At 62 years old, Coylyn Pipkin is still a teenager. Women who’ve left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, often think of themselves in this way. They joke that their development, especially when it comes to emotional intelligence, stopped when they were young. When they leave the FLDS, they go through the same phases that every kid does: teenage rebellion, twenties exploration, thirties confidence. Coylyn left the FLDS in 2015, and has only recently started wearing her long gray hair without the elaborate front wave — a mix of ‘90s bangs and something vaguely 19th century — taught to all women in the church as children.
When I met Coylyn, she was dressed for the third annual Girlfriends Day Out, a celebration for ex-FLDS women hosted by the Creekers Foundation — part of a larger movement of ex-FLDS members working to wrest their narrative away from the church its members have left behind. She wasn’t wearing heels, like some of the younger women, or a tightly fitted dress. It hadn’t been that long since her wardrobe was entirely composed of the long, puffed-sleeve dresses that outsiders called “prairie” and those in the community called “polyg” (pronounced "plig”). When her husband teased her on the way out the door, mumbling, “Oh, you feminist women,” she ignored him.
For more than a decade, the FLDS ran the small borderline towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona — collectively known as Short Creek, with a population somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 — like a totalitarian fiefdom. They owned the houses, the dairy, the farm, the grocery store. They controlled the utilities. If an outsider tried to move into town, they wouldn’t give them a business license or turn on their water. If someone was expelled from the community, they’d be shunned entirely. Any visitors were tracked by the dozens of surveillance cameras positioned around town and followed by a group of church enforcers, the “God Squad,” who’d drive around in SUVs with tinted windows.
Coylyn grew up with three mothers: her biological mother, plus two other women, or “sister wives,” who were married to her father. Coylyn’s own mother had 13 children; Mother Charlotte, as Coylyn calls her, had 16; Mother Elaine had 15: 44 in all. When Coylyn was a teenager, she and three of her sisters were married to a man named Don Pipkin. When he passed away in 2002, Warren Jeffs, then the “prophet” and leader of the FLDS, married them all to another man. When that man was kicked out of the FLDS, as so many who directly or indirectly challenged Jeffs’s authority were, Coylyn left the church to be with him.
“People wouldn’t look at me or acknowledge me,” she told me. “They’d walk the other way — people I’ve been friends with my whole life.” She has two biological children, but also considers her sisters’ 31 children, most of whom have left the FLDS, her own. “I’m their mother,” she told me. “I’m the one they come to, because all their mothers are still in.”
Coylyn’s story is typical of ex-FLDS women in many ways, but she’s an outlier among those who have left the church, simply because she’s still with her husband. Leaving is traumatic in many ways — including realizing that you never really chose, or maybe never even loved, the person the prophet paired you with. (In the FLDS, only the prophet can sanction a marriage.)
Leona Bateman started the Creekers, then called the Girlfriend Club, in 2013. She estimates that 90% of the women who leave the FLDS community see their marriages disintegrate. At one point, Coylyn’s daughter opened up a dating app to show me just how few options for relationships there were in the area — especially if you were looking for someone you could be certain you weren’t related to. Most people in the Crick, as FLDS members call it, descend from the same founding families.
“We don’t have family trees,” she said, laughing. “It’s more like family wreaths.”
The FLDS broke away from the Latter-day Saints (better known as Mormons) after the church abandoned the practice of polygamy in 1890. They believe Mormons have forsaken the foundational teachings of their religion, and consider them, along with anyone else who is not part of the FLDS, to be “gentiles.” The original leaders chose Short Creek for its remoteness: Zion National Park is to the north, the Grand Canyon is to the south, and miles of vacant desert lie between.
When Warren Jeffs came to power in 2002, everything that had made Short Creek feel alive was gradually taken away. Dogs, books, basketball. School. The Fourth of July. Friends and parents and siblings, especially men, were sent away to “repent” so that Jeffs and those in his inner circle could take their wives as their own. Teen girls were married off to men many decades their senior; some were taken to Jeffs and abused. Teenage boys were excommunicated for watching movies or talking to girls and disavowed by their families. Slowly, word of the inner doings of the super-insulated FLDS began to reach the outside world, largely through stories — including Jon Krakauer's book Under the Banner of Heaven, Sam Brower’s Prophet’s Prey, and Carolyn Jessop’s Escape — that alternated between being infuriating and horrifying.
“At first, the narrative had to be dark,” says Elissa Wall, whose own book, Stolen Innocence, details her teenage marriage, abuse, and eventual escape from the FLDS. “It needed to uncover and dig out that grossness that was going on. We allowed all that nastiness to come to the surface, and we’ve been successful in shining a light on all that was going on.” Now, however, that narrative is changing. “We are more than Warren Jeffs and the FLDS and where we were,” Wall told me. “We are better than the stories about us. We have a new narrative: resilience.”
On Airbnb, you can scroll through the photos of the rentable room in the compound that hosted Girlfriends Day Out. Today, it’s known as America’s Most Wanted Bed and Breakfast — a deliberate mockery of Warren Jeffs’s time on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. There’s a queen bed with elaborate pillow landscaping, a leather couch, and an expansive bathroom with twin vanities, one on each side of the bathroom wall. The unnervingly thick baby blue carpet goes halfway up the walls.
Some things, though, you can’t see in the photos: the walls, almost a foot thick, that block out all sound; the door that leads into a study, which in turn leads to a recording studio, which looks, through a one-way window, onto a living space, with stairs that lead down to the back of the house. The room was intended to be Warren Jeffs’s, and the suite his private lair, which would offer a way for girls, dropped off by their parents in hopes of being selected as Jeffs’s next wife, to enter the house without notice.
The 10-foot wall that surrounds the compound cost an estimated $1 million. It was the white powder used to color the concrete that drove up the cost: “It was just a veil of holiness,” George Jessop, the current caretaker and a member of one of the old Short Creek families, told me. “They were trying to create such a holy space, using that white — but they used the deception of that holiness to mask horrible things.”
We were standing on a balcony on the second floor of the main compound, which, in addition to Jeffs’s master suite, has 12 bedrooms, several living spaces, and two massive kitchens. George worked pouring concrete; dozens of others dropped what they were doing to build it as fast as possible, completing it in just 90 days.
George pointed to the building next door. “That was meant for the holiest of holies,” he said, “just like in Texas, where he’d bring girls in there and rape them.”
When Jeffs was fleeing the FBI — before his 2006 Utah arrest — he’d periodically escape to the Yearning for Zion ranch in West Texas, home to over 500 of the FLDS faithful. A 2008 FBI raid of the ranch revealed documents and recordings that implicated Jeffs in the sexual assault of minors, including a 12-year-old girl he’d taken as a wife.
When Jeffs was convicted, the Hildale compound passed out of the control of the church. Today, it mainly serves as a place to stay for overflow tourists of Zion National Park, whose reviews on Airbnb communicate various amounts of knowledge about the FLDS, the area, and why it feels the specific and peculiar way it does.
Like the Fourth of July celebration that George and his wife Miriam have helped restart, America’s Most Wanted Bed and Breakfast is part of the next chapter of Short Creek. But to understand the chapters that came before — how Jeffs leveraged and continues to leverage his power over his thousands of followers — you have to take a drive.
I hopped in George’s red Suburban — very few vehicles in Short Creek seat fewer than seven — and we headed into “town,” an approximately five-block journey. Within seconds, he announced we’d crossed the Utah state line, over Uzona Avenue into Arizona. The proximity to the border is no accident: For a group persecuted for decades for their polygamous lifestyle, it provides a useful blurring of jurisdiction.
There’s something about the area around Short Creek, and its shadowed position below the red cliffs, that makes it feel like you’re hiding in a corner. Around two-thirds of the roads are paved, but others peter off into dirt or gravel. Even though many FLDS members have moved out of town, vestiges remain: in the baby cemetery; in the field filled with appliances, dropped off to be fixed by an FLDS repairman who’s long gone; or, most vividly, in the occasional sightings of FLDS children, immediately recognizable in their jewel-toned prairie dresses or work shirts buttoned all the way up. Their heads bob above the fence line while they bounce on a hidden trampoline, or pump water from a cistern up in the hills, or ride a pair of Shetland ponies down the side of a Hildale street.
The ex-members I spoke with believe that most of the hundreds of leftover FLDS devotees in town are, as they put it, “coming around.”
The current leadership of the FLDS is in prison or has fled — most think to South Dakota, or maybe Colorado or Texas or Canada or Mexico — along with the vast majority of Jeffs’s wives and members “in high standing.” Those still in Short Creek abide by the ever-evolving revelations (that they must eat a gluten-free diet, for example, which is why so many of the current FLDS are so skinny; or that they cannot even touch billing notices — let alone heed them — requiring them to pay nominal rent on the houses owned by the trust now controlled by ex-FLDS. As a result, most were evicted).
The Short Creek of today is unrecognizable to many who grew up there. During the 1970s and ‘80s, life was removed from and considerably less modern than the rest of the United States. Ex-FLDS describe it as deeply, wonderfully fun. The town was a de facto playground, with a sprawling zoo filled with exotic animals and an elaborate park, complete with a functioning mini train at its center. The prophet at the time, Uncle Roy — all leaders are referred to as “Uncle” — is remembered as kind and benevolent.
Back then, women married young, but rarely as teens. You could read (most) books and watch (some) movies. You could go to school. You could pick your own clothes, so long as they were modest. The community would come together to build a house in a day: pouring the foundation the night before, then working together to make it livable by nightfall. Every month, there’d be a play, operetta, or concert put on by members of the community. There were elaborate celebrations on Uncle Roy’s birthday and on Pioneer Day — a sort of Mormon independence day. Today, many ex-FLDS are deeply nostalgic for that period in the community’s past: before the internet, before it all went wrong. Before Warren Jeffs.
In the 1980s, a schism in the FLDS priesthood council — which advises and enacts the will of the prophet — led to the expulsion of several men, along with their families. The expelled men moved a short distance out of town, to an area now known as Centennial Park, and started their own splinter sect, unaffiliated with Jeffs, which flourishes today. The group, which numbers in the thousands, practices polygamy but, as one ex-FLDS member told me, “aren’t as into the teen girl thing.”
“You see all those fancy houses?” George asked me, driving slowly down a street in Centennial Park lined with brick McMansions. “They’re built on land that wasn’t owned by the church, which meant they could take out mortgages. And when you take a mortgage, you can get enough money to actually build your house all at once.”
They’re a stark contrast to most houses in Short Creek, whose primary aesthetic could be described as “Frankensteined”: Houses were built piecemeal as money sporadically became available for new additions; entire sections often remained unfinished or covered only in particle board; other wings were added as families expanded. Building a house, according to George, often took years, if not a decade. Some FLDS houses are discernable by “Zion” signs; all are surrounded by thick walls, constructed, under Jeffs’s instruction, to ensure outsiders couldn’t see in.
While the towns of Colorado City and Hildale maintained local governments — they had to, in order to get streets paved — the church and United Effort Plan, a trust formed to shelter all church land, actually ran the towns and owned the handful of businesses, including the grocery store. They controlled the utilities and the police department. They didn’t control the public school, but the vast majority of teachers employed there were FLDS.
That sort of control, under different circumstances, might be called “an intentional community.” But it was also a perfect setup for financial and ideological exploitation.
The history of the FLDS is rooted in a gospel-like belief in its own persecution. That belief manifests in all corners of FLDS life, including at the edge of the town park, where a small piece of jagged sandstone reads:
“WE MUST NEVER FORGET HOW THE LORD BLESSED US IN RESTORING OUR FAMILIES TAKEN IN THE ‘53 RAID”
The ‘53 raid ended in the arrest of all but six members of the then–400-member polygamist community, which the Arizona governor described as “insurrectionists” intent on producing “white slavery.” At least 100 members of the press observed as hundreds of children were separated from their parents, sparking an unlikely public backlash.
The community survived, as most, but not all, of the children were returned to their parents. But the raid became a pivotal chapter in the FLDS’s understanding of themselves as a persecuted people. When the state of Utah convicted Jeffs in 2007 on two counts of acting as an accomplice to rape — only to have the ruling overturned on appeal three years later — it would feed into that same understanding. When FBI members attempted to tell FLDS members about Jeffs’s misdeeds, they refused to believe him. “All of it was framed to us as persecution,” George told me. “It locks people up tighter than hell, in terms of ever being able to break out. Even when Texas prosecuted him for stuff he really was doing, to us, it was all still persecution.”
Uncle Roy had helped cultivate that narrative of persecution, and when he died in 1986, it was perpetuated by Rulon Jeffs, who took his place as the head of the FLDS church. Rulon was 77 when he took the position, but continued to marry wives, accumulating as many as 75, even as he became increasingly disoriented and incapable of consummating a marriage.
According to those who’ve left the FLDS, the wives were added at the behest of Warren Jeffs, who knew that the more wives were given to his father, the more Warren could marry upon his death, thereby solidifying his rule of the FLDS. But Uncle Rulon stayed stubbornly alive until 2002, when he passed away at the age of 92.
For the ex-FLDS, Warren Jeffs’s ascension functions as a cleaving point, separating one way of life from another. When Leona Batemen showed me photos of herself, she prefaced each with “before” or “after” Warren. Even without her guidance, there were giveaways: the hairdos, of course, and the dresses, both of which were meant to mark FLDS women as different, as irreconcilable to gentile culture.
But there’s something else, too — a flatness, a weariness behind the eyes. Women who were listless or insubordinate were medicated with antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, as were men and children. It was one of many ways that Jeffs ensured his flock would remain docile and subordinate, especially as his attempts to consolidate his power became more and more overt. He declared that the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City were a sign of the forthcoming apocalypse and forced all FLDS to gather in Short Creek, where they could be monitored closely. He cut off access to “worldly” culture. He ordered basketball hoops cut down. After a young child was killed by an aggressive dog, he forbade owning dogs — and declared that all existing ones in the community were to be killed.
All the children were pulled from school. Families whose relatives had been sent away were ordered to burn their family photos. One of the original structures of Short Creek — a sandstone house that had been turned into museum commemorating the settlement’s history — was shuttered. “It wasn’t centered on Warren. It was about Uncle Roy,” George Jessop told me as we drove past the building. “So Warren issued a massive revelation calling for us to destroy it.” He commanded that a marble stone monument, 24 inches thick, be razed. All the historical photos housed within the museum were thrown away.
George stopped the truck and stared at the building for a bit, admiring the masonry. His cell phone buzzed repeatedly, but he ignored it. “It was a mean, mean deal.”
Then he threw the truck into reverse, backed away from the house, put it back into gear — and kept driving.
When George decided to leave the FLDS in 2012, his family remained in town, but became completely isolated. No one, including family, would speak to them. When Leona Bateman and her husband left, it was out of frustration: Their kids were getting kicked out or leaving of their own accord, and the church was poised to liquidate their family business. Some, like Coylyn, left to be with their expelled husbands. Others flee knowing their husbands would eventually get kicked out, and the wives forced to remarry. Ada Barlow left for teenage love — but her story nonetheless highlights just how few options were open to her, then and since.
Ada has early memories of the time before Jeffs took control — reading Anne of Green Gables, watching Where the Red Fern Grows, running around town in a swarm of unsupervised children — and says she knew, at a young age, that something about Jeffs was wrong. “My mom got upset one time when I took her bookmark with Warren Jeffs on it, because she’d be lonely without it,” she explained. “That’s when I realized he had become an idol.”
Ada first noticed the man that she wanted to marry when she was over at his house, playing in the yard. She could’ve been one of his daughters. “I saw young girls get married to old guys all the time,” she told me. “It was just the norm, the thing that happened.” When she was in fifth grade, Ada’s mom broke her back. Her other two moms were working full-time (most women with jobs worked in one of the towns nearby; some would work at construction sites or FLDS-owned properties hours away) so Ada became a stay-at-home caretaker. In the morning, she’d pick up the babies from the three mothers and take them down to the day care. Then she’d come back and start on the housework: endless laundry, endless food prep, endless dishes. She didn’t have a driver’s license, but back then, it didn’t matter. Kids drove the cars around town; many of the women’s cars didn’t even have license plates, so as to prevent them from actually leaving the area.
Ada went back and tried sixth grade three different times, but it never stuck. There was always something pulling her away. When Jeffs pulled all children from school in 2000, her education was officially over. Around that time, her mom started talking about wedding dresses, and Ada knew she could be next in line.
Meanwhile, the man she had had in mind for a husband had been commanded to leave. “He couldn’t even go and repent,” Ada said. “Warren was on the phone with him screaming, ‘I feel you have the spirit of contention! I want you out of my town!’” He had no choice but to go.
But he had a trade, setting tile, and could easily find work. He moved to St. George, where two of his sons, who’d also been kicked out, were already living. He’d drive the sons back to Short Creek to see their girlfriends, who were friends with Ada, then 17. The girls would pile into the truck and flirt; eventually, this man figured out that Ada was interested. When she left to join him, they moved to wherever he could find work: Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Canada. She got pregnant and had a baby, a second, a third. One year, they ended up outside a mining camp in Canada. She didn’t have a car or a license, and her husband would be gone for weeks, even six months at a time. Outside, there was big mining equipment in one direction, a train track and a river in the other, and a mountain behind them. Not a single safe place, she explained, for her kids to play. The children got so bored they tore their beds apart.
“That was my lowest point,” Ada told me. “I was pregnant with my fourth and got so depressed that nothing mattered.” When she needed to get one of her kids to the hospital, a friend of a friend took an interest in her, and began taking her to buy groceries, spending time with her and the children. “She wasn’t in the religion or anything,” she explained. “But she helped me get the things I needed.”
Eventually, Ada and her family returned to Short Creek, where she’s become an active member of the Girlfriend Club. “This is my place,” she said. “There’s just something about it that I can’t describe. It’s my home.”
Ada never actually married the man she calls her husband. But he remains, in her words, “around,” currently at work building a shed in their backyard. Like most men and women who’ve left FLDS, it’s difficult for Ada to reconceptualize what a relationship might look like. “I tell him, here’s my X, Y, and Z that I need and deserve now,” she said.
“But it’s been a journey,” she continued. “I was told when I was very young that my body is mine, and nobody has the right to it. It was the only thing that was mine. But a lot of girls, their bodies weren’t theirs. Their bodies were their dad’s, or their brother’s, or their husband’s.”
FLDS women are never introduced to the concept of consent, especially as it relates to sex. Those who’ve left the church struggle to figure out how to say no to unwanted advances: That option, and that language, was never available to them. As a result, many have been date-raped or sexually assaulted by men they’ve met since leaving. It’s even worse for teens who were raised using Rulon Jeffs’s “Keep Sweet” training, which taught children that, as “priesthood people,” they did not fight, disagree, or resist. (Their watchwords: “Perfect obedience produces perfect faith.”) When men in the area learn that ex-FLDS women don’t know how to say no, they become easy targets.
That’s a reality Leona Bateman has been trying to wrap her head around for the last three years. When Leona speaks, she’s often either raising her eyebrows or lowering her head and leaning in. Coupled with her round, quasi-Southern Creeker accent (“Crick” instead of “Creek”; “Hurricun” instead of “Hurricane”) this can make conversations feel like being let in on a massive, gradually opening secret.
In Hildale, Leona’s house sticks out. When I visited, the outside was peppered with Pinterest-style fall decorations. Her interior design, like her wardrobe, is distinguished by heavy use of animal print; she loves to tell people that since leaving the FLDS, she’s dyed her hair every color on the shelf, but looks best as a blonde. The walls of her living room used to be filled with portraits of the prophets, announcing the family’s faithfulness to whoever drove by. Now, they’re covered in photos of her family.
When Leona left the FLDS in November 2012, she became a quick study in the world she’d missed. “I’d go to the grocery store in Elko, still wearing my dresses. I’d observe all the women, what they were wearing, how they were acting,” she told me.
“I didn’t say anything,” she admits, laughing. “But I watched.”
Leona also had a few decades before Jeffs’s arrival to develop her taste. Not all ex-FLDS — especially those who came of age during the Jeffs era — had the same privilege. As one woman who still feels uncomfortable in non-polyg dresses told me, “Gentiles growing up get to try something on, and try something else on, and see someone wearing a different style and say, ‘Oh, I like that!’ But we never developed taste. There’s all this other trauma when we leave the FLDS — and then we have to figure out how to dress, too.”
What Leona describes as her “natural, worldly taste” others attribute to her “half-gentile” bloodline: Her father was a Mormon missionary, sent to Short Creek to try and convert the FLDS back to the Mormon faith. But instead he fell in love with an FLDS girl and married her — making him and his family “new blood.” He married another wife, and Leona’s two moms, in her words, “fought like hell.”
Leona first met the man who would become her husband when she was 14. “I fell in love with him instantly,” she told me. “So I went to my dad and said, ‘I need to marry him.’” He said, ‘If you stay clean until you’re 16, I’ll let you ask for him.’” It was a rarity, even in the pre–Warren Jeffs era, to have a say in who she’d marry.
Over the next 30 years, Leona gave birth to 12 children: 9 boys and 3 girls. Her husband ran FLDS construction crews; Leona cooked for them. After Warren Jeffs took over, he kicked out their eldest son for having a girlfriend. When her second oldest reached 18, he decided that he didn’t want to remain in the religion. “We cried and thought he’d lost his salvation,” she explained, “but we let him go.”
Even as she and her husband lost their children — and others’ were taken out of school — Leona remained faithful to the church. In some ways, her life had changed for the better under Jeffs. “Before Warren came, all the men were really abusive,” she said. “It was socially acceptable to beat your kids. But then Warren banned all that. He said, ‘If another woman comes in and tells me she’s gettin’ hit, or her kids are, then you’re kicked out.’”
For many women, that felt like power — power bestowed upon them by Jeffs. But Jeffs had another way of abusing them. If a wife didn’t obey her husband, there were all sorts of ways of disciplining her. Her husband wouldn’t sleep with her for a year, or her children would be taken away. Or they’d be moved to the trailer park in the center of town, which functioned as a sort of disobedience holding cell. “Warren never said ‘we’re gonna mentally abuse them,’” Leona said. “But that’s exactly what they did.”
Still, Leona never thought of leaving. Such thoughts — like anything else that went wrong in a woman’s life, from a miscarriage to a child breaking their arm — were considered proof that she was unworthy of salvation. It’s difficult for outsiders to understand just how hard it is to break free when you believe you and your family will be literally damned if you do. “My husband begged me to leave,” Leona said. “And when I actually did, I really did think I was giving up my salvation to be with him and my family. It broke my heart.”
When the Batemans left, they also brought several members of the construction crew along with them. “We just locked the door on our house, took those 28 boys, and eight of our own kids, and started over,” she said. They found a big house outside of Elko, Nevada, where the men could work in the mines.
“Some of these boys couldn’t even read, so my husband took their tests,” she said. “And I watched these innocent boys, who, before, hardly dared talk to anyone, experience all the dating, all the drugs.” She started attending the local Mormon church, where the women taught her how to advise the young men in her house.
But it was too much, all at once, too soon. In 2014, she moved back to Short Creek, where most of the boys and her husband eventually followed her. Back in the Elko house, she says, she knew there had been drugs around, but she didn’t know anything about them, had never seen a drug herself. Then her eldest son killed himself by overdosing — Leona never learned what, exactly, he took. He wasn’t discovered for 10 days.
Today, Leona’s son’s death remains the great and guiding trauma of her life — but it also prompted her to start the Girlfriend Club. “Even though I knew all of these women, we hadn’t really been allowed to talk for the last decade. We needed the education, we needed to socialize, we needed to forgive each other, and we needed to get to know each other again. That’s why I do what I do.”
Over the last three years, the Girlfriend Club has grown from a social gathering with the occasional guest speaker to an elaborate web of support groups, peer mentorship programs, and mini retreats directed at teen girls in particular. A vibrant private Facebook group connects ex-FLDS women from all over the world, and one of the dominant themes in the group is celebrating choice. Some ex-FLDS have become Mormon; others have left God behind altogether. Some have left their husbands, others still stick by them. Some choose to read the interview transcripts, circulated at events like Girlfriend’s Night Out, outlining the sexual abuse that’s still going on in the church; others consciously avoid them. Some feel strongly about returning to Short Creek; others can’t abide it. Some still live “the principle,” meaning plural marriage; others see it as too connected to the trauma of the FLDS under Jeffs.
Like most of the women I spoke with, Leona is against persecuting those still “living polygamy.” “If a woman has an education, if they’re over 18, and they want to do that, I don’t care,” she said. “Just call it polyamory, like the gentiles do!”
“All I care about is making sure we have that education: With education comes the option for choice,” Leona said. But education comes in layers: first, how to survive in the world outside of the FLDS, and second, how to thrive in it. Fundamental to both, Leona says, is realizing that you’re not alone. As she told those assembled for the Girlfriends Night Out, “We think our stories are bad. But you know what? Everyone has a story, some good, some bad. If I find a woman who can empower us, who’s overcome obstacles, here or anywhere — my goal is to bring us together.”
That night, over an elaborate, Thanksgiving-style dinner, a no-nonsense, blonde-haired woman in her forties named Donia Jessop greeted the group. Many of them had worked to elect her, just days before, as Hildale’s first woman mayor.
“People say this was a great win,” Donia said, pausing for a few whoops from the crowd of three dozen women. “But I say this is a great win for our community. Our community won on Tuesday night.”
Even after Jeffs was arrested, the FLDS maintained a stronghold on all publicly elected offices in both Hildale and Colorado City. Most candidates for local offices ran completely unopposed, and many women were not even registered to vote.
Donia knew that the only way for the community to recover was to make it friendlier to businesses, which is to say, friendlier to ex-FLDS and non-FLDS businesses. Until recently, it could take months for someone who was not FLDS to get a business license approved; today, there are still regulations prohibiting “obscene” business: massage parlors, hair salons, and nail salons. Donia’s family — her husband, 10 kids, and a sister wife — recently opened a small restaurant in the center of town, and has plans to open Short Creek’s first-ever bar.
Which is why Donia joined with two city council candidates — Maha Layton, an ex-FLDS elementary school teacher, and Jared Nicol, a Mormon who’d recently moved to the area — to contest the FLDS stronghold. They helped mobilize the community, putting on educational seminars at the school and working to strike 102 people who’d moved out of Hildale from the voter rolls. “One woman I was talking to, she’s a year older than me,” Donia told me. “This was the first time she voted. And she asked me to put a sign on her fence!”
You can still see Donia’s signs scattered around town, including one, just a block away from Jeffs’s intended compound, spray-painted with the word “NO.” But Donia ended up winning handily, with 61% of the vote.
Still, when Donia talked to the Girlfriend Club, her theme was self-doubt: “During the campaign, I have definitely looked in the mirror and thought, What are you thinking? Who are you? You don’t have a college education. You don’t have all the answers. You sound like a hick from the sticks that doesn’t know anything. But I knew I had the heart, and I had the desire.”
“I felt like no matter what the campaign results were, it was a win for our community,” Maha told me after dinner, when the women had gathered around extra servings of pumpkin pie. “I had my son come home from school and say, ‘Mom, are you registered to vote?’”
“The best part is the way the children have become interested in their community,” Leona said. “My little 10-year-old, she said to me, ‘Mom, have you seen Donia? I think she should be mayor!’ When I was 10, we were taught just the opposite: If someone’s up there and doing that as a woman, they’re to be avoided at all costs.”
“Now that the women are taking control again, the men don’t know what to do,” Donia added. “An ex-FLDS man, no matter who he is, is in low ranking. Everything they were — it’s all been stripped.”
Which is why, even as the women themselves struggle — with the gaps in their own education, with figuring out their own sense of style and self, with concepts like consent and desire — they’ve shifted focus to a second task: helping the men deal with their own loss of identity. As Leona put it, “The men are in the muck and the mire, and the women are like, ‘I’ve been there — I don’t want to do that anymore. Let’s go.’”
“It’s hard for them to see that a woman will be with them, and love them, and be their woman because she wants to, not because they have to,” Coylyn said.
“There’s got to be a way to support them, too,” said Elissa Wall. “The FLDS was so ingrained into their identity. All of their instincts about how they were supposed to treat a woman — kindness, gentleness, all of that — were removed from them because of FLDS culture. Now, they’re so unequipped.”
“I was talking to a man who’s been married for 30 years,” Leona added. “He said, ‘I really don’t know what to do. I love my wife, but I like her like one of the children. She was given to me, and I’ve always felt responsible for her, but I wanna know what it feels like to be in love!’ That’s how 50% of the men feel. They didn’t actually get to go and feel love, or think through, ‘Oh, is this what I want?’ It was a job they were given.”
“But unlike us, they don’t know how to reach out for help,” Elissa said.
“They could learn from us!” Leona exclaimed. “But they hate the Girlfriend Club because it’s giving us a voice.”
“Plus, there’s nothing in their environment, inside the FLDS or even now, that has ever told them to look to a woman as an example,” Elissa said.
“I know the boys need it just as much,” Leona said, shaking her head. “We can forget the old men and just let them go drink until they die. But there’s this whole other group, and we just need one good man to think about it.”
Last summer, after years of dealing with PTSD and the suicide of their son, Leona and her husband divorced. In November, after months of talking through their future and what they want and need from each other, he proposed again.
When you meet someone in Short Creek, the first and most important question asked concerns your last name: In a community that closed, for that long, it’s like a passport. If you don’t have one of the dozen or so last names from the area, there’s a natural wariness. Even though the God Squad is gone, Short Creek can still feel like a fishbowl. Everyone knows your business and your family’s business, and is guarded against the business of anyone who’s come from outside, including the Mormon Church, evangelical pastors, and nonprofit assistance groups.
“Over the years, the energy here was so heavy and disruptive. You could feel it the second you drove in,” Elissa Wall told me. “You could tell something wasn’t right. I used to get panic attacks as soon as I’d see those red cliffs. But it’s changing.”
Everyone I spoke to struggled, in one way or another, with coming back to Short Creek. But few have had homecomings quite like Elissa’s. When she was 14, Rulon Jeffs orchestrated her marriage to her 19-year-old cousin, who sexually and psychologically abused her. She had five miscarriages and gave birth to a stillborn baby before developing a relationship with an ex-FLDS member named Lamont Barlow. When that relationship was discovered, Elissa’s marriage was annulled, and she left the FLDS, married Barlow, and eventually gave birth to two children.
In 2006, the state of Utah pressed charges against Warren Jeffs as an accomplice to rape; when he was captured a year later, Wall testified against him. Jeffs was sentenced to 10 years, but the conviction was overturned by the Utah Supreme Court in 2010 due to “improper instructions” given to the jury. The state declined to reprosecute, in part because Jeffs’s defense alleged that Wall had asked the midwife who cared for her during her miscarriages to recreate records of their conversations. What’s more, Jeffs was about to be extradited to Texas, where he would be eventually sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.
After she left the FLDS, Wall became the most prominent face of the ex-FLDS. Her book, Stolen Innocence, was a best-seller, leading her to appearances on Oprah and in People magazine. With her brother, she started a clothing and tutu company for children. She went to a lot of therapy. She worked with organizations like Holding Out Hands, which works with those who’ve fled the FLDS and other religious sects in Utah.
But she was still largely hated, even amongst those who’d left the FLDS. “I was the bad guy for 10 years of their lives,” she told me. “Every bad thing that happened to them, it’s because of me.” When Jeffs was in prison, life got worse; when the conviction was overturned, it was interpreted as proof, as George Jessop put it to me, of their continued, unlawful persecution.
In 2016, Wall’s civil suit against the church resulted in a $2.75 million property and cash settlement; earlier this year, she was awarded $16 million in damages from Warren Jeffs and the FLDS. She moved back to Short Creek, where she’s transforming an old technology school building, given to her as part of the settlement, into a production space for her clothing company.
“When I first got here, there was garbage dumped in every room,” she told me. “When they heard the building was going to me, people came in and smashed all the toilets.” On the second floor, amid walls of tulle and folded piles of onesies with slogans like “P is for Punk” and “#HANGRY,” Wall shows the space where, during the day, a handful of women assemble tutus that get shipped across the US. “I’ve employed some people I grew up with, some kids just out of high school who need some mentorship,” Wall said. “A lot of moms, and we work around their schedules.”
This sort of starter job, especially one that allows for flexible schedules, is incredibly hard to come by in Short Creek. Many women still lack a high school education; others have no job history. Driving to Hurricane, St. George, or nearby Fredonia in Arizona, requires a car and, given the number of children most ex-FLDS still care for, reliable childcare. Many women get their start with multilevel marketing companies, especially for skincare and makeup, that offer flexible, at-home work, but often little by means of profit, especially when the potential market lacks disposable income. (The poverty rate in Hildale is 44.2%; in Colorado City, it’s 54.6%. Such a high percentage of children qualify for free breakfast and lunch that Hildale schools provide it free to all).
Because Wall was one of the first to leave the FLDS, she’s had years more experience grappling with the challenges (fiscal, psychological, practical) of the outside world. “I always tell people that we’re educating three generations here: We’re educating kids, we’re educating parents, and we’re also educating grandparents.” Earlier this year, Wall was elected head of the PTA and became central to the get-out-the-vote effort. But she’s reluctant to be called, or even thought of, as a leader. People still come up and yell at her in the streets. Many ex-FLDS I spoke with had no personal problem with her, but understood why others did.
“Instead of a leader, I think of myself as having empathy in the trenches,” Wall explained. “Because I really am still in the trenches. Maybe I’m a few blocks ahead, but wow, am I still there.” Earlier in the year, Wall had been walking around the small reservoir on the edge of town with her kids and a few friends. A man stopped one of her friends to chat. It was her ex-husband, now out of the FLDS, who she’d been forced to marry when she was 14.
“This person had tortured me and held me captive for 10 years, and here he was, in plain clothes,” she said. The sun had just sunk out of sight of the school’s windows, and a sherbert sunset was taking shape over the cliffs. “He said my name. It was one of those moments when all the progress you think you’ve made comes crashing down. I couldn’t talk about it for three weeks.”
“At first, I had this fear of running into him again at any point,” she said, “and I was like, What am I doing here? I’ve had to realize that not even this place is stronger than me. But it takes so much personal determination to decide that you’re going to define it differently. After I saw him, I backed up, got all those tools and skills I’ve acquired over the last 10 years, and said: Is this place mine? Do I want to keep it? Do I want to feel this way?”
“Ultimately, it was a good reminder to me,” she said. “This is what these women go through every day.”
When I first met Elissa earlier in the week, I’d noticed an inscrutable tattoo on her wrist. When I asked her about it, she laughed, and said, “No one understands, until I explain it, and then they’re like, ahh!”
Wall’s tattoo emblematizes so much of the lives of the ex-FLDS, a journey whose real meaning is legible only to them. It started with an open triangle, to signify an openness to change when she first became a single mom. Then she added a chevron sign, which, in Greek, signifies creating your own destiny. The asterisk is her favorite: In all her education, she found herself fixating on footnotes and their promise of more information, more context.
“I got it at a time when I had been so sold on this story that I had been telling for so long,” she explained. “Life had made it so that I had to tell it over and over again, and I was just living the drudgery of it. But I realized, over time, that the story itself won’t change — but the importance of that story, my attachment to it, can.”
Finally, she added a semicolon. “A semicolon means there’s always more to the sentence,” she said. “I could’ve stopped, but I chose to continue.” ●
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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