Helping the people behind those bingeable FLDS documentaries
First came “Murder Among the Mormons.” Then “Under the Banner of Heaven,” “Keep Sweet, Pray and Obey,” and the new Hulu docuseries “Mormon No More.” Now, it seems like a new FLDS documentary is released every week.
The world is enthralled with tales of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the 50-plus loosely related plural marriage communities throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico. But what may be a binge-able FLDS documentary for millions of viewers has meant harrowing years of survival and recovery for others.
What is the journey like for those escaping (or cast out of) plural marriage communities, and what is being done to help those in need?
Shirlee Draper was born and raised in the FLDS community in Colorado City, Arizona and, as a devout believer, was placed into an arranged marriage at the age of 22. She went on to have four children with her husband, and they welcomed a sister wife to their family. But things started to shift for Draper when Warren Jeffs, who has since been convicted of two counts of sexual assault of a child and is currently serving a life sentence, came to power as the leader of the FLDS sect.
“I could see the things he was doing were completely anathema to me, my morals, and what I believed God wanted,” she says. “That’s when I decided I needed to leave.”
Leaving wasn’t simple, though. She lived in a home owned by the church; she was a mother of four children (two with special needs); she had never worked outside the home; she had no rental history, no credit history, and no source of income; and she had no friends or family to turn to on the outside. Compounding these problems, she knew she would face prejudice when she left—she had already experienced plenty of it when venturing to outside communities for shopping or healthcare visits.
“I was in between these two worlds, where one of them was very hostile to me but safer, because it doesn’t have Warren Jeffs,” she says. “And the other one was really kind and warm and welcoming, everything I’d ever known and loved, but it had Warren Jeffs. And so this tension happened for six years, with me going back and forth about whether to leave.”
Draper eventually made her way out, and in the years since, she has earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Utah. She has also become director of operations for Cherish Families, a nonprofit she co-founded with Alina Darger in 2014 that provides comprehensive services for those leaving or choosing to remain in plural marriage circumstances. (Draper expressed the importance of using terms like plural marriage vs. polygamy, noting that terms like “polygamist” and “polygamy” have become a kind of epithet to those in the community.)
Cherish Families is a critical lifeline for women, men, and children, providing everything from crime victim advocacy and legal services to funds for moving expenses, housing, and childcare. The organization also helps cover costs of mental health care and refers clients to therapists who specialize in working with plural marriage patients. Cherish Families also provides “trauma-informed” training to law enforcement, government groups, and victim services organizations to help them better serve the needs of those from plural marriage communities.
“I’m a rabid feminist,” says Draper. “For me it’s all about self-determination, making sure people have the education and resources, then they can make the best decisions for themselves.”
Holding Out HELP is another organization helping those from plural marriage circumstances. Tonia Tewell, executive director, says the nonprofit provides “food, clothing, shelter, and safety. This allows them to come up and breathe and know their most basic needs will be provided for. The next step is to focus on their future—whether it be education, job skills, life skills, or counseling.”
She and her husband, Larry, founded the organization in 2008 after taking in a family of six who had left plural marriage. For three years, the Tewells witnessed their challenges firsthand, coming to realize that people in this situation need much more than a roof over their heads.
"I was in between these two worlds, where one of them was very hostile to me but safer, because it doesn’t have Warren Jeffs."
“The mental bondage is the absolute worst part of their transition, as when they leave they believe they have become ‘sons and daughters of perdition’ and usually lose all connections with family and friends,” Tewell explains. “They are also paralyzed by the fear of making decisions. Where they come from, most decisions are made for them. The process of healing takes years and years. Most clients express that it takes almost 10 years to feel like they understand our world and actually fit in.”
For Worth Bistline, that recovery has been a work in progress. Born into the FLDS community, Bistline’s story is somewhat unique. His father and two mothers are college educated. Between the community’s public and private schooling, he completed high school (the average education level in the FLDS community is sixth to eighth grade, according to Tewell).
He was spared the well-known “Lost Boy” expulsions, in part due to his allegiance to the faith and his performance working on an FLDS farm in Nevada. He says he was eventually excommunicated, however, for infractions like falling in love, using the internet (which he had to use for his work on the farm), and refusing to spy on fellow members. He was told to “move as far away as you can, don’t talk to anyone you know—especially any apostates—delete every person from your life, and live alone.”
He relocated to Los Angeles, where he found work through connections he made during his time on the farm. Money was tight, and his efforts to get a college education came in fits and starts. He was eventually referred to The Diversity Foundation for tuition assistance, but says he hesitated. Throughout his life, he had been taught that the nonprofit’s founder, Dr. Dan Fischer, was an enemy to God.
Dr. Fischer, who has been featured in several documentaries and books about the FLDS community, left the religion in the 90s with his second wife and went on to famously challenge FLDS leadership, providing support for Warren Jeffs’ investigations and prosecutions.
A dentist and founder and CEO emeritus of Ultradent Products Inc., Dr. Fischer initially established The Diversity Foundation to combat racism and prejudice in the early 2000s. As his reputation spread among his former community, Lost Boys and women and children literally showed up on his doorstep, seeking help in leaving the FLDS community. He decided the best way to assist was to shift his foundation’s focus to college scholarships for former FLDS members.
“For people to get out of the challenging holes they have been pushed into or expected to start from, it’s all about education, education, education,” Dr. Fischer says.
“Education opens the mind to critical thinking; it stimulates self-reliance, independence, and self-esteem,” Shannon Price, LCSW, director of The Diversity Foundation, says.
Bistline eventually reached out to The Diversity Foundation, and over the next four years, the foundation’s scholarships helped him complete his electrical engineering degree at Cal State Long Beach. Now Bistline manages a team of engineers in Cedar City.
He credits the scholarship with not only helping him finish his degree and land his current job, but also empowering him to leave his past life behind. He struggled for the first few years after expulsion, seeking to gain reentrance into the FLDS community. Looking at how far he’s come, he says it’s good “to realize you are worthy, that you are able to receive help and do something good with it.”