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Holidays can be tough for ex-members of polygamous sects

December 21, 2018
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Joanna Fischer helps her cousin, Maria Barlow Behrmann, make Christmas gifts, at her home in Eagle Mountain, Utah, on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

EAGLE MOUNTAIN, Utah (AP) — Maria Behrmann begins missing her family in September, when she and her mother have birthdays.

The longing continues through late October, about the time in 2011 when her father died. He stayed in touch with Behrmann, even though it violated instructions he had received from leaders of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Behrmann’s mother sees her daughter as an apostate. The mother and Maria’s siblings have little contact with her. That makes Christmas the high point — or low — of Maria Behrmann’s season of yearning.

“I don’t have a lot of religious beliefs or anything,” Behrmann, 28, said, “but, for me, Christmas is about family.”

Not everyone who stops worshipping in a polygamous sect leaves on bad terms, and the ones who do separate are sometimes reunited with family who left before them.

But former sect members also describe how their Christmases within the group were different than for most people. Now they must navigate new holiday experiences and family complications simultaneously.

“I have to have my own traditions now,” said Amanda Grant, one of the stars in the television show “Escaping Polygamy.”

Grant left the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group, in 2013. She said she’s still not allowed in her mother’s house for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Grant said she was taught to follow the church’s leader rather than her own wishes. Scriptures were used to articulate the point, especially, she explained, Matthew 5:30. In the King James Version of the Bible, it reads:

“And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

“You’re either in or you’re out,” Grant said. “And if you’re out, you’re dead to everyone.”

Grant has nine full siblings and 32 siblings total — last she heard — from her father’s three wives. Three of her oldest full siblings are no longer members of the Kingston Group either.

The four of them try to make sure their younger siblings get presents on Christmas, Grant said. The foursome’s Christmas celebration has come to consist of stuffing stockings for one another, getting together with significant others next to a tree and fireplace, and opening the stockings.

That’s not the same as a big family yuletide, Grant said, “but it’s better than being alone on Christmas, which has happened.”

In the FLDS, followers are taught that the members who leave or are kicked out are apostates. Citing a discourse Mormon leader Brigham Young once gave on apostasy, the FLDS are taught apostates should be left “alone severely.”

“For the most part,” said Rose Barlow, who left the FLDS in 2015, “I’m looking forward to celebrating with my brother and sister who left as well.”

The 21-year-old woman is from Hildale, Utah. Many FLDS believe Jesus was actually born closer to Easter and do little celebrating in December. Even though her family considered Christmas a “gentile holiday,” Barlow said, her father would still load her and her siblings — she would eventually have 17 siblings from three mothers — into a van and drive around town to see holiday lights.

They would return for a feast with place settings around a table. Barlow remembers her and her dad putting bowls of Jell-O in the snow to help the gelatin set.

Barlow now lives in Midvale. She spent her first few Christmases out of the sect with new friends. She was excited to be part of it but became sad and depressed.

“Seeing them together,” Barlow said, “and being a part of that family environment brought up a lot of feelings and made me miss my family more.”

Earlier this year, Barlow’s 17-year-old sister left the FLDS. She is living near Midvale, too, and Barlow plans to spend Christmas with her and “spoil” the teen with presents.

Barlow doesn’t know if she’ll hear from her parents.

“If they really wanted to reach out, they would,” she said. “I don’t see what’s stopping them.”

Leah Taylor isn’t sure her brother knows she exists.

The 24-year-old Sandy woman was a member of the Apostolic United Brethren. Her father left the group a few years after she did. His two wives, including Taylor’s mother, decided to stay.

Taylor’s stepmother had just given birth to a son, and Taylor said her father agreed to sign away his parental rights in exchange for not paying child support. (The father, through Taylor, declined to comment for this story. Taylor’s stepmother did not respond to messages seeking comment.)

AUB members, unlike the FLDS, aren’t necessarily taught to distance themselves from former members, Taylor said, but continuing relationships are discouraged. She said her stepmother remarried another man in the AUB and is raising the boy, now 6, as his own. Taylor hasn’t seen that brother since he was a newborn.

“I would like to be a part of his life,” Taylor said.

Meanwhile, Taylor’s mother lives in an AUB community in Eagle Mountain. The relationship is strained, she said, and visiting in the AUB community is awkward.

That’s all meant less time with a full brother who is 9 years old. Taylor’s daughter is 6. She said her child and Taylor’s two young brothers could all use one another in their lives.

The 9-year-old boy “struggles having not had a male figure in his life consistently,” Taylor said. “Sometimes I think he could really use a brother. My daughter could use more friends her age.

“It’s definitely harder around the holidays,” she added.

A lot of former polygamous sect members remember the date they left the way others remember birthdays and anniversaries. Alyssa Bistline’s family exited the FLDS on Dec. 10, 2013.

They spent that first Dec. 25 with aunts, uncles and cousins who had left years earlier. The rediscovered relations bought presents for everyone in Bistline’s family.

“You could tell for them Christmas was really important,” said Bistline, who is 24 and living in Boise, “and it was fun to get all drawn into that.”

Returning the gesture, though, hasn’t always been easy. A lot of people leave polygamous sects broke. Sometimes they are teenagers with no savings; other times they didn’t work outside the home, or they consecrated their paychecks to their church.

Last Christmas, Bistline and her mother were strapped for money and couldn’t afford presents. Friends bought gifts for her youngest siblings.

“If I’m in a bad financial situation,” Bistline said, “and I don’t reciprocate (gifts), then I feel guilty about it.”

This month, Christmas will be different at Behrmann’s home in Eagle Mountain.

Her 4-year-old daughter, Avalon, is now old enough to appreciate the holidays. And earlier this year, one of Behrmann’s cousins, Joanna Fischer, 17, moved away from her FLDS family in Cedar City. She is living with Behrmann and her husband.

On Tuesday night, Behrmann, Fischer and Avalon sat at the kitchen table. Avalon sang about Santa Claus — to the tune of “Jingle Bells” — and cut up scrap wrapping paper. The women were putting together candy gift packages to take to the employees Behrmann supervises at a restaurant.

But even the happy developments in their lives have Behrmann and Fischer thinking of absent family.

“There’s a certain magic that I didn’t realize existed,” Behrmann said, “until I saw, not even my first Christmas (out of the FLDS), but my first Christmas with a child. It breaks my heart my mother will never see that with a grandchild.”

“And I want to go down to my house down in Cedar where my family lives,” Fischer replied, “and set up a tree and decorate the house and everything, but I’d get kicked out for that one.”

As they continued their candy packaging, Behrmann suggested to Fischer they play the kind of game made for big families: How many months do you not have a siblings’ birthday?

For Fischer, the answer is April — she thinks. For Behrmann, it’s January — she thinks.

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