I confess to following the story of Warren Jeffs and the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) ever since the story broke about them in 2005. I had lived in Salt Lake City for two decades, and while I'm not LDS, a great many of my friends were. Generally, when the conversation turned towards the FLDS or the practice of polygamy, the general consensus was buncha crackpots.
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Stephen Singular's book, When Men Become Gods takes a look at the FLDS and their leader, Warren Jeffs. A splinter group from the mainstream LDS church based in Salt Lake City, Utah, the FLDS hung onto the practice of 'plural marriage' or polygamy, despite the LDS church banning it as a practice in the 1890's. Along with polygamy they practiced 'blood atonement,' the belief that a sinner could be redeemed by killing them -- that is, murder. A series of Prophets, men who claimed to be the sole mouthpiece of God, would lead the group, centered in two small towns on the Utah and Arizona border, deciding on marriages, who was allowed to stay in the group, and ruling with an iron fist and absolute decree. All money and property were owned by a corporation, the United Effort Plan, administered and owned by the Prophet and his cronies, who decided who lived where, and ran what.
In due time, Warren Jeffs succeeded his father Rulon Jeffs as the Prophet of the FLDS. He had been 'assisting' his father for some time, but now he moved into the role, arranging marriages between various men and the mostly teenaged girls in his flock. One of these girls was Elissa.
Elissa had grown up in the sheltered FLDS community, dressed in the pastel pioneer style clothing that was deemed appropriate for women and girls, her hair in braids and never cut, taught that sex and contact with boys was 'evil' and the modern world was corrupt. Only if she 'stayed sweet' and obedient to patriarchy would she be allowed salvation. But when she was told that she would marry her cousin, Allen, did she rebel. She was fourteen, he was nineteen. Bullied and pressured by her family and community, Elissa married and went through a hellish marriage before she found the inner strength to flee into the outside world.
One of more hidden aspects of FLDS life was that as long as polygamy was practiced, there would be a shortage of marriageable girls, and far too many young men as competition for potential brides. So the Prophet just kicked them out -- often at the young age of fourteen or fifteen. Dumped into nearby cities such as Las Vegas, St. George or Salt Lake City, these 'Lost Boys' were left to fend for themselves, often with tragic results. There were few resources for them, and unprepared and unknowing of the outside world, many of them turned to drugs or prostitution to get by.
Several women who had fled the strict lifestyle of the FLDS struggled to get some sort of official recognition from state and federal authorities with little avail. No one seemed to care. And those prosecutors who wanted to could not get anyone to testify or reveal solid evidence, all of the women were either coerced to silent or simply too afraid to come forward in court.
Saddest of all to read were the results of constant inbreeding among the FLDS families. It seems that there are several very rare diseases and birth defects happening in the communities. Most of the time, help would never come for these children or they were simply shut away in silence.
But several turn of events would change that. A private investigator started poking into the FLDS marriage and business dealings, and the more he looked, the messier it got. A group of Lost Boys found out that they could indeed sue for damages for being abandoned, there was evidence that the FLDS was funneling school aide and welfare money into fraudulent practices, and Elissa came forward with her story. Soon prosecutors in Utah and Arizona decided to take action, and this time, remembering all too well Jonestown and Waco, they decided to take a very different approach.
And Warren Jeffs was soon on the run, helped by those of his flock that still believed, and trying to siphon off funds. New compounds were being built in Texas and the Dakotas, and Jeffs remained elusive, slipping away just as law enforcement thought they had him.
How all of this played out is the meat of this story. The writing style is very brisk, whisking the reader along from the 1950's, to the present day. While there isn't anything revealed about the recent events in Eldorado, Texas (before this book, I had no idea that it was part of the FLDS and Warren Jeffs' empire), I daresay that more will come to light in the future. There is a slim insert of black and white photos, but little else in the way of extras in this.
Singular makes mention of Jon Krakauer's excellent book, Under the Banner of Heaven, and the HBO series, Big Love, seasons one and two. This book, in fact, reveals quite a bit about the background of Big Love, and it's pretty clear on just who the producers based a great deal of the series on.
What moved me was the plight of the women and children who were caught up in this. As long as religion is used as a means to coerce and degrade, I fear that many more stories like this will happen.
All in all, this was a very unsettling book to read. Overall, four stars.
When Men Become God: Mormon Polygamist Warren Jeffs, His Cult of Fear, and the Women Who Fought Back
2008; St. Martin's Press
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