'Sons Of Perdition,' Exiles From Jeffs' Church
NEAL CONAN, host:
The voice of the notorious Warren Jeffs permeates a new documentary called "Sons of Perdition." Jeffs, who's now in prison, is the self-described prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamist group that's established communities in several places, probably the best known though in Colorado City, Arizona - dubbed The Crick by its inhabitants. Life in this strict religious community has no room for dissenters. And the movie follows the lives of three teenage exiles: Joe, Bruce and Sam, all runaways slowly getting used to life outside The Crick. It's not an easy transition, as Joe explains.
(Soundbite of movie, "Sons of Perdition")
Mr. JOE BROADBENT (Former Member, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints): And once you leave, then you automatically just start thinking, you know, nothing even matters. My family is out there, I'm out here and I'm going to hell, so what the (bleep) am I supposed to do? You know, you're not taught to think about this life. You're taught to think about the next life.
CONAN: "Sons of Perdition" is part of the Silverdocs Documentary film festival of the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, just outside of Washington.
We'll talk with the filmmakers in just a moment. We want to hear from you as well. If you have questions about life for these teenage runaways or about their life inside the polygamist community, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten directed "Sons of Perdition." They've joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.
Mr. TYLER MEASOM (Co-Director, "Sons of Perdition"): Naturally, thank you so much.
Ms. JENNILYN MERTEN (Co-Director, "Sons of Perdition"): Hi. Thank you for having us.
CONAN: And we need to remind listeners, this is the FLDS, a separate group with no connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. And the FLDS is, as you describe it, seems a lot like a cult built around one dominant personality.
Mr. MEASOM: By all means. You know, they've been in the desert practicing polygamy for over 100 years, in various sects across the nation. In fact, there's probably over 100,000 polygamists across the Western United States at some estimates. But - they kind of lived in relative obscurity for awhile, actually, as a pretty decent community.
Yes, they practice polygamy, yes, they had fundamentalist beliefs, but it wasn't until Warren Jeffs took over and self-proclaimed himself as prophet after his father, Rulon, died, that I think things started progressively getting more and more tight-fisted, a little bit more shut off from the rest of the world.
CONAN: And we see the extent of their isolation. There's a scene at the beginning of the film where somebody says, have you ever read a comic book - is that - I think that's one of you.
Ms. MERTEN: Right.
MORGAN: And he says, what's a comic book?
Ms. MERTEN: Exactly. I mean, these boys and the girls, all of the kids are basically - were pulled out of public school. You know, they had some home schooling, but really, they have maybe fifth grade to eighth grade educations. And any education they do get us is basically religion and math. And so, you know, they're really kept secluded form the world. And the boys are sent to work at very young age. You know, they're out three running backhoes and working and - you know, so it's a very sheltered life.
CONAN: Yet, Bruce, one of the young exiles, one of the kids who left, remembers family life at The Crick very fondly.
(Soundbite of movie, "Sons of Perdition")
Mr. BRUCE BARLOW (Former Member, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints): Family is everything. Your best friends are your family, you know? Every day when you come home, all of them that can walk are climbing on you, you know, tickling you, while you're trying to get them off you. It's just so much fun, you can't explain it. You got to be there. You know, every night, that's what kept me going.
CONAN: And, Tyler Measom, when you're that close - and these are extended families, 20, 30 or more people...
Mr. MEASOM: Right.
CONAN: ...there are extra wives around, there are - that kind of closeness, what is it that drove these boys away and away from that kind of intimacy?
Mr. MEASOM: Well, yeah, they - well, they were very close. These kids couldn't play videogames. They couldn't watch movies. They couldn't...
CONAN: But they didn't necessarily know about videogames either, so...
Mr. MEASOM: Well, right. So what they did is they hung around with their family. And so they became very close to their family, their mothers and their fathers - mothers, plural - and their siblings.
So, yes, they, at some age - and a lot of kids are kicked out, a lot of them are pushed out, a lot of them leave on their own after knowing that they have very little future. And when they do that, they will never see their family again. They'll never see their parents, their brothers, their sisters ever again. So they do that because I think just innately they know that they need something more. They're being confined. They're being held back. And I think a lot times, they just want to see what else is out there.
CONAN: Jennilyn Merten, there's another scene where somebody says, what's the capital of the United States? And they don't know.
Ms. MERTEN: Yeah, exactly. And she actually goes on, and Joe asks her, well, what's the capital of the state you live in? You know, Arizona? And she says, capital A - I have no idea.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MERTEN: And it's really hard for them. They get out, and it's like this whole brand, new world. They don't - you know, they don't know who's popular. They don't know...
CONAN: At one point, Joe mistakes Bill Clinton for Hitler.
Mr. MEASOM: Yeah. Yeah.
Ms. MERTEN: Right, exactly. Joe, you know, is hearing about the Holocaust for the first time and, you know, and had in his mind, he says, you know, who - the guy that burned all the little kids, you know, Bill Clinton. And he doesn't quite - you know, it's a real struggle for them to sort of assimilate, you know, in to mainstream life.
CONAN: But boys aren't the only ones who run away. Suzanne, Joe's older sister, recounts what life was like for girls who live in fear of being married off.
(Soundbite of movie, "Sons of Perdition")
Ms. SUZANNE BROADBENT: Because for almost two and a half years while I was out there, those two and a half years father freaking hounded me to get married. I'm like, I don't want to get married. He's like - I was like - he was like, yeah, you're not going to be living here under my roof forever. I'm like, I don't plan to. He never thought that I'd leave, till one day I just left. For a whole week, every damn night, he tried to come down and get me. He succeeded five times.
CONAN: And Tyler Measom, the - if boys are sometimes pushed out, as you say, girls are very much the opposite.
Mr. MEASOM: Well, if you're going to run a polygamist society and it takes three women in order to - to be married to three women in order to get into heaven, there's obviously a math problem. So you do discard some of the boys or let them go, but the women, they keep. They're prized property. So when they do leave, it's very difficult, A, and they are - they're hounded. They're found. They're - trying to back. In fact, we follow, in the film, Joe's sister.
She's 14 years old. Her name is Hillary, and she is threatened with marriage. And so Joe spends the majority of the film trying to get her to escape, and she does. She comes out, and each time she gets taken back. So, it shows this struggle that it takes for girls to leave and have a different life outside of the polygamist community.
CONAN: Well, that raises a question that occurred to me when I was watching the film. One of the times they're trying to get her out, you guys are driving what might be regarded as the getaway car.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MEASOM: Yeah.
CONAN: Are you, at this moment, observing what people are doing? Or are you instigating something here?
Ms. MERTEN: You know, at that point we had no idea that was going to happen. And, you know, we went out there. Joe was looking for his mother. And he goes into the house. We're sitting there waiting, and he comes back out with his 14-year-old sister, who we find out is being threatened with marriage.
And they jump in the car and say, go, go, go. And what do you do at that point? You know, you try to do the best thing. And it's really tough. You know, you want to walk the line in terms of objectivity, but, you know, when crimes are being committed against children, you know, you have to think differently. You have to think about where...
CONAN: Did you take her to the police?
Ms. MERTEN: We did. We actually took her to the Crisis Center, and she was sent back to her father. So - because there was no sign of physical abuse, and she couldn't talk about it - because they have no concept of what abuse is. And even though every kid in that - or the majority of the kids in that family had been physically beaten, they don't know how to talk about it. That's just normal to them.
So they don't know how to articulate, you know, I've been - you know, molested or I've been beaten. And so she - and she clamed up. And so, the social worker had no choice but to return her to her parent, you know?
CONAN: There's another part of this. Obviously, you weren't given the kind of access that you could go into this community and shoot it from the inside.
Anybody who's a member of any group, if there's a documentary film made that is exclusively about those who have run away, those who are disgruntled one way or another, those who have left, your group is not going to look very good.
Mr. MEASOM: No. We do reveal a bitter truths. We have footage - we have sermons from Warren Jeffs. We have photos of Warren Jeffs that have never been seen from his personal collection. And we do reveal a lot of truths, and it is crime. They are committing crimes. There are girls being systematically raped. There are boys that are being sent to job sites at eight years old.
So we reveal that truth, and we kind of - we'll bring down, hopefully, a bit of their way of life. Will they be happy with us? I really don't think so, but they haven't seen the film.
CONAN: Warren Jeffs, you mentioned the notorious and now incarcerated leader and prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
And again, if you just tuned in, no connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - totally separate. And this is one of his sermons that we -we hear these throughout the film.
(Soundbite of movie, "Sons of Perdition")
Mr. WARREN JEFFS (Leader, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints): How easy it is for the prophet to see when a parent is with him or against him. If your children don't grow up in faith and it's your fault, you will have to suffer for their sins along with them, and there is no redemption for you.
CONAN: And he is now in prison. How was he able to exercise control of his organization?
Ms. MERTEN: Essentially, once you're prophet, you're prophet for life. So, from prison...
CONAN: How do you apply for that job?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MERTEN: Exactly. You don't. You direct yourself. You proclaim yourself and then you own everyone's property. And you - you know, put the fear of God in them because essentially, you know, the prophet is God.
And so, you know, when he came to power, he essentially got rid of anybody that he wanted to and sent, you know, men in their 60's, you know, just packing, took their wives and their kids and gave them to other people.
Said, get up in church and had them, you know, file out and, you know, demolished their lives. And yet, because he is considered God, you know, you don't say no to God. You don't turn your back on God. So, you know, and everything you do in that society is for the bigger good and for the group. And so you show your loyalty by essentially doing whatever is asked of you.
And so, Warren, from prison, you know, have his brother and has other people that he's connected to. And he, basically, tells them what to do. And - so he still controls it with, you know, an iron fist, unfortunately.
CONAN: And Tyler Measom, he was just in Texas, brought up on charges, which were dismissed for lack of evidence and returned to prison in Utah.
Mr. MEASOM: Actually, it was Arizona. Actually, he had charges. He'd been charged in Utah. He was being charged in Arizona.
CONAN: But convicted (unintelligible).
Mr. MEASOM: He has charges in Texas - yes, in Utah. He had charges in Arizona, and they were dropped in Arizona. And I think it was purposely done because the Texas - the charges in Texas are a bit more severe, a bit more easy.
CONAN: And these arise from the raid that we all heard about, what, a couple of years ago?
Mr. MEASOM: These were prior to the raid. In fact, just today, his brother was convicted for sexually molesting a 15-year-old girl. I believe he was convicted for seven years and sentenced just today. It was announced and sentenced in Texas. So, yeah, he'll - I suspect he'll spend a few more years behind bars.
CONAN: We're talking with Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten, the directors of "Sons of Perdition," a documentary that's showing at the Silverdocs Festival at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre outside of Washington, D.C.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
800-989-8255, if you'd like to join the conversation. Here's an email from Sherry in Cleveland. What's the percentage of children that run away? Are most of them boys that leave? Also, do they ever go to the police if they know the children are getting molested or married off young?
Mr. MEASOM: It's a good question. We address in the film how many kids have left. There - it's really hard to know how many polygamists there are and how many there are from the FLDS. There's estimates that are - that about 1,000 boys have been kicked out or run away since Warren Jeffs took power.
But there are still a lot there. There are more - there almost double the children than there are adults, or triple the children than there are adults in Colorado City. So there's a lot that are still there.
CONAN: And about the girls?
Ms. MERTEN: I mean, there's a - fewer girls leave, precisely because it's just so hard. I mean, they are a commodity, and resources are used, essentially, to get them back. So, for example, when Hillary left and her older sister, Suzanne, you know, the fathers are directed to do anything and everything they can to get them back. And so, you know, both of these girls left five, six times before they, you know, could actually escape.
So it's much more difficult for women, and they're more vulnerable on the outside. They don't have the work skills. They don't have just the physical safety. And so - and they will take women back. So if a girl gets out and gets scared and decides that she wants to return, they will take her. But a boy -you're done.
CONAN: Yeah. They say repeatedly that these families whom they still love and miss terribly that they are dead to them, as far as they understand.
Mr. MEASOM: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
CONAN: What happens to them? Do they go to school? Do they learn about the outside world?
Mr. MEASOM: The boys?
Mr. MEASOM: You know - well, I think the first thing they do is they have a little bit of a kid in a candy store. And when they get out, they kind of go through this process where they - because they didn't really have a youth. They didn't have a childhood. They couldn't ride bikes. They couldn't play ball. They couldn't watch cartoons. And so they're 40 years old going on 10, because they were entrusted with job sites, and they could drive backhoes and they could take care of their brothers and sisters.
So when they get out, they're very mature, but yet they regress to this 10-year-old phase of wanting to party and drink and meet girls. And, you know, what teenager doesn't want to do that, anyways? But they kind of do it to an nth degree. I mean, they really party, and they really do a lot of drugs and alcohol. And I think they do that to anesthetize of sorts.
You know, they're told they're going to hell. They're told they're going to be ground in to native element, that their soul and their body will no longer exist throughout eternity. And that's a tough thing to put on a kid when he is 15, 16, 17 years old.
CONAN: Sure. It's - but this has been going on for awhile. There must be a fairly large community of these boys at this point.
Ms. MERTEN: Exactly. I mean - and it's, again, it's hard to get the exact estimates. And there are still kids coming out. You know, we just learned of another 15-year-old boy that is trying to leave right now, that, you know, is on his way out. So it was a big tide, and now it's a little bit more of a trickle. But what's happened is is that there is a sort of underground railroad of boys. And they, you know, crowd together in apartments and they help each other out. They get construction jobs under the table. And they kind of recreate a family setting with each other. You know, sometimes that's not so great because it's a bunch of, you know, a pack of dogs hanging out and drinking. But they also do create a family setting, and the older generation helps them.
CONAN: Let's get a caller. And this - Barbara is with us, calling from Chico in California.
BARBARA (Caller): Hi. I wanted to say I so know what this is. I was a that 14-year-old girl who was beaten, who ran away, who couldn't articulate what abuse was. You don't have the language. I didn't grow up with LDS, but a strict Polish Catholic father, the youngest of seven children, and only one brother, all sisters. I ran away. My father - my mother said - she begged me to come home over the phone, and I said I'll come home if daddy promises not to beat me.
BARBARA: And she got him to make that promise. He came, he got me. First thing he did was slap me across the face, you know? He roughed me up.
CONAN: I'm sorry, Barbara.
BARBARA: When I got home, he kicked down the door. And the first thing he did was beat me. I even - in the last year of high school. I mean, I tried - I called my high school principal. I said, please help me, you know? And he says, oh, I know your family - this is back in 1965.
CONAN: And this is a situation where...
BARBARA: It didn't change.
BARBARA: The high school principal didn't believe me. Even the last year in high school, I asked for a social worker to come and counsel me, you know? No other child in my school in rural Pennsylvania - most of us were the sons and daughters of coal miners.
CONAN: And Barbara, I'm sorry that this happened. And I'm also sorry, we're running out of time in the segment, and I don't have more time to hear your story. But thank you very much for sharing that story.
She mentioned LDS, of course, the FLDS, the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, not the same. So anyway, thanks to the filmmakers, Jennilyn Merten and Tyler Measom, who joined us. Their film, again, is "The Sons of Perdition." Thanks very much for your time today.
Mr. MEASOM: Thank you so much.
Mr. MERTEN: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you again on Monday. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.