Year of Polygamy

Jeff’s story

Bio: Jeff was born into a very devout LDS family whose ancestors on both sides trace back to the earliest days of the church. Jeff resigned from the church in 2008 and was later followed by his wife and daughter. They currently live in the Salt Lake area.

I remember staring up at the ketchup dripping from the ceiling and thinking that it looked like blood; as if someone had been violently murdered in the bedroom above us and the blood had finally soaked through the floor, then the ceiling until it finally started to drip onto my father’s dinner plate. Of course, this was not the case though I am not sure the anxiety we all felt would have been much different had it really been blood. We had been having our mandatory formal family dinner where I and my 5 younger siblings were all required to behave as if seated in a 3-star formal restaurant. We had been talking about going on a summer vacation and we kids began chanting that we wanted to go to Disneyland. My father said this was not an option so I jokingly said that we should vote on it. My dad exploded, slamming the ketchup bottle onto the table with enough force to send a red stream all the way to the ceiling. “This is not a democracy!  It is a dictatorship, and I am the dictator”, he yelled as my mother quietly stared at her plate. I had not thought about this experience in years, but it came rushing back when Ammon Lafferty, played by Christopher Heyerdahl displayed his first violent, patriarchal outburst. When I began watching “Under the Banner of Heaven”, I anticipated an interesting story set in a familiar environment, but I absolutely did not expect it to trigger so many difficult memories. Following are some of those memories.

First some background. I was born in Salt Lake City in 1971 to parents who met at BYU. My father is from a tiny town in East Texas that was originally a Mormon settlement Brigham Young organized to provide cotton and other products for the church. My mother’s maiden name was Patten, and she was a direct descendant of David W. Patten, the first martyr of the church and one of the original 12 Apostles under Joseph Smith. My parents would go on to have 5 more children and ultimately settle in Naperville, Illinois when I was about 5 years old. Growing up in the Chicagoland area, I was not exposed to “Utah Mormon Culture” and had no idea what a fundamentalist was, let alone that they still existed and, in many cases, practiced polygamy. But, after watching the first three episodes of the series, I have come to realize how fundamentalist my upbringing actually was minus the polygamy (in this life at least). 

As was probably clear from my opening memory, my father was a violent man. I can’t tell you how much Ammon’s character reminds me of him. I have found myself tensing up every time he speaks.  My father practiced absolute and strict obedience to both the spirit and letter of the law.  He made it a point to know and follow all God’s commandments and expected his family to do the same.  He aggressively and consistently reminded us that he was the patriarch of our family and thus in charge of us in all ways, both spiritual and temporal.  He was a severe man who ruled with an iron fist and critical tongue. And everything he did was in the name of his god and his church. I grew up in a haze of anxiety so thick that even walking from room to room felt heavy. 

So much of what makes this show so triggering is what you see in the background. The director did such an amazing job capturing intricate details of what it looked and felt like being raised in a fundamentalist family in that decade. Here are a few things my father required of us that I feel are hinted at in the show. On Sundays, we kept the Sabbath Day holy based on my father’s standards which meant we had to be up by 8am and then had to get ready for church regardless of how late it started.  We then had to remain in church clothes for the rest of the day.  We were never allowed to watch TV but instead had to read scriptures or other church materials, write in our journals, listen to church or classical music only, and play games as a family.  On fast Sundays, we were expected to complete an exact fast as soon as we were baptized at age 8.  This meant that he started a 24-hour timer when we finished our final meal, and we could not eat or drink anything until that timer expired. We had to get up at 6:30am every weekday for 30 minutes of scripture study.  We never missed Family Home Evening and it was always a formal lesson. We could not drink any caffeinated beverages. In fact, one evening we were eating at McDonald’s right after they installed the first self-serve pop machines and I thought it would be funny to mix all the available drinks together; I believe I was 11 at the time.  When I sat back at the table my father asked me what drink I got, and I told him what I did.  He then threw my cup away as some of the drinks included caffeine. We had to learn songs together and would perform them at his work or other venues as a missionary opportunity. We were expected to work.  We had our daily chores and on Saturday, we were expected to work for at least 8 hours on whatever projects he assigned. We were expected to get all A’s on our report card. B’s were not okay but did not receive a punishment. C’s or below meant we were grounded until we could prove our grade had improved which might be months. We had to play a musical instrument and practice at least 30 minutes per day. We had formal personal priesthood interviews with our father each month where we were criticized endlessly for all the ways we were deficient in God’s (his) eyes.

One powerful memory came when Doreen Lafferty secretly spoke with her eldest son Ron after his younger brother was designated as the patriarch while the parents were away on a mission. Hearing her guarded words to him brought up a ton of emotion for me as I had that exact same conversation with my mom countless times.  It is relevant to note that I never once saw my parents argue… that should tell you all you need to know about their relationship. My mom was raised to know her place and to respect the priesthood.  She would never have dared contradict my father in person or to speak up for us when the need arose.  But my mom was not at all a meek or timid person. She was a key organizer in the Midwest to protest the Equal Rights Amendment because that is what the church told her to do. She even went to Washington DC as part of a protest. She created a children’s choir called the Young Naperville Singers that is still in existence today. So, it was not timidity that caused her to bow to my father that way, it was her desire to live as God expected; to be obedient, humble, meek, and submissive toward the man she had covenanted to obey under the same penalties that were shown in episode 2. One interesting side note memory… The month before I went through the temple for the first time, they changed the ceremony to remove the violent gestures. So, in the Celestial room that day, my mom told me that she was so glad they had changed the ceremony and described what they used to do saying how uncomfortable it had made her feel. I wonder how I would have reacted had I gone through a month earlier. Back to Doreen talking to her son, a few hours after one especially bad experience with my father, my mom snuck into my room and told me she did not agree with my father’s actions and then shocked me by saying that she was so worried I would turn out like him.  She begged me to write down what he did and how it made me feel so that I would never forget. My mom and I were extremely close, and I credit her for helping me break the cycle; I aspire to be like her. 

The most extreme example of her interventions on my father’s behalf occurred when I was around 16 years old. In Naperville, we did not have seminary classes attached to the school (seminary is a daily church class for high-school-aged teens). Instead, a couple in the ward were “called” to be early-morning seminary teachers out of their home.  So, I had to get up at 5:30am every day to make it on time.  During most of my high school years, my father started traveling a ton for work; he would leave early Monday morning and return Friday evening most weeks.  And those weeks were wonderful!  One Friday morning, my mom decided to surprise me by turning off my alarm clock and then calling me in from school so I could get some rest since she could see how exhausted I was. When my father got home that evening and found out I had skipped seminary and school, he grounded me. I made the mistake of reacting emotionally and saying that he should ground mom instead of me as it was not my decision. This led to him throwing me out of the house without a coat in January.  If you have been to Chicago in the winter, you know what that means. I had to walk a couple miles to a friend’s house but he couldn’t let me stay so he drove me home and I tried to get into the garage so I could maybe sleep in the car and stay as warm as possible.  My Mom was waiting for me and let me in and told me to go to bed.  The next morning my father told me that he hated me and that I was his “worst enemy” and at that point he stopped speaking to me. This lasted well over a year; he literally did not speak or look at me once. During that time, everything went through my mom… if I wanted to go somewhere or do something I would ask her, and she would then ask him and tell me the answer. Based on his reaction, you might think I had been a rebellious child, but the opposite is true. The worst things I did as a teen were to use swear words and watch rated R movies with my friends. 

The first time that I remember Ammon’s character displaying violent aggression was in episode 1 where he is whispering to Ron and grabs his arm. In that moment I knew what kind of a man he was as I could feel the same hatred and anger pouring from him as I regularly felt from my father. As I mentioned above, my father believed in rules.  And rules must have consequences. My father favored physical forms of punishment which was not that uncommon in the 70’s. It wasn’t so much that he hit me, it was how he did it. He was creative and it almost felt like he was enjoying the entire experience.  In the summer, I would have to pick my own switch off the willow tree in our back yard that had to be thick enough to do the job right. If I picked one too small or thin, then he would pick one for me and so I would spend agonizing minutes trying to find as thin a switch as possible that I thought he would accept. During our Saturday work shifts, my dad would get a 2×2 and set it where we all could see it as it was our punishment should we argue or fail to work hard enough. But for me, what was worse than the pain of being hit with a willow switch, belt, wooden spoon, hand or whatever else he could find, was the look on his face when he did it. His whole demeanor screamed pure hatred just like you see on Ammon’s face when he gets violent. He would sometimes say that it hurt him more than it hurt me after my “spanking”, but I knew it was a lie when I saw the pleasure in his eyes. He was in control and every smack was validation of the divine priesthood authority my actions had offended.

One thing that was very noticeable to me was the sense that the Lafferty brothers were defined by their trials and tribulations; they needed to be facing trying experiences and if none existed, they would create them just to feel whole and worthy. My parents openly believed that if we were not going through trials then we were not good enough Mormons. One issue my mom complained about all the time was how we children would argue and fight. If you think about the anxiety soup we were slowly boiling in, it’s no wonder we fought. One day in our evening family prayer, she prayed that we would be given some difficult trials to help us stop fighting. In what seemed like a few days, my father was fired from his job on the same day that my mom found out she had breast cancer (she was in her early 30’s and my youngest sister was still a baby). She went through the standard treatments and surgeries and went into remissions for a few years.  And then, as unbelievable as it might sound, my father again was fired from his job the same day she went to the Dr. for a checkup and found out the cancer had returned. In the 7 years until her death, she never stopped expressing gratitude for those trials. Even many years after my mom passed, I would start to feel a building sense of doom the further away I got from a difficult life event.  It is only in the past few years that I can finally say that I am comfortable when things are going well in my life.

On a positive note, the show does a great job showing the good side of what it can mean to be raised in a tight nit community. I grew up with a vastly expanded sense of who my “family” was.  I suppose that partly stems for being forced to call adults “brother” or “sister”. I felt like I belonged to this special, chosen community. Everyone was always so polite and kind.  It was like living in “Leave It To Beaver” land. I had forced-friends to play with. I was able to participate in sports and scouts. I got to do some amazing activities like going to Florida twice to scuba dive while the young women got to learn how to quilt. There were church dances… I had my first kiss in a church. Our “stake” even put on annual musicals which I got parts in. Of course, as I got older, I started learning shocking things about many of the “perfect” adults I had called family. Growing up, my Mormon family was intrinsically woven into my personal identify.

One of Bruce R. McConkie’s daughters lived close to us and attended our ward. Her influence was palpable and so we all considered the book, “Mormon Doctrine” to be scripture, even the extremely racist parts which bled into openly justified prejudices. I don’t know if living in a place where Mormons were a tiny minority had an impact or perhaps living so close to Nauvoo, but our ward was very into doctrinal deep dives with a focus on last day prophecies. I firmly believed the earth was hollow and the 10 lost tribes resided in the core of the earth and that John the Beloved lived with them as well as the 3 Nephites and that they were extremely technologically advanced and were monitoring us with flying saucers waiting for the right time to return at which time a land bridge would rise out of the ocean giving them a highway to march down and the whole earth would feel the tremble of their feet there would be so many… and that wasn’t the weirdest thing. Disclaimer, I no longer believe any of those things and actually resigned from the LDS church in large part due to my efforts to dig deep into doctrines, especially those from the early days.

One thing that has been so fascinating about watching this show are the different reactions my wife and I have to various scenes. Time after time my wife will respond with, “that is not realistic” or “I never experienced anyone talk, speak or act that way”.  But for me, those same scenes are laced with eerie familiarity, an open window into some of the worst times of my life. My wife was also raised in the LDS church but to a family who, while committed to the faith, did not even come close to crossing over to a more fundamentalist mindset. It wasn’t until we got engaged and I started spending time with her family that I started to realize just how toxic my upbringing had been. I remember seeing her dad sitting next to his youngest son who was probably 9 or 10 at the time and they were holding hands while watching TV and I was literally shocked to see such a sign of affection from a father to a son. The first time he apologized for something was equally shocking as I had never once heard my father admit he was wrong and apologize… dictators never make mistakes.  For me, marrying into her family was the opposite experience to what Brenda went through. Instead of marrying into fundamentalism, I married out of it, and I am forever grateful for the blessing her family has been in my life.

A huge thank you to Lindsay for helping to create such an authentic look into a very troubling world which has helped me to further process my upbringing!


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