The Impact of Modern-Day Polygamy on Women & Children

Larry Beall, Ph.D



Women and their children who have escaped polygamous families have been profoundly impacted in every aspect of their lives.  Because of the secrecy that conceals polygamous relationships, this information is not public knowledge, nor easily obtained, especially outside the inter-mountain west. This area is where polygamy has its historical roots in the United States.  The purpose of this paper is to provide a general statement regarding the basic principles and attitudes of modern day polygamy and to describe the negative psychological impact the polygamous practice can have on mothers and their children.  Because of the salient resemblances between survivors of polygamy and survivors of domestic violence and religious cults, some of these comparisons will also be made.  It should be emphasized this is a general approach to the subject and detailed delineations and descriptions, exceptions and expansions, are beyond the scope of what is being written here.


The professional literature on modern day polygamy is in its early stages.  Rather than references being made to the findings of others who have researched the subject, the information presented here in summary form are some of the characteristics of polygamous groups that represent information furnished to the author, in a therapeutic setting, by mothers and their children who fled polygamous relationships.  If one were to interview mothers in polygamist families who did not desire to leave their polygamous relationship, descriptions of their experience would no doubt be different from what is reported here by those who were unhappy enough to leave.  The reports of the women who remained in polygamy would include descriptions of what were positive characteristics to them, and would be expected to be less revealing of their more negative experiences.  It is important to know and understand how their conditions, roles and experiences in the polygamous family differed from those with whom the author has worked. 


In the author’s observation, it takes an unusually strong and resourceful woman to successfully leave a polygamist group. A woman who escapes has reached the limits of her capacity to continue enduring intolerable conditions for her and her children.  The obstacles in her path are unimaginable.  The most challenging obstacle may be the mental and emotional conditioning which makes their negative experiences normalized through doctrines and teachings, and which makes escaping seem highly dangerous if not simply impossible.  These teachings include the expectations and social mores she has most likely grown up with since childhood and there is the stigma of breaking loyalties, betraying secrets, and “the true way.”  Then there is the obstacle of being believed.  In the structure of polygamy, especially representing the general beliefs about law enforcement, a huge obstacle exists before she even  begins to seek help from the law.  Besides challenging her husband, she again is going to an “authority figure,” probably another male.  This alone is a formidable hurdle.  Also, many times specific phrases and words of the woman coming away from the polygamous community are misdefined and misunderstood.  She may be describing something horrific with words that are “mild” in the minds of the investigators.  Consequently, the truth and reality of the situation is softened.  For example, the pregnant girl or young woman with a child, may be asked, “Have you had sex?” Response, “No.”  If instead she were asked, “Have you had a marriage relationship with your new priesthood head or husband?” Response, “Yes.”  Yet another problem in reporting to authorities lies in the deep fears imbedded in her psyche over communication with an authority, much less any individual in the outside world.  This is compounded by concerns that as she reports her experiences, her stories may sound bizarre or incredulous in our modern-day society. 


What she reports may also be in contradiction to proponents of polygamy, whose reports seem tame or even innocent in comparison. Additionally, there are the problems with outside support.  Help is either non-existent, or is offered but in actuality not given, or the support persons do not know how to provide support in a way that the polygamous fugitive can receive.  There are also many logistical problems associated with the now single mother, who must make a new and independent life not only for herself but for her children.  She not only has to figure out how to provide for her children but also pay the costs for the legal battles for her children which will probably ensue, due to illegal or non-existent documentation. Compounding her problems are the emotional wounds with which she and her children must deal.


It must first be understood that the basic structure of polygamy is authoritarian and secretive. The men who practice it believe they have the authority to govern and control their wives and children in the family relationship. This paper explains how this governing and control can take extreme forms, and is maintained under the cloak of secrecy. The often harmful and secretive nature of these polygamous relationships is one of the reasons they can be appropriately termed “polygamous cults.”  It has been noteworthy to the author that his clinical observations about victims of polygamous cults share striking similarities with his clinical experience with victims of fundamentalist religious cults and other kinds of cults who exercise extreme control.  In turn, his findings have had significant correlation with the findings of other practitioners and researchers in the field of cults. 


Webster’s International Dictionary has multiple definitions of a “cult” including: “a small or narrow circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to some program, tendency, or figure (as one of limited popular appeal); a system of beliefs and rituals connected with worship; or a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.”  When the author uses the word “cult” in this paper there are certain elements of cults he has observed through the lives of their survivors with whom he has worked, that are important aspects for this paper.  Three of those elements are (1) doctrinal teachings and practices, which because of their emotionally, physically or sexually abusive nature, would be judged by society outside the cult as destructive, harmful, and/or criminal; (2) coercion or force by its leaders to insure compliance in the cult’s members, and (3) secrecy to prevent influence from the outside society and to maintain isolation of its members.  References to some of the cult professional literature are located at the end of this paper. 


In polygamous communities there is a hierarchy of polygamous marriages in the community existing under the control of a central leader.  This leader is generally referred to as “the prophet” and is the leading patriarch of the community.  One of the problems with a hierarchical structure has to do with the effects of power and control.  Absolute power tends to corrupt, and it is not unusual for the patriarch or prophet in a polygamous community to become corrupted by the sweeping power he possesses (as evidenced by the history of these polygamous cults).  This corruption extends into the power and control of polygamous husbands and fathers, who are not uncommonly guilty of abuses that could properly be described as domestic violence and child abuse. This corruption is also manifested by “child brides” (girls fourteen or fifteen and sometimes younger who are given in marriage).


Prominent Characteristics of Polygamous Cults

1. All control belongs to a central figure.  As previously indicated, on the level of the polygamous cult this central figure is referred to as “the prophet”.  In the polygamous marriage, the central figure is the husband.  A child is responsible to his/her father and he in turn is responsible to the prophet.  The prophet, through the father, controls when and to whom their children will marry, the places their child will work and for how long, how much education the children receive and for what purpose, the child's status in the cult or loss thereof,  extra-curricular activities, acceptable foods, and the town and house they will live in.  In a polygamous cult, the prophet can take a child’s father or mother away and reassign him or her to new parents if he chooses.  He can also determine the rules of the society in which his followers live, and change them at any time, without explanation.


2. Revelation from God dictates the words and acts of the central figure.  This is the basis of the prophet’s power and authority and in a corollary way, the polygamist father’s power and authority over his wives and children.  Followers are taught to worship the prophet as a god. No matter what the prophet instructs a person to do, they should obey without question, and be “sweet” about it (cheerfully submissive).  Even unreasonable and non-sensible directives can be made and are expected to be followed, because they “came from God.”  The story of the patriarch Abraham and his son Isaac in the Old Testament often is cited to reinforce this control.  Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac because God commanded it.  In like manner, a patriarch can dictate to a fourteen year old girl that she is to be his wife because God revealed it.  For her to not follow such a mandate would be considered, in this polygamous society, rebellion deserving ostracization as punishment.


3.  Independent thinking and outside information are shunned.  It stands to reason that if characteristics #1 and #2 are correct, the follower should not be expected to think independently or be exposed to outside information, either of which may lead him or her away from the “true path” outlined by the prophet or patriarch.  The fathers in the polygamous group are figures to respect but the mothers are only to be obeyed if they are in “perfect harmony” with the father. A child should never seek information other than what is offered by the leader, and this is to be accepted implicitly.  In fact, children are not given conditions that require them to think.  They fulfill their responsibilities to the cult or family, or they answer to someone over them.  A child is not to be provided information pertaining to the outside world.  No free expression is allowed if it is different than what the leaders teach or the basic recognized group values.  In fact, there is no “approved” way for a child to question a mother, just as there is no approved way for the mother to question the father. It is difficult for persons outside the polygamous cult to grasp that today, in this country, such basic freedoms can be, and are, denied.  But a moment’s reflection suggests that if such cults are to be preserved, such freedoms cannot exist.


4. Relationships with others outside the cult are prohibited.  Relationships outside the cult are not permitted, unless overseen, supervised, and even micromanaged by the priesthood authorities.  Children are not allowed to see any family member outside the polygamous group (father, mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncles, grandparent, etc.)  One example that was shared with the examiner, was of a mother who kept visiting two of her children that had left the cult.  As punishment, she was sent away by her husband and told that only her own death could atone for the grievous sin she had committed.  Separation and secrecy are necessary conditions for the cult to keep its members under the control of the leaders and unaware of outside alternatives.  Information that does not originate with the prophet or family’s patriarch, is suspected of being a corruptive and contaminating influence.  Therefore,  exposure to outside information is prohibited.


5.  Non-constructive attitudes toward education.  As an extension of characteristics #3 and #4 above, within the polygamous cult, much of education is perceived as contamination.  In fact, some types of education can be considered a crime against the polygamous community.  Following are some attitudes from within polygamous groups regarding education that best exemplify this position. 

  • Most literature is forbidden.  Specifically priesthood published and approved books are the guide for “literature” to be read.
  • Other races, cultures and belief systems have no value; therefore, there is no need to learn about them. 
  • The only history that matters is the history of the line of men who have held the special authority to act in God’s name on Earth, “history of the priesthood.”
  • The only books that a child should be allowed to read are books with stories that reflect the values and beliefs of the polygamous theology. 
  • Math beyond the basics is not needed, except as facts which can be used to pass a test or used as a specific application, i.e., geometry to build a building.  Math is not to be pursued out of interest alone. 
  • English has limited usage, science is largely irrelevant.
  • Health is not taught because the body is a forbidden subject and is to be covered up.  Sex education in the school is forbidden, in the home very rarely if ever taught.
  • The only education a child needs is the education that results from watching the prophet in order to become just like him, and to gain the knowledge necessary so she can be of greater service to the prophet.


As can be seen, the effect of such attitudes toward education is too narrow and confine the thinking of the follower. This ill-equips him or her to survive in mainstream society.


6.  Adaptation to mainstream society is punishing.  If the first five characteristics described to this point were followed, the effects on the follower who had to make his way in society would be crippling.  But society itself is targeted by the polygamous cult as an evil to be shunned.  Children are taught to be afraid of the outside world, that society is dangerous in many ways and the only sanctuary for them is within the community of believers.  Outside people are wicked, government is a conspiracy that will destroy them, and doctors are evil and will hurt them with their practices.  Because the world is considered temporary and soon to be destroyed anyway, children are taught there is no need to be involved with it.  To the extent that children are involved in the world, they will be influenced and contaminated by it and become lesser people than they otherwise could, becoming useless for God’s purposes in the long run.


7.  Gestapo Mentality.  In this society it is necessary to “police” group members to ensure compliance.  Even as there is secrecy to prevent outsiders from discovering the ways of the cult there is policing internally to prevent followers from becoming disloyal.  An outsider observing the community would probably not notice the subtle monitoring of the community.  What makes this more difficult to detect is the “caste” structure.  For example, it would be considered inappropriate for a child to report a parent of higher status, particularly a priesthood leader, as non-compliant or disobedient.  However, children of parents in the lower caste, the laborers for example, learn by observation that it is an important duty to report something that is wrong or out of compliance with the prophet’s  teachings and instructions on the group level, and the patriarch on the family level.  Children are to report anyone including parents, brothers, sisters, or friends.  There is a phrase that they use when someone is tempted to chose a friend over reporting to the leader: “the test of friends.”  A corollary teaching is if a child loves the prophet he will watch for sins in others that they may be reported and there will be no sin among the prophet’s people as a result.  If not a member of a higher social status, the individual should report members' sins in the interest of the community's welfare.  The point cannot be over-stated that secrecy (protecting from the outside) and loyalty (protecting the inside) are essential to the maintenance of the group’s identity, solidarity and cohesion, and the fulfillment of the prophet's desires.


8.  Violence is a necessary strength.  An extension of the control and authoritarianism exercised by the polygamous father is violence.  It is quite common for mothers who have fled the polygamous relationship to report cases of violence perpetrated on them and their children, approved and sanctioned by the polygamous community's leaders.  The patriarch uses violence to control children and wives.  Intuitively, it makes sense within their reality.  There are so many children to take care of and such limited resources to get the job done, physical punishment is a direct way to enforce rules and ensure obedience.  Another aspect of violence within polygamous cults has to do with perception.  A violent father is perceived as a strong father whose strength breeds control and authority.  One of the problems of this mentality is that violence has a way of escalating and children in polygamous families tend to be violent with each other.  Displays of violence within the family are not uncommon and are often used as an example of what will happen to other family members who are disobedient.  These expressions of anger are to be kept within the family and are a private matter.  It should be added here that in societies where there is forced suppression of emotions anger and rage simmer, and surface as angry outbursts.


9.  Emotional expressions are undesirable.  Emotions and their expression are considered signs of weakness and are undesirable.  A child is taught to keep her emotions inside and not tell anyone about what she feels.  It is believed, if children express these undesirable feelings, the feelings will grow and take over.  Emotions are a sign that you are not on the path to God and are often associated with evil spirits.  For example, crying is a “bad spirit” that takes control of a person and it is a sign of weakness to allow this bad spirit to control one’s self. Laughing is being light-minded, and is a sin.  Crying over a disappointment is also considered selfish.  A nervous breakdown, as experienced within the polygamous cult, occurs when a person invites an evil spirit into their lives and the individual must rid themselves of this spirit.  Consequently, emotional problems, like most medical problems, are not treated since they see problems resulting from personal weakness or a failure to comply with the patriarchal order requiring repentance.  One paradox of this belief and attitude has to do with the expression of anger.  Although anger is an emotion, it is not judged as a weakness when expressed through violence by an authority figure.  Only those emotions that would suggest weakness or vulnerability fall into the category of being reprehensible.  In more recent years, public physical displays of anger with some polygamous groups such as FLDS are more rare.  Instead mental and emotional that is less observable, but no less damaging, is more common.


10.  Personal desires are unwanted.  It follows that the prophet’s will is an expression and extension of God’s will, and the patriarch’s/father’s will is that of the prophet.  Therefore, the will of everyone else in the polygamous community is to be subjected to God, the prophet, and the individual patriarch simultaneously.  Children are taught to be rid of their personal desires and wishes.  If these personal desires are not controlled, they will destroy the individual.  In every aspect of the child’s life the will of their leader is paramount.  If a child is told to do something he or she has no right to refuse or ask questions.


11.  Polygamous cults are a caste system.  The families belonging to a polygamous husband are part of a caste system established by the father, although not usually in a declared or verbalized manner.  Only he can assign the child’s value or the value of the child’s mother, in unspoken but self-evident ways, i.e., privileges, time with him, praise, etc.  Likewise, the prophet can assign the value of the patriarchs in the community giving relative community value to his families.  One’s value is established by those over you.  Value is usually based on financial contributions and level of faithfulness to the prophet's wishes.  Every man has a favorite wife, though he would deny it if asked.  Rather, this favorite status is observable in how he differentially treats his wives.  If a wife gains more favor with her husband she will be treated better than the others and the husband will protect her from the other wives. This is also true for the children.  Families with more value have nicer homes and are allowed better jobs.  People in the upper echelons of polygamous cults do relatively less work and enjoy “blessings” or rewards for their position.  People on the bottom do the hardest work and are often denied even basic necessities.  The determiner of these  signs of prosperity and favor is “faithfulness.”  What is faithfulness?  It is conformance, meeting expectations, enhancing the leader's status, sex; in short, doing what is necessary to please those in authority.


It should be noted here that one of the reasons there is such disparity between the reports I have received from those that fled polygamy as opposed to those who remain in polygamy, could have to do with this caste system.  Females who are favored are often in the role of “counselor,” which is a teacher or mentor to younger or “difficult” wives.  An analysis of their function demonstrates that their primary purpose is to enforce and reiterate the policies and teachings of the prophet.    As a reward for this devotion, the faithful wife will receive superior living conditions and better treatment within their group.  Again, this is not verbalized, but is shown in actions.  This differential between living standards may explain why some plural wives report only positive aspects of their polygamous experiences.  They stand more to gain by the preservation of the society that has met their needs and wants, though at the cost of those of lower status.


12. Attitudes toward women as property/possessions.  Before a woman is married, she has value as property, bringing her father influence, power, and prestige within the cult.  She is “groomed” for her relationship with the man who will be her husband.  Her sole purpose is to please her husband by doing what gives him pleasure or satisfaction.  She has no right to complain about abuse or injustice.  Within the polygamous community a woman is an object.  The author has been told that “when a woman reaches the age of 40 her husband will replace her with two women who are 20.”  After a woman is married her greatest value is to produce faithful children and help support the father financially.


Summary: Central control within the polygamous cult is based on revelation to the prophet.  The position given to the father or patriarch, by the prophet, determines the patriarch’s ability to exert his will on the family.  The follower is taught to not question or doubt, but to follow and fulfill the desires of the leader.  The control of information, educational parameters, and separation from outsiders are all maintained to prevent contamination of members and keep the belief system of the group intact.  Those in good standing with polygamous leaders, who are interviewed by the media are the most faithful wives.  Propaganda concerning the evils and dangers of society further insulate the cult members from the outside world.  For example, videos of Waco and other “government” acts are shown, and it is explained “our people will be next.”  Separation from the outside world and secrecy of the inside world maintain the necessary barrier between the cult and society.  Under such conditions the follower in the polygamous cult usually does not acquire the skills necessary to be successful or perhaps even survive in society.  Internal violence and policing prevents followers from becoming disloyal or leaving the cult.  An important element of this closed society is the absence of emotional expression, personal desires, self-will and identity.  A caste-like system keeps individuals in the proper place, all under the governance of the cult leader.  Where a woman fits in this system probably helps explain why some women have positive reports of their experience while other reports, like those provided for this paper, have been more negative.


Psychological Impact of Polygamous Cults

Polygamy’s Impact on Women:  Clearly, the negative psychological impact on the mothers and their children in such a society is extensive. When an individual is denied personal desires, emotional expression, self-will and identity, certain psychological consequences can be expected.  These consequences fall along a continuum from moderate to extreme, depending on the resilience and emotional resources of the individual, and the nature of the abuses she has suffered.  The examiner has noted that when a woman, in particular, is not allowed to assert her desires, needs and rights as an individual, she suffers from symptoms of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. 


Anxiety often results from a loss of control over her life; depression from feeling powerless to make a difference; and low self-esteem from lack of appreciation of herself as an individual and insufficient personal experience that affirms her sense of worth.  “Learned helplessness,” is a real phenomena in which one learns that one’s actions have little impact on the outcome, and that there is nothing one can do to escape undesirable conditions.  When an individual is suffering from learned helplessness, it is only a matter of time before she gives up.  A sense of purpose is lost and without this driving force, everything seems to be a chore, or dark drudgery. 


A related problem has to do with one’s ability to keep touch with reality.  In a world created by self-gratifying leaders, who exercise their power through you, one’s grasp of reality can be lost.  Reality is about sensing and learning, being and becoming, trusting one’s thoughts and experiences, and understanding the meaning and reality of what life presents.  When a woman in a cult is only allowed to believe what she is taught by authority figures, contact with reality can become blurred.  How can one explain one’s experience, if what actually happened and what one thinks about it, is denied its inherent truth, is not accepted or validated?  It is a serious thing to learn not to trust one’s perceptions, interpretations and reactions to one’s experience.  The result can range from depression to thought disorders such as Schizophrenia.


It should be noted that direct cause and effect statements cannot be asserted here.  The presence of symptoms and tendencies correlate with conditions but are not necessarily caused by them in a direct way.  Reality is more complex and subtle than to say, for example, the parent is controlling, therefore, the child will have a low self-esteem or be emotionally withdrawn.  A number of factors and conditions contribute to a symptom.  A simple cause-effect relationship cannot be established.  Nevertheless, symptoms can be correlated or connected in some way to certain factors.  Across a number of symptoms and conditions, particularly with several children in the family, patterns tend to emerge. 


Particularly, when working as an expert witness the author uses the term “convergence of data.”  What this means is data or information from different sources, such as different tests, clinical observations, social history, and collateral sources such as persons who know the individual in question, can all point to similar conclusions.  When there is convergence of data, conclusions can be drawn for the court with greater certainty and clarity.  Such conclusions represent reality with greater consistency and are more helpful.  It has been important to the author that in this field of “the psychological impact of polygamy on its victims,” there is a great deal of convergence of data, too much in fact, to ignore.


Cult Impact on Children

Some of the ramifications for children of polygamous cults described above are:

1) Harsh physical discipline can be employed to control and manage children.  Religious ideology provides a rationale for physical punishment which can become a rationalization for child abuse.

2) Because of suspiciousness and a need to preserve privacy, there is often a rejection of medical intervention and other social services the child may need.

3) Since the polygamous society functions as a closed and often physically isolated society, there is resistance of investigation of possible child abuse.  At the outset, it should be said what the world defines as “abuse” is “God's will” in the eyes of cult members.  This difference in definitions can cause confusion when interviewing members of the polygamous community. There is limited interaction with members of mainstream society which tends to close off the normal means by which authorities learn about child abuse and neglect.  Their religious nature makes it possible to avoid scrutiny because they can invoke the First Amendment in order to curtail investigative efforts. It has also been reported to the author that local police and authorities are often members of the polygamous community or sympathetic to it, and appropriate legal actions are not taken.

4) The child’s educational experience is narrowed and limited, rendering the child less prepared to function in society. 


Scientific literature on child abuse in cult groups generally, and polygamist groups specifically, is almost nonexistent.  Official investigations cover only a handful of extreme cases in which the death of a child or other exposing circumstances brought governmental action.  Much of the available information regarding treatment of children in polygamist groups comes from individual court cases. For such cases, newspaper reports are the only readily available sources of information.  Consequently, it is impossible to estimate the extent of the problem with any degree of certainty.


Why is child abuse and neglect likely to be associated with polygamist groups?  The implications of the twelve governing principles outlined above are apparent.  In addition, these groups are centered on the personality of their leader and his idiosyncratic beliefs, no matter how unrealistic or injurious they may be on the group’s child-rearing practices.  The leader’s beliefs regarding disciplining children are sacrosanct, beyond reproach.  Failure to follow these beliefs invariably results in punishment in some form, including ostracization   Therefore, as previously mentioned, the group’s ideology must be treated as sacred and unchallengeable.


Several researchers of religious cults have observed that the hierarchical structure of a religious cult, and its setting itself up as “family” under the leader, can turn parents into “middle-management” with regard to their own children. This overarching power becomes a bigger concern when the leader measures the parents’ dedication to him by their willingness to abuse their children when approval for such is tacitly made.  In addition, the parents’ dependence on the leader and the frequency with which members are subjected to oscillating rewards and punishments can result in suppressed anger.  Parents may then vent their frustrations on their children.  Such projection of anger onto the children become more probable when the group’s doctrine emphasizes harsh physical discipline  (Langone & Eisenberg).   This certainly applies to the polygamous cult.  How parents’ discipline their children, what activities are permitted, and what they teach their children are all decisions dictated by the prophet. 


Legal intervention in cult organizations and reports to this author by former polygamist members,  show that children living in these groups have died from lack of medical treatment for illnesses such as bacterial meningitis, pneumonia, tumors, ear and sinus infection, treatable cancer, measles, and liver and kidney failure.


As indicated, children born in polygamist families and cults are socialized into an environment that downplays and undermines independent critical thinking, maintains its members in a state of dependency, and fosters a private insecurity by attacking members’ while demanding that they not protest.  One of the outgrowths of the polygamist group and cult environment is the creation of an anxious, dependent personality, with a fragile sense of worth.


Children raised in polygamist cults have little knowledge about the world, especially if their group was geographically isolated.  Therefore, upon leaving a cult, even if its practices and beliefs were highly deviant, they will take the cult’s world view with them because they know no other.  As a result, their capacity to think critically and act independently may be deficient.  The magnitude of this problem can be seen in large numbers of young men becoming ostracized from the polygamous group, to make room for their female peers to marry the chosen few men.  The actuality of this can be seen in an observation shared with the examiner.  She noted that when parents showed a newborn baby girl to the prophet he showed spontaneous and genuine praise to the parents for having a little girl.  On the other hand, if parents who had a newborn boy came to the prophet to show off their baby, his responses would be less enthusiastic.  If the young men have also been physically abused or neglected, they may have medical problems and the residuals of psychological trauma.  Moreover, the family, the normal primary support system of children, may be unavailable, or even a part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  In trying to help these young men overcome the effects of their abuses and make a new life, the author has felt the mental/social/emotional deficiencies they suffer are almost insurmountable.  Only years of careful, combined efforts from various professionals and committed persons, will help make up for some of the obstacles in their path.


As indicated previously, secrecy is the lifeblood of the polygamous family.  Secrecy is not a healthy condition in which a child can grow.  Secrets can harbor a compromise of integrity, an “us against them” orientation, a superiority attitude, an end justifies the means modus operandi, justification of wrongful behavior, and a failure to receive feedback from others as to the appropriateness or correctness of what one is doing.  Secrecy can become a way of life for a child, one that is strongly influenced by the philosophy “we do not talk about what is going on in our home.”


Safety needs cover a spectrum from the more obvious needs of having food to eat and predictability in the environment to more subtle safety needs having to do with believing that one’s feelings are respected.  It is often a difficult challenge for a child to acknowledge they are not safe emotionally.  For one thing, the child can feel threatened, either explicitly with a physically present threat or implicitly with an implied and unspoken threat.  Threat of whatever form is a powerful motivator for children, especially when combined with gradual conditioning. Polygamist control requires a gradual conditioning of the mind to embrace ideas and notions that at their outset may be naturally rejected.  With the unspoken threat in the wings, and a gradual unfolding of new views and ideas that the polygamous father wants the child to believe in, polygamous practices are accepted.


This unfolding process can include special attention (such as private outings) and being taught that polygamy was practiced by special and spiritual people throughout history, such as Adam and Teddy Roosevelt.  The evaluator has observed how the child is exposed to other adults who believe in polygamy and is made to feel that they share with those adults a special bond born out of common beliefs.  Sexual grooming often parallels these experiences of the child so that sexual experiences are normalized to the point that marriage at age 14 or 15 seems reasonable and normal.  A point is reached where the next step in personal and spiritual development is marriage, by being part of a special circle of polygamous marriages.  Their marriage may include a daughter married to her mother’s husband, particularly in step-father arrangements, as has been witnessed by the author.


The reader would expect that mothers who love their children would not tolerate such a thing.  It

should be remembered however, that this mother has been gradually conditioned to believe that polygamy is “true,” and ratified by divine revelation.  She entered marriage with a polygamist and it is unknown what indoctrination she herself underwent to embrace a relationship with her husband that allowed other wives to be married to him.  Over time, unless the mother is vigilant, she ceases being a guardian and protector, which is innate with most mothers.


There is another possibility, if sexual grooming is in fact unfolding, that the father is behaving inappropriately with his daughter, without her mother knowing about it.  If this is the case, it is unlikely that the child would tell her mother if informed this was a special secret her mother was not supposed to know about.  And so, if sexual grooming is a part of polygamous practice, and we have seen clinical evidence that this does occur, the child can suffer sexual abuse and all the attendant emotional and physical problems that ensue during childhood and throughout adulthood as demonstrated in professional literature.


Research has demonstrated that certain conditions give rise to self-worth in a child.  Two of those conditions which characteristically are absent in polygamous cults are self-expression and self-assertiveness.  Polygamous families can foster conditions of guilt and shame which block the expression of true feelings and assertion of self.  Many who have escaped polygamous families express confusion and conflict over who they really are and what they really want, because their feelings and views have been invalidated in various ways their whole life.  Under these polygamous conditions, the child can become conflicted and confused, frustrated and angry.  If a child is assertive she is at odds with the authority figures in her life and she is rebuffed until she capitulates to the will of those in authority.


One of the hallmarks of a polygamist lifestyle is it’s separation from mainstream society.  A polygamist community insulates its values and beliefs that deviate in important ways from the norm.  These deviations are deeper than the obvious one of a man with more than one wife.  The departures from mainstream society are found in the perception that “we” are different than “them” (society); we have understanding of the truth that is superior to unbelievers; if you leave our ways you cannot be saved but will be damned, with suffering of the most horrible description.  Another perception is you must be protected from the outside world that contaminates and corrupts, deceives and misleads from the “way we live.”  While it can be said that many religious parents teach their children similar ideas, it is the extreme effort to keep the child from being exposed to outside influences that can interfere with the child’s ability to relate to others and everyday situations outside the polygamous belief system.


How society works can also be distorted in the mind of the child influenced by polygamous beliefs.  For example, if children are watchdogs to tell the parent or leader inappropriate words or actions (according to the belief system of the polygamous cult) of siblings or other adults, a suspicious and even paranoid mind set can develop.  This paranoia involves looking upon others as the enemy or as one to protect oneself from, including those who could be supportive and helpful in one’s life.  It is common for members of the polygamous family to be watched, monitored and controlled by those in authority.  Contact with friends outside “the family” can also be discouraged with the resultant increased isolation and alienation.


Education is the gateway for personal advancement and upward mobility in our society.  Most cultures and sub-groups in our society endorse the importance of education.  It is one of the  characteristics of polygamous cults to downgrade the importance of education.  In a closed society new ideas can threaten accepted ways of life.  The negative ramifications of such attitudes toward education, for a child, are self-evident.


Similarities Between Domestic Violence Victims and Cult Survivors

The author has spent much of his professional career working with women who have been victims of domestic violence (DV).  He has noted that there are many parallels between his clinical observations of these victims of domestic violence and those women who have lived in polygamous conditions.  What follows are some of the more salient parallels.


Research and clinical experience has demonstrated that victims of domestic violence have predictable characteristics or patterns of behavior (Utah State Sponsored Domestic Violence Training & Women’s Rural Advocacy Programs).  Following are some of those characteristics which also constitute the “Battered Woman Syndrome”:

1.  Blames herself for her batterer’s behavior and often makes excuses for him.

2.  Learned hopefulness-always believes he’ll stop the abuse and the relationship will get better.

3.  Minimizes or blocks out the most dangerous parts of the assaults.

4.  Believes that she controls his assaults by her behavior and thus constantly tracks his moods in her head; feels lost and in danger if she has no contact with him.

5.  Post Traumatic Stress Symptoms are common when she is separated from her batterer.  PTSD Symptoms can include:

  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Intrusive recollections of the abuse
  • Recurrent distressing dreams
  • Feeling as if the abuse is recurring during recollections
  • Sensory cues: intense psychological distress to stimuli reminiscent of abuse encounters
  • Physiological reactivity when exposed to batterer
  • Avoidance of stimuli about the abuse: thoughts, feelings, and conversations
  • Inability to recall specific parts of the abuse
  • Feeling detached from others
  • Restricted range of affect
  • Sense of a foreshadowed or hopeless future
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Hypervigilance


6.  Is economically dependent on her batterer regardless of income level due to lack of access to the family income.

7.  Is isolated from friends and family.

8.  Has been systematically “boxed in” psychologically by the power and control tactics used by the abuser (Emotional abuse).

9. Is misunderstood by outside observers and expects people to blame and judge her.  The result is that she is hypersensitive to subtle blaming statements.

10.  She is more likely to be seriously injured or murdered when she is separated from the batterer. 

11.  Frequently comes from a childhood with domestic violence history.

12.  Doesn’t trust the “system.”  It has probably treated her badly in the past.

13.  Has been put in constant double binds resulting in a hesitancy to make decisions, insecurity and low self-esteem.

14.  Is most likely to get hit for the first time when pregnant or on her wedding day.

15.  Is frequently sexually abused by her batterer.

16.  Shows guilt, ambivalence, and/or fear over living conditions.

17.  Feels isolated and untrusting of others, despite involvement in the community.

18.  Has a poor self-concept (this may not have been true before the relationship).

19.  Feels angry, embarrassed, and ashamed.

20.  Is fearful of being insane.

21.  Has learned to feel helpless and feels powerless.

22.  Has unexplained injuries that may go untreated.


It is also important to note that this syndrome’s characteristics correspond with the symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and associated post-trauma disorders, such as Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Dissociative Disorder, frequently manifested by women fitting this profile.  These battered women complain of excessive stress levels, chronic low self-esteem, powerlessness, worry, pessimism, unexplained medical problems, and marginal functioning. Socially, these women feel forced isolation from family and alienated from people in general.  They are untrusting of others, deeply insecure and hypersensitive to rejection.  They frequently complain that they have lost their ability to cope, have difficulty sleeping and feel they have “lost who they are.”  Suicidal thoughts are common.  Although, plans to commit suicide are less frequent because of responsibility and love for their children.



1. There is a statistically high correlation, between childhood trauma and being a victim of domestic violence as an adult. When childhood and adult trauma interact they often combine in ways that make it more difficult for the DV trauma survivor to identify, understand, cope with, and appropriately respond to her symptoms.


2. The DV trauma is complicated by a number of factors.  One of the primary factors is the personality of the perpetrator, which frequently comprises character features that include lying, controlling, manipulating and blaming.  These personality characteristics make it more difficult for the DV victim to “make sense” of what is going on in the relationship and to know how to react appropriately.


3. Other traumatic factors include guilt over the exposure of the children to the DV, passivity in the victim which leads to reactive anger outbursts, dormant rage from childhood violation, medical problems that cause vulnerability, a sense of helplessness about managing their children who often exhibit ADHD and other difficult to manage characteristics inherited from the other abusive parent, and other factors, often unrecognized, depending on the survivor’s unique situation and condition.


4. A survivor of DV frequently reports reliving a bad memory or experiencing unpleasant feelings associated with specific people or places.  These feelings are so strong that she will avoid interacting with the person or the places which trigger these emotions.  Sudden feelings of extreme agitation or despair are also frequently reported.  Internal or external cues that remind her of past traumatic events are distressing and cause physiological reactions.  She avoids activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma, has decreased participation in activities she previously enjoyed, and has feelings of detachment and alienation from others and reports numbness or an absence of feelings.  Associated with her reported traumatic experiences she has difficulty sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger and hyper-vigilance.  It is important when evaluating the DV survivor’s ability to function, to assess for the presence of post-trauma symptoms which make it more difficult to cope with life in general, not including the particularly difficult relationship stressors generated by the perpetrator in the DV relationship.


Reality Testing

When the trauma has accumulated, it is not unusual for the victim to have begun losing her grip on reality.  Her perceptions can become distorted, her hyper-vigilance (as a feature of anxiety and PTSD) can progress to paranoia, and her hopes for an improved relationship can become delusional beliefs and magical thinking.  A common paradigm is “suffer now, be rewarded in the afterlife.”   It doesn't take much imagination to foresee the blind alleys in thought and behavior such a thought would lead to.  Her sense of powerlessness grows into a sense that she is controlled by some external agency or must behave like a robot with no will of her own.  With a disorientation to external reality and a corresponding loss of functioning, her feelings can make less and less sense. Misunderstanding the intentions of others and one’s own reactions, becomes more common.  With these kinds of experiences there is a loss of confidence in her ability to accurately perceive what is going on in her life.  This lack of confidence can lead her to believe information from unreliable sources.  These thought disorder symptoms are often complicated by other post-trauma symptoms such as extreme anxiety and dissociation.


Dissociative Symptoms

Dissociation means basically to “mentally check out” or remove one’s consciousness from what is going on in the environment.  Dissociation lies on a continuum ranging from lack of awareness on one end to Dissociative Identity Disorder, or “Sybil Syndrome” on the other.  While symptoms of dissociation are less common, they can be sufficiently intrusive to require an  investigation whenever there is a trauma history.  Symptoms of dissociation roughly fall into three categories as follows.


1.  Amnesia Factor: A victim may have difficulties finding herself in a place and having no idea how she got there;  finding new things among her belongings that she does not remember buying; finding evidence that she has done things that she does not remember doing; finding writings, drawings, or notes among her belongings that she must have done but cannot remember doing; having the experience of not being sure whether things that she remembers happening really did happen or whether she just dreamed them; finding that she cannot remember whether she has done something or just thought about doing it.


2.  Depersonalization/Derealization Factor: A victim may find herself feeling that other people, objects, and the world around her are not real; feeling that her body does not belong to her;  hearing voices inside her head that tell her to do things or comment on things that she is doing; feeling as if she is looking at the world through a fog so that people and objects appear far away or unclear; feeling as though she is standing next to herself or watching herself do something and she actually sees herself as if she were looking at another person; looking in a mirror and not recognizing herself; being in a familiar place but finding it strange and unfamiliar; acting so differently in one situation compared with others that she feels almost as if she were two different people; in certain situations she is able to do things with amazing ease and spontaneity that would usually be difficult; ability to ignore pain; and not being able to recognize friends or family.


3.  Absorption Factor: A victim may be driving or riding in a car or bus and suddenly realizing that she doesn’t remember what has happened during all or part of the trip; listening to someone talk and suddenly realizing that she did not hear part or all of what was said; remembering a past event so vividly that she feels as if she were reliving that event; not being sure whether things that she remembers really did happen or whether she just dreamed them; finding that when she is watching television or a movie she becomes so absorbed in the story that she is unaware of other events happening around her; becoming so involved in a fantasy or daydream that it feels as though it were really happening to her; sometimes sitting staring off into space, thinking of nothing, and unaware of the passage of time.


Treatment of Survivors of Polygamous Cults

The author has found that treating these polygamist cult victims is very similar to treating victims of psychological trauma in other settings where the exposure to traumatic experiences is chronic and relatively severe over an extended period.  There are four stages of treatment:


1. Establishing safety for the survivor, both internally in her ability to manage extreme emotions and externally, feeling safe in her environment. 

2. Trauma resolution help remove the psychological pain that has accumulated through repeated traumatic experiences.

3. Cognitive restructuring to help the survivor dis-abuse her mind of a lot of the brainwashing and mental conditioning that does not fit her new reality outside the cult.  As she acquires new ways of thinking that are more realistic and functional, she becomes more powerful  to direct her own life.

4. Life skills development is a necessary step in the survivor developing new ways of living and being.  Some of these life skills include self-assertiveness training, stress-management, managing emotions and creating a new lifestyle.


The author has noted that the treatment of survivors from polygamist cults    is an affirmation of the reality of their reported experience.  The difficulty they have establishing a sense of personal safety, indicates their background failed to provide them a sense of safety.  The depth of their emotional pain and trauma symptoms is a testimony of the reality of the conditions that gave rise to that pain.  The difficulty they have changing from dependent, powerless, and other self-defeating ways of thinking, to more healthy and adaptive ways of thinking, demonstrates the pervasiveness of the mental conditioning they have undergone to polygamist principles. The deficits these women manifest in life skills, indicate that the environment in which they previously functioned, had severe deficits in preparing them for the society outside the polygamist group.  What is inspiring to the author is the resilience of the human spirit and strength of will these women have shown in overcoming their obstacles, working through their issues in treatment, and moving on with their lives to create a new and free lifestyle for them and their children.


Summary: The effects of the polygamous cult on women and children who are victims of its abuses are pervasive, reaching into every area of their lives, from mental to social, physical to spiritual.  The loss of control over one’s life can lead to anxiety; cult secrecy can produce feelings of insecurity and thought disorders; inflicted abuse can contribute to a whole array of problems, including Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.  Repression of one’s feelings leads to anger and somatic problems; and the loss of self-will and personal desires can cause identity loss and personality destabilization.  It is no exaggeration to state that polygamous cults lay the groundwork for children to display major mental and emotional issues throughout their lives.  For the women who are victims of polygamous cult abuse, their quality of life is sabotaged, their personal freedoms lost and hope for the future dimmed.  Polygamy is a real phenomenon causing real problems in the lives of its victims.  The author of this article is grateful to those who have had the courage and perseverance to escape the polygamous cult and the courage and perseverance to persist in therapy to overcome its effects.  He is inspired by their humanity and greatness of soul that allowed him to share in their lives of recovery