Cottonwood Park, the largest public gathering place in Hildale, Utah, nestles in the midst of a surreally gorgeous landscape. Rugged cliffs and stunning canyons dramatically rear and stretch in the distance, framed against a crystal blue sky. Newcomers to the area never fail to remark on the vista, to which the people who see it every day simply nod with pride. There’s something about the land here, the locals say; something that calls them back when they leave.
The park is crowded this afternoon. The smell of fresh turf fills the air, which is whipped into a chilling wind by early spring, despite the sun. Residents of Hildale and its sister town across the state line, Colorado City (the two towns are collectively known as Short Creek) have worked all day to replace the barren, dusty ground with a thick layer of grass and soil, but only about a quarter of the park has been completed. There’s still plenty of work to be done.
Leona Bateman, a trim, feisty-looking woman in her 50s wearing skilfully applied make-up and a bright dress with cut-outs that reveal her shoulders, floats from one picnic table to the next, greeting those seated by name. “Hey, how’s your daughter? I heard she had an accident, is she okay? Good, glad to hear it. See you at the meeting this week!”
She makes her way to a large table set up with sandwiches in plastic boxes and bottles of water. Another woman, Anne (whose name has been changed at her request) and her daughter, a pretty girl in her early twenties, are handing out snacks. Even though there’s supposed to be a barbecue for the entire town later this evening, laying turf is hungry work.
“Hi Leona, good to see you,” Anne greets her. The two women exchange brief hugs and chat for a few minutes.
“Has Donia made an appearance yet?” Leona asks.
“Not yet,” Anne answers. “I’m sure she’ll be along eventually. It’s part of her duties now.”
Named for the ancient, gnarled trees that twist their way up to the sky, Cottonwood Park has gone to seed over the past few decades. For many years, the land was in the hands of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints or FLDS, an extremist polygamous sect of Mormonism that until recently had a stranglehold on all of Short Creek.
The FLDS is most notorious for the reign of its former prophet Warren Jeffs, who took leadership of the cult in 2002 after the death of his father Rulon, the previous prophet. By the end of his tyrannical rule, Jeffs had taken 80 wives, each of whom had an average of 10 children. In 2011, he began serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting girls as young as 12, sometimes tying them up in a large domed structure specially constructed for the purpose, and raping them in front of his other wives and favourite followers. Jeffs called these gatherings “Witnessings.”
In Jeffs’ day, almost every property in Short Creek was set up with feeds for security cameras. They all went back to a room full of TV screens in his house, where he could monitor the intimate lives of his followers to make sure they weren’t disobeying the rules of his invasive, unthinkably restrictive ideology. While Jeffs was prophet, members of the FLDS weren’t allowed to use the word “fun,” because he considered it too unrestrained. They had to say “enjoyable.” Outsiders were always to be shunned, but Jeffs forbade the townspeople even from socialising among themselves. As Leona puts it, “we knew each other, but we didn’t really know each other.”
Jeffs manipulated his followers with a variety of mind-control techniques, including the threat of separation from their families. When a member of his flock was disobedient, he or she would be expelled from the community to “repent from afar.” Male FLDS members on repentance missions were required to send the lion’s share of any profit they accrued through their work back to Jeffs in order to earn their way back onto “the ladder of trust” and be reunited with their families. In fact, almost all the money anyone in Short Creek made went straight to Jeffs, who pooled their resources into a sizeable fortune that he distributed as he pleased.
Jeffs was arrested in August 2006, after having been on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for months. In 2007, he was convicted in Utah of two counts of accomplice to rape and began serving a sentence of 10 years to life, which was overturned by the Utah Supreme Court in 2010 due to incorrect jury instructions. Jeffs was then extradited to Texas, where he was convicted of aggravated sexual assault of minors in connection with a raid by Texas law enforcement on an FLDS ranch there and sentenced to life in prison.
Picture: Warren Jeffs with some of his wives. Photo: Sulome Anderson
Since Jeffs’ imprisonment, the FLDS has lost a great deal of control over Short Creek. Some people remained in the cult, which has splintered into smaller groups since the departure of its prophet. They can still be seen around town, walking hurriedly past apostates with their eyes cast down; the women dressed modestly in long skirts and prairie blouses. But law enforcement has been keeping a close eye on lingering remnants of the group, and last year, Donia Jessop, another former member of the FLDS, was elected the first female mayor of Hildale – a move that scandalized the remainder of Jeffs’ congregation.
The past two years have seen the town rapidly transform from an inaccessible place of walled properties and suspicious glares, where the formerly FLDS-controlled local police force quickly drove out any outsiders brave enough to invade its streets. Since Jeffs was arrested, many members of the cult have decided to leave its restrictive lifestyle and begin their lives anew. People who were expelled from the FLDS and sometimes shunned for years by their families have returned with a drive to help Short Creek rejoin America in the 21st century. They’ve become involved with local government, started community outreach programs and opened businesses – including a brand-new microbrewery, Hildale’s very first alcohol-serving establishment, brazenly situated right next to the most popular casual food joint in town.
Despite the fact that the women of Short Creek have known nothing but polygamy for most of their lives, they’ve driven many of the changes in the area. Until recently, these women were trained to live only as appendages of the men who married and often abused them. Given the violent, paedophilic proclivities of Short Creek’s former prophet, the stain of misogyny, incest, and sexual violence has hung like a noxious mist over the twin towns for years. That stain has only recently begun to recede, in large part due to the efforts of women who already face plenty of challenges adapting to the unfamiliar environment of life outside the FLDS community. Despite the uncertainty of entering a world they were raised to fear as the gateway to hell, they must continue tending to their large families even as they try to heal themselves and their town from a life without choices.
Picture: Colorado City, Arizona, part of Short Creek. Photo: Getty
In a community where a man’s worth was partly measured by how many wives he had, Leona’s husband Craig Bateman was always an oddity. Leona was his only wife for 35 years. He sometimes jokes that he never took another wife because he had his hands full with this one, and it’s easy to see why.
Like almost everyone in Short Creek, Leona was born into a plural marriage. Her mother was a second wife, married to Leona’s father when she was 15 years old. Leona was one of 32 children raised in her house.
Leona’s family taught her what all Short Creek families used to teach their daughters: that her only mission in life was to care for her husband and bear as many children as possible. Despite a childhood that denied her the assertive streak she’s now growing into, Leona speaks of her time growing up with a fondness shared by many long-time residents of the towns. Though the community has been under the control of polygamous Mormons since the 1930s, Leona says things were different before Warren Jeffs became prophet in 2002.
Short Creek was always a deeply religious place, but when Leona was a child, she says, people socialised often and supported each other through hard times. No one in town was ready for the calculated process of isolation and mind control that Warren Jeffs began to implement when he took power. Perhaps that’s how he managed to execute it so well.
Over breakfast at the Merry Wives Café in Hildale, a sweet little diner with lace curtains on the windows, Leona explains how Warren consolidated his power over their lives. Two tables of FLDS women in their familiar modest garments, accompanied by a flock of extremely blonde children, are seated nearby. Leona keeps her voice lowered as she speaks, so they won’t hear what she’s saying.
According to Leona, before Warren came, there had already been a fair amount of domestic abuse in Short Creek, as there often is in patriarchal, religious rural communities. She says that was how he won the townspeople over at first – with his morality, forbidding corporal punishment of children and wives.
“It was common for the women to get beat before Warren,” Leona says. “It was common for the kids to get beat. When he came, he banned that, and he said if anyone hits their families again, they’re going to get kicked out. For the first time ever, women had a little tiny bit of power over their husbands.” But the women of Short Creek would soon find out that some punishments could be even worse in their own way than being beaten.
“After a while, if you didn’t obey your husband, then he would go tell Warren Jeffs,” Leona explains. “Warren would say, ‘take her kids from her, and move her to the trailer court, or put her in complete isolation from the family. Ban her from the church.’ What they would do is mind manipulation, which is far worse than a spanking or a beating. I know many women who got their babies taken from them … just by applying social pressure, he got complete control.”
Leona pauses, checking again to see if the FLDS women at the other tables are listening. They’re not, so she discreetly gestures at them as she continues.
“There’s no leader out here right now so they don’t want to give up their faith cause they’ll feel wicked or destroyed,” Leona whispers about the families. “We call it ‘process.’ It took three years for me to even believe that the news wasn’t lying about Warren. I just thought they just made all that up. So, they’re in process. You’ll see them all over town wearing dresses.”
An estimated 10,000 active FLDS members still live in and around Short Creek, but the group appears to have splintered since Jeffs’ imprisonment – its leadership contested by competing candidates for the prophethood. At least, that’s how the FLDS presents itself, now that law enforcement is monitoring them so closely. There are rumours that a young man named Rulon Johnson might be consolidating some power as a leader, but despite his crimes, Jeffs is still seen as God’s incarnation on earth by many people in the cult. According to Leona, there’s a ceremony that current members of the FLDS have taken to performing. They have to build a small room out of wood they chopped themselves and sit inside it for hours, so they will know how their prophet suffers in his jail cell.
Picture: Warren Jeffs at his 2007 trial. Photo: Getty
Jeffs still appears to be leading the group as much as he can from prison, refusing to relinquish his control over those citizens of Short Creek who are still too frightened to go out into “The World,” as they call it, with capital letters. His followers are still waiting for the “Millennium”, Mormonism’s apocalyptic vision of what will happen when the world ends.
According to believers, when the Millennium comes, God will judge the righteous and those who pass the test will live for a thousand years in peace and glory, while those who fail will be cast into eternal suffering. That was one of the ways Jeffs frightened the townspeople into submission. If his followers disobeyed, they were convinced they would be damned to hellfire for eternity, while those who were compliant were admitted into something called the “United Order”, an elite group they were taught to see as the direct pathway to heaven.
But even though Jeffs is now behind bars, people who have left the FLDS say the damage he did remains etched into their lives. When Leona was 40 years old, her brother Johnny committed suicide after being cast out by Warren. Leona deeply regrets the way her family treated him when he was expelled, but their fear of being infected with what they were taught to see as her brother’s disobedience to God’s will was too intense for them.
“He called home for help,” Leona says. “He called probably ten or 20 family members and we just told him no or hung up on him. They eventually found him in a hotel room. He hung himself and he had been there for ten days … To this day we don’t even know what happened. We didn’t even go to his funeral.”
Leona’s brother wasn’t the only loved one she lost to the trauma of a life under Jeffs. Two years ago, her son Randy also committed suicide. He had been expelled from the group in 2000 and got into drugs after he was barred from his community and shunned by his family. Although Leona and her family reconnected with Randy when they decided to leave the FLDS in 2012, the damage to his psyche had already been done. They only got to spend a couple of years with him before he killed himself.
In the aftermath of Randy’s death, Craig and Leona divorced. “Craig went into a depression and said he could not have a family or deserve one,” says Leona. The couple spent seven months apart, but are now back together. “I have no idea where it’s going to go,” she says. “We’re still struggling but we haven’t given up on each other.”
Suicide is common among ex-members of the FLDS, as well as drug abuse and maladaptive sexual behaviour. Many people who were never allowed to make a personal decision have fallen into one addiction or another since leaving the cult and entering a world full of dangerous choices – a problem that troubles those who want to improve the lives of people in Short Creek.
John Barlow, a 27-year-old former Marine who left the FLDS when his father was expelled in 2001, is one of the once-shunned community members who have recently returned to the area. He now works as the town city manager and Mayor Donia Jessop’s right-hand man, hoping to reshape its politics. On a cliff overlooking a sweeping view of the town, framed by those extraordinary rust-coloured canyons, Barlow explains that the self-destructive behaviour displayed by many former FLDS members is rooted in many years of a life without autonomy.
“I call it a rule-based morality system, where you don’t really think about the cause and effect of things,” Barlow says. “You just know that there are things that are right and things that are wrong. So when you’re presented with a choice, you just ask yourself, ‘is that on the list of things that are allowed or is it on the list of things that isn’t?’ As soon as that list disappears, some people throw out everything on it and end up in trouble … and redefining relationships for polygamist families, redefining relationships for young adults, is extremely difficult, because all their models of how to interact with the opposite sex have not been very positive.”
As for Leona, she is frank that the town is still struggling to shed the sexually abusive, misogynist mentality that permeated its way of life for so long, and some extremely troubling aspects remain a challenge for those who want change. On a drive through Short Creek and a neighbouring town still under the control of another polygamous Mormon sect called Centennial Park, Leona gestures at one of the houses, a drab little structure with an unkempt yard.
“Everyone here is related and some bad things still go on,” she says bluntly. “The man who lives there has been sleeping with all of his daughters since they turned 12. He felt like it was his job to teach them about sex. Lots of people who have never been able to date, you know, they get into that stuff.”
Bateman drives past a large building with strangely modern architecture that looks abandoned, “That was the old FLDS meeting house,” she says. “They’ve closed it now.” But not everyone seems to have accepted its retirement. Two FLDS women carrying brooms are out front, lovingly sweeping tumbleweeds from around the shuttered building, their long skirts dragging in the dust.
Craig was the one who pushed Leona to leave in 2012. He had begun to seriously question FLDS ideology, and is now a committed atheist who can’t bear any talk of spirituality. At the time they left, Craig owned a construction company with over 80 employees. Despite the fact that he only had one wife, the Bateman family had been quite comfortable with their financial and social standing in the community, so Leona was reluctant to leave at first, not knowing how they would fare out in The World.
But in the years since, the couple and their 12 children appear to have adjusted well to the freedom of life outside the FLDS. On a Saturday night at the newly opened microbrewery, called The Edge of the World, what seems like the entire town is crammed in. A young female server with green hair, piercings and tattoos takes orders as more and more people join. The atmosphere is indistinguishable from any similar bar in any other part of America, with no indication that most of the brewery’s customers have only recently been able to consume any alcohol at all.
Leona and Craig are enjoying the evening with their daughter Andrea, a 28-year-old mother of three with green hair almost matching that of the waitress, who is a friend of hers. At one point, Craig gestures at a table across the room, where a man in his late middle ages is laughing over a beer.
“See that guy?” he whispers. “Warren appointed him to be our enforcer. He used to turn us in for any little thing and we’d get in so much trouble. Now here he is, having drinks with all of us. It’s really strange.”
Life without the FLDS may have its moments of strangeness, but Leona is managing to cope with her own adjustments by assisting others in the community through their transitions. In 2013, she started a group called Creekers to help former members of the cult assimilate back into society. She also set up a weekly meeting of former FLDS women she playfully calls the Girlfriend Club, where they process their trauma by supporting and sharing their experiences with one another. And last summer, Leona held a “Brave Woman Camp” for female members of the group who have survived sexual abuse.
“We had 12 rape cases come out of that camp,” Leona says matter-of-factly. “When you’re going through transition and leaving a cult, and you’re used to [having] no power, and you have no education, you’re very vulnerable. A few of the cases that came out were happening in the church, because stuff like that still happened and just was secret. The more I do this work, the more I realize how needed it really is.”
But Leona also has to continue raising her children while she organises services for the community. The youngest of her kids, Paris, is still 10 years old, and running a household with Leona’s perfectionism can’t be easy work. The Bateman home, an enormous stone mansion with architectural details reminiscent of a medieval castle, is well arranged and pristinely tidy. Photos of their children are everywhere; including a few of Randy, memorialised as a young man with all-American good looks and a wide, joyful grin.
In her tastefully decorated living room, Leona gleefully shows off a photo of her on her wedding day. In it, her hair is tied up severely. She’s wearing a white lace dress with long sleeves and a collar so high it looks like it’s choking her. A young Craig modestly stands by her side, barely touching her.
“I look a little different now, right?” Leona laughs, posing next to the photo. Today, she’s wearing a zebra-striped jacket over a black top with gold studs spangled around the collar. “You know, I was always taught to try my hardest to be the best at anything I was supposed to do,” Leona says. “And for years, I was supposed to be the perfect, obedient wife.”
She gives a sheepish little smile. “I tried as hard as I could, but I wasn’t very good at it.”
Picture: Jeffs’ former residence, now known as a “Dream Center”. Photo: Sulome Anderson
The house in which Jeffs used to live with a rotating number of his 80 wives and their children now seems to stand as a symbol of Short Creek’s transformation. Recent transplants to town, Jena and Glyn Jones, just turned the building into a “Dream Center”, one of similar properties across the United States run by a Christian charity. The charity uses the properties they acquire to offer housing, counselling and addiction recovery services to disadvantaged populations.
Brielle Decker, Jeffs’ 65th wife, was able to purchase Jeffs’ former residence at a discounted price in 2017 and donated it to the Jones’ enterprise, which is entirely donor-funded.
At a potluck held by the Dream Center every Thursday, it’s warm and noisy in the imposingly designed, enormous house, which has the words “PRAY AND OBEY” ominously set into a brick wall on the outside of the building. Inside, small crowds of children scamper around as their parents line up at a buffet table to be served from a variety of potluck-style dishes. Laughter and easy chatter fill the rooms, which are strangely large for what appears to be a residential property. It’s clearly a place where a large number of people were meant to live, work and eat – but not play. The playing is new.
Despite the Dream Center’s sordid history, the women of Short Creek desperately need the services it provides. The disintegration of the FLDS and its polygamous lifestyle has created a large population of husbandless women with huge broods of children and no education or work experience. And many of the women who have left the FLDS are struggling to cope with the kind of trauma that never really leaves them.
At the potluck, Anne and her daughter chat with Leona over dessert. They’re all grateful for the Dream Center and the services it provides, but have mild concerns about the personal histories of the Dream Center volunteers, as well as the fact that it’s a religious Christian charity. The Joneses say they take care not to proselytise, but given the town’s history, any organised spirituality makes some Short Creekers nervous. “After what people have been through here, they’re leery of religion,” says Anne. “We’re leery of everything, basically, because we don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into. Look what we got ourselves into in the first place, and how did we do that?” She laughs.
Growing up in the FLDS, Anne didn’t share Leona’s relative good fortune. Born with a cleft lip, she was relentlessly bullied as a child, even by her adult bus driver.
Compounding Anne’s childhood troubles, when she was 19 years old, she fell in love with and married a man with a last name that was decidedly unhelpful in the hierarchical, dynastic society of the FLDS. Certain families were more respected than others in the community, and Anne’s wasn’t one of them. In hindsight, though, she says that may have spared her daughters unwelcome attention from Jeffs and his favourite male followers.
“I’m glad that we were shunned a little bit because it kept us out of that circle,” Anne says. “Our girls were just not quite as good as everybody else’s to them.”
Like Leona, Anne describes the time before Warren Jeffs became prophet as much happier than it would become. Her stepfather, whom she speaks of with deep love and grief, was a rare bright spot in her difficult childhood. He was one of the community cooks, a friendly man supposedly beloved by many people in town. But sixteen years ago, she woke up one day to discover that her stepfather had disappeared. Warren had sent him away to “repent from afar,” with no explanation whatsoever for Anne and her family. For a long time, they didn’t even know what sin he was supposed to have committed.
“He was gone for five years,” Anne says. “Then we got word that he had passed away. [Jeffs and the leadership] called all of his kids in together and told us that he had been judged by God and was on the right hand of God and was glorified in the Heavens.”
His children were relieved to hear that their patriarch had redeemed himself in the eyes of the Lord. But the next day at the community meeting, Jeffs had a surprise for them. Instead of repeating his praise from the night before, he told the congregation that Anne’s stepfather had been cast down to hell. According to Jeffs, he sent her stepfather away to repent because he had discovered that one of the man’s wives, who worked as a midwife, let a severely deformed, premature baby die without intervening to save it. Anne’s stepfather had supposedly been excommunicated because he failed to report his wife for her sin.
Given the fact that almost everyone in Short Creek is related, birth defects are highly common due to inbreeding. Anne says the baby in question was about a pound and a half at birth and “didn’t have all its parts.” Absent intensive medical care in a hospital, there was scarcely any chance the child would have lived. But Jeffs said it was a sin to let it die, which is why he sent Anne’s stepfather away. In reality, though, Anne says her stepfather, always popular among the congregation, had started to question Warren a little too loudly for the prophet’s liking. So he cast him out. That day at the meeting, Jeffs made it clear that even her stepfather’s death hadn’t erased his dishonor among the community.
“He would have given the clothes he was wearing to somebody,” Anne says of her stepfather, with tears in her voice. “He loved everybody.”
When her stepfather was banished, Anne started to have serious doubts about Jeffs’ leadership of the community. Other painful aspects of his rule began to anxiously eat away at her mind too. For example, Jeffs had instructed Anne’s husband not to sleep with her anymore after she had to have a hysterectomy. Her husband had taken her biological sister as a second wife when Anne was 32 years old and watching the man she loved being intimate with her sister-wife instead of her was incredibly difficult.
After Jeffs went to prison, Anne’s husband left the FLDS. He asked her to come with him, but she stayed at first, believing she would have “blood on her skirts” if she took her family out of the community and exposed them to The World. Five years later, Anne finally decided it was time to get out of Short Creek. She and her children snuck out of the house in the middle of the night with as many of their things as they could carry. According to Anne’s daughter, her siblings were protesting as they left, fearing eternal damnation.
“They said, ‘Mom, you’re taking us to hell!’” her daughter recounts. “I was like, ‘Mom, let’s go, let’s go!’”
That night, Anne’s husband picked them up in his car and they drove off into the unknown. But Anne’s sister-wife and her children refused to leave the FLDS. They are still in the cult, and Anne worries for them. She’s currently looking at renting an apartment with her husband and they’re thinking of getting a room ready for her if she decides to leave the FLDS. Anne says their plural marriage was difficult at times, but she misses her sister and would welcome her back.
Circumstances for the family have improved now, but things were quite difficult for them when they first left. According to Anne’s daughter, they had to stay in shabby hotels for months and had periods of near-homelessness. But at least her mother and father stayed together. Though they’re still faced with the difficulty of navigating their marriage now that it’s just the two of them, the couple seems to have found strength and support in each other.
Anne giggles when asked about the most outrageous thing she’s done since leaving the FLDS. “I got drunk for the first time at Leona’s event,” she confesses. “I was sick for three days. I’ve been going through a lot of emotional stuff for the last four months. One of the girls says to me, ‘I want you to tell me what’s going on.’ Then I started crying and I told her. And she said, ‘Let’s go dance it off.’ And I just let it go. My husband was there and he said, ‘are you sure? Okay, I support you one hundred per cent.’ … Afterwards, I said to him, ‘Don’t ever let me get drunk again!’”
Anne will need her husband’s support now more than ever, as she struggles to process some extremely disturbing memories that have resurfaced since she left the FLDS. For most of her life, Anne says she believed the man who raped her when she was five years old was a black orderly at the hospital she was taken to after it happened. She had to have surgery on her lip in the aftermath of the sexual assault, and she confused the memory of the unfamiliar man who took her out of the ambulance with the man who had raped her.
That belief persisted until last year, when Anne attended one of Leona’s Girlfriend Club meetings and the group was given handouts to read, describing the testimony of a young girl who had just left the FLDS. “She was eight years old,” Anne says of the girl’s story. “Someone would come pick her up her up, blindfold her, put a hood over her head, take her into this room and tell her to undress. Then they’d call her by a number. She was number six. They’d take her in another room and there was Warren Jeffs. I read that and totally freaked out.”
“I remembered that it was Warren who raped me,” she continues quietly. “It was at his father’s home and he would’ve been 19 years old at the time … One of the things that helped me remember was that after I was raped, I remembered hearing these words. This girl said that Warren told her, ‘If you tell anybody you’ll burn in hell. You’ll actually burn.’ That’s what he said to me. ‘If you tell anybody, you’ll burn in hell. Burn in fire.’”
Though Anne is doing her best to recover from her experiences, such complex trauma is extraordinarily difficult to heal from. Shelli Mecham, a clinical social worker based in Salt Lake City who counsels people leaving polygamist groups, says there are a number of challenges for mental health professionals when treating former members of the FLDS. “When you’ve been sexually molested or raped as a child, and you don’t have any foundation to begin with, it feels like kind of the norm,” says Mecham. “So it’s back to reforming a normal foundation, and that is difficult to work with … but I think that often the bigger piece is attachment trauma, where families are removed, and children are removed…The void of a real connection to a caregiver – that’s a harder one to wrap my hands around.”
Anne is seeing her own therapist now to process the trauma of her childhood, and services provided by Leona and the Dream Center are assisting her with adjusting to a new life. Raising her youngest children in a world she was raised to think of as hazardous and full of misery has proven especially challenging. Her daughter, for instance, is having trouble finding a decent boyfriend among the men in town, and Anne worries for her.
But Anne’s pride in her children is immediately noticeable. She says her kids were a major driving force that motivated she and her husband to return to Short Creek after having left for three years. At the potluck dinner, Anne lovingly puts her hand on her daughter’s arm.
“My kids had a big part in us deciding to move back,” Anne says. “They were like, ‘you know what? Let’s go back to the Creek, because where we are in our lives right now, we can tell other people it’s okay to walk away.’ They felt like that they were ready to tell their other brothers and sisters, or their cousins, or whoever they meet that we are still us. We haven’t changed just because we left the religion.”
She surveys the bustling room of families who weren’t allowed to socialise with each other just a few years ago, now enjoying a friendly meal together in what was once the home of the man she believes raped her as a child, and smiles. “It’s just lifesaving – to be free of that and be able to make our choices,” Anne says. “They could be good or bad choices, but at least they’re ours.”
Picture: Mayor Donia Jessop. Photo: Erik Velander
Many of these newfound choices have been difficult for some men in Short Creek to swallow. For example, most of them would have laughed at the idea of a female mayor while the FLDS was in charge, but they hadn’t counted on Donia Jessop moving back to town.
Donia and her husband Joe left the cult in 2012, the same year as Leona. According to Donia, she didn’t have the same experience growing up as many other female FLDS members. She came from a family of strong women, as did her husband, which helped with the fact that Donia never seemed to manage being an obedient FLDS wife. An imposing woman with a charming smile and a visible dominant streak, she always seems to command whichever room she walks into.
Those traits never seemed to sit well with many men in the community when she was in the cult. “I knew all the rules,” Donia explains at a bustling gas station and diner she owns and oversees while working as mayor. She pauses the conversation periodically to shout instructions at her daughter, who is manning the register. “If we were going to see the leaders or be in church or anything like that, I would never stand in front of Joe. When we would go to shake hands in church, then Joe would be first and then me and the kids … and a lot of the men would only shake his hand and not mine.”
But Donia found her way to some authority even when she was forbidden to be a leader. Under Jeffs’ reign, female members of the FLDS were only allowed to socialise with each other for very specific purposes. One of those purposes was the Mormon Relief Society, of which Donia was president. She regularly oversaw a hundred or so other women as they sewed clothes by hand for less fortunate people who couldn’t afford them. Despite her gender, Donia somehow still managed to position herself at the centre of the community.
But nonetheless, she was relieved when Joe said he wanted to leave the cult. After the couple became apostates, though, Donia was devastated by the way her former neighbours and friends treated them. Shunned by the rest of Short Creek, which was still under the control of the FLDS, she became lonely and depressed. So she pushed Joe to move to Santa Clara, about 50 miles away, in order to start a new life. But in 2015, just before they were getting ready to buy a house in Santa Clara, Joe abruptly announced that he wanted to move back to Hildale. Despite her misgivings, they packed up again and returned to their hometown.
Donia says her time outside the cult has not been without its challenges. She and Joe are still working on navigating the complexities of their marriage since they left the FLDS. Joe works as a skilled mechanic in North Dakota for weeks out of the month, so Donia has become accustomed to fending for herself. But when they returned to Short Creek and witnessed the way the place had started to change, she saw an opportunity to lead again.
“This place was so depressed when I came back,” she says. “I realized the thing that was missing; I always said it was hope. There was no hope left. There was no heartbeat here. It was like the heart had been ripped out of Hildale. And I realised I had the heartbeat and I could bring it back. And it took all of us; it’s not just me. But it needed somebody that would stand up and say, ‘I’m going to do this.’”
When it came time to elect a new mayor of Hildale, Donia jumped at the chance to run. She was up against two men and experienced much resistance from the FLDS. During the race, she says her signs were defaced with obscenities and she was almost run off the road by a man screaming insults at her. But despite the group’s opposition, she won the election. After Donia’s surprise victory, ten male members of the town council resigned in protest. The former utility board chairman gave this explanation for his resignation in a public letter. “It has come to a point where I have to choose between my religion and participation in city government, and I choose my religion,” he wrote. “My religion teaches me that I should not follow a woman for a leader in a public or family capacity.”
Given the reluctance of many men in Short Creek to follow a woman’s orders, Donia is still having some difficulty managing those who remained in local government. But with the help of John Barlow, who recently started working as her trusted city manager, she seems to be thriving in her new position.
And despite the resistance of others, some men in town seem to be cheering on the changes, as well as Donia’s role in them. At his home office, a cosy space lined with crystals he mines himself from the cliffs and canyons around Short Creek, Terrill Musser, a slight man in his thirties with a limp from years of battling cancer, describes the environment he first encountered just three years ago when he came back to the town after leaving the FLDS as a teenager.
“There were no sounds out here; it was very creepy,” Musser says. “You couldn’t hear anything out here other than just the wind, and the kids would climb up on the roofs of all the houses around me. It was like a scary movie. All those kids, and it’s quiet and they’re not saying anything. They’re just climbing up on the roofs looking at you.”
But in the years since, he’s witnessed the atmosphere in town change; in large part through his efforts and those of the women he does his best to support. Musser explains his pride as he’s seen the ladies of Short Creek take on more and more responsibility in the town’s transformation. “They’re tired of sitting around waiting for men,” he laughs. “They’re tired of waiting for anybody. They’re moms, they’re powerful women, and they’re leading the charge … they’re not doing it in a way to say, ‘Screw everybody else.’ They’re doing it in a way to inspire, to lead by example.”
Since she became mayor, Donia has organised many projects like the rehabilitation of Cottonwood Park. She’s also trying to upgrade the town’s infrastructure, which suffered greatly in the hands of the FLDS. Another community and arts center opened last month, and she’s working to expand local schools, adding sports fields and theatres for the kids to put on plays – something that would have been absolutely forbidden just a couple of years ago.
Many challenges lie ahead for Donia and other women in town, but they appear primed to tackle them. Their newly assertive roles may seem incongruous with their former lives as submissive, obedient wives, but according to Donia, these women have been forged by hardships the FLDS men were spared.
“Even though we’re hurt, beaten, and bruised, it’s the women who have to stand up and continue to get out of bed every morning and take care of our kids and earn money and make sure we’re supported,” she says. “The men could sit back and lick their wounds. But it’s that way in the world. It’s been that way ever since we were created. We are so freaking strong, and we go through hell every day, and we get up and we get our kids to school every day, and we make meals, and we clean our house and go to work.”
Despite the stress of trying to manage a town still populated by many who want to see her fail, Donia seems happy with her decision to return to the area. Like most people who have moved back after years of being cast out, she has a deep, abiding love of her hometown and the land that surrounds it. The prodigal children of Short Creek always seem to remark that there’s something in the rich red soil here; something about the pristine beauty of the landscape that aches them until they return.
“We came from the dirt here,” Donia says, looking out the window at the stretch of canyons in the distance. “When you’re from the dirt, that’s why you’re called back. You can’t help it. People leave, and they’re like, ‘I’m never going back to that place.’ But the dirt calls your soul back. The dirt will not be unheard. The dirt is shouting out for us to come back here and rescue our town.”
Sulome Anderson is a journalist based between Beirut, Lebanon and New York City. Her award-winning book The Hostage’s Daughter was published with HarperCollins in 2016. This excerpt is from her second book, Radical: A Journey into American Extremism. Its publication date has yet to be announced. She tweets @SulomeAnderson.