Stories like this one make my heart hurt

As anyone who knows me or my creative work knows, I have major problems with fundamentalist christianity that stem from my own experiences with them. But bad as my experiences were, much as I feel alienated from my parents because of our disagreements, they're nothing compared to the story these kids have to tell.

ST. GEORGE, Utah — Woodrow Johnson was 15, and by the rules of the polygamous sect in which his family lived, he had a vice that could condemn them to hell: He liked to watch movies.

When his parents discovered his secret stash of DVDs, including the “Die Hard” series and comedies, they burned them and gave him an ultimatum. Stop watching movies, they said, or leave the family and church for good.

With television and the Internet also banned as wicked, along with short-sleeve shirts — a sign of immodesty — and staring at girls, let alone dating them, Woodrow made the wrenching decision to go. And so 10 months ago, with only a seventh-grade education and a suitcase of clothes, he was thrown into an unfamiliar world he had been taught to fear.

It would be easy to dismiss this kind of story as an aberration, as a tale of a fucked-up cult on the Arizona/Utah border with no connection to the wider world, especially since they've gone to great lengths to separate themselves socially from society. They separate themselves in large part because they fear law-enforcement--the "prophet" who leads them is in jail awaiting trail on charges of sexual exploitation. But this group, which calls itself the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints) is hardly the only one to practice the casting out of disbelievers. They just do it in a more extreme way. Even the Jehovah's Witnesses, for whom I hold little affection these days, didn't toss minors into the streets.

This is a larger problem than most anyone not directly involved with it is probably aware of, though.
Shannon Price, director of the Diversity Foundation, an educational nonprofit group near Salt Lake City, estimates that 500 to 1,000 teenage boys and young men have left Mr. Jeffs’s sect in the last six years, based on the hundreds who have contacted her group and another nonprofit, New Frontiers for Families.

These kids are horribly damaged, and will need lots of help to come to grips with what has happened to them. I left my church when I was in my mid-20s, and my parents didn't completely cut me off until a couple of years after that, when my expulsion became official, so I've been able to deal with the anxiety not only as an adult, but as a person who left willingly. These kids have neither, and their pain is amplified by the belief most of them still likely carry around that they're going to hell as a result of their actions.

That's an extraordinary threat to have hanging over one's head, and it would be easy to dismiss it, if you're not a believer or if you belong to a church that has de-emphasized the angry aspect of the Old Testament God. Fear is a powerful motivator, perhaps the most powerful, and if you've never been taught that some things are just symbols, meant to stand in for larger concepts, then it can be used as a dangerous method of behavior control. In my case, the threat was never hell--it was the loss of life forever in paradise, which is somewhat less effective. The threat of eternal punishment is far more terrifying than the more abstract idea of losing something you can't really grasp in the first place.

One group of the boys has already sued the church, and won, and I hope more follow. The church leaders will no doubt call this a sign that God is testing their faith, and that they will be rewarded in the future. In the meantime, these boys--and even more frightening, and not mentioned here, the girls who are left behind and used as "wives" for the monsters in charge--are the real victims here.

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