For most of her life, Rachel Jeffs didn’t know anything but the polygamist life, growing up within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) in Sandy, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. Her father, FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, had come from church royalty—his father, Rulon Jeffs, was the longtime former leader of the Mormon offshoot group. Rulon’s father was also a polygamist. After Rulon’s death, Warren appointed himself the leader of the group, saying that God came down to his bedroom and ordained him an apostle of the church. He would be their prophet; whatever he ordered would come directly from God.
Warren Jeffs, who still leads the church, is the subject of the A&E special, Warren Jeffs: Prophet of Evil. He has 78 “wives”—many of whom are young girls—and 53 children. One wife was 12 when he married her.
When Rachel—who says she considers the church a cult now—talks about her father, she seems grateful he didn’t marry her off when she was a child. She was 18 when he arranged the marriage to a 25-year-old FLDS member, who already had two wives. But that doesn’t mean she has a good relationship with him.
In her book, Breaking Free, she details how her father sexually abused her as a child, destroyed families within the church and ultimately led her to leave the group (and her husband) on December 31, 2014 with her five children.
In August 2011 Warren Jeffs received a sentence of life in prison plus 20 years for sexually assaulting two girls he claimed were his “spiritual wives.” But being in a Texas state prison hasn’t stopped him from passing along messages and “revelations” to his followers.
Now happily remarried to a former FLDS member, Rachel Jeffs spoke to A&E Real Crime about leaving the polygamous life behind, whether the FLDS could ever be brought down and how she feels about her notorious father.
You grew up with polygamy in your home and all around you. When did you realize polygamist marriages weren’t normal in America?
My father taught us since we were small children that polygamy was illegal and we were different from other people in the world. He said God’s laws were over man’s laws and that’s why we have to live it—even though it was illegal.
Did he teach you that people outside of the FLDS were the enemy?
He taught us they were very wicked. He basically made us scared of them. That they were terrible people and they wanted to kill us and hurt us all the time.
When you were in the FLDS, did you have any contact at all with people who were outside the group?
Not at all. We only had [contact] with people in our church. I didn’t ever talk to anybody out in the world.
Growing up, was there a point where you thought girls in your church were getting married too young? When you were a teenager, your father was marrying girls around your age.
Right before I got married was when he started marrying 16 year olds. And he actually married one 15-year-old right before I got married. I knew it was wrong, I knew in my heart. I felt bad for these girls—they were my age, they’re little girls. I remember thinking that it was gross, but I couldn’t really do anything about it.
Were you scared to get married young? Did you want to wait until you were older?
I thought I would wait until I was 20, so I was surprised when I got married at 18. At the time, father didn’t seem in a hurry to get his own children married off.
I didn’t worry about getting married under the age of 18 at all. I just thought that’s what he liked to do—marry little girls—not necessarily that he wanted his girls to get married young.
In your book you describe how your father molested you from the ages of 8 to 16. After one incident when you were 10, you told your mother. You say that even though she was angry and immediately confronted your father, he said something to her to make her never speak about the incident again.
I didn’t know why she didn’t say anything to me—or why she didn’t try to keep me from him. I felt like she was afraid of him, or he had said something that made her feel like she couldn’t do anything about it.
Is that why you hesitated about ever asking her about it again?
Obviously she wasn’t going to do anything anyway. After that my father kept saying to me, ‘Do not tell your mother. Do not talk to your mother about this.’ And so I was afraid to.
Do you ever wonder what he might have said to silence her?
Yeah. I’ve always wondered what made her not do anything about it.
Do you feel like she believed you, though?
I know she believed me. She very much believed me. I think he just made her feel guilty in questioning what he was doing.
Why does the FLDS seem to advocate sex and marriage to young girls?
I don’t know. It was a lot more recently that it just got really bad with younger and younger girls. It was pretty much mostly just the leading men that got really young wives. Most of the men in the FLDS didn’t get really young wives. Warren Jeffs had most of them, and then a few other leading men—men in high places—got really young girls.
So there wasn’t a mandate that men should marry young?
It was all according to Warren Jeffs. Other men didn’t have any say. If they were told to marry a young girl, they did it because he told them to. It was all whatever Warren Jeffs decided because he has the power.
You told her ex-husband, Rich, about what your father did to you. Like your mother, he also confronted him and later told you not to speak of it again. How did you feel by being dismissed by both your mother and husband?
I really felt alone, like I was on my own. I couldn’t tell anybody how it really was for me, how painful it was. Everyone was on father’s side.
You’ve said you don’t consider yourself a ‘victim.’ Why not?
I want people to see me…It’s not that I feel so bad for myself. I want to help other people [with similar experiences] not suffer.
When you were a teenager, your father admitted that touching you was wrong and asked you for forgiveness. You said you forgave him. Did you mean it?
I guess you have to define forgiveness. [I forgave him] because I wanted him to quit…being weird. I felt like he was a hypocrite. I just wanted him to quit it. I didn’t necessarily feel like, ‘Oh, I forgive you. You’re perfect.’ I’ll never reach that. I’ll never trust him. I just said that because I didn’t want him to keep acting like that.
I’m considering pressing charges. I don’t know if I can. I’m trying to figure it out. So if that’s forgiveness, I don’t know.
Do you have any contact with him in prison?
Nope. I have no desire to.
Did he get the punishment he deserved?
Very much. I feel like he put himself there because of the choices he made.
Do you have any contact with anyone else who’s still in the church, aside from family members who have left?
Not really. Mostly because [Warren Jeffs] has told them how terrible I am, so they won’t talk to me. I do secretly talk to one of my siblings, and I’ve been trying to get ahold of others. But it’s just really hard to even get them to talk me.
Your father still runs the church from prison. How do you think he gets away with that?
The people [in the FLDS] have been taught all their lives that they can receive direction and revelation from him. They basically live in a standstill position without his directions. They won’t do anything without his direction. Through his visits [in prison] he gets word out to the people, what to do and stuff.
Are the FLDS church members brainwashed?
Very much. I think I was. [But] being out this long, I’m so much stronger. It just looks crazier and crazier, the further I get away from it.
Were there any positive aspects to living within the FLDS?
There are a lot of good people there who are very lost. We were taught some good things, but I don’t feel like their principles are full of love or anything. It’s more oppressive than good. It hurts a lot of people. People need to be free, for sure. Warren Jeffs should not be their leader.
Do you think the church will be shut down?
I don’t know, because it’s a religion. I’m not going to make anybody believe me, and I’m not going to make anybody not believe him, but they have the right to know what he really did.
I wish he would be honest with them. Most of [his followers] don’t know he really did marry 12 year olds, 13 year olds. He lies to them and says that the government is lying and persecuting him.
There’s a lot of talk about legal child marriage across the U.S. The age of consent to marry varies from state to state, but in some places there’s no minimum age to marry.
I think it should be 18.
You got married at 18. Do you wish that you could have waited a little longer to get married and have kids?
I probably would have. I’m so grateful I was not younger than 18. At least I was mature, I was an adult. I can’t imagine getting married younger than that. But I do not regret any of my kids. I love them so much.
What was one of the first things that you did once you were free?
The first thing that I wanted to do was watch movies just because it was so “wicked.” I wanted to see other people’s lives and see if they were happy. I listened to a lot of audiobooks and watched movies just to share other people being happy. It made a whole new world for me to see that I could do that, too.
It’s so amazing to be able to make your own choices. And freedom is…you can’t even describe freedom in words. It’s so wonderful. You don’t know how wonderful it is until you haven’t had it.
—Dena Ross Higgins