30 May 2008

Jeffs's wedding pictures disgust

Vancouver Sun - May 30, 2008

by Daphne Bramham

The idea of child brides is disgusting, but seeing photographs of 12- and 14-year-olds with their adult husbands is stomach-churning.

That's why Elissa Wall passed out photos of her 14-year-old self after testifying against Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, last September.

If not for her, Jeffs might still be marrying young girls. Instead, he is serving two consecutive terms of five years to life and preparing to go to trial on similar charges in Arizona later this year or early next year when, once again, Wall will be the key witness.

Yet even while he sits in jail, Jeffs's sermons form the basis of the religious instruction at Bountiful elementary-secondary school, which is both accredited and funded by the B.C. government.

"I clung to being anonymous [at the beginning of the trial]. It made me feel protected," Wall said this week in an interview. "But the press was brutal. Some of the reporters said I was an unbelievable witness because I came across as too strong.

"But I wasn't always a 20-year-old who was able to stand up for myself. I was once a child. People needed to understand that it had taken a long time, healing, and a lot of struggles to get there. I wanted people to remember that girl of 14 who was shackled and put into a terrible situation by people who were supposed to be protecting her."

This is why her new book, Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs (published by HarperCollins Canada), contains pages of photos of her as a child.

And it may be part of the reason why Texas child protection officials last week filed wedding photos of Jeffs with two of his more than 80 wives as evidence in court that the FLDS is a pervasive, systemic culture of abuse. One of the girls has been officially identified as being only 12.

Given what we've seen of the FLDS women since Texas officials raided the Yearning for Zion ranch and took more than 400 young women and children into protective custody, it's hard to believe that articulate, resolute Elissa Wall was once part of the repressive, reclusive sect (a group not affiliated with the mainstream Mormon church).

"I think a big factor in being able to hold on to my sense of self [growing up] was that my dad was educated and we had some outside perspective. There are a lot of women out there [in the FLDS communities] like me. But their spirits have been broken."

Wall's father, an engineer, converted to fundamentalism after concluding that the mainstream church was wrong to have denounced polygamy. Both he and Elissa's mother remain in the FLDS. Elissa saw her father several times during the Jeffs trial, but she hasn't seen her mother since spring 2005, even though Sharon Wall was listed as a possible defence witness for Jeffs.

"It's a completely different world [the FLDS]," Wall says. "Women and children pay the price for men's actions. They are very controlled and only know their own little world. Even though I have compassion for the women and children in Texas, I know why the authorities went in.

"I was married at 14. I know it could be happening there, and whenever there is any abuse happening, it must be sought out and stopped."

Wall wonders why it's the women, not the FLDS patriarchs, who are put before the cameras to defend Jeffs's church.

"The men should be accountable. But they are nowhere to be seen. Instead, women and children are fitted with the responsibility to lie for the men."

Lying for the church isn't uncommon. That's what Wall says Allan Steed -- her cousin, spiritual husband and rapist -- did at Jeffs's trial. It's part of the reason she no longer sees Steed as a victim.

"Warren [Jeffs] told him he had to marry me. But Allan knew I was still a child. I told him no and he still decided to sexually abuse me. So, no, he is not a victim. He is a perpetrator. He's a victim of Warren's power."

Aside from her initial fears about confronting Jeffs, the most difficult part of the trial for Wall was the suggestion that she wasn't telling the truth and was testifying only for financial gain.

"I have lost and sacrificed way too much for that," she says. She lost contact with most of her family, and she fears that her two youngest sisters may have been victims of forced early marriages.

Before going to the police, she filed a civil suit against Jeffs and the FLDS. While she was in Utah's victim protection program, she got money from the state, as well as private donors.

Jeffs has never responded to the civil lawsuit. But the United Effort Plan trust -- the FLDS's financial arm -- is paying $2 million to the MJ Fund that Wall established to help girls and women leaving the FLDS. (MJ was the pseudonym under which the civil suit was filed.)

The money will be used for food, housing, transportation, education and other necessities for girls and women leaving the FLDS.

It is also giving the MJ Fund title to four acres of land and eight housing lots in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

Despite her book contract, Wall is not rich. She works as a waitress as she and her new husband struggle to make a decent life for their two children. She dreams of some day completing high school and going to university, but for now that's on the back burner.

"First and foremost, I want to be a wonderful mother. But I want to change the course of events for women, especially those in the FLDS. I want to help women remember that they are equals and they deserve to be respected."

It's hard to believe that articulate, self-assured Elissa Wall was ever a trembling 14-year-old bride.

But she was. So were others. And, in both the United States and Canada, many others remain at risk.

That's why her story -- and the photographs -- are so important.

This article was found at:



Creepy photos of jailed FLDS sect leader released in custody battle

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