Those two words burn a hole on page 154 of “The Polygamist’s Daughter,” a chilling child’s eye account of life in a cult led by a 1970s self-proclaimed prophet dubbed the “Mormon Manson.”
“The Polygamist’s Daughter” will take you on a 300-page journey from all that’s awful about this world to all that’s amazing about grace. You will spend your time in its pages the same way that author Anna LeBaron spent the entirety of her childhood—on edge.
What prompted her to escape? To just walk out the door? For LeBaron—the 10th child of the fourth wife of the late polygamous cult leader and convicted murderer Ervil LeBaron—maybe it was watching the girls in her family served up like commodities to men three times their age. Maybe she was walking toward normalcy—a stable life with her sister and brother-in-law, the latter of whom would be gunned down in 1988 in a set of timed Texas killings called the “4 o’clock murders.”
Maybe it was the guts and grit forged at age 9 when cult members in Mexico forced her to “support God’s kingdom” by selling homemade cakes door to door. She already knew how to step out into scary territory. So she did.
“I wasn’t leaving a cult. I didn’t know I was in one,” says LeBaron, who sat down this week to answer questions about her life and her book, which is now in its third printing. I can’t wait to introduce you to her. You are in for a real, rare treat—a Q & A with author Anna LeBaron.
Q: Your book cover has a “Woman at the Well” anonymity about it. For someone who so desperately wanted to be loved and seen by your dad—you were one of 50 children born to Ervil LeBaron from 13 wives—why the title “The Polygamist’s Daughter”? And why the black bars over your eyes and mouth?
A: There were things I was forbidden to see and things I was forbidden to say, so the black bars are censor bars. The title, “The Polygamist’s Daughter” was, by design, evoking my cry for a father. Being the daughter of a polygamist means that cry is not going to be heard. There’s not enough time in the day for a man who fathered 50 children to father them well.
Q: Do you hear what just came out of your mouth—do you know how unbelievable that sounds?
A: I do and I do. It’s a reality for so many people in the Mormon Corridor who have been swept up into polygamous sects. I did a book reading last year at the Hildale Public Library (the Utah twin city to Arizona’s Colorado City and Warren Jeffs’ former base of operations). It was one of the most surreal moments on the book tour, knowing the devastation of what’s happening in their lives. It’s just so eerily the same as my story.
Q: Ervil LeBaron is a notorious name in American criminal cult history. Why did you keep his last name?
A: I am so proud of my family. Everybody’s out now. There’s nobody who still believes my dad was any kind of prophet. All of his children—the ones who made it out alive and the ones who are not in prison—every one of us has had to do the hard work of figuring out our life. And it’s hard, hard work. And we’ve done it.
“There’s no manual for this kind of family dynamic. I feel like it’s time the LeBaron name not be dragged through the mud anymore because of my father.”
Q: Your prized possession from childhood was a camera. Is it painful to look back on the snapshots you took during a time when you were used as cheap, child labor and were constantly uprooted in clandestine middle-of-the-night getaways to evade authorities?
A: My photo album allowed expression of having a hobby at a time when I didn’t even know what a hobby was. I saved up to develop pictures that were costly to me. It’s a healthy thing for me to have those photos, and I have given many of my original photographs to people they would matter to more than me. (For context of how costly the photos were, LeBaron was paid $3.57 for an entire summer of working grueling, 12-hour days at the family appliance store, which funded her then-imprisoned father’s legal expenses. She was 12.)
Q: I’m just surprised that cult leaders allowed you to document anything about a highly evasive, highly secretive life. Weren’t they paranoid about that?
A: Paranoia did run high, you’re not wrong there! Being raised and cutting your teeth on this doomsday, end times, the ‘destructions are coming’—all that is still triggering for me.
Q: So, was the panic around Y2K a trigger for you?
A: Yes, Y2K was very triggering for me. All the blood moon or end times prophecy, it all triggers memories of “the destructions” my dad prophesied about. If you weren’t in the gathering place, which basically was his cult, you were going to be destroyed. Fear was used to manipulate and control his followers.
Q: Your book doesn’t go into detail about your dad’s criminal activities or his teachings. Was that by design?
A: Yes, it was very intentional. I wanted to give my readers the experience of what my childhood was like. If I didn’t know it as a child or a teenager, I wasn’t putting it in the book. I wanted the reader to see life through my eyes.
Q: You were taught you were the celestial children of Ervil LeBaron, yet you slept on rat-infested floors, you had to dumpster dive for clothing, and you personally were groomed sexually as young as age 9. Looking back now as a 49-year-old woman, what is the most shocking thing about your childhood?
A: Hmm. (Silence.) The most shocking thing was … (more silence) how neglected the needs of the kids were emotionally, mentally, spiritually, physically, medically, nutritionally.
“The adults were so concerned with the things happening with the adults—all the criminal activity, all these marriages, who’s going to get who—that there was no bandwidth for even recognizing the children’s needs were going unmet.”
Q: You were not allowed to cry when your mom left for extended periods to “build God’s kingdom.” You could not “give in to complaining” about being hungry. You could not utter a word of protest about working 12-hour days. In the book you wrote of frequently re-reading the final chapters of “Where the Red Fern Grows” just so you could cry. Were you doing what your family didn’t allow you to do—express emotion and grieve?
A: Absolutely. Don’t cry over your mom who’s leaving you, but it’s ok to cry about Old Dan and Little Ann. I used these fictional pets to allow grief to express itself.
Q: At age 9 you were sent to Mexico to hide out in safe houses—a relative term because of the malnourishment and sexual grooming you experienced there. In the book you tell of the simple act of eating an apple while on a bus ride. You devoured it—starving—and still remember the horror of looking up and seeing dozens of eyes watching you eat an apple like an animal. How do you look back at that little girl? What would you most like to tell her?
A: My heart is so tender toward that little girl. She’s still alive and inside of me. I feel like it’s my job to just tenderly hold space for that little girl inside my heart and say, ‘It’s ok. I’ve got you. You’re not going to go hungry again. Here, have an apple. Have 10.’
Q: How do you explain how you extricated yourself from the cult at age 13?
A: It’s a mystery to me to this day how I had enough courage to just walk out the door and leave. A piece of perspective that wasn’t in the book happened when I was 10. I was living in the beach house with Ramona (her half-sister, who, unbeknownst to young Anna was in hiding for a crime she carried out by order of Ervil LeBaron) and I came across a U.S. News and World Report of what was happening in Guyana with Jim Jones. I thought, ‘These poor people.’ I didn’t know I was in a cult. I didn’t have a grid to understand what was happening with me. You’re taught and groomed and raised to do what you’re told, not have a voice, not have an opinion.
Q: You write about the dichotomy of loving your mom—who now renounces your dad as a prophet—and yet experiencing disappointment over her continued adherence to polygamy. What is something you most wish your mom could understand?
A: My mom can’t understand the level of difficulty that her faith practice and her beliefs caused her children, even her adult children. Because I’ve done my own healing, I am able to hold space for her in a way that feels healthy to me. Because I have received grace and mercy and forgiveness and the kind of abundant life that Jesus offers—and because I am connected to the Source of that life—I can give it away. If mom needs gentleness and kindness, I have plenty. If mom needs joy, I have plenty.
Q: Were you ever tempted to remain entitled to bitterness toward your parents?
A: I’ve heard it said that bitterness is like swallowing a poison pill, hoping the other person will die. I have forgiven my mom so that I can be free. I have also forgiven my dad, otherwise I would not be free.
Forgiveness is not about saying it was ok. But if you’re holding onto unforgiveness toward anyone, you’ll see they’re just off living their life while you’re sitting there suffering. You have to take your heart to the One who can heal it.
Q: What made you engage in this life rather than lapsing into excuses and scapegoating?
A: I have pursued healing and wholeness and aliveness more than anyone I know. At the end of the day, freedom is what I’m after. All the things that have happened to me that were horrible were outweighed by all the events and people divinely orchestrated in my favor to bring me to where I am today.
Q: What do you say to others who have suffered under manipulation or abuse or neglect?
A: You say the only thing you can. ‘I’m so sorry. You endured far more than you should have.’ Brené Brown says, ‘Tell your story to the people who have earned the right to hear it.’ If you have the honor of hearing someone’s hard story, hold that tenderly. There is healing that happens when someone whispers the thing.
Q: Is there one question about your life that no one has asked you that you wish someone would ask you?
A: (Long, deliberate sigh.) I would love to be asked, ‘What do you wish you had been acknowledged for and haven’t?’
Q: What do you wish you had been acknowledged for and haven’t?
A: I have been in this space for a long time of navigating two worlds. The world of the ‘bad side’ and the ‘good side’ of my family. One side was going around killing people and one side wasn’t. I have been building bridges in my family for a long, long time. I reconnected with the ‘bad side’ of the family in 2001 and when I did that, everyone on the ‘good side’ was afraid for my life. When I got on Facebook in 2009, I was ‘friends’ with both sides, so I provided a place where they could have conversations with each other in the comments. Not everyone in my family appreciates what I’ve been navigating.
Q: Are you up for a game of popcorn? (Note: We have already been on the phone two hours. There have been tears and hard memories and rabbit trails and long, hard pauses.)
A: Sure. I want to play that game! That sounds fun!
Q: Ok, I say a word or phrase and you tell me the first word that comes to mind. Just one word. Ready?
Ervil Lebaron: Sad
Young Anna LeBaron: Needy
Adult Anna LeBaron: Alive
Your childhood: Convoluted
Your kids’ childhood: Normal
Third printing: UNBELIEVABLE. And yes, put that in all caps because I am screaming at your readers. My book, which is now in its third printing, is a story of freedom. And freedom is my jam. I love talking about it, experiencing it, helping others walk in it, and serving it up, like, ‘Here’s a banquet. Enjoy.’
And so a malnourished little girl who once ate an apple like an animal in front of gawkers now dishes out the fruit of the Spirit like it’s parade candy. A neglected little girl who so badly wanted a daddy became an empowered woman who got more than she ever dreamed from her Father. Anna LeBaron left the madness of a cult for the beauty of a life following Christ. She left her chains in order to serve up freedom. And now a personal growth activist, she understands the power in two simple words like “start walking.”
You can get LeBaron’s book wherever books are sold.
If her story triggers hard emotions, LeBaron offers a journaling guide here.
For a fascinating listen, catch Jen Hatmaker’s podcast featuring authors Ruth Wariner and Anna LeBaron. Only after a Twitter exchange did the two discover they were cousins—and that it was Anna LeBaron’s father who put the fatal hit on Ruth Wariner’s father.
All photos courtesy Anna LeBaron
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