I watched with fascination Oprah's tour of the Yearning For Zion ranch in Texas. Last year, 400+ children were removed from this group on suspicion of underage polygamist marriages and sexual abuse. All but one of the children were returned.
I appreciated Oprah's desire to understand these people. The state made a huge blunder in forcibly removing the children. On the one hand, I understand why they swooped down with tanks, helicopters and machine guns. They were hoping to pre-empt a Waco scenario by staging a a surprise attack.
However, this method only strengthened the resolve of the FLDS. It also served to re-enforce their belief that they are a persecuted people, victims of an intrusive State. We know from history that when a group is persecuted it usually goes underground and grows stronger.
The ONLY way to help these people is by seeking to understand them. The real shackles that bind the FLDS are mental, not physical.
Our goal in helping these people should never be to make them "normal" Americans. That would be like asking them to change their DNA. The way into the minds and hearts of these people is through providing options for the women and children. The whole reason these young women do not leave the ranch is because their lives are planned out for them from the moment of their birth. They say they are free to leave if they so desire, but where will they go?
Their entire world is the YFZ. They have no outside contacts, no outside family. All their family and friends are on the inside. Besides all this, they have been taught from birth that the individual life is subject to the collective. The self is not greater than the community because their entire lives are lived for and because of the community. Ultimately, leaving the community is akin to leaving God.
Leaving that lifestyle is more difficult than can possibly be imagined to the average American. Just thinking a different thought is a huge obstacle for these people who have been taught how and what to think since birth.
This is why they think polygamy is a beneficent, kind, healthy family model. The wives said they all loved each other and were "good friends." Closer examination proves this thinking to be disingenuous.
In polygamist families, there is a hierarchy. There are first, second and third wives. And the husband has complete decision making authority. It's difficult to be "good friends" with your boss–which to a third wife is very nearly what a first wife is to her.
When the women said that they liked to live in a polygamist marriage because it provided practical means of "improving themselves," they are lying–although not intentionally. They truly believe in their own dishonesty. What they call self-improvement is actually self-abnegation–the painfully slow, torturous crushing of any sense of individuality. There is no "I" in polygamist marriage. There is only "we."
Even the children do not belong to one particular mother. The children of one family belong to all the mothers. The parents decide whom the child will marry. As one of the teenagers said, love is not necessary before marriage. In fact, it's not even necessary to know the man whom they will marry or whether they will be first, second or third wife. Their parents and their husband will decide that for them.
Clearly, not even the entire US Army can break the ties that bind the hearts and minds of these people. What is needed is kindness, understanding and a non-judgmental reaching out.
We will never win these people through logic, debate or arguing.
But we may win them with kindness.
The language of kindness is universal.