Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sam Brower's Prophet's Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints


Sometime in April of 2008 and after teaching a Spanish class at Brigham Young University, I returned to the graduate student offices in the Jesse Knight Building to continue the workday.  When I came in, I noticed most of my colleagues were surrounding one of the carrel desks with a computer.  Curious, I joined the circle and watched on the screen a feed from a news organization.  Children in prairie dresses were stepping onto a bus while workers were holding up sheets to protect their identities from the journalists’ cameras.  The reporter was explaining that Texas rangers had started searching the YFZ Ranch for a young teenage girl, who called saying that she was being sexually abused.  They did not find the teenage girl, but saw that a few others were showing signs of being pregnant.  They became concerned and had the local child protective services come and take the children away into state custody.  The screen then cut to a sound bite of a man with an almost white goatee.  The name “Sam Brower” appeared in the bar near the bottom of the screen.

“Wait a minute; I know him!” I hollered.  My colleagues glanced at me with inquisitive expressions.  “He’s a private investigator from my hometown,” I added, hoping they would forgive my interruption.  “He used to come to my father’s office to pick up subpoenas to serve on people.”  Satisfied, they turned their faces back to the computer screen and waited for the report to finish before commenting on the events.  They were shocked by the images of a religion that mirrored the practices of our religion in an anachronistically distorted way.

A few days later, a friend of mine (I don’t remember who at the moment) was reading an update of the YFZ Ranch raid in Texas.  On the computer screen, there was a picture of Warren Steed Jeffs embracing a twelve-year-old bride from behind.  In a demonstrative fashion, I shivered with repugnance.  The friend, noticing my show of emotion, took the devil’s advocate and argued that to FLDS members, such a union was not considered “disgusting” or immoral, so why should I judge them for their beliefs?  I argued that I justifiably reacted in such a way because legally and logically that twelve-year-old girl could not consent to such a union.  Therefore, the adult in this relationship clearly was taking advantage of her age and mentality to gain the benefit from this so-called marriage.  My friend said nothing more and returned to his news article.  I was a little taken aback by my friend’s uncharacteristic stance, but I concluded he was just arguing for the sake of debate and I didn’t take it too seriously.

I returned to my hometown after graduating from BYU.  A few months ago, I was at my father’s office working on some things when Sam Brower came to pick up some documents.  We started to catch up on what was happening in our lives since we last met.  He asked me what I had been doing and I related to him how I had finished a degree and had an article published in a scholarly journal.  Mr. Brower looked pleased and started relating his experiences in trying to get his book published, too.  We chatted for a while and the topic of his book came up.  He had given my father a galley and, coincidentally, I had read the first couple of chapters.  Later, I informed him that I was trying to become a critic of sorts and was submitting book reviews to this blog to help me practice my writing skills.  His ears perked up at the idea of my sister’s book blog and wondered if I could submit a book review of his work.  I certainly wanted to, but I wasn’t sure if his publisher would want me to peremptorily judge a work that hadn’t come out yet.  He said it would be fine, but I asked him to contact his publisher to make sure if it would be all right.  Before leaving, I gave him my contact information and Mr. Brower said that he would look into the matter.  If I got permission, then I would read the galley and submit a book review.  If not or if I didn’t hear from him, then I would wait for the book to come out.

I didn’t hear from him, so I did not submit a book review and I was reading other books in the meantime.  Fortunately, I was at my father’s office again on November 2nd and Mr. Brower came to speak with him.  My father was occupied and he had to wait, but while he waited he informed me that his book just got published and that he was going on book tours and attending television interviews.  I felt excited for him.  I informed him that I hadn’t found the time to read his galley, but I still wanted to read it and maybe write a book review.  He asked me to wait for a moment.  He walked out to his truck, brought in a fresh copy of his book, signed it, dedicated it, and gave it to me as a gift.  The gift made me happy.  It was not every day that I got to meet, much less know, an author of a book.  I thanked him for his gift and promised him that I would read it and notify him of my book review.  Having read it, I now submit the following sponsored book review.

Bloomsbury of New York, Berlin, London, and Sydney publishes a true story in 2011 entitled Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints by Sam Brower.  It includes a preface by Jon Krakauer—the author of the controversial Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith—a convenient index, acknowledgments, and a note on the author.  Brower begins by relating a story of Ross and Lori Chatwin’s family, whose head of the family gets excommunicated by the FLDS church and is pestered to leave his home and family.  Brower—“quiet by nature, but a pretty big guy” (15)—visits the Chatwins, listens to their financial and legal troubles, and gets hired to help them keep their residence.  Events ensue to convince Brower that the trouble the Chatwins face is more than just an issue of quiet and peaceful possession of one’s residence.  Brower witnesses the town authorities breaking state and federal laws.  Brower helps the Chatwins from losing their residence and starts investigating the many deep and insidious layers of corruption hidden beneath the quiet and quirky appearance of the FLDS religion.  Ultimately, he pursues Warren Jeffs, the leader of the FLDS church and the perpetrator of these crimes, who leads “a life of fraud, ritualistic sexual abuse of little girls, using young boys as slave labor, raping children of both sexes, robbing men of their possessions, and reassigning wives” (194).

Prophet’s Prey is not your typical non-fiction or private investigator story.  In fact, Brower’s book is better than Columbo and more harrowing than Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.  The book gives a realistic look into the profession and leaves the reader thanking his or her stars for brave men and women like Brower.  As an LDS author, he tells about his upbringing and his beliefs in religion, but he does not push the reader into accepting his religion or disdaining other religions.  He does disdain criminal activity, justifiably so.  He pursues criminals that happen to be FLDS and he researches the FLDS religion in order to understand how members of this faith think and act.

Brower makes sure to relate to the reader that the LDS and the FLDS are two very different things.  In a telephone conversation with a lawyer from the eastern United States, he is asked if it would be a conflict of interest for him to look into FLDS matters.  How many times have I answered this question?” he writes, “In the minds of many Americans, if you are a Mormon man, then you must have a couple of wives.  Nothing could be farther from the truth” (55, emphasis in original).  I like his answer because I have answered this same question many times in a different context: “‘I’m not FLDS,’ I told her rather firmly.  ‘I’m LDS.’  Then I gave her the shorthand version of the stark differences, and I ended the lesson by saying, ‘The FLDS are no more Mormon than Lutherans are Catholics’” (55).

The fact that he gives this information is significant, because, although he receives valuable help from Jon Krakauer, he does not conclude that religion is inherently insane or violent like his mentor does.  (I have come upon some references regarding the controversial topic of Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.  Click here to read the LDS Church’s response to Krakauer’s book and click here to read Krakauer’s rebuttal.)

The descriptions and developments in the investigation of Warren Jeffs show how harrowing it can get when a megalomaniac gains leadership and control of an institution.  This comes up especially when he finds out that Jeffs directs “the building of a special bed to be used in temple rituals” (140).  For a casual LDS person, the idea of building a temple is not unusual, but when the same person finds out that an FLDS temple requires a bed/altar and that a “dozen chairs would surround it and a podium would overlook it”—a feature that never appears in an LDS temple—the concept becomes an egregious perversion.  (Such a practice calls more to the mind the Dionysian Mysteries than to a simple wedding ceremony.)

Another aspect of this book is the effective use of the media to jumpstart investigations by other entities.  When the local sheriff’s department does not come through with due diligence, his friend writes a newspaper article about the incident and pushes it into action.  “The news release worked,” Brower writes, “It led to appearances by Sheriff Kirk Smith and me on the nationally televised news show Deborah Norville Live, where we discussed the case in separate interviews” (162).  I have found a transcript of the program which you can read by clicking here.  (Additionally, you can see Sam Brower in a televised interview regarding the YFZ Ranch raid that had run on CBS News’s 48 Hours Mystery by clicking here.)

The book is well-written and credibly states its position.  It is a hard book to read, not in its form, but in its content.  The only criticism I have is just to correct a small detail.  On page 50, he describes the town of Short Creek settled by Rulon as “an isolated little town […] at the far southeastern end of Utah, along the Arizona Strip.”  Actually, the towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona near Short Creek are at the southwestern end of Utah.  Arguably, Hildale rests near the southeastern corner of Washington County, thereby making the word “southeastern” correct.  This detail can be easily corrected with the next printing of the book, which I hope happens as the book continues to gain success with readers.

I recommend this book to adults and appropriate teenagers.  The subject matter is quite gruesome, but necessary to understand current events and criminal behavior.  The reading should also be accompanied by a critical mind and sufficient research to formulate beliefs and opinions in an educated and mature manner.  For me, this book is an enlightening experience and a modern revelation of a people that try furtively to keep to themselves from the outside world.  If I had had this book when my friend challenged my reaction to the picture of Warren Jeffs and his very young bride, then I would have slapped the book on the carrel desk and said, “Here, read this!”

Congratulations, Mr. Brower!

Andrew

1 comment:

  1. It is unfortunate that so many people put those who are LDS in the same pigeon hole as the FLDS. In college I knew several women who practiced polygamy but of course they were not minors and you never heard about the negative side to living in that community. Books like this make you wonder how widespread the practice of pedophilia was twenty years ago and how anyone could just accept it as being normal even if one is raised in such an environment.

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