Thursday, April 24, 2008

Polygamy Revisited

by Kathryn Casey

“It’s not like being born in the U.S. It’s like being born in another country,” says Joseph, who more than a decade ago fled a polygamous town in Utah. “I think of my life like being caught up in the Holocaust.”

The recent raid in Eldorado, Texas, of the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints) compound, in which more than 400 children were removed from their homes and taken into CPS custody, brought back strange memories. Eighteen years ago, Ladies’ Home Journal sent me to the side-by-side polygamous enclaves of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. The reason: to report on a sensational adoption battle over the six children – four girls and two boys – of Brenda Thornton, a woman who died of breast cancer. On one side were the children's biological aunts, Thornton’s two sisters, and on the other polygamist Vaughn Fischer and his first wife, Sharane.

For those of you unfamiliar with the way polygamy works, a man legally marries a first wife and then joins with subsequent women into “spiritual marriages.” Six weeks before her death, Brenda Thornton had entered into such a “spiritual marriage” with Vaughn Fischer, becoming his third wife. Before dying, she signed papers to allow him to adopt her children from a previous marriage. Although Thornton’s sisters fought hard, they were outmatched monetarily by the Fischers, whose battle was financed by their church. In the end, Vaughn and Sharane were given the right to adopt Brenda Thornton’s children by the Utah Supreme Court.

I’ve never forgotten my days in Hildale and Colorado City. They were desolate, windblown and unfriendly places. There were no restaurants or hotels, because the folks there didn’t want strangers visiting. Some men had more than a dozen wives. In a main house, they lived with their first, second, perhaps even a third wife, and their combined children, while around the perimeters of their properties other wives and children lived in small cottages. In the Fischer household, a schedule posted on the refrigerator tracked which nights Vaughn slept with which wife.

There’s so much I remember, but especially the children. It was summer, and in the more than ninety-degree heat, boys played basketball in long pants and long-sleeved shirts and the girls were dressed in handmade, cotton, pioneer-looking dresses, despite the heat wearing slacks underneath to ensure modesty. And the children were everywhere, swarms of them on swings and in playgrounds, laughing and smiling. But they scattered whenever I approached like tumbleweed in a dust storm. I was an outsider, and they’d been taught from birth to stay away from outsiders. Outsiders wouldn’t understand their lifestyle, their culture. Outsiders were the enemy.

Recently, watching the news coverage of Eldorado, I thought about the children of polygamy yet again. Much attention has been given, as it should be, to the abuse of the young girls, married off at tender ages to men decades older, at times their biological relatives. I wondered, too, about a subject that has gotten less press: what it's like for the boys. To find out, I made a few telephone calls. Eventually, I connected with a man in his thirties who grew up in polygamous households until the age of nineteen. He agreed to talk. For our purposes, I’ll call him Joseph.

KC: When you look back on your life, what do you most remember?

Joseph: The way we were all indoctrinated, brainwashed. The mind control used on us. When I went to the Holocaust museum in Washington a few years ago, I realized they were many of the techniques used by the Nazis--sleep and food deprivation, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse.

KC: Was this type of abuse prevalent in the community?

Joseph: I can only speak to the house I grew up in. The father was in complete control, and there was abuse at every level. We had no one to go to, no one to complain to.

KC: What did they use to control you?

Joseph: He distorted our sense of reality. We suffered horrible punishment if we didn’t do what we were told. The father was a brutal dictator. From early ages, we were told that if we didn’t do what he wanted, including the incestuous behavior, we would never get to heaven.

KC: What happened when you began coming of age?

Joseph: From the time we’re kids on, boys and girls are told that we’re not to have normal relationships. Talking to a girl is a no-no. God doesn’t like boys to talk to girls. It’s not allowed.

KC: What made you decide to leave?

Joseph: For polygamy, they want to keep the girls. By the time we’re teenagers, the leaders have decided which of the boys they’ll keep and which they’ll get rid of. They keep the ones who do what they’re told. Boys who aren’t chosen are forced out.

KC: How?

Joseph: They put a lot of pressure on, a lot of abuse.

KC: What we’re talking about is that there aren’t normally five or ten women to every man. To get the percentage of women to men high enough for polygamy, the leaders have to drive out some of the boys?

Joseph: Yes. They begin harassing the boys they don’t want at a young age, so eventually the boys just give up and leave, even though it’s the only home they’ve ever known. They have to leave their parents, brothers and sisters behind. I dropped out of school young, because they made it so hard for me.

KC: Do you hear from your siblings?

Joseph: No. I’m the only one who left. But when you’re born into it, you don’t know any better. Our mom was a child bride, married off at sixteen.

KC: What do you think about what’s going on in Eldorado, Texas?

Joseph: I’m behind Texas, because of the abuse I’ve suffered. I’m glad they’re doing what they’re doing there.


Diane Fanning said...

It was great getting this different perspective, Kathryn. Thanks for this post.

Kathryn Casey said...

Thanks, Diane. Visiting those towns was a remarkable experience. Would that we could protect all children from abuse.

The added problem in insulated societies like these, however, is exactly what Joseph points out: with none of the safeguards and agencies that normally offer assistance in place, there's no where for victims to go for help.

So many of the folks I met in the polygamous towns felt powerless. Many, including the adult men and women, were unhappy. Yet all the land in the towns, including the land individuals' homes are built on, is owned by a corporation affiliated with the church and its leaders, so families that choose to leave face losing everything, including all they've invested in their homes.

It'll be interesting to see how this situation with the Eldorado children shakes out. I hope Texas protects them well in state custody and takes whatever time is necessary to get at the truth.

cherry6905 said...

That sounds like medieval serfdom or classical slavery. Don't we have laws in this country against this happening? This is so extreme. Monks and Nuns make the decision to give up all for the church but that doesn't include whole families. Also, this community/religion accepts government funds for it's existence. Therefore I would think the government has more of a right to keep track of what's happening.
Personally this polygamist religion sounds a kin to Charlie Manson's hippy free love farms. The style of dress is different. I think all that outward appearance and rhetoric is just to fool the public. Looking into this is way overdue!!

Anonymous said...

I wish interviews, like this one with Joseph, were made more public, there is a backlash forming in public opinion, against perceived government interference, and the real story and reasons for the raid, need to be kept equally in the public attention.

Rae said...

"That sounds like medieval serfdom or classical slavery. Don't we have laws in this country against this happening?"

I agree with you, Cherry-that is exactly what it sounds like.

Kathy, for law enforcement, aren't the laws that concern abuse fairly confining? In other words, doesn't law enforcement have to follow procedure and the abuse-or even the suspicion of abuse-have be reported before they can do anything?

Great article, Kathy.

Kathryn Casey said...

Yes, Cherry, I agree as well. Unfortunately these towns, at least when I was there, were run with an iron hand and little interference from the outside.

Thanks, Rae. Yes, LE does have to follow the law and have a complaintant willing to testify, etc. The Short Creek Raid, in these two towns I've written about, fell apart in 1953, when polygamous wives refused to testify against their husbands.

In this case, however, if it's true that they've discovered pregnant 13-year-olds, that will go a long way to proving the case that there's sexual abuse of children in the community.

It'll be interesting, now that they think the original complaint may have been a hoax, to see how this affects the situation. I hope it doesn't influence the ability of the investigation and any resulting prosecutions to go forward.

Thanks, anon. It's important to look at all sides of this issue. We are, of course, understadably reluctant to force our values on others, but this is an extreme situation. And when children are being abused, as they may be in this culture, that rises above privacy concerns and our desire to ensure religious freedoms.

Leah said...

I have wondered if someone like a relative that left the compound didn't make the call just to get the ball rolling. Then the other day I saw someone on TV say that the female that made the call was taken to their Colorado compound. I wonder how many of these men, women and children want to leave and are happy that they were taken into custody.

IMHO this has nothing at all to do with religion. They use religion to veil their true motives.

Sibby said...

Thanks for this great article Kathryn. I was wondering if any of these people even know that they are being brainwashed and manipulated because they have never known anything different?

A huge red flag is raised for me whenever any religion or group is overly private and against any contact with outsiders.

Kathryn Casey said...

It could be argued, Leah, that this is institutionalized child abuse under the guise of religion, couldn't it?

Thanks, Sibby. You're right, that is one humongous red flag. I do believe it is so ingrained after generations in some families that they don't know any other life. Very sad. In the Fischer house, when I was there, they had a TV, but they only played select videos, some Disney, cartoons, etc., and a lot of nature shows. They didn't watch news or TV shows, few mainstream movies.

I remember the little girls crowding around me and rubbing my arms. I had on shorter sleeves. (It as hot, after all.) They'd never seen an adult woman's arms uncovered before. That's how isolated their lives are.

Rae said...

My husband's grandparents were very strict Mormons, in Alberta, and I can remember the hardness of his grandmother's life. She was married to an elder in the church, and the lines between "woman's work" and "man's work" were very sharply defined in what was a predominantly Mormon, very small community. She had 15 children, and lived, in the middle of the 20th century, very much like a hundred years earlier. She always cooked on a wood burning stove, grew her own vegetables and chickens, had a cow, made her own soap, clothing, etc. Not that all of it was bad-they WERE poor and self sufficiency never hurts-but she had very little help. The boys weren't allowed to help her, because that was "woman's work", and the girls did help, but her girls all married young and moved into households of their own.

She certainly never had luxuries. After her husband died, the family moved her into a retirement home, and she was thrilled because, for the first time, she had carpeting.

I don't know if the children were abused-I don't think Hazel would have abused her kids, but her husband was the very strict and stern type, so it's certainly possible that 'home correction' was acceptable.

They belonged to the LDS Church, not the FLDS, but it's a good example of where the attitudes of the FLDS originated from.

Anonymous said...

The LDS Church is NOTHING like the FLDS Church. I am a member of the LDS Church, live in a normal house with *gasp* carpeting, cook on a "normal" stove, drive a car, wear *gasp* shorts, wear short sleeves, choose not to work, but certainly could if I wanted to, There is no DISTINCT "woman and mans" work~ we are a team, we work together. I buy everything from the store, have no clue how to make bread, soap, or sew my own clothes. And YES I come from a very "Mormon" home, my father was bishop a few years ago... oh, and he only has 1 wife. Always has, always will.

The FLDS "Church" is not a church at all, don't compare apples to oranges. They are a misled cult who try to use "doctrines" to live a disgusting lifestyle and try to use the label of a Church to justify emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse. It is completly wrong.

Fullerton Family said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cherry6905 said...

My children went to a privately funded Lutheran Day School. If they accepted money from the government they would open the door to government scrutiny of religious freedom. Why would that not apply to this religion? Putting children into families who have multiple sexual relationships is never healthy. If the children are supported by government funds, food, shelter, insurance. Wouldn't looking at records for offenses be easier?
I have read "Escape" by Carolyn Jessop and various historical books about the founding of Mormonism. Real eye openers to this so called religion. They aren't worshiping Jesus. They're using it for male domination, sex and power.
I thought it terribly poignant the young man saw similarities between the holocaust survivors of the nazi concentration camps and his own childhood. It's hard to understand this is happening here in America not Nazi Germany.

cherry6905 said...

Great read "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith" by Jon Krakauer (ISBN-10: 1400032806) explores the shadowy world of Mormon fundamentalism. In an age where Westerners have trouble comprehending what drives Islamic fundamentalists to kill, Jon Krakauer advises us to look within America's own borders. --John Moe

Rae said...

Yawn. Anonymous, I described the life of a woman in a small Mormon community in rural Alberta FIFTY years ago (note the PAST tense). No where did I say the LDS Church practices polygamy or bigamy, spiritual or otherwise, or that Mormon women have to wear special clothing, or that they can't drive cars, wear short sleeves or shorts, or work outside the home, or even that the Mormon Church hasn't progressed, at least superficially, in the last fifty years.

Anonymous said...

"but it's a good example of where the attitudes of the FLDS originated from."

Then how do you explain that comment?? And no where in your post did you clarify that it was a) 50 yrs. ago and b) you DID compare the two.

Anonymous said...

Cherry6905~ Mormonism isn't the same thing as FLDS. Hello. Those sickos use the name "LDS" as a cover and to try to justify what they do. THEY do not worship Jesus, but "Mormons" and "Mormonism" Does. You obviously don't know that much about the religion, other than the anti-crap you have read. If you would even LOOK at a Book of Mormon, it says "Another Testament of Christ" The CORRECT name of the church is "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" It is in NO WAY connected to the FLDS, other than the fact that long ago some psychos decided to branch off and start their own thing and use the church's name as a cover.

Kathryn Casey said...

Thanks for dropping in, Anon! When Rae said it was her husband's grandparents, my guess is that most folks knew it was a long time ago. Let me take a stab at this: I think you're concerned that folks are mixing up the FLDS fanatics with mainstream LDS?

You can correct me on this if I'm wrong, no problem, but my recollection from American history classes is that the mainstream LDS church denounced polygamy when Utah wanted to enter the union. It was a condition of statehood. Since then, to the best of my knowledge, the LDS church has been staunchly anti-polygamy. So, to clear up any confusion: The LDS church does not condone polygamy.

What we're talking about, the FLDS church, is not sanctioned by the LDS church.

Kathryn Casey said...


I am intrigued by your story. Don't you wish you could sit that woman down today and talk to her about her life? It amazes me, sometimes, to think about how the world has changed in the past half-century. And when it's someone like your grand-mother-in-law, who was living in the past anyway, it must have seemed to her as if she lived in the dark ages compared to the world around her.

Great story. Thanks for sharing.

Rae said...

"Then how do you explain that comment??"

Correct me if I am wrong, but the founding members of the FLDS were originally members of the LDS Church, weren't they? Granted, I agree that the FLDS should not be considered a church, in any way, shape, or form, but most fundamentalist 'religions' start off with rituals learned in their original faith. For another example, look at Opus Dei and the Roman Catholic Church-where do you think the founders of Opus Dei learned most of their rituals? Granted, they may pervert them, but that doesn't change the origin.

Given that the FLDS broke with the LDS Church in 1930, it's not unlikely that there was some similarities between the old and the new church during that period-they just moved in different directions over time. But, that still doesn't mean they don't share some common rituals.

"And no where in your post did you clarify that it was a) 50 yrs. ago and b) you DID compare the two."

Well, a) I said "my husband's grandmother", and I didn't realize that I needed to clarify that I wasn't speaking of 2008, and b) most fundamentalist groups/churches/what have you are compared to the original church. If nothing else, the original church is used as a frame of reference.

Sorry if you are offended, but, let's be honest here. Most non-Mormons have no idea how much or how little the LDS and the FLDS have in common-nor are they ever likely to know. You folks aren't exactly publicizing what goes on inside your temples, nor is anyone on the outside allowed to witness what goes on. You can paint a pretty picture of Mormonism, but, for all we know, it's merely a facade.

Rae said...

Let me amend: No, I don't believe that the LDS Church condones polygamy or bigamy, spiritual or otherwise, and no, I don't believe the LDS Church sanctions the physical abuse of women and children. If I implied that, then I truly apologize, Anon.

cherry6905 said...

Anonymous — You are right we have been speaking of apples and oranges.

Below are some of the most fundamental differences between mainstream Christians and Mormons.

I mean no disrespect, only to clarify so we may better understand one another.

God gave us the law to reveal our sinfulness

God tells us we are credited with Jesus' perfect righteous through faith

Rejecting Christ's offer of eternal life results in eternal death

By obeying God's laws one can become like Him

Mormonism reasons God wouldn't give a command that couldn't be kept; therefore one must become perfect (actually stated as "do all you can do")

Mormonism teaches that nearly everyone will receive an eternal reward better than this life, even those who willfully break the-law

For more in depth information go to:

Anonymous said...

Rae~ Excuse us for believing something to be sacred. You can believe what you want, but mormonism isn't a "facade". It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and if you really want to know more about it, go to, not some anti-site. But thanks anyways, Cherry. If you want to know about something, go to the source.

cherry6905 said...

Anon - Why don't you tell us what you know about their religion.

You said "The FLDS "Church" is not a church at all...They are a misled cult who try to use "doctrines" to live a disgusting lifestyle and try to use the label of a Church to justify emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse."

Does the LDS have inside knowledge of FLDS. Has the LDS helped to stop this abuse since knowing about it? Maybe they have a better understanding as to the reasoning behind the child abuse and human rights abuse especially towards women and children. Why could they not work with the government in putting a stop to this criminal behavior? That kind of positive support from LDS would go far in separating them from the "misled cult" FLDS.

I think the world would like to better understand. How are we non-mormon's suppose to know if a book is, as you said, "the anti-crap you have read." I personally read the books and they weren't anti-LDS. They only gave a historical perspective of Mormonism.

I'm also puzzled by you're being angry. Are all mormons as defensive?

Anonymous said...

The LDS Church cannot step in and help anymore than anybody else can, they have no connection to them or "inside information". No, all mormons aren't as defensive, but quite frankly, I am tired of people thinking that FLDS and LDS are one and the same. I am tired of the comments and am tired of people thinking "Mormons" (Member of the LDS faith) practice polygamy and abuse. It gives us as LDS church members a bad name and misguided conceptions of who we really are.

cherry6905 said...

Understood Anon! Sorry if you felt targeted. It was not my intention.

But I do dare to differ with you. We can all try to step in and do something about child abuse.

We need to keep our children safe.

One person can make a difference. Educating the public is a good start.

Rae said...

"Rae~ Excuse us for believing something to be sacred. You can believe what you want, but mormonism isn't a "facade".It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Well. Crimes have been committed under the guise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, too. That doesn't carry much weight with me. As I said, until you let non-Mormons attend services inside the temples, then non Mormons really aren't going to know whether it is or whether it isn't a facade, and that includes the official Mormon website.

It isn't exclusive to Mormonism, you know. Throughout history, people have been suspicious of other churches who conducted services in secrecy. It's the logical attitude of "if you don't have something to hide, then why all the secrecy?" You can't have it both ways.

FWIW, I don't visit anti Mormon sites, nor do I read anti Mormon books. For one, I'm not interested enough to do so, and for another, my husband was a member of the LDS Church for 25 years. For reasons of his own, he elected not to remain in the church, but he is versed in Mormon doctrine.

Anonymous said...

Well, then I guess your husband should understand and be able to enlighten you on the whole Temple issue, correct?? Oh, and I can assure you that no crimes are committed in the Temple under the guise of Religion. I attend the Temple and would in no way be a part of that.

Rae said...

Right, and he has.

You're missing my point, I think. You say that you are tired of people comparing the LDS Church and the FLDS, and tired of people assuming that the LDS Church practices polygamy and abuse.

I can appreciate that you are tired of it, but until the Mormon Church opens the doors of the temples and allows the wider public access to see for themselves, then suspicion and rumors are going to continue. There's nothing wrong with having something sacred, but if you keep it a secret, people are going to question it, doubt it, and misunderstand it, and saying that it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ isn't going to enlighten them. Unfortunately, not everyone is married to a former Mormon. :-)

I didn't mean to imply that crimes are committed inside the temples.

Now, I've already apologized if I inferred that. In telling the story of my husband's grandmother, I was simply trying to give an idea of the Mormon Church doctrine of fifty years ago, which the FLDS has bastardized and taken to extremes-as an moderated example of what it is like for women in the FLDS. I did not mean to infer that it is the way of the modern day LDS Church and I apologize for that, also.

Kathryn Casey said...

Glad we're all getting along now. That said, I'm really happy about the discussion. It's good to air this stuff. Let's watch this situation in Eldorado and see what happens. I'm interested in what course the authorities take. We've had a lot of news items, here in Houston, on temporary housing for the kids. I hope this doesn't turn into New Orleans, where we housed folks in contaminated trailers. Hope the children are well cared for, and that the LE folks figure out the best option for the kids. To me, they're the center of this universe. I'm really hoping that in the end they end up in a better place, wherever that may be.

cherry6905 said...

Story of how one person helped:

Polly Franks of the Frank Foundation called the director of the child advocacy center, in San Angelo who is one of the people in charge of this God-forsaken mess. Polly told her what Foundation's "Operation Fuzzy" does for sexually abused children and she said they absolutely could use their help. So, Polly sent out an email asking for donations. Her very first response was from singer Amy Grant's personal assistant, telling her that Amy was over-nighting her a nice check. That didn't cover all their needs, but it certainly gave them a good start.

If anyone would like to make a donation, they could absolutely use the help. You can either mail a check to their P.O. box address or, you can make a donation online by going to the website ( and click on "Donations."

If you'd like details about the program, go to the bottom of the Home Page and click on "Announcing Operation Fuzzy."

Kathryn Casey said...

Thanks for posting this, Cherry. It's good of you to pass along the info.

cherry6905 said...

We ALL can do something to help victim's of crime.

Kudos to Women in Crime Ink for educating the public. That's the first step, being aware of the problem.

Then we must ACT to effect change and stop sticking our head in the sand and throwing up our arms in defeat.

I am the mother of a rape victim. I'm damn mad and am not going to take it anymore!

"Justice will ONLY be achieved when those who are not injured by crime feel as indignant as those who are" - King Solomon

Sar said...

I just wanted to say that the Mormon/LDS services are open to everyone and are not secret. The services are held each Sunday in the regular church buildings. Mormon Temples are used for special ceremonies, like weddings and other sacred things. You need to have a temple recommend and be a baptized active member of the church in good standing in order to enter the Mormon temple. That is all. They aren't secret, just sacred. has information if you want to visit a church service near you to learn more.

Anyway, I am very glad that the FLDS settlement in TX has been dissolved. I look forward to seeing how this whole thing turns out.

Anonymous said...

This is great news! Where can we attend a service. Oops... you have to be a baptized member to attend ...and have temple recommendation? Sounds like secret to me?! Sacred ...secret? Mormon double speak.

Sar said...

Haha, nooo.

Regular LDS church services are open to anyone. You don't have to be baptized or a member. They are held at regular LDS church buildings.

LDS Temples are different, you have to have a "temple recommend" and be a church member to go inside and they are for weddings, etc.

Anonymous said...

So temple is secret...I mean sacred? Why? Don't you want the new members to know what they're in for?

Rae said...

"LDS Temples are different, you have to have a "temple recommend" and be a church member to go inside and they are for weddings, etc."

I think it's the secret...oops, sacred..."etc" part that troubles people.