Oprah on the Polygamous Yearning for Zion Ranch – It’s No “Big Love”

30 03 2009

Oprah visited the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch and aired scenes from her visit today. Disturbing. What she showed is nothing like the Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated TV show Big Love, which just wrapped up its third season on HBO. I love that show. The writing on Big Love is superb, the acting is emotional and believable, and the drama is suspenseful.

Yearning for Zion Ranch outside Eldorado, Texas is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). In 2008 the Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) removed the children after being tipped that children were being sexually abused and underage girls were being forced to marry much older men. Twelve girls between ages 12 and 15 were married when the raid was conducted. Since the raid, people on YFZ say they won’t marry children below the legal age, which is 16 in Texas. The children were eventually all returned except a 12-year-old girl who was forced to marry their prophet Warren Jeffs, who according to FLDS church records, had 58 wives.

Jeffs was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List in 2006 when he fled to avoid prosecution. He was later found and arrested and on 11/20/07 he was sentenced to 10 years to life imprisonment for being guilty of two counts of rape as an accomplice. Jeffs is still scheduled to be tried for additional charges in Arizona. Willie Jessop, who took Oprah into the ranch, is now the prophet.

Excellent, shocking, and eye-opening books I have read on the FLDS church are Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven and Carolyn Jessop’s book Escape. In 1986, 18-year-old Carolyn Jessop, who wanted to attend medical school but was not allowed, was instead forced to marry 50-year-old Merril Jessop (Willie’s brother) who already had three wives and 30 children. Soon after the marriage, Merrill was given two additional wives.

Merril Jessop and his first six wives - Carolyn is on the right

Merril Jessop and his first six wives - Carolyn is on the right as a young bride

Carolyn endured repeated rapes from her husband and life-threatening pregnancies and childbirth until she was able to escape at age 35 with her 8 children in 2003 from the compound in Colorado City, Arizona. She took them and fled because she was afraid that her oldest daughter Betty, aged 14, would be forced into marriage. Betty screamed as they left and said that a mother has no right to do what she wants with her children.

Four years later and two days after Betty turned 18, she returned to the compound. Carolyn feels Betty is brainwashed. Oprah interviewed now 19-year-old Betty who seems to think her mother’s concern is silly. Betty talks to her mother once a week, but says it’s “awkward.” Merril Jessop is Betty’s father and is awaiting sentencing for conducting the unlawful marriage of Betty’s 12-year-old half-sister to FLDS head Warren Jessop who is in jail.

Betty, as well as the other women, men, and children tried to appear candid, but it’s almost certain that they were coached on what to say. Their stories were nothing like what Carolyn Jessop tells in her book of what life is like there.

Oprah probed those she talked to, but did not judge and let it go when people denied what so many people have said happens there. These interesting things did come out of her conversations. My comments are in purple.

  • Children don’t play. The FLDS people consider play frivolous and they say it doesn’t serve a purpose. Their purpose? To be like God. Wouldn’t God consider play and joy okay?
  • Oprah asked a classroom full of second graders if they’d heard of Shrek, Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, Little Mermaid, and other fictional characters…no, they hadn’t. The teacher said that teaching them about fictional characters serves no purpose. I can understand why they don’t encourage children to think creatively or have imaginations. They might consider doing something besides what they are told…like LEAVE.
  • They listen to religious music and sermons on iPods. Again, having no exposure to “fun” music or hearing opinions on topics besides their own religion keeps the people focused on work and their religion and contributes to them having no ability to think for themselves.
  • Oprah interviewed three wives of one husband who was there during the interview making sure they said the right thing watching. Oprah asked them didn’t they get jealous of their husband being with the other wives. One wife said “Our way of life is self-improvement and what better way to improve yourself than to live with other women and learn to overcome your bad feelings and jealousies? If I didn’t live with other women, I would never know about myself. I would never discover the weaknesses in my human flesh.” On the surface, one can understand her comments, but they say so much more if you delve deeply. She is saying that she has bad feelings and jealousy, she is weak to have feelings, and she can’t know herself or feel without being put in this situation of having to share her husband with other women.
  • Oprah talked to about 20 teenage girls and none of them had dated. One said that marriage is the start of a relationship. They all indicated that their parents pick who they will marry. This sounds a lot like what happens with arranged marriages in India. There is little to no free will to choose your own partner in your own time.
  • Oprah asked the teenage girls if they knew that it was against the law for adults to have sex with children. One said she didn’t know that before, and had just learned that. One can only imagine how the men groom girls for sex at an early age. Read Carolyn Jessop’s book. It’s disturbing.
  • Oprah asked about their dresses, which cover their arms and legs and look identical except in color. They wear them even when they swim and only take them off to put on their gowns for bed. They are not encouraged to be individuals and to express their own personalities (or even to have them) with choice of clothes. They also don’t get to be carefree children, wearing shorts, a swimsuit, etc. They are denied so many of what we would consider freedoms.
  • Oprah asked what the teenage girls what want the outside world to know. They answered in unison “That we’re happy.” Of course they said that. They do and say what they are told. They know they will be beaten if they don’t. They denied beating children in Oprah’s interview, but Carolyn Jessop says that children are beaten badly…even with boards…kicked, and otherwise abused. When the children were removed by the Department of Human Services, many of them had broken bones as a result of the physical abuse they deny happens.

Twelve men from YFZ remain under indictment and their trials are set for this fall. Although some might see it differently, after having read Jon Krakauer’s and Carolyn Jessop’s books and done other reading about what goes on in the FLDS “religion,” I see this as men using their power to make women and children subservient and slaves to their every need and desire. Carolyn Jessop said the boys are often taken out of school and made to work from 5 a.m. until sunset every day as slave labor.

The men cloak what they do in the name of religion and being like God and yet they literally take teenage boys out of their homes and dump them somewhere outside the ranch when they reach a certain age (like 14) because they become a threat to the much older men who pluck their peer-aged girl classmates from childhood to service them in “marriage.” Women and children there could have walked out of a “Stepford Wives” movie…they are zombies with no ability to think or choose for themselves.

I find the whole thing disgusting, disturbing, and alarming. The State of Texas tried to do the right thing, but it backfired. I cried for those women and children when they were returned to the Yearning for Zion Ranch.  The men are back to being happy and controlling. The abuse continues. It’s no “Big Love.”

UPDATE 4/14/09: The Texas House Committee on Human Services met today to look at how Texas officials handled the removal and investigation of child abuse at YZR. When questioned, the now FLDS prophet Willie Jessop said he wasn’t sure if there were underage marriages there and that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to speculate on the entire group. The chairman of the committee, Rep. Patrick Rose, told Jessop he just didn’t believe him.

Anne Heiligenstein, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, who was not working there at the time of the raid, defended their actions. According to the Austin American-Statesman article on the hearing,

She also pointed out that the protective services agency’s investigation concluded that nearly 30 percent of the girls ages 12 to 17 at the ranch had been sexually abused.

“It’s what other reasonable people would have done in the same situation to protect children,” Heiligenstein said.

Heiligenstein also issued a warning: “You cannot abuse children in Texas and get away with it, even if you are a large, reclusive, well-organized and funded organization that has a great deal of media savvy.”

UPDATE 11/6/09: In the first trial (in the 3,000-resident Schleicher County) associated with the 2008 raids on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Schleicher County, 38-year-old Raymond Jessop was convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl he calls his wife. She is one of the daughters of the former FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs and was previously “married” to Raymond Jessop’s brother before being “reassigned” to him when she was only 15 years old. She became pregnant at age 16 and her daughter is now four years old. According to Texas law, no one under 17 years of age can consent to sex with an adult. Jessop, who has 9 wives, faces up to 20 years in prison.

UPDATE 8/9/11:This is from the Huffington Post:

SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) — Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs has been sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two underage followers he took as brides in what his church deemed “spiritual marriages.”

The head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints stood quietly as the decision of the Texas jury was read Tuesday. He received the maximum sentence on both counts

The jury deliberated less than half an hour.

The 55-year-old Jeffs was convicted Thursday. During the trial, prosecutors used DNA evidence to show Jeffs fathered a child with a 15-year-old and played an audio recording of what they said was him sexually assaulting a 12-year-old.

Jeffs is the eighth FLDS man convicted since a raid of a ranch run by the church, which believes polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.








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