Brent W. Jeffs, with Maia Szalavitz
Reviewed by Janja Lalich, Ph.D.
“The stories of my childhood are either idyllic, horrific, or filled with a sense of unreality,” writes the author of this important, highly informative, and poignant book. Lost Boy is the memoir of Brent Jeffs, nephew of Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). The FLDS sect split off from the Mormon church (LDS) in Utah when the LDS abandoned polygamy as a sacred practice in order to accommodate U.S. law and public pressure. Believing that the LDS had lost its way, some true believers who refused to refrain from being polygamous established their own churches, one being the FLDS. The FLDS garnered quite a bit of publicity and some measure of public sympathy when the group’s Eldorado, Texas ranch, Yearning for Zion, was raided by state officials on April 3, 2008. More than 400 children were removed from the compound on suspicion of child abuse and underage marriage. Shortly afterward, the Texas Department of Family and Child Protective Services invited me to participate in a weekend consultation with state officials, representatives from child welfare agencies and foster homes, education department officials, and experts in various fields. We discussed and struggled with the best way to serve and protect the Yearning for Zion children, and their mothers, in that highly unusual situation. Over the course of the weekend, I learned a great deal more than I already knew about the ideology and inner workings of the FLDS, thanks to excellent presentations by, and my own lengthy discussions with, former FLDS folks and others there who had worked closely with ex-FLDSers and/or are related to FLDS members. Therefore, much of what I read in Brent Jeffs’ memoir aligned with what I heard at that meeting and reinforced my understanding of what life might be like during and after membership in the FLDS.
Lost Boy, as one may gather from the title, focuses in particular on the life of one of those many young men who were and are ejected from the cult at an early age in order not to be “in competition” with the older men in their incessant pursuit of wives. As the author writes, “Since 1999, hundreds of boys have been forced out of the FLDS. Many succumb to drink, drugs, and depression. Even as our prophet’s grandson, I wasn’t exempt.” Brent Jeffs came from what inside the FLDS is considered royalty—a family of “royal blood.” His grandfather, Rulon, was the FLDS prophet who was believed to speak directly to God; Rulon had 19 wives. Brent’s father and uncle Warren were 2 of 65 siblings. Brent’s father had three wives, two of whom were full-blooded sisters, who gave birth to 20 children. Brent describes having literally thousands of cousins. Given his royal heritage, one might expect him to have been destined for great things within this secretive and reclusive clan. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.
Polygamy was the only world Brent or his family knew. He explains that both his parents came from generations of the practice, having “lived polygamy since Joseph Smith first introduced the ‘principle’ of ‘celestial marriage’ in 1843—and the same is true for most [FLDS] members.” Brent uses plain language, clear descriptions, and sometimes startling examples to paint a picture of family life in such an environment. For example, he writes, “Polygamy and its power structure continuously produce a constant, exhausting struggle for attention and resources.” A statement such as that is either preceded by or concludes with vivid first-hand illustrations, creating an impressive panoply of scenes that forcefully substantiate the author’s claims.
Although shows like HBO’s Big Love tend to romanticize polygamy by showing week after week how love and strong bonds keep the protagonist family together through hardship, attacks, exposure, and so on, popular mass-media renderings rarely depict the much darker side of polygamous communities. For example, absent is the number of deaths in closed groups like the FLDS, related to a genetic disorder that handicaps and kills many children early in life. According to Brent Jeffs, this phenomenon is consistently denied within the community; it results from generations of inbreeding, reinforced by the fact that the cult rarely recruits outsiders. Making matters worse, under Warren Jeffs’ reign, these birth defects came to be seen as a curse and a sign of sin. Brent also mentions that 50 percent of births are male, leaving boys in not such a privileged position in an environment in which the elders like to practice “sexual variety without guilt” and want the best pick of the female crop.
Unfortunately for Brent and many others (boys and girls, men and women), as time went on, successive generations of FLDS leadership instituted a more regimented, Spartan, and harsh lifestyle. Isolation and change in leadership led to corruption and abuse. Life in the community became more difficult to cope with; yet, all the while, members tended to “go along with” leadership demands. In relation to this, Brent discusses the significance of the church command to “Keep sweet”—a perfect example of Lifton’s “thought-stopping cliché,” used in this context to enforce the members’ “happy” submission to an abundance of rules and leadership wants and whims. Brent also explains this apparent submissiveness as emanating from family loyalties, family history, and brainwashing. Not only is the fear of losing everything they know quite overwhelming, but also being ignorant of the way the rest of the world works helps to keep members compliant.
When the author was young, his Uncle Warren was principal of the Alta Academy, an FLDS school. There, during school time and church sessions held in the building, Brent describes horrific sexual abuse of young boys, typically ages 5 and 6, perpetrated by Warren Jeffs, whose unquestioned power and rising stardom gave him free reign. Brent believes that the rape of one of his brothers, Clayne, by his uncle when Clayne was 5 years old led to Clayne’s troubled life and later suicide. Another of Brent’s brothers died of a drug overdose. One important insight that Brent mentions is his recognition that his experience of attending “regular” kindergarten (that is, not within the confines of the cult), exposed him to non-FLDS adults and children, planting a seed in Brent that not all outsiders are bad. This realization helped him as he grew older and confronted life in mainstream society. In the early years of his life, Brent experienced and witnessed more harshness than any human being should have to. His life goes from being considered part of the FLDS elite to being the ostracized son of an apostate after his father is excommunicated. From there, Brent eventually becomes one of the exiled “lost boys”; and, in this memoir, he expresses clearly the fear, paranoia, and confusion of that life. It is always a wonder to me that these brave young people survive with such a strong sense of life, goodness, and compassion. It truly bears witness to the concept of resilience—and the power of self in the face of truth and freedom versus deceit and harm.
In Lost Boy, written with Maia Szalavitz (author of the excellent boot-camp exposé, Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids), Brent Jeffs shares some of the best and worst of his young life. He offers readers a detailed and heartfelt look at a world most people know nothing about: a world that is too often allowed to carry on with exploitative practices and abuse, a world that we all should be concerned about. This is an important book, on a par with Not Without My Sister (reviewed in Cultic Studies Review, 2008, 7) and should be read by all.
International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 1, No. 1, 2010 93