(originally published on October 27, 2017)
It’s very hard to find the right words to introduce you to the courageous woman I interviewed and how she and her family escaped the FLDS Cult. There’s so much abuse and scandals that it would be impossible to be able to sum it all up in a short paragraph. I can say that FLDS stands for Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The cult formed in the early 20th Century because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints no longer allowed polygamy. That’s when many members left the Mormon Church and created their own cult in order to allow polygamy to continue.
There’s honestly so much to cover that I couldn’t possibly do it all here. So, I strongly encourage you to go here in order to get more information about the cult and also this link to learn about their now jailed leader, Warren Jeffs, who is still very powerful despite the fact he’s in prison. (He was sentenced to life in prison for both sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault of young girls.) I will warn you, the information about both the cult and Warren Jeffs is quite disturbing, but we can’t turn our heads and ignore it. That’s the same as condoning it.
I’m going to share with you an interview I did with a woman by the name of Brenda Nicholson who grew up in the cult and ultimately escaped with her family in order to live the wonderful life that they all deserve.
You’ll read in this interview the heartbreaking details about her life in the cult, having to leave everyone she knew behind, and how hard it was for the whole family to start over only having each other and no one else to lean on.
At the same time, you’ll get to know a woman that never folded and risked everything in order to put her husband and children first by leaving the cult and their former lives behind them and start new ones. You’ll read how their family learned to stick together and were became proved that their love for each other is truly unbreakable. The fact that they were able to make it through living in a cult, escaping into a world where they knew no one, and still managed to stay close and chase their dreams, means that there’s always a way out of the darkness that’s worth fighting for.
So, here is my interview with Brenda. I believe you’ll feel very inspired after reading her story in her own words.
1. You stated in your documentary that your parents joined the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) Cult when you were one year old. How did they find out about it, and what made them decide to join?
My father grew up in the mainstream LDS church, and while he was working at the Boeing plant in California as a janitor, he noticed a time card with the name “Alma Thomas” on it. Apparently, Alma was usually a girl name, unless you were a Mormon, so he decided to stick around and wait to see if he could meet a fellow Mormon. When he met Alma, my father learned that he was a member of a breakaway sect of fundamentalist Mormons, living along the border of Utah and Arizona. At that time, the group was simply referred to most often as “The Work,” it wasn’t until the 1980s when we became the FLDS.
Alma raised questions in my father’s mind as to why the LDS church was no longer living all the principles of the gospel. He encouraged him to read the Journal of Discourses and ask questions. My parents never voiced their motives to us, other than to say that they “wanted to live the fullness of the gospel,” but to be honest I think it had a lot to do with my father finding the idea of having multiple wives appealing.
2. How was your relationship with your parents growing up? Did you ever question to yourself if they made the right decision by joining?
My relationship with my parents was often strained. We grew up extremely poor, isolated from family, and without any meaningful ties within the church. My parents had left everything they knew to join a very insular group where most everyone was related and had roots going generations back. It wasn’t an easy thing to assimilate with for us. We weren’t allowed to play with the “gentile” neighbors, but we also didn’t know any “Priesthood” families, so we were pretty isolated.
Growing up, my parents would often talk about how they had left everything – family ties, community, etc. – and moved to Utah under great stress and while experiencing many setbacks. My father always used those hardships as proof that they made the right choice. They were the devil trying to discourage my parents from joining with the true power of god on earth.
I would marvel and wonder how they knew it was the right thing to do? I was grateful that they had been so inspired and led to the feet of the Priesthood, because I wasn’t confident in my own abilities to know anything. I was told so often about what a blessed privilege it was to be part of The Work, and I didn’t know any other life. It was “normal.”
I will admit, that through my growing up years I often wondered what my life would have been like if Father never met Alma Thomas. When things were rough, or I faced fears of what the future held, I would feel guilty for entertaining thoughts about how if my parents hadn’t joined, I wouldn’t be condemned for my weaknesses. I wouldn’t have known any better.
Sometimes, I even allowed myself to go as far as to daydream about what my life could have been. I would have just been a normal person, going to normal school and making friends. I wondered if I might have learned how to surf? I could have worn bathing suits and gone swimming and never felt guilty or evil for it. Sometimes, I wished that they had never joined.
3. When it comes to the FLDS, husbands and wives are chosen for each other. Was this the case for you and your husband? How old were the two of you when you got married?
Our story is a little unusual. Yes, marriages were almost exclusively by arrangement, but in some cases, if a boy and girl got together they would be told to get legally married and then they’d be required to prove their worthiness for a year or more before being allowed to have a Priesthood sealing. My husband’s family and ours had met and started associating together when I was 11 or 12. His family had also converted out of California the same year ours did, but their oldest daughter was married and lived in Short Creek, and they were involved in the church-run school.
My husband and I ended up working at a machine shop that was owned by church members, and interacting with each other. As a result, we started to have feelings for each other, which was strictly forbidden. I always wanted to get married “right” and to make a very long story short, I ended up talking to our prophet at the time, Rulon Jeffs, and pouring out my heart to him. I wasn’t asking to marry, I was just confessing how I felt and why. I needed to gain forgiveness and understand what to do next so I could move on.
In two days we were married. “Uncle” Rulon said he made took our case up before God and felt very good about the two of us being meant to be married. I was 19 and he was 21.
4. What was your husband’s job while in the cult and how old was he when he started working? Is it true that men and/or boys work for no pay in the cult?
He worked in IT, for most of his career. He had done some layout and design work when he was a teenager, and then did shipping/receiving and inventory for several years before being placed in charge of technology at the company we worked for when we were married. At that point, at least in the Salt Lake City area, boys went to the church school, Alta Academy, and we weren’t as free to have boys go to work young. We were “surrounded by the wicked gentiles that prevented us from learning good work ethic with their child labor laws that were inspired by the devil.”
Still, there were several boys that I knew who were killed in industrial accidents after I was married. Working in conditions where they never should have been, running equipment that they weren’t mature enough to handle.
Once we all moved to Short Creek, around the end of 2001, a lot changed for us. Things were handled differently down there, and my boys were getting older. Many times, boys were sent out to work, and that served a two-fold purpose: First, in huge families, where the father is absent most of the time, as boys get older they are harder for the mothers to handle. Especially once they reach the age where they are ordained into the Priesthood. At that point, they have authority over their own mothers. True to the nature of teenage boys, they generally don’t want to do dishes and yard work, so the mothers are anxious to get them out of their hair. Secondly, they can be used for cheap/free labor. Many boys work for next to nothing, or their paycheck is given directly to their father. This helps to financially support both the family and the companies. They can underbid competitors because they aren’t paying living wages, and they are holding these boys’ salvation over their heads as motivation to work hard.
Even for my husband, once we moved to Short Creek, the business he was working for made an across the board, mandatory 50% cut in pay. They also stopped providing health insurance. Part of the idea being that on such low wages we could all qualify for welfare – both for food and for health care.
5. What are the children taught while attending school there?
When I was growing up, my mother homeschooled us and taught us a pretty well-rounded curriculum. That is, when we actually did school. I entered Alta Academy in 7th grade, and graduated high school from there. The curriculum definitely lacked in Science and Social Studies, and the only history that was taught was in relation to Priesthood History. We did learn Math, English, and Spelling. Though everything in the curriculum was designed to point our hearts to the church teachings. In my high school physiology class thick green tape covered all pictures of reproductive systems or text that talked about it.
They shut down Alta Academy around 1998, I believe. Some people did homeschool, for a while just before we moved to Short Creek there was an effort to have some sort of organized school scattered between different homes, but it didn’t last long. In Short Creek they had kept schools going.
Once we all moved to Short Creek, they got schools up and running again for the Salt Lake people, and that lasted for a few years, then the schools were shut down, and the focus was placed on preparation for the “great destructions” and keeping ourselves separate from the world.
From birth, the most important education we were taught to give to our children was a perfect submission and obedience to the men over us, and for girls, our only true goal was to become “a mother in Zion.” Be a submissive wife and have as many babies as we could.
6. Did you ever witness any mistreatment of women and/or children that you found questionable, that in hindsight you realize was wrong?
My mother’s life was miserable as I was growing up. She was the only woman I was around until I was a teenager. Sadly, I blamed her – because my father and the teachings of the church did – and I was determined to do better than she had when I was married. Once I matured I saw things for how they really were.
My father only had one wife, my mother, for many years. It wasn’t until after I was married that he finally was given the coveted “plural wife.” My mother was set aside, and mistreated horribly through this time, though she would never complain or criticize my father and her sister wives.
After I moved to Short Creek, when we were living surrounded by “saints,” it was much easier to see what day-to-day life looked like in the group. I had talked to many, many women and watched as life went on around me, and one thing I knew was that women weren’t happy. We all said we were; we all said we loved polygamy, but life as a woman was hard.
Men have favorite wives, and favorite children. There is a lot of harm done through neglect and lack of time to nurture the relationships that people crave. Wives want to feel significant to their husband, they are in constant competition for his time, attention and affections. Children are so numerous that it’s really impossible to nurture them and see them as individuals. They are part of a herd – becoming not much more than a number. This was extremely common, but not the worst of it.
In some cases, it went far beyond neglect and became verbal and spiritual abuse – harsh accusations and cruel treatment for the slightest of actions. I began to see the harm of having so many kids who were raising themselves and each other, without enough involvement from parents. Harshness and cruelty passed on down the line to who or whatever could be found that was weaker.
I witnessed animal abuse and torture that chilled me to my very core.
I witnessed a father whose treatment of his toddler not more than 40 feet away from me in plain sight gave me chills to think of what he dared to do behind closed doors.
My disabled son was bullied and mistreated until he was afraid to go outside.
Much of this I knew was wrong, but I was trapped in the mindset of protecting the brethren and the image of the church above all else. If I was to report any of this, the news would get hold of it and make us look bad. It took a while before I allowed myself to acknowledge that the media wasn’t at fault for making us look bad, the truth was there was a lot of bad that we were covering up. The media didn’t know the half of it.
It wasn’t until after I left that I came to fully realize the damage being done to women and children by this lifestyle. In so many ways, it is harmful.
7. You said in your documentary that children that were deemed “worthy” would be separated from their families and put in families that were also deemed “worthy.” In addition to that, children deemed to be “unworthy” had to support themselves and their fathers weren’t allowed to support them any longer. What was the reasoning given for this?
Thinking about that question, I relive the meeting in my memory. Lyle Jeffs having just announced that the lord would no longer allow those who were worthy to live among the unworthy, and there had to be a separation. He advised the “worthy” fathers that they could have some input on where their “unworthy” family members were sent, and to help them find gainful employment because “not one penny belonging to a United Order member could go to unworthy people. They were going to have to provide for themselves, because everything belonging to members of the United Order belonged to God and could not be diverted.
8. You said that the realization your family would be torn apart was your breaking point, and that’s when you and your family left the cult. How hard was it adjusting to the world outside?
Leaving was one of the hardest things I had ever done. I had to hide my intentions from family and friends, and carry on as though nothing had changed. All the while knowing that very soon I was going to be walking away, and they would all be required to shun me and completely cut me off. I couldn’t say goodbye. I wanted to hold on to my mother and tell her all about how I felt, and at least be able to tell her how much I loved her. I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t her fault that another one of her daughters was leaving. But I couldn’t risk having anyone know that we were leaving. We didn’t want to have to face the backlash or pressure that would be put on us and our children if the leaders learned of our plans.
It wasn’t until after we left that I learned what Warren Jeffs was really in jail for, that I learned who and what he and the other leading men really were. It was the most intense feeling of betrayal that I have ever experienced.
There have been good days and bad days, as there always is. Happily, my husband’s work experience gave him marketable skills and he was able to get a good job. The first months on the “outside” were hard. We were riding a roller coaster of emotions as we tried to come to terms with life. On the one hand, we were free to make our own decisions – for the first time in our lives. But on the other hand, we had no safety net, no community, no family, and no one to give us advice. We had to face the consequences of our decisions head on, and that was terrifying. What if we made the wrong choices?
Once I learned the truth, I longed to be able to tell my family. I began to understand the necessity, on the part of the church, to isolate us from everyone – especially “apostates.” They had to keep their followers ignorant of the truth or they would lose control of the people, and thus they would no longer have the money or power to live in luxury with thousands eager to serve them.
Some days I feel like we’re doing incredible, adjusting really well. Then other days I feel lost – still an alien in a foreign land where I don’t fit in.
9. How have you and your family been able to cope with what you all went through?
We lean on each other. The only way all of this was possible was because we were close. Circumstances we were in, both by choice and by command of the church, had made us stay close and we were each other’s whole world – almost literally. I had always talked to my children about everything, explaining things even where the church expected unquestioning obedience. I felt that obedience was easier if you understood the whys and what was expected made sense. Because of this, my children trusted my opinions and had no problem following where I led. We have remained close and my children still talk to me about anything. We’ve been through a lot together, and I think that has cemented our relationships and made them strong.
10. Your documentary mentioned that you were enrolled in college. What career would you like to pursue? Have your children been doing well in a normal school setting as well?
I finished my associates degree in psychology this summer, and I’d like to keep going in college, but I’m having a hard time deciding which direction to go. Right now I’m focused on writing a book about my experiences growing up in the FLDS, as well as the process of breaking free and coming to grips with the vast difference between what I was taught, what I witnessed, and what I have come to understand is true.
I have thought about becoming a counselor of some sort, to help women who get free from abusive situations heal and become whole. I know that there are a lot of parallels in my experiences to what women in many circumstances have lived through. We are all sisters, through our humanity, and though our experiences may differ, the emotions we deal with those experiences are the same. I have found healing and I’d love nothing more than to help others find the freedom and joy that I have in my life now.
Two of my older kids have started college, and I finally put my three youngest in public school this year. They are doing incredibly well, and I’m happy that they can have the opportunities for success and friendship that I was denied for so long. They are able to live a free, open life where they are making their own choices. I’m fiercely proud of the amazing humans they are and the choices they are making. I couldn’t ask for better people to be my kids.
11. Having never written a resume’ before or receiving any prior work experience outside the cult, how difficult was it for your husband to find a job? Where did he eventually begin working, and how is he doing?
He is an extremely talented and professional person. Before we left he started to look on the internet at how to write a resume, and came across the Diversity Foundation’s website. It was started by Dr. Dan Fischer, who used to be a member of the FLDS, and was my husband’s former employer. On that site there were instructions for writing a resume, and he followed them. He has a great job now, and has great potential for the future.
It hasn’t always been easy for him, because as you start to interact with people in the outside world, you realize how much you’ve missed. We hadn’t watched TV or movies, or listened to music, we weren’t aware of world events and a lot of other things that people take for granted. But, that being said, he has still advanced and fit in amazingly. He hasn’t felt as comfortable to share his past with his associates, but has been extremely supportive of all the work I am doing to raise awareness of the harms and crimes being committed, as I try to rescue my family and others from the hell that they are trapped in.
When it came down to it, I was able to know what was right and leave everything behind to save my children. I hope someday my mother will be proud of me and what I have accomplished. That is my dream.
Thank you very much, Brenda. I’m very grateful you were willing to share your story with me and I know you and your family will go far in life.
I also would like to strongly encourage you all to watch Brenda’s documentary, If This Is Heaven, Then Give Me Hell. It will give you a deeper look into what she went through and you won’t regret watching it.