Q&A: Warren Jeffs’ Nephew Speaks Out on Verdict, Sexual Abuse

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Tony Gutierrez / AP

Warren Jeffs, right, is escorted out of the Tom Green County Courthouse by a law enforcement officer, left, in San Angelo, Texas on Aug. 5.

Warren Jeffs, the “prophet” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), the nation’s largest polygamist Mormon sect, was sentenced on Tuesday to life in prison for the rape and sexual assault of two of his underage wives.

Prosecutors showed evidence that Jeffs had taken a total of 78 plural wives, including 12 whom he married at age 15 or younger. During the trial in San Angelo, Texas, the defendant’s nephew, Brent Jeffs, also described being raped by his uncle when he was five years old, a testimony that left three jurors in tears.

The jury deliberated for only 30 minutes before convicting the elder Jeffs.

I helped write Brent’s 2009 memoir, Lost Boy, which tells his story of overcoming that trauma after growing up in the FLDS with three mothers and 19 brothers and sisters, then leaving the church as a teen. I spoke with him about his recovery and his uncle’s trial.

Did you have a chance to confront Warren yourself?

I actually got to walk right up to him and say, ‘You finally got what you deserved.’ He just looked at me and looked down at the ground and they hauled him off. It was awesome! Talk about closure.

They had just put shackles on his feet and hands, and to see him come out with shackles on his feet. I thought, Man, you know what, you had your time. Now it’s time for you to have justice served and you’re going to see what it feels like to suffer.

[But] when all of the witnesses came to testify [during the sentencing phase], he couldn’t face anybody. He was put out into a room in the hall. I don’t know if they had audio, but he couldn’t face us.

What do you want to tell other survivors of sexual abuse?

There’s a lot of healing on a lot of different levels. I think there are three levels of healing. The first is to recognize what you went through and how you feel. Second would be going to see someone for therapy, to try to get rid of all that pain and baggage. And last, if at all possible, is to face that person and either have justice served or be able to say what you want to them.

For me, that was like the chapter was done, it was very cool.

Were you able to attend much of the trial?

I was filled in on what was going on and I was able to sit in the courtroom when they were doing the closing arguments and for the verdict.

How did you feel when the verdict came down?

Oh, my God! I knew it, I had a feeling about it. I knew that the jury was only out for 30 minutes and then they came back with guilty, guilty, guilty, all the way around. I thought, Finally, everyone can see what kind of monster this guy really is. I felt 10 feet tall walking out of that courtroom.

How did your family respond?

They’re all extremely relieved and proud of me and of everything I’ve done and stood up for. I called my family and they put me on speakerphone and I said, ‘I did this for us, not just for me, but for all his victims, anyone who he’s ever hurt.’ I powered through it all because this is something that matters to everyone who he hurt.

What’s the important thing for people who are suffering from sexual abuse to do?

For me, the biggest thing was recognizing it and talking about it. You don’t have to talk about it with everybody, but find somebody or even a few people to talk to. Maybe talk to others who have been victimized as well. Share your story and have them talk back to you. Don’t feel like you’re the only one this happened to and beat yourself up. That was huge for me.

It did take a long time. I took my time. You don’t need to rush into anything. I went [to therapy] for a couple of years and I remember finally going in one last time and saying, This monster is off of my back. This anger and sadness, all of this finally melted away. That’s what helped me to do the book and talk on TV.

I knew that I was a survivor and I knew in my heart that it wasn’t my fault, and I could stand tall. That just empowers everyone else to stand up for themselves, too.

What would you say to someone considering leaving the FLDS?

My arms are open to anyone who wants to talk about it, who even has a question, to helping anyone in making that leap or stepping outside that lifestyle into this world. It was extremely hard for me, and [it helped] to get advice on how to life live outside those walls. I want to reach out to anyone who’s willing to talk.

Unfortunately, in Colorado City [which is on the border of Arizona and Utah, where many FLDS members live], they have no Internet or access to the outside world.

I think Lyle [Warren Jeffs’ brother, who will take over leadership] will fill their heads with the idea of Warren being a martyr. He took huge blow for the people, [he’ll say]. On the other side of the coin, this trial made such a big impact, I’m sure word will get down to people in the community, and they might realize that what this guy did is horrible and maybe they don’t want to be a part of that.

I’d also say, Just follow your heart and go with it. The most important thing is finding out who you are and what you want. It’s time to take charge of your life — it belongs to no one else.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter @TIMEHealthland.