Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tall hair and long dresses

I wasn't surprised to see the polygamous FLDS sect open their YFZ ranch to Oprah Winfrey on Monday, March 30. It is part of a carefully orchestrated PR effort by the group. I think Oprah was sucked into the stories the women told, but to me they sounded more coached than spontaneous. They were uncomfortable with questions about jealousy among wives, and said they had to "overcome those feelings," which is the reason they were there, to progress past those very human feelings.

The whole openness thing was so opportunistic I'm surprised Oprah, who isn't dumb, was taken in.

I have lived around polygamy. I live in Sandy, Utah, the real-life town that is the hometown of the fictitious Hendrickson polygamous family of the TV show, Big Love. When I moved here in 1975 several Mormon fundamentalist (polygamist) families lived in the neighborhood. I don't think they were FLDS, but their women dressed like the FLDS women: tall hair, long dresses. They were a bunch that didn't communicate with anyone outside their group. If you were to try to talk to them in a store they wouldn't stand and chat. They'd move on. They want to be left alone. Some of it is because of the men, who are like an American Taliban. Women have their place, and their place isn't talking with outsiders or strangers. If the women don't show jealousy it doesn't mean the men don't. (And I don't for one minute believe there isn't jealousy amongst the wives.)

A lot of people feel live and let live with the polygamy community, and I'm OK with free exercise of religion as long as it doesn't involve sexual abuse of children or ritual human sacrifice. The FLDS in the Oprah piece denied knowing anyone who got married too young, but marriage was what the young girls who were interviewed aspired to.

When the FLDS lived in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, they were ignored by the law and society for decades. They could do anything they wanted, even marry girls 12, 13 or 14 years of age to older men. When Warren Jeffs was their prophet (before he became a convict) he banished several young men because they competed with the older men for the young girls. They showed up in Salt Lake City, homeless and unprepared for life outside their former community. They were called the Lost Boys. None of that was covered in the Oprah interview, and even if the question had been asked the members would have played dumb. Their goal with permitting the interview was public relations, not any revelations about dirty secrets within their families or communities.

A journalist who has covered the YFZ story had this to say in a blog last summer:

. . .the FLDS is very coercive indeed. Almost every feature of these women's lives is determined by someone else. They do not choose what they wear, whom they live with, when and whom they marry, or when and with whom they have sex. From the day they're born, they can be reassigned at a moment's notice to another father or husband, another household, or another community. Most will have no educational choices (FLDS kids are taught in church-run schools, usually only through about tenth grade -- by which point they girls are usually married and pregnant). Everything they produce goes into a trust controlled by the patriarch: they do not even own their own labor. If they object to any of this, they're subject to losing access to the resources they need to raise their kids: they can be moved to a trailer with no heat, and given less food than more compliant wives, until they learn to "keep sweet." At the very least, women who do decide to leave the sect leave without money, skills, or a friend in the world. Most of them have no choice but to leave large numbers of children behind -- children who are the property of the patriarch, and whom many of them will never see again. If a woman is even suspected of wanting to leave, she's likely to be sent away from her kids to another compound far yonder as punishment for her rebelliousness. For a woman who's been taught all her life that motherhood is her only destiny and has no real intimacy with her husband, being separated from her children this way is a sacrifice akin to death. At the very worst, death is indeed what awaits them. The FLDS preaches "blood atonement" -- the right of the patriarchs to kill apostates who dare to defy them, usually by slitting their throats. And they've done it: [Jon] Krakauer hung his entire book on the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her year-old daughter, who were both killed by her husband's brothers because Brenda rejected (and mocked) her husband's desire to take plural wives. (Warren Jeffs also liked to rouse people out of their beds in the middle of the night for dramatic mass meetings testing their readiness for the Final Judgment -- meetings that had dark shades of Jonestown.) Brenda is the only one known to have been killed, but others who've left report being threatened with the same fate. There's a whole lot more depth and nuance to this story, and I'll try to get at some of it over the next several days. But let's start with the premise that almost nothing you're hearing in the mainstream media about this group can or should be taken at face value.

--Dennis Neiwert writing in the blog Orcinus.

By going to their YFZ Ranch Oprah did more good for the FLDS than anyone else could have done. She has very high credibility, and I'm sure a lot of viewers left with a feeling about the FLDS: they're odd but harmless. But anyone fooled into thinking that the answers she got to her questions were honest is very naive, and hasn't lived around these secretive people.


Kurt said...

Thank you for posting. Great reportage.

El Postino said...

It's been several months since I wrote this (I'm answering your note on August 26), but as of this time some more men of the Yearning For Zion Ranch have been prosecuted for their offenses against young girls, Warren Jeffs has gotten a favorable court ruling, and the FLDS saga goes on, just not in the public eye.