Despite the recent well-publicized and deeply disturbing child molestation trial of self-proclaimed polygamist prophet Warren Jeffs, TV reality show polygamist Kody Brown and his trendy wives and family seem to be everywhere these days. Their TV show, "Sister Wives," is a big hit. They are constantly sought after for interviews and talk show fodder, and are even up for an Emmy nomination. It seems like every time I turn on the television I am seeing or hearing stories about their "...unconventional -- yet somehow relatable family." Unfortunately, that type of terminology, which is doled out in heaping portions by the media, has a dramatically different meaning for me than for others who seem to have been smitten by the show.
For more than seven years, as a private investigator I have been investigating and researching similar polygamous societies, but mainly the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and its outlaw prophet, Warren Jeffs, who is now serving a sentence of life plus twenty years in a Texas prison. With respect to the polygamous cultures that I have been dealing with over the years, that type of unschooled and reckless terminology makes me recoil. I can only hope and pray that the depravity of child abuse and the degradation of women and children to the status of chattel will never be thought of in such a callous manner as simply- unconventional yet relatable.
In my world, unconventional doesn't mean four mommies showing up for back-to-school night; the FLDS do not send their kids to public schools. If they're lucky, the children may receive the equivalent of an eighth grade education before being sent out to work on a construction job, or to become mothers themselves. Admittance into the bride pool can begin within a few weeks after a child's twelfth birthday. "Mother" is the person who raises and nurtures you as a "daughter in Zion" over the course of those short formative years. She then takes you by the hand and places it in the hand of a man decades older, in an arranged "spiritual sexual union," alongside that man's several or many other "sister wives." That's what I call unconventional!
And it's not just the girls and women who are victims of these polygamous practices. Think about the math. The normal male to female ratio in any given population is approximately 50/50, including polygamous societies. So if a family's religious ambition is to gain as many wives as possible, what is to become of the leftover male population? Kody Brown has four wives, but many men have eight, ten, twenty, even more than eighty wives. The more wives a man is able to acquire, the higher his religious standing in the polygamous caste system. So what happens to those boys?
One way or another, they're discarded and cast out. Abandoned by their families, cut off without contact and forcibly ejected. One of the earliest FLDS cases I worked on involved many of these "lost boys." It's heartbreaking. Just a few weeks ago, at Cottonwood Park in Hildale, Utah, a fifteen-year-old boy crashed the party of a group celebrating the Fourth of July. The partiers were a handful of former FLDS members who had had the good fortune to break the strangle hold of the unconventional culture they had been brought up and indoctrinated in. In an act of desperation, the boy approached the group of strangers and pleaded for help. The picnickers reported the sad events surrounding the boy's story: "His dad told him that he was 'no longer welcome at the family home' and told him to 'come and get his stuff,' which his family threw all over the lawn while screaming at him that he was going to go to 'burn in hell.' Someone helped him pick up his things and hauled him down to St. George for the night, where he had found a temporary place to stay." This is just one example of hundreds of similar stories I've heard or participated in over the course of my investigations. Unconventional - yet somehow relatable?
When I arrived home one evening a few weeks ago, I hurriedly turned on the television, hoping to catch a news story concerning a case I was working on. It involved a client that had recently been banished from his home, family, community and lost his livelihood, all at the behest of FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs - my client's brother. No reason was given -- but the worth of young girls is greater than a truck load of gold and are the most sought after prize. My banished client was scared to death that his brother Warren, who is awaiting child rape charges in Texas, and who has in excess of eighty wives himself, would dole out my client's daughters as underage brides to other polygamous church leaders, and quite possibly assimilate some of my client's family into Jeffs's own. So, he made the unconventional decision to sue to try and recover his children and wife before it was too late.
The anticipated newscast ended, but then it happened! There he was again -- Kody Brown. Mouthing off about his lot in life, having to endure the self-imposed public criminal lifestyle that he had chosen not only for himself, but for his family as well. And how it was his God-given right to break the law and live his life in pursuit of his own personal values, "even if those values run counter to those of the majority of the state." Using that logic, there would be no boundaries as long as one made the claim that whatever criminal activity one chose to participate in was part of religious beliefs. Here I was still wringing my hands, worried about my client's children, and on comes this self-absorbed, circus ring leader, whining about whether or not he is going to have to move to Nevada to avoid arrest as a polygamist.
Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, appearing on my TV set was Brown's attorney, Jonathan Turley, making one of the most absurd statements I have ever heard come from the mouth of a supposedly educated man. "This really isn't a polygamy case," he said. "It's a privacy case. It's about the right of consenting adults to have their own families committed to their own values." I couldn't believe it! This drivel coming from a man who is representing a family who goes on television for the express purpose of exposing the intimate details of their lives to the entire world; and this lawsuit is about privacy?
I work for attorneys on a daily basis, they're my bread and butter, and I've seen all kinds, good and bad. I know when an attorney has accepted a load of crap from his client and takes on the job of convincing a court of law that the crap he's shoveling doesn't stink, that it's actually aromatic. The federal lawsuit he proposed, challenging the polygamy provision in Utah's constitution, could have been filed anywhere, since polygamy is outlawed in all fifty states. But since the Browns were now Nevada residents, and polygamy is also illegal in Nevada, why bring the suit to Utah? Could it be that Turley was orchestrating a dog and pony show, planned and staged more for his own self-aggrandizement and for the show's ratings, than to help these poor victims of a lifestyle they purportedly went into with their eyes wide open? Is this case part of a tax break for his pro bono obligation to the DC Bar, or are the costs and expenses of the Brown case coming out of his advertising and marketing budget? Or, perhaps the producers of the "Sister Wives" reality show would have us all believe that all this public drama is part of a necessary and unscripted event to protect the Browns constitutional rights, as opposed to the show's television ratings.
Perhaps Kody Brown and his family, and for that matter the entire cult he adheres to, are otherwise completely benign, law-abiding citizens. I don't really know enough about their present circumstances to make that call. But I do know where their group came from. Their leadership sprang from the same roots as the FLDS church. In the polygamous cultures I have learned about and witnessed, there is a volatile mix of religious extremism and blind obedience and one of the components that propagates the secrecy and need for "privacy" is polygamy. When most legitimate religious groups are eager to reach out and share the ideas and beliefs they hold dear, the Browns have been hesitant to even mention just exactly what religious group they're a part of. And when people like the Browns attempt to legitimize, and glamorize their illegal lifestyle by staging a very public piece of entertainment, it sends chills down my spine. And rightly so; I hope many more will share my response after taking the time to educate themselves and learn about the child abuse that is a part of many polygamous cultures.
Sam Brower is the author of the new book "Prophet's Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints."