The Impact of a Modern-Day Polygamy Group on Women

ICSA Today, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2011, 2-8

The Impact of a Modern-Day Polygamy Group on Women and Children

Larry Beall, Ph.D.

The professional literature on modern-day polygamy is in its early stages. This paper is the outgrowth of my work as a psychologist/clinician with former members of a specific polygamous group termed the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS). To my knowledge, there is no other report of clinical findings with former members of the FLDS available in the professional research. For that reason, I cannot make references to other practitioners who have researched the subject based on clinical information. The information presented here represents information furnished to me in a therapeutic setting by mothers and their children who fled the FLDS community; it summarizes some of the characteristics of the FLDS religious community. Specifically, I derived the information in this paper from 21 survivors who fled the FLDS community: 6 mothers (ages 17, 27, 27, 29, 33, 42) and their children, and 15 “lost boys,” young men between the ages of 16 and early 20s who had to leave the community.

Historical Background

A brief historical background may be of assistance to the reader unfamiliar with the FLDS. The FLDS is a splinter group from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known today as Mormons). In 1890, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Wilford Woodruff, issued a manifesto that officially terminated all plural or polygamous marriages in the church.

In consequence of this Manifesto, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized by its leaders, who stated the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had gone astray, buckling under the pressures of the world, instead of remaining true to the word of God. Since then, FLDS have been strongly critical of this Manifesto and its application by the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. FLDS leaders state as a basic tenet and principle of their church that “we obey the laws of God, not man’s laws.”

With this manifesto, a group of church members believed the president of the church no longer had authority to govern it and consequently relinquished his authority to the next senior apostle, John Wooley. John Wooley formed a new church from the body of followers who still believed in and practiced plural marriages.

The FLDS community became established in Colorado City, Arizona and Hilldale, Utah. These two towns lie in a remote area on the Utah/Arizona border. The current leader of the FLDS is Warren Jeffs, who, incidentally, was the president during the time the former FLDS members with whom I have worked left the polygamous community. Warren Jeffs was prosecuted and convicted on two counts of being an accomplice to rape by the State of Utah in 2007. This conviction was reversed and a retrial was ordered in July of this year, citing deficient juror instruction. Charges in Arizona were dropped “with prejudice” in June of this year, opening the door for the state of Texas to begin the extradition process and pursue prosecution of Jeffs for his role in offenses committed at the Yearning for Zion ranch.

There are terms unique to the doctrines and practitioners of FLDS. I could make a larger glossary or dictionary of these terms but will provide only the most fundamental ones here:

Celestial Kingdom: This is another name for the highest of the three levels of heaven. Only the most righteous can be rewarded with life in the Celestial Kingdom. A prominent belief among the FLDS is that a successful plural marriage is a prerequisite for those entering this kingdom of heaven.

Eternal family: Many of the FLDS believe the doctrine that their marriages can go on forever when a properly authorized priesthood holder officiates in the marriage ceremony.

Lost boys: This term refers primarily to young single men who have been exiled from the FLDS community, often by dictate from the leaders, at times voluntarily. A common problem the author has encountered with these young men is they lack the knowledge or experience to be successful in society outside of the FLDS community.

One-man rule: This is the leadership model of the FLDS church. Members believe that their leader (called a president or prophet) has direct contact with God. Consequently, church members’ eternal welfare depends on following his leadership.

Patriarch: This is a title of priesthood authority that a man holds as the spiritual head of his family. This role is often viewed in FLDS as the unquestioned right to rule in the family without regard to the feelings of the wives or children.

Patriarchal society: A community in which the priesthood is the authority that governs in society and the home.

Plural marriage: The marriage of one man to more than one woman. Other interchangeable terms for plural marriage include celestial marriage or patriarchal marriage. The public’s use of the term polygamy may have a negative connotation to those within the FLDS community. A term synonymous with polygamy is polygyny.

Priesthood: FLDS believe this is the authority to act for God. Only the men hold the priesthood. Accompanying this priesthood is the right to preside over the family and religious community. The priesthood head is a man who holds a position of authority or leadership, such as “head of the priesthood” or “priesthood head of the family.”

Prophet: The title for the man who can speak with and receive guidance or revelation from God for all members of the community. As it relates to plural marriage, FLDS members believe the prophet receives revelation as to who should marry whom. When this occurs the marriage is termed a placement marriage.

Revelation: Communication from God to his children. In addition to the belief that the prophet receives revelation for members of the church, heads of families can receive revelation for their families and individuals for themselves. Revelation can come in many forms, such as a prompting, voice, dream, or vision.

FLDS is a closed society in which secrecy and isolation of its members predominates. Because polygamy is illegal, we are confronted with an issue common to research of closed societies. Whom do we believe? If we were to interview mothers in polygamist families who did not desire to leave their polygamous relationship, descriptions of their experience would no doubt be different from what is reported here by those who were unhappy enough to leave. The reports of the women who remained in polygamy would include descriptions of what were positive characteristics to them, and we would expect them to be less revealing of their more negative experiences. At the same time, we could consider the statements of those who have left the community jaded or distorted. Based on current views of church leaders and society’s laws, the way will not be opened for us to perform quantitative or for that matter qualitative research with this religious group.

I must emphasize that what follows is based on the reports of those who left the FLDS community and sought my help as a psychologist in their recovery from the effects of living there. They felt sufficiently symptomatic and dysfunctional to seek treatment. They knew something was wrong with them. They felt unprepared to deal with life outside the FLDS community. They lacked life skills. They desired help for their children. Public agencies such as Workforce Services or Crime Victims Reparations referred them for psychological treatment as part of their overall treatment program. Their reports of abusive experiences and symptoms were consistent with the thousands of others treated at the Trauma Awareness & Treatment Center for domestic violence and abuse, as well as with those of others who have left polygamous situations. I saw no motivation for them to malinger or make up traumatic experiences or symptoms.

We must first understand that the basic structure of polygamy is authoritarian. The men who practice it generally believe they have the authority to govern and control their wives and children in the family relationship. In polygamous communities, there is a hierarchy of polygamous marriages that exist under the control of a central leader. This leader is referred to as the prophet. One problem with a hierarchical structure has to do with the effects of power and control. Absolute power does tend to corrupt, and it is not unusual for the patriarch or prophet in a polygamous community to become corrupted by the sweeping power he possesses (as evidenced by the history of these polygamous groups).

Prominent Characteristics of the FLDS Community

All control belongs to a central figure. As previously indicated, the central figure in the polygamous group is referred to as the prophet. In the polygamous marriage, the central figure is the husband. A child is responsible to his/her father, and he in turn is responsible to the prophet. The prophet, through the father, controls the places the children will work and for how long, how much education they receive and for what purpose, their status or loss thereof in the community, extracurricular activities, acceptable foods, and the town and house they will live in. He also directs when and whom their children will marry. He also can determine the rules of the society in which his followers live, and change them at any time, without explanation.

Revelation from God dictates the words and acts of the central figure. This principle is the basis of the prophet’s power and authority and, in a corollary way, the polygamist father’s power and authority over his wives and children. Followers are taught to worship the prophet as a god. No matter what the prophet instructs a person to do, he should be obeyed without question, and the follower should be “sweet” about it (cheerfully submissive). A prophet can make even unreasonable and nonsensical directives, which others are expected to follow because the rules “came from God.” The story of the patriarch Abraham and his son Isaac in the Old Testament often is cited to reinforce this control. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac because God commanded it. In like manner, a patriarch can dictate to a fourteen-year-old girl that she is to be his wife because God revealed it. It is a serious matter for her to refuse this proposal, and it can bring negative consequences to her father’s status in the community or to opportunities for her in the future.

Independent thinking and outside information are shunned. It stands to reason that if characteristics 1 and 2 are correct, the follower should not be expected to think independently or be exposed to outside information, either of which may lead him or her away from the “true path” outlined by the prophet or patriarch. The fathers in the polygamous group are figures to respect, but the mothers are only to be obeyed if they are in “perfect harmony” with the father. It is expected that children not seek information or counsel other than what is offered by the leader, and they are to accept this advice or information implicitly. Generally, children are not given conditions that require them to think. They fulfill their responsibilities to the family, or they answer to someone over them. Children are not to be provided information pertaining to the outside world, except as it may apply to earning a living for the family or community. Free expression is not allowed if it is different from what the leaders teach, or from the basic recognized group values. In fact, there is no “approved” way for a child to question a mother, just as there is no approved way for the mother to question the father. It is difficult for persons outside the FLDS community to grasp that today, in this country, such basic freedoms can be, and are, denied. But a moment’s reflection suggests that if such groups are to preserve themselves, such freedoms cannot be allowed.

Relationships with others outside the group are prohibited. Relationships outside the group are not encouraged, unless they are overseen, supervised, and even micromanaged by the priesthood authorities. The group can make it difficult for a child to see any family member outside the religious community (father, mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncles, grandparent, etc.). One example that was shared was of a mother who repeatedly visited two of her children who had left the FLDS group. As punishment, her husband sent her away and told her that only her own death could atone for the grievous sin she had committed. Separation and secrecy are necessary conditions for the group to keep its members under the control of the leaders and unaware of outside alternatives. Information that does not originate with the prophet or family’s patriarch is suspected of being a corruptive and contaminating influence. Therefore, exposure to people or information from outside is in many cases prohibited.

The community holds nonconstructive attitudes toward education. Within the FLDS community, as an extension of characteristics 3 and 4 above, much of education is perceived as contamination, with some education considered a crime against the polygamous community. Following are some attitudes regarding education that individuals shared with me that illustrate this position.

Most literature is forbidden. Only priesthood-published and -approved books are the guide for “literature” to be read.

Other races, cultures, and belief systems have no value; therefore, there is no need to learn about them.

The only history that matters is the history of the line of men who have held the special authority to act in God’s name on earth, the “history of the priesthood.”

The only books that a child should be allowed to read are books with stories that reflect the values and beliefs of the FLDS theology. 

Math beyond the basics is not needed, except as facts that one can use to pass a test or use as a specific application (i.e., geometry to build a building). Individuals are not to pursue math out of interest alone.

English has limited usage; science is largely irrelevant.

Health is not taught because the body is a forbidden subject and is to be covered up. Sex education in the school is forbidden and very rarely taught in the home.

The only education a child needs is the education that results from watching the prophet in order to become like him, and to gain the knowledge necessary so she or he can be of greater service to the prophet.

As is apparent, such attitudes toward education are excessively narrow and the effect is to confine the thinking of the follower. As I have witnessed in those who have left the community, they are ill-equipped to survive in mainstream society.

Adaptation to mainstream society is punishing. If followers followed the five characteristics I have described to this point, the effects on those who had to make their way in society apart from their religious group would be crippling. But the polygamous group targets society itself as an evil to be shunned. Children are taught to be afraid of the outside world, that outside society is dangerous in many ways, and that the only sanctuary for them is within the community of believers. Outside people are generally considered wicked, government is a conspiracy that will destroy them, and doctors are evil and will hurt them with their practices. (This being said, there are accounts of mothers having taken their children to outside healthcare providers when the medical need required it, and having received life-saving help). Because the world is considered temporary and soon to be destroyed anyway, children are taught there is little to no need to be involved with it. To the extent that children are involved in the world, they will be influenced and corrupted by it and become lesser people than they otherwise could, becoming useless in the long run for God’s purposes.

The group reflects a no-privacy mentality. To maintain the structure and centralized power in this society under current leadership, it is necessary to “police” group members to ensure compliance. Even as there is secrecy to prevent outsiders from discovering the ways of the FLDS community, there is frequent internal watching to prevent followers from becoming disloyal. An outsider observing the community would probably not notice the subtle monitoring within the community, thanks in part to the unspoken morés of the society that any wrongdoing, particularly that which could lead members from the prophet, should be reported. Children are expected to report anyone, including parents, brothers, sisters, or friends. Reporting at times is done out of duty to the prophet, but there are times when reports are made in anticipation of reward or special recognition, or to avoid punishment if the knowledge of misdeeds is not reported in a timely manner. A phrase that is used when someone is tempted to choose a friend over loyalty to the leader is “the test of friends.” A corollary teaching is “if a child loves the prophet he will watch for sins in others that they may be reported, and there will be no sin among the prophet’s people” as a result. If the individual is not a member of a higher social status, he should report members’ sins in the interest of the community’s welfare. I cannot overstate the point that secrecy (protecting from the outside) and loyalty (protecting the inside) are essential to the maintenance of the group’s identity, solidarity, and cohesion, and the fulfillment of the prophet’s desires.

Violence is a necessary strength. An extension of the control and authoritarianism the polygamous father exercises can be violence. In my experience, it is not unusual for mothers who have fled the polygamous relationship to report cases of violence perpetrated on them and their children, approved and sanctioned by the polygamous community’s leaders. If the patriarch uses violence to control his children and wives, it is considered a private matter not to be reported. Intuitively, it makes sense within their reality. There are so many children to take care of and such limited resources to get the job done that physical punishment can be the most direct way to enforce rules and ensure obedience. Another aspect of violence within polygamous groups has to do with perception. Among some families, a violent father is perceived as a strong father whose strength breeds control and authority. One problem of this mentality is that violence has a way of escalating, and children in polygamous families may have a higher than normal tendency to be violent with each other as a result. It is reported as axiomatic that expressions of anger are to be kept within the family and are a private matter. I should add here that it is not unusual in societies in which there is forced suppression of emotions for anger and rage to simmer, and it can surface as angry and violent outbursts.

Emotional expressions are undesirable. Emotions and their expression are considered signs of weakness and are undesirable. A child is taught to keep her emotions inside and not tell others about what she feels. It is believed that if children express these undesirable feelings, the feelings will grow and take over. Emotions are a sign that you are not on the path to God, and they are often associated with evil spirits. For example, crying is a bad spirit that takes control of a person; and it is a sign of weakness to allow this bad spirit to control one’s self. Laughing is being light-minded, and is a sin. Crying over a disappointment is also considered selfish. A nervous breakdown within the FLDS group occurs when a person invites an evil spirit into his life and must rid himself of this spirit. Consequently, emotional problems, like many medical problems, are not treated since they see problems that result from personal weakness or a failure to comply with the patriarchal order as requiring repentance. Particularly, those emotions that would suggest weakness or vulnerability fall into the category of being reprehensible. One paradox of this belief and attitude has to do with the expression of anger. Although anger is an emotion, it is not judged as a weakness when an authority figure expresses it. In recent years, public physical displays of anger within some polygamous groups such as the FLDS have become rare. Instead, mental and emotional abuse that is less observable, but no less damaging, has been reported as more common.

Personal desires are unwanted. Group teachings emphasize that the prophet’s will is an expression and extension of God’s will, and the patriarch’s/father’s will is that of the prophet. Therefore, the will of everyone else in the polygamous community is to be subjected to God, the prophet, and the individual patriarch simultaneously. Children are taught to be rid of their personal desires and wants. If these personal desires are not controlled, they will destroy the individual. In every aspect of the child’s life, the will of the leader is paramount. If a child is told to do something, he or she does not have the right to refuse or ask questions.

Polygamous communities are a caste system. The wives and children who belong to a patriarch are part of a caste system the patriarch has established, although not usually in a declared or explicit manner. Only he can assign the child’s value or the value of the child’s mother, in unspoken but self-evident ways (i.e., privileges, time with him, praise, etc.). One’s value is established by those over him or her and is usually based on financial contributions and level of obedience to the prophet’s will. Families with more value have nicer homes and are allowed better jobs. People in the upper echelons of polygamous groups do relatively less work and enjoy “blessings” or rewards for their position. People on the bottom do the hardest work and can even be denied basic necessities. “Faithfulness” as determined by the prophet is the signal of prosperity and favor. Faithfulness within the polygamous group is defined as conformity, meeting expectations, enhancing the leader’s status, sex for the purpose of procreation; in short, doing what is necessary to please those in authority.

I should note here that one reason there is such disparity between the reports I have received from those who fled the FLDS community and the reports of those who remain could have to do with this caste system. Females who are favored are often in the role of “counselor,” who is a teacher or mentor to younger or “difficult” wives. An analysis of these counselors’ function demonstrates that their basic purpose is to enforce and reiterate the policies and teachings of the prophet or patriarch. As a reward for this devotion, the faithful wife will receive superior living conditions and better treatment within her group. Again, this practice is not necessarily verbalized, but it is shown in actions. This differential between living standards may explain why some plural wives report only positive aspects of their polygamous experiences. They stand to gain more by the preservation of the society that has met their needs and wants, through the sacrifice of those of lower status.

Attitudes toward women are as property/possessions. Before a woman is married, she has value as property, bringing her father influence, power, and prestige within the group. She is “groomed” for her relationship with the man who will be her husband. Her purpose is to please her husband by doing what gives him pleasure or satisfaction. She has no right to complain about abuse or injustice. Within the polygamous community, a woman is by and large an object. I have been told that “when a woman reaches the age of 40 her husband will replace her with two women who are 20.” (This arrangement of course would require the authorization of the prophet.) After a woman is married, her greatest value is to produce faithful children and help support the father financially.


Central control within the polygamous group is based on revelation the prophet says he receives from God. The position given to the patriarch (father) by the prophet determines the patriarch’s status in the religious community and his ability to exert his will on the family. The follower is taught not to question or doubt, but to follow and fulfill the desires of the appointed priesthood leader. The control of information, educational parameters, and separation from outsiders are all maintained to prevent contamination of members and to keep the belief system of the group pure and intact. Women in good standing with polygamous leaders are the most faithful wives, and are presented to the media for interviews extolling the virtues of their lifestyles. Warnings concerning the evils and dangers of society further insulate the group members from the outside world. Separation from the outside world and secrecy of the inside world maintain the necessary barrier between the FLDS community and the larger society. Under such conditions, the followers in the polygamous community are unlikely to possess the skills necessary to be successful or perhaps even survive in outside society. Internal policing tends to prevent followers from becoming disloyal or leaving the group. An important element of this closed society is the discouragement of emotional expression, personal desires, self-will, and identity. A caste-like system tends to keep individuals in their proper place, all under the governance of FLDS church leaders. A woman’s role or rank in this system helps explain why some women may have positive reports of their experience, while other reports, such as those provided for this paper, have been more negative.

Larry D. Beall, Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, l987, Brigham Young University. Director of Trauma Awareness & Treatment Center for sixteen years. Established the Satellite Trauma Center for the 4th Street Clinic Homeless Coalition. Clientele include children, adolescents, and adults with stress-related disorders, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and dissociative disorders. Expert witness for trauma survivors, including assault, cult, and refugee trauma. Has authored materials used in professional presentations, including Life Skills for Trauma Survivors Workbook, Using Sand Tray for Treating Traumatized Children, Manual for Treating Traumatized Refugees, The Impact of Modern Day Polygamy on Women and Children, Helping the Traumatized Child in Iraq, and a series of articles published in Iraqi newspapers to help Iraqi people and military personal deal with the stress and traumas of war.