I mean, where do I even start? You see, I’m no stranger to the story of Warren Jeffs and the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). Being a true crime genre fan, cult cases are one of my top interests. Nevertheless, I still found myself in utter shock and disbelief while watching this documentary.
Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey by director Rachel Dretzin is Netflix’s latest crime docu series on the rise and fall of Warren Jeffs and his horrific abuse of FLDS members. FLDS being the fundamentalist offshoot of the mainstream Mormon Church that was formed in the ’80s after the latter outlawed polygamy. The four-parter dives deep into the devious schemes of Jeffs, how he rose to the role of “prophet” and took advantage of his status to systematically live out his perversions on innocent women and children.
Obviously, there’s a lot to unpack here. But perhaps the first matter to clarify is that although they claim to be a church, the FLDS is nothing more than a cult that brainwashes and abuses its members. And Jeffs? Definitely not a prophet but a criminal, a pedophile who sexually abused children and forced them into marriages before his incarceration. Today, even while in prison, the FLDS continues to operate, with blind loyalists hanging on to Jeffs’ every word and carrying out his every command.
The FLDS was initially formed following the belief that polygamy should continue within the Mormon Church. Members believed that the more wives men had, the closer they became to God. The magic number was three, ensuring that a man with at least three wives would go to heaven. Not to be outdone, Jeffs of course had to have the most wives, even marrying his late father’s spouses and reaching a total of 78 by the time of his downfall.
But what about the women? How would they go to heaven? Why weren’t they allowed to have multiple husbands? No idea. According to Jeffs, they were there to “keep sweet,” meaning to pray and to obey, without question, their “prophet” and the men in the group. Never mind their salvation. Like in any misogynistic environment, women existed as commodities for the men in the FLDS.
Not only the women, but the children too. Girls as young as 12 and unable to provide consent were forced to marry adult men. Twenty-four of Jeffs’ wives were reportedly under the age of 17 when he married them, with the youngest being 14. Other male members, especially senior men and those on his good side, also took on their own child brides. Primarily used as a means of control, independent teens were married off to older men to keep them in check.
The young boys who were considered part of the “surplus”—as the females could only have one husband and were often arranged to marry older men—were thrown out of the community, left to fend for themselves and brave a world they knew absolutely nothing about.
There is no way to justify this abhorrent practice, which has scarred for life many young girls and boys. In the documentary, several women speak out and take control of their lives and their story. I cannot imagine the horrors of constantly reliving the nightmare that was their life in the FLDS, but we do see the importance of them sharing their stories no matter how heartbreaking.
Jeffs’ control went beyond the FLDS members’ relationships and conduct, beyond their minds and bodies. He also financially controlled them by acquiring their businesses and properties in the guise of loyalty and commitment. The more he owned, tangible and otherwise, the more powerful and untouchable he became. He had members of the police, government officials, and others in positions of power all wrapped around his finger.
Aside from the harrowing accounts of former FLDS members and the overwhelming evidence found against Jeffs, what also stood out to me was the survivors’ sense of knowing that there was something fundamentally wrong with their situation even though they had known no other way to live. These women came to know FLDS as their way of life and their only community. Jeffs’ teachings were the only guiding principles they held on to as they were deliberately kept ignorant of the outside world and the truth. And yet, they had a strong sense of knowing that eventually set them free—not without irreparable damage, yes, but still somehow free. It just proves that we have inherent knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong and that no matter how vile, malevolent forces like Jeffs try to twist the two around, light will always prevail.
This Needs To Stop
At present, Jeffs is serving his life sentence plus 20 years for his child sexual assault conviction, with the possibility of parole in 2038 (at which point he will be 82 years old). FLDS is still operational, not a surprising outcome as it often happens that cults continue to operate even after the undoing of its leader, no thanks to loyal followers.
As loyalists continue to claim Jeffs’ innocence and demand his release, more must be done not just to hold him and his accomplices accountable, but also to save the children from further abuse. With Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey‘s popularity, perhaps the powers that be can be moved into further action, especially to immediately remove children from such dangerous spaces and situations. As evidenced by the persistence of the FLDS, the horrors do not end with the incarceration of the “prophet.”
Filled with riveting and outrageous first-hand accounts, Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey makes you furious and uncomfortable at the same time. It makes you want to vehemently demand justice for the victims while also wanting to cleanse your memory of the monstrosities committed by Jeffs and company. It is, without exaggeration, like a horror movie gradually building up to a chilling ending where you hear disturbing audio recordings of Jeffs that will haunt you in your sleep.
Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey shows empathy to the survivors, has meaty storytelling and a steady pace, and is visually compelling. We see hurt but empowered faces. We hear vulnerable but dignified voices. We are made privy to tragically innocent moments, prairie dresses and braids and all, captured on home video and in photos. Even the re-enactments appeal to the emotions. Overall, it is an effective albeit unsettling account of large-scale abuse, exploitation, and crime, the magnitude of which is most difficult to capture but is nonetheless given justice in the work.
If I would have the opportunity, I would be curious to see an additional part that would dig deeper into the systems that led to Jeffs’ years of unchecked tyranny in the FLDS. How exactly did he manage to get away with this for years? How did the group grow to its peak proportions and infiltrate other positions of power? Who else are to blame for this (let’s name names) because he surely isn’t the only one? Some of the answers can be deduced from the overall piece, but an additional episode to tackle these, in my opinion, would be a further eye-opener.
Overall, a recommended watch but not without the caveat that Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey is not for the faint of heart. It will anger you. It will nauseate you. But if you can stomach it, listen to the stories that need to be, even though painfully, heard.