The Impact of a Modern-Day Polygamy Group on Women and Children
Larry Beall, Ph.D.
A brief historical background may be of assistance to the reader unfamiliar with the FLDS. The FLDS is a splinter group from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known today as Mormons). In 1890, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Wilford Woodruff, issued a manifesto that officially terminated all plural or polygamous marriages in the church.
In consequence of this Manifesto, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized by its leaders, who stated the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had gone astray, buckling under the pressures of the world, instead of remaining true to the word of God. Since then, FLDS have been strongly critical of this Manifesto and its application by the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. FLDS leaders state as a basic tenet and principle of their church that “we obey the laws of God, not man’s laws.”
With this manifesto, a group of church members believed the president of the church no longer had authority to govern it and consequently relinquished his authority to the next senior apostle, John Wooley. John Wooley formed a new church from the body of followers who still believed in and practiced plural marriages.
The FLDS community became established in Colorado City, Arizona and Hilldale, Utah. These two towns lie in a remote area on the Utah/Arizona border. The current leader of the FLDS is Warren Jeffs, who, incidentally, was the president during the time the former FLDS members with whom I have worked left the polygamous community. Warren Jeffs was prosecuted and convicted on two counts of being an accomplice to rape by the State of Utah in 2007. This conviction was reversed and a retrial was ordered in July of this year, citing deficient juror instruction. Charges in Arizona were dropped “with prejudice” in June of this year, opening the door for the state of Texas to begin the extradition process and pursue prosecution of Jeffs for his role in offenses committed at the Yearning for Zion ranch.
There are terms unique to the doctrines and practitioners of FLDS. I could make a larger glossary or dictionary of these terms but will provide only the most fundamental ones here:
One-man rule: This is the leadership model of the FLDS church. Members believe that their leader (called a president or prophet) has direct contact with God. Consequently, church members’ eternal welfare depends on following his leadership.
FLDS is a closed society in which secrecy and isolation of its members predominates. Because polygamy is illegal, we are confronted with an issue common to research of closed societies. Whom do we believe? If we were to interview mothers in polygamist families who did not desire to leave their polygamous relationship, descriptions of their experience would no doubt be different from what is reported here by those who were unhappy enough to leave. The reports of the women who remained in polygamy would include descriptions of what were positive characteristics to them, and we would expect them to be less revealing of their more negative experiences. At the same time, we could consider the statements of those who have left the community jaded or distorted. Based on current views of church leaders and society’s laws, the way will not be opened for us to perform quantitative or for that matter qualitative research with this religious group.
I must emphasize that what follows is based on the reports of those who left the FLDS community and sought my help as a psychologist in their recovery from the effects of living there. They felt sufficiently symptomatic and dysfunctional to seek treatment. They knew something was wrong with them. They felt unprepared to deal with life outside the FLDS community. They lacked life skills. They desired help for their children. Public agencies such as Workforce Services or Crime Victims Reparations referred them for psychological treatment as part of their overall treatment program. Their reports of abusive experiences and symptoms were consistent with the thousands of others treated at the Trauma Awareness & Treatment Center for domestic violence and abuse, as well as with those of others who have left polygamous situations. I saw no motivation for them to malinger or make up traumatic experiences or symptoms.
We must first understand that the basic structure of polygamy is authoritarian. The men who practice it generally believe they have the authority to govern and control their wives and children in the family relationship. In polygamous communities, there is a hierarchy of polygamous marriages that exist under the control of a central leader. This leader is referred to as the prophet. One problem with a hierarchical structure has to do with the effects of power and control. Absolute power does tend to corrupt, and it is not unusual for the patriarch or prophet in a polygamous community to become corrupted by the sweeping power he possesses (as evidenced by the history of these polygamous groups).
Revelation from God dictates the words and acts of the central figure. This principle is the basis of the prophet’s power and authority and, in a corollary way, the polygamist father’s power and authority over his wives and children. Followers are taught to worship the prophet as a god. No matter what the prophet instructs a person to do, he should be obeyed without question, and the follower should be “sweet” about it (cheerfully submissive). A prophet can make even unreasonable and nonsensical directives, which others are expected to follow because the rules “came from God.” The story of the patriarch Abraham and his son Isaac in the Old Testament often is cited to reinforce this control. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac because God commanded it. In like manner, a patriarch can dictate to a fourteen-year-old girl that she is to be his wife because God revealed it. It is a serious matter for her to refuse this proposal, and it can bring negative consequences to her father’s status in the community or to opportunities for her in the future.
English has limited usage; science is largely irrelevant.
As is apparent, such attitudes toward education are excessively narrow and the effect is to confine the thinking of the follower. As I have witnessed in those who have left the community, they are ill-equipped to survive in mainstream society.
Adaptation to mainstream society is punishing. If followers followed the five characteristics I have described to this point, the effects on those who had to make their way in society apart from their religious group would be crippling. But the polygamous group targets society itself as an evil to be shunned. Children are taught to be afraid of the outside world, that outside society is dangerous in many ways, and that the only sanctuary for them is within the community of believers. Outside people are generally considered wicked, government is a conspiracy that will destroy them, and doctors are evil and will hurt them with their practices. (This being said, there are accounts of mothers having taken their children to outside healthcare providers when the medical need required it, and having received life-saving help). Because the world is considered temporary and soon to be destroyed anyway, children are taught there is little to no need to be involved with it. To the extent that children are involved in the world, they will be influenced and corrupted by it and become lesser people than they otherwise could, becoming useless in the long run for God’s purposes.
Personal desires are unwanted. Group teachings emphasize that the prophet’s will is an expression and extension of God’s will, and the patriarch’s/father’s will is that of the prophet. Therefore, the will of everyone else in the polygamous community is to be subjected to God, the prophet, and the individual patriarch simultaneously. Children are taught to be rid of their personal desires and wants. If these personal desires are not controlled, they will destroy the individual. In every aspect of the child’s life, the will of the leader is paramount. If a child is told to do something, he or she does not have the right to refuse or ask questions.
Polygamous communities are a caste system. The wives and children who belong to a patriarch are part of a caste system the patriarch has established, although not usually in a declared or explicit manner. Only he can assign the child’s value or the value of the child’s mother, in unspoken but self-evident ways (i.e., privileges, time with him, praise, etc.). One’s value is established by those over him or her and is usually based on financial contributions and level of obedience to the prophet’s will. Families with more value have nicer homes and are allowed better jobs. People in the upper echelons of polygamous groups do relatively less work and enjoy “blessings” or rewards for their position. People on the bottom do the hardest work and can even be denied basic necessities. “Faithfulness” as determined by the prophet is the signal of prosperity and favor. Faithfulness within the polygamous group is defined as conformity, meeting expectations, enhancing the leader’s status, sex for the purpose of procreation; in short, doing what is necessary to please those in authority.
I should note here that one reason there is such disparity between the reports I have received from those who fled the FLDS community and the reports of those who remain could have to do with this caste system. Females who are favored are often in the role of “counselor,” who is a teacher or mentor to younger or “difficult” wives. An analysis of these counselors’ function demonstrates that their basic purpose is to enforce and reiterate the policies and teachings of the prophet or patriarch. As a reward for this devotion, the faithful wife will receive superior living conditions and better treatment within her group. Again, this practice is not necessarily verbalized, but it is shown in actions. This differential between living standards may explain why some plural wives report only positive aspects of their polygamous experiences. They stand to gain more by the preservation of the society that has met their needs and wants, through the sacrifice of those of lower status.
Central control within the polygamous group is based on revelation the prophet says he receives from God. The position given to the patriarch (father) by the prophet determines the patriarch’s status in the religious community and his ability to exert his will on the family. The follower is taught not to question or doubt, but to follow and fulfill the desires of the appointed priesthood leader. The control of information, educational parameters, and separation from outsiders are all maintained to prevent contamination of members and to keep the belief system of the group pure and intact. Women in good standing with polygamous leaders are the most faithful wives, and are presented to the media for interviews extolling the virtues of their lifestyles. Warnings concerning the evils and dangers of society further insulate the group members from the outside world. Separation from the outside world and secrecy of the inside world maintain the necessary barrier between the FLDS community and the larger society. Under such conditions, the followers in the polygamous community are unlikely to possess the skills necessary to be successful or perhaps even survive in outside society. Internal policing tends to prevent followers from becoming disloyal or leaving the group. An important element of this closed society is the discouragement of emotional expression, personal desires, self-will, and identity. A caste-like system tends to keep individuals in their proper place, all under the governance of FLDS church leaders. A woman’s role or rank in this system helps explain why some women may have positive reports of their experience, while other reports, such as those provided for this paper, have been more negative.
Larry D. Beall, Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, l987, Brigham Young University. Director of Trauma Awareness & Treatment Center for sixteen years. Established the Satellite Trauma Center for the 4th Street Clinic Homeless Coalition. Clientele include children, adolescents, and adults with stress-related disorders, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and dissociative disorders. Expert witness for trauma survivors, including assault, cult, and refugee trauma. Has authored materials used in professional presentations, including Life Skills for Trauma Survivors Workbook, Using Sand Tray for Treating Traumatized Children, Manual for Treating Traumatized Refugees, The Impact of Modern Day Polygamy on Women and Children, Helping the Traumatized Child in Iraq, and a series of articles published in Iraqi newspapers to help Iraqi people and military personal deal with the stress and traumas of war.