‘Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey’: Engrossing series on Warren Jeffs cult plays out like a horror movie
Four-part Netflix documentary explains how FLDS leaders ran members’ lives, pushed polygamy and forced underage girls into marriage.
We see vaguely disturbing, home movie-type footage of young women and girls in color-coordinated pastel outfits, parading about in some type of pageant or ritual, and we hear a woman say, “When I was 14 years old, they forced me to marry my cousin. … I was told, ‘If you’re questioning me, you’re questioning God.’ ” Another woman says, “You’re going up against a lifetime of conditioning, a lifetime of fear.”
Cue the haunting title theme, “Feel More” by Michelle Gurevich:
I was born for the road…
Only after a storm can you feel the sun
Oooh I wanna feel more …
A four-part documentary available Wednesday on Netflix.
It all feels like the setup for an elevated horror film, and in a way that’s accurate, because the four-part Netflix documentary series “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” is a true-life tale of a monstrous cult and its criminally abusive leaders, a place that called itself a church when it was in fact a well-organized, powerful and intimidating organization that fostered the systematic abuse of girls and young women while sanctimoniously cloaking itself in righteousness and flouting the laws of this country and the laws of decency.
Emmy and Peabody Award-winning director Rachel Dretzin has crafted a masterful, engrossing and at times chilling series that plays out like a real-life horror movie; even the eerily effective score sounds like something out of Blumhouse Productions. “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” features previously unseen archival footage, a few well-timed and tastefully rendered re-creations and illuminating interviews with survivors who have escaped the clutches of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a radical offshoot of Mormonism that continued to promote and facilitate polygamy long after the church had banned the practice. “The more wives, the more children you have, the higher in heaven you’ll be,” explains one former FLDS member.
In Episode One, we meet Lloyd and Myrna Wall, who speak in almost creepy, matter-of-fact tones as they talk about how “The Prophet,” one Rulon Jeffs, dictated how Lloyd should take a second wife. Lloyd and Myrna had nine children, while Lloyd and his second spouse, Sharon, had 14. One of those children, Rebecca Wall, describes how “my father brought me to Rulon Jeffs” to become just the latest in an obscenely long line of young women who were married to the so-called Prophet. It was considered a “massive honor” within the community, notes Rebecca, adding: “Rulon Jeffs was 85 when I married him. And I was 19.” In exchange for handing over his daughter to Jeffs, Lloyd was “gifted” with a third wife.
Wallace Jeffs, a son of Rulon who was kicked out of the community for perceived injustices against God, says he has “62 siblings that we were aware of.” In subsequent episodes, we learn that after Rulon Jeffs died in 2002 at age of 92 — much to the shock of his constituents, who truly believed Jeffs was immortal — Jeffs’ son Warren (Wallace’s half-brother) took over leadership of the community and somehow managed to become even more evil, more manipulative, more nauseatingly corrupt than his father.
Warren Jeffs ordered the FLDS membership to sell their homes, give up their businesses and move to Short Creek on the Utah/Arizona border, establishing a community where Jeffs could control every aspect of life. Restrictions were placed on clothing (denim was outlawed, the color red was banned), and girls were given extensive lessons in creating a certain kind of hairstyle. Community members were told Warren Jeffs knew everything they were thinking. It was eventually learned Jeffs had presided over the marriages of 67 underage girls to FLDS men, and that Jeffs himself had 78 wives, 24 of whom were underage.
“This was a crime story,” says Mike Watkiss, a journalist/author who dedicated much of his career to investigating the FLDS. “A sex crimes story.”
With survivors bravely telling their stories and director Dretzin expertly weaving in news footage and home video clips, “Keep Sweet” recounts a January 2004 gathering of thousands of FLDS members, at which Warren Jeffs read off a list of 21 names he claimed God had given to him — names of “master deceivers” who had committed unforgivable sins and were immediately banished. The men were told to leave town immediately and that their wives and children had been “released” from them. Two years later, Jeffs was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for arranging marriages between male followers and underage girls, and he went on the run, but was eventually captured and sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years for numerous offenses, including sexual assault of a child.
Near the end of the series, when we see two of the survivors sitting on a porch, enjoying cold beers and quietly bonding, we have great admiration for their strength and courage — and we think life plus 20 years doesn’t begin to cover the punishment Warren Jeffs deserves.