Gather ’round, friends, it’s cult time again!
If you’re new here, hi, my name is Stephanie and I’m deeply fascinated by all things cults and closed or insular groups (religious or otherwise, although adding in the religious factor does make the topic way more intriguing for me). I’ve got a document on my computer titled ‘Cult Books’ (although to be fair, some of the books on the list are just ‘I left this religion and here’s my story’ books, which I find equally interesting), and I whip it out and wave it at just about anyone who expresses even a vague interest in cults.
Because that’s a normal thing to do. Totally.
So when I came across Breaking Free: How I Escaped My Father- Warren Jeffs- Polygamy, and the FLDS Cult by Rachel Jeffs (HarperLuxe, 2017) last summer, I had to add it to my TBR, because duh. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, has long been a horror-filled obsession of mine; it’s not the polygamy that interests me (I mean, it does, but it’s not the main factor), but more the secretive nature of the group, its customs and mores that differ from the way you and I live. Its leader, Warren Jeffs, has been in the news for being the human version of a toxic waste spill almost all my adult life, and while I didn’t think I could find him even more despicable, Rachel Jeffs has proved me wrong.
First off, MAJOR content warnings for this book. Warren Jeffs is a molesting piece of crap, and while Ms. Jeffs never veers into graphic description of the sexual abuse she suffered at his hands, neither does she back down from exposing exactly what he did to her. (And it wasn’t just girls, either, as Brent Jeffs, nephew of Warren, bravely pointed out in his memoir Lost Boy, co-written with Maia Szalavitz.) If this is something you’re not able to read about without experiencing distress, be kind to yourself and choose something that lets you breathe easier.
Breaking Free is Rachel Jeffs’ life story in the FLDS. She was the daughter of Warren Jeffs and his second wife Barbara Barlow (her sister Annette also married Jeffs; their parents, Rachel’s grandparents, were not happy about their daughters not being able to chose their own husbands and subsequently left the FLDS…leaving their daughters behind…). If you’ve read other accounts of life in this group, her tale is fairly typical: unaffectionate and overworked mothers, an abundance of siblings, never enough food, jealous sister wives taking out their anger on the hated wife’s children, terrible illnesses and near-fatal accidents treated with herbs and prayer. Rachel was eight years old when her father began molesting her; this abuse stretched on for years. At one point, she told her mother, who marched off to speak with Warren; the matter was never spoken of again, and the abuse continued.
Although Rachel stopped attending school after eighth grade, at age fifteen, she taught third grade at the Jeffs Academy in Short Creek- for no pay, of course. And at age 18, her father married her off to a man with two other wives. Rachel didn’t want to be married, but in the FLDS, women suffer from an extreme lack of agency. She was fortunate that Rich, her husband, was a decent guy whom she eventually came to love and who never forced her to do anything she wasn’t ready for. So many women in this group aren’t so lucky.
Warren’s control over the group expanded exponentially. While I was aware of his increasingly bizarre rules and restrictions (laughter is a sin! Parents aren’t allowed to hug their children!), I hadn’t known much about how he kept his followers always living on the edge, constantly moving them around and separating families (some permanently) as punishment for often minor (or even imaginary) infractions. Before his eventual cross-country game of hide and seek with the Feds, followed by life in prison, he became even more sexually creepy, implementing something he called ‘the New Law of Sarah, which allowed him to have multiple naked wives with him at one time, all in the name of God, to give him “heavenly comfort” as he solemnly atoned for the sins of the people. This law required the women to sexually touch and excite each other as well as Father with the promise that they were all working together for Father’s benefit as ‘God’s servant.‘” For a person who preached that even thinking of the opposite sex before marriage was a sin, it’s awfully convenient how a quick ceremony can turn hordes of women (Ms. Jeffs counts his wives, some as young as twelve years old, at at least 78) into his own personal harem. This is horrifying.
It’s not until Jeffs, exerting his draconian control even from behind bars, separates Rachel from her husband and children multiple times, for long periods of time, that she begins to consider that life on the outside may have something to offer. Rachel fled with her five children to her grandparents’ (the ones who left the FLDS, remember them?) in Centennial; they were still polygamous but not FLDS. With their help, and the aid of an organization called Holding Out HELP, Rachel Jeffs was finally able to break free from the community that had caused her so much pain.
There’s no co-author mentioned, and I’m going to assume that this isn’t ghostwritten. That said, having been subjected to the FLDS brand of education and barred from reading anything but FLDS religious material and the books she was able to sneak, Ms. Jeffs tells her story in an engaging and intriguing manner. Her writing style puts you right there with her, surrounded by sister wives in pastel dresses. Not all of her story is unhappy; she writes of the good times she had with her sisters and sometimes even her sister wives, and speaks happily of many aspects of her childhood, including her skill at playing the violin (which would eventually help her to earn money after her escape. Practice those instruments, kids!). Breaking Free does go a little deeper into the nightmare that was living under the control of Warren Jeffs, so if you’re at all interested in cults or the FLDS, you don’t want to miss this one.
Ms. Jeffs is more than just a victim of her father and the predatory culture in which she was raised, and I admire her courage, strength, and ability to change when she realized the need. Not everyone, not even in regular society, can do that, and I find her growth inspiring. I’m so glad she’s been able to move beyond her past (with all of her children by her side) in order to live a more authentic, free life and to share her story with the rest of the world. I only wish I had that kind of courage.