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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Returning to Colorado City and Saying Goodbye to Polygamy

I came across this article (first pub. in 2009) and really enjoyed it, so I decided to share it on here. Really makes you think about how insulated these folks are.

By Shane Hensinger

I arrived in Denver today after a 2.5 day drive from San Francisco. I took a bit of a circuitous route because I wanted to stop and see my aunt, who is a member of the polygamous Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). I'd not been back to Colorado City for over 25 years. This is a personal story of that trip.

As many Kossacks are aware I at one point in my life lived with my aunt in Colorado City, who at that point was one of 5 sister wives living in a polygamous relationship. It had been a long, long time since I'd been back to Colorado City, a remote town of around 9,000 people which lies in the Arizona Strip - considered the most inaccessible part of the continental United States.
As I drove from Las Vegas on Thursday I pondered why I'd chosen to take the route I had and journey to Colorado City - it was miles out of the way of the shortest route to Denver and I was unsure how I'd be received, not by my aunt, but by the community at-large. In the e-mail I'd received from my aunt she'd asked that I "dress modestly" when I arrived and in deference to her wishes I'd set aside a set of clothes to change into before I arrived in Colorado City.
I'm a West Coast boy. Meaning during the summer my outfit generally consists of shorts, t-shirts and tank tops and flip flops. And when it's nice (as it's rare to be in San Francisco during the summer) I wear even less - just shorts. As I left the tall building of Las Vegas behind and the thermostat in my car showed the temperature outside at 110 degrees I stared with foreboding at the outfit I was going to have to change into - a pair of loose-fitting jeans and a denim shirt. The thought of putting these clothes on, again, after being forced to wear them during my visits as a child, literally made me feel sick.
See - as gentiles my brother, sister and myself didn't have to attend FLDS services. But we had to do everything else, including pray and wear the all-enveloping outfits that at some point become official FLDS wear. And for some reason that marked me as a child to the point that for years after leaving Colorado City I refused to bare my arms - it wasn't until half-way through my freshman year in high school that I ever wore a t-shirt without another long-sleeved shirt covering it up. Getting to the point where I could bare my shoulders and even my chest felt like a lifetime and having to go back to where I started filled me with a mixture of revulsion and curiously - of sadness.
Getting to Colorado City isn't easy - deliberately. When the founders of the settlement chose to continue to practice polygamy despite it being in violation of federal law they chose the most remote, inhospitable place they could find. Even today getting there takes work. You exit off the freeway, go through the business district of St. George, UT, wind your way through a residential neighborhood and then up a hill - and you're on your way. As a child we'd always come from the east, not the west, and I'd forgotten how remote the area was.
In St. George I stopped at a gas station, went in the bathroom and changed into long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. I left on my flip flops because my suitcase containing my shoes was in the bottom of my trunk and I didn't feel like digging for them. In hindsight - I should have made the extra effort. I also left the top three buttons on my shirt undone (it was over 100 degrees) reminding myself to button them before I showed up. Again - another mistake.
As I drove I realized I'd also forgotten how red the earth is on the Arizona Strip - deep, bloody red. Extraordinarily beautiful but also as if the earth was bleeding, profusely and continually.
The closer I got to Colorado City the tighter my stomach became - which was something I didn't expect. My memories of the place, of the time with my aunt's family, were not bad. All I could remember, after the chaos that was much of my childhood, was peace and order - regular prayer and work times. But as I got closer the feeling inside myself was anything but order - it was a mixture of fear and nervousness. As I drew closer I even turned off the music inside the car and drove in silence.
One of the few signs that tell you you're getting close to a polygamous community is a large billboard about 10 miles outside of the city which advertises a state-funded helpline for those to call "when family life gets to be too much."
As I pulled into Hildale, which is the Utah-part of the twin cities, I realized how dusty and dingy everything was in the town. The homes were all enormous and many of them were half-complete, more so in Colorado City but also prevalent in Hildale. Worse - I'd counted on using my iPhone to map the way to my aunt's house once I was in the city but there is no EDGE network in Colorado City, meaning the maps feature didn't work and I didn't recognize where I was, so I stopped at a store to ask directions.
The people of Hildale/Colorado City live what is called "the united effort." This is according to the early teachings of Joseph Smith that people were to contribute and work together for a greater good - an idea which for Mormons, some of the most Republican people in the United States, is quite close to socialism. The point of me telling you this is that the main grocery store in Colorado City is a co-op where only community members shop. I remembered this so I made sure to stop at a place close off the main road.
When I opened the door and walked in there were two teenage girls, one in a blue prairie dress and one in pink, sitting behind the counter and a boy wearing the same outfit as me talking to them. As a bell announced the door opening they stopped talking and turned to me - and that's when the fun began.
The girls looked at me like I was the most incredible, exotic creature they'd ever seen. I tell you they could not have been more shocked had I been an alien. I think I'm a good-looking guy but I've never had that kind of reaction in any gay bar I'd walked into. It was as if a bomb had gone off as I stood there.
The boy's reaction was different. His eyes swept me from top to bottom, lingering with disgust on my unbuttoned shirt and then staring with a mixture of complete shock at the tops of my feet, which were bare.
"Uhhh" I began. "Can you tell me where XXXX is?"
No response from either of them.
Again, I asked the question this time adding "my aunt lives here and I've come to visit her."
"Who's asking" the boy asked - which was shockingly rude considering I'd just told him I had a relative in the town.
And then I got pissed. Who were these three twits to be questioning me? I'd lived there before they were born and they were gonna issue demands of me? "Oh heeeeeelllllll no" I thought.
One of the girls started saying something and I cut her off and said "you two need to keep sweet!" This shocked the shit out of them - their mouths literally fell open. "Keep sweet" is something FLDS members say to women and girls - it literally means "to submit" and "be Christ-like" and by using it I signaled to them that I wasn't someone who stumbled in off the street. To the boy I said "I'm calling my aunt, who is married to XXXX (who happens to be on the priesthood council of the FLDS - which are the elders in the community and the ones running the town now that "The Prophet" Warren Jeffs is in the slammer)" which shut him up too.
I then pulled out my cell phone and called my aunt, something I should have done earlier. Within two minutes she and her husband pulled up to the store (on a four wheeler - something I also don't remember from before). When they pulled up I walked outside and told them how rude the kids were and my aunt's husband went inside while we stayed outside. I could see him shaking his finger and then, one by one, the kids came outside and apologized to me. That's one thing you can say for the FLDS - they take community child-raising seriously and discipline is never questioned.
Then I followed my aunt and her husband to her house, which was just blocks away. Did I mention how wide the streets are in the town? They're enormous. School must have just gotten out because I passed multitudes of adorable little kids wearing Indian-style "Tonto" feathers. Kids everywhere - as I child I remember there was never a lack of anyone to do things with and that certainly hasn't changed.
I'd forgotten, or maybe it just didn't seem the same when I was a child, how shabby everything is. The town is generally poor and it shows. There are numerous signs everywhere warning people not to drive through the streets when they're flooded - because the town has never installed a proper drainage/flood control system and when it rains in the desert it floods.
My aunt's house was bigger than I remembered - as one would expect. I was received with happiness and genuine curiosity by her sister-wives and their children. I asked them about the rudeness I'd experienced previously and they mentioned the raid on the YFZ Ranch last year and how that had everyone on edge. People felt that "outsiders" were probably spies and the state was readying another raid. This makes sense to them since FLDS interaction with non-FLDS people has generally been negative and their history is replete with anti-polygamy raids. As I've said here numerous times - I feel the raids on the FLDS are counter-productive and unconstitutional and that polygamy should be legal. Nothing has changed as far as my views on those issues.
But as I stood surrounded by all the children and the women began preparing "supper" (as they call it) a lot of memories came back to me. Memories of the alienation and sadness my brother and sister and I felt when we were there - not accepted as FLDS but called "plygs" by people driving through the town. I remember wanting to run after them and scream "but I'm not a plyg!" Like it would have made a difference.
I also remembered the sadness and fear we all felt being away from my mother who relinquished temporary custody of us because she felt she couldn't protect us from my sister's father - who had broken into out home twice, once while we were there and attempted to kidnap my sister by yanking her from my mother's arms - an act only thwarted when my grandfather (whose home were living behind) heard the commotion and rushed in with a pistol. In that time domestic violence wasn't taken seriously, so my mom hid us where she thought my sister's dad would never find us.
The longer I stayed there the more the memories came back and the more sadness I felt for the people trapped in this forlorn little town which sits on the edge of the Grand Canyon - the massive homes where there's never any feeling of privacy, the constant fear, the sense of desperation, the heat, the poverty. I remembered it - it's not that I felt differently about my time there as a child but I was returning as a man, seeing things through a man's eyes. The difference in perception was shocking - I felt staggered.
After eating "supper" I told them I had to leave, which was true. Staying there would have been out of the question and it was a long, long drive to where I was staying. I said goodbye and my aunt walked me out. She held my arms, looked in my eyes and said "you'll come again won't you Shane?" And I said yes but she knows I won't - there are too many memories, too much distance now. I love her but I won't be back. As I started my car she stood there, the blue of her dress magnified against the vermilion cliffs behind her, and she lifted her hand to me. And I felt a terrible sadness.
I had to stop for gas and there's one gas station in the whole town, in Colorado City. And when I pulled up I did the most shocking thing I could. I took off the shirt I was wearing so I was in nothing but pants and a tank top, and I turned up the electronic music I was listening too and left it playing and I exited the car to pump the gas. Again - it was as if everyone stopped what they were doing to stare at me but rather than feel angry I felt happy - because while they were all there I was leaving.
As I drove away from the town, around 10 miles outside of Colorado City, it started raining. One of those late-afternoon rainstorms which are famous in the southwest, sheets of pounding rain which came down so hard I could barely see. And as the rain ran through the red dust on my car, washing it away, I opened my window and put my left arm outside and let it course down my skin - washing away something from me too.

(Source:   http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/09/04/777199/-Returning-to-Colorado-City-and-Saying-Goodbye-to-Polygamy)


  1. I saw a var with those on it once, from Hillsdale- unreal

  2. Very interesting ! It shows how strong the endoctrination is when you grow up in this cult. I hope the Brown's children will be strong enough to choose the life they really want. I think they have more chance since they move to Vegas and go to public school. FREE All of them!!!! Reading the article, it felt like seeing The Twilight Zone ! Can't beleive what's still going on in 2011...

  3. meh... not impressed w/this guy. he comes across as an arrogant bully the way he treated the kids younger than him. especially w/the knowledge he has of their tightknit and secret society. it wasn't good enough for him to arrogantly put them in their place but he also made sure he told his "bigwig" uncle so he could go in and chastise them and they had to come and apologize to him. he seems like he was quite rude himself as well as a bully. like their life isn't tough enough, he has to make sure they get in trouble with a "higher up?" geesh.... give 'em a break. Why should they have treated him any differently as a stranger and with his attitude as well as his own halfway of dressing to match them?

    and then the way he made sure he left town by going to the one gas station in town (why didn't he get gas at the one outside of town that he was just at?) and strip to his tank top and make sure his radio was left blaring loud the whole time he was gassing up. that would annoy me anywhere. it's rude! and he brags that everyone stopped and stared at him and that didn't make him angry but made him HAPPY they were all stuck there and he was leaving.

    He comes across as a jerk who went there with an ax to grind and is picking on/bullying the victims there. How could you be HAPPY that someone's stuck in that hellhole? nice guy. seems like he needs a few basic lessons in manners as well as compassion. and HUMILITY. not so sure the girls were looking at him "like i was the most incredible, exotic creature they'd ever seen!" yeah, that's why one started to speak down to you and you immediately yelled, "keep sweet!" at her. ugh...

  4. i re-read it and there's actually very little content/info re:the actual visit/interaction w/his family and their conversation. Most of it's "all about me and how awesome I'm telling you I am."

    The most interesting thing about the article is the pix of the two cars. Those are funny - and most likely photoshopped since I'm not convinced the plygs go around w/that kind of advertisement on their cars. Why would they? lol

  5. also, he says it's been 25 years since he's been back to Colorado City where he has all these recollections of growing up there. Not sure how old he was when he left but let's pick a middle number and say 10-12 minimum. That would put him in mid to late 30's and he had to act like an intimidating bully to teens and go narc on them for "disrespecting" him? oh, please!! why wasn't it enough that by his own admission he'd already made them all shut up w/his own bullying w/the "keep sweet" crap as well as "my uncle's Elder BigWig!" wonder how much he talked down to the Uncle who's probably a real creep there? not at all, i bet.

    Those kids were doing what they'd been taught to do with strangers and he should know that better than anyone.

  6. I was looking more at the insulation of folks at first, but he does comes across as a bully. i think it's more of a defense mechanishm for him to deal with his past.Why was he living with an aunt? It all seemed very defense orienteated to me. It is interestesting to see how people are dealing with life after being on the "inside" and now out. Did any of you feel that he might be a tad jealous of the insular society?

  7. I don't understand the negative comments. This guy gives us a real first-hand account of his life experience with the polygamist community; it's a memoir, not a news report! Very interesting, and it makes me feel more sorry than ever for the children of the "plygs".

  8. Anonymous @ 6:23--I agree with what you said about how he comes across. I just wasn't sure how to put it into words. I've talked with a man who had been raised flds and have read plenty of what they've written online.....I get the sense that they generally are very self-absorbed and have a chip on their shoulder. I suspect it comes from the way they are raised. I like many of their personal qualities but wish they were able to drop the me-me-me hostility. Perhaps with enough time away from the flds influence it softens.

  9. I liked it... he's just saying how he felt. No harm in that.

  10. i'm not saying there was harm in him saying how he felt. i'm saying his actions and words came across as bullying as well as very narcissistic.

    also, he's been gone 25 YEARS already!! and got out pretty young PLUS was never a real part of it according to him. (gentile.) just don't understand why he felt the strong need to go there and act so angry and arrogant about it all. sounds like he's still got a lot of personal unresolved anger issues but gave us no insight really as to who and why he's so angry still. just an "all about me" piece that didn't paint him in a favorable light like he thought. to me anyway. Just gave me a lot more questions than answers in his story.

  11. Very interesting post.

  12. It must be so hard on the folks that leave. Conflicting, to say the least, to leave loved ones.

  13. BewareOfThePlanetYouChooseJuly 8, 2012 at 10:35 PM

    Isn't that car disgusting? I was a foster care mother for a few years. They would push us to take more because we had a large house, and I did have a helper. I always stopped at 10. Even with adult children helping, house cleaners, etc., which left me to love and just care for them in person, I was WORN out when we had more than 7. 21 kids, ridiculous. God wants you to take care of your children.