For many years, I was very secretive about the actual details of my background. I lost a friend when I was in middle school because her parents banned her from hanging out with the “polyg kid,” so I learned very young that it was not okay to come from a fundamentalist background. (This was probably one of the most traumatizing events of my childhood.) A few years ago, however, I went public on my Facebook page, mostly by accident, really, with the fact that I was raised in a fundamentalist Mormon church. I also got banned from TLC’s Facebook page in the process. See, a few years ago, my neighbor went on the TLC show Escaping Polygamy. And, he lied. About my family.
I really don’t even know where to start with telling this story. (Maybe I can do a Q&A in a later post that separates the facts from the fiction in this particular show because I just won’t have room for it all here.) I should first offer a disclaimer with my take on the Escaping Polygamy show. I can’t comment on the details of all the stories they cover. There may be some situations where they are actually pulling people from dire straits. While many people equate fundamentalist culture with the highly-visible FLDS sect, the truth is that there is a huge spectrum between the different groups with some being very restrictive and controlling and some being quite liberal. I was raised in the AUB which is a more liberal fundamentalist church. (Think Sisterwives. And, yes, I know their family.) You don’t have to secret away from the AUB. You just move. Or stop attending. We still live right in the middle of a subdivision that is largely members of the AUB. (And, it’s a normal subdivision that has a public road running right through it.)
My neighbor is the family that “escaped” with two wives and the family stayed together. (So, he escaped polygamy to remain a polygamist. So much irony.) There were reasons they decided to go on the show but I guess I can sum it all up by saying that his personal and business dealings were not above board, and he had alienated himself from his friends, family and community by his lack of integrity – he’d made a very uncomfortable bed for himself. We started hearing rumors months before that they were going on Escaping Polygamy, and I kind of couldn’t wait to see how it all played out. I watched it as soon as it released. (I’m weird that way, I guess. It’s bizarre seeing what used to be such a secretive lifestyle on TV, especially when it’s people you know. My husband’s cousin was on One Husband, Three Wives, and I watched that, too.)
Imagine my surprise and anger when I realized that my son appeared on their show. My son was 13 at the time of filming. At almost 16, he now towers over almost everyone in our house and is well over 6 feet tall. A few years ago, he was getting pretty close to that. He is also, um, quirky? He’s my difficult one, and I often wonder if he’s not somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum. If his brain isn’t engaged in something specific, he’s pacing. And, because we’re super on the ball that way, none of our upstairs windows have blinds. Anyway, I’m watching the whole story unfold, one that is filled with a little truth, a lot of half truth and a good dose of flat out lies, and they start freaking out because they “think a gun is pointed at their house.” The camera pans to the source, and they’re filming my son’s bedroom window with a light shining out of it! A light that I immediately recognize as the camping headlamp thingy that my boys have been playing with for months. The Escaping Polygamy show just filmed my child and my house and implied that we were pointing a gun at this family with a dozen young children! (Seriously, if you think someone is in imminent danger and THERE IS A GUN, call the freaking police, don’t zoom in and wax eloquent about the danger!) I. Was. Livid. Livid at our used-to-be-friends for implicating us in such a horrible way and livid at the production team for knowingly fabricating this scenario. (I actually think they got the footage of my son and the headlamp on a different night than when they filmed the “escape.”)
So, I went to their Facebook page and said so. And, so did dozens of other people who were familiar with the situation. People that were both still in the group and people who had left many years before. It took all of 6 hours for me to be banned from the TLC Facebook page. After a few days of heavy censoring, they stopped doing it and allowed comments that were calling out this family for their deception to stay. They had to hire extra staff to moderate the Facebook page and were really entirely unprepared for the backlash created from this episode. At one point, they gave me a contact to discuss the situation with someone on their PR team. I went back and forth via email with them for a bit but just walked away when I realized that they really had no intention of trying to make any of it right. Because they hadn’t shown my son’s face distinctly, I had no legal recourse.
I’m not entirely sure why I’m discussing something that happened two years ago now. I guess because, while my feelings about my culture and community are complicated, I don’t believe that the end justifies the means. Regardless of what I may or may not believe, these are still my friends, family and community, and I hate to see such misinformation perpetuated about decent people. I think it’s unfortunate to see good people lumped into stereotypes and boxes that they don’t deserve. (This is also why I chose not to do a story for the Tribune about the situation with my step-dad.) Like most high-demand religions, Mormon fundamentalism is largely populated by good people who are truly committed to their beliefs and lifestyle. There is good reason to honestly argue the merits of a belief system (this and others), but there’s no reason to lie about it to get the upper hand. Truth is like a lion; set it free, and it will defend itself. Which, apparently, is how you get banned from TLC’s Facebook page.
P.S. Escaping Polygamy is no longer affiliated with TLC. They switched networks a bit ago, so please don’t take this as a commentary on TLC specifically. That’s just who it happened to be when this situation happened.
P.P.S. If you have specific questions about this episode, please leave them here or in a comment on Facebook, and I’ll see if I can address them at a later date.