When Ruth Wariner walked into her first day of elementary school in Chihuahua, Mexico, she didn't know a soul and couldn't speak the language. She'd grown up nearby in an isolated fundamentalist Mormon colony. She'd never had to learn Spanish.
Wariner's teacher paired her with another student who could translate that day's lesson. The little girl leaned in and whispered to Wariner, "Did you know that we're sisters?" and then pointed to another student. "She's our sister too."
The girls all had the same father: Joel LeBaron, the self-professed prophet who led the polygamist Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times. They were the three youngest of LeBaron's 42 children, born within five months of each other to three of his seven wives, but had never met until that first day of class.
For Wariner, being raised in a polygamist family was a far cry from the lives of the happy-go-lucky characters on HBO's Big Love and the TLC reality show Sister Wives. Her memoir, The Sound of Gravel, which is out this week, paints a heartbreaking picture of the poverty and neglect Wariner faced growing up in the shadow of her prophet father and a stepdad who she alleges sexually abused her.
"It's hard for me to watch anything about polygamy on TV. It's always a very glamorized version," Wariner tells Cosmopolitan.com. "Polygamy is very hard on women and children."
Wariner's mother Kathy was only 17 when she married Joel LeBaron, the leader of her church, a man 25 years her senior.
In 1972, shortly after they wed, Joel was killed in a plot concocted by his brother, Ervil LeBaron, the leader of a different sect who would later be known as "the Mormon Manson" because of the brutal murders he was believed to have ordered. (In 1980, Ervil was convicted of being the "intellectual author" of Joel's death, according to his obituary in the New York Times.) Wariner was only 3 months old when her dad died, but she grew up knowing how important he was to her community.
"I felt special to be the prophet's daughter," says Wariner. "Ever since I can remember, his picture was mounted in the church and it was everywhere we went. Just like Jesus is for Christianity, you start learning from a very early age what that role is for any particular sect, but for us in the fundamentalist Mormon church that I grew up in, it was my father."
She explains her dad's teachings in The Sound of Gravel:
My father believed that polygamy was one of the most important principles God ever gave His people. He preached that for a man to reach the Celestial Kingdom—the highest level of heaven—he had to have at least two wives. If a man lived this principle, he would become a god himself and inherit an earth of his own, one just like our earth. Women who married polygamists, loved their sister wives, and had as many children as they could would become goddesses, which meant they were their husband's heavenly servants.
Her mother remarried two years after Joel's death, becoming the second wife of another polygamist man living in the colony named Lane.
Wariner's grandfather, Alma Dayer LeBaron, was the original prophet who, in 1944, founded Colonia LeBaron, where Wariner grew up. He led his polygamist sect to Mexico, because he'd had visions of the United States becoming engulfed in flames and crumbling, Wariner explains. Because of his terrifying prophecies, LeBaron, which was home to about 1,000 believers when Wariner was young, was a sort of safe place for her and her dozens of siblings, because they believed they'd be shielded from the destruction there.
Wariner and her mom's other children were carted back and forth between Mexico and El Paso, Texas, where they'd collect their mom's welfare checks. Every trip across the border into the States brought waves of anxiety.
"Whenever I went across the border, you never knew what was going to come," she says. "We learned that the destruction was going to come from the States."
But not all their views were so shocking. "LeBaron had more conservative people and more liberal people. There were people who were very strict, stayed home on Sundays, didn't listen to wordly music, dressed in those long dresses, and wore their hair a certain way," Wariner says. "But my mom loved Elvis Presley and the Everly brothers, so she introduced that to us. Her upbringing in California made her naturally less fundamentalist. We wore jeans and T-shirts, but I wasn't allowed to wear bathing suits or shorts. I couldn't show my shoulders."
While we often think of polygamous families living together or in houses side-by-side, Wariner rarely saw her half-siblings or her mom's sister wives. When her stepdad Lane took a third wife, Wariner, her mom and siblings were moved to a series of campers and mobile homes on the outskirts of town. When Wariner and her stepdad were alone, she alleges he would sexually abuse her.
She writes in her book:
My resistance to his kisses had become like a game for him. I'd resist, and then he'd beg me, and then he'd try to kiss me again, and then he'd repeat the cycle until I gave in and kissed him back.
Wariner told her mom, who promised to talk to Lane. But Wariner says the abuse persisted and continued to get worse.
"I think my mom was brainwashed into a religion that taught her she had to be married to see her creator again," Wariner tells Cosmopolitan.com. "She always had it in her heart to live for a higher purpose. I think that polygamy provided it for her."
My mom was brainwashed into a religion that taught her she had to be married to see her creator again.
Nearly every year brought a new baby into Wariner's family. When her mom would give birth, the second-youngest child would be passed off to Wariner to care for. So, at age 14, she dropped out of school to raise her younger siblings full-time.
Wariner assumed she'd follow in her mother's footsteps and enter into a plural marriage, until a conversation with one of her stepsisters made her realize that there were other options. She remembers being 8 or 9 years old when she was playing Barbies with Maria, the daughter of one of Lane's other wives. As they swapped out the doll's outfits, Maria boldly announced that she was going to be a fashion designer one day. "That was the beginning of the revelation that I could maybe do something else with my life too," Wariner says.
A few years later, she began having crushes on boys in her class, which made it even harder to imagine sharing a husband one day.
"It made me feel so uncomfortable — that feeling of jealousy," she says. "It crushed me in a way, especially because I saw how jealousy crushed my mom so many times."
Wariner's mom died tragically in 1988 when she was electrocuted by improperly installed wires in her backyard. Being left alone with her three younger sisters and her stepfather was Wariner's wakeup call.
"After that, once my little sisters were subjected 100 percent to my stepfather, I knew that for their sakes and for mine that I had to get out of there," she says.
She recalls the moment she knew she had to leave in her book:
All the words I'd ever heard in church, and at all the conferences and Sunday-school classes, seemed to be taunting me now: honor thy father, honor thy mother, be like Christ, be good, count your blessings, do what you're told, prophets, men, husbands, gods, visions, dreams, destruction, forgiveness, sacrifice, submission, faith, Babylon, heaven and all the blessed little children... I realized that all those words, words that had held such power throughout my childhood, words that had characterized our way of life, words that had defined me, my siblings, my mom—they meant nothing to me. All the preaching, all the hours in church memorizing scriptures, how could that mean anything when the community supporting it wouldn't defend the innocence and safety of a child?
She called her older brother, who'd moved away from LeBaron years earlier to make money in the States to send back to the family. She explained the abuse she'd suffered since he'd left, and begged him to come pick her and her siblings up.
While her stepfather was on a work trip, doing construction in El Paso, Wariner collected her family's food stamps, Social Security cards, and a few mementos of her mom. At 2 o'clock in the morning, her brother arrived in an old Oldsmobile he'd recently bought, and they all piled in, immediately discussing what they'd need to tell the border police in Arizona — where they'd be sure not to cross paths with her stepdad who'd be driving back from Texas. Their plan to pretend they were just coming back to the States from a shopping jaunt in Mexico worked.
"No one said a word as the car crept into Arizona. Even after the border was a dot in the rearview mirror, the silence continued," she wrote in her book. "I think we were stunned, not to mention overwhelmed by the obstacles that lay ahead."
Once she was free, the effects of her upbringing manifested in ways Wariner couldn't have expected. The family moved in with Wariner's grandparents, who'd left the cult and Colonia LeBaron more than a decade earlier because of the struggle polygamy inflicted on their daughter's life. Wariner got her GED, and eventually went to college and graduate school to get a teaching degree. But throughout her 20s and 30s, she found herself dating wrong guy after wrong guy.
"My mom was someone who lacked a lot of self-love, that's something she didn't know how to have for herself and it's a problem that I've inherited," she says. "I kept being attracted to men who were apathetic. I realized that these men were like my stepfather, not in that they were abusive, but that they were absent emotionally."
Thanks to the health benefits that came with her first teaching job in Oregon, therapy helped Wariner deal with her past. She escaped from LeBaron 29 years ago, and today she's 43 years old and lives with her husband outside of Portland. She says the key to finding her partner was getting to know her husband first as a friend. They met at a fundraising party, where they didn't hit it off romantically at first. But, she says, "as we got to know each other, I adored him, respected him and fell in love with him." Now they have a healthy, equal relationship.
"I call myself a feminist — I consider myself equal to a man, and I don't think I should be submissive to a man," she says. And as far as religion goes, she says, "I'm not Mormon or fundamentalist Mormon now. I feel very spiritual, I still believe in God. I pray and meditate every morning. But I struggle with organized religion because I don't want other people to define what I do with my life."
I call myself a feminist — I consider myself equal to a man, and I don't think I should be submissive to a man.
Wariner has been back to LeBaron three times since her dramatic escape. Her stepfather died, but she still has family living there, who she likes to keep in touch with. While she missed LeBaron and its familiarity for years after she left, she says breaking free changed her life.
"I live a very wonderful, privileged life. I live in a beautiful townhome. I've been married for seven years. I decided not to have kids of my own after the years I spent taking care of my siblings. My siblings live in Seattle and Portland and Southern Oregon. We get to see each other all the time," she says. "I love my life."