I grew up in a violent, fundamentalist, polygamist cult—a radical offshoot of the modern-day Mormon church. My father, Ervil LeBaron, was the man at the top.
He demanded total allegiance. In the 1970s and ’80s, he commanded followers to carry out mob-style hits on those who opposed him or fled his cult. He referred to these killings as “hot lead, cold steel, and a one-way ticket to hell.” Media outlets nicknamed my father “the Mormon [Charles] Manson” for the atrocities he committed, and authorities in multiple states (and Mexico) issued arrest warrants for him and his murderous followers.
We moved unexpectedly and often, living in constant fear of getting caught. On many occasions, we left home in the middle of the night to stay one step ahead of the authorities. The FBI and Mexican police would raid our homes, looking for my father and the others who had carried out his orders.
We experienced poverty of mind, spirit, and body. It doesn’t take any mathematical genius to realize that one man cannot support 13 wives and over 50 children. His ministry consumed all his time. Some of his wives worked, and others went on welfare, but they could never manage to make ends meet. Everyone, even young children, worked long hours in grueling conditions to ensure we didn’t starve. Even so, we regularly scavenged—or outright stole—to meet basic food and clothing needs.
As you can imagine, we were never allowed to make friends with anyone outside the cult.
Until a few years ago, the only pictures I had of my father were newspaper clippings, including one (from the National Enquirer) of him in handcuffs after the Mexican police finally tracked him down. After being taken into custody by the FBI agents waiting across the border, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in a Utah prison.
A Difficult Mourning
Even though I grew up in a religious group that claimed to believe the Bible, I had no idea who Jesus was. When anyone in our tight-knit community spoke the name of Jesus or mentioned Christianity, they did so with contempt and derision. But God had his eye on me even then. When I was very young and living in an overcrowded house in Denver, I took advantage of an opportunity to go to Sunday school, provided by a local church that sent a bus down our street every Sunday morning.
The teachers handed out prizes if you took home papers, answered the questions, and brought them back the next week. I didn’t always know the answers, but I definitely wanted the prizes.
One day the Sunday school teacher asked us, “Who is God’s Son?” I had no idea how to answer. After a while, though, I figured out that no matter which question the teacher asked, if you answered “Jesus” you would be right about half the time. That meant more prizes!
My older brother Ed, who lived and worked in Houston, wanted a better life for us. I remember the day, not long after my father’s imprisonment, when he showed up in Denver with a U-Haul truck. For what seemed like the first time, we were allowed to pack up all our belongings before we moved. Living in Houston, I experienced my first taste of a stable, non-chaotic life.
After about a year—that was probably the longest I’d ever lived in the same place—the phone rang one Sunday morning. I picked up the receiver and heard my mother talking on the extension upstairs. The caller reported that my father had been found dead in his prison cell. I was shocked, but having never spent any significant time with him, I found it difficult to mourn as a normal child would.
Still, my father’s death triggered a chain of events that changed the trajectory of my life. The Bible’s description of God as “a father to the fatherless” (Ps. 68:5) became true and real for a troubled teenage girl.
After hearing the news, my mother decided to move back to Denver and the chaos of the cult. I didn’t want to go with her. I called Lillian, an older sister who had married and had begun distancing herself from the cult a few months earlier. She told me, “Start walking.” I hung up the phone and walked out of my house with just the clothes on my back.
I had walked a little over three miles when she found me and picked me up. She hid me in a hotel for three days. My mother looked for me that night, and when she couldn’t find me, she loaded up my other siblings in our station wagon and, without telling them where they were going, drove them back to Denver. As usual, they left behind most of their belongings.
Lillian and I waited until we were sure they were long gone before driving back to the recently abandoned house. It felt dark and ominous going inside, but I was determined to retrieve what little I owned. I packed up all my clothes and the little odds and ends that have such meaning to a 13-year-old girl, and I moved in with Lillian, her husband, Mark, and their six children.
They reluctantly enrolled me in a Christian school just down the road. Compared to the public schools in their area, they considered it the lesser of two evils. Several students there embraced the new girl, and they became my first real friends outside the cult. They showed me love and acceptance quite different from anything I’d ever experienced. I could tell they had something inside them that I was missing and desperately needed. From my friends at school (and at the church with which it was affiliated), I learned about the Good News of God’s love for me. I learned how Jesus, God’s Son, was sent to earth to die on the cross for my sin. I learned that Jesus lived, was crucified, and was raised from the dead.
Not long after enrolling in the Christian school, my sister allowed me to go on a retreat with the church youth group. The youth pastor gave me the opportunity to ask Jesus to come into my life and change me. That night, God took the broken heart of a 13-year-old girl in his hands, and since then he has been gradually restoring the wholeness that my chaotic childhood smashed to pieces.
I left the retreat a different person than when I arrived. I didn’t understand everything about God or the Bible, but I had a willing heart and lots of friends around to help me learn what I needed to know.
Because I wasn’t sure how my sister and her husband would feel about my acceptance of Jesus as Savior, I kept quiet about it at home so I wouldn’t get sent back to Denver. Much later, they both accepted Christ as well, which gave me the freedom to open up about my salvation experience.
My faith has carried me through the dark valleys I’ve walked on my healing journey. It has helped me persevere through intense fear, tragedy, and multiple murders of people I love. As a child, I knew myself only as the polygamist’s daughter. But when I came to truly know and experience God as my father, he shattered the evil, all-consuming grip my earthly father had on my life. I began to find my identity as a daughter of God and learned to experience true freedom in and through Jesus Christ alone.
Anna LeBaron is a speaker, life coach, and mother of five in the Dallas–Fort Worth area. She is the author of The Polygamist’s Daughter: A Memoir (Tyndale).
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