The Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch, a polygamist community in Eldorado, Texas, made national headlines in March 2008 when armed authorities raided the community. Authorities had been tipped off by a phone call claiming the 16-year-old caller was being abused by her husband, a 50-year-old man. Child protective services removed more than 400 children from their homes as investigations continued, but two months later the Texas Supreme Court sent all but one of the children back to their homes, citing lack of evidence of abuse.
Ten months after the children have returned home, Oprah is going behind the gates of the YFZ Ranch to see for herself what life there is like. "Texas state officials say the ranch was a place where child abuse was rampant and young girls were forced into polygamist marriages," Oprah says. "The people who live here say, while yes, they do believe in plural marriages, they say they are not forced to marry anyone."
In September 2007, Warren Jeffs, the ranch's leader, was convicted on two counts of accomplice to rape. He was sentenced to two consecutive prison terms of five years to life and remains in prison. The members of the YFZ ranch maintain his innocence, and his picture hangs in many buildings on the grounds.
The 1,700-acre YFZ Ranch was once home to approximately 700 adults and children, but since the raid that number has dwindled to three or four hundred.
Willie Jessop, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) spokesman, is Oprah's host for the day, but he has one warning. "I have a confession to make," he says. "One thing you won't find here is any TV. There are a lot of people here who aren't going to know who you are."
Many people in the mainstream media describe the YFZ Ranch as a compound, but Willie says FLDS members avoid that description. "The word [compound] makes it look like somebody's restricted," Willie says. "It's like any other town. It's important that you see it, and that's something that people don't quite get."
The towering limestone temple that sits on the ranch is considered a sacred place, so although Oprah was invited to see the grounds, she was not allowed inside. Authorities forced their way into the temple during the 2008 raid, so it is now considered desecrated and stands abandoned.
One of the most controversial claims made after the raid was that authorities found beds in the temple that were supposedly used for men to have sex with young women who had just married in the church. Willie says this is absolutely not true. "If they found it, would they have returned the children? What they found was a facility for a groundskeeper or for worship," he says. "There is no religious ceremony that involves sex in any temple that I'm aware of or affiliated with."
The members who were perhaps most affected by the raid were the children, so Oprah was eager to talk to some of them and see their school. She was unsure, however, of how the students would react to an African-American. "What does your faith and religion teach about black people?" she asks Willie. "Do you teach that we are not human and if you marry one of us that you are punished by death on the spot?"
"Absolutely not," Willie says. "That is not true, but one of the things [the media] likes to do is to sensationalize something out of context." Willie says FLDS is accepting of people of all backgrounds. "We believe in people respecting race."
When Oprah first enters a class of second graders, she is met with wide eyes and silence. "I have to tell you, I talk for a living," she says. "But you might be the hardest people I've ever talked to. I've met my match in this room."
The students finally open up when Oprah asks about toys and what they play with when they want to have fun. "We don't want to play; we want to work," one student says. Willie says the word "play" isn't used on the ranch because it's equated with goofing off. He says they prefer to "work with purpose."
Another topic the students are not shy about is the raid. "They said they'd only take us off the ranch for one hour and they'd bring us back," one boy says. "But they didn't." Instead, the students say they stayed in shelters for the two months they were gone.
Tammy, the second grade teacher, says it has taken the kids awhile to readjust to their usual routine since the raid. That routine includes religious studies, along with math, earth science, English and spelling. When it comes to reading fiction, Tammy says it doesn't have a place in the curriculum. "We study animals and everything that has a purpose," she says. "We don't just study things that are figments of people's imagination, because we're focused. We have a specific reason for everything we do." All the students' studies are working toward one goal, Tammy says—"To become like God on Earth."
When Oprah meets with ten teenage girls, ages 13 to 18, they tell her the raid was not the first time they'd gone outside the ranch's gates. They also leave for dentist and eye doctor appointments. Despite widespread belief, they say they have watched TV and movies. "I've seen several," says one 17-year-old girl. "Chicken Little, Winnie the Pooh."
Many of the girls have cell phones, though they don't play video games or on computers. They say that for fun, they go to school. Some of them even want to go to college. One girl says she wants to be a lawyer, and she knows she will need to leave the grounds for law school. If they decide to leave and live on the outside, they all say that would be allowed.
When it comes to dating, the girls say it is allowed, but it isn't something they are interested in. "I think when you get married it's the start of a relationship, to start going forward in a new era," one girl says. "Before then, if you do everything that you are supposed to do after you get married, you'll stand up and say 'I did,' instead of 'I do.'"
Marriage, the girls say, means to move forward. They say to be married implies that you will come together as husband and wife with the intention to bear children. One girl says when she gets married she will respect her husband, but she won't necessarily be in love with him right away. "I'll respect his standards and what he lives for," she says. "As far as loving him, I'd probably want to know him a little first."
The girls say they decide who they will marry with the help of their parents. "We work with them. ... We don't know everybody," one girl says. If their parents want them to marry someone they don't want to marry, the girls say their parents can't make them. They insist they haven't heard of an instance in which any girl was forced to marry someone she didn't want to.
If they could tell the outside world anything, they say they want people to know they're happy. "We don't get forced into anything," one girl says.
One aspect of life on the YFZ Ranch that has fascinated the outside world is the dresses the women wear, which the mainstream media call prairie dresses. "We believe our bodies our sacred from [our neck to our feet]," one girl says. "So we cover them."
Though the dresses may all look alike to people outside the ranch, the girls say each has its own unique traits. "To you they probably [look the same], but to us, we say, 'Where'd you get your dress?'"
The girls or their mothers sew their own dresses, which take about three days to make. The girls say they take the dresses off only at night, when they change into a nightgown to sleep. They say they even swim in them! "You get used to it," one girl says. "Pretty soon you learn how to work around it."
Carolyn Jessop, a former FLDS member, is one of its most vocal critics of the church. In 2003, she escaped from the polygamist compound in Colorado City, Arizona, with her eight children. At the time, she said one of the main reasons she left was to protect her 14-year-old daughter, Betty, whom Carolyn said would soon be forced into marriage. Betty had a hard time adjusting to life in the outside world, and two days after her 18th birthday she left her mother and siblings to return to the YFZ Ranch.
Betty says she rejoined FLDS because she wanted to return to her old life, family and religion. "There was nothing that I wanted more than that," she says. "I did whatever it took to get back."
Though Carolyn said she wanted to protect Betty from an early marriage, Betty says that wasn't always her mother's story. "After she left, she sat there and told us because she didn't want to live there anymore and she wanted something different," Betty says.
Betty says she never heard talk that she might be married at 14, and she says she doesn't know anyone who was forced to marry at a young age. Betty says she thinks 18 is a more appropriate age for marriage. "When they can accept that responsibility," she says.
Since Betty has lived both inside and outside the ranch, she has a unique perspective on the outside world's perception of her faith. Betty says she knows her mother thinks she's been brainwashed, but she says it couldn't be further from the truth. "We got in arguments over this comment of being brainwashed," she says. "I finally figured out that every time that I differed in opinion, that was a brainwash."
Many observers from the outside of FLDS view it as a cult, but Betty says the ranch feels nothing like a cult. "I come here and I love it. I don't want to leave," she says. "Other people might feel trapped in, or confined ... but I don't feel trapped at all."
At dinnertime, Oprah joined Richard, Joy, Alice, Rosie and their nine children. When asked about having children with multiple women, Richard says it's a hard conversation to have. "It's a discussion that takes a lot of spiritual training and understanding to understand the principles in that way of life," he says.
Maggie, another member of the YFZ Ranch, says living with other women is not difficult and the women regard one another as sisters. "If I didn't live with other women, I would never know about myself. I would never discover the weaknesses in my human flesh," she says. "The bottom line of our way of life is self-improvement, and what better way to improve yourself than live with other women and learn to overcome your bad feelings and jealousy and just live to bless? And that makes a better person of me if I do that."
When asked about the raid that took their children, one mother says it "turned [our lives] upside down and inside out."
Another mother gets emotional when describing being separated from her children. "I got up early to quickly pack their things, and I separated all of the boys' clothes into individual bags with their names on them because we knew that when they took them, they were going to take them from each other," she says.
She says she didn't cry—at first. "I went over there and hugged each of my boys individually. The children didn't understand what was going on," she says. "As I hugged each one and told them, 'Just be sweet, just say your prayers, heavenly father will bless you to come back to me.' And they started crying."
It was when she placed her youngest son in her oldest son's arms that she cried. "I know there's no human person that could ever describe the sound in that building," she says. "I don't think anybody could ever forget the terrible, terrible sound. Just crying, crying, screaming children. Crying mothers. People shouting, 'Go here, go there.' It was the most horrible thing."
To reassure the children that everything would be okay, she says all the mothers started singing. "It helped us, and it helped them."
All but one of the 439 children taken from the ranch in the federal raid have returned, but a cloud of suspicion looms over the community due to reports of underage marriages.
Since the raid, FLDS leaders have announced they will not marry followers below the age of consent—which is 16, with parental consent, in Texas. Richard says he thinks no one should marry before 18, but he knows some who have married younger.
Still, Richard says she's never seen any cases of abuse on the ranch. When asked for a definition of abuse, Richard says he can't give an exact one. "Well, it's kind of a very interpretive topic," he says. "We're so careful with children, and our training is to be clean and pure. And to even sit here and discuss that in front of the children, it's really uncomfortable. Because we don't talk about those kinds of things. It's a very individual thing."
One mother of Richard's children says she wanted to be married at 16, but her father wouldn't let her marry until she was almost 19. She says the heavenly father helped choose Richard as her husband and that she married him at her own will.
"The message that I'm getting is there's individual choice and every family is different," Oprah says.