Thursday November 16, 2017

Daughter of polygamist Warren Jeffs speaks out on her father's abuse

Rachel Jeffs with her father Warren, a man believed by his followers to be a prophet.

Rachel Jeffs with her father Warren, a man believed by his followers to be a prophet. (Rachel Jeffs)

Listen 24:05

Warning: Some of the content may be disturbing 

Story transcript

Rachel Jeffs was her father's third child. He would go on to have 50 more.

Her father, Warren Jeffs, is the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as FLDS — a man believed by his followers to be a prophet.

"We were taught that the world was different than us," Rachel Jeffs told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

The highly insular sect is a polygamist offshoot of the mainstream Mormon church. Outsiders aren't welcome in FLDS communities, where women wear pioneer-style dresses and men commonly take at least three wives.

'It was just going totally against what he had taught me.' - Rachel Jeffs

Obedience to her parents was paramount, followed by prayer and modest dress, according to Jeffs.

Rachel Jeffs with kids

Rachel Jeffs with her five kids before escaping the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). (Rachel Jeffs)

Warren Jeffs: child sex abuse conviction

Jeffs said her father remains the church's spiritual leader to this day, despite the fact that he's serving a life sentence in prison for two counts of sexual assault against two of his underage wives.

But they were not the only girls he abused, according to Jeffs.  She was one of his victims too.

'He just suddenly exposed himself to me, and I was just shocked.' - Rachel Jeffs

Jeffs said the sexual abuse began when she was eight-years-old, behind the locked door of her father's office.  

"He just suddenly exposed himself to me, and I was just shocked," she said.

"We were taught that men and women should keep their bodies covered and not touch each other, so it was just going totally against what he had taught me."

Jeffs said she has not pursued these claims in court because she's satisfied that her father is already paying for his crimes.

"He's in prison for life. If there was a chance he got out, I would."

GYI0050753553.jpg

A Texas jury convicted polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs of child sexual assault in 2011. (Douglas C. Pizac-Pool/Getty Images)

It was only this month that Jeffs first told her story publicly with the release of her memoir Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and My Father, Warren Jeffs.

She said writing her story was something she knew she had to do after she was finally able to escape the church in  2014.

'I remember thinking, 'Am I bad? Is he doing this because I'm a bad girl somehow?' - Rachel Jeffs

The abuse continued on a regular basis until she was 16, she told Tremonti.

"I remember thinking, 'Am I bad? Is he doing this because I'm a bad girl somehow? In my mind, I thought it was only happening to me."

Her husband's third wife

At 18, Jeffs learned she was to be married.

'We were all at his disposal.' - Rachel Jeffs

She didn't meet Rich, her husband-to-be, until the day before the wedding. Though Rich was a kinder man than her father, Jeffs was joining his household as his third wife while living under the same roof as the other two.

"There was a lot of jealousy," she said. "He tried really hard to get us to just love each other but, you know, he had no idea what we were going through. He had all of us. We were all at his disposal."

As the years went by, Jeffs would have five children, and her husband took two more wives.

When her father was first taken into custody in 2006, it didn't seem to affect his authority at all, said Jeffs.

"Everybody just felt like it was religious persecution and that he was innocent and hadn't done anything wrong," she said.

But the more time he spent behind bars, the more strict and draconian his edicts became, according to Jeffs. Periodically, her father would issue "revelations" he had received from God. He would claim to have learned that his daughter had committed a sin, and that she had to be sent away to live alone and repent.  

On one occasion, Jeffs had a newborn baby she was still nursing when she was told she had to leave.

"I was gone for about five weeks," she said. "When I came back then my baby didn't remember me."

With help from family members living outside the church, Jeffs was able to escape with her children in a secretive late-night flight.

'That's my greatest desire — to give them the life that I couldn't have.'  - Rachel Jeffs
Rachel Jeffs

'That's my greatest desire — to give them (her children) the life that I couldn't have,' said Rachel Jeffs after her family's escape. (Rachel Jeffs)

Adjusting to regular life has been difficult, said Jeffs. She had only an eighth-grade education, and no practical work experience.

But she has cause to celebrate. In September, Jeffs married again to another former FLDS member she met after her escape. She said her family is thrilled just to be free.

"They feel like there's so many possibilities that they can't even decide. But it's fun that they can because I never could," she said.

"That's my greatest desire — to give them the life that I couldn't have. And help other people from the Church to have that, too."

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Julian Uzielli.