Have you heard of the “Mormon Manson”? Ervil LeBaron was a fundamentalist Mormon cult leader who orchestrated the murders of over 25 relatives and religious opponents during the 1970s.
I had not heard of him until the monthly Skype book club I have with my sister (who lives in Virginia) and one of our cousins (who lives in Ontario) discussed The Sound of Gravel. It’s a memoir by a woman who escaped from a polygamist cult at the age of 14. I found the book so compelling that I read two related memoirs before our club even met.
I’ve had a vague interest in cults for a long time, but it’s not a topic I’ve researched extensively and it’s been dormant for a while. When I was 18 I lived with family friends for a year. I worked for their business and in our free time one of our hobbies was publishing a weekly newsletter. I wrote a column called the “Cult Corner” where I wrote a little about a different cult each week.
So nearly 13 years later I got caught up in these fascinating but heartbreaking memoirs. Each was written by a woman connected to a Mormon fundamentalist cult run by the LeBaron clan. Although each book is self-contained, you might appreciate some background information.
In 1924 Alma LeBaron Sr. moved his family from the U.S. to Mexico after being excommunicated from the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church for practicing polygamy. At his death in 1951 his son Joel became the leader of the community, whose church became officially organized as The Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Time. Joel and several of his brothers all claimed to be prophets.
When a split in the leadership occurred Ervil LeBaron started the Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God. Then, in 1972 Ervil had Joel murdered. This was the beginning of a killing spree. Ervil was eventually sentenced to life in prison in Utah, where he died of a heart attack in 1981.
The memoirs I read were written by one of Ervil’s daughters, one of his nieces, and two of his sisters-in-law. They contain some difficult content, such as extreme poverty, child abuse, and tragic deaths, so I will provide caveats in my reviews.
Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist’s Wife by Irene Spencer (Center Street, 2007)
Born in 1937, Irene became the second wife of Verlan LeBaron (the youngest brother of Joel and Ervil) at age 16. She moved from place to place within the U.S., Mexico, and Nicaragua, and gave birth to 13 children before she left the cult. Choose this memoir if you want the perspective of a plural wife and insight into the teachings of polygamous Mormon cults to understand why women would subject themselves to this lifestyle. N.B. It contains commentary on sexual intimacy and many descriptions of childbirth. (Irene has also published a second memoir: Cult Insanity: A Memoir of Polygamy, Prophets, and Blood Atonement.)
Favorite Wife: Escape from Polygamy by Susan Ray Schmidt (Lyons Press, 2009)
Just after she turned 15 Susan Ray became the sixth wife of Verlan LeBaron (already the father of 25 children), whom she left eight years later. I definitely found it interesting to compare memoirs by two sister-wives. Choose this one if you want the perspective of a plural wife and to learn more about Ervil LeBaron’s manipulations and magnetic personality. [Update: This is my personal favourite since you learn about the polygamous lifestyle but also details of the cult leadership.] (An earlier version, His Favorite Wife: Trapped in Polygamy, was published in 2006.)
The Polygamist’s Daughter by Anna LeBaron (Tyndale House, 2017)
Anna LeBaron was one of Ervil LeBaron’s fifty children. She met him only three times during her unstable childhood, during which she was moved from place to place to escape the FBI, worked long hours cleaning old appliances, and scrounged for food and clothing in dumpsters and donation bins. This memoir gives the perspective of a child who was unaware of the murders committed by beloved relatives. When she was 13 she left the cult and became a Christian. Choose this memoir if you want to read about growing up in a polygamous cult and the long journey to healing.
The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner (Flatiron Books, 2016)
In this memoir (which I found by far the hardest to read) Ruth relates how she grew up in extreme poverty in a polygamous family in Mexico. It ends when she escapes with her siblings after her mother’s death. In the epilogue you’ll learn that she raised them herself in the U.S. Her resilience after all she went through is inspiring. N.B. This memoir contains sexual abuse and deaths of children. If you are sensitive to particular issues, I recommend researching more about this book before diving in. Choose this book if you want a riveting memoir focused on a shorter amount of time with less background info about the cult and its leaders.