Rebecca Wall Musser’s father had only two wives and, she says, wasn’t too happy about that. Within the closed polygamist society of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, high ranking-men could accrue dozens of wives, which meant that women and girls were treated as human currency. When, at just 19, she was married off to the then-head of the church, 85-year-old Rulon Jeffs, the marriage boosted her father’s stock, and he was rewarded with a third wife of his own.
This trade of wives and daughters is “kind of like, ‘I’ll give you some if you give me some,’” Musser, who’s since left the church, says in the new documentary series Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey. “Even though it’s never spoken that way, I think that’s the general understanding.”
The series, which debuts on Netflix Wednesday, tells the story of the now-infamous cult, which made international headlines through the crimes of its leader, Rulon’s son Warren Jeffs, who spent years on the run from authorities, landed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, and was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment for sexually abusing two underage girls. The FLDS church became a cable news fixture, and the women of the community—instantly recognizable in their all-encompassing pastel dresses and teased bouffants—were often-silent symbols of the cult’s abuses. But in telling the story of the church largely from the perspective of a handful of former members like Musser and her sister, Elissa Wall, director Rachel Dretzin and co-director Grace McNally highlight the ways in which the women of the FLDS have managed to resist.
“I was just blown away by the fact that a story like this could exist in this time, in this place, in this country,” Dretzin told Jezebel. “It’s really like a real-life Handmaid’s Tale.”
The FLDS is an extremist offshoot of the mainstream Mormon church, which banned polygamy—known as “plural marriage” in FLDS terms—in 1904. Following his father’s death in 2002, Warren Jeffs assumed the mantle of “prophet”—the leader of the community and, in the eyes of his followers, the earthly representative of god. As prophet, he maintained almost total control over the church and its $110 million in assets. Believers could be ejected from the community at will, with wives and children reassigned from man to man or moved hundreds of miles away from the FLDS’s base, the remote Utah-Arizona border town of Short Creek.
Jeffs also controlled the marriages in the community and presided over dozens of forced marriages of underage girls. He took as many as 86 wives himself, including at least one 12-year-old. Keep Sweet takes its title from one of the mottos of the church, an ostensibly cheery saying that reflected its members’ sunny acquiescence in the face of horrifying abuse.
The FLDS’s story has been told before, in the extensive news coverage of Warren’s run from the law and subsequent trial, in documentaries like Amy Berg’s 2015 film Prophet’s Prey, and in the series Preaching Evil: A Wife on the Run with Warren Jeffs, which featured the story of Jeffs’s one-time favorite wife, Naomie Jessop. But though Keep Sweet touches on the myriad offenses of the church— which regularly expelled its superfluous young men, creating hundreds of homeless “lost boys,” used child labor, and even played a role in the Challenger explosion—the series largely focuses on the women who, despite almost total lack of knowledge of the outside world, managed to undermine the cult. One woman tells of piecing together the location of a new, secret community Jeffs built, the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, by tracking the mileage on her husband’s car, deploying a map and a ruler, and deciphering the mud left on his tires. Elissa Wall, who was forced to marry her first cousin at age 14, later left the group and served as the star witness in Utah’s sex crime case against Jeffs, who was tried as an accomplice to her rape for his role in arranging the illegal marriage.
Though the bravery of Wall and Musser, who helped uncover the secret store of records and tapes documenting his abuse of minors that would secure his life sentence, is extraordinary, Dretzin says that other women within the group participate in countless secret acts of resistance. “I’ve met women who are still in the FLDS, girls who are still in the FLDS, who are either thinking about leaving, trying to leave, rebelling in small ways, speaking up for themselves. It’s really difficult to do, but they’re everywhere,” Dretzin said.
“We tend to think of them as like aliens in prairie dresses,” Dretzin said of the women in the community. “And they’re not. They’re women. They’re girls. They’re people who struggle with a lot of the same things we did. And that’s why I really wanted to tell the story through them, because I thought it might bring these two worlds a little closer together.”
Despite his imprisonment, Jeffs continues to lead the FLDS church. Between defectors and splinter groups helmed by new self-proclaimed prophets, membership has shrunk, but remains in the thousands, Dretzin says. “His revelations from prison are still filtered out through family members and wives and people who bring them back to the people,” says Dretzin. “So he still has control—less centralized, for sure, but he still has control.” Even with the leader behind bars, the filmmaker says she’s heard rumors that underage marriages still take place.
Many of the faithful have left Short Creek for other FLDS enclaves in states like Idaho and Colorado. Still, the town has seen a new influx of surprising new residents: former members of the church who’ve decided to move back to Short Creek, where they live alongside believers who consider them to be “apostates.” Ex-FLDS members have told Dretzin that they appreciate the community they’ve been able to create with others who left the church. “A lot of them, I think, have trouble acclimating to the outside world and meeting people who can understand what they’ve been through,” she said. “And so I think it’s reassuring and comforting to talk to people who get it, who get how crazy it was, but who are trying to transition out of it.”
With Jeffs ruling from a distance, life has changed for the faithful, too. They’re no longer under the same degree of strict surveillance he once maintained, and Dretzin says that many are “looser” about following rules against watching TV or using the internet. “I suspect there will always be people who follow the prophet, but I think the numbers are going to dwindle,” said Dretzin. “And honestly, I hope that stories like this one, and increasing public awareness of it, help people have the courage to to leave and find a better life for themselves.”