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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The polygamy wars

I was called to jury duty yesterday. I can’t tell you about that, but I can tell you about a different case.

14-year-old Elissa Wall in her wedding dress.
I flunked voir dire. I always do, darn it, and I take it personally. Still, I’ve answered the summons and met my civic responsibilities in time to paint Ladona. She was expected to haul yesterday.

Jurors are not permitted to discuss cases outside of the courtroom. I won’t even tell you what court I was in, except to mention that it’s a long drive from my house.

Instead, I’ll tell you about a trial from the last decade, and how I came to be hooked up with a bunch of Texas hell-raisers. Texas women are not like women from the Northeast. They’re pretty blunt, Sugar.

For me it started with a devastating house fire in the Bronx in 2007, where nine children and one woman were killed. Apparently, few other New Yorkers were troubled by the open practice of polygamy in our state.  One was Dr. Susan Stickevers from Downstate Medical Center, who had professional experience with the damage to women that polygamy causes. We became friends.

Like his father, Warren Steed Jeffs liked 'em young.
Polygamy is antithetical to feminism because it denies women property rights. It’s miserable for men and boys, too. But the worst part is that, because a small number of men monopolize the available women, it inevitably ends up involving child brides.

In 2008, the state of Texas raided the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) Yearning for Zion Ranch. The initial response was a naive plea for religious tolerance. Oprah Winfrey, National Geographicthe New York Times, and other media heavyweights painted portraits of simple, gentle, homeschooling people who were being persecuted for their faith. Blonde, dressed in pastel prairie dresses or homespun cotton work clothes, the FLDS were nothing if not photogenic.

If you want to point a finger back to the advent of “truthiness”, that’s as good a place as any to start. 

One of Jeffs' 'wedding pictures,' with a pubescent child.
The best coverage was in the Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune, which is probably the only major American newspaper to have a section on polygamy. Inevitably, in those pre-Facebook days, battles raged in the comments. There was a pitched war between the supporters of polygamy and its foes. It included experts and it often spilled over into the news pages themselves. I ‘met’ many outspoken antipolygamy activists, including Carolyn Jessop, Flora Jessop, Elissa WallSam Brower and many others.

One intrepid lawyer—I won’t share her name—anonymously published the court documents online. It was a wonderful corrective to all those rose-tinted reports from the mainstream press.

In April, 2009, Laura Turner invited a bunch of us—total strangers—to her cabin in Texas hill country. We spent a long weekend talking and drinking whiskey left over from the last session of the Texas legislature. Internet alliances became real-world friendships.

The turning point in public opinion came with the courtroom evidence brought by then-Attorney General Greg Abbott and his team. An audiotape of Warren Jeffs raping a 12-year-old girl resulted in the conviction of twelve men. Yearning For Zion Ranch was abandoned.

Texas had succeeded where several other states and the Federal government had failed. They exposed a child sex-trafficking ring that ran from Mexico to Canada. Sadly, only Canada acted on the information, and then only imperfectly.

Jeffs raped his victims in this cell in YFZ Ranch.
Meanwhile, in Utah, nothing much has changed. Just this month, the courts slapped the hands of nine defendants for misdirecting SNAP benefits to their FLDS bishop. I shudder to imagine the penalties had the perpetrators been a black, inner city church.

Last week I learned that one of my pals from the Polygamy Wars has died. She lived a good life, and she fought the good fight. I hope that she—and we—turned the tide of public opinion, at least just a bit. 

2 comments:

Joe Johnson said...

Good article, thanks.

Carol Douglas said...

Thank you, Joe. Sometimes it surprises me how many connections of mine go back to those days.