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Excerpt: 'Lost Boy'

Heaven or Hell

Every child believes he's special. But when you are number ten of twenty, with three "sister- mothers" - two of whom are full- blooded sisters-and a grandfather whom thousands of people believe speaks directly to God, it can be hard to figure out what "special" really means. All told, I have roughly sixty-five aunts and uncles on my dad's side and twenty- two on my mom's-with probably thousands of cousins. In families as large as mine, even keeping track of your own siblings-let alone cousins and aunts and uncles-is difficult. As a grandson of Rulon Jeffs and nephew of Warren Jeffs, it once seemed that I was destined for high honor in the FLDS. My family had what our church called "royal blood." We were direct descendants of our prophet through my father's line. My mother, too, is the child of a prophet, who split from our group in 1978 to lead his own polygamous sect. When I was little, my family was favored, in the church's elite. I was assured that there was a place for me in the highest realms of heaven and at least three wives for me right here on earth once I attained the Melchizedek priesthood. I was in a chosen family in a chosen people, visiting sacred land near end times. I would one day become a god, ruling over my own spinning world.

So why would I ever abandon such status and rank? In the world of the FLDS, things are not always what they seem. The shiny, smiling surfaces often hide a world of rot and pain. And even royal blood and being born male can't protect you from sudden changes in its convoluted power structure.

Outsiders tend to think our form of polygamy must be a great deal for us men. You get sexual variety without guilt: in fact, you are commanded by God to have multiple partners and the women are expected to go along with it. Indeed, they are supposed to be happy about doing so and obediently serve you. This is the only way for all of you to get to the highest realms of heaven.

To many men, that sounds like heaven right there, without any need for the afterlife part. They focus on the sex-fantasizing about a harem of young, beautiful women, all at their beck and call. They don't think about the responsibility - or the balancing act needed to keep all of those women happy, or even just to minimize their complaints. During the one full year I attended public school, the few guys who befriended me rather than ridiculing me were fascinated by it all.

But while it might seem good in theory, in practice, at least in my experience, it's actually a recipe for misery for everyone involved. In the FLDS anyway, polygamy and its power structure continuously produce a constant, exhausting struggle for attention and resources.

In families as large as mine, it simply isn't possible for all of the women and children to get their needs met. Just making sure the children are fed, clothed, and physically accounted for is an ongoing challenge. Simply keeping dozens of children physically safe is close to impossible.

I'd estimate that maybe one in five FLDS families has lost a child early in life, frequently from accidents that better supervision could have prevented. And that number doesn't include deaths related to the genetic disorder that runs in our church-which handicaps and often kills children very early in life but which many members refuse to see as a result of marriages among closely related families.

For the father, even though he's at the top of the heap in his own family, he must constantly disappoint, reject, ignore, and/or fail to satisfy at least some wives and kids. There's only so much of his time and attention to go around, and supporting such a large family takes many hours, too. At home, if one person has your ear, someone else doesn't. Yes to one wife is no to the others. And, if a man wants more wives, he will have to engage in his own highly competitive fight for status and influence with the higher-ups in the church.

Then there's the math problem: half of all children born are boys, of course. For some men to have many wives, others are either going to have to leave, recruit new women into polygamy (a difficult task, unsurprisingly-and one rarely attempted by the FLDS), or go unmarried.

Consequently, being born a boy in the FLDS is not the privileged position it first seems to be. Unless you are willing to kowtow to the leaders and attempt perfect obedience with constantly changing demands and hierarchies, you are likely either to be expelled or to have a hard time getting even one wife, let alone the required three. Just on the numbers alone, you will need a lot of luck to avoid losing everything as you hit manhood. Being born into the right family like I was is a good start-however, it may not be enough.

Once people get over their titillation and harem fantasies, and think through these issues, they start wondering why anyone stays. "How can you believe such strange things?" they ask. "Why didn't you leave years earlier?" "And how could those parents marry their teenage daughters off to old men, abandon their sons, or give up their wives and children at Warren's command?"

The answer is tangled in family loyalties, family history, and a church that has become expert at using these bonds to move beliefs into brainwashing.

On my father's side, I come from around six generations of polygamy. My mother's history is similar. Our families have lived polygamy since Joseph Smith first introduced "the principle" of "celestial marriage" in 1843-and the same is true for most members. One reason we stay is that this is the only life we know. Another is that leaving involves giving up contact with basically every single family member and friend you have-sometimes, everyone you know, period.

And, too, there's the fact that you have been kept ignorant of the way the rest of the world works: you have been indoctrinated nearly every single day of your life to believe that all other peoples are evil, wish to harm you, and are damned by God, unchosen.

It's weird, but even if you truly don't believe what they have told you, some part of you remains frightened that they may be right and that fear-and your fear of losing everyone you love-is at the heart of what traps people. Then there's the weight of family history and tradition.

My great- grandfather, David W. Jeffs, was born in 1873 and baptized in the Mormon Church when polygamy was officially part of the religion. Founder Joseph Smith had begun practicing polygamy before he preached it. The identity of his second wife is disputed because the ceremony took place in secret, without even the knowledge of his first wife, who vigorously opposed the whole idea.

As Smith's biographer Fawn Brodie wrote, Joseph Smith "believed in the good life . . . 'Man is that he might have joy' had been one of his first significant pronouncements in the Book of Mormon."1 The prophet's belief in the rightness of things that gave him joy meant that he couldn't see having more than one wife as sinful. That just didn't make sense to him. Of course, a prophet couldn't have mistresses. And so, "celestial marriage" was born. It is not known how many wives Joseph Smith had-but the number is believed to be around fifty.

Joseph Smith's revelation on plural wives was grounded in the Old Testament, and in our church it is sometimes called the Law of Sarah, who was Abraham's first wife. The Jewish patriarchs and kings of the Old Testament were polygamous. While the rest of Christianity accepts the New Testament and rejects polygamy, fundamentalist Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon supersedes the New Testament in the way that the New Testament updates the Old.

Joseph Smith's 1843 revelation on polygamy was personally directed at his resistant first wife. He was tired of hiding his other wives from her and everyone else and wanted it all out in the open. He wrote that God told him, "I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith," to "receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph" and "cleave unto my servant Joseph and to none else . . . if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brent Jeffs