive lifestyle they did not choose. It is agonizing not to be able to give them help or hope. FLDS members are taught to regard criticisms like mine as ramblings and lies from the devil, but I pray that all young people in polygamous families will come to realize real sweetness doesn't come from suffocating your emotions and desires. Authentic acts of goodness set you free; they don't enslave you.
It's my hope that even though this magazine is not allowed in the homes of FLDS members, my story will find its way to other victims of polygamy. If you are one of them, the Hope Organization (thehopeorg.org) can help. It is your inherent right to love and marry the person of your choice. To make that choice with a clear head and an open heart is to know, truly, a piece of heaven.
Kathy Jo Nicholson is now a stay-at-home mom. Jan Brown is a writer and education consultant. They both live in North Carolina.
July 2007 Issue
|For more information email:|