A Life Left Behind
If you are a parent, you know you would do anything for your child. But imagine being told your entire life what you must eat, how you must dress—right down to which arm you put through your sleeve first—whom you will marry and what you name your children. Then, envision being separated from your children and living in isolation for months at a time. That is exactly what Rachel Jeffs endured until she and her five children were finally able to escape the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) led by Rachel’s father, Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed Prophet who received worldwide notoriety as the leader of the polygamous cult. Warren Jeffs is now serving a life sentence for the abuse he inflicted on children, marrying girls as young as 12 years old. Rachel’s life is documented in her recently released book, “Breaking Free.”
Rachel is the third of Warren Jeffs’ 53 children and is said to have been his favorite. “He kept me with him the most,” said Rachel, adding that it was for all the wrong reasons. He began to sexually abuse his daughter when she was 8 years old. The abuse stopped when Rachel was 16 after she wrote her father a letter confronting him of his transgressions.
She knew the man she still refers to as “Father” was not a good man. After all, who could preach about not letting boys touch you until you are married and then turn around and do such horrible things to his own daughter? But the No. 1 rule of the FLDS church was never to question the Prophet. Although Rachel knew he was not the Prophet he claimed to be, she loved her family and did not know how she would ever make a life for herself in the outside world. So, she stayed. “I just made the best of it,” said Rachel, who was taught that those on the “outside” were evil.
One of the rules of the cult was that no one could seek medical help without Warren Jeffs’ permission. It is that kind of control that took the life of Rachel’s mother at the young age of 39 from breast cancer. Two years passed from the time she found her first lump to when Warren Jeffs allowed her to go to the doctor, but by then it was too late. “I blame Father for making my mother’s life so miserable at the end,” Rachel said. At that time, her mother’s younger children were taken away from her when she needed them most. It was an abandonment and isolation that Rachel would experience when she, too, was taken away from her children for perceived transgressions.
Rachel married her husband Rich when she was just 18. It was a marriage arranged by her father, and Rachel first met Rich the day before her wedding. Warren Jeffs told Rachel and her sister, Becky, on a Sunday that they would be married “soon,” and within a week, their wedding dresses were made, and the sisters were both married women; Rachel to Rich and Becky to his brother. Rachel was Rich’s third wife in the polygamous marriage, and although she did not know him when they first married, she says she grew to love him. “I loved him as much as I could in that situation,” said Rachel, now 34 years old, who last saw Rich in February of 2013.
Rachel confided in both her mother and Rich about the abuse. Her mother confronted Warren Jeffs about it, but she never mentioned the abuse to Rachel again. Rich also talked to Warren Jeffs about it, and after summoning both Rachel and Rich to meet with him, Warren said he was “educating” Rachel about men and that the topic was never to be brought up again. And that is when the isolation truly began, keeping Rachel from other members of her family for sometimes years at a time. But even after Warren Jeffs’ arrest in August of 2006, the control he had over the cult members did not stop. He continued to rule the cult from behind bars, using his brothers to issue his commands. And by all accounts, he continues to do so today.
Over the years, Rachel gave birth to five children. At one time, Rachel was sent to live in isolation for seven months while still nursing her youngest child. When she was reunited with them, her youngest child did not remember her. It was heartbreaking.
The isolation was not only from her children but from other members of the cult, including her family. “We had cell phones, but we could not get on the Internet,” Rachel said. “We could only call the Bishop, and our phone numbers were always changed.”
While in isolation, Rachel made a lot of her kids’ scrapbooks and recorded songs. “I sat in the sun a lot because it made me feel good,” she said. “I kept telling myself I had to stay strong for my kids. You can either be strong or break. And it’s so much easier to be strong when you’re doing it for someone else. It’s easy to give up on yourself.” It was also during the seven-month long separation from her children that Rachel made the decision she had to escape. But the timing had to be right.
Then it came. A phone call in late 2015 from her Uncle Lyle telling her that because she had disobeyed the church by engaging in simple fun, which was considered a sin, she and her children would be moved to her uncle’s home where they could watch over her and the children. They wanted to pick her up that night, but Rachel was able to buy some time and convinced Uncle Lyle to wait until the next day. And then she made the phone call that would change her life. She called her sisters Angela and Becky, who had already left the church, to come and pick up her five children, ranging in age from 4 to 12 years old at the time. Rachel was almost always being watched by members of the cult, and her sisters saw that a familiar car was following them as they made their way to pick up Rachel’s kids. Angela and Becky drove around until the car was no longer trailing them. When they were sure it was safe, they quickly drove up to the gate where Rachel and her children were waiting. Rachel waved good-bye to her five children, telling them they were going to a sleepover with their cousins.
The next day, Rachel packed up the lives of her and her five children while members of the church constantly pounded on her locked doors and called her cell phone. She did not respond. She left in the dark as her children had the night before. “If I was caught, I would have to deal with all the mental torture of the [cult] members. I knew the police would support me and that I could call 911 if I needed to, but I did not want to face anyone.”
Her maternal grandparents assisted Rachel and the children after their escape. They were in the cult for two years but left, leaving their two daughters, Rachel and Becky’s mothers, behind. They were two of Warren Jeffs’ more than 70 wives.
Rachel said her children have adjusted well to their new life. Initially, it was difficult to realize they would never see their dad or many other members of their family again, but today they enjoy the time they spend with their cousins—Rachel’s sister Becky, her husband (Rich’s brother who left the cult) and their children, who live nearby.
“It’s considered a bad weekend if we don’t spend time with them,” Rachel said of the bond they all share. It was also an adjustment for her children to go to a school that was not run by the cult and wear clothes that were different from what they were used to. “Now they just want to live their lives.”
Rachel, too, struggled for a while wondering how she would manage. “The hardest thing was figuring out how to support my family and realizing my children’s dad did not seem to care,” she said. Rachel had left school after the eighth grade and began to teach third grade in the school where her father served as principal.
Rachel said her biggest shock following her escape was to see that the outside world was not how it was portrayed to her during her entire life. “I was surprised to see how good and kind people were and how they made me feel good about leaving,” she said of the support she received.
She and her children lived with her grandparents for a while and were able to receive assistance for food. Rachel also taught violin to help earn money. But it was difficult.
When asked why more people don’t leave, Rachel responded, “Everyone’s been told to not talk to people on the outside. They are told the outside world is lying about the Prophet [Warren Jeffs]. It’s a lifetime of brainwashing. Everyone in the cult was born into it. There are no converts. One of the most damaging things is to believe that someone like the Prophet can do no wrong. No one is perfect.”
Of her sister wives, Rachel said there was always jealousy. But the women were told to always be sweet. To ensure harmony for her children, Rachel did her best to get along with everyone, fearing if she didn’t she would be taken away from her children.
Rachel said during her times of isolation that she relied on God and continues to do so to this day. “To survive, I had to rely on God. He has helped me so much just trying to survive,” she said. She reads the Bible to her children but does not attend church.
Rachel said that publishing “Breaking Free” was nothing short of a miracle. Her story has been shared on Dateline and Megyn Kelly of NBC, inspiring people across the globe. “People share with me that my story has given them the courage to leave an abusive situation,” she said.
Today, Rachel lives in North Idaho with her husband, Brandon. Together they have nine children and one on the way, due in July. Brandon left the FLDS in Canada in 2012 but never lived a polygamous life, yet he understands what Rachel went through because he witnessed it in his own life. His ex-wife remains in the church and together they share custody of four children.
Rachel communicates with five of her siblings who have also left the FLDS and still has contact with a younger sibling who remains in the cult. But for fear of retribution against that sibling, Rachel does not divulge the name or gender.
As for Warren Jeffs, he has tried to reach out to Rachel both before and after her escape. His home is now prison, a place Rachel hopes he remains for the rest of his life. If he ever gets released, Rachel said she will confront him in a legal setting for what he did to her. As to why his edicts have grown more bizarre over time, Rachel can only speculate. “He could be taking out his pain of being in prison on everyone else,” she said. “But his solitary confinement is much better than when I was in isolation. He can receive calls, write letters and receive visitors.”
Rachel’s biggest fear was that she would never see her children again. Today, she is grateful that she never has to worry about that. “On my worst day out [of the cult], I would never want to go back,” said Rachel, who continues to have nightmares of her life back then.
When asked if she could say anything to people who remain in the cult, she said, “No man is perfect, and if you really listen to your heart, it would tell you that something is wrong.” She said Warren Jeffs is a hypocrite and a liar, and it was easy to see that what he was doing to her was wrong, and when he blamed her, it was heart wrenching. “At the same time, I was glad when he admitted to me that he was wrong,” she said.
Rachel said her biggest realization in the outside world is just how much it takes to support a family. “When I first left, I wondered if I would ever be able to even buy a house,” she said. Today, she and Brandon live in a home in an area where the kids can be free to live their lives; it is something she would dream about while in isolation.
“I wanted to live on a farm where I could take care of my kids,” said Rachel, who more than anything just wanted to be a mom and make sure her kids were happy. “I wanted them to have a good education and not worry about being told they were bad.”
She tells her children that their father loved them and just had too many kids—a total of 22 when Rachel and the children escaped—to get close to them.
Rachel is busy being what she always wanted to be—a mom. She loves to write and has always enjoyed photography. But with another baby due in July, some of those hobbies may just have to wait. And that is more than OK with her.
“My priority is my kids. I want them to live a happy and healthy life,” said Rachel. “I want to be there for them, make them meals and help with their homework.”
In the end, there is one message above all that Rachel hopes she can send to people: “No matter what you’ve gone through, you can be strong and be anything you want.”