Revealed: The Ugly Reality of Polygamous Communities

An Escapee Speaks Out Against Mind Control and Rampant Abuse

Update, March 13, 2013

Anne Wilde, a proponent of polygamy, appeared as a live guest on The Stateless Man—Monday, March 11, 2013. Her organization is Principle Voices, and she is coauthor of Voices in Harmony: Contemporary Women Celebrate Plural Marriage. You can listen to that episode here. Hers is the first segment.

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Update, March 5, 2013

The key source in this article, Tonia Tewell, wanted to share one additional comment:

“Although you heard the worst of the worst, it does not mean that all people from this culture are bad. Many are dear friends of mine. The abuse from the top is what needs to end. These people are sincere and truly believe their prophets hear from God and that they need to do exactly what they are told or they will be destroyed.”

March 4, 2013

While polygamous communities have caught my eye in the news before, a recent journey through the Southwest of the United States led me to uncover more than I could have imagined.

Holding Out HelpWhile traveling through Arizona, I became aware of an organization, Holding Out Help (HOH), which offers homes and assistance for people who have fled from polygamous communities. They offer the support because people living within these communities, to a large degree, lack any resources and simply do not know how to live in the outside world. The dogma that members are subject to also tends to be so strong that, without banishment from authoritarian leaders, few have the will or courage to leave.

To examine the topic further, I invited the executive director of HOH, Tonia Tewell, to come on The Stateless Man. On condition that we not identify her full name, Marion, a former polygamous wife and recipient of HOH support, also joined us to share her experience and, most importantly, how she managed to leave.

Listen to the February 11 podcast here. (The first 48 minutes cover polygamy.)

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To prepare myself for the interview, Tewell recommended that I watch a recent feature on 20/20 which focused on Colorado City, Arizona, and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). The FLDS is the largest known sect that promotes polygamy in North America and it numbers approximately 10,000 members. That is out of approximately 38,000 members of fundamentalist or splinter Mormon churches in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

While the leaders of the contemporary Mormon church teach against polygamy, splinter groups such as the FLDS claim to be keeping with the original teachings. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, for example, had 34 wives, including 12 that were already married to other men—quite the role model.

“The Mormon culture,” Tewell says, “although they do not practice polygamy, they believe in it, especially in the afterlife.” That disconnect between past and present Mormonism led Marion to join a splinter sect, similar to the FLDS, and enter the polygamous life as an adult.

Despite the 20/20 episode’s very sensationalist appearance, Tewell shared that a lot worse goes on, and that there was plenty that the 20/20 producers were not able to capture. In fact, the level of intimidation, isolation, and entrapment is akin to the style of the People’s Temple and Jonestown of the 1970s. (If you’re unfamiliar with that disastrous episode of history, I recommend Seductive Poison by Deborah Layton.)

At least in this case the self-proclaimed-prophet and leader of the FLDS, Warren Jeffs, is serving a life sentence in prison. Convicted on two counts of sexual assault of a minor, the 57-year-old Jeffs promised a “whirlwind of judgment” on the world if he, as God’s “humble servant,” wasn’t set free. That hasn’t happened for the man with almost 80 “wives,” including 24 under the age of 17. However, Tewell says that “he is probably more powerful today than he was before he was put in prison”—presumably because people now see him as a martyr.

PolygamyMarion believes that the abusive behavior akin to Jeffs’, including the persistent coercion of young women into marriage, reflects that these communities are actually “polygynous” rather than “polygamous.” In other words, only the men can ever have multiple partners, and the “harms are inevitable” with the lack of respect for female autonomy.

And by harms, there are many she can point to, both against men and women. In addition to an immense line of bizarre edicts from Jeffs, such as no touching between “spouses,” church members suffer greatly from little to no education, long hours of labor, and no access to any conventional entertainment, internet, or even any children’s books.

Just recently, says Tewell, “there were 15 men within the community that were deemed worthy enough [by Jeffs, out of 6,000 people in Colorado City] to even bear children, so if a woman decides that she does want to have a child, she cannot have it with her spouse. She has to go and choose from one of these 15 men.”

Why anyone would obey these edicts is hard to comprehend, but that speaks both for the strength of the mind control and the presence of intimidation.

“It’s not like a woman wakes up one morning and says, ‘I really want to live as a prostitute,’” Marion shares. “It’s similar… I didn’t wake up one morning and say ‘gosh, I really want to be in a polygamous relationship, for my husband to be with other women’… It’s kind of a slow process getting in and probably a slow process getting out, if people do at all. There’s a lot of guilt, a lot of fear, and obedience is a huge issue.”

She believed strongly that the leaders of her community acted for and had the ear of God.

“You grow up in it,” Tewell adds. “That’s all you know, and your thought process is that that’s the way to get to the highest level in heaven.”

If people don’t submit, they may have to leave the community. Excommunicated, they are then helpless and with no access to their children. Rebellious girls face coerced marriage at an even younger age. Then, once pregnant, they’re more likely to fall back into line. (According to Tewell, though, the vast majority of women do reach the legal age of 16 and then marry with the consent of their parents.)

While the approach varies by the community, individuals who remain defiant but are not exiled are liable for “correction.” Community leaders will subject these people to beatings and may separate them in a torturous manner.

“I’ve received two people out from this so-called ‘correction,’” Tewell says, “and both of them are permanently mentally disabled… I can’t tell you exactly [what happens] other than they do not come out being able to function and mentally be okay…

One of our girls was locked in a room, and the door was turned around the opposite way, so they could lock it from the outside, and the windows were nailed shut. And she was given a drug on a regular basis…

They’re not all like that… But there are those cases where they are that severe, and [the victims] are never the same.”

Both Tewell and Marion are concerned that leaders of these polygamous communities are, in a cynical manner, latching onto civil right initiatives to normalize and protect themselves. For example, they note that the leaders absolutely condemn homosexuality as a heinous crime, yet they want to saddle their claims on the push for gay marriage.

Further, leaders of these splinter groups all still ban any marriage with or leadership position for people of African descent. The mainline Mormon church removed a supposed curse on dark-skinned people in 1978.

“If you were to marry someone from that race, that would be considered… worthy of the death penalty,” Marion says. And Tewell adds that “They do feel they’re very superior, and one group, they believe that they carry the pure blood of Jesus Christ.”

Regarding a path out of the lunacy, Marion says letting go was extremely difficult. However, she had considered whether the promises she’d heard were actually panning out. “Where is this wonderful truth that was revealed?”

On the contrary, she shares, “I was very very unhappy… I can’t even begin to express the pain that getting into polygamy caused me… Watching my husband drive off on a so-called honeymoon with another woman—I just wanted to die.”

She was also very concerned about the children, whom she thought were open to sexual abuse and were victims of a lack of stability, positive male attention, and resources. Family boundaries, in particular, became “very blurred,” she says.

“Everyone’s related to everyone else. Every adult is uncle so-and-so or aunty so-and-so… In a regular, monogamous situation, you know who your family is, and its limited… A huge amount of people have access to children, and I’m afraid it does make [abuse] more prevalent… In the group I was in, I don’t think there was hardly a family untouched in some way by abuse.”

It all grew up to the point where I said, ‘You know, this has got nothing to do with God. I am leaving.’” She “got up and walked away… It [was] a mental escape as much as anything else.”

If you would like to support HOH, they are in desperate need of pro bono attorneys. They also plan to start a humanitarian center right in Colorado City, and they need “all the things a refugee coming in from another country would need,” along with open homes and financial support.

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Fergus Hodgson About Fergus Hodgson

Host and founder of the Stateless Man radio show and blog. Follow @FergHodgson.