Editor’s note • On Tuesday, HarperCollins Publishers will release a memoir from Rachel Jeffs titled “Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult and My Father, Warren Jeffs.”
In the book, Rachel Jeffs alleges her father, Warren Jeffs — who today is the president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and is serving a sentence of life plus 20 years in Texas for crimes related to sexually assaulting two girls he married as spiritual wives — molested her as a child.
At the time of the following excerpt, Rachel Jeffs is the 19-year-old third wife of the man to whom her father assigned her, Richard Allred. Rachel Jeffs has just given birth to her first child and the plural family is living in the FLDS community on the Utah-Arizona line, called Short Creek. Rachel Jeffs changed her sister wives’ names to protect their privacy.
In April 2003, I went up to Father’s house to find Rich. All the family members I encountered looked at me with sad expressions. What’s the big deal? I wondered.
“Rachel, you need to go talk to Father,” one of his wives said.
I walked down to Father’s room and knocked on the door. “Come in,” he said....
Father sat there for a moment before he said, “It looks like your mother has breast cancer. A doctor has confirmed it.”
I bolted from Father’s room and ran up to Mother’s room, where I found her lying in bed. Barbie was only 2 months old, and I had spent most of my time recently with her, so I hadn’t seen how ill my mother had become. I was only 19, and my mother 38. (She had a 2-year-old baby herself.)
Mother told me that she had noticed the lump in her breast two years before, but Father told her not to worry about it. After the cancer had grown considerably, Father finally let her get it looked at by a doctor. No one in the family went to the doctor without Father’s permission. The doctor hadn’t just confirmed her diagnosis; he’d told Mother that her condition was already terminal, and gave her six months to live.
Father told her to have the chemotherapy anyway.
In the weeks that followed, I accompanied Mother to her chemo appointments, but it seemed like all the medicine did was make her get sicker and lose her hair. Still, Father insisted she continue....
In November of that same year, Father announced that the Lord had given him a new revelation. Father was to take all of his underage children to a special place in Texas that the Lord called a “land of refuge,” which was designated only for the more worthy of his people.
I later learned that Father had found a property in Eldorado, Texas, a state where the age of consent for marriage was only 14 at the time....
That same month, November 2003, Rich came home with a surprise — he had a new wife. None of us ladies knew he was getting married again, not even my sister wife Molly, whose own sister Susan was the new bride.
I didn’t know how to feel about the situation. I had been married to Rich for a year and eight months, and I had grown to love him. I went upstairs to my room, took my baby girl in my arms, and cried. I vowed that I would not treat this new wife the way the other ladies had treated me; I would treat her kindly, even if I didn’t like her. But it was weird to think of Rich sleeping with a new girl, one that didn’t even love him.
Father told Rich to take Susan with him on his mission to the land of refuge in Texas. I felt betrayed that Rich took someone else, especially after I had risked Father’s anger by asking for a blessing so that I might go with him. As always, I did my best not to show it, since showing feelings like anger and jealousy was a sin. But I know my sister wife Trish felt the same way about not having been chosen. (My other sister wife, Molly, was just glad it was her sister who went and not me. In the coming years, Molly would often lobby Rich to favor her sister over me whenever she could.)
And then I discovered I was pregnant with my second child. I focused on staying busy. I tried to work harder, be kinder, and love more to prove myself worthy of living with Rich. I saw my mother every day. Molly went to live with Rich in the land of refuge a month later, leaving just Trish and me and our children in Short Creek....
Mother continued to get sicker and sicker. In April 2004, Father allowed her two youngest children to come back to Short Creek to be with her, but she was too weak to do anything with them, let alone care for them. By May the cancer had spread to her lungs, and she was on oxygen to help her breathe.
“The Lord showed me that you have humbled yourself enough to be worthy to come to Zion,” Father said at last. She would be moved to the Texas land of refuge to join the rest of her family, but she was in a wheelchair, and the treatment had knocked what life she had left right out of her....
Two months later, on July 8, Father called me. “Rachel, your mother is dying, and—” I didn’t hear the words he said after that, only a voice in my head screaming “No!” Even knowing how sick she already was the last time I saw her, I couldn’t accept it. These kinds of things don’t happen to us, I thought. They happen to other people.
I tried to bring myself back to what Father was saying. “You are not worthy to go on the land where she lives, but you can come see her while she is in the hospital in San Angelo. Isaac will drive you.” I wanted so much to talk to Rich, to cry on his shoulder, but that was impossible, as I had no way to reach him.
I packed a bag for Barbie and me, which was more difficult than it should have been because, at seven months along in my pregnancy, I felt big and tired. When Uncle Isaac picked me up, he told me I couldn’t bring Barbie....
Mother looked like she had aged 40 years in the few weeks since I’d last seen her. Lying in her hospital bed, she was terribly frail and had a faraway look in her eyes, like she was already partway gone to the other side. I didn’t want her to see me cry, so I walked over to the window to hide my face until I got control of my emotions. When I calmed down, I went to her bedside.
“Hi, Mother. This is Rachel.”
My mother continued to stare ahead. “Where’s Barbie?” she whispered.
I started to cry again. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I had been forbidden from bringing her namesake grandchild. I sat with her for an hour, and I could see she was failing fast. Uncle Nephi was there with us, and he made arrangements to have Mother transported back home, as she had expressed her wish to die there.
Father called while we were still at the hospital. “This is the last time you and your brother will see your mother, because you are still not worthy to be on the land of refuge.” We would not be allowed to go to her funeral.
Ammon and I were given a motel room that night, and a ride would come get us the next day. I couldn’t sleep. I was devastated to think I wouldn’t see my mother again. I don’t think Ammon slept a wink either....
Father called in the morning with a new revelation. “The Lord showed me that seeing your mother dying has humbled you and Ammon enough that you can be trained and then go to your mother.” It was a glimmer of hope, but it meant that Uncle Nephi had to drive us more than 500 miles — an eight-hour journey — to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to meet Father. It wasn’t lost on me that even as Mother was so close to death, Father didn’t feel it was important for him to be with her.
It took Father all day to give us the “special training,” in which he instructed us about strict obedience, hard work, no complaining, rising no later than 5:00 a.m., getting to priesthood trainings on time, no gentilism of any kind, wearing plain pastel clothing in the house and dark clothing when outside working, and no shoes inside. He told us the Lord wanted a temple built in Texas. Father had us covenant to do all the good things and to keep the land of refuge a secret and sacred place. Finally, we were deemed worthy.
When we arrived in Eldorado, after another daylong drive, I was surprised that Father had chosen such a barren desert to be a sacred land of refuge for our people. There was cactus and white rock everywhere. I didn’t see anything beautiful about the place. Even the log cabins the men had built didn’t match the landscape. The land was code-named R17 (Refuge 17), since it was 17 hours from Short Creek.
My little and big sisters ran out to meet us. I was so glad to see them, and they were happy that I had been proved worthy to come to their new home. They showed me up to Mother’s room, but she was already in a coma....
We sat with Mother all that night and into the morning, when the nurse had us step out so she could change Mother’s bedclothes. That’s when my mother’s heart stopped beating.
Mother had just recently turned 39 years old.