This past year I became fascinated by a small offshoot of Mormons known as Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS for short. I watched documentaries, interviews about them on Oprah, old news reports, and several first-hand memoirs on the group.
So, when I was riding my bike at dusk along the Liberty State Park boardwalk, I came to a screeching halt when I saw what appeared to be a group of FLDS girls. Clustered around a tripod, balancing a long-lensed digital camera were four young women with distinct puffy-sleeved dresses and poofy hairdos.
My first thought was, “You shouldn’t talk to them! They are taught to fear outsiders and think we’re evil.” Still, I couldn’t stop myself from blurting out, “Are you ladies FLDS?”
They burst out laughing in unison, startled by this frizzy-haired lady regarding them as though they were celebrities. “Not only are you the only person who has talked to us on our entire road trip,” one girl laughed.“ But, you came right out and asked us if we were FLDS, and we are!”
I was stunned. I never imagined that in Jersey City I’d run into anyone from this sect because I thought they rarely travel outside the western states they call home.
“Welcome,” I said. “Are you visiting Jersey City all the way from Utah?” I was trying to show my familiarity with their regular stomping grounds.
Indeed, they were on a road trip from Utah, and they stood tentatively on the pathway in Liberty State Park, trying to make sense of the cityscape before them. They said they weren’t able to venture into Manhattan due to time constraints.
“Is that an important building?” one girl asked.
“Well, Goldman Sachs might say so, but it’s mostly noteworthy because it’s one of our tallest skyscrapers here on the Jersey side.”
“So, is that the Empire State Building?” another one asked as she pointed to an anonymous high-rise on the New York side.
I remembered from my reading about FLDS that their members might be sheltered in terms of their education, sometimes even getting revisionist history lessons. So, I plunged right into a little lesson on the World Trade Center, 9/11, and the Freedom Tower and then pointed out the actual Empire State Building. They listened attentively as though they were not just tourists but visitors from another world, a place where the historical events I described may have only been partially understood or reduced to folklore.
My head was spinning with questions I wanted to ask, things I was eager to know. But I was caught in a trap of judgment. The books I had read did not shed a positive light on the sect. Indeed, FLDS is the branch of Mormonism that involves polygamy. That is why they separated from the regular Latter Day Saints. Indeed, their main prophet, Warren Jeffs, was currently serving a life sentence for having married and impregnated girls who were barely in their teens and for incest.
In her memoir, Escape, author and former FLDS member Carolyn Jessop wrote about arranged, loveless marriages between young girls and much older men. She described fighting amongst the wives and their abuse toward one another and their children. Jessop detailed the poverty and food shortages she and her children lived with while her husband and his “favorite wife” dined and vacationed extravagantly off the compound. Because FLDS women don’t have the same rights that other American women have, she was unable to simply divorce her husband.
I wondered if these sweet, young women before me might have been subject to arranged marriages too, yet I thought it would be too personal to ask.
In a city where we pride ourselves on diversity and tolerance, could I accept without prejudice these sheltered women before me? What if they had been married off to men old enough to be their grandfathers or faced any of the horrors I had read about? It took a leap of faith to push aside what I believed to be the truth and see these women as they were before me.
I launched into a discussion about Jersey City where they more or less by accident had landed on this warm autumn night. “This is our wonderful park, and you can see, people use it at all times of day. Most of us really like having this sweeping view of New York City,” I enthused. “You have the mountains of Utah; this is our landscape.”
And I gestured dramatically to the twinkling lights behind us. As I was explaining Ellis Island, they suddenly gasped. Inching slowly down the river appeared to be an entire city block.
“It’s a cruise ship,” I explained, realizing that in a landlocked state you would never have the opportunity to see such a sight. It was so majestic, we took a few minutes to take photos and marvel.
Finally, we introduced ourselves. They had wonderful FLDS names like Bobbie and Jessa. They told me they were on a road trip (which I didn’t believe was allowed, but here they were, disproving more assumptions), and then I asked them some specific FLDS questions that weren’t too controversial.
I wanted to know about their enormous families: What is it like to be part of a brood of siblings? Each one of these girls had at least a dozen brothers and sisters. Jessa told me she had 500 cousins and Bobbie said her mother had over 100 grandchildren.
When I asked what it was like to have so many siblings, they became very animated, putting their hands over their hearts. Jessa said, “We miss them so much on this trip, you have no idea.” Rosie added, “I just feel sorry for people who have no siblings at all. It must be so lonely. I can’t describe what it feels like to love so many and to be loved and held by so many.”
I listened, transfixed. I thought of how when a huge family is far outside of one’s own experience, it’s difficult to imagine that having a dozen siblings could be rewarding and wonderful.
Knowing that they are very “baby-centric,” I told them that I work with pregnant women, teaching about birth and helping them with their babies afterward. They told me that as teenagers they get to help out at the compound’s clinic where women go to give birth assisted by midwives.
I marveled at how much support for breastfeeding there must be when you have dozens of women around you who can show you what to do. “But surely there must be a few women who aren’t able to breastfeed, right?” Ella answered me right away, “We have a milk bank at the clinic! There are so many women who produce more milk than they need, so they donate it to the clinic, and that’s what women use if they can’t make enough milk themselves!”
“Well, I’ll be,” I thought. I imagined for a moment what it would be like to volunteer at their clinic.
I remembered that Jessop’s eldest daughter, Betty, returned to the compound when she turned 18 because she truly wanted to be there. She had been driven away in the middle of the night at 13 and yelled at her mother the entire time. “You’re stealing us!” she screamed, furious and indignant.
FLDS children belong to their fathers. Mothers who flee the sect are not allowed to retain access to their children after leaving, and state laws regarding child support and custody do not apply. (Jessop is an exception. In a contested lawsuit in 2003, she became the first FLDS woman granted full custody of her children.)
FLDS was the life Betty Jessup loved and the only life she had known. She found life on the outside to be horrible, uncomfortable, and vulgar. She had been forced to attend regular public school with kids who swore, disrespected their teachers, and wore clothes that offended her ingrained modesty. Who are we to say she was wrong to go back?
The girls I met that night also seemed like fish out of water on the banks of the Hudson. But were they really? All I could see before me were four exuberant women with faces scrubbed of makeup and cynicism. They regarded me with curiosity but not distrust. I felt almost as though I was the one lacking worldly sophistication and real-life experience.
Eventually we wrapped up our enthusiastic conversation after taking many photos. It was such a pleasure not only to meet these spirited girls but to see them defy so many of the stereotypes I had read about them and accepted. For this mom and doula living in a liberal Jersey City bubble, this chance encounter was a welcome breath of fresh air.
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