How I Escaped Polygamy,
the FLDS Cult,
and My Father,
There is a lot that I feel grateful that Rachel addressed: including jealousy between sister wives, how jealousy is taken out on the children of other wives, that polygamist men “play favorites” between wives, and that polygamist men are always on the hunt for more wives.
Reading through Rachel’s book brought up many emotions, memories, and thoughts. There were many things that were triggering – some small, some pretty serious.
Rachel is younger than me, and I remember seeing her in “Mr. Jeffs’” office. As I read Breaking Free I came to realize that during the years that I was in high school – being lectured on and warned about the great evils of “boy/girl relationships;” and as I was dealing with shame and guilt for what were normal attractions to boys in my own age group – he was sexually assaulting children. His own children and others.
I will never comprehend the hypocrisy and gall required for leaders to execute punishment on the innocent for accusations of supposed sins, all while hiding their own actual crimes. Warren Jeffs is not alone in this. His actions, though more extreme than others may be, are par for the course.
Patriarchy needs a way to control others.
As for me? I only knew the outward show. The righteous preaching and sanctimonious actions in public. I believed in the leaders, doubted myself, and fell for the whole shebang hook, line, and sinker.
“Outsiders” that read this book may miss some important things, so I would like to share my impressions and thoughts on it.
Everyone has a story. And in polygamy those stories get messy. Tangled and interwoven with each other in often uncomfortable and gut-wrenchingly painful ways. Reading Rachel’s story isn’t easy. But it’s important to remember that it’s only one facet of a multitude of inter-connected stories.
For every story that has been courageously told, there are many dozens that we will never hear.
I want to start by saying that in no way am I minimizing the horrors that Rachel experienced. No one should be subjected to the crimes and abuses that she endured as a victim of polygamy and of her vile father. What she endured is likely almost incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the customs of Mormon fundamentalist polygamy – a system of oppressive patriarchal power where girls and women have little, if any, say or control in their lives. But they are all-too-familiar to thousands of us.
I applaud Rachel for daring to speak out and tell her truth. I wish that more women felt comfortable, and safe, to share their stories.
Sadly, the sexual abuse Rachel endured is not uncommon in fundamentalist polygamy. I wish I could say that sexual abuse was a rare thing in these groups, but that would be a lie. I’ve heard too many stories. I’ve seen the signs and felt the pain. Sadly, most of the victims of this horrific crime get no benefit from it. It gives them no special power or advantage. They are used, abused, and then passed on to their next owner.
The jealousies that Rachel details go hand-in-hand with plural marriage. Being raised with the belief that it is required, and even holy, doesn’t change that those who become sister wives are human. Our humanity brings jealousy, pain, and even resentment.
Warren’s “confession” to Rich of having become too close to Rachel while he was “teaching” her is something that I have heard before. Men claiming it as their right, privilege and even duty to train their daughters to be good wives and know how to please their husbands. I don’t understand why this is something so common in polygamy. You would think that a man who has access to multiple women already wouldn’t feel the need to hurt their own daughters, but unfortunately too often that’s not the case.
These things all work together to groom girls to be submissive, quiet, and obedient – in other words, the perfect candidates for sexual assault.
Now to Rachel’s book, which I will be responding to in several parts.
Part I: Polygamy, Jealousy, and Inequality
Rachel was the third wife of a young man. (In this, she was lucky. Often young girls are given as wives to men who are three or four times their age.) His first two wives were from non-elite families and when Rachel came into the family they were living in a very small, dumpy house. This was not what Rachel was accustomed to, and the combination of cramped, sub-par living conditions and the natural jealousies between the women caused Rachel to reach out to her father – the most powerful man in the FLDS at the time. He wasn’t the prophet – yet – but the prophet was under his control at the time.
Within a short time, they were moved into a much better home and Rich became a right-hand man to what thousands believed to be the highest power on earth.
“Father had taken my complaint about our cramped living situation seriously, for which I was very grateful…but the jealous wives still kept close tabs on Rich, which was easy to do because the bathroom adjacent to Rich’s room had two entrances, one from the bedroom and one from the hall, so whenever he was showering with one of his wives, anyone listening at the door could hear them talking…I spent most of my time in my own room…I liked having my own space, and it was comfortable. Father had bought a bedroom set for me because Rich couldn’t afford one, so I had a queen-size bed, a nice oak dresser with a large mirror, and a nightstand.” p 89
Please understand that what Rich couldn’t afford for Rachel, he also wasn’t able to afford for his other ladies. In truth, neither could her father. He had no income, and every dollar he spent came from the pockets of the people. Rachel was the only one in Rich’s home who received this preferential treatment. Her influence got them all a better house, but her situation was always better than that of her sister wives. Naturally, this would create a deep sense of jealousy in them which, sadly, made them seem like “problems” to their shared husband, and likely pushed him even more determinedly toward Rachel.
Rachel was his golden ticket. Naturally, he favored her. Not only because of the power and prestige having her as a wife brought him, but because it’s hard, as a human being, not to at least subconsciously work for our own survival. Rich knew that Rachel had what very, very few people had: a direct line to her father- the prophet of God. She knew that she had power over him because of his secret: that he had sexually abused her as a child. Not only could Rachel influence her father to Rich’s benefit, if he crossed her she could also use that influence to get him a correction. He had to tread carefully, his survival in the church depended upon the prophet viewing him in a favorable light.
Rachel’s sister wives were also in survival mode. They understood, on some level at least, that they had no power. Their fathers had no position or influence in their lives. They had been given to Rich and were part of his kingdom now. That’s enough to convince most fathers to remain silent. Everyone understood the possible consequences of speaking out or “criticizing,” and it wasn’t worth the risk – especially not if the subject of your criticism is a favored and beloved daughter of the prophet.
Many fathers, if their daughter had turned to them the way Rachel turned to her father, would have given them a vague and careful response of “you need to just keep sweet and obey your priesthood head.” Most often, focus was diverted away from the pains of today onto the “treasures laid up in heaven.” You just needed to sweetly endure and trust that in some future time God would bless your faithfulness.
In other words, for many there really was no hope for real happiness, equal treatment, or justice in this life.
But even being the favored wife isn’t all rainbows and happiness. The jealousy and desire to be significant never goes away. Even getting the most of your husband isn’t enough.
“Life with my husband’s other ladies got much harder then. Trish and Molly started to accuse Rich of favoritism, and would try to get in the way of our budding relationship. Nights when Rich called me to his room, the other ladies would suddenly need to speak to him about ‘a very urgent matter.’ Sometimes they put little Netta to sleep in Rich’s room so that nothing could happen between us. More than once, one of them would bang on the window so hard I thought the glass would break. At times I was angry that Rich allowed his other ladies to get between us.” p 88 – 89
These feelings are understandable – on both sides. I’m sure that Rich’s other ladies were also angry at times that Rich so easily set them aside in favor of his new wife – a girl from the most powerful family in the church – leaving them feeling unworthy and, at least to some degree, hopeless. When people feel like there is no one they can turn to for help, they often act out of a feeling of desperation – trying to grasp at whatever they can and lessen the emotional pain they are experiencing. Those other women were watching everything they thought they had vaporize before their eyes – a common feeling for women when their husband brings new wives into the family. Especially where there is a wide gap in class status.
“There was a big learning curve, living polygamy…The church teaches that it is good for a man to have multiple wives, so you cannot be angry at him for sleeping with his other wives. Living polygamy, you have to let go of your selfishness regarding your husband. You have to control the jealousy that comes naturally to us, not only because we are taught that it is a grievous sin, but because it will make you crazy. But even though I grew up in this lifestyle, and I was used to it, once it became my reality as a sister wife, I realized how hard it was.” p 88
Rachel was the daughter of the prophet, which gave her power, but her father was the prophet, and for Rich that meant he had to worry about his father-in-law’s opinion of him, as well as trying to protect his own testimony.
At one point, Rachel told him a little about what her father had done to her: “…I kept it short and vague, but it was enough…‘Rachel, please don’t say any more,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to know, because it will be too hard on my testimony of your father’…” p 90
“I don’t want to know because it will be too hard on my testimony.”
THAT phrase defines the lives of those involved in fundamentalist polygamous cults. Willful ignorance isn’t just a choice, it’s a concept everyone is heavily indoctrinated and trained in. Don’t ask questions! Blind obedience is key to maintaining testimony.
After they met with her father, Warren Jeffs, and talked about what he had done to her:
“Rich said, ‘Rachel, we have to trust that he is in a leading position for a reason. I don’t ever want to question him again, so let’s not talk about this.’”
Rich’s special place, being close to the most powerful man in the church, allowed him and Rachel to spend a lot of time traveling together. Men are every bit as interested in feeling special and significant as the women are, but they usually have more power to influence that. They leverage things in their lives in an effort to raise their position in the church. That is an easier task for men to achieve than it is for a less-favored wife to gain any additional favor.
A woman’s place is to “rejoice” in whatever her husband offers, and especially rejoice when her sister wives are blessed – that’s supposedly the key to eliminating jealousy or the desire for personal significance. Anything more would be seen as complaining or a lack of “keeping sweet.”
“I was still negotiating the challenges of being a plural wife. When I was with Rich, I felt that we had that special husband-and-wife attachment, that he was truly my best friend. When he spent time with the other wives, I felt as though he had betrayed that friendship. I’m sure the other ladies felt the same. I’m sure they also wanted to take advantage of the time they got with their husband. Every time Rich and I were together, I wanted him to prove all over again that he loved me as much as he said he did. I’m sure all plural wives want to be the special one, the one the husband loves more than all the rest…Rich was home for such a short time between trips away, and all the ladies wanted a piece of him. I had an outside door to my room, and sometimes Rich used it to sneak in and spend the night with me without the other ladies knowing. I felt a little bad for my sister wives, because I knew I wouldn’t like to be left out, but I was also glad that Rich chose to make me feel special and wanted.” p 101
It’s like knowing that your husband is having an affair, and being expected to invite his mistresses into your kitchen and “rejoice” when you hear them having sex in the next room.
Remember, in a situation where a man’s time, resources and affection are divided, any time he chooses to make one wife feel special and wanted, that comes at a heavy and extremely painful cost to the others. It’s unlikely that Rich’s other wives were oblivious to his special attentions toward Rachel, and you can only imagine how painful that must have been for them.
But even being the favored wife doesn’t afford a sense of security because as soon as you see that your husband is willing to play favorites, you also know that you are in danger of one day being set aside when he gets a new favorite. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.
No one is completely or truly happy in polygamy. Though the men and favored wives definitely have the upper hand. Connections are strained, jealousies run rampant, and the stress of never feeling safe in your relationship takes its toll.
At one point, Rachel relates a story:
“Rich came to my room one morning and asked me to shower with him. I knew he’d been with another of his wives who was trying to start out with a baby the previous night. ‘Rachel, what’s wrong with you?’ Rich said, when he could see me hesitating. ‘You can’t treat me like I don’t know what you were doing last night,’ I said. ‘It’s not easy knowing you had intercourse with another wife and you come asking me to shower right after. How can you do that?’ Even though the law of purity said it was forbidden to have any sexual contact when a woman was pregnant, Rich fudged this by doing pretty much everything but intercourse with me when I was expecting. Rich looked taken aback… ‘I don’t do for my other wives what I do for you,’ Rich said. ‘I don’t shower with the other ladies when they’re pregnant. You should be grateful that I give you more of my time and love than I do them.” p 162
You can imagine that the wife he had intercourse with probably wasn’t exactly thrilled that he “did his duty” with her and then slipped away to be with Rachel. I’m sure she would have been thrilled to accept the invitation for a shower with him.
Rachel also expressed her anger toward Rich for not being a “man” about what he wanted to do (to openly show his preference toward her.) She was unhappy with his efforts to spare the feelings of his other wives, remembering how her “Father never cared what his wives thought of him. If he chose to favor one wife, he did so openly, in front of the whole family. It was no secret which of his wives were his favorites. Father was like a king in his household, and the women bowed to his every command. They stood around eager for the privilege of handing him his spoon or washing the table after he’d finished eating. It was the highest honor to be the wife chosen to make his meal.” p 87
Yet, would she have been so accepting of the same if he openly favored his other wives, leaving her to fight for the leftover scraps of his attentions and resources? I think not. After all, what woman would?
Below I have included a link to an interview that Rachel did around the time her book was released. There are some important points made here, and I shared the link at the point that I want to emphasize. I also transcribed the important points:
Megyn Kelly: So, life as a sister wife was, what?
Rachel Jeffs: It was difficult. It…sigh…a lot of jealousy and bad feelings. You want your husband to be your best friend, but you feel like he’s always turning against you and always going and being somebody else’s friend, you know, you just feel like – you always want him to prove his love to you because you feel like he’s – equal – he’s trying to love so many women at the same time, and at the same time my sister wives did not enjoy me coming into the family.
MK: You’re the daughter of the “so-called” prophet, so she has an elevated status in the group.
RJ: Yeah, and so they felt like my husband loved me more than them and so they treated me badly. And, and I didn’t blame them in a way, I knew that would be hard, I mean, and I even learned later, after my husband got even more wives, that it was difficult to have more wives come into the family and just have him sleep with all of them, have kids by all of them, you know, it’s just….
(In her book she plainly explains how it wasn’t just that her sister wives “believed” that he loved her more, he told her as much and showed it in his actions.)
MK: How many times a week did you sleep with him? In the same bed, with him?
RJ: It could be up to three months before I could sleep with him, depending on if I was pregnant or not. I mean, you know, cause he would, he didn’t have sex with his pregnant wives so…
MK: That was a rule?
RJ: Yeah, that was a rule, so, um, you just never knew, it was…
MK: Let me just ask you, I assume, in the bedroom, things were one-way only.
RJ: Very much.
MK: I mean, it was not about you.
RJ: Very much. I mean, I think that’s how polygamous men are because they’re so used to just pleasing themselves. They’re like the king in the house. And the wives are just their servants.
(Does anyone actually believe it can be any different? Patriarchy doesn’t work that way.)
MK: That’s the incredible thing, is that even after he went to jail you and the other followers still listened to him, right?
RJ: Yeah, from our very youngest years we were taught that the prophet, or the leader of the church, could not do wrong. That he only did right and we had to obey his every word. And, we basically were told that we couldn’t even make a move without his – him telling us to.
MK: The time in prison seemed to take a toll on his mental well-being. The edicts he would issue became more and more bizarre.
RJ: It started with just, our clothes had to be a lot more particular. Our food, we had to start eating certain ways, you know, don’t eat squash, onions, cabbage, you know…
RJ: Yeah, milk, potatoes, corn. It got, you know, it just slowly went along and he’d tell us more and more strict rules – the way we dressed, the way we put on the right sleeve before your left sleeve, you know, just so detailed directives and then he started sending really harsh punishments to everyone over assumed wrongs that they’d never committed.
MK: Is it true that he would banish, men in particular, from the group and also some women. I mean, you yourself was sent off to “prison,” essentially, to prison.
RJ: Yeah, he would decide that someone was guilty of a sin, and then send them away forever, or send them to live alone for long periods of time. And he sent me away from my kids for up to seven months at a time. And to live alone, and over, and saying, and accusing me of having sex when I was pregnant, when actually my husband never would have sex with his pregnant wives. And the more I said we didn’t, the more he accused us and kept me alone longer and longer. And during that time I never hearing from my kids or seeing them, or knowing how they were.
MK: Is that what led you to your breaking point?
RJ: I was very angry. Very angry at father that he would do that to my kids, and I felt like he was punishing me for what he had done to me. Like he was trying to break me and make me feel like I was worse than him. And I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t let myself go there. I knew he had done wrong, and I didn’t want to let him break me…..