Book Review – The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides And Lost Boys in Canada’s Polygamous Mormon Sect

SLoS

I have been amazed (in a bad sense) by the story of the raid by the State of Texas on the Fundamentalist Mormon compound in El Dorado and the removal of 460 children. It is indeed incredible that such practices are allowed to persist in the 21st century United States.

When it comes to religious fundamentalist movements and other reactionary and fascist groups, there is no better source on the Internet than the blog Orcinus (David Neiwert’s blog, with co-author Sara Robinson). In this cas, Sara Robinson got the thankless task of reporting on this and in this post (which is well worth a read), she recommended Daphne Bramham‘s book, The Secret Life of Saints – Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada’s Polygamous Mormon Sect. I fully trust Sara’s judgment, so, I got the book and, boy, it was quite a read.

If you don’t know anything about the Fundamentalist Mormon, this is the book you want to get the full historical and social context of a sect that has tentacles in Utah, Arizona, Texas, Idaho, South Dakota and British Colombia in Canada. Even though the title indicates a focus on the Canadian side of the sect (Bramham is a journalist for the Vancouver Sun and she has a blog there as well), the book includes a lot on the American branch of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints (FDLS, which has been in the news so much recently).

As I mentioned, the first part of the book is a historical account of the rise of the Mormon church, all the way back to Joseph Smith. The migration to Utah. Later came the split between the mainstream branch and the FDLS, and then the further split between the American branch (which kept the FDLS title) ruled by Rulon Jeffs and later his now-imprisoned son Warren Jeffs, and the B.C. branch, headed by Winston Blackmore. How big is the fundamentalist Mormon movement? Of course, it’s hard to tell because these fundamentalist communities are not exactly open to the outside world, but Bramham puts it between 40,000 and 100,000.

In the FLDS, of course, patriarchy and polygamy are the pillars of the church, along with white supremacy, having a lot of children and a creepy conception of heaven where men can become gods if they enter that realm with three wives and get to keep their worldly bodies and continue to have children and get served by said wives. Sexism, of course, is omnipresent as well. Fundamentalist Mormon communities revolved around the subjugation of women, their sexual submission, and their arrested development. This sect perfectly illustrates the very conservative idea (found in more “respectable” circles such as conservative family groups) that marriage is the ultimate solution to tie women down, especially if you can get them pregnant all the time. And so, both Jeffs and Blackmore, as prophets of their respective churches, have dozens of wives and hundreds of children.

The big question, of course, is how is it possible, since polygamy is illegal both in the United States and Canada, both countries have statutory rape laws and statutes on the age of marriage. And that does not take into account the state of quasi-slavery in which boys are held. Basically, these FLDS communities are one gigantic human rights violation. Why do we tolerate this (and Bramham is merciless in pursuing an answer to this question)?

There are, of course, many reasons but I think the major one is that elected officials are cowards when it comes to religion and the fundamentalist communities have hidden behind freedom of religion and cultural diversity to assert their right to break the laws. Of course it is infuriating to see the Fundamentalists claiming their rights to be free from government intervention while at the same time extorting millions of dollars of taxpayers money for their schools and other questionable projects. When was the last time we all agreed to fund criminal organizations?

Anyway, the few times that the authorities (either in the US or in Canada) have dared going after the FLDS, it has practically never been because of the polygamy or the enslavement of women per se, but rather because of suspicions of child marriages and child abuse. Authorities have been notoriously reluctant to attack these communities on the polygamy front, arguing that such legal action would not hold in court. After all Warren Jeffs is in prison for complicity in rape, not polygamy. Again, Bramham is very clear in highlighting the cowardice of the BC political establishment when it comes to prosecuting polygamous communities, such as the polygamy capital of Canada: BC’ Bountiful, Winston Blackmore’s little kingdom.

Bramham also spends a big part of the book depicting life in the FLDS and it is scary (she notes that apt comparison with the Taliban: how come we bombed one and tolerate the other, they’re the same). Bottom line, these communities aim for self-sufficiency in almost everything except big taxpayers’ checks. Otherwise, they have their own schools, hospitals, midwives (FSM knows they have use for those), their own logging companies, and their own trust funds to manage the money the prophets extorts from their constituents in the form of tithe.

The prophets have absolute power over their followers. They assign wives to men according to supposed visions they get from God. They lay down the law when necessary. Since they own all property in their compound, they can evict entire families from their homes and reassign them at their discretion. But otherwise, the life of these communities is based on mass rape, child sexual, physical and mental abuse (especially for girls who have it hammered into their brains that they are on earth to be faithful, fruitful and obedient wives, and nothing else… the solution to taming a rebellious girl is to marry her… that’ll calm her down to be raped a few times and then pregnant non-stop). It is also the story of the institutionalization of dysfunction and pathological relationships and of economic exploitation.

The relationship part is essential. In their mythical preaching, FLDS prophets would tell you that having sister wives (the multiple wives of a polygamist) is great because any wife gets help in raising children and maintaining a household. She has constant female companions and friends and the children are more loved and cared for. It is simply not true. First, it is exclusive: a wife is expected to relate to her sister wives, but to sever ties to other female friends. And of course, once mothers, they are at the same time expected to give up the major prerogatives of motherhood (not to mention they have no choice as to whether or not they want to be married in the first place, have their husbands their other wives, and whether to have children, how many and how often):

“In the name of God, the prophets have forced women to cede the very essence of motherhood. They do not protect their children. In deference to the prophet’s will, fundamentalist mothers have allowed their daughters to be raped, abused, trade, humiliated. They have allowed their sons to be abused, exploited and even cast out alone in the world when they’re barely teenagers.” (144)

Indeed, women get socialized into this role very early on. And that is of course one of the many hypocrisies of the sect: the glorification of family and motherhood while at the same time destroying any chance at either. And as for solidarity between sister wives?

“Far from being solidarity amongst the women, far from this being a loving family unit where sister-wives work together in harmony, the wives’ world is a dangerous one, rife with jealousies and conflicts. It’s not surprising, since many of the wives weren’t women, but girls, when they married. Even now, they live in a state of arrested development, capable of all the cruelty and even violence of any teenage girls. And often, the children are caught in the crossfire.” (224)

After all, what matters is submission to the prophet as God on earth and survival in a hostile world controlled by evil forces. The women never got develop any sense of adult critical judgment since they move directly from childhood to marriage and motherhood with practically no step in between. And combined with the lack of education, they remain permanent children, of course, much easier to control. On this topic, Bramham quotes Willa Appel, author of the book Cults in America: Programmed for Paradise. Says Appel,

“[They are groups that] hold themselves apart in some way from the rest of the world. They are by nature antagonistic to society, their members bound by a fervent ideology and belief in a spiritual leader. The classic structure of messianic cults is authoritarian; followers, subjugated to an all-powerful leader or hierarchy of leaders, are dependent and submissive, believing that their salvation is contingent on abject obedience.” (147)

There is a price to pay for this: personal happiness. Everyone in the FDLS is told to “keep sweet”, to always present a happy expression. The reality is different. Bramham reports that a very large proportion of the women in these communities are on Prozac or other such types of medications (I guess faith alone is not enough to stomach a lifetime of abuse).

There is another major downside to living in closed communities: in-breeding. This is the only thing that makes the book hard to read at time: you can’t keep up with who’s married to whom. The limited number of families have intermarried so much that a cousin may also be a step-mother at the same time. In-breeding also has health consequences in terms of gene deficiencies.

In addition, polygamy is practically impossible: in a closed community, if one man is going to have more than one wife, it means that some other man will not be able to find one. So, how is the conundrum resolved? By expelling boys from the community so that they present no competition to the elders. After all, girls are probably more attracted to boys their age than to elders several decades older than they are. The solution is to get rid of some of the boys by excommunicating them for whatever sin the prophet decides they have committed. This is patriarchy: the rule of the father, and not just phallocracy (male dominance).

“Among the sad facts about the polygamous Saints [FLDS men] is that all children are treated as chattels. Girls are valuable because their fathers can trade them for power, position or property. Boys are the slave labourers who allow fundamentalists’ businesses to undercut their gentile competitors who abide by labour laws and pay union wages. It’s from the boys sweat that prophets and bishops buy Cadillacs and planes and support their dozens and dozens of wives.”

(252)

This theocracy mixed with feudalism, truly. The lost boys, as they are called, are then dumped into the world they know nothing about and were taught to distrust so that the elders can get easier access to the younger girls, uneducated and unprepared. But we’re the ones going to hell for our secularism, promotion of gender and sexual equality and reproductive choice.

Education is also a major issue: as Bramham states, in the case of Bountiful, the last generation to have a high school education was the founding generation. Since then, only a few individuals were allowed to go to college. In the case of women, it’s mostly to become nurses or midwives, not only because they are needed in the community but also because they can get unionized, high-paying jobs on the outside and contribute money. Otherwise, education is just indoctrination (and somehow, the BC authorities have accredited the community schools even though they preach white supremacy. In the US, Warren Jeffs demanded homeschooling of his followers, based in recordings of his sermons). Besides, who needs an education when your life is to get married and pop one kid every two year?

In this context, it is easy to see why it is very difficult for members to leave these communities and Bramham argues that there should be specialized social services dedicated to escapees of the FLDS. It is also very hard to prosecute polygamists because of the lack of witnesses. But right, now, after the conviction of Warren Jeffs and the raid on El Dorado, these communities are under siege, as they should be. There is no place in our societies for this type religious practices. They are no better than the Taliban and other theocratic movements.

I certainly highly recommend this book. This is a very long review but I have barely scratched the surface. The book is full of details and stories as well as factual information that will truly appall the reader. But it is indeed an essential read to understand the hypocrisy of it all.

As additional reading on the El Dorado raid, the best place to look is Sarah’s Blog at Corrente. Sarah has done a great job of rounding up all the information available on the case in a series of posts:

One thought on “Book Review – The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides And Lost Boys in Canada’s Polygamous Mormon Sect

  1. Thanks for the excellent review. I came across this book in the store the other day and couldn’t decide if I wanted to read it or not. I’m thinking that I’ll go back and get it this weekend now. I’ve been reading another account of children growing up in polygamous families. The memoir, What Peace There May Be, by Susanna Barlow is her story of her childhood years and her attempts to find some kind of peace within her own life. It’s an excellent look at the whole issue of polygamy and its effect on the children, as told from the perspective of a child who lived it.

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