Scott D. Pierce: Netflix tells horrifying story of Utah polygamist and child rapist, through voices of women who escaped his control

Documentary series “Keep Sweet” recounts the disturbing details of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs’ reign.

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.

It’s been almost 16 years since FLDS leader Warren Jeffs was arrested and jailed. And yet his story remains both shocking and deeply disturbing.

Yes, it’s been told before — repeatedly — both in print and on film. A number of the women who were interviewed have written books. And, no, there’s not really anything new in the four-part documentary “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey,” which starts streaming Wednesday on Netflix.

But what makes “Keep Sweet” stand out is seeing and hearing women whose lives were controlled and nearly destroyed by Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as they tell their stories. Director/executive producer Rachel Dretzin has woven them together in a narrative that’s informative and horrifying without being exploitative.

(The title is drawn from the motto that Jeffs and his father, Rulon, imposed upon the girls and women in their church.)

Wallace Jeffs, one of Warren’s 32 brothers, sums it up well when he says, ”most of the men in FLDS just regard women as chattel. They were property.”

Dretzin said that on her first visit to the Short Creek area, she saw the FLDS women as “odd, even alien creatures. It was almost impossible to believe that a society so repressive, isolated and extreme could exist in plain sight in 21st century America.”

But when she began talking to survivors, she learned of “the process of systematic coercion and mind control exercised by the man they thought of as a religious prophet, Warren Jeffs” and it became “clear to me that these women could have been my daughter, my mother, or me. And it was also abundantly clear that they showed incredible courage and strength in leaving this religion-turned-criminal cult.”

“Keep Sweet” recounts how Jeffs took control of the church after his father’s death and then took control of the lives of church members. How he ordered underage girls into marriage, and married underage girls himself. (According to “Keep Sweet,” he had 78 wives, and 24 of them were underage.) How he kicked out teenage boys and young men and broke up families, suddenly assigning wives and children to other men.

How he gathered his followers to the Short Creek area — Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona — and, with the authorities moving in on him, began moving followers to Eldorado, Texas. How he exploited church members, making himself rich while they lived dirt poor.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) The twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, where many followers of Warren Jeffs' FLDS church reside.

It’s one thing to know the facts. It’s another to see and hear the women recount what they went through. One woman was forced to marry 86-year-old Rulon Jeffs when she was just 19. Their first kiss “wasn’t magical,” she says, adding she “used a lot of Listerine.”

One woman says her “skin would crawl” every time she saw the first cousin she was forced to marry when she was just 14 — and that she felt “absolute devastation” when Warren Jeffs refused to reconsider. Another woman, forced into marriage with her second cousin/stepbrother when she was also 14, says, “Deep down, I think I’m still hurt and angry at my mom. How could she let her 14-year-old girl get married? I have teenagers of my own, and I can’t even imagine letting one of them get married at 14.”

Another woman recalls her 2- and 4-year-olds being taken from her to live in Texas. “I just missed them intensely. I would go lay by my daughter’s crib, on the floor, just crying my eyes out,” she said.

Women are the focus, but men aren’t ignored. Lloyd Wall recalls how his “world just collapsed” when Warren reassigned one of his wives and their children to another man. And Wallace Jeffs — whose two wives and 20 children were reassigned — says his brother “completely destroyed the bond between a father and his family. He told them that I was a son of Satan. ... And they believed it, because he bred into them what was bred into me.”

(Trent Nelson | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Photographs submitted into evidence in a court hearing in San Angelo, Texas, on Friday, May 23, 2008, showing FLDS leader Warren Jeffs with a young girl. Photos dated July 27, 2006. The Salt Lake Tribune blurred the photo to prevent showing victims of a potential sex crime.

Warren Jeffs is in prison, but he still controls the FLDS church, issuing thousands of “revelations” from inside even now. For every member who left, there are hundreds who stayed. You can feel the pain when one woman talks about her siblings who remain members: “Like, I could just drive to their house and talk to them. But they won’t talk to me.”

How could thousands of church members sell their homes and move to the Short Creek area because Jeffs told them that, when the Olympics came to Utah in 2002, Salt Lake City would be destroyed? How could they maintain their faith after his prophecies failed?

One woman says she knew she wanted out, “And yet, at the same time, I believed that to leave was to seal your damnation.” They were so indoctrinated that, according to another woman, “we believed that the maturity of our girls was higher than gentiles and apostates. Age didn’t really matter so if … God thought you were worthy [to get married] at 14, it wasn’t a big deal.”

If they ran away, they’d leave behind family who would never speak to them again, and they had been raised to believe that the FLDS church was their only path to the highest levels of the celestial kingdom.

“Keep Sweet” isn’t always easy to watch. After a raid on the FLDS temple at the YFZ ranch in Texas, authorities jackhammered their way into a vault that was filled with records and recordings — including one of Jeffs marrying a 12-year-old girl and having sex with her in that temple, saying he was doing it “with the authority of the holy priesthood.”

“I will never forget sitting there, hearing Warren say this prayer” on the recording, said Rebecca Wall Musser. “And I heard the voices of some of my sister wives there in that room while Warren raped this little girl.”

The media doesn’t fare well in “Keep Sweet.” There are clips of sympathetic interviews on “Today” and “Good Morning America” with some of the mothers of more than 400 children who were taken by child services in Texas; of Fox News calling out the authorities for “kidnapping”; of Oprah Winfrey showing up and lending her support to the FLDS women.

But they were dupes in a disinformation campaign launched by Warren Jeffs and his followers that included false denials that underage girls were being married off.

Netflix seems to have a keen interest in Utah and some of the weird/terrible stuff that happens here. Not just this and “Murder Among the Mormons,” but “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” focused on the serial killer’s time in Utah, when he attended the University of Utah and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But nothing could be stranger than the saga of Warren Jeffs and the FLDS church. And “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” is fascinating and unsettling even for those of us who are familiar with the story.

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