Polygamy is a common thread in the history of many major world religions. It was born not necessarily as a misogynist practice, but one in which encouraged rapid population growth. By one man marrying many women, many children could be born to grow an empire, create more laborers and assert the power of a tribe or nation.
In no other modern-day American religion is it associated more than with the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter Day Saints (LDS), whose members are commonly referred to as Mormons. When the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, left upstate New York in the 1830s the trail to what is the present-day Salt Lake Valley was dangerous. It was legal to kill Mormons and Indians in Missouri and many men married the women who were widowed on the trek. Smith never made it to Utah, but the church carried the practice into the 19th century, primarily for growth and protection.
Although the LDS church formally condemned the practice in 1890, it has remained plagued by the public association of fundamentalist groups like Warren Jeff’s notorious sect of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).
In 2006 Jeffs was charged with sexual and aggravated assault of two minors and sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years and a $10,ooo fine. The high-profile raid of the Yearning for Zion Ranch in West Texas brought light to the subject of abusive polygamist marriage.
Although Jeffs remains incarcerated, he is rumored to still call shots in the small town of Colorado City, Arizona, just south of the Utah border. The town is home to Jeffs’s present-day FLDS sect and is a thriving beacon to plural marriage. The sermons he has delivered via prison telephone have gotten increasingly bizarre, such as making the determination only 15 men in the town of less than 5,000 can have sex or father children.
Jeffs has already been known to banish members for a variety of bizarre reasons, none is more prevalent than the rapid banishment of young boys, who are a nuisance in a town where only 15 men can marry and have sex. Boys as young as 12-years-old are kicked out of the FLDS church and sent out to live in a world they have no understanding of. They usually have less than a high school education and are indoctrinated to believe the outside world and everyone in it are pure evil.
But while Jeffs’s sect is the most notorious and sensationalized of the FLDS in the world, it is by far not the only one. The Kingston Group was founded by Charles Elden Kingston in Salt Lake City in 1931. It may or may not have a direct link to Jeffs’s sect, but little is known due to the secrecy of the organization. Today, the Kingston Group is almost 4,000 members strong and is thought to operate up to 97 businesses in the greater Salt Lake City Area. For all intents and purposes they blend in with society around them and practice their fundamentalist religion behind closed doors.
I sat down with Val, a 25-year-old man who was banished from his family by his father two years ago for having sexual relations with other men.
ANGELA BACCA: How does the Kingston Group operate in Salt Lake City when the LDS church and United States government has banned the practice of polygamy?
VAL: We are just everywhere in Salt Lake City. We are mainstream so you can’t even tell when you come in contact with one of us. You know, you probably pass us in the grocery store but we don’t talk to outsiders. We aren’t super rude and we will respond when people say “hi” or “how is it going?” but we don’t engage in conversation.
AB: Do you still consider yourself part of the Group?
V: Oh no. When I was 23 I was out dating outsiders, boys and girls, when my dad found out after six months of me doing it, he got pretty upset. While I was at work he bought me a key and said “All of your stuff is in a motel, room 105.” I went to the motel and he told me to come pick up my check with all of my money… and that was it.
AB: How long was the motel paid for? How long did you have a place to live?
V: I have no idea, it was their motel, they own it. They [The Kingston Group] owns a lot of businesses, a copy shop, a garbage company, a grocery store.
AB: Don’t people in Salt Lake know?
V: Yeah, they probably are not aware exactly but people definitely know about it. There has always been polygamy in Salt Lake.
AB: How many wives does your father have?
V: My dad has 14 wives, my mom was the seventh wife and she has 12 kids. It was pretty easy for me to date for six months before he found out because there were so many of us.
AB: How many siblings do you have?
V: In total? I stopped counting at 160-ish.
AB: Do you even know them all?
V: I know, well let’s see, until I left, I knew them all by name. Like I said, it has been a couple years now and I am starting to lose track of names. The ones around my age I will remember forever. It’s mostly the little kids that I don’t remember.
AB: Have you always known you were gay?
V: I was very religious and in that group… I did like the sense of community, the sense of belonging. I was born there so you feel like everything you are taught is just how it is, I felt like I was a part of something. It was my whole reason for life… To find out everything I knew was a lie was huge.
During that time, to answer your question, I had those urges. I probably would have just been happier just not acting on them because I knew the guilt would just never leave me alone. I probably would have gotten married, done what I was supposed to do, because that is what makes you happy, doing what you are supposed to do.
AB: When you say “you found out everything was a lie” what are you referring to? What were you being lied to about?
V: I started really questioning things after my sister got married. She was in a relationship and was being beaten by this man. She was his first wife. He choked her once and she passed out. He went to work and didn’t even wait to see if she woke up. When me and my mom stepped in we came and took her away from him. The police got involved.
Things started going south after that. She was told she needed to go back to him or she would be asked to leave the Group. They have a 0% divorce rate in the Group and they are very proud of that.
I kind of started really digging into things after that. I made sure no other woman would marry him. We would have these dances, which was the only time you interact with members of the opposite sex, I would see him dance with someone and then I would immediately ask that girl to dance with me. As soon as we would start dancing I would say “Don’t marry Bob, he beats his wives– ok next subject, how is your day going?”
AB: Did you go to public schools?
V: I went to public school up until fifth grade. Then they established a private school and I actually worked there for five years. I was the chef for 430 people the first year, by the end I was cooking for 700 people, polygamous kids… I cooked for everyone.
We cooked with no sugar, no white flour, everything was cooked from scratch. I actually miss it a lot. I am still in the food industry.
AB: What was the reason behind no white sugar and flour?
V: Health reasons. They are very big health advocates.
I actually felt like I was a big part of something, I knew a lot of those kids didn’t get a lot of meals, that may be the only meal those kids got that day so we would feed them as much as they wanted.
I ended up dropping out of school at 14 to help support the family. It was me and my mom supporting all her kids. I have had a full-time job since I was 14. When I started working at that school, I would go there really early in the morning to get things started. After school I would take my mom’s kids home and she would be at work.
I am the oldest so I was really like the second parent. That was just how life was there.
[My dad] keeps a family account and all the children who work contribute to it. It is still your money but you have to go through him to get it. There was a time close to the end when I found out I didn’t actually have most of the money I was making.
AB: He has a family account, but all the women still need to work to feed the children? How come they can’t buy food with that money?
V: He will help out here and there, on Mother’s Day he will buy meals, or on holidays he would buy us a bag of oats. That is typical there, just oats and milk, not oatmeal. Oats, milk and maybe some honey or molasses to sweeten it.
AB: Did all of your dad’s wives live in the same home?
V: Oh no. We all had different homes. We probably saw him twice a month at the most.
AB: How did that affect you, not having a father at home?
V: Honestly, to this day I have a hard time with older male figures. If they are in the room I tend to try to leave the room. Every time he came over I considered it bedtime. He wasn’t very nice. All my experiences with him… he wasn’t very nice. He would slap the kids, he was a very angry person.
AB: How much older was he than your mother? Do you know anything about his upbringing at all?
V: He was thirteen years older than her. His father was the previous leader [of the Group]. His mother was not the first wife but she ended up taking the role of the first wife because she was the first to have children. He grew up very strict. Abuse and fear for respect instead of love was the basis of our relationship.
AB: Do you still have a relationship with either of your parents?
V: I still talk to my mother. She is amazing, I don’t understand her choice to stay there but we decided both of us just wouldn’t talk about our relationships and instead still have a relationship with each other.
AB: When you were kicked out, what went through your head? How did you figure out what you were going to do with yourself?
V: When he told me to leave I asked “How is this helping anyone?” I was there feeding everyone every day. They would have to find someone else to feed all those kids.
AB: And he kicked you out because you were gay?
V: Yeah. It was pretty rough. I had no idea where I was going to go. I had no idea how the world worked. I had gotten used to the weirdest things and I thought they were normal. What we were told is that everything is just sex, drugs and crazy things on the outside and that is why we stay inside our community and don’t talk to outsiders. If you leave you can never come back.
That’s because it is a cult though. The second you get knowledge you realize they are crazy, they don’t want you to come back and tell people because then they will all leave.
AB: How does the Group maintain that level of ignorance in a big city like Salt Lake?
V: They use religion. It’s just black and white when it comes to that. This is good, this is bad. We are good, outsiders are bad. We are the only ones who will make it to heaven. They discourage Facebook, a lot of people have it.
I can’t figure it out, I don’t know how to answer that question exactly. I know I lived there for 23 years but I was basically oblivious, I just knew that was how things were.
AB: Do you miss it at all?
V: Of course. I miss my family like crazy. If I didn’t have my two sisters who left their husbands I don’t know what I would do. That’s the whole thing… it’s family.
AB: How young were the girls getting married?
V: Oh pretty young. This generation is different. The previous generation would get married at 14. Now it is more like 16. There are a few girls who get engaged at 15 but married at 16. Sometimes they go out of state for the marriages because they are first cousins, or because they are too young [by Utah State law].
AB: How does a group this large still function in Salt Lake City and the local and State government doesn’t step in at all?
V: The leader [Paul Kingston] is actually a lawyer. They are very intelligent, they manipulate [local and state government] very well. I have heard rumors they have people in the police force, I don’t know if that is legit. They are very good at not leaving evidence. They only abuse people if they know they can get away with it.
When I had all my stuff in the hotel they had people following me. I was pretty paranoid, I changed my name before I left. Officially, my name was legally changed by the time I left.
AB: How did you figure out how to survive?
Holding Out Help. I went there for a couple weeks and socialized with people there. They have a lot of ex-FLDS people, people from Warren Jeffs’s group. I talked to them, they helped me with some advice on things. I kind of just moved forward from there. I went and got my GED because I dropped out of school at 14. I took a culinary class and then… back to work. Now I work as a chef.
AB: If you were raised in a different environment, what would you have wished for?
V: When I was going to public school those first years, I would look at those kids at the public school. I would notice their moms were fat and I knew they had food on the table. I always wanted to be an outsider because they had food on the table.
AB: Why was everyone so hungry in the group?
V: Money. Everything is about saving and giving everything you have to the Lord. It’s always just the one parent raising those kids, and you have to have a kid every year, if you don’t they basically… my dad, he said to my mom “You know, it’s been two years since you had a kid. With cows we slaughter them if they don’t have a calf every two years.”
AB: Is your mother still having children?
V: She is getting older now, she is 45. I don’t think so.
AB: All the wives have to raise their own money to feed the children?
V: Yeah. I don’t understand how they support him. He goes from house to house and gets fed and clothed. Everything he could ever want.
AB: How could they hold a job when they had to raise all those children?
V: They work in the [Kingston] community. The community is very understanding of mothers. They all work in the polygamous community. Some work at the garbage company, some work at the copy shop, the grocery store.
AB: So who takes care of all the children while the mother is out making money?
V: The other children. I started babysitting the other kids when I was 8-years-old.
AB: So all the children were being taken care of by an 8-year-old? Did anything bad ever happen with such young supervision?
V: Of course. There were always incidents. If there was an emergency she would just have to leave work, like if the kids needed stitches or something…
AB: She would do them herself?
V: No, actually. I don’t know how it worked but the “numbered men” [the church elders] would handle a lot of the medical care. My dad would stitch up people’s kids. They would do whatever they could to not take the children to the hospital. They do a lot of home births, they have even done their own C-sections. They would stitch them up, stitch them up if they tore a little bit during child birth.
There is no health insurance. It’s too expensive.
AB: How have you changed since you left your family?
V: Mostly just my views on things have changed. I am very spiritual but I cannot be in a religion. I cannot be bound to one religion because an organized religion to me takes something beautiful and turns it into something selfish for the people up top. That is my view on all religions. I have a hard time… the more I dug into my own religion the more I found the people up top had all the money they ever wanted.
AB: Have you done anything to try to save anybody in your family?
V: Constantly. The first year or more I was like “Hey mom, we are going to get you a house over here, and get you out. All the kids can go with you.” She just doesn’t want to leave. She was also born there. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. I am always there for those kids. I make sure I am there for their birthdays or holidays. I let them know they can come to my house if they need anything.
AB: To what extent does your dad know you still interact with them?
V: Every once in awhile he figures it out. Every time he hears I am there he shows up. Suddenly he has time for us. It’s like “Why do you have time for us now?”
He doesn’t want people talking crap on him, if we are gonna be there we can’t say anything bad about him. I don’t need to say anything bad about him… everyone knows.
AB: Are there larger organizations, governmental or otherwise, that are trying to dismantle the group? Do they just get to exist?
V: They pretty much just get to exist. It is more hard for [anyone trying to dismantle them] because it is a big group. They will do anything they can to protect the group. In our prayers we were programmed to say “Please bless the people in the order and Brother Paul. Please stop people from trying to hurt him or the Group.”
AB: Is everyone at the top very powerful outside of the Group, in regular society?
V: They are not legally married to all those women. [The government] cannot do anything. What you do in your own home is your own business. Everyone is manipulated to do what these people want, no one is really forced. There is no proof behind anything, they are very careful not to leave evidence.
AB: When other kids like you first get out, do they end up doing a lot of drugs, drinking a lot?
V: When you first get out, because you don’t date in the group… your first kiss is supposed to be on your wedding day. I think everyone has their moment. It’s like letting a dog off the chain for the first time. You go crazy. Once you get a sense of how things are you grab yourself in the real world and get yourself together.
AB: Overall, what is your view of polygamy, even among consenting adults?
V: I have very conflicted feelings on that. It’s ok if you do it right, but in my experience a man cannot do it right. They get too greedy.
My dad runs however many businesses but yet he has no time or money for any of his kids.
AB: What have you gained from your experiences that you feel you can take away as a positive?
V: There is a lot. Treat others how you want to be treated. To just function you have to take only the good and leave the negative. You have to take the good things everyone is basically taught. Treat people with respect. You just have to take the good and move on.
I want to make sure people know it is not girl’s choice in the Group. I want the Group to hear this more than anything else. I want the girls there to know that sometimes it’s not their choice. They are raised to believe the women choose who they marry, that they do it through their direction from the Lord.
There is not really a lot of getting to know each other. I did some digging and found one girl, I was helping with her wedding as a cook. Someone else said “This is so disgusting, this girl is too young to be marrying such an old man.” I said “Well it’s girl’s choice, so this is what she wants.” She said “Not in my family, in my family it’s ‘daddy’s choice.'”
There is not as much free agency as they pretend there is. I didn’t try to leave, they made me. They tell people inside it is a choice. If you choose to stay or you choose to leave it’s your choice.
They have made a very selfish religion so they can get anything they would ever want.
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