About 90 miles (140km) north-east of the Grand Canyon, in a barren desert surrounded by rust-red cliffs and majestic canyons, lies the Short Creek community. This is the headquarters of the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), a branch of Mormonism which splintered off in the early 20th Century. It's famous for its conservative ways – no television or internet, outdated clothing (women wear full-length prairie dresses) – and polygyny, where one man can take many wives. After a series of scandals, the religion’s leader, Warren Jeffs, is now in jail. But the community and their way of life continues in the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City, just as it did when it was first founded nearly 100 years ago.
As BBC Future reported this week, the community’s long history of polygyny has led to serious genetic problems:
The polygamous town facing genetic disaster
But what is it like to live in the polygynous community in Short Creek? BBC Future spoke to Faith Bistline about her previous life in the religion – and the tense moments on the night she decided to run away.
Tell me about your family.
“I have three mothers and 27 siblings – I think my oldest brother is 42 and the youngest… he was four when I left, so I guess he would be around 10 now. My father was kicked out when I was 13 and he hasn’t been in my life since then. He came to my grandfather’s funeral six months after he left and he didn’t even recognise a lot of us, which was weird.
“Pretty much every adult in Colorado City is in a polygynous marriage. They believe that men must marry at least three women in order to go up to heaven. Not everyone has this many, though. You have to be deemed worthy, so some men only have one or two.”
What was the daily routine like there?
“So we had to get up at 5:00 and then we had a family class where my father would read us one of the prophet’s sermons. After that we would all kneel down in a circle to pray. Then one of the mothers would cook breakfast and my father would go to work. Some of my mums worked so they would go to work too, while one stayed behind with the children. Then I’d have school all day and in the evening we’d have another family class after dinner – then repeat. Every day was the same.
Would you have been married off eventually?
“Oh yeah, definitely. There was a system. In order for someone to get married, their father would have to go to Warren Jeffs and say, ‘Hey, my son or daughter is ready,’ and then he’d place them in a marriage. If your husband wasn’t married to someone already, he’d probably be given another wife eventually.”
If some men have several wives, does that mean others don’t have any?
“It works out because a lot of the younger boys get kicked out when they’re teenagers. Some of them start watching movies and these types of things aren’t allowed. That leaves more girls than there are guys.”
Why was your father kicked out?
“He was actually never told why. But after Warren Jeffs was arrested, the police released all his records – he took notes of everything – and we discovered that he had a dream that my dad had turned him into the FBI. We think that was the reason.”
Have any of your brothers left?
“Yeah, this happened to three of my brothers. One of them actually went to college after being out for a few years – he studied biophysical engineering – but he was older. And there’s two in Los Angeles. One of them is still trying to repent because he wants to go back into the religion. Then the other one, he was like that for a little bit, but now he’s kind of slowly adapting to the outside world. You’re not allowed any contact with your family after you leave, so I didn’t know any of this until I left.”
Did you ever question the religion?
“They would always tell us in church, if we had any questions to ‘put them on the shelf’. What they meant was to just not worry, because Warren Jeffs knew what he was doing. I don’t think people gossiped much at all and if they did they were usually found out.
“I thought that I was blessed because I happened to be born into the FLDS. We were always told that it was very wicked outside – I thought that normal people were miserable with their lives.
“When I was trying to decide if I should leave, I called my brother who left about six years before I did. I asked if he regretted his decision and he said, ‘No, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.’ So that’s when I was like wait a minute… I started questioning everything.”
When did you decide to leave?
“I met my boyfriend after he started a rumour that we were dating. Initially I just wanted his phone number because I was mad – dating was against the rules. He had left the FLDS by that point, but he’d still come back to Colorado City to see friends. Anyway eventually we made plans to meet up.
“My house had a high brick wall around it and so he parked so that he was hidden behind it. I snuck out but it didn’t take long before my family realised I was missing. Five of my brothers jumped into their truck and came after me. My boyfriend was super worried.
“My brothers called me and demanded that I pull over – but when I asked what they were going to do they said they wanted to break his neck. Anyway we started driving really, really fast and it was getting dark. We went around a corner and just about had an accident. I was scared, so I asked him to slow down and I jumped out. Then my brothers took me home.
“The next day, they took me to their office to help with some data entry. I managed to get hold of my boyfriend – who I had still only met a couple of times – and he gave me a secret phone so that we could talk. I hid it in my bra. Later that night I turned it on and a message popped up saying, ‘I love you’.”
How did you escape?
“A few months later I’d been kicked out of church – but not the religion – because this is how they punish people. My family started to reject me. It was very hurtful and that’s when I knew I had to leave.
“My boyfriend drove up in the middle of the night, parked behind the brick wall and shut off the headlights. It was a small car with five other people, but I managed to get a few bags in there. I brought all the journals I had been writing, a box of letters, three pairs of jeans and three shirts. I left all of my polygynous clothes, except the dress that I was wearing. I was so brainwashed by that point, on the way out of town I was shocked that I wasn’t struck by lightning.”
What was the biggest adjustment?
“Everything was different outside, but I was trying to fit in. It sounds silly but it took ages to work out what to do with my hair – we had always worn it pulled back, so I was like, ‘How do girls get their hair to look so pretty, all around their faces?’
“Make-up, that was another thing. I could not for the life of me figure out how to get it on without getting it all over my eyelids. Oh and it took a whole year to get used to seeing myself in pants. I felt like I was very attractive all of a sudden – I had legs!”
Do you agree with polygynous marriage?
“No, no way. I just don’t think it’s fair. In the polygamous marriages that I saw, the man was always in charge and the women – they are lower, I guess. That just doesn’t make sense to me. I believe in equality of the sexes and I don’t think that in polygyny they are equal.”
Join 800,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.