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05.22.09

A Cult Child's Journey Through Hell

As the prophet’s nephew on a radical polygamist compound, Brent Jeffs lived in a world of sexual terror, familial confusion, and religious brainwashing. Then he escaped—and his demons followed him.

When Texas raided the Yearning for Zion ranch and took over 400 children into custody in April 2008, I knew it wouldn’t be long before my colleague Bruce Perry was involved. Bruce is most famous for having treated the children who were released by the Branch Davidian cult during the tense siege in 1993 at Waco, which ended in the deaths of 71 members, 20 of them children.

And indeed, Texas child-welfare officials quickly contacted him for advice on helping children raised in the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They also brought in a different type of expert: Brent Jeffs, the nephew of Warren Jeffs, who was the “prophet” of that group.

“Was the sex worth it?” he asked rhetorically. Suddenly, he threw his arms open wide and almost shouted, “Nooooo.”

Brent grew up in the elite of the FLDS, on the Salt Lake City-area compound of Rulon Jeffs. Rulon was Brent’s grandfather and served as the church’s prophet before Warren took over. Brent’s father had three wives—two of whom are sisters—and 20 children. Brent is the 10th.

lost-boy-book-cover
Lost Boy. By Brent W. Jeffs with Maia Szalavitz. Broadway Books. 256 pages. $24.95. ()

Bruce and Brent got to talking, and when he heard Brent’s story, he knew that I would be interested in knowing more. As a journalist, I’ve covered “troubled teen” programs that have cult-like qualities or have actually become cults—and in my work with Bruce on The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog we focused on traumatized children.

Brent’s story has both of those elements. In kindergarten, Brent was raped by his uncle Warren, who was then the principal of his school. After Brent’s brother Clayne committed suicide following revelations of his own victimization, Brent decided that he had to do something to prevent other children from being hurt.

It was Brent’s civil lawsuit for sex abuse, together with a case brought by other “lost boys” who’d left or been expelled from the church that drove the “prophet” underground and led eventually to him appearing on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Although prosecutors never took up Brent’s case criminally, it was his courage that ultimately led to Warren Jeffs’ downfall.

I knew it would be a challenge to tell a story that did justice to both the bizarre world of fundamentalist Mormon polygamy and to the sexual abuse that had occurred at the hands of the FLDS’ prophet. Those two elements are not unconnected: One thing that became clear to me while working on the book is that patriarchal polygamy, with its system of unchecked power, ineluctably produces child sexual abuse.

Every morning, at what was around 8 a.m. for me and 6 a.m. for him, Brent and I would talk on phone before he left for work. I knew that for the book to work, we’d have to feel safe enough with each other that he could tell me the most traumatic aspects of his story.

What I didn’t expect was how distressing it would be for me. We started with the happy memories and the stories of his early life with his brothers and sisters. I had to make a chart to keep all the names and dates of birth straight—even Brent sometimes has to think hard about some of this because there are so many. In fact, he and his brothers used to say there were 21 children—but when we counted, there only turned out to be 20!

I kept telling him that we didn’t have to talk about the abuse yet. I thought I was protecting him, but I was also probably trying to protect myself. And then one day, unprompted, he just decided to tell me.

He wasn’t particularly graphic, nor was he overly emotional, but I could hear the stored pain in his voice. The powerlessness and sense of betrayal and confusion of that 5-year-old boy he had been was overwhelming. It took us both a few days to recover.

As we worked, I became increasingly impressed with his strength and integrity. He was just 25, but he had been through so much. Not only abuse, but the tangled intrigues of growing up in a family with three moms at odds with each other—and not only the trials of life inside the FLDS, but the culture shock of leaving it.

In his family, wives and children were always fighting for attention. The kids allied themselves with their mothers in the battle to be seen and acknowledged by their father. It got so bad between Brent’s mother and her sister—his father’s second wife—that Brent’s dad actually decided to physically divide their house into two separate dwellings to get some peace.

Brent’s journey out of the church was complicated. It began when his father was given a choice by his own father, Rulon Jeffs, who was then the prophet. Either he could leave the church and be excommunicated because he was no longer welcome—or his wives and children could be re-assigned to other men and he could repent. He chose to leave with his family.

But Brent, then a young teen, was scared. He’d been taught all his life that he’d go to hell if he left the church. For nine months, he lived in Colorado City, trying to find a place for himself in his religion—but ultimately, he realized he could not make it make sense for him.

After a brief period back home, he moved in with his older brothers at 15—becoming another “lost boy” or young man who had been pushed out of the church. Rapidly, the brothers descended into heavy drug use, not knowing how to cope on their own in the world.

After Clayne committed suicide, Brent knew something had to change. Clayne had told Brent about his own experience of being abused by Warren. Brent began having nightmares and flashbacks—and decided he would sue the church to try to stop Warren from hurting any more children. The lawsuit was not about money. In fact, Brent is one of the least materialistic people I have ever met. At a certain point in the legal wrangling, Brent and the other "lost boys" faced a stark choice: Go after millions of dollars in damages from the church and probably force it to sell land still inhabited by some of their families and friends—or work toward getting the group’s land and finances administered by an outside trustee. The "lost boys" rejected the idea of trying to claim the money and chose to seek the trustee instead, to protect their families.

I don’t know if I could have made that decision—but they did so unanimously.

But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that our book is all about tough choices and pain. There were plenty of lighter moments both in Brent’s experience and in mine while working with him.

One of the funniest came when I was interviewing Brent’s dad. Brent’s father is well over 6’ tall, an imposing figure who is both handsome and eloquent. We were sitting and talking about his relationships with his wives and how pressured he’d felt trying to meet all of their needs.

“Was the sex worth it?” he asked rhetorically. Suddenly, he threw his arms open wide and almost shouted, “Nooooo.”

We both laughed, and I thought about how different polygamy looks from the inside.