This Week(ish) In Books
Double-Vaxxed Reading Mormon Double Feature
I checked out these two books to read together after learning they were the main sources for a podcast series I listened to about Mormonism. They’re listed in my review in a basic chronological order, and although they do overlap it’s definitely worth it to read both if only for their distinctive styles.
Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer (library paperback): This book covers the 1984 murders of a woman and her child by her husband and his brother. They’d become fanatical members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, a sect of Mormonism that splintered from the original group when plural marriage (aka polygamy) was outlawed by the elders in the early 20th century.
The mainstream LDS also outlawed a practice called blood atonement, which basically says that there are some sins you have to take a life for to get God’s forgiveness. There’s a lot of blood sacrifice talk in the Bible, as well as the Book of Mormon and some of their profits’ visions, so one group decided that whoever said those weren’t part of their religion had gone astray.
Thus, they settled into the deep rural mountain areas of Utah with their extra wives and declared themselves the one true church.
Ron and Dan Lafferty were part of a mainstream Mormon family whose passel of brothers all got slowly sucked into the FLDS through a combination of disillusionments with the way their lives were going and their habits of discussion spiritual issues with their more fundamentalist, older brother. They brought their (singular) wives into it as well, but although the women, a few were fine with the traditional roles that the mainstream church put them in, they chafed at the tighter restrictions of the fundamentalists.
So at some point, Ron gets a “vision” that he needs to kill one of them along with her baby as a “blood atonement” for everything that was going wrong.
This was the better book of these two by a pretty big stretch. The reporting and research is impeccable and spans all of Mormon history to get you to understand why the Lafferty brothers did what they did. It also points out the religion’s inconsistencies and backtracking without moral judgement, trusting the reader to supply plenty of that yourself. The guy who checked it out for me at the library compared it to Erik Larson, and I agree (thanks, Steve!); Krakauer has the same deft touch in weaving together hundreds of seemingly unrelated pieces of information and history that draw as direct a through line as possible to the main story.
Krakauer makes great use of the fact that Mormonism is a rare religion that has a definite, documented starting point from recent history. We’re not relying on 2,000-year-old hearsay from times when writing stuff down was barely heard of, so it’s a lot easier to talk about how the founders wanted the LDS to grow, to be perceived, and to act.
He also deserves a medal for untangling all the lines of heritage that get tangled up in fits when stepfathers decide to marry stepdaughers or cousins or sisters-in-law for their pluralities. I won’t pretend I kept up with all of that, but he did. Somehow.
My only issue with this book is it was published in the early 2000s, when Warren Jeffs was just taking power as his dad died. So if you want all the grisly details about that, head on over to…
Prophet’s Prey, by Sam Brower (library hardback): This book picks up where Krakauer’s left off, making it a good companion piece despite the glaring flaws in some of its writings that made it a bit tedious to wade through.
Brower is a private investigator, and around 2004-ish he received a case having to do with the FLDS that got him digging through their business. And oh boy, is it not for the faint of heart.
Warren Jeffs grew up in the middle of a huge Mormon family as his father’s favorite. Even though he was kind of weedy and physically weak, he assumed the entitlement of someone who would inherit the FLDS leadership any day now, and he saw his chance when his dad Rowlen started getting sick.
Rowlen Jeffs lived to be pretty old, well into his nineties, but by the time he died, Warren had been de facto in charge for years. Rowlen went through severe dementia as he aged, and Warren took over as his mouthpiece, using his father’s authority to press Warren’s own agenda, claiming himself as just the messenger.
This included marrying a bunch of girls as young as 12 to Rowlen as he aged, and once he died, Warren claimed them for himself. So if he saw a girl he wanted to marry, he would push her onto Rowlen first, even as the old man could barely understand what was happening.
These girls were married in church ceremonies (although not state ones, since Utah didn’t permit that), and then raped in church rituals that were supposed to bind them to Rowlen (and later Warren) for all of eternity.
Parents let this happen because they thought of it as a huge honor. The girls were too young and scared to know how to deal with it. Some ran away; some of those got out, and some were caught and sent right back to the Jeffs on threat that their family would get excommunicated if they didn’t.
Brower worked on helping these girls get to safety and Warren Jeffs into jail for it. Which is a super noble effort, and he and the other officials he worked with had a major victory when Warren was jailed for life in 2011. And I enjoyed reading the personal voice of Brower as he explained what he knew about the area as a resident himself and member of the mainstream Mormon church. He seems like a fun guy to get a beer with, as well as someone not afraid to use either his brain or brawn for good.
But his continuous emphasis on how evil all of this is insulting to the reader. If it’s not obvious that sex trafficking girls for your own creepy harem in the name of Jesus is evil, there are a lot of things you need to read before you get to this. Brower paints himself as a major hero in taking down the Jeffs, and to his credit, he seems to have contributed a lot; however, it comes across as bragging here. Again, he overstates things in ways that undermine the emotionality of the bare truth; just let the events stand by themselves, it’s so much more powerful to read about them that way.
So, if you’re only going to read one book about modern(ish) FLDS crimes, I recommend Under the Banner of Heaven. It’s the superior one by far. But Prophet’s Prey does have a few more tidbits that add to the sect’s recent history, so if you’ve got the time and willingness, read both.