Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sara Robinson on the FLDS group, Eldorado, Texas (Updated)

Today's continuation of Sara Robinson's observations of the FLDS group in Texas makes for page-turning excitement. Events there caught a lot of people unaware, but without knowing what was about to happen, Sara Robinson finished her homework just in time for the news. Her fresh familiarity with what she calls the "backstory" places her well ahead of even the best of reporters. This is not an indictment of the reportage (well, yes, it is...) but the reader who wants to be properly informed has a responsibility to do better than scan the headlines and swallow soundbite summaries uncritically.

One of the most perceptive and tenacious reporters covering these developments as been Daphne Bramham of the Vancouver Sun. (A collection of her reporting on the FLDS over the past several years can be found online here.) Bramham's focus has been on the remote 2500-member Bountiful compound just outside Creston, BC, which was founded in 1947 by Roy Blackmore and a group from one of Canada's largest historical Mormon settlements in Cardston, AB. Roy's son Winston Blackmore inherited the role of patriarch for the community until Warren Jeffs cheated him out of control in 2002.
The problem, as Bramham portrays it, comes down to one issue. Nobody -- not in Utah, nor Arizona, nor British Columbia -- has yet dared to challenge the FLDS on the basic legality of polygamy itself. Where prosecutions have succeeded, they've been on other charges: Brenda Lafferty's murder, Warren Jeffs' role in facilitating statutory rape, and the more general economic exploitation of the church's members. These efforts have done much to undermine the church's functioning (especially the latter one, which I'll get to in an upcoming post). But they've all been criminal and financial assaults that dance around the deepest question at the heart of this church's existence: Is polygamy acceptable in modern North American culture?
In choosing Eldorado, Jeffs may have, at long last, picked the wrong place to hide. Texas doesn't harbor the ghosts of Mormon pioneers or FLDS martyrs. Any liberal Texan will tell you that the Lone Star State is not cursed, as BC is, with an overbroad sense of religious freedom. What does lurk in its memetic closet is the memory of Waco -- another closed, secretive, sexually abusive cult that was left to fester unattended too long, with horrific consequences. Many of the people who are dealing with the FLDS had enough of an up-close-and-personal view of the 1993 disaster with the Branch Davidians to know what they're dealing with here.

There's no shortage of people in the media trying to make this a debate about religious freedom, which is fair enough. But the question they're not asking -- and the one that is central to that debate, in my mind -- is how we can reasonably and justly incorporate America's historical ideas about religious freedom with what we know now about how to identify and chart the prognosis of dangerous cults. ...

[April 17 post starts here:]

Read Sara Robinson's insights about the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints group now in the news.

The problem, as it so often is with the mainstream media, is that absolutely everybody involved with reporting or commenting on this story has been airlifted into it in the past few days. (You'd think somebody would have at least taken the time on the plane flight to skim Krakauer's book and get up to speed. You'd be wrong.) And this is just one example of the ways that ignorance of the backstory cheats the rest of us out of a real understanding of what's going on here.

Because, by the definition offered by these experts, the FLDS is very coercive indeed.

Almost every feature of these women's lives is determined by someone else. They do not choose what they wear, whom they live with, when and whom they marry, or when and with whom they have sex. From the day they're born, they can be reassigned at a moment's notice to another father or husband, another household, or another community. Most will have no educational choices (FLDS kids are taught in church-run schools, usually only through about tenth grade -- by which point they girls are usually married and pregnant). Everything they produce goes into a trust controlled by the patriarch: they do not even own their own labor. If they object to any of this, they're subject to losing access to the resources they need to raise their kids: they can be moved to a trailer with no heat, and given less food than more compliant wives, until they learn to "keep sweet."

At the very least, women who do decide to leave the sect leave without money, skills, or a friend in the world. Most of them have no choice but to leave large numbers of children behind -- children who are the property of the patriarch, and whom many of them will never see again. If a woman is even suspected of wanting to leave, she's likely to be sent away from her kids to another compound far yonder as punishment for her rebelliousness. For a woman who's been taught all her life that motherhood is her only destiny and has no real intimacy with her husband, being separated from her children this way is a sacrifice akin to death.

At the very worst, death is indeed what awaits them. The FLDS preaches "blood atonement" -- the right of the patriarchs to kill apostates who dare to defy them, usually by slitting their throats. And they've done it: Krakauer hung his entire book on the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her year-old daughter, who were both killed by her husband's brothers because Brenda rejected (and mocked) her husband's desire to take plural wives. (Warren Jeffs also liked to rouse people out of their beds in the middle of the night for dramatic mass meetings testing their readiness for the Final Judgment -- meetings that had dark shades of Jonestown.) Brenda is the only one known to have been killed, but others who've left report being threatened with the same fate.

So ABC's reporters blather on about how these women aren't really brainwashed, because that would require coercion and being held physically against their will. One hopes that if they understood that they're holding forth about a group that routinely controls women by threatening to take away their kids -- and tells them that God justifies the slaying of wayward brides and their babies -- they'd change their minds and admit that this isn't just another odd, quaint sect on the American religious scene. Without that information, though, everything else that's going on in Texas loses much of its context.

This story is not pretty. The people are tragic. The magnitude of the depravity by any civilized metric is breathtaking. Background links here...

Link to a 2004 article by Jon Krakauer, to whom the author Mrs. Robinson refers.

He has done the homework already.
The YFZ Ranch is the focal point of events in the news. YFZ stands for "Yearning for Zion."

Jon Krakauer is the author of the best selling book "Under the Banner of Heaven." Primarily due to his exposure to the Fundamentalist Mormon community while writing the book, Krakauer has taken an active interest in the stories of the YFZ Ranch and the FLDS Church. He is also a survivor of the 1996 Mount Everest expedition that claimed the lives of four climbers and which later became the basis for another of his bestsellers "Into Thin Air." He also wrote "Into the Wild" and "Eiger Dreams."

Backgound article from The Independent (UK).

The police and child protection services knew as soon as the Eldorado ranch was built in 2004 that the fundamentalists were polygamists, with a track record of marrying off girls as young as 14 or 15 to church elders who might be in their 70s or 80s. They knew the only reason the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – or FLDS for short – had set up in Texas at all was because the law was bearing down, at last, on their long-standing settlement in the twin cities of Hildale and Colorado City on the Utah-Arizona border.

They even had an informant – almost certainly a former FLDS member – letting them know what was going on behind the walls of Yearning for Zion. Without a direct witness account, however, they did not have probable cause to make a move. Now they had it, and they didn't waste a second.

A detachment of Texas Rangers, along with local officers, swooped on the ranch 10 days ago – just ahead of the 6 April anniversary of the founding of the Mormon religion – and told the acting leader, Merrill Jessop, that they intended to search the place from top to bottom "at whatever cost that may be".
Those were not idle words. Rumours had been flying for years that the FLDS members at Eldorado were armed to the teeth, and that they had installed a high-grade incinerator for the express purpose of destroying human remains. Their "prophet" and leader Warren Jeffs, now serving prison time for his role in arranging the forced marriage of a teenage girl in Utah, has a reputation as a hardliner and a man who inspired great fear even in his own followers.

Nobody in America, meanwhile, could launch a raid on a fringe religious group without remembering the Waco disaster of 1993, when the FBI managed to set fire to a ranch belonging to the Branch Davidian sect at the end of a tense 51-day siege, killing 80 people.

All that Jessop and his followers offered, however, was passive resistance. Perhaps it would have been a different story if Jeffs were still there; perhaps the stories about him were exaggerated. About 60 church members fell to their knees sobbing and formed a ring around the large temple building at the centre of their community. Jessop refused to unlock the heavily bolted temple door, obliging police to call in experts who forced it open with the help of hydraulic tools.

The Mormons also played an elaborate shell-game with their children, moving them from house to house in a futile attempt to prevent at least some of them from being taken away. Their attitude, carefully cultivated by the leadership, was that any outsider to the community was an agent of Satan, so they certainly weren't about to co-operate, or even talk. The authorities ended up spending six days clearing the ranch of all but a few dozen adult males, who are staying put for now.
Of all the physical evidence gathered by investigators – genealogical records, financial accounts, computers, safes and so on – perhaps most eerie was a series of bedrooms on the third floor of the temple where the church's "spiritual" marriages are believed to have been consummated. On one of the beds they recovered a female hair, which they hope will help to bolster their case that the entire church operation is essentially a racket to turn teenage girls into sex slaves.

Tawdry stuff. There is a lot of ping-pong in Sara Robinson's comment thread with the word "brainwashing." Semantic irrelevance it seems to me. Someone characterized the group-think with a frog's being boiled alive because he didn't jump as the water got hotter. Mrs. Robinson's comment is priceless: No need to boil frogs. Just keep the tadpoles coming.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a witch hunt to me