Life in the Cult

Life in the Cult
The women at the YFZ Ranch often broke down crying as they recounted the ordeal of being separated from their children. "We have nothing to come back to," says Esther, one of the moms. "We raised our children. They are everything." But given the scale and complexity of the case, it does not seem likely that a resolution will be found any time soon.
Matthew Mahon

04/17/2008 AT 12:00 PM EDT

To hear the mothers of the sect tell it, life on the Yearning for Zion Ranch was close to idyllic. On a typical day at the polygamist compound in Eldorado, Texas, the kids couldn't wait to hop out of bed at 4 a.m. – "or at 3:30 if I let them," chuckles Rebecca, one of the mothers gathered out on the front porch of a dorm, who, like the others, declined to give her last name. Another mother, Sarah, says there was almost a daily competition among the kids to see who could get going earliest in the morning. "They don't like to be the last ones up," she says. Older girls were charged with getting two or three younger ones ready for the day, getting them dressed and making sure their hair was combed.

Just as the making of their Little House on the Prairie clothing – the high-neck dresses and sturdy blue shirts – was a labor of love, so too was meal preparation. Forget convenience foods. "It's not just 'Open this can,' it's 'Get out the wheat to grind,'" says Esther, who appeared to be in her 40s. "It's as precious as can be to make a meal that's nutritious and healthy for them." After the morning meal, the day was filled with school (the kids attend a sect school, but moms boast that first-graders can read on the fourth grade level), singing, piano lessons, gardening and chores. And virtually no one is exempt from chores. Little ones would help dry dishes from the morning meal and boys would cart the "bit bucket" of leftover food out to the compost pile or begin working the garden. Esther couldn't be more proud of the children. "They love to work," she says. "This is a regular, everyday thing: We love to learn." And by 7:30 p.m. the children are ready for bed. "I love it here," sums up Gloria. "And so do the children."

It is an unabashedly rosy view of life on the FLDS compound – and, according to the state of Texas, a grotesque distortion. Two weeks after authorities staged a massive raid on the YFZ Ranch that netted 416 children and 138 women, a far more disturbing image of what cult members don't reveal is coming into view. Combing through vaults, safes and computers at the Eldorado compound, a headquarters of the Mormon-offshoot Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, investigators apparently found evidence of abuse, including young teenage girls who had been sexually abused and were pregnant or had given birth. According to one report, authorities discovered a bed in the limestone temple of the cultlike organization where underage brides are believed to have been forced to consummate their marriages. So compelling is the evidence that state officials have said they will recommend to a judge scheduled to preside over a hearing April 17 that all 416 children be put into foster care to "prevent further abuse."

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