05/20/2008 09:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Keeping Sweet" in San Angelo, TX

After watching almost a dozen hearings and having seen, by now, a large number of the FLDS community members, I'm quite taken by their appearance. First, it's clear that they are all closely inter-related. There are the last names, of course: predominantly Jessop, Jeffs, Steed, and Allred. When you consider that Merrill Jessop alone had over sixty children with his first seven wives, it's not that surprising. And they all have the same jaw line! That's some strong bloodline.
Much has already been said about the women's clothes, restricted as they are to pastel colored frocks that cover every inch of body, arms, and legs (which are enclosed in long underwear under the dresses, even in this 100 degree heat). And those amazing pompadours, which lift these mostly petite ladies a good four inches higher! Even with the complicated and heavily sprayed hair-do's (I imagine it must require help to put those long heavy tresses into place), the women still look like young girls. Which is quite an accomplishment considering they each have a ton of children.
The men also retain a wholesome appearance. I would guess that their basically healthy lifestyle is responsible. After all, none of them drink, smoke, or do drugs. They rise at 4:30 each morning and the men go out to do hard physical labor--construction work or farming. They rarely work outside the community. The women sew, garden, cook, keep house, and tend the dozens of children in each polygamous family unit. Many of the women looked so thin as to be almost malnourished, possibly a result of birthing and trying to feed their many, many offspring.
But there is a darker side to the external wholesomeness. Neither men nor women speak much above a whisper. The judge asks if they understand the required words: If you are not willing or able to provide your child a safe environment, your parental rights can be restricted or terminated. The eventual answer from the terrified parents is a low Yes, ma'am.
The judges are always asking them to speak up, but how can they? If they are obedient to the tenets of their beliefs, as in any totalitarian society, they don't retain much sense of self. All the women speak in "sweet" little girl voices. In the "outside" world, that's usually a sign of a woman who has been abused. And if we consider the line these women have to toe to be in "perfect obedience" to their husbands--in order to earn a place in the celestial kingdom of the afterlife--it's no wonder they don't grow up to be strong-minded independent women who can fully inhabit their womanly selves.
There was more freedom in the days before Warren Jeffs took over as prophet, the head of their religious order. Days when they could still watch movies, dance, get an education, or wear red. But those days are long over.
At the hearing today for the seven children of Kathryn and Seth Jeffs, one of their attorneys asked the question: Will the parents be instructed not the mention Warren Jeffs name to their children? The answer was yes, it is inappropriate to mention the name of a registered sex offender to children (unless they are the children of Warren Jeffs, and he has at least ten children involved in the hearings). The attorney asked how that was possible, since he is their religious leader. It's one of the inconsistencies that the FLDS members really shouldn't have much trouble reconciling. After all, they have learned to live with the unreasonable and difficult dictates handed down by Warren Jeffs himself.
The attorney wanted to add a paragraph to every part of the family service plan that would state the parent's agreement to each item only if it was "consistent with the constitutional right to train their children in their chosen faith." Here they run up against another inconsistency. The State of Texas has included parenting classes in every family plan so everyone can recognize physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. When your leader insists that he and other men be able to marry girls under the age of 16, that's a tough one.
Carolyn Jessop says it best in her book, Escape: "Warren Jeffs had our community in a chokehold. I noticed that people's faces now seemed devoid of expression. It was as if they were afraid even to look like they might be thinking. The life seemed drained from their faces. They acted as if emotions had been outlawed. People were determined to 'keep sweet' even if it killed them. There was no arguing or questioning. But by 'keeping sweet' we lost all our power."
I watch the FLDS members here in San Angelo, still 'keeping sweet.' And wonder how it will serve them and their children.