I was a sophomore in high school when I first heard about polygamy and polygamous cults in America. A CNN article had the headline, “Utah Polygamist Prophet of 10,000 Dies at 92,” and explained in three short paragraphs that Rulon Jeffs, prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), had died. His son Warren was taking over.
The polygamous group stretched across the ‘Uzona’ border, occupying the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. Members accounted for 98 percent of the population in the town and ran the police department, the mayor’s office, the school board and the fire department–each taking his orders directly from Rulon.
A year later I made my first trip to the home of this fallen prophet. I set out from Los Angeles in my parents’ Ford Explorer with a friend from high school to film a short documentary on the two towns and the church.
From the highway, Colorado City and Hildale looked like just another desert town in the middle of nowhere. The only eye-catching feature was the large homes. Most were triple-story structures with unfinished exteriors.
Inside the town, it was a throwback to the pioneer era. Dirt roads traversed much of the place; men rode horses into town and hitched them across from the Post Office while they shopped for groceries. The women wore long, prairie-style dresses with full-legged underwear–an outfit now famous from the throng of recent coverage on the FLDS.
Charlotte Chatwin, an elderly woman in Colorado City who lost her “sister wives” to a car crash, welled up as she told me that this place, her home, was once “a light on top of the mountain.” There was once a small train that shuttled children through town; giraffes and elephants visited regularly at the local zoo. There were parades every weekend and Colorado City boasted one of the best schools in either state. Since 1900 it’s been the goal of this community to be beacon of harmonious living for all to admire–since the Mormon Church did away with plural marriage and a group of polygamous adherents came upon the vermillion cliffs where they decided to establish a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth in Colorado City. For over 100 years it has survived–despite harsh persecution from the government. And if you ask someone like Charlotte, someone who can remember the old days, there was a moment when it seemed it had succeeded. But driving along its streets those first trips in, I saw little but the squalor of a dusty frontier town.
The FLDS and Colorado City are now the most public face of Mormon polygamy in America. They have been the subject of numerous evening news specials and feature articles in national publications like the New York Times–each one focusing on the prairie dresses of the women, the oppression from the men and the autocratic rule of the church’s prophet.
Since I first made that trip to Colorado City and Hildale in 2004, a great deal has happened in the towns. The state governments of Arizona and Utah have reclaimed most of the public offices once controlled by church pawns and swarms of devout followers have fled to a private ranch in Eldorado, Texas. Most notably, Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the church, has been in federal custody since May 2006.
While the FLDS has dominated the media circus ever since the death of Rulon and the rise of Warren, the church is merely the tip of the iceberg. Andrea Moore-Emmet, a journalist and author who has written extensively on plural marriage over the past two decades, estimates that there are as many as 15 “groups,” or Mormon fundamentalist churches, practicing polygamy in the Arizona and Utah area.
Tapestry Against Polygamy, an anti-polygamy organization based in Salt Lake City, estimates that there are 100,000 Mormon fundamentalists currently engaged in polygamous relationships in the US. Some, like Moore-Emmet, say even this number is too modest.
If these figures are close, however, there are at least 90,000 people and 14 groups seemingly unaccounted for in the press.
This past summer, I returned to Utah. There, I met Rachel Erikson, a woman who left a polygamist group known as the Kingston Clan eight years ago. Unlike the many sects that pepper Utah–and in complete opposition to places like Colorado City–Rachel lived among mainstream society her whole life. Kingston members have homes in Salt Lake City and its suburbs. The children attend the same public schools as their neighbors; many wear clothes bought at ordinary stores.
While it is not one of the largest sects in the Salt Lake Valley, the Kingston Clan is said to be one of the wealthiest. People familiar with the group estimate that it owns nearly 100 businesses across the country.
“They have a store for anything you could ever need” Moore-Emmet said. “They have clothing stores, grocery stores, a restaurant supply chain, an office supply chain, pawnshops, ice factories, shoe stores, clothing stores. They have everything. Everything. And they’re worth millions and millions of dollars.”
Membership in the Kingston Clan is strictly limited to people with “pure blood”–biological ties to the group–which makes it nearly impossible for outsiders to join. It also makes it difficult to have new genes circulated throughout the population.
Moore-Emmet said incest is bad in many groups throughout Utah and Arizona, but that it is worst amongst members of the Kingston Clan. “They’re the ones who really believe they have to keep the bloodline pure,” she said. “They think they’re directly related to Jesus Christ and they don’t want anything to taint that. As a result they have a lot of deformities and mental illnesses.”
Neither Rachel nor Moore-Emmet could provide an accurate number of followers in the Kingston Clan, but Rachel said that the Sunday church services, held in an office warehouse, included 2,000 people in the congregation.
Despite being centered in the heart of Salt Lake City, Rachel says she never felt any tether to the outside world growing up. “Nobody knew anything about what happened inside that house,” she said of the home she grew up in. They keep their big secrets inside–how many mothers they have; where they go to church; where the bruises came from; why they don’t wear short sleeves on hot days. People speculate, another member of the same group later told me, but no member ever gives weight to outsiders’ assumptions.
Rachel’s story is a dark one. She is 28 now, remarried and a faithful member of the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS)–the mainstream Mormon Church. She has been free from the clasp of the Kingstons’ for eight years as of this past May. But like many women who escape from polygamous groups, the first part of her life was so riddled with memories of wicked abuse that a great deal of her time is spent trying to make sense of everything she experienced.
She was born Rachel Kingston to her father’s fifth wife. She remembers seeing her father twice, she said, once when he came in to get dinner, and another time at a church sermon.
There’s a practice amongst Kingston members to “weed out the bad,” Rachel told me. It starts as early as infancy, when crying babies are met with a spray of slaps across the face. As they grow hair, they’re held by it while their parents dish out this “correcting.”
Rachel was only ten when she was ordered for the first time to stay home and keep her younger half-brother indoors. The bruises on his face would be too alarming to outsiders, she was told, and for two weeks she watched over him.
Ten was also the age when older men in the group began taking notice of her developing body. She could see their eyes look at her differently than they had before. There’s a rule at Kingston dances that forbids a woman from refusing to dance when a man has asked her–but there’s no rule on age. Every Saturday night she was pursued by men claiming to have celestial revelations that they were to get married–men who were often three or four times her age. The whole while through she would sway in their embrace and watch their gaze travel over her.
Shortly after she turned fifteen, she came home to her mother frantically preparing a dress that was only used for one thing: marriage. “It just sort of fell upon me,” she said. It was what every girl was told to hope for, but when it finally came to Rachel, she felt sick. She began protesting, but her mother looked her square in the eyes and said, “Rachel, you’re going to get married this evening, and you’re going to be a perfectly sweet wife.” And both parts were true.
Her husband, Jeremy, was her first-cousin on her mother’s side and her nephew on her father’s. He shared a house with his first two wives while Rachel lived down the block in an apartment complex. He came in sporadically for sex and dinner, but otherwise their interactions were insignificant.
Within six months she was pregnant, and a child was born without any complications. Soon after, she was told she was to have another–and she was obedient, and sweet, and she had her second child.
It was while raising her second child that Rachel received the most criticism for her compassionate parenting. The people around her seemed to understand her inability to hit the first born, but her reluctance to strike her second crying baby seemed like amateur parenting. Rachel was seventeen years old, a mother of two children and the wife of an abusive man who was both her first-cousin and her nephew. Finally, she snapped.
“I thought to myself, what am I doing? Why do I feel so awful about myself?”
There was a time when Rachel was able to excuse her lifestyle as the necessary path to salvation. Indoctrination had told her that wifehood was all God wanted for his daughters. But all too quickly this faith slipped from under her, and she felt, more than anything, sinful.
In that apartment complex, Rachel was transformed from girl to mother. Her escape from that home is hazy to her now. Dates don’t line up as they should and it’s hard to remember what goes where in the landscape of her memory. It wasn’t a middle-of-the-night-dash down a dark highway: a cousin came with 30 people from the mainstream Mormon Church to help move her things into a truck waiting nearby. It was around 5 o’clock in the evening when she started driving away with her two children. Her mother watched from the curb, crying as her sister chased after the car.
Four years later her husband, Jeremy, was sentenced to one year in prison for incest.
Names have been changed.
MICHAEL GONDA B’09.5 is a cold drink gone warm.