Scott D. Pierce: New docuseries delves into the ‘secrets’ of Utah polygamists

Woman who escaped FLDS Church comes forward because of her family.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Family and followers of polygamous sect leader Samuel Bateman gather around as he calls from police custody following his arrest in Colorado City, Ariz., on Sept. 13, 2022. On March 24, 2023, federal charges were filed against Josephine Barlow Bistline, who is believed to be married to Bateman and is accused of sending threatening emails to child welfare workers in a bid to get her two daughters released from state foster care.

Faith Bistline grew up a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and there’s something she wants everyone to know about it.

“I hope that they see that the FLDS is a criminal organization. Straight up,” Bistline told The Tribune. “Every facet of these extreme polygamous groups, there’s always children who are suffering. There’s always crimes against children.”

She makes that point quite forcefully in “Secrets of Polygamy,” which premieres Monday on A&E. In addition to the FLDS, there are episodes that feature the Kingstons (aka The Order) and the Apostolic United Brethren.

Bistline — who grew up with three mothers and 27 siblings — didn’t exactly jump at the chance to appear in “Secrets.” She’s done interviews before, but this is her first time on TV, and she struggled with the decision because she knew it would, inevitably, involve her bringing members of her family into it.

“I was very scared about re-victimizing my little sisters and the women in my family,” Bistline said. “And also exploiting them, and telling their story without their permission.”

She eventually said yes to the show’s producers because she “started to get frustrated with the fact that my little sisters wouldn’t come forward” as witnesses in the case against Samuel Bateman. Followers told The Tribune in 2022 that Bateman lied to members of the FLDS Church, telling them that imprisoned FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs is dead and that he is the new leader. Arrested in August 2022, Bateman is facing 51 felony charges — including for sexually assaulting underage girls he took as “brides.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Samuel Bateman leaves the courthouse during the trial of Warren Jeffs in St. George on Sept. 14, 2007. Bateman was present as an observer and supporter of Jeffs.

Most of Bistline’s family, she said, is following Bateman. Bistline said her older brother gave his underage daughters — one just 12 years old — to Bateman as wives. (The brother was arrested last May, and other members of Bistline’s family are also facing charges.)

Bistline is in the first of 10 episodes of “Secrets of Polygamy,” which airs Monday on A&E — 8 p.m. on Dish and DirecTV; 11 p.m. on Comcast. She agreed to be interviewed, she said, when she “started to realize” her sisters wouldn’t come forward “because they didn’t have an example in their life of someone doing that. I decided to speak out to be an example.”

As she explains in the program, Bistline left the FLDS Church in 2011, when she was 19. She said she felt there was “more than this” to life and she didn’t want “to be stuck in a marriage where I was just one of multiple women and I don’t have an identity. And my only purpose in life is to have children. … That can be a great purpose. But if that’s chosen for me, it feels like I’m an object.”

And entering the world outside the church “was a culture shock, for sure.” She not only recalls wearing a bikini for the first time, but has vivid memories of when she began wearing pants. “I would catch myself in the mirror and just, like, shock myself, because I had legs,” she said with a laugh. “I mean, I don’t want to say it wasn’t hard, because I was missing my family a lot. But it was very exciting.”

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Handcuffed and flanked by Las Vegas Metro PD Swat officers, FLDS leader Warren Jeffs appeared before Judge James M. Bixler in the Clark County Regional Justice Center on August 31, 2006, and waived an extradition hearing, agreeing to be returned to Utah to face charges related to allegedly arranging an underage marriage.

Bistline went to college, got a nursing degree, and “nursing became my new identity.” But now Bateman “has entered the chat.”

“There was a period of years between when I left and when Sam Bateman took over my family that I felt pretty normal,” Bistline said. “I went years trying to shove it away. I wanted to be known for my career and my brain. And then when all of this started happening with Sam Bateman, I had a realization that there’s … not a greater cause than to fight for children who are stuck in situations like this.”

“Secrets” isn’t the first documentary or series about polygamy, and it’s not chock full of secrets. Most of it will only be new to those who haven’t paid much attention. It’s in the vein of “Keep Sweet” or “Escaping Polygamy” — it’s not one of those so-called reality shows like “Sister Wives,” which quickly devolved into unintended comedy.

It’s a serious story, complete with ominous music and a straightforward narrative that is a bit flat. If you’re already interested in the subject of polygamy, it will be of interest to you. And, judging by the number of shows and documentaries about polygamy, there are plenty of people who are interested. Exactly why is hard to say, even for a former member of the FLDS Church.

“This is my life. It’s hard for me to step outside and see what the fascination is,” Bistline said. “I don’t know what it’s like to have just a two-parent household.”

But she has come to some conclusions about the FLDS Church, the people who remain in it and the people who’ve escaped.

“Growing up, I was always told that anyone who leaves regrets it and they always want to come back,” Bistline said. “And in my brain, I thought, ‘Oh, they can’t survive without the religion. They need the religion because they need a purpose.’

“But once I left, I realized, ‘Oh my God, it’s not the religion that they need — it’s their family.’ That’s the hard part.”

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