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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24 responses

30 03 2009
Topics about Books » Oprah on the Yearning for Zion Ranch - It’s No “Big Love”

[…] IT DAWNED ON ME placed an interesting blog post on Oprah on the Yearning for Zion Ranch – Itâ […]

30 03 2009
Topics about Religion » Oprah on the Yearning for Zion Ranch - It’s No “Big Love”

[…] IT DAWNED ON ME added an interesting post on Oprah on the Yearning for Zion Ranch – Itâ […]

31 03 2009
sidhe

I just read an article in People magazine on this as well. The surface of the article glossed over everything and spent some time focused on the trauma caused by the State of Texas with the raid and removal of the children last year but, like you, there appeared to be an underlying sense of “scriptedness” or, at the very least, a lot of practice in the responses of the women and children interviewed.

http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20265029,00.html

31 03 2009
skyewriter

Like you, Diane, I am a fan of “Big Love”.

What you write here is an important reminder that polygamy is a dangerous, misogynist practice that controls women through fear and intimidation.

When I read something like this I always think of a question one of my professors asked us during a class a few years ago. Her question was: How do you tell people they are oppressed if they don’t realize they are oppressed? While I know this is a broad ethical question, what happens in these “marriages” is nothing but pure exploitation. Women are victims and the most hurtful thing about it is that many of us, like many of them, feel powerless to do anything.

2 04 2009
Stacy

Indeed, the FLDS church is so far outside the main stream of Christianity to be viewed more as a cult than an offshoot of Christian denomination. There’s a good deal in the mainstream LDS church that contain the seeds of their ideas though. And we can’t forget what damage the MLDS church has done to the Gay Marriage movement. I have Mormon relatives and my children have gone to school with Mormons. They are superficially very normal. Scratch a bit deeper though and one starts to see things are not as “normal” as they seem.

Oh, and Diane, I accidentally rejected your comment on my blog instead of accepting it, which was my intention. Some days I think I should just give up moderating and save myself the embarrassment of notes like these. *Sigh* I’ll blame it on the lack of coffee…

6 04 2009
Jason Jones

Canada legalized Polygamy in the province of Saskatchewan under Section 51 of their marriage property Act.
Judges there have already allowed 2 polygamous unions. http://www.canlii.org…Saskatchewan…Polygamy..
see for yourself.

11 04 2009
Roberta

The link works..you just need to go to http://www.canlii.org THEN click on Saskatchewan..then type in Polygamy and you will see two cases where Saskatchewan judges use section 51 of their family property act to allow persons to have more than one legal spouse at the same time.

11 04 2009
sidhe

I’ve also looked around for clarification of this Section 51 in Saskatchewan and haven’t found anything credible but a lot of opinion. So, I did some more digging and found that Section 51 of the Family Property Act includes only the following language (from here, http://www.qp.gov.sk.ca/documents/english/statutes/statutes/F6-3.pdf):

Rights of new spouse
51 Where a person becomes the spouse of a person who has a spouse, the rights
pursuant to this Act of the subsequent spouse are subject to the rights pursuant to
this Act of the prior spouse.
2001, c.51, s.8.

Now from here, http://www.justice.gov.sk.ca/Default.aspx?DN=07bf79ed-bdd9-4aff-98e6-8e22d082d1a2 I found the following:

“The Family Property Act establishes as a general rule that each legally married spouse, common law spouse and same sex spouse is entitled to an equal share of their family property, subject to the exceptions, exemptions and equitable considerations set out in the Act.”

So, in consideration of that statement, Section 51 of the Family Property act applies to legally married spouses, common law spouses and same sex spouses, not to illegally married spouses (polygamy is illegal in Canada, s. 293 of the Criminal Code). I think that the only possible way that “polygamy” comes into play would be a case of a person, who is not divorced but who has left the home they shared with their legally married spouse and moved into a home with another person, who after two years may be recognized as a common law spouse and may under the Family Property Law have some claim to the first persons property in the event of a split. I believe it is important to note that when the act was amended to expand the definition of spouse to also apply to common law and same sex spouses the name of the act changed from the Matrimonial Property Act to the Family Property Act.

Okay, I’ll stop now. That’s a rather wordy bit but essentially my agreement in your assessment that this Section 51 fantasy is a “bloggers’ creation, not a reality.”

Here’s a good piece on it: http://www.wmcz.com/articles/Changing%20Times%20for%20Family%20Property.pdf

12 04 2009
roberta

The Canadian Polygamy law is different than the USA. The section 51 in Saskatchewan is in direct violation of the below Canadian Polygamy laws.
Persons who have cohabitated are treated identically to married persons in Canada and cannot remarry until their cohabitation ends. Except for that a married person can ALSO at the same time have more than one conjugal partner in Saskatchewan, withour ending their marriages.

The federal Criminal Code of Canada states:
S. 293. Everyone who
(a) practices or enters into or in any manner agrees or consents to practice
or enter into
(i) any form of polygamy
(ii) any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same
time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage,
or
(b) celebrates, assists or is a party to a rite, ceremony, contract or
consent that purports to sanction a relationship [that is polygamous]
is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term
not exceeding five years.”
This section is very general, capturing formal and informal arrangements.
It captures cohabitation as well as marriage; and it encompasses
both heterosexual and same sex relationships.

In Canada, a common law mariage is the same as a civil union. Do you think if it is legal to have a common law marriage simultaneous to a civil union it will be illegal to have two civil unions concurrently? The reason Canada fought so hard for common law marriages to be identical to civil marriages was to recognize the sanctity of TWO person relationships. Now Saskatchewan has allowed plural relationships that are identical.

Rights of new spouse
51 Where a person becomes the spouse of a person who has a spouse, the rights
pursuant to this Act of the subsequent spouse are subject to the rights pursuant to
this Act of the prior spouse.
2001, c.51, s.8.

The Matrimonial Property Act, 1997, being
Chapter M-6.11 of the Statutes of Saskatchewan, 1997.

“spouse” means either of two persons who:

(a) at the time an application is made pursuant to this Act, is legally
married to the other or is married to the other by a marriage that is
voidable and has not been voided by a judgment of nullity;
(b) has, in good faith, gone through a form of statutory marriage with
the other that is void, where they are cohabiting or have cohabited
within the two years preceding the making of an application pursuant to
this Act; or
(c) is cohabiting or has cohabited with the other person as spouses
continuously for a period of not less than two years;
and includes:

(d) a surviving spouse who continues or commences an application
pursuant to section 30 and who was the spouse, within the meaning of
clause (a), (b) or (c), of the deceased spouse on the day of the spouse’s
death; and
(e) where the applicant is a spouse within the meaning of clause (b), the
other party to the void marriage; (« conjoint »)

Saskatchewan allows any combination at the same time of A,B,or C. They have twice “created (c) while others were A. That, my friends is Polygamy if you take the time to read the Criminal Code definition above. That is plural same time conjugal unions. They are all legal spouses at the same time!
Know your facts before calling legal matters fantasies.
The wmcz article you refer to only outlines common law relationships when persons are NOT also married at the same time!

12 04 2009
roberta

Below is one of two judgements in Family Law from Saskatchewan. (winik)

” The formation of a common-law relationship is not hindered by the existence of a subsisting marriage. Mutual intention of the parties consummated by their conduct, perhaps with an expressive public component, is all that is required for the formation of the relationship.”

The judge made formal and legal the subsequent conjugal union unilaterally ( providing consent and assisting) even though the other person(s) did not consent to be a spouse.

Because common law unions are identical in Canada to civil unions, now multiple civil conjugal unions are allowed due to “equality of treatment under the law” in Canada. If a married person can also be a simultaneous common law spouse, multiple married persons follows in the law of equal treatment in Canada. Its the slope that is too slippery and is now case law.

12 04 2009
sidhe

As I understand it, it is no longer the The Matrimonial Property Act, 1997. The amendment that creates this confusion was added in 2001, when the act became known as the Family Property Act.

Now, I wonder if anyone in the US has thought of this common law thing? 16 states recognize common law marriage. What if I left my husband here in Michigan and moved in with a man in Colorado and eventually met the criteria for common law marriage there? Could I be prosecuted for bigamy? I use Colorado because I know that they actually do put weight in the common law thing, my cousin had to obtain a legal divorce from what he considered his live-in girlfriend a couple of years ago (obviously the courts did not have the same consideration).

Wow, Diane, your original post has taken a life of it’s own huh?

12 04 2009
roberta

Actually, since the Saskatchewan Polygamy cases, there is now “equal treatment to married and common law married.” defence to current Polygamist charges here.
Also, married persons are demanding the same right to have multiple polygamous spouses because of the cases in saskatchewan.
Once a court decides not to prosecute married and common law plural unions, they will have to admit married and married plural unions under equal treatment under law in Canada.

13 04 2009
roberta

PS. The judgement about the mans allegation having no merit or relevence had to do with the man claiming:
1) he could not be forced to be the legal spouse of a person who had a legal spouse
2) It is unconstitutional in Canada to defy the criminal code ( by a single judge)
3) Polygamy is illegal, therefore, the woman should not be able to profit through a crime
4) Saskatchewan’s family act , which defines spouse and conjugal relationships, is a criminal act and does not consider the laws against Polygamy.
Basically, the judge is saying the Criminal Code of Canada is superceeded by his family property act. This does not mean the woman cannot be charged with Polygamy, just that Saskatchewan allows Polygamy.

13 04 2009
SarahT

I have researched the Saskachewan Polygamy case law.

According to Canadian case law, yes, Saskatchwan allows Polygamy using Section 51 of their Marital property act. However, the judge4s who alolow this can also be likely sued for abuse of power. This is a real possibility.
They are acting ciminally themselves.

29 04 2009
sm

like your post i feel the pain, saudi ,slaves very good articles.
please nominate your blog for bloggerschoice awards 2009.
Read the link below and nominate your blog. Please vote for me also. and inform me about your nomination so i can vote for you ty.
http://realityviews.blogspot.com/2009/04/know-how-to-nominate-your-blog-for.html

27 05 2009
Darlene Trist

I live in Saskatchewan, Canada and have checked it out.
Yes, anyone who is married, common law or whatever can be simultaneous spouses of other persons without the criminal code of canada applying due to section 51 of the Family Property Act. There are existing two case laws to prove it.
Darla

25 06 2009
Storm

My personal feelings on this whole ‘polygamy’ thing. Well I think it’s disgusting and as for the children and where they live and them only being ‘exposed’ to their ‘own world’ is just not reality and it just looks like they’re ‘hiding from the world’. To me it’s not normal and for them to use the term ‘outside world’, well that’s what all of ‘us’ are living like. I know I don’t know all of the circumstances but it all sounds VERY dodgy to me.

5 07 2009
pkscott

My spouse was raised in a more “mainstream” (non polygamous) cult like religion. Similarly isolating and nothing was allowed that made a child feel special. Apparently beating him unconscious was A-OK by their interpretation of the scriptures. I think the fact that he isn’t a sociopath is a testament to his resilience. I have ZERO tolerance for the kind of abuse and pedophelia that these people practice.

That said, I don’t think that the problem is that they are polygamists, they are pedaphiles. If you read a little history of this “polygamist”cult, you find out that in the 50’s they were all pretty much “normal” people who were consenting adults who practiced polygamy. Not my cup of tea, but I’m a whatever floats your boat kind of gal, as long as the children and the livestock aren’t molested.
The problems began when polygamy was outlawed and these people were prosecuted. They then seperated from the larger community and became reclusive (to avoid prosecution.) The general weirdness, like the prarie dressed and the hairstyles and the whole stepford wife kind of mentality evidently happened over a period of decades in very small increments. Things like, women shouldn’t wear slacks. They essentially “boiled the frog.” GENERATIONS were born into this crap and indoctrinated from birth. Somewhere along the way the pedophiles crept in and took control, which at that point wasn’t so hard to do because these people were isolated from the rest of society.
I hav a point here, slow in coming, but a point. If the government had kept its snout out of the bedrooms of consenting adults and these people had not been ostracised from society I really doubt that the same government would have had to wade back 5 decades later to (rightfully) extract children from this nightmare of mind control and abuse.

9 08 2009
Jael Sprinkle

What may be surprising is that they are not the only place like this. Please consider he Tony and Susan Alamo New Jerusalem Ministries. Tony was recently tried and convicted. He currently awaits sentencing.

However, his followers and some of his wives still remain loyal regardless of his repeated beatings, insults (taped on prison telephones) and over all severe abuse.

Personally, I can not imagine believing in this type of God. A God who whitewashes the truth of men’s selfish motives, a God who enslaves women to the whims of a man, a God who does not allow a woman to desire exclusive intimacy and love without guilt, is no God for me.

6 11 2009
voyance

i just wanted tell you that your blog is stuning

thank you

voyance

7 03 2011
Zion 20property | TheButlerGroup

[…] Oprah on the Polygamous Yearning for Zion Ranch – It’s No “BigYearning 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. […]

16 04 2011
Alexander

Great post!

5 08 2011
plipplere

“Polygamy” clouds the more serious moral issues here. As this thread shows, it includes those who move in with new partners when their earlier marriage hasn’t been officially annulled, and situations where 3 or more consenting adults decide to live together in a conjugal situation. The debate here is similar to that surrounding gay marriage: on one side are arguments of the right to free choice and privacy, on the other are objections on the grounds of religion, what is “normal” etc.

But when one person or a group of people use power and influence to control the private lives of others, especially children, they are taking away their free choice. When girls are raised to believe they are of little worth and are born to serve men, and when this is the only reality they are exposed to, they are often not in a position to practice free choice even when they reach maturity. The entire structure of these groups is abusive. Girls are ordered to have sex with old men, they are traded like used cars, they do not make decisions when it comes to raising their own children, or indeed to having their children, with many girls/women giving birth to up to a dozen babies in as many years.

Boys too are mistreaten, beaten, similarly taught that they are worthless, and many simply thrown out of the only society they’ve known when they reach 16 or so. When some men have 4 to 80 wives, there is less place for those sons not deemed to have leadership potential.

24 10 2011
Will

Obviously, men who brainwash and make women and children their slaves are beyond redemption. However, is polygamy itself to blame? (Like saying guns kill people, when we all know that guns can’t kill people on their own).

Or look at it this way. It is legal to have one wife, and 4 mistresses you have no legal responsibility for, but it is illegal to have 5 wives that you are legally bound to have responsibility with…. I’ve never thought about this type of thing and that’s the first thing that crossed my mind… Makes me think things aren’t always black and white… Perhaps it’s not polygamy that is to blame, but evil people and f***ed up religions.

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