Another documentary about institutionalized sexual abuse from writer-director Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil, An Open Secret), Prophet’s Prey shines a light on secretive sociopath Warren Jeffs, the self-appointed prophet who heads up the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a fast-growing polygamist sect that broke off from the Mormon Church in 1890. The film pays tribute to the dogged investigators who uncovered enough evidence of Jeffs’ serial rape of children—including the many girls who were among his 60-plus wives—to get him convicted in Texas, where he is serving a life sentence plus 20 years, but Prophet’s Prey is no comforting, trial-heavy procedural about a bad guy being brought to justice. Instead, it’s far more unsettling: the story of a criminal despot who, like some Mafia don, rules his fiefdom from behind bars, with the help of a trusted lieutenant, as surely as he did when he was free. In fact, as Jon Krakauer, author of Under the Banner of Heaven and one of the film’s main talking heads, explains, Jeffs’ status was only enhanced by his incarceration, which fits perfectly with the paranoid contempt and distrust he has always preached for “gentile” society and its laws.
The FLDS remained closed to Berg, its life observed only fleetingly and from a safe distance, in shots taken from passing cars of blond children playing in anachronistically modest clothes, huge houses built to accommodate plural families, and knots of women in prairie dresses, some of them giving the camera the finger. Jeffs also refused to talk to the filmmakers, so we see him only in a few old photos and in video shot in the prison, in which he stands still and stares for minutes on end at the floor of his cell, gazes at himself in the mirror, and refuses to make eye contact with an off-screen lawyer who peppers him with questions as he robotically pleads the Fifth. But tapes seized during a raid on the group’s settlement in Texas provide fascinating audio slices of life inside FLDS, including a chilling snippet of him having sex with a cowed-sounding 12-year-old girl and dreamy, drugged-sounding recordings of Jeffs issuing orders and laying out rules for his flock in what Randy Mankin, the small-town Texas reporter whose investigation of his new neighbors laid the groundwork for Jeffs’ arrest, calls his “God voice.”
Mankin, Krakauer and Sam Brower, the private detective from whose book of the same name the film was adapted, have never been part of FLDS, but the film’s other talking heads are all “apostates.” They include Jeffs’ brother Wallace, his sister Elaine, his nephew Brent, his former head of security, and his 63rd wife, Janetta Jessop, a still-young woman who is decades his junior. “I feel like getting married at 16 took away my entire life,” she says. “From that point on, my entire life has been chaos.” These quietly intense witnesses describe a totalitarian society in which Jeffs manipulates people through a potent mix of fear, economic domination, and often-shifting religious doctrine. Always settling in geographically isolated—and beautiful—spots (“Warren has really good taste in real estate,” Krakauer observes wryly), Jeffs claims nearly all the money his followers make for the church, putting much of it in his own pockets. He frequently uses the men and boys as what one man describes as “slave labor,” requiring them to work punishingly long hours for low or no wages. He casts out people he sees as a threat and plays God with his followers’ home lives, forbidding people to see spouses and children who have been declared “apostates” or assigning girls and women to marry the men who are loyal to him. “The currency is, without question, women and children,” says one witness. “That is what makes this syndicate run.” He also sets the rules for daily life, including arbitrary decrees like no wearing the color red, no playing with toys, no pets, and no dancing. Or, as Krakaeur puts it, “He just kind of removed all the joy.”
But the hardest truth in Prophet’s Prey is that Jeffs gets his power not so much through force as by consent. The thousands of people who live under his sway are so cut off from any other way of thinking or living that they believe whatever he says, so they do what he tells them to even if it causes great pain. After she left Jeffs and was banned from the community, Jeffs’ ex-wife Janette arranged to run into her mother, who is still part of FDLS. Her mother told her that she loved her, she says, choking back tears. But when Janette asked for her number so they could stay in touch, her mother refused. “To me,” says Janette, “she chose religion over her children.”
Written for Brooklyn Magazine