Oprah went behind the scenes at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, and talked with children, teens, and parents who had been affected by last year's raid. The FLDS members shared a cozy homemade dinner with Oprah and spoke about their polygamist lifestyle and Warren Jeffs, their leader who is now behind bars. No matter how nice and friendly it all seemed (who wouldn't be thrilled to have Oprah visit!), it's distinctly possible that there's more to this story than was shown.
When the queen of talk TV comes calling, you clean up the kids, hide the dirty laundry, and fill the air with the yeasty aroma of fresh baked bread. I know, as an attorney and as an expert on abuse, that there are things on the polygamist ranch that smell a lot less sweet than what comes out of their ovens. They may not have been lying, but they certainly knew how to avoid telling the truth. Every time Oprah asked a real question, however charmingly, of Willie Jessop, their spokesperson, he never gave a straight answer but instead pitched a question in return.
I spent a week last year at the FLDS custody hearings that were held in San Angelo, Texas. The sect members did everything they could to subvert the State from correctly identifying the children, their true ages, and the fathers of the children. The State eventually found a dozen underage girls who had been married between the ages of 12-15, seven of whom had given birth to infants fathered by much older men. There are still twelve men who face criminal charges related to underage marriages, set to start this October. But the State got slammed in the media for removing all the children from the ranch and putting them in temporary foster care.
No doubt, the State wishes in hindsight it had used other procedures. But the fact is, these children are at risk. They are at risk of psychological imprisonment, at risk of living in a closed belief system that distorts their ability to discern the truth. They are brainwashed to be terrified of the outside world, given little real education, and the women live according to the old "barefoot and pregnant" dictum, except that their feet are as covered up as the rest of their bodies. They have been taught since birth that the only way to get into the kingdom is through staying "sweet" and obedient to their husbands -- the classic "bible patriarchy" that is enjoying a revival in the fundamentalist movement at large.
In our post-modern day and age, it's hard not to feel some sympathy for those who want to live in a less complex, less demanding world, in which you don't have to think for yourself or make choices in life based on all the options available. Unfortunately, many of the young girls on the ranch will grow up believing there are no options. And do we believe Willie Jessop when he says that there will be no more underage marriages? I don't.
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