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March 14th, 2008

I first read Under the Banner of Heaven when it was out in hardcover only. I borrowed it from a friend of a then-boyfriend, shortly before breaking up with the boyfriend and very shortly before moving out to New Hampshire. I had previously read two other books by Krakauer, Into the Wild (back in 1995, IIRC) and Into Thin Air (sometime after that). I know I borrowed the former from a (different) friend. I don’t recall where I got the second, but I don’t think I bought it. I was reluctant to read a third Krakauer book, when I had already decided I wasn’t overly impressed by his topic selections in the previous books (or, really, his conclusions and his treatment of those topics, which struck me as aimed firmly at midlife crisis men rather than single young women like myself at the time). Also, I’d had one close friend who was a Mormon, a friendship which ended in a way that left me feeling pretty damn unhappy about Mormons in general. I’d also worked with a Mormon, ditto.

I was a Jehovah’s Witness from birth to 25, although not a sincere one for the last couple years as I was drifting out but reluctant to cut ties with family which I knew would happen when I left. I also have close friends who are Seventh Day Adventists, so I have an unusual amount of insider knowledge of this kind of religious experience. Most of my mother’s extended family who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses are Mennonites of a particularly extremist stripe, living in insular communities in Alberta and BC.

Reading Under the Banner of Heaven when it first came out was a bizarre and unnerving experience. The description of corporal punishment, crazy high expectations of behavior and total control of believers’ lives and prevalence of sexual abuse matched what I knew from my Mormon friend (who was LDS). It was unnerving in that I had not imagined that places like Colorado City existed in the US. Because of my experiences visiting Mennonite family, I was marginally less surprised (but no less disgusted) to learn of the existence of Bountiful in BC.

Like me Krakauer grew up surrounded by religious extremists. Unlike me, he wasn’t one of them.

This second reading of Under the Banner of Heaven on March 13 and 14 of 2008 have provided me with an unusual opportunity to measure the impact of a book on its subject matter. Dr. Phil has invited ex-FLDS members onto his show and shown footage from a documentary based in part on Colorado City. I’ve seen a limited amount of other news coverage of polygamy, which has universally annoyed the crap out of me because while I’m all in favor of polyamory, I have a huge problem with confusing polygamy as a normative social construct with polyamory as one choice for consenting adults. I know of no historical instance in which polygamy was not also associated with forced marriage, whether because the bride was unable to give consent because she was too young, or whether she was unable to give consent because of the lack of alternatives. Apparently, some fraction of this understanding is becoming common through the new subgenre of memoir, the ex-plural wife story, usually of escape although not always.

Google makes answering the question of “whatever happened to” fairly trivial. Here’s the summary.

Warren Jeffs was arrested on the run in a brand-new red SUV after telling his followers the color red was Teh Evil. This is important, in a way that unbelievers might have trouble understanding. In a similar fashion, as I made friends with non-JWs, I was struck by their goodness. They weren’t all evil. This does not match JW doctrine. Worse, it became clear, as I knew more and more people well, that on average, JWs are considerably worse people (more likely to beat their children savagely, cheat on their spouses, do drugs and sell them, cheat on their taxes, exploit their employers, violate confidentiality, molest children and the elderly, etc.) than the people I otherwise met in the course of my life. This does not match JW doctrine. At all. People of more mainstream religions know perfectly well that there are good people and bad people in every organization (religious or otherwise). JWs, however, have a position on this, and when it proved wrong, it really undermined my capacity to believe. Likewise, with the red SUV.

The state took over the schools in Colorado City to investigate massive financial wrongdoing and ultimately put it into receivership. This was followed by an investigation into businesses doing business with FLDS and the UEP and ultimately ended in UEP Trustees’ being removed by a judge (who was handling several lawsuits against the UEP, as near as I can tell) and being replaced by a Salt Lake City accountant with an advisory board made up primarily of long-time Colorado City residents who were no longer members of FLDS. As a result, the people of Colorado City are now paying property taxes, and the plan is to subdivide and return the town to private property. Currently FLDS members are refusing to pay, and it looks like a lot will move out, probably to the Texas properties (see below).

Warren Jeffs has been convicted of accomplice to minor (as in underage) rape because of his involvement in the marriage of minors to close relatives, and is about to be tried for the same crimes in another state.

The state legislature is attempting to pass a law requiring family court judges who give custody to or allow unsupervised contact between a parent who practices child bigamy and a child to spell out why that isn’t endangering the child in writing.

http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/0224childbigamy0224.html

Money and resources are being devoted to housing and caring for the “lost boys” kicked out so the old guys would have unrestricted access to the pubescent girls of Colorado City. Laws are being proposed to make it a felony to abandon an underage child.

Colorado City polygamists branched out to some other towns recently (El Dorado, TX and Lockney, TX), but were under a local media spotlight right from the beginning. A third location, in Edward County, TX, went undeveloped and back up for sale shortly after Jeffs’ conviction. There is also a growing compound near Pringle, SD.

Unlike some independent fundamentalist Mormons, the FLDS in the offshoot towns seem to be filing necessary paperwork to homeschool their kids, for building permits, wastewater treatment, etc. The Colorado City scam went under for a variety of reasons, but fundamentally because enough people left generating a population willing to complain about what was happening within. Otherwise, the compounds are run as sovereign and, in Colorado City, law enforcement was complicit (members). It seems likely the same thing will happen to the new communities over time (Bountiful has also had ex-members speak up about child-marriage, and the Canadians are slowly working their way up to thinking about taking action).

While people are still quoting the ACLU in support of polygamy, the focus is shifting to “child bigamy” (bigamy in which one of the spouses is under age), which became an Arizona felony in 2004 (you mean it wasn’t before?). Thus, sexual abuse of children has become the new wedge into this issue.

Krakauer sees the fundamentalist Mormon community growing as a backlash against the increasingly mainstream LDS (which he recognizes is still outrageously far-right). I disagree. Yes, they reproduce faster than anyone else. Yes, they are hyper-controlling, which makes it difficult for anyone to escape, particularly with limitations on education, access to information about the world outside the group, significant age and gender power differentials, control of all real property, sexual abuse, corporal punishment for women and children, early and frequent child-bearing, etc. All this would seem to indicate they will flourish unchecked. Yet, at the same time, it’s quite clear that it is possible to escape this environment, or become an unbeliever while staying within this environment (Deloy Bateman). Further, the non-FLDS associates of Bob Crossfield have even partially abandoned the prejudices which caused them to give up the LDS church in favor of a more fundamental flavor.

There is a risk of a Branch Davidian (Waco) style disaster shaping up at one or more of the offshoot compounds. At least in Texas, the sheriff seems determined to head this off by maintaining some connection with the FLDS. There are a couple of other factors that work against fundamentalist Mormonism growing unchecked. One is the nuanced approach taken by law enforcement in Arizona/Utah. Rather than go in and arrest everyone and generate tragic parents-separated-from-children stuff, they’ve focused on the economic side (specifically on members who left, were stripped of their right to homes they had built on UEP land, and sued under unlawful enrichment) and on supporting those people who chose to leave. They’ve also chosen to go after the rights of children, but not the rights of children to have a “normal” upbringing which would generate massive resistance from a broad swathe on the right and left. Instead, they’ve gone after children who are sexually abused, initially in ways that are legally documentable even with an uncooperative person (marriage certificate, DNA evidence of fatherhood), which is really unlikely to generate across-the-board resistance.

The LeBaron crowd (crazy idiots in Central America) now has DNA evidence of father=grandfather incest and is publicizing it in an attempt to get law enforcement to extract the youngest children.

Finally, the natural inclination of fundamentalist organizations to splinter is fully in evidence (there has already been a schism off the Texas branch between Merril Jessop and Isaac Jeffs).

Second, rereading Under the Banner of Heaven post-(second)-marriage and after having Teddy, and more significantly, after having read who knows how many books about the repercussions of beating children, gave me yet another stack of data on the whole beating kids makes them authoritarian apocalyptic assholes. The Lafferty clan in particular displayed a lot of the characteristics of PKs who don’t just lie-and-rebel. That is, some preacher’s kids just make a point of looking all holy and righteous and pious. Others become truly nutty about proving they are all holy and righteous and pious and generally behave like the worst kind of alcoholic, only without the benefit of mind altering substances. And when you subscribe to a religion that says it is not only okay, but God has ordered you to lie to unbelievers (as Mormon kids may be taught, and certainly as I was taught) and that you do what God tells you to, even if it involves killing all the babies by bashing their heads against rocks lest they grow up to worship false gods and idols like their parents who you just killed – and that NOT killing babies is so wrong you’ll all die horribly if even one of you keeps a small silver idol for yourself as plunder or one of The Evil Pagan Women as a concubine until that person is tracked down and killed along with their entire family (and livestock), too. You grow up that way, and what Dan/Ron did to Brenda and Erica becomes, if not expectable, at least explainable.

Really! Look what Joshua did to Achan and his family after the whole thing at Jericho. Joshua 7. They put everyone to the sword, but in Psalm 137, the babies were dashed against the rocks. Which goes a long way to supporting the Mormons, fundamentalist and otherwise, in holding a grudge against persecution by people back in Missouri a hundred odd years ago. And just to get a glimpse of Bible backing for no out-marriage, try Numbers 25. Most appallingly, God sent a plague that killed 24,000, because ONE Israelite slept with ONE Midianite. Bad God. No worship.

The vast majority of Christians in this country no longer know about these stories, much less think they are worthy of applying literally, which is in marked contrast to even a century past when these stories were well-understood and part of the basis of Calvinism with its essentializing understanding of Good and Evil, of the Elect and the Damned, and these kinds of ideas fed into a mindset that accepted slavery and genocide. America has changed so much it would likely not be recognizable to its citizens of several generations ago; certainly the more religious of those times would consider us damned beyond redemption. We’ll get past this Mormonism crap (fundamentalist and otherwise), too, as long as we stay alert to the details of what they are teaching and how they are getting such obedient children, and recognize the danges of these strategies and resist the temptation to apply them in our own lives. Sure, our family life will be a little more openly rambunctious; better that than sitting on the couch knitting while your sons plot the brutal murder of your daughter-in-law and first grandchild.