‘Deprogramming’ from the FLDS, Warren Jeffs’ secretive cult

by March 17, 2015 5:00AM ET

Former FLDS followers share their stories about why they left and how they are adjusting to life on the outside

Religion, Spirituality & Ethics
Kenneth “Ben” Thomas in Salt Lake City outside Alta Academy, a former Jeffs compound where he attended school from age 7 through 12 and worked intermittently until 2012.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America

This is the second in a two-part series about the FLDS. Read the first story here.

SALT LAKE CITY — The day Kenneth Thomas left his wife, Margaret, and their eight children, he hoped she would “wake up” from the spell she was under and abandon the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, the secretive religious sect they belonged to, so the family could soon be reunited on the outside.

“Everyone was crying. My son asked me not to go. I said, ‘One day you guys will understand. Just know I sure do love you. I will make it all right.’ I gave them all a hug. I held my wife’s hand, then I got in my car and left,” Thomas, who goes by the name Ben, says now, choking up at the memory.

It’s been nearly two years since his departure, and Thomas’ family is still under the spell of the FLDS. Margaret and Ben, who had been together 17 years when he left, are getting a divorce. Deep down, he says, they still love each other, but the church elders have driven them apart. His children, who range in age from 4 to 18, give him the silent treatment when he visits. They have been indoctrinated, he says, by the orthodoxy of the sect, which holds that followers who leave or are excommunicated are “of the devil” and must be condemned.

A splinter group of the Mormon Church that broke away at the end of the 19th century, when the religion banned polygamy, the FLDS has survived as an outlaw sect ever since. Most of its roughly 10,000 followers live in the remote settlement that straddles the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. Despite its attempts at seclusion, over the past decade, the FLDS has repeatedly made headlines around the world after its anointed leader, the “prophet” Warren Jeffs, was hunted down and jailed for aggravated sexual assault in 2011. To his flock, however, he remains the voice of God and relays his edicts from behind bars via his younger brothers Lyle, a bishop in the church, and Nephi, who used to be Warren Jeffs’ personal assistant.

Thomas’ story is not unusual for families in the FLDS. They can be torn apart at a moment’s notice on the orders of the bishop, speaking for the jailed prophet and thus ultimately, Jeffs’ followers believe, from God. But the harsh religious rulings and the revelation of Warren Jeffs’ crimes are driving many of the faithful away. FLDS members are abandoning the sect by the hundreds, in an exodus that is threatening the future of the fundamentalists.

Fleeing the FLDS

Warren Jeffs’ polygamous sect crumbles in the face of a federal lawsuit and a mass exodus. This is the first of a two-part series about the FLDS

Thomas believes Jeffs is losing his mind in the state prison in Palestine, Texas, where he is serving a sentence of life, plus 20 years for the sexual assault of minors. (In his heyday as prophet, Jeffs had dozens of wives, some adult, many underage.) Now, his orders are much harsher than they used to be. Many feel he is trying to control every aspect of daily life for his followers — not just the details of the outfits they should wear but also what they can and cannot eat and exactly how they should wash their hands to remain “pure.” It’s crazy, Thomas says. Children are not allowed to play in the town park, and toys are forbidden. Nonreligious books, television and almost all access to the Internet are banned.

The FLDS did not respond to a written request for comment sent to Lyle Jeffs.

In a café on the outskirts of Salt Lake City where he is nursing a cup of soup, Thomas’ eyes fill with tears as he recounts the chain of events leading to his departure. He had been away for work at an auction near Las Vegas and was driving home to Hildale when Margaret called to tell him she had met with the bishop.

“From the tone of her voice I knew something was going to be rocking my world big time,” remembers Thomas, smiling wryly. His voice has that edge of dark humor that the betrayed deploy as an alternative to bitterness.

After he drove the last few miles across the expanse of barren wilderness that keeps prying eyes away from the religious settlement, he pulled up outside his home. He saw Margaret, her mother and two of her sisters engaged in tense discussion in the front yard. Inside the house, Margaret told him that the bishop had sent word that they were to be separated from each other and from their children and suspended from the FLDS until they received judgment on what punishment they would receive for having broken church rules.

“I basically knew that meant until he kicked us out. I’ve seen it happen. It was inevitable,” says Thomas.

Thomas showing a photo of his family on his phone.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America

The leaders would either excommunicate them or readmit them to the sect. But in the latter case, while the leadership was weighing its decision on whether to allow the family back, they would be forced to “repent from afar,” which meant the family would have to move away for a period of prayers that can last for years. Many who are suspended aren’t permitted to return; Thomas knew he was going to lose his loved ones.

His primary sin was using contraception, forbidden within the sect. He also suspects his family had not been sufficiently devout. Thomas would take them hiking on Sundays when the sun was out, rather than to church. And when they did attend, he says, they didn’t pay close enough attention to the sermons. One, he remembers, went on for six hours. His wife had also had a miscarriage, Thomas says. “The church considers using birth control and [having] miscarriages as baby murder, and you will be judged for it.”

Margaret Thomas wanted to stay faithful and take the punishment, Thomas says, but he had been growing disenchanted with the increasingly strict edicts issued by the elders and knew he couldn’t do it. So he left, hoping she would join him soon and bring the kids, but Margaret is still living in Logan, Utah, outside the FLDS fold and awaiting permission to return. He has tried to persuade them to break away, but they won’t listen, he says. The final straw in the estrangement came when Thomas asked why the children had stopped calling him “father” and Margaret told him, he says, that spiritually, Warren Jeffs is their father. “I decided I was done.”

Now, Thomas is preparing to file divorce papers, and he is discussing terms with Margaret in an effort to avoid court. Thomas wants joint legal custody, but will allow the kids to live with their mother on the condition that he has visitation rights and that she puts the kids in public school rather than homeschooling them, as is the FLDS way.

He wants to speak out about the pain the church elders are inflicting, Thomas says, and also show he is determined to survive on the outside. Though he occasionally has a meltdown, shaking and sobbing for what he has lost, he is building a new life, piece by piece. He recently got a job in a call center and cherishes listening to music and going to the movies. He still believes in God but is done with all organized religion. He wouldn’t go back to the FLDS, Thomas says, not even for his children: “It’s gotten too weird.” He looks around at the people in the coffee shop. “Despite the pain of the last few years, life just feels more normal out here.”

Elissa Wall comforts a young woman who fled the FLDS and just completed her first day at college — a deep plunge into mainstream society that left her shaken.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America

Thomas says he has adjusted to his new life as well as he has, partly thanks to a cathartic experience he had last year when he met an old adversary from his FLDS days. In 2007, he testified for Warren Jeffs at the FLDS leader’s trial in St. George, Utah. Jeffs had been charged as an accomplice to rape for forcing 14-year-old Elissa Wall to marry her first cousin. (In the FLDS, “celestial” — i.e., unofficial — marriages are a common way to get around polygamy laws.) After fleeing the sect at the age of 18, Wall became prominent as an anti-FLDS activist. She was famously one of the few witnesses to testify against Jeffs at the trial.

Late last summer, Thomas saw Wall for the first time since they were on opposite sides of the court battle all those years ago. Wall had contacted him to discuss a legal case in Idaho in which the FLDS was accused of sending adolescent boys away from their parents, sometimes for years, for “sins” as trivial as texting girls. Not long after, he called her and they met at a Starbucks in a suburban strip mall. “I did apologize to Elissa,” who was very gracious, Thomas says. “She told me she understands most of the people there don’t know what kind of man Warren is and they are just doing their best in life.”

When she speaks about their meeting, Wall’s sympathy about what he is going through is evident. She reckons it took her about three years to feel a sense of stability and confidence after leaving the FLDS, and now she spends her spare time helping others who have gotten out. She puts people up in her cozy ranch house until they can get back on their own two feet and helps them get a driver’s license if they need one, legal advice, a job or enrollment in a GED course.

With the FLDS’ encouragement of homeschooling, followers grow up learning holy scripture and Warren Jeffs’ pronouncements, but are sorely lacking in geography, math, history and other basic subjects. Many leave with a voracious appetite for knowledge.

Wall is currently helping a young woman who left last summer to adjust to life on the outside. Now enrolled in college classes, the woman is not ready to be publicly named because her mother still lives within the sect, in Hildale, and fears the older woman would be punished if her daughter spoke out. When church elders discovered that the young woman’s relatives on the outside were trying to get her out, she was moved to secret locations and kept indoors so her family members couldn’t locate her. She finally managed to sneak a phone call to a sister who had left several years earlier and was able to get her out.

Wall and her young protégé hold hands.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America

The woman, in her early 20s, is sitting on the big sofa in Wall’s living room, scarfing down a turkey sandwich. She is smiling but exhausted. “I started community college this week. It’s overwhelming. So many people! And I just don’t know how to act,” she says, giggling nervously.

She is finding her freedom exhilarating but also bewildering at times. “I’m having a hard time with simple choices. Before, the only choice was the pink dress or the blue dress or maybe the green dress — there were not many ways to express yourself,” she says.

The young woman is living in a safe house for the time being; Wall, who lives nearby, is helping her catch up on her education. “When you leave, you are like a big baby with no idea how the outside world works. I feel like I’m starting from zero,” the woman says. She describes feeling like she is “deprogramming” from her previous life: “I still feel a bit alien.”

But she is also excited by her freedom, not just for the new experiences it allows, but also for the chance to dream. “When I catch up on my education I think I want to study abroad, maybe London,” she says, beaming.

This young woman is one of the lucky ones. She is adjusting relatively well to life on the outside. Shelli Mecham, a licensed clinical social worker in Salt Lake City who provides counseling for people who have left fundamentalist, polygamous groups, sees many who are more troubled. “Some people flounder for years after coming out of such a stifling psychological environment where you are constantly told what you can and cannot do and what to think,” she says. “Others find it easier to build a new life, step by step, getting used to making their own decisions, but it takes a lot of time and determination.”

Many fall into drug or alcohol abuse, uncontrolled promiscuity or crippling depression. “There are a lot of attachment problems, especially if people have been ripped from their families. They have to go through a mourning process and feeling guilty for those they have left behind. Many feel shame because they have been abused or anger that they gave so much in their service to the church … and then it all fell apart.”

The FLDS is not the only polygamous group in Utah that Mecham works with, but it is believed to be the largest and is certainly the most well known for its notorious prophet and for controlling the lives of its members. Mecham says she encourages ex-FLDS members to find their own identity, and building up their confidence is crucial. “They are constantly questioning themselves because their ego was all wrapped up in devotion to the authority of this religion.”

Kat Steed, left, and Dixie Allen in the Mormon church’s Temple Square in Salt Lake City in January 2015.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America

If some start questioning themselves after leaving the sect, for others the self-doubt began long before. Ever since she can remember, Kathwren Steed has felt suffocated by FLDS strictures. As a child, she would get in trouble for being dissatisfied with reading the Book of Mormon over and over, as kids in the sect are instructed to do. But growing up in Hildale, everyone around her was devout and obedient, so she tried to follow suit. As a first cousin of Warren Jeffs, she was a high-profile member of the church, and she did her best to stifle her feelings.

When she walked out 10 years ago, Steed buried herself in books and the Internet. She reveled in her unlimited access to Google, she says, which had been forbidden lest followers become corrupted by outside influences.

Now, Steed, 26, lives in Salt Lake City, where she is sipping a beer in a downtown bar just a block or two away from the enormous Mormon temple that dominates the Utah state capital. This is the first time she has talked to the press, and with her smart bob and neat skirt and jacket, she could be any young professional in the after-work crowd. “Thank goodness for the Internet,” Steed says. “I learned how to put on mascara from watching YouTube.”

Steed was almost 16, she says, when her father wanted to marry her off to a man who was in his late 40s to early 50s and already had three wives. So she stalled for time. “I told him I had prayed about it and I wasn’t ready.”

But the problem wasn’t their age difference, the sister wives or whether or not Steed liked the man. The problem was that she was gay. In fact, she had a secret girlfriend within the sect.

“We had been best friends for ages, then all of a sudden it had happened,” she says now. The two teens broke every FLDS taboo when they shared their first kiss. “I freaked out after,” Steed recalls. “I was on my knees the entire night, praying, ashamed.” But their attraction only got deeper. Soon they were parking in dark lanes at night in Steed’s car.

“We pretty much did it all in my little Dodge Neon,” she says with a grin. They thought their secret was safe, but eventually rumors about the “best friends” began to swirl.

Her parents confronted her with an ultimatum: be damned to hell or give up her forbidden love and get married. She told them she was leaving. Her mother broke down sobbing. Her father took her for a stern lecture from Lyle Jeffs and, when that didn’t work, a spin in his car.

Steed and Allen, with the Mormon Temple in the background.
George Frey for Al Jazeera America

“We drove out into the desert, towards the Grand Canyon, until eventually we stopped outside a trailer in the middle of nowhere,” she says. She went inside and was amazed to see cousin Warren Jeffs there. Charged with child-abuse crimes, Jeffs was then a fugitive on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and on the run from the law. But he had nonetheless been leading the sect from hiding places all over the western United States.

Even the words of the prophet couldn’t sway her. Her parents eventually dropped her off in St. George, the small city where as a child she used to secretly buy novels and music CDs when shopping in the local Walmart with her mother. A few months later, Steed’s girlfriend joined her. The lovers stayed with relatives, also ex-FLDS, but Steed experienced vicious homophobia in St George, she says, including from some of her relatives. When she was 21, Steed moved to Salt Lake City with her girlfriend, though the couple split up soon after.

Four years ago, Steed was working in a lesbian bar in town when an older woman walked in. Dixie Allen had a confident air about her, and Steed noticed her long legs and dark eyes. Allen, in turn, found Steed adorable in her jaunty black-and-white hat and kept calling Steed over to pour shots for her and her friends. Later that night, after Allen had gone, Steed went over to clear their table to find a napkin on it with Allen’s name and number. They’ve been together ever since. “I still have that napkin,” Steed says.

Allen, 45, is a psychotherapist in Salt Lake City and Steed, now her wife, is her office manager. Allen was raised Mormon (though she is now atheist), so her partner’s FLDS culture was not unfamiliar. “Growing up, we knew where the polygamous families lived around town, and no one bothered them. That was the understanding: Leave them alone,” Allen says.

The two have even had clandestine visits with Steed’s mother in Hildale, who sneaked out at night to meet them. “She was much friendlier than I expected. And she knew we were together. That was huge,” says Allen.

Steed finishes her drink and pushes away from the bar. She looks at Allen and smiles. They’ve been through a lot, but have survived, partly because Allen has never condemned her for her FLDS history. “It was so great to find someone who understood my past and never judged,” Steed says.

It’s a lesson that could prove beneficial to Ben Thomas, who is just now thinking of dating again. After his arranged marriage to Margaret at the age of 23, looking for a girlfriend for the first time in his 40s is a daunting prospect. “Finding someone that knows some of the culture would probably be helpful,” says Thomas with his knack for understatement. But he’s not looking for any particular type of person. “I would just like to find a woman who loves me.”