In the stories of the Lafferty women, these Mormon women see themselves

How the miniseries “Under the Banner of Heaven” is empowering some domestic violence survivors.

(Michelle Faye | FX) Allen (Billy Howle) and Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) argue on "Under the Banner of Heaven." Some women who lived in fundamentalist LDS communities say they see echoes of their own experiences in the miniseries.

Bev said she doesn’t remember the day she was able to escape her “patriarchal, fundamental” ex and his family.

“That’s the weird thing about trauma, right?” she said in recollection. “I don’t remember what I was feeling. I don’t remember any of that.”

When Bev started watching the FX/Hulu miniseries “Under the Banner of Heaven” — which dramatizes the true story of the 1984 horrific murders of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica — other long-forgotten memories of her time on the compound began to surface.

“It was like a freight train,” said Bev, who for privacy and safety reasons has asked to go by a pseudonym.

In the numerous reactions to the series, some historians and feminists have challenged the series’ dialogue and other inaccuracies. But Bev and some other women say their experience — of relating to the Lafferty women, of seeing their trauma reflected on the screen — is getting lost in the conversation, which often focuses on the Lafferty men.

These women say the show showcases the trauma women who have lived in patriarchal fundamentalist communities have endured. And, they say, the show highlights toxic environments, both in fundamentalist settings and, in some cases, the current mainstream Latter-day Saint faith.

Bev said she hasn’t been able to pay attention to the discussion, because she feels it’s so dismissive.

“These elements are deeply ingrained in our culture, at many different levels,” she said, and when this begins to spiral, like portrayed in the show, “it ends in destruction.”

Shining light on the patriarchal order

(Michelle Faye | FX) Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) asks missionaries for help in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

Bev is one of several women who has shared her experiences in the “Living Under the Banner” story series. It’s an extension of a podcast, “Year of Polygamy” from Lindsay Hansen Park, who served as a cultural consultant on the miniseries.

Dustin Lance Black, the series’ creator and main writer, sought Hansen Park out for the show because of her expertise with Mormon fundamentalism and feminism. Her job covered such things as mapping out the exact route of Dan Lafferty’s car chase, or finding exact garments from the era for the costume department.

She’s heard thousands of stories from women through the years on her podcast. “We used some of those stories to help shape how we shot and framed certain things,” she said. For example, the temple scene in Episode 3 is based “largely off my own endowment” Hansen Park explains.

When the show started streaming, she was flooded with emails, all with a common message: “The story has, for the first time, represented me on screen.”

She started her new “Living Under” story series, where she and her collaborators try to post one story a day, but it tends to get “a little heavy,” she said. “Under the Banner of Heaven” is unique, she said, because “for so long the discussion has been about Mormon fundamentalists and polygamy, and this is the first time [it] comes at fundamentalist patriarchy.”

The show shows how the Lafferty brothers don’t process the trauma they experienced from their father, who throughout the show engages in acts of violence — such as one scene in which he beats a dog to death with a bat.

“The thesis of the show is that it breeds violent men, but violence doesn’t just happen with blood atonement and murder,” Hansen Park said. “The ugly truth is that there are a lot of violent men in our community … who use the doctrine to mask or enable their violence.”

This shift of acknowledgment is new, she said, and traceable to social media attention to patriarchy over the past two years. Now, she said, there’s an effort within church culture to shift away from that, but when she was growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s, “patriarchal order was a good thing.”

Hansen Park said the defensiveness around discussing the issues with patriarchal order hasn’t changed, which is why so many people are unwilling to hear stories from women who connect with the plight of the Lafferty women.

“When we try to tell people in our community our experience, we’re dismissed over and over and over again,” Hansen Park said. “Everything is lost on a technicality, just like on the show. Rather than believing women, we want to say, ‘Well, how faithful were you?’”

That attitude is exhibited in Episode 5, when Dianna Lafferty (played by Denise Gough) tries to reach out to church leaders about her husband’s abuse, and they tell her to “work harder to build a good home.”

“Our sort of shame response around this isn’t solving the problem, it’s not making life better for women or making the church better,” Hansen Park said. “It’s just continuing to enable and suppress any sort of justice or dignity for women.”

Hansen Park said the women who come forward with their stories need to be given more credibility. She said she relates to these women partly because she has had her voice dismissed her entire life.

“People think that this is some weird, Warren Jeffs/Short Creek story,” she said, “but this is happening every day in modern, mainstream Mormonism.”

Hansen Park also answered critics who argue that women are just angry: “Of course people are angry. You would be angry, too, if you married into an abusive family and the church didn’t help protect you in the way that it promised that it would.”

(Michelle Faye | FX) Chloe Pirrie as Matilda Lafferty in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

Plotting her escape

Bev said she remembers making her plan to escape the “compound,” a 60-acre plot where her extended fundamentalist Mormon family lived in what she called “trailers.”

She recalled that she was allowed to get a job at a nearby coffee shop. All of her earnings went into a joint account over which she had no control, she said, but her family didn’t know about her tips.

She said she began collecting and hiding them underneath the insoles of one of her shoes, laying them flat with care. “I was afraid he would look in a shoe,” she said, “and see that I had cash.”

As soon as she gathered nearly $500, Bev said, she filled a backpack full of clothes, went to work the next day and never came back.

It was a plan that took months of execution — despite its apparent simplicity, she said, and she knew she needed to be strategic.

Bev said her ex’s family had started restricting her ability to leave the compound — taking her keys and physically blocking her. She said she had been asking her ex for months to move their family off the compound, but he wouldn’t budge.

She recalled one instance of her former mother-in-law tackling her in the yard when she tried to leave on foot during the night.

One specific detail comes to mind as Bev recalled her experience, which happened 10 years ago.

“I left my garment,” she said, with a small laugh. She was referring to the underwear temple-attending Mormons wear. In a way, Bev said, it was a symbolic move.

“I was leaving my marriage, my temple covenant, everything,” she said, “It was devastating. It was heartbreaking.” For a while, Bev acknowledged she internalized it, and thought she couldn’t cut it with the family because she was “a bad Mormon.”

In an effort to save herself, Bev said, she left behind her kids, too — perhaps the most damning of her actions to the family on the compound.

Watching the miniseries, Bev said, had the ring of familiarity. “Their mannerisms, some of the phrases they say, I can hear my [former] brothers-in-law saying the exact same things to me,” she said. People in the church warned Bev’s ex-husband she was a “spitfire.”

There’s a scene early in the series, when Brenda meets her future husband’s family. Instead of helping the women, she helps the men load rocks they are moving from a neighbor’s property. It’s identical to Bev’s story of meeting her ex’s family, though she was moving chairs.

The catalyst for Bev realizing “she couldn’t survive,” she said, came after her ex’s family tried to persuade her to give up her pursuit of further education. In the show, Brenda has to sideline her dreams for a journalism career to start a family.

As she recalled it, a stake president (regional church leader) who was good friends with her ex’s family called Bev in. “He told me he had an impression of me, that if I continued my schooling, it would be the downfall of my entire family,” she said. “It would lead my family away from righteousness.”

(Michelle Faye | FX) Denise Gough as Dianna Lafferty in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

Dangers of an unchecked patriarchy

Elise — who is going only by her first name to protect her identity — had this experience growing up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“We grew up in a family where we were expected to go to BYU, to stay in the church, to get married in the temple,” she said.

When she met her now-former husband, she said, she was very young. It wasn’t until after they got married that she realized how patriarchal he was. It stemmed from background trauma in his own family — something Elise said she sees echoed in the miniseries’ portrayal of the Lafferty family structure — and eventually trickled into their own home.

Her husband, Elise said, became physically violent with her. Like the Lafferty women, Elise went to leaders in her church, rather than to the police. She told her bishop, who “didn’t grasp the severity of the situation.” The bishop called her husband, which made it “80,000 times worse,” she said.

Elise said the show, in her mind, brings to light that “because Mormonism is organized as a patriarchy, it gives men more exposure than women.”

“I was raised with the impression that if I did A, B, and C and I chose a husband who was educated and our priesthood holder, who served a mission, that I would be OK,” she said. “What was most shocking to my system was that the church, which had been presented to me as a place where I would always be safe, became a place where not only was I not safe to express what was happening to me, but anytime I did, my situation got significantly worse.”

Elise said she spent the majority of her marriage not trying to get out but figuring out how to cope with it, because she felt shame about divorce and because she had made a covenant.

The tipping point, Elise said, came when she observed her husband with a small child. They were playing, as she recalled, and he was tickling the 4-year-old, who accidentally hit him in the face. He started to scream at the child, she said, in a full-blown meltdown. “I knew when I watched him be cruel with that child, that if we had kids, I would stand in the line of fire,” she said. “I would bring a child into the world to get hurt.”

For her, the show’s impact comes from, she said, “blowing open that dynamic of an unchecked patriarchy. … In a situation like a marriage, the church organization creates a power differential that shouldn’t happen.”

(Michelle Faye | FX) Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda Lafferty in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

“It’s very easy to breed very dangerous men”

The story of “Under the Banner of Heaven,” said Cristina Rosetti, an assistant professor at Dixie State University (which will soon change to Utah Tech University) who specializes in Mormon fundamentalism, is “about a family entering into Mormon fundamentalism and what Mormon doctrine can do in justifying violence. But this is absolutely also a story about domestic abuse and violence.”

This wasn’t always the case, Rosetti said, because “women did have more autonomy religiously within their own personal lives in the early years of the church.”

Rosetti said, “Mormon fundamentalism is not that different than Mormonism. I think a lot of people have this imagining of fundamentalist Mormon woman as wearing a prairie dress or having a hair bump. The reality is that fundamentalist women dress exactly like you. They have jobs. They send their kids to public school.”

For Janessa, who asked to use only her first name and also shared her story with Hansen Park, escaping her Latter-day Saint household was a choice between life and death, she said.

When she married into her ex’s family, she said, she thought she had hit a jackpot. A month into her marriage, she said, her husband told her he didn’t want to “maintain the Mormon lifestyle.” She said she eventually found out it was because his parents used the church’s principles to justify abuse, much like the Lafferty family patriarch does in the miniseries.

At the time, Janessa said, she didn’t believe him, and when she failed to get him to come back to the church, the rest of the family turned on her. “I fell from their graces and I fell hard,” she recalled. “I was very much the bad guy in their eyes.”

As she and her husband navigated the waters while deciding to attend two different graduate schools, she said, Janessa became pregnant. “I felt like I was having to grapple with this collision of all my identities coming together at once,” she said.

She was studying sociology, and knew the impacts of dysfunctional families on children, adoption, poverty and foster care. “I was laying out all this information that I had,” she said, “and none of the outcomes matched up to my vision of motherhood that I had dreamt about for so long.”

Janessa is fuzzy on the details of what happened the day she had an abortion, because of the pain medications, but she remembered her in-laws (who lived in a different state) found out. She said her father-in-law drove across state lines — with what intentions, she doesn’t know. He spent all night pounding on the apartment door, trying to stop the abortion, she said. She and her husband pretended like they weren’t there, she said.

Janessa recalled that, several months later, on a solo drive with her father-in-law, he made a comment to her: “If you have the right to kill [the] baby, I have the right to kill you.”

From there, she said, things became more strained. Eventually, Janessa and her husband moved back to the state where his family lived, she said, in the summer before they started graduate school. They weren’t speaking much, she said, but one day he called her and asked her to get dinner together.

Janessa said she agreed and drove to her in-laws’ house. When she got there, as she recalled, her mother-in-law called the police. When they arrived, Janessa explained she was waiting for her husband, then pulled into a nearby church parking lot to wait instead, she said — adding that she tried calling her husband, who didn’t answer; the location feature on his phone was turned off.

Her brother-in-law came to the parking lot, she recalled. She rolled down her window, she said, and he tried to climb into the car and grab her.

“I found out later that they had been conspiring to do what, I still don’t know,” she said, “but my husband detailed it to me as being so horrific that he couldn’t be there to witness it.”

Janessa said the choices of her ex’s family are easy to blame on the fact that she had an abortion. But the underlying issue, she said, was that she, like Brenda Lafferty, was “an out-of-the-box thinker, and choosing to dedicate her life to an education and career, versus settling down and starting a family.”

Even though her husband was slipping away from the church, she said, the manipulation his family had over him was insurmountable, much like what happens to Allen Lafferty in “Under the Banner of Heaven.”

“By escaping my marriage and the church, I escaped death in a lot of ways,” Janessa said. That’s why Brenda’s story stood out to her. It was hard, because she said she “still has conditioning telling her not to interact with anti-Mormon literature.”

To those who think only fundamentalists have issues with domestic violence, Janessa pointed out her ex’s family were mainstream members of the faith.

“The line between mainstream and fundamentalism, it’s often not a line at all,” Janessa said. “People don’t realize that it happens in their very backyards and their very neighborhoods. It’s not far from you at church. …

“It’s very easy to breed very dangerous men,” she said.

When it comes to accountability, the miniseries depicts how only in extreme cases are the Lafferty men subjected to consequences for their domestic violence. Even now, many of the women who agreed to speak for this article say their ex-families continue to have good standing in their churches and communities.

The show, Elise said, has offered a wake-up call for what is happening in families that may look perfectly nice on the outside. Latter-day Saint women, she said, continue to be expected to make and keep a home together.

“The expectation that women have to be the glue that holds it all together — it’s completely destructive and oftentimes fatal,” Janessa said. “The stress that Mormon women are under to keep it all together, to keep the men faithful, to fulfill their calling, to be perfect and godly all the time. It just breaks women. It breaks them.”