Thursday, October 15, 2015

Prophet's Prey

Warren Jeffs with his 16-year old child bride Margaret Lucille Steed Jessop and their three children, photos from The Principle (F-LDS)  

Warren Jeffs and his 13-year old child bride Loretta Jane Jessop Barlow

Warren Jeffs with 13-year old child brides Ida Vilate Steed Jessop and Loretta Jane Jessop Barlow

Warren Jeffs and his 12-year old child bride Brenda Lei Fischer

Merrianne Jessop was a 12-year old child bride to Warren Jeffs

Warren Jeffs and Merrianne Jessop

PROPHET’S PREY          B             
USA  (90 mi)  2015  d:  Amy Berg  

One of the more distressing and disturbing films of recent memory where the rampant sexual violation of minors by a so-called Mormon prophet in the name of God is exposed as a house of horrors that comes across in nightmarish fashion as an expression of pure evil.  The film uses a clever animated sequence to detail essential background information, including the birth of the Mormon religion, when in the early 1820’s at the age of 17, Joseph Smith was first visited by the angel Moroni in upstate New York, receiving a series of visions leading to his discovery and translation of ancient texts (golden plates) buried in a nearby hill, which became the source material of the Book of Mormon that was published in 1830, the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).  Moving west, Smith established missionaries and built a congregation while hoping to build a self-sufficient, communal utopia called Zion, a place where Mormons could live under theocratic law outside all governmental control.  While evoking religious persecution along their journey, Smith’s inner circle began to fracture when they discovered Smith was trying to marry their wives, excommunicating them when they resisted, claiming plural marriages (polygyny) was a main principle of Mormon faith, where a man had to have at least three wives in order the reach the highest of the three levels of Heaven and eventually become a god in charge of his own universe.  When this became public in the 1840’s, popular opinion turned against the Mormons, especially newspaper editors where Smith was roundly criticized, claiming he was using religion as a pretext to lure women to his church in order to seduce and marry them.  Fearing the newspaper was turning the public against them, the Mormons declared them a public nuisance and destroyed a local press, declaring martial law, causing the governor to mobilize a state militia where Smith, his brother Hyrum, and three other top Mormons were arrested on June 23, 1844 and held to stand trial in Carthage, Illinois for inciting a riot, charges that were later increased to treason against the state of Illinois.  Four days later, however, all were shot and killed by members of an angry mob that stormed the jailhouse.  Throughout his life Smith was portrayed in the press as a religious fanatic, but in death he was memorialized by Mormons as a prophet.  His successor, Brigham Young, became president of the church, eventually founded Salt Lake City, and served as the first governor of Utah territory.  In a Spring 2015 Collector’s Edition compilation of the 100 Most Significant Americans of All Time, Smithsonian magazine ranked Smith first and Young third in the category of religious figures, "Joseph Smith, Brigham Young rank first and third in magazine's list of significant religious figures".  By 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the criminalization of the Mormon practice of polygamy, which was appealed to the Supreme Court, but upheld.  Initially the government threatened to repeal the LDS church charter and dissolve the church, but it was only when they announced it would start seizing property and temples that the Mormons agreed to obey the law, issuing an 1890 Manifesto called the Great Accommodation where they agreed to suspend the practice of plural marriages.  It was this capitulation that generated several offshoot groups that broke away from the original group, that was forced to punish, via excommunication, those who continued to live in polygamous relationships, the largest of which is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), believing plural marriages were a fundamental part of the LDS Church’s culture and were an important practice, ordered by God.

Enter Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the FLDS, asserting leadership of the church in 2002 after the death of his father Rulon Jeffs, where conflicting reports suggest he was survived by either 19 or 20 wives with 60 children, ("Mormon Leader Is Survived by 33 Sons and a Void"), or 75 wives and 65 children ("Warren Jeffs and the FLDS Church").  Warren Jeffs subsequently married all but two of his father’s widows (one fled the community, Rebecca Wall, and was instrumental in Warren’s eventual arrest, while the other was prohibited from marrying again), allegedly accumulating a total of 81 wives ("The Wives of Warren and Rulon Jeffs"), making him the stepfather of many of his siblings, only further solidifying his political position in the community.  Interspersed throughout the film is the unsettling voice of Warren Jeffs, which is void of an ounce of emotion, but sounds as if he’s hypnotized or taken sedatives, offering various pronouncements, edicts, and decrees, often transmitting revelations that he claims are messages straight from God.  Under his leadership, he expanded the powers of his own position, as well as the egregious practice of underage marriage, where Warren Jeffs himself had 12 and 13-year old brides, introducing them to sexual relations, which is sexual assault in the eyes of the law, as children under 17 are legally underage to give consent, even if they have been “sealed” through marriage.  Jeffs implemented oppressive restrictions where only men deemed “godly enough” are permitted to enter into plural marriage by the church leader, while those judged unworthy may have their wives and children reassigned to other men, where at his whim he was at liberty to choose somebody’s wife or take away not only family members, but their home and all their money, as everything belongs to the church.  His view of religion requires total and absolute obedience from his followers which includes banning any contact with the outside world.  While virtually all FLDS children are homeschooled, installed with their own religious teachings (which some view as systematic brainwashing), they see no need to advance past 8th grade, as each plural wife has primary responsibility for her own children, but has distinct duties, where one wife might manage the kitchen, a second act as schoolteacher, and a third might see to the mending and dressmaking.  Female FLDS members wear modest attire (red dresses are banned), including coiffed hair and old-fashioned, ankle-length prairie dresses, worn even while swimming, where they are encouraged to do everything together, as even young children are expected to help with chores—sewing, picking, canning—throughout the year.  Despite their conservative lifestyle, most FLDS women drive, have cell phones, and are computer literate.  Living in complete isolation, few Americans had even heard of the FLDS before April 2008, when law enforcement officials conducted a raid on a remote 1600 acre compound in West Texas known as the Yearning for Zion Ranch (YFZ Ranch) after receiving a tip that 16-year old girl was being sexually abused by her middle-aged husband.  The tip turned out to be a hoax, but for days afterwards television viewers remained glued to their screens witnessing the bizarre spectacle of hundreds of women and children being removed from their homes, herded onto school buses by social workers and police officers.  SWAT teams were brought along, reminiscent of the apocalyptical 1993 FBI shoot-out at the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas some 200 miles down the road.  A Texas court found that authorities overreached and had not met the burden of proof for the removal of more than 400 children, so most were returned within two months.  However, a thorough search of the compound unearthed damning evidence to charge twelve church members with charges ranging from bigamy to sexual assault with a minor, including Warren Jeffs, who had previously been convicted in a Utah court as an accomplice to rape in 2007 for officiating at the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to a church member. 

Even earlier than that, July 2004 in Utah, Warren Jeffs had charges filed against him from three of his own nephews, claiming their uncle sodomized them in the Salt Lake City church compound.  Brent Jeffs was only five or six years old when it started, while his brother Clayne Jeffs committed suicide after accusing Jeffs of sexually assaulting him as a child.  Further charges of sexual misconduct with a minor were filed in 2005 alleging Jeffs arranged a marriage between a 14-year old girl (Elissa Wall, younger sister of Rebecca Wall) and her 19-year old first cousin, claiming her new husband raped her repeatedly, eventually leaving him and escaping from the FLDS community, described in her book Stolen Innocence.  These accusations caused Warren Jeffs to flee underground, yet he was able to support himself in the manner he was accustomed, as he had access to the church’s finances.  Placed on the FBI Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives, right alongside Osama bin Laden, he was eventually captured in Nevada and returned to Utah for trial.  What immediately comes to mind is just how confusing all this is, remaining vague about the lingering aspect of many of the charges, yet the director is to be commended for attempting to provide an accurate picture of the FLDS, drawing upon a journalistic exposé written by Sam Browers, Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, along with Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild (2007) as well as the book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.  Both Browers and Krakauer team up in attempting to crack the tight enclosure surrounding the group, as FLDS remains an extremely secretive organization that remains highly suspicious of strangers and off-limits to the outside world, so there is little opportunity to show a balanced view.  Additionally, Amy Berg, director of West of Memphis (2012), fails to address some of the more basic questions, like why it is so difficult to prosecute suspected criminal acts that are in all likelihood continuing to this very day, that are, in fact, the core foundation of their religion.  If police and prosecutors were stymied in gathering evidence and stopping the practice of sexual abuse of minors, as this film suggests, it offers no real legal explanation, though in Utah, historically it has been hard to bring prosecutions as Mormons dominate the judiciary.  But the film doesn’t even mention that.  Additionally, in order to maintain the practice of multiple marriages, there would have to be an abundance of available women for every man to marry.  As the birth rate for boys and girls is fairly equal, this practice could only be maintained by getting rid of most males, where it is reported that male youths between the ages of 13 and 21 are typically ripped from their families for the slightest indiscretions and banished to the outside world, driven to other cities or even left on the side of the road and dumped without any conceivable means of support ("The lost boys, thrown out of US sect so that older men can marry more wives"), where they are referred to as Lost Boys.  Unfortunately, the film does not address these issues either, providing only the tip of the iceberg of what can only be perceived as an unending tragedy of nightmarish proportions, as young teen girls are routinely handed over into marriage, like a religious rite of passage.  When Utah overturned a 2007 rape conviction on Jeffs in 2010, claiming the jury received improper instructions, the state of Texas extradited him for sexual assault charges on a 15-year old and a 12-year old, unearthing a shocking 21-minute audio tape found at the Utah compound where Jeffs (panting throughout) can be heard having sex with a 12-year old child bride, which was eventually used to convict him to a life sentence, where he is currently serving his time at the Louis C. Powledge Unit in Texas.  While there is a website (The Principle (F-LDS)) by Trent Nelson from The Salt Lake Tribune devoted to documenting photos and information about the FLDS, incredibly, and perhaps most appallingly, Warren Jeffs continues to rule over the church from his prison cell, as his devotees have been taught from birth to give maximum unquestioning obedience to their highest church authority, still believing he is a prophet, voicing the word of God.  

According to Trent Wilson, the youngest known child brides of Warren Jeffs:
  • Alyshia Blackmore - 12
  • Nolita Blackmore - 12
  • Merrianne Jessop - 12
  • Brenda Lei Fischer - 12
  • Ida Vilate Jessop - 13
  • Millie Blackmore - 13
  • Loretta Jane Barlow - 13
  • Annie LaRee Jessop - 14
  • Alice Marie Barlow - 14
  • Gloria Anne Steed - 14
  • Tammara Allred -14
  • Veda Keate - 14
  • Permelia Johnson - 15
As most all that we know about FLDS comes from those who have escaped from their clutches, the following is an excerpt from Brent Jeffs, author of the book Lost Boy, "From Polygamist Royalty To FLDS Lost Boy:

Heaven or Hell

Every child believes he’s special. But when you are number ten of twenty, with three “sister-mothers”—two of whom are full-blooded sisters—and a grandfather whom thousands of people believe speaks directly to God, it can be hard to figure out what “special” really means. All told, I have roughly sixty-five aunts and uncles on my dad’s side and twenty-two on my mom’s—with probably thousands of cousins. In families as large as mine, even keeping track of your own siblings—let alone cousins and aunts and uncles—is difficult. As a grandson of Rulon Jeffs and nephew of Warren Jeffs, it once seemed that I was destined for high honor in the FLDS. My family had what our church called “royal blood” We were direct descendants of our prophet through my father’s line. My mother, too, is the child of a prophet, who split from our group in 1978 to lead his own polygamous sect. When I was little, my family was favored, in the church’s elite. I was assured that there was a place for me in the highest realms of heaven and at least three wives for me right here on earth once I attained the Melchizedek priesthood. I was in a chosen family in a chosen people, visiting sacred land near end times. I would one day become a god, ruling over my own spinning world.

So why would I ever abandon such status and rank? In the world of the FLDS, things are not always what they seem. The shiny, smiling surfaces often hide a world of rot and pain. And even royal blood and being born male can’t protect you from sudden changes in its convoluted power structure.

Outsiders tend to think our form of polygamy must be a great deal for us men. You get sexual variety without guilt: in fact, you are commanded by God to have multiple partners and the women are expected to go along with it. Indeed, they are supposed to be happy about doing so and obediently serve you. This is the only way for all of you to get to the highest realms of heaven.

To many men, that sounds like heaven right there, without any need for the afterlife part. They focus on the sex-fantasizing about a harem of young, beautiful women, all at their beck and call. They don’t think about the responsibility — or the balancing act needed to keep all of those women happy, or even just to minimize their complaints. During the one full year I attended public school, the few guys who befriended me rather than ridiculing me were fascinated by it all.

But while it might seem good in theory, in practice, at least in my experience, it’s actually a recipe for misery for everyone involved. In the FLDS anyway, polygamy and its power structure continuously produce a constant, exhausting struggle for attention and resources.

In families as large as mine, it simply isn’t possible for all of the women and children to get their needs met. Just making sure the children are fed, clothed, and physically accounted for is an ongoing challenge. Simply keeping dozens of children physically safe is close to impossible.

I’d estimate that maybe one in five FLDS families has lost a child early in life, frequently from accidents that better supervision could have prevented. And that number doesn’t include deaths related to the genetic disorder that runs in our church—which handicaps and often kills children very early in life but which many members refuse to see as a result of marriages among closely related families.

For the father, even though he’s at the top of the heap in his own family, he must constantly disappoint, reject, ignore, and/or fail to satisfy at least some wives and kids. There’s only so much of his time and attention to go around, and supporting such a large family takes many hours, too. At home, if one person has your ear, someone else doesn’t. Yes to one wife is no to the others. And, if a man wants more wives, he will have to engage in his own highly competitive fight for status and influence with the higher-ups in the church.

Then there’s the math problem: half of all children born are boys, of course. For some men to have many wives, others are either going to have to leave, recruit new women into polygamy (a difficult task, unsurprisingly-and one rarely attempted by the FLDS), or go unmarried.

Consequently, being born a boy in the FLDS is not the privileged position it first seems to be. Unless you are willing to kowtow to the leaders and attempt perfect obedience with constantly changing demands and hierarchies, you are likely either to be expelled or to have a hard time getting even one wife, let alone the required three. Just on the numbers alone, you will need a lot of luck to avoid losing everything as you hit manhood. Being born into the right family like I was is a good start—however, it may not be enough.

Once people get over their titillation and harem fantasies, and think through these issues, they start wondering why anyone stays. “How can you believe such strange things?” they ask. “Why didn’t you leave years earlier?” “And how could those parents marry their teenage daughters off to old men, abandon their sons, or give up their wives and children at Warren’s command?”

The answer is tangled in family loyalties, family history, and a church that has become expert at using these bonds to move beliefs into brainwashing.

On my father’s side, I come from around six generations of polygamy. My mother’s history is similar. Our families have lived polygamy since Joseph Smith first introduced “the principle” of “celestial marriage” in 1843—and the same is true for most members. One reason we stay is that this is the only life we know. Another is that leaving involves giving up contact with basically every single family member and friend you have—sometimes, everyone you know, period.

And, too, there’s the fact that you have been kept ignorant of the way the rest of the world works: you have been indoctrinated nearly every single day of your life to believe that all other peoples are evil, wish to harm you, and are damned by God, unchosen.

It’s weird, but even if you truly don’t believe what they have told you, some part of you remains frightened that they may be right and that fear—and your fear of losing everyone you love—is at the heart of what traps people. Then there’s the weight of family history and tradition.

My great-grandfather, David W. Jeffs, was born in 1873 and baptized in the Mormon Church when polygamy was officially part of the religion. Founder Joseph Smith had begun practicing polygamy before he preached it. The identity of his second wife is disputed because the ceremony took place in secret, without even the knowledge of his first wife, who vigorously opposed the whole idea.

As Smith’s biographer Fawn Brodie wrote, Joseph Smith “believed in the good life . . . ‘Man is that he might have joy’ had been one of his first significant pronouncements in the Book of Mormon.” The prophet’s belief in the rightness of things that gave him joy meant that he couldn’t see having more than one wife as sinful. That just didn't make sense to him. Of course, a prophet couldn’t have mistresses. And so, “celestial marriage” was born. It is not known how many wives Joseph Smith had—but the number is believed to be around fifty.

Joseph Smith’s revelation on plural wives was grounded in the Old Testament, and in our church it is sometimes called the Law of Sarah, who was Abraham’s first wife. The Jewish patriarchs and kings of the Old Testament were polygamous. While the rest of Christianity accepts the New Testament and rejects polygamy, fundamentalist Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon supersedes the New Testament in the way that the New Testament updates the Old.

Joseph Smith’s 1843 revelation on polygamy was personally directed at his resistant first wife. He was tired of hiding his other wives from her and everyone else and wanted it all out in the open. He wrote that God told him, “I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith,” to “receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph” and “cleave unto my servant Joseph and to none else . . . if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed.”

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