Jan 14, 2016

I grew up with 41 siblings in a polygamist cult

Dana Schuster
NY Post
January 14, 2016

You may have watched television shows about it, but few have experienced the brutality and sexism of some cults firsthand. Ruth Wariner has. The 43-year-old grew up in a polygamist colony in Mexico where she had more than 40 siblings. Wariner, whose new memoir, “The Sound of Gravel,” is out now, tells The Post’s Dana Schuster what it was like growing up poor with an abusive stepfather, and about the final straw that caused her to plot her escape once and for all.

“Hey, did you know that we’re sisters?” Natalia whispered to me. It was my first day in elementary school and I had just met this girl.

“Are you sure?” I asked, thinking I misheard her.

“I think so. My mom said your dad is Joel the prophet … Joel was my dad, too,” she said. Then she pointed to the little girl in the front row. “She’s our sister, too.”

My mouth dropped.

Wariner has published a memoir about living in a polygamist colony. “Sometimes I look back on my life and think, ‘Really? Did this happen?'” she says.

I had never met my half-siblings, but I knew I had them. A lot of them. I grew up in a polygamist cult, the Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times, a Fundamentalist Mormon sect in Chihuahua, Mexico. My father, Joel LeBaron, was the prophet of the sect. I was 39th of his 42 children.

Three months after my birth, my dad was rumored to have been killed by his own brother in a bid for church power. My mother, Kathy, remarried, becoming wife No. 2 of a man named Lane. She already had four children with my father and went on to have six more with Lane.

Lane could barely support his first wife and her brood, let alone ours. We lived in a ramshackle adobe house where we subsisted on beans and eggs. My mother went to the States regularly to collect welfare checks — her parents lived there after defecting from the church. I took care of my siblings, many of whom were mentally disabled, feeding them and washing their dirty cloth diapers.

I never liked Lane, and hated him after I turned 8. That’s when he’d sneak into my bedroom during the nights he stayed with my mom and touch me. Lane promised me ice cream if I kept quiet, but I told my mom — multiple times — what he was doing. Each time she told me Lane was sorry and that we needed to practice forgiveness. It crushed my soul that my mother wouldn’t leave him. But in our religion, women needed to be married to get into heaven, so she stayed.

Wariner as a child, riding a horse in an undated photo.

When I turned 14, my mom and Lane pulled me out of school to help with the house and kids full time. One day, I found my brother Micah and stepbrother Junior hanging dead on a barbed-wire fence. Lane had been wiring electricity to another wife’s house, and the boys had been electrocuted. I screamed in horror. My mother came running out.

“Do not touch the fence!” I yelled. But she did.

She died, too.

Heartbroken, my older brother Luke, three younger half-sisters and I were sent to live with Lane’s fourth wife, Marjory. When I found out that Lane had molested Luke (who was 17 at the time but had the mental capacity of a 5-year-old), I knew we had to escape.

My brother Matt, who had moved to California years ago, drove to Mexico to get the five of us. We lived with my grandmother while I got my GED. Lane tried to get his kids back, but I went to court and fought him and won.

I’m now living in Portland, Ore., where I stopped teaching high school Spanish in order to write, and have been married to Alan, a sales consultant, for eight years. Because we got married when I was 36, we decided not to have children.

Lane died three years ago. Somehow, I’ve learned to forgive him. Sometimes I look back on my life and think, “Really? Did this happen?” But I’ve tried to let go of the anger inside of me.

I’ll never forget when, a few months before my mother died, she told me she loved me — words I don’t think I had ever heard from her before.

“Ruthie, I need to tell you … that I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry for everything that you’ve gone through, for everything Lane has done to you. I do feel like things have gotten better. Don’t you think so?” she asked, crying hard.

I do now.


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