Film Review: Sons of Perdition
I hope Sons of Perdition is given wide distribution because directors Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten have done a great service to all Americans by making this documentary. Everyone must be made more aware of the extent to which innocent people are being persecuted by leaders of religious cults in this country. The movie follows a group of young Mormons who have been raised in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and who choose to risk going to hell, something they really fear, by running away from the tyranny to gain freedom of thought. What greater intellectual and emotional journey can even be imagined?

I have read and seen films about cults before, but this movie really brings home the degree of psychological abuse that a manipulative power-hungry religious fanatic can wreak on the people that he is supposed to care for and indeed claims he cares for. The focus is on three teenage boys who have lived their whole lives under the thumbs of men who follow the perverted teachings of Warren Jeffs, a self-proclaimed prophet claiming to speak the word of God. But as bad as the boys' situation is, the women have it worse: they are essentially chattel, sometimes traded from man to man as I used to trade baseball cards when I was a kid. The women are not encouraged to think for themselves, and the men think of them primarily as baby-making machines. In the FLDS, a woman's job is to obey her man. Period.

I had the chance to speak for a few minutes with the filmmakers themselves--both lapsed Mormons and very passionate about their film--and they told me that they listened to hundreds of hours of Warren Jeffs' speeches to examine his charismatic power. The sound of Jeffs' voice is nothing less than chilling when he talks about there being no monogamy in heaven and that filmmakers and other artists are perverts and adulterers (take note of the irony here), while pictures of Jeffs kissing underaged girls are shown on the screen.

What is so great about the film is that the rebellious boys and women are presented as likeable. So many Americans are quick to negatively judge those who rebel against religious indoctrination, focusing on the rebellion itself and not on what the rebellion is against. The kids are victims of child abuse, of severe religious repression. They are kept almost totally ignorant of the outside world. When one of the boys is asked if he reads comic books, he answers, "What's a comic book?" One girl is not sure what the capital of the United States is. Another boy talks about learning something about World Wars I and II, and about some of the horrible murders perpetrated by Bill Clinton. The interviewer then says, "Wait a minute. Don't you mean Hitler?" The boy answers, "Oh yeah, Hitler."

With freedom comes responsibility, and there is a different kind of pressure that the kids must deal with after escaping from the FLDS. At one point, they are taken in by a philanthropist of sorts in a nearby town, and the man discovers that they have been abusing drugs and alcohol. When people have been subjected to years of oppression, it's hard for them not to go hog-wild when they first taste freedom. But this episode does not make us dislike these kids; rather, we see their humanity, flaws and all. One young woman is on the floor, crying in desperation. We are told that when she drinks, all the memories of the horrible life she has been subjected to come rushing in. It's heartbreaking to witness what she goes through, so much pain. And the cause is religion: more specifically, the perversion of religion to sustain a cult leader's power trip.

Why doesn't federal law intervene in all of this? What is essentially bigamy is still practiced by members of the FLDS. Some of these Mormon men have upwards of fifty "wives." Well, it seems the legal issues are very complicated. However, progress is being made;Warren Jeffs is now serving a substantial prison sentence for his crimes against humanity.

One of the brighter spots in the film is a scene in which one former member of the FLDS reports that he is very relieved and happy that he doesn't have to go to church anymore. The audience in the theater cheered. But bashing religion is not the main point of this film. Toward the end of our conversation, Tyler Measom told me that he sees the movie as being more about family than about anything else. Some of the boys in the film talk about loving their families, even though their apostasy has caused them to be disowned. In one heart-wrenching moment, one of them says, "I wish my dad loved me as much as I love him."

The audience at the screening of the film that I attended was treated to a Q&A session with a few of the boys and women who "starred" in the film. They apparently are doing well. All seemed very happy to be in New York and briefly discussed their plans for the future, a future they look forward to with a very positive attitude.
Originally published April 27, 2010