“When I was 14 years old, they forced me to marry my cousin.”
The first words in the first interview of Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey are upsetting, setting the tone for what’s to come. Over the course of four episodes, each spanning about 45 to 50 minutes, this Netflix documentary series takes us inside the world of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or FLDS), an extremist, cloistered offshoot of Mormonism that rejected the religion’s gradual embrace of modernity. FLDS’ female members wore Little House on the Prairie-esque dresses, the men practiced polygamy. They lived in their own world, following their own rules. As one member puts it, “In our minds, the police, even the President of the United States, had no authority over us.” And so, if God decided it was time to marry off the sect’s young teenage girls to older men, well, who was going to step in and stop it?
FLDS has been well-chronicled, especially its former leader, Warren Jeffs, an uncharming dweeb of a man who rose to power after the 2002 death of his father, the self-proclaimed prophet Rulon Jeffs, claiming that he now spoke for the Almighty, encouraging the men to continue to get as many wives (and to have as many children) as possible. Keep Sweet tells this sect’s horrifying story, but when director and executive producer Rachel Dretzin approached the material, she decided not to focus so much on Warren Jeffs but, rather, the survivors, talking to women who’d been made to marry men within this sheltered community. Some, like Elissa Wall, were underage — it’s her voice that we hear at the start of the series — while others were merely trapped in loveless marriages they wanted no part of, their husbands forcing themselves on them. It’s through their experiences — and the pain they still endure, even though they freed themselves of FLDS years ago — that Keep Sweet acquires its sickening power.
Dretzin traces FLDS’ history, how the community abandoned Salt Lake City, finding refuge in the tiny town of Short Creek, Arizona, where Warren Jeffs fortified his stranglehold on the faithful, cutting them off entirely from outside influences and essentially controlling the local economy. Eventually, Jeffs would start building a sprawling ranch in Eldorado, Texas, where he gathered the sect’s children, often ripping them from their parents. (When authorities intervened in 2008, apprehending the kids in the name of child welfare statutes, they collected 401 children.) Wealthy thanks to taking possession of his followers’ businesses, Jeffs was more than a cult leader — he ruled a fiefdom, lording his power over his 80-something wives and demanding loyalty from his worshipers. (Men who tried to dispute his divine authority found themselves thrown out of FLDS.) Eventually, a comeuppance occurred, but as Keep Sweet suggests, there’s very little resembling a happy ending to be found here.
Yesterday, I got on the phone with Dretzin, who previously directed the documentaries Who Killed Malcolm X? and Far From the Tree, to talk about the aftermath of her series, which started streaming on Netflix on June 8th and has been one of the most popular programs on the platform ever since. We chatted about how strange it is that the nerdy Jeffs asserted such control over his brainwashed flock, but we also discussed why polygamy isn’t prosecuted more strenuously — and what the state of FLDS is today. Dretzin also opened up about what she hopes people don’t take away from Keep Sweet.
[Warning: This interview contains spoilers.]
The #MeToo movement has been going on for years, and we’ve heard many survivors’ experiences. But while watching Keep Sweet, I kept thinking that this part of the story hasn’t been told as often — that of women trapped in cloistered communities. I wondered if that was part of what drew you to the FLDS.
It was. The story of the FLDS has been touched on extensively in the media, from reality shows to magazine pieces and books — even a couple of documentaries. But, interestingly, nobody’s really approached it from the female perspective, which was very striking to me. What defines this group, and other fundamentalist groups as well, is the patriarchy and the essential evaluation of women. I felt that it [had been] a missed opportunity to really look at this cult from the female perspective.
These men in FLDS marrying women who are 14 years old, that would be labeled pedophilia. But was it a sickness among these men who were craving underage girls, or was it simply that they thought, “This is what God wants me to do — I’m just obeying the prophet’s decrees”?
I think it’s both, but I think in the case of most of these men, it’s the latter. In other words, it’s cultural — these men have been raised to believe that when a girl is ready and God calls on her to be married, it’s [her] duty. I don’t think they saw [these women] through the same lens that men in a more secular society see girls — for a lot of these men [in FLDS], it was just what you do.
That said, there were men — and there are men in the series — who articulate not feeling comfortable about young girls being married. There’s a scene where [former FLDS member] Isaac Wyler talks about his own daughter and how he was determined not to let her be married off until she was 18. There obviously was room for a different perspective, but I do think a lot of these guys have just been brainwashed to believe that this was a sacred decision.
But, also, there were — and are — pedophiles in any society, and Warren Jeffs was one of them. I mean, he raped his nephews when they were very, very young. And one of the dangers of a patriarchal, fundamentalist group like this is that rampant sexual abuse of children can go on and really not be called out.
I feel like sexual abuse against boys isn’t talked about as much in our society, and it’s not really mentioned in Keep Sweet. Did you try to reach out to those survivors to hear their stories?
We thought about it, but to be honest, we [only] had four hours, four episodes, and it just wasn’t enough to really make a dent in the extensive abuses of the FLDS. And so, when we made a choice to largely tell this from the female perspective, there were some things — not only the abuse of boys, but the boys who were kicked out of the FLDS, which is a story in and of itself — we just didn’t have the space to tell. So while we alluded to them, we just couldn’t go in-depth.
Were the women you talked to surprised that they haven’t been asked to share their perspective more? Were they grateful to finally get this opportunity to talk?
It was a traumatic experience for many of them to relive all of this. So, it wasn’t an expression of delight [to be asked to be interviewed], but I think there was an acknowledgement that this kind of approach had not been taken.
And to be honest, there aren’t that many people who’ve approached this really comprehensively the way we did. Pieces of it — particularly the sensational pieces — have been tackled, but we were really trying to look at the whole [story]. And that was something they all really appreciated.
Now that the series is out, and they’ve had a chance to see it, we’ve been quite overwhelmed by the extent to which our subjects — every one of them — have expressed their gratitude. As a documentarian, we don’t always get that — sometimes, people just wish you had done it differently — but, across the board, everybody who participated in this series has contacted us to tell us how grateful they feel. That’s probably the most gratifying piece of this for me, personally.
I think people have an idea in their mind of what a cult leader looks like, someone who’s incredibly charismatic. But Warren Jeffs doesn’t come across that way at all. I don’t want to be glib, but throughout Keep Sweet, I found myself thinking, “Wait, this guy?”
It was a question that bedeviled me, honestly, from Day One. I don’t even know if I’ve got an answer. I mean, he definitely was meticulous about his approach to building power and creating even more mind-control than these people had been born with. But charisma, he did not have. I truly don’t get it. His voice is droning. He’s not commanding, physically — yeah, he’s tall, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of charisma.
But he [claimed he was] a prophet, and what that meant for this culture was enormous. I mean, it was everything — he was God on Earth to them. And they didn’t have any other frame of reference — most of these people just didn’t have contact with secular society or society outside of the church. And so, what he said was everything. And that, I think, was enough — he seized the control offered him by the prophet’s role. And he used it in a very manipulative, systematic way. He didn’t need to have charisma.
I almost wondered if that was part of the secret: His anti-charisma, his awkwardness, made him seem more prophet-like because he didn’t carry himself like other people.
He has this gentle, godly way of talking. It’s groaning and it’s monotone, but it’s “I speak for God,” which is the way he positioned himself. So, in that sense, maybe you’re right.
But I don’t know — I just think people didn’t see it, they really didn’t see it. It was just like, “This is the prophet, and this is what he is telling us to do.” Once he was prophet, 99 percent of the people went along. Before he became prophet, there were people who questioned him, for sure — but afterwards, very few people did. And the people that did were made examples of — like Lloyd Wall [Elissa Wall’s father], whose family is taken away from him because he’s clearly not comfortable with Warren. And once that happens, people stop questioning — they’re operating out of fear. There’s a lot of fear.
Polygamy is illegal in the United States. In Keep Secret, it’s briefly discussed why polygamy isn’t prosecuted more — you have a lawyer explain the legal rationale behind not cracking down on this crime. But was his answer satisfying to you?
Once you’ve spent some time in Utah, it’s a little clearer. But before I started really diving into the story, I definitely didn’t understand it: “This is illegal, so why aren’t they acting on it?”
First of all, it’s about resources and energy. In Utah, there are people who practice polygamy quietly and — somewhat, at least relatively speaking — rationally. Then there are people who use polygamy for other crimes — to marry very young girls, or to abuse women and girls, or to engage in other criminal acts — and I think the state, in general, and local law enforcement has spent their energy on that. And as a matter of fact, polygamy was turned into basically an infraction in Utah recently. The motivation for this was that it would highlight the secondary crimes that are associated with polygamy and focus legal efforts on that, rather than on just the state of polygamy itself. It’s like legalizing marijuana.
I don’t know that you can really get behind that, but that’s one of the arguments that’s been made [for not cracking down on polygamy]. I think it really is, more than anything, just about priorities. It’s something people have lived with in that state for so long that it’s really hard for people to get their hackles up about if it isn’t connected to these other crimes, which are much more serious.
You open Keep Sweet with a quote from Ephesians, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.” I wondered if you were trying to draw a connection between FLDS’s extreme form of Mormonism and other, more mainstream religious faiths in terms of how they view women.
We were trying to tell a story that we felt was not singular. It’s extreme, but [with] religion — and, particularly, fundamentalist religion — the canon is a tool for men to oppress women. And it’s not contained to the FLDS church. I think audiences seem to be recognizing the parallels between this story and other religions and other situations, and I’m glad about that. There are pieces of this story that a lot of people recognize — a lot of people who have nothing to do with the FLDS but who grew up very religious, or who have been in other kinds of cult-like environments, or have been abused. It speaks to a much broader group.
Was it also an attempt to make the audience not feel superior to the people in FLDS? With the women’s old-fashioned hairdos and outfits — not to mention the group’s antiquated beliefs in general — it’s understandable why viewers would be judgy.
That was central for me. It was actually a turning point for me in the development period of the story. I spent about two years making trips out to Utah, trying to figure out how I was going to tell this story. And the reason it took so long was because I didn’t want to tell a story about weirdos who were in a sex cult — I felt like that story had been told many, many times. I was really waiting to meet people who I felt [I understood] and use those people as a way to make the whole story relatable to an audience.
It was when I met some of the women who ended up in the film — and I met more [women] than [just] the women that ended up in the film — that I felt like, “I can tell this story.” These women make it clear that this can happen to anybody, and these people are not freaks. They’re bright, they’re emotional — they’re good, kind, real people who got very unlucky. So often with these cults, they’re approached as freaks: “Why do these people fall for this? Who are these losers?” And that was just not what I wanted to do.
And you address that kind of judgmental mindset by having people explain why it’s physically easy to leave this cult but emotionally and mentally such a hard thing for women to do.
When I would tell people what I was working on, everybody was like, “Well, are they locked in?” And it’s hard to explain: “No, they’re not locked in. There’s [nothing] really keeping them in.” Of course, anybody could [leave], but there were so many reasons that it was next to impossible. So many people did leave and went right back because they had so few tools to cope outside — it was just safer in there. So the pull to stay was overwhelming.
I was shocked that Warren Jeffs, even though he’s in prison with a life sentence, is allowed to communicate with his followers on the outside through phone calls that are piped into the FLDS compound. With mob bosses who are locked up, at least in movies, it seems like the authorities always try to break that connection so they can’t keep committing crimes. How is Jeffs allowed to get away with that?
I don’t know the answer to that. I can tell you that I’m as surprised as you are that they’ve allowed him to have, over the years, extensive phone calls every week and visitors — things that you would think would be the first thing that they restricted. But they didn’t.
I mean, he had a cap on how many hours on the phone he could spend, but he had sufficient access to the phone. For many years, he would call designated people in Short Creek or in Texas. His voice would be broadcast by a loudspeaker or intercom around the community. So he was really actively running things.
He’s not anymore — he’s deteriorated immensely over the years, and he’s definitely less squarely in control than he was. He’s still the prophet, and there’s still people who firmly believe in him, but he’s not as engaged as he was. But for many years, he was. And to be honest, some of his most destructive revelations — his most oppressive and tyrannical rules and regulations — happened after he was in prison. They got progressively more irrational and crazy.
The series almost argues that Jeffs being imprisoned elevated his stature, turned him into a martyr.
Absolutely. People, for years, were told that it was their fault he was in prison — and that, unless they were paying penance and being perfect, he would never be released. It was on them that Warren was in prison — he was paying for their sin. And people truly believe that, and still do.
What’s the state of FLDS now?
They’re definitely in decline. There’s no question that the numbers have dwindled dramatically and continue to dwindle dramatically. More and more people are leaving — and the more people that leave, the easier it is for people to leave because they have family members or friends who can help them on the outside.
A lot of the reason it’s deteriorated is because the monopoly on Short Creek was broken up — the church had a monopoly on this community, and that’s been destroyed as of 2015. So they’ve scattered — they’re not all in one place anymore. And, of course, the ranch was sold [in Texas], so there’s no longer a gigantic centralized structure. You have cells all over the country now. There’s some compounds where people live. And then there’s just a lot of freelancers who still believe in Warren and carry [his] picture and dress in the prairie dresses and do their thing, but they’re not being watched in the same way.
So that means things have loosened, and people can take more liberties. You find people going online, watching movies, doing things that once would’ve been utterly forbidden, having a little more contact with the outside. That said, there are still clearly thousands of people who believe that Warren is the prophet of God — I’ve met some of them. I met young women who are in their late 20s, which would be very late to have children in the FLDS, who are not getting married or having children because they can’t until Warren tells them they can — or until Warren gets out of prison. These are bright young women, so it’s still a very real thing.
Not to be an alarmist, but after all the years of dealing with white supremacists across the U.S., it’s hard to hear you mention “cells” and “compounds” and not worry about what FLDS members might be capable of.
It’s not too alarmist. They’re very under-the-radar — those people that are in these compounds are very cloistered. They do have big walls around them because now they’ve been exposed enough by the media to know that they need to stay out of view, and you really can’t get in. We have certainly heard about some pretty horrific things happening through the grapevine. And there are a couple of self-proclaimed leaders — people who, in Warren’s absence, have declared themselves to be prophets. Many people don’t believe [them], but they do have followers and they’re operating really, really, really underground. So I don’t think it’s wrong to be concerned. We don’t know where they are, a lot of them — we don’t have any access to them.
For the women you talked to — either the ones in the film or others — do they have any relationship with faith now? After what they went through, have they decided God isn’t for them?
The answer’s all over the map, but I would say that there’s a lot more religion than you’d expect. They’re not necessarily hostile to religion, although some of them are hostile to organized religion. There’s quite a lot of spirituality.
I will say that these women are really damaged by what’s happened to them — profoundly traumatized. It’s a lot to come back from, and they need all the tools they can get. So spirituality has helped a lot of them. Whether it’s mystical stuff or mainstream Mormonism in some cases, it’s just helped give them a structure and something to anchor them in what can feel like a really overwhelming universe after spending much of their lives in the FLDS. But there isn’t one answer to that question. Everybody’s taken their own road.