Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Are FLDS women brainwashed?

The FLDS's first consecrated Mormon Temple at the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, TX.
It was built by the order of Warren Jeffs, and consecrated by him
while he was a fugitive on the FBI's Most Wanted List.

-- by Sara

I've spent the day wrangling with a post (which will probably turn into several posts) about the FLDS raid in Eldorado, TX. Oddly, last week's events occured while I had my nose buried in the best new book on the subject of the FLDS since Jon Krakauer's bestselling Under the Banner of Heaven came out in 2003, so I've got a lot of fresh and deep perspective on the matter -- too much, in fact, to be wrestled down into one coherent post.

Over dinner, I'd just about decided that the only way to deal with the overload was to chip away at the story in short blats over the next few days, which will attempt to put some new context to these events. And then I got an e-mail from Pastor Dan Schultz of Street Prophets, containing ample proof of just how badly that context is needed now that the media talking heads are all holding forth on this story.

Dan pointed me to the second most inane thing ABC News has produced today (the first, of course, being Charlie Gibson's and George Stephanopoulos' performance at the Pennsylvania debates) -- an odd little story by Emily Friedman asking "experts" whether or not FLDS wives are "brainwashed."
Between hysterical sobs, the women of the Yearning for Zion Ranch in rural Texas tearily pleaded Monday for the return of their children from state custody, but at the mere turn of a phrase, those tears mysteriously, uniformly stopped.

When conversations with reporters shifted away from the 416 children in state custody toward touchier subjects surrounding the mysterious religious sect, the overflowing emotions were quickly replaced with blank stares and terse replies.

Clad in conservative prairie dresses, hair back in buns and tight braids, the women stuck to monotone, emotionless responses in declining to answer reporters' questions concerning allegations of plural marriages and sexual assault within the sect.

Asked whether 14- and 15-year-old girls get married on the compound, a tight-lipped woman who would only give her first name, Marilyn, gave what appeared to be a rehearsed response.

"We are talking about our children now," she said, shaking her head, unwilling to stray from the subject of her children.

The shift to blank-faced denial was jarring in both its immediacy and consistency. Not a single one strayed from the script, an impressive display of solidarity, if a bit peculiar to the outsiders granted unprecedented access to the members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

To outsiders, everything about these people is strange — from the way they dress to the way they talk and especially the way they live. To the uninitiated, it may even appear that these women must be brainwashed to live within the confines of the isolated, controlled sect.

Questions about rumored child brides, teen pregnancies and men assigned multiple wives garnered stoic expressions and a relentless determination to defend the sect's lifestyle.

"Do you know the definition of Zion?" responded Marie, when asked by a reporter what life within the sect's gate is really like. "Heaven on Earth."

It's an extreme statement, and the women of the sect have begun to realize that their devotion to their lifestyle is unusual to those on the outside.

So, are these women just fanatically, independently religious, or are they victims of something more sinister, like mind control?....

Mental health professionals told that it may all depend on how you define brainwashing.

The piece goes on to interview several mental health professionals, who (except for one outlier) ome to the consensus that no, probably, these women aren't brainwashed -- just weirdly socialized. Brainwashing, after all, would require real coercion:
"Just because they are different doesn't mean they've been brainwashed," said H. Newton Malony, a senior professor of psychology at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "Brainwashing occurs when a person is physically incarcerated in order to believe something."

As far as we know, said Malony, these women and children — and even men, for that matter — have not been held against their will, but rather, have grown up in the sect and have become socialized to its customs.

"Are these woman just parroting strong pleasure or is this a strong religious conviction?" asked Malony. "I doubt it; they grew up in this [environment].

"This is just an example of a different culture," added Malony....

Nancy Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University and author of "Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World," also discourages the labeling of the West Texas polygamists as victims of brainwashing.

"Brainwashing is actually extraordinarily rare," said Ammerman. "It implies that the person has literally lost the ability to think independently and to make choices.

"We really don't have any evidence that anything even vaguely resembling that is going on with this particular group or with most religious groups," Ammerman told

....Most of these experts sided with Maloney, who said, "It only becomes brainwashing when a person is physically held against their will."
The problem, as it so often is with the mainstream media, is that absolutely everybody involved with reporting or commenting on this story has been airlifted into it in the past few days. (You'd think somebody would have at least taken the time on the plane flight to skim Krakauer's book and get up to speed. You'd be wrong.) And this is just one example of the ways that ignorance of the backstory cheats the rest of us out of a real understanding of what's going on here.

Because, by the definition offered by these experts, the FLDS is very coercive indeed.

Almost every feature of these women's lives is determined by someone else. They do not choose what they wear, whom they live with, when and whom they marry, or when and with whom they have sex. From the day they're born, they can be reassigned at a moment's notice to another father or husband, another household, or another community. Most will have no educational choices (FLDS kids are taught in church-run schools, usually only through about tenth grade -- by which point they girls are usually married and pregnant). Everything they produce goes into a trust controlled by the patriarch: they do not even own their own labor. If they object to any of this, they're subject to losing access to the resources they need to raise their kids: they can be moved to a trailer with no heat, and given less food than more compliant wives, until they learn to "keep sweet."

At the very least, women who do decide to leave the sect leave without money, skills, or a friend in the world. Most of them have no choice but to leave large numbers of children behind -- children who are the property of the patriarch, and whom many of them will never see again. If a woman is even suspected of wanting to leave, she's likely to be sent away from her kids to another compound far yonder as punishment for her rebelliousness. For a woman who's been taught all her life that motherhood is her only destiny and has no real intimacy with her husband, being separated from her children this way is a sacrifice akin to death.

At the very worst, death is indeed what awaits them. The FLDS preaches "blood atonement" -- the right of the patriarchs to kill apostates who dare to defy them, usually by slitting their throats. And they've done it: Krakauer hung his entire book on the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her year-old daughter, who were both killed by her husband's brothers because Brenda rejected (and mocked) her husband's desire to take plural wives. (Warren Jeffs also liked to rouse people out of their beds in the middle of the night for dramatic mass meetings testing their readiness for the Final Judgment -- meetings that had dark shades of Jonestown.) Brenda is the only one known to have been killed, but others who've left report being threatened with the same fate.

So ABC's reporters blather on about how these women aren't really brainwashed, because that would require coercion and being held physically against their will. One hopes that if they understood that they're holding forth about a group that routinely controls women by threatening to take away their kids -- and tells them that God justifies the slaying of wayward brides and their babies -- they'd change their minds and admit that this isn't just another odd, quaint sect on the American religious scene. Without that information, though, everything else that's going on in Texas loses much of its context.

There's a whole lot more depth and nuance to this story, and I'll try to get at some of it over the next several days. But let's start with the premise that almost nothing you're hearing in the mainstream media about this group can or should be taken at face value. Stand by for more.

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