'I'm a Person, and I Deserve More': What It's Like to Escape a Polygamous Cult
In Utah, members of the Kingston Clan blend into contemporary society—but the Mormon group openly practices polygamy and incest and exploits its members financially. We spoke to former members to uncover what it's like to grow up in the religious sect...
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
When she was 15 years old, Julianna Johnson was forced to marry her 19-year-old nephew, Jacob Kingston. She was his second wife.
"I felt like a prisoner," says Julianna, now 34, who was raised in a polygamous Mormon breakaway group called the Kingston Clan. "I knew for a long time that I was going to leave."
Known to insiders as the Order, the Kingston Clan, which is headquartered in Utah, is lead by Paul Elden Kingston, son of the late John Ortell Kingston—who, in addition to being one of the first leaders of the Kingston's Latter Day Church of Christ, was also Julianna's biological father. Like their country cousins on the Utah/Arizona border, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the Order is a tight-knit polygamous community, practicing arranged plural marriage between underage girls and much older men, very often close relatives.
The Order and FLDS bear some striking similarities: The respective founders of both sects split away from the mainstream Mormon church in order to continue the practice of polygamy, which was formally outlawed in the LDS faith in the late nineteenth century. However, the Order is much more integrated into contemporary society. While members of FLDS live in an isolated community and choose to dress in easily identifiable, modest and rather old-fashioned garb, Order members wear modern clothing to blend in with gentile society. Order women are also encouraged to make up new last names for themselves and their children so as not to be identified as polygamists, whereas FLDS wives all take their husband's last name. (Unlike FLDS wives, who have historically lived together with their husband and sister wives, Order wives live on their own with their children and are expected to hold jobs and pay their own bills.)
Both groups preach that women are the property of their husbands and fathers, meant to follow men's orders in every area of their lives: whom to marry, when to get pregnant, whether to pursue an education. "As soon as I got married, I wanted to leave—not just [my husband], but the Order, everything," Julianna says. "Neither one of us wanted the marriage; it was just what we were supposed to do."
Still really just a child herself, Julianna spent the first few years of her married life alternately staying with her mother, her sisters, and eventually with Jacob's mother, her mother-in-law. Around this time, Jacob's father, John Daniel Kingston—who is married to 14 women, including a few of his own half-sisters—had pled no contest to charges of child abuse, incest, and rape. As a result, Jacob "was really nervous about doing anything... because he didn't want to go to prison," Julianna says.
But as soon as Julianna turned 18, Jacob began trying to get his youngest wife pregnant. "I wouldn't necessarily say it's a rule, but you're more favored if you are having a child every single year," she says. "If you don't, it's like, What's wrong with you? It's kind of an unspoken thing."
One of Julianna's older sisters had died in childbirth at age 15. Julianna, who was born with severe health complications and had undergone several invasive surgeries, was unable to conceive, angering her new husband and mother-in-law. Born into a community that places singular value on women for their ability to bear children, she felt trapped and alone.
"[Jacob] was never there," Julianna says. "I just felt like I wasn't important to him, and that he didn't have time for me. But I'm a person, and I deserve more."
You're more favored if you are having a child every single year. If you don't, it's like, What's wrong with you?
Four years into her marriage, after begging and pleading for a place of her own, Julianna was allowed to move into her own apartment, paying rent with the money she earned working at a Kingston-owned coal mine and copy shop. Alone, she began visiting chat rooms and talking with non-Kingston guys online. Then she called a brother who had already left the Order and asked him to help her leave, too.
Julianna took her tax refund that year, which was for $600, and fled, too scared to withdraw the $3,000 in her Kingston bank account. She now makes a living cleaning houses and driving for Uber and Lyft. By the time she was fully gone from the Order—and cut off from most of her family—Juliana was only 21 years old.
Shortly after she left, Julianna received a letter from Jacob. "He basically told me that he never wanted me. And that's always stuck with me," she says. "It makes me question if people really are my friend, if people really want me to be around them, because my whole life I was such a burden to everyone else."
She still struggles with the feelings of worthlessness beat into her after years of emotional neglect in her loveless arranged marriage. "It's really hard for me to speak my mind on certain issues. Like, if I feel like someone has done me wrong, I would probably just let it go, because I don't want the confrontation," she says. "I feel like... I'm not worth standing up for."
Not everyone who leaves the Order does so willingly. It's been five years since Val Snow, who is gay, was kicked out of the sect: Half a decade ago, his father, John Daniel Kingston, showed up to the Kingston school where Val worked as a self-described "lunch lady" and screamed at his son, outing him in front of all of his co-workers.
"I was devastated by this," Val recalls. "Man, I would have loved to be anyone else's kid. He was the worst person to me."
It's rare for a Kingston member to be kicked out, but there are exceptions. "Because I'm gay, [my father said he] can't have me live at my mom's house, because my mom's kids aren't safe with me," Val, now 28, tells me over Skype from his home in Ogden, Utah. "Homosexuality is not okay there... it's basically, You're going to hell, there's no question. It's one of the worst things you could do." It's as bad as leaving the Order, says Val. If you willingly leave the Order and turn away from its teachings, "you're basically spitting in God's face; it would be better if you were never born."
The Order has all sorts of conspiracy theories regarding homosexuality. "They tell you it's the formula that the government gives you to control the population," Val says. "It has to do with the hormones they're giving to animals." Children are also taught that drinking soy milk "will make you gay."
I would have loved to be anyone else's kid. He was the worst person to me.
Val says that his mom, Shirley, had already known her eldest son was gay; they had a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He wouldn't ask Shirley about her relationship with his abusive father, and Shirley wouldn't ask Val about the non-Order boys he was dating.
The day Val was forced to leave the Order, his father gave him a key to a motel room where all of his possessions from his mom's house were already waiting. "He was just, like, 'Don't worry about your family. They're going to have a new brother that's going to take your place, and he's going to take care of everything you were taking care of,'" Val recalls.
For decades, the Order has operated as a cooperative society; as such, every working Order member's income goes directly into the Kingston bank. "All your money is in a giant pool, because that's what a co-op is, and the Order uses it for buying houses, for businesses, all sorts of things," he explains. "It's how they do their business legally, because co-ops aren't illegal." Any Order member who wishes to withdraw money from the fund must first tell them what that money is going to be used for. The first time Val withdrew a large sum from his non-Kingston bank account, he couldn't believe the teller handed over the money, no questions asked.
The extent of the clan's influence only came to light recently, when the IRS raided several Kingston-owned businesses—including Washakie Renewable, an energy company owned by Julianna's former husband, Jacob Kingston—in an investigation alleged tax fraud amounting to millions of dollars. Unbeknownst to most people, the Order operates numerous businesses in Salt Lake City, including a True Value, a copy shop, a health club, a shoe repair store, several pawn shops, a dairy farm, a coal mine, a cattle ranch, a trailer park, and dozens of others.
Like many in the Order, Val started working in Kingston-owned businesses when he was a young child; he was paid just 10 cents an hour, and all his earnings went into the collective Kingston bank account.
Though leaving the sect wasn't initially Val's idea, he had already begun to realize that the Order was not something he wanted to be part of any longer. Being told by his own father that he was replaceable cemented in his mind something Val already knew: "People in the Order are just property, they're resources, that's really all they are... Everything is just business."
Val's sisters Kollene and Shanell had already left the Order by the time Val was forced out. Shanell had been married at 18 to her 19-year-old first cousin, who drank and sold drugs and who beat her often enough that Val says "there were always fingerprint bruises on her neck." He claims that their father knew about all of it, but ordered Shanell back to her husband the first time she tried to escape him. "That was a big eye-opener for me," says Val. "I wasn't going to be quiet, because no one else was saying anything about it."
Once you leave the Order, you can't ever talk to anyone on the inside again—not friends and not family. Val says he struggled initially adjusting to life on the outside; it is profoundly isolating for cult members to be cut off from their entire family and social circle and from the traditions that have given shape and meaning to their entire lives. Eventually, though, he found others who had left abusive situations of their own, and they formed a support network. "In the first three months [that I was out], I met the perfect people to make me into who I am today," says Val.
I'd probably be married to a girl, or more than one girl [if I had stayed].
His half-sister Julli, another ex-Order member with whom he connected over Facebook, was particularly helpful: She explained to Val that people are born gay and helped him start his life anew. "She told me about credit. I didn't even know what credit was," he says. "I did everything she said, and three years later I bought my house." Val currently works the night shift at a manufacturing plant that produces medical supplies, in addition to tending bar.
Had he not been kicked out of the Order, Val says, he probably would have never left. "I would still be working at the Order school, cooking for all the children," he says. "I'd probably be married to a girl, or more than one girl... I think happiness is a choice, but it would be quite the mind game to be happy with a woman."
But five years out, Val is truly happy now. He's dating men, and has close relationships with his full and half-siblings who have left the Order. He is also trying to help his mother build a new life for herself away from the Order, as she recently left her abusive husband and is all but kicked out of the group itself. "My family taught me one thing, if nothing else: You can pick and choose who is in your life," Val says.
Julianna, too, is still adjusting to life on the outside and to the novel autonomy. Earlier this summer, she and her cousin went backpacking across Europe. "I don't have kids, I'm not married... I'm going to treat myself," she says. "I want to look forward to something in life."