In March 2009, Oprah traveled to Eldorado, Texas, to visit the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch, a polygamist community. She was allowed behind the gates to see what life is really like for the men, women and children who live there.
After getting a peek inside the YFZ homes and schools, many people wrote in to say they had a change of heart about the community. "I was one of those," Gayle King says. "I came away from your show thinking, 'This is their world. We should leave them alone.'"
One critic wasn't convinced. Carolyn Jessop, a former Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) member who escaped from a Colorado City, Arizona, compound in 2003, says one of the reasons she fled 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 returned to the YFZ Ranch.
Betty was one of the young women Oprah spoke to during her visit.
Carolyn says it was very painful to watch Oprah's interview with Betty. "She's under a lot of scrutiny with what she says," Carolyn says. "She has to be very, very cautious."
Though Betty told Oprah she didn't know any girls who were forced to marry at a young age, Carolyn says two of Betty's half brothers have been indicted for underage marriages by a Texas grand jury. "That is a huge controversy," she says. "Betty's under some enormous pressure because she's got some very close family members involved."
Oprah says she did get the sense that Betty was trying to say all the right things during her interview. "You have to understand the culture in order to really understand the pressure that she was under," Carolyn says.
Why would a teenager return to a community that doesn't allow its members to read fiction or watch television? Betty says she missed her old life, family and religion, but her mother says Betty's main motivation was her father.
"Betty's entire world was her father. She loved her father, and out of 54 of his children, she was his princess," Carolyn says. "From the day she was born, he gave her one of his most precious names, a very favorite name that he had chosen for a special daughter."
Carolyn says Betty's age also hindered her transition. "I took her out of the community at an age where there's a lot of controversy between a mother and daughter, as well, and exposed her to a world she was terrified of," she says. "It's just an incredibly difficult situation to integrate a child who's been raised in this society for 14 years."
After they left the polygamist community, Carolyn enrolled her children in public school. Though she encouraged her children to leave the past behind, she says Betty, a middle school student at the time, refused to give up her hairstyle and traditional dress.
"It was something that I spoke with the school about before she entered the school. I was terribly concerned that she would be mistreated," she says. "[They] assured me that they would protect her in every way possible, and from everything that I was aware of, they did that."
Gayle, a mom of two, says even if the school tried to protect Betty, the transition couldn't have been easy. "The kids will still be looking at her definitely as the odd man out," she says. "I don't know how you overcome that."
Since the day Carolyn escaped the polygamist community, she says her relationship with Betty has been strained. Now, their conversations are few and far between.
"It's been very difficult," Carolyn says. "I have had contact with her since she's left, but there's been a few occasions where I lost that contact. So every time I talk to her, I try to keep the conversation very neutral because I don't know if it will be the last time I talk to her for a very long time."
Despite the mother-daughter conflict, Betty remains close to her siblings, whom Carolyn says she misses terribly.
The number one question Oprah received after visiting the Yearning for Zion Ranch was, "Where are all the teenage boys?" Though Oprah saw some young men walking around the compound, Carolyn says many are sent away at a young age.
Carolyn says this practice began when Warren Jeffs became the FLDS leader. "He started marrying a lot more girls into plural marriages," she says. "His father ended up having 60 wives. Men who in this society had more power were given more wives. Then, it created more of a demand and need for the female population, so more of the boys were sent away."
Where do they go? Carolyn says some young men are sent to big cities and told never to come home.
The FLDS denies that any boys are sent away.
When Carolyn was growing up, she says things were different. "This never happened that I was aware of before Warren took over. It used to be when the boys left the community, they were around 18 years old or older, and they were able to get a job and work," she says. "They left willingly and on their own."
Plural marriage also wasn't as prevalent. "Around the time I grew up, about 80 percent of the girls married boys their same age, and 20 percent went into plural marriages," she says. "That changed after Warren took over."
To keep young FLDS members from falling in love, Carolyn says Warren began sending away boys at a younger age...some as young as 14. "[He kept] the boys that were more obedient and passive that he could put on construction jobs and use as a labor source," she says.