Beliefs Columns Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood News Opinion

Ex-polygamist details flight from the FLDS and his half brother, Warren Jeffs

Wallace Jeffs, who left the FLDS Church in 2011.

Wallace Jeffs, who left the FLDS Church in 2011. Photo courtesy of Wallace Jeffs

(RNS) — When Wallace Jeffs left the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus of Latter Day Saints led by his older half brother, the infamous prophet Warren Jeffs, he lost his family of two wives and 20 children. The worst had happened. For years, Wallace Jeffs had suppressed any misgivings about the church because of his fear that its leaders would hold his family hostage.

So he began helping the FBI amass a case against his half brother and sued the church for custody of his children. As he recounts in his new memoir, “Destroying Their God: How I Fought My Half-Brother to Save My Children,” co-written with Shauna Packer and Sherry Taylor, he nearly paid for that rebellion with his life.

RNS interviewed Jeffs about the book and his experiences. His responses follow.

You open the book in dramatic fashion by recounting a 2011 car “accident” that left you in a coma for 45 days. Why do you believe that the accident was a deliberate attempt by FLDS leaders to kill you?

It’s hard for me to prove it, but I hadn’t been drinking, I wasn’t speeding, and I wasn’t sleepy. I had just barely gotten on the freeway when my brakes failed and I slammed into a semi. My right foot was all the way down on the brakes when the paramedics found me, but the brakes weren’t working.

I have to assume that it was caused by the FLDS leadership, because they had told several people I was going to die. The accident happened about 2 months after I had filed the lawsuit to get my kids back. The Lord had revealed to Warren that the Lord was going to punish me by killing me.

You woke up in the hospital to find that more than six weeks had passed and your children had been taken away again by the FLDS. That must have been awful.

Image courtesy of Zarahemla Books

It was the most helpless feeling I’d ever had. Waking up from a coma to find out that the children were gone again, and there was absolutely nothing I could do physically to get them back, was devastating. One of the most frustrating things I’ve ever been through.

Let’s back up and talk about your unusual childhood, growing up in the thick of the FLDS. Your father, Rulon Jeffs, became the prophet. How many half-siblings did you have?

My father sired 65 children during his lifetime. I was about right in the middle, somewhere in the 30s. My mother was a convert and was originally part of the LDS church, but she left the LDS church to join the FLDS. She was my father’s sixth wife. I was kind of the odd duck because my mother only had two children, where some of the other mothers had 10 or 12. Also, my mother was different because she was one of the breadwinners of the family. She was a nurse and was rarely home, so I was actually raised by Warren’s mother. She was my guardian and I lived with her most of my childhood.

What was Warren like as a child and young adult? You talk about how his mother groomed him for leadership.

His mother, right from his birth, felt he was destined to become a prophet, a great leader within the FLDS Church. He was born premature in the 1950s, when they didn’t have the technology for preemies to survive. The fact that he survived as a preemie was a sign to her that he had some kind of a great calling.

Anything he did wrong, his mother would cover it up: “There’s no way Warren could have done anything like that.” She was always trying to protect him and keep his reputation clean so he would be revered by the people. He learned to manipulate because his mother taught him how. He believed he could do no wrong. A really classic case of narcissism.

As an adult, you became successful in business, which meant the church started to depend on you financially. How did that give you a pass to the inner circle?

That’s how it was in the church. The men who got plural wives were basically the ones that had a lot of money. I did not become successful in business for that purpose, to have more wives. I just really enjoyed my business.

The leaders use plural marriage as a way to control you. They came to me and said they had a girl for me to marry, and if I refused I would lose everything. If you have a current wife and children and refuse a plural wife, you lose your first wife and children to the community.

It was shocking to read that the young woman they gave to you as a second wife was a blood relative.

She was the daughter of one of my half sisters, so a half-niece. I questioned that very deeply at the time, and I asked my father if he was sure. He said yes, that’s correct, the Lord revealed that this is what you’re supposed to do. Again, it was not my choice but his choice.

In the book you talk about a lot of changes in the FLDS Church when your father died and Warren became the prophet. What happened?

When my father died and Warren took charge, he felt very threatened by certain individuals. If anybody was successful or had influence with the people, he would do whatever he could to strip them of that influence. He was very insecure, I guess you would call it. He apparently wanted my second wife, because the day that he got caught in Las Vegas (in 2006), he was actually going to marry my second wife. He didn’t do that just to me, but to other men as well. Whatever he wanted — if he wanted a girl, or somebody’s wife — he would do whatever he had to to get it.

When did you start pushing back, and why?

I started pushing back in early 2011 after I discovered that he had married an 11-year-old girl. The way I found out was that I was walking through a truck stop and saw a newspaper picture of Warren hugging and kissing this little girl. Prior to that I had no knowledge of him marrying young girls.

I realized then that I had to do whatever I could to protect my kids. I knew this girl well, knew her age and her circumstances. So that’s when I started bucking back and filed a lawsuit. I went to the U.S. marshall, to anyone who might help.

Warren Jeffs went to prison, but you say that his control never diminished among the FLDS people.

He still to this day maintains total control even from prison. It’s taking a long, long time for people to realize who and what he was, and what he did. Many people still believe that God is going to free him from prison and that Warren’s going to go on and lead them to Zion, as they call it.

Can you give us an update on what has happened with your family in the last few years?

All of my family, including my two wives, are out of the church. They still somewhat believe that Warren is a prophet, and is going to someday save them all, but they also know something is terribly wrong. It doesn’t happen overnight. But they’re out of the FLDS, and they have their own jobs and are starting their lives over. Half of them don’t talk to me. They still believe somehow that I’m evil and wicked in doing what I did, but I know in time it will come around.

I’ve divorced both of my plural wives, and I’m married to a lady from the LDS church. I’ve joined the LDS church and have adopted her eight children, and so now I have a total of 28 children. I was able to court her, which was really fun. Courting became a very interesting thing for me, because it’s forbidden in the FLDS — the prophet tells you who you’re going to marry.

My life now is wonderful. Even though I miss my kids and wish they were closer to me, I’m just trying to set an example for them that the way we were living was wrong. We can have happy lives and not be controlled anymore.

Why did you write the memoir?

I wrote the book to tell my story to my children, so that if they couldn’t hear it from my mouth, they could read my book, and to give a male perspective of what it’s like growing up in that church. When I came out of the FLDS, everybody thought I would be just like Warren, that I had wanted to be a polygamist and have lots of wives. That was never what I wanted.

So I wanted to write about what it’s like growing up as a boy in that church. I’m not the only one. There were thousands of men who lived in that church and didn’t want to be there, but stayed out of fear. So many females had come out and told their story, but I wanted to give a male perspective. Even though we live polygamy, a lot of us don’t want to live it.

Wallace Jeffs and co-authors Shauna Packer and Sherry Taylor will be speaking and signing books on June 6 at King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City, at 7 p.m.

 


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This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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