Tuesday, August 27, 2013

I read a book, and it was frightening...

I've been saying for years that Helter Skelter (1974), by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, about Charles Manson and his cult and the murders that were committed in Manson's name, is the most frightening book I've ever read.

Well, I may well have found a more frightening book, Prophet's Prey (2011, Bloomsbury; 323 pages), by Sam Brower.

Brower's book is about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, widely known as the FLDS, and the search for its leader, Warren Steed Jeffs, after he was charged with a number of crimes that he claimed were simply him following the dictates of his God. Among other things, Jeffs was "married" to perhaps as many as one hundred women, some of whom were as young as twelve years old at the time of their marriage. Along the way, Brower provides details about the beliefs of the FLDS, a bit of their history, and some of the things that Jeffs's followers have done and say they are willing to do should their prophet (Jeffs) ask them.

Brower makes comparisons along the way between the FLDS and cults such as the Peoples' Temple and the Branch Davidians, both of which came to bad ends. But as I read Brower's book, I was reminded more of Manson and his group, especially in the willingness of the members to commit what they know are crimes in the name of their leader.

It's difficult to say how many members of the FLDS there are, and even more difficult to know how many of those members remain faithful to Jeffs even after his incarceration on his conviction for sexual assault of a child and sentencing to life in prison. The FLDS is a closed group that does not solicit conversions and whose faithful members will not readily speak to outsiders. It is also important to note that not all FLDS are followers of Jeffs but who continue to practice polygamy.

The FLDS grew out of the decision by the mainstream Latter-Day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, to abandon the practice of (but not the belief in) polygamy in 1890 as a prerequisite for the Utah Territory to become a state. The polygamous group came into its own in the 1930s, when the mainstream LDS church started excommunicating members who continued to practice polygamy around that time.

Some of the things that are scary about the account of the FLDS in Brower's book include how very young girls are assigned as wives to much older men, and that when a man is excommunicated from the FLDS, their wives and children are "reassigned" to other men; that younger men, called "Lost Boys", are kicked out of the church on flimsy grounds such as talking to girls or listening to rock music, so that they will not be around to compete with the older men for wives; the decrees from Warren Jeffs that there be no television, no radio, no books or magazines for members, and that the children are not to have toys; the elimination of all holidays; and, the decree that there be no pets followed by sending out men to kill all the cats and dogs that remained after the order that members get rid of all their pets.

Brower also points out that Short Creek, the original name of the towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, which straddles the Arizona/Utah border north of the Grand Canyon, is home to over half the known cases of a genetic disease called Fumarase Deficiency. This disease interrupts the Krebs cycle, which generates energy to keep cells in the human body running. Those children with the disease that do not die within months of birth do not grow at a normal rate and usually develop developmental disabilities that leave them subject to crippling seizures and unable to care for themselves. Because the gene pool is so small there, marriages in Short Creek occur frequently between individuals who have the recessive gene for this disease. FLDS members in Short Creek refuse to be tested for presence of the recessive gene that causes Fumarase Deficiency, which would help avoid perpetuation of the disease.

Prophet's Prey is a disturbing book. As depressing and disturbing as the information in the book is, however, I think this is a valuable book that points out some very good reasons for not privileging religious practice the way it is in the United States. This is illustrated graphically in Brower's description of the aftermath of a raid made in 2006 on the FLDS community built in Texas. That raid resulted in the removal from the community of nearly 450 children due to allegations of abuse. The Texas CPS workers who participated in the raid described the deplorable conditions the children were living in. However, most of those workers were either fired, forced to retire, or were reassigned to other cases after their superiors decided not to pursue the cases, at least partly due to pressure brought to bear from conspiracy theorists and other fundamentalist religious adherents who accused the state of violating the First Amendment rights of the FLDS to practice their religion as they saw fit. In consequence, the children, including one twelve-year-old who had been married off to Warren Jeffs, were returned to the group. At least twenty percent of those children were given back to adults who were not their parents, and in the case of over a dozen children, Texas CPS handed the children back to adults without ascertaining who those adults were. The official reason that the cases were dropped was that it was going to cost too much money to find out, through DNA testing, which children belonged to which parents and then to adjudicate whether or not those children had actually been abused.

As much as I am a believer in the First Amendment religion clauses in the US Bill of Rights, I believe there is a difference between religious belief and practice. Anyone can believe anything they want, but I cannot believe that the free exercise clause was intended to allow parents and other adults to abuse children, or to hand girls over to men twenty, thirty, forty or more years older, to become wives to them in every sense of the word. I cannot believe that the free exercise clause allows a religion to kick teenage boys out of the group and literally abandon them on the side of the road in the middle of the desert when they become a threat to the older men's ability to take young brides. It also was not intended, I'm sure, to allow the assignment and reassignment of adult women to men as wives without their consent. To act as if these practices are legitimized by saying that the people who do them believe it's okay as part of their religion is a perversion of the First Amendment. You can't take away some people's rights in order to let other people practice their religion.

I'm happy for consenting adults to make whatever arrangements they wish: polygynous marriages (one man, multiple women), polyandrous marriages (one woman, multiple men), group marriages, same-sex marriages, one man/one woman marriages - as long as all parties to the arrangement are consenting adults. Parties to the plural marriages in the FLDS, at least the female parties, are often neither consenting nor adults. The fact that doing this is a tenet of their religion does not make these non-consensual and underage marriages any more acceptable.

And, yes, I am aware that I've gone from reviewing Prophet's Prey to pontificating about the material in it. And I'm fine with that. What I read in Brower's book spurred very strong reactions in me. This is especially true regarding the vehemence with which certain groups defended the FLDS and their practices that would not be tolerated in any other context, and the cavalier and callous way in which the state of Texas was so quick to wash its official hands of what had been obvious abuse of children. Yes, the state did raise its age of legal marriage with parental consent from fourteen to seventeen. And, yes, the state did convict Warren Jeffs and sentence him to life in prison. Good for them. Jeffs belongs in prison; he's a pedophile, a narcissist, and a sociopath. But they abandoned all those children to a religions system that is still controlled by Jeffs from his prison cell - which by the way, was encouraged by the state of Texas when they placed Jeffs, when he was first taken to Texas to face charges, in a "for-profit" prison. As Brower explains it, per the rules of that prison, any inmate who can afford it is allowed to have a private phone line in his cell, and is allowed unlimited use of that phone. Because of this, Jeffs was able to reassert his control over the FLDS and order the continuation of his policies, including his vision of what is called "blood atonement." Blood atonement is the principle that sometimes people have sinned so badly (and Jeffs has some peculiar ideas of what such sin consists of, including disobedience of his proclamations) that the only way they can be saved is to have their blood shed in their death. In Jeffs's vision of blood atonement, this includes ritual killing in the temple and the drinking of the blood of the victim.

And how, exactly, do we know all this? Well, as with the mainstream Mormons, the FLDS are obsessive about record-keeping. As part of this, Jeffs kept what he called the "Priesthood Record of the Prophet Warren Steed Jeffs", in which he kept a detailed record of his life, including of activities that were illegal. This was found in the basement of the temple the FLDS built in Texas. Also discovered during the investigation into Jeffs and the LDS was - and this might be the most disgusting thing of all - an audio tape that recorded his rape of a new twelve-year-old bride (Jeffs was fifty years old at the time) two weeks after their "sealing" (marriage) ceremony.

It is also disturbing to know that for years, ever since a law-enforcement raid on Short Creek in 1953, which had much of the press and public siding with the polygamists due to First Amendment considerations, much like happened after the later raid in Texas, officials in Utah and Arizona pretty much turned a blind eye to what was going on in Short Creek. Even when women who did not consent to their forced marriages escaped and then were taken back by the men and "disappeared" for months or years at a time (and sometimes forever), no one could interest law enforcement in looking for them or even checking that they were still alive.

The FLDS, besides being compared to the Branch Davidians or the People's Temple, have also sometimes been called the "American Taliban". I think that is a fair comparison. FLDS women, like women where the Taliban rules, have no freedoms to speak of. Anything that might bring in outside information - newspapers, magazines, radio, television - have been banned by the leadership. I think the story of the FLDS is the real answer to those who say that "it could never happen here" of the loss of freedoms on a wholesale scale.

It not only can happen here, it has happened here. And it is still happening today, despite the jailing of the leader of the FLDS.

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