Interview with Ruth Wariner, Author of The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir

Talk about a real-life superhero! In her memoir The Sound of Gravel, Ruth Wariner talks about her life growing up in a fundamental Mormon community. The book ends with Ruth’s decision to leave Colonia LeBaron with her siblings, which required a tremendous amount of strength – but that’s not her only superpower. Ruth put herself and her siblings through school, earned her master’s, became a high school Spanish teacher and is now a successful author. Read Ruth’s origin story below, then check back tomorrow to learn how you can apply the lessons Ruth learned to your own life.

 SuperheroYou: The Sound of Gravel is a memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon community. Can you tell us a bit about your story and the struggles you had to overcome? What prompted you to leave the church?

Ruth Wariner: I was in a fundamentalist Mormon community, and it was a lot different than the Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). The LDS church is very different. So [Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times] was an early offshoot of the LDS Church. It was a church founded in the 1950s that my father started, and he was the self-proclaimed prophet of the church. And when polygamy was made illegal – and in the 1890s, there were a lot of polygamous Mormons – people who still believed in the original teachings of Joseph Smith moved to Mexico, south of the border, and eventually my family did too. My grandfather in the 1920s moved to Mexico in order to practice polygamy safely there. Again, that religion was very different than the LDS church; it was more fundamentalist, but they called themselves Mormons. My grandfather died before I was born, so my dad started the church in the 1950s. The Church of the Firstborn is what it was called. He started it with his younger brother, Ervil LeBaron. Joel LeBaron was my father. I was born in 1972 in Mexico. My parents were living in Colonia LeBaron at the time, the town that my grandfather founded. By the time I was born, my father and my uncle were having disagreements in the church, fighting over authority. So my uncle started his own church and within that church, he practiced something called blood atonement, which means that you had to shed somebody else’s blood in order to save their soul if they were sinning. He started teaching his followers that my dad was a false prophet and ended up, when I was 3 months old, ordering his followers to have my dad assassinated. So when I was 3 months old, my dad was killed. But Colonia LeBaron, where I was growing up, was still flourishing. Ervil obviously left the church and left the town and continued killing people all over Mexico and the United States.

So I grew up in my father’s fundamentalist church believing he was, in fact, the prophet. And a big part of his teachings was that in order for women to be able to enter the kingdom of heaven or to go back to heaven, you had to marry a man with at least two wives and have as many children as you could because his beliefs, his teachings, and what we believed as I was growing up was that any kind of birth control is a sin against God. Basically, women had to bring as many souls from heaven onto the earth, because my dad’s philosophy and fundamentalist philosophy was that there are souls waiting in heaven to come to earth in order to prove themselves to God, and it was our responsibility to bring those souls onto the earth.

So I was three years old when my mom married another polygamist. She became his second wife. At that time, she had four kids – I was her fourth child and my father’s 39th. My dad, even though he was killed at 49, had 42 kids and I was his 39th. So I grew up in a community with lots of kids and huge families. My book is more about growing up with my stepfather, my mother, and the children that she had within our household. My stepfather was really physically abusive, and he eventually became sexually abusive as well. So that’s what my early childhood was like. My mom had six more children with my stepfather, so she had 10 kids altogether.

That’s what The Sound of Gravel is about – growing up with that situation. My oldest sister was autistic, so she was also pretty violent. She was much taller than the rest of us, so we had to watch out for her a lot when I was growing up. But there was a point when I was six years old when my stepfather became pretty abusive, and my mom moved to the States to live with my grandparents. They had been members of my dad’s church too, but after he was killed, they left the church and came to the United States to live where they were from in California. So my exposure outside of the colony and outside the polygamous religion where I was raised was first when I was six years old. When we moved to my grandparents’ house, I started going to school in the state for the first time. I was in the middle of the first grade, and it was a shock in a good way, because my grandparents had a pretty basic ranch: 3-bedroom home, but it had central air conditioning, heating, carpeted floors, running water, indoor bathroom, electricity, and telephone – all those things that we didn’t have in LeBaron. We lived on a farm close to my stepfather Lane’s other wives. When we lived there, we lived in an adobe house that hadn’t been finished, so there was always a draft through the adobe bricks. We didn’t have electricity or a phone. We had a faucet in the kitchen that sprouted up out of the floor that we used for water. So the difference between living styles was really exciting for me. When I started the public school that was close to my grandparent’s house, it was beautiful. It had heating and bathrooms and so many playgrounds. For me, it was like Disneyland, because it was so different than where I had come from.

One of my dad’s teachings was that the people in the United States were Babylonians basically. He had visions that the United States was going to crumble and fall apart. He and the people in his church refer to it as Babylonia, this wicked place where these bad people were. So when I was exposed and saw my teacher and how nice everybody was, I was like, “Wow, this is totally different than what I was told it was going to be like.” So it was much more comfortable and a more fun way of life. We lived with my grandparents for a few months, and my mom moved out on her own there in Stratford, California in the small town where my grandparents lived. So we were there for about two and a half years. During that time, my stepfather started to show up again. He and my mom got back together. By this point, he had a third wife. So we ended up moving back to El Paso, Texas to be closer to LeBaron. My mom continued on with the religion, because part of the reason why she left California was not just to work on her marriage with my stepfather, but also she felt like she belonged in LeBaron. That was her place. She was pregnant again as well. So we lived in El Paso for a couple years.

During that time, I was about eight years old when my stepfather started to sexually abuse me. I told my mom about it initially, but she stayed with him and the abuse continued. Then I found out from two of my stepsisters that were also his daughters, he’d been abusing them as well. At that point, I went back to my mom with my stepsisters, and we talked about it. My mom talked to my stepdad, and she decided to stay with him because he apologized and promised he would never do it again. So eventually, we moved back and forth between the States quite a bit because my stepfather worked here (the states) a lot and my mom, because she was American, collected government benefits – welfare basically.

SHY: What are the differences between polygamous and non-polygamous Mormon sects – the difference between LDS and the fundamental Mormon church your father started?

RW: Joseph Smith was the founder of the original Latter-Day Saints church that exists now in the United States – the monogamous Mormons basically. But in his original teachings, he preached that polygamy was a commandment of God and that it was important to go forth and multiply to have as many kids as you could. The church was established in the 1830s. By 1890, the U.S. government told the Mormons that they weren’t allowed to live in polygamy. The church at that point stopped practicing polygamy and ordered its followers to stop practicing polygamy too. That was the Latter-Day Saints Mormons. They became a monogamous church, and they had a particular president and a prophet that was telling its people how to live basically. And when polygamy became illegal in the United States, there were several Mormon sects, fundamental Mormons – the Mormons that still believed in Joseph Smith’s original teachings. Those Mormons moved south of the border to keep practicing polygamy. We call them the fundamentalist Mormons because they were the ones who held onto Joseph Smith’s original teachings. For example, my dad didn’t believe that God changed his laws, but the LDS church definitely believed that God had sent a new vision and that the Mormons were supposed to stop practicing polygamy. That’s the biggest different from my understanding between the fundamentalist Mormons (the family that I came from) and the Mormons that practice here in the United States.

SHY: What prompted you to leave Colonia LeBaron with your sisters to your grandmother’s house?

RW: There was a pretty tragic accident when we were on the farm. Lane had finished building a bathroom. He also bought and installed electricity in our house, but he wasn’t an electrician, so the electricity was put in pretty faulty. There was an accident and my mom and my younger brother Micah, who was only five, ended up being killed on the farm. At that time, my youngest sister Holly was five months old, my sister Leah was two, Elena was only four, and my brother Aaron was 10. I also had a special needs brother, Luke, who was living with us, and he had about the mentality of a five- or six-year-old. He was pretty young in his mind; he was developmentally delayed. And my autistic sister was hospitalized and institutionalized when she was in California.

So once my mom and my little brother died, I was still under my stepfather’s authority. He was still a polygamist; he had two wives at the time after my mom died. He kept trying to take my sisters and be alone with them, and I was living between his two wives’ houses. I definitely had these strong mother bear instincts. Because I knew he was abusive, I wouldn’t let him take them. But he’d been taking my brother Luke to work with him in the mountains where he had farmland, and they’d be gone for a few days at a time. Then one day, they came home, and my brother Luke who had trouble communicating, who was still like a child, sat down and said to me that Lane had been abusing him. And at that point in the colony, people just said, “You need to forgive him because he said he’s sorry. Get over it.” But I knew he hadn’t really ‘repented’ as they called it.

When I found out about Luke, I had an older brother living in San Diego, California, and I knew we had to get out of LeBaron to get away from my stepfather. So I called my brother in San Diego and said look this is what’s been going on, and I was really afraid he was going to take my little sisters. And my stepfather had gone to El Paso to collect rent on trailers that he had been renting out there. So to my brother, I said, “You have to come and get us now because he’s gone and this is the only time we can take the kids.” At that point, my brother Aaron was living at my grandmother’s house, so he had already gone up there. But right after my mother died, we had the discussion about the option of going to stay with my grandmother for a while in California, but Lane said no way. He didn’t want us to leave because he was afraid we would stay at my grandmother’s, and he wouldn’t be able to raise my sisters and me and continue raising me in the religion.

So we left. Once my brother heard what was going on, he came down immediately the next day with his Oldsmobile station wagon. Lane was still gone and we were staying with his wife. I let her know what was happening, so she offered to pretend to be our mother and Matt, my brother, came down the next day. That very night, we left in the middle of the night, inching our way out of town with our lights off with all the kids. We crossed the Arizona border early in the morning and went to my grandmother’s house at that point.

SHY: You pursued your G.E.D., and then put yourself through college and even graduate school while taking care of your three younger sisters. What motivated you to seek the level of education that you did? Did your sisters seek similar levels of education?

RW: I was 14 when my mom took me out of school. At that time, I was fine with it because I didn’t want to do homework. But from her perspective, I needed to stay home to help her with her kids, because at that point she had 10 kids. When I went to live with my grandmother, initially, I wasn’t in school. But the welfare system and the legal system told me I had to go back to school. But my sisters were so little: they were just a few months old – two and four, and my brother was 10, so Aaron was the only one still going to school. So I went back and I took G.E.D. classes or basically homestead classes. I went in once a week, took my test and studied at home while I helped my grandmother with my little sisters. And I found at that time, it was really exciting for me to learn. I loved learning.

When I was 19, my grandmother was pretty advanced in age. She had advanced diabetes and wasn’t able to continue taking care of us. So I moved with my three youngest sisters to Grants Pass, Oregon, to live close to my mom’s youngest sister and her husband. I was there raising my sisters and keeping my family together. I had cousins that wanted to separate my sisters: take care of one in California, one in southern Oregon, and one in central California. Because of where I had come from, and how familiar I’d been with my family, I definitely wanted to keep them together. I was taking care of them, and working part-time in a wrecking yard – I was an account receivable secretary, and I was making $6.75 an hour. It was just over minimum wage. During that time, I spent a lot of time in their classroom. I just loved how kids, in general, loved learning and how they got so excited about figuring something out – that inspired me.

I was 21 when I finally decided to go back to college. I started out at a community college because I wanted a better life for us. It was hard. I was working part time, we were always poor, I was still on welfare, and I just wanted a better life for myself and for my sisters too. My brother had come to live with us too, and he was a sophomore in high school. That’s pretty much what it was. I was tired of not having money, not having a career, and not having freedom to make decisions that finances always held us back from. We were in a living situation in a low-income housing, so I had help paying for that. And I applied for financial aid and student loans and spent three years at a community college before I finally got to the university level. I basically took classes when my sisters were in school. We survived at that time on student loans. I worked part-time in the summers and welfare. I was just really tired. I had a lot of shame with so much poverty and being on the system, and I wanted more than that. So I finally  got my AA (Associate in Art) transfer degree from community college and transferred to  Southern Oregon University, where I majored in Spanish literature and international studies. Again, with my sisters, I was taking classes during the time that they were in school. So I was going to school right along with them. And I took out a lot of student loans to help us survive at the time.

Eventually, I finished my bachelor’s and when I started looking for work with my bachelor’s, I realized it was hard to find a job that I was making more than eight or nine dollars an hour, so I was stuck back in the position I had been before I even went to college. I was about 26 at the time, and I worked as an elementary school teacher in a private school. I still wasn’t making enough money to raise my sisters on or to really survive or to move ahead in life. So I applied for graduate schools and scholarships, and I literally got every scholarship I applied for to go back to graduate school. I did that for a year and that was my teaching certification program. I student taught at three different schools and the spring before I graduated graduate school, I applied at a school called Gladstone High School in Portland Oregon. Portland is northern Oregon, and I was in southern Oregon; it’s about a four-hour drive south of where I am now, so I got my first job out of graduate school in Portland, Oregon, and that’s how I ended up coming here. When I moved up here, my brother Aaron was at Oregon State and he was studying mechanical engineering, so he was moved out. But I had my 3 sisters still with me. Elena had graduated high school, but she was attending Clackamas Community College, so she started at a community college as well. And my two youngest sisters, Leah and Holly, were in High School. So I ended up teaching them at Gladstone High School where I was teaching Spanish.

But when I first started going to college I was 21. I just had that love of learning. I started taking a lot of literature classes and philosophy classes and world religions. Because of my background, the fundamentalist side of it and where I had come from and not having a choice as a young woman about how I wanted to live my life, I was fascinated by this idea that I can figure my own life by myself. Having this freedom to choose, I started studying other religions at a comparative level. I loved the fact that I could decide for myself. There was a tremendous amount of freedom in that. So my education really, after having come from the tragedy and the abusive background that I did, gave me a sense of choice and a freedom in a way that I had never understood before. So I found freedom in that. And I was excited about it, and I stayed in school because I loved learning more about it – how to figure it out and how to question things. And how to think about what I wanted for my life and realized I had this freedom to actually figure it out for myself. I wanted my sisters to be able to find that too.

They’re pretty strong women now. My sister Elena graduated from the University of Oregon, and she’s doing pretty well. Leah graduated; she did a 2-year degree at Central Oregon Community College, and she’s been taking classes now and again, but she hasn’t finished her bachelor’s yet. And then Holly started college, and she just found that it wasn’t right for her. So she’s a waitress, and she lives close by too. She and Leah live together. And they’re all doing really well. They’re very independent women, and successful in their own lives in different ways.

SHY: What led you to share your story with the public?

RW: It was for my sisters. It was when I was still in college. Leah, Holly, and Elena were eight, ten, and twelve. I was in my mid-20s, and it was in the mid-90s. They had been so young that they didn’t remember anything about Colonia LeBaron where we came from, and they didn’t have a memory of my mom. Elaina had a little bit of a memory of my mom the day she died, but really they didn’t know who she was. And so at that age, when they were preadolescent, they started asking about my mom, about what happened to her. We were at a Burger King, eating off the dollar menu one afternoon, and Leah asked me what happened to our mom. They knew I wasn’t their mother, that we didn’t have parents, and they knew that our mother had passed away and we lost a little brother.

But I hadn’t really thought about it at that point. I had been so busy surviving and working and trying to make things work out that I didn’t realize I hadn’t told them the whole story. Plus, they were pretty young too. So while we were sitting there and eating dollar cheeseburgers, I told them what happened to our mom, about the accident, and what happened to our brother. By the time I was finished with the story, they were just in tears. They were just crying and crying. I didn’t have the time to start writing, but I realized then, I wanted to record our story to write for them about our mother that they didn’t have any memory of – the way I perceived her growing up, about Colonia LeBaron, why we left there and why we didn’t have parents.

So it was always a very personal reason to start it. As I was writing, initially I thought, “I’m going to write this for my family, this is an important part of history.” But as I was writing, of course, I realized too that it was even more so for myself, for me to understand what had happened – for me to understand my mom and her choices and what had happened and why I left. As I was writing, there was so much healing in the story, and I felt so much compassion, realizing my mother and her situation and the way she felt about herself and how that influenced her decisions and her life for herself and for her children. It was a huge healing process, so I decided to share my story because I think there’s this tremendous amount of healing power in all of our stories, and I thought it would help other people too that came from similar circumstances. There’s a lot about this story that is very universal. We were a family that lived a different religion. We were human beings. To me, it’s a very human story that needed to be told and needed to be shared.

SHY: What do you want your readers to take away from your story?

RW: As I was writing, I realized how far I’ve come in my own life and it helps me feel grateful for what I have. I think my readers have felt a tremendous amount of gratitude for their own lives as they’re learning about what mine was like. So I’d like my readers to have a sense of gratitude for their life, for their choices, and for who they are. I also think that we all have, us humans, have this strength, ability, and resiliency that I had as a child. I’d like for my readers to recognize that same strength within themselves. And hopefully, my story will help them tap into their own strength and resiliency. I also think it’s so important for us to understand that we can become and grow stronger than our circumstances and our situations by the choices we make. It’s a lot of hard work, but at the same time, we don’t have to stay stuck in this oppressive situation that somebody else has forced upon us. So I’d like my readers to know, we have that freedom to make those kinds of choices.

Liked this? Check back tomorrow for Part 2!

Written by Diana Kim

Talk about a real-life superhero! In her memoir The Sound of Gravel, Ruth Wariner talks about her life growing up in a fundamental Mormon community. The book ends with Ruth’s decision to leave Colonia LeBaron with her siblings, which required a tremendous amount of strength – but that’s not her only superpower. Ruth put herself and her siblings through school, earned her master’s, became a high school Spanish teacher and is now a successful author. Read Ruth’s origin story below, then check back tomorrow to learn how you can apply the lessons Ruth learned to your own life.

 SuperheroYou: The Sound of Gravel is a memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon community. Can you tell us a bit about your story and the struggles you had to overcome? What prompted you to leave the church?

Ruth Wariner: I was in a fundamentalist Mormon community, and it was a lot different than the Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). The LDS church is very different. So [Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times] was an early offshoot of the LDS Church. It was a church founded in the 1950s that my father started, and he was the self-proclaimed prophet of the church. And when polygamy was made illegal – and in the 1890s, there were a lot of polygamous Mormons – people who still believed in the original teachings of Joseph Smith moved to Mexico, south of the border, and eventually my family did too. My grandfather in the 1920s moved to Mexico in order to practice polygamy safely there. Again, that religion was very different than the LDS church; it was more fundamentalist, but they called themselves Mormons. My grandfather died before I was born, so my dad started the church in the 1950s. The Church of the Firstborn is what it was called. He started it with his younger brother, Ervil LeBaron. Joel LeBaron was my father. I was born in 1972 in Mexico. My parents were living in Colonia LeBaron at the time, the town that my grandfather founded. By the time I was born, my father and my uncle were having disagreements in the church, fighting over authority. So my uncle started his own church and within that church, he practiced something called blood atonement, which means that you had to shed somebody else’s blood in order to save their soul if they were sinning. He started teaching his followers that my dad was a false prophet and ended up, when I was 3 months old, ordering his followers to have my dad assassinated. So when I was 3 months old, my dad was killed. But Colonia LeBaron, where I was growing up, was still flourishing. Ervil obviously left the church and left the town and continued killing people all over Mexico and the United States.

So I grew up in my father’s fundamentalist church believing he was, in fact, the prophet. And a big part of his teachings was that in order for women to be able to enter the kingdom of heaven or to go back to heaven, you had to marry a man with at least two wives and have as many children as you could because his beliefs, his teachings, and what we believed as I was growing up was that any kind of birth control is a sin against God. Basically, women had to bring as many souls from heaven onto the earth, because my dad’s philosophy and fundamentalist philosophy was that there are souls waiting in heaven to come to earth in order to prove themselves to God, and it was our responsibility to bring those souls onto the earth.

So I was three years old when my mom married another polygamist. She became his second wife. At that time, she had four kids – I was her fourth child and my father’s 39th. My dad, even though he was killed at 49, had 42 kids and I was his 39th. So I grew up in a community with lots of kids and huge families. My book is more about growing up with my stepfather, my mother, and the children that she had within our household. My stepfather was really physically abusive, and he eventually became sexually abusive as well. So that’s what my early childhood was like. My mom had six more children with my stepfather, so she had 10 kids altogether.

That’s what The Sound of Gravel is about – growing up with that situation. My oldest sister was autistic, so she was also pretty violent. She was much taller than the rest of us, so we had to watch out for her a lot when I was growing up. But there was a point when I was six years old when my stepfather became pretty abusive, and my mom moved to the States to live with my grandparents. They had been members of my dad’s church too, but after he was killed, they left the church and came to the United States to live where they were from in California. So my exposure outside of the colony and outside the polygamous religion where I was raised was first when I was six years old. When we moved to my grandparents’ house, I started going to school in the state for the first time. I was in the middle of the first grade, and it was a shock in a good way, because my grandparents had a pretty basic ranch: 3-bedroom home, but it had central air conditioning, heating, carpeted floors, running water, indoor bathroom, electricity, and telephone – all those things that we didn’t have in LeBaron. We lived on a farm close to my stepfather Lane’s other wives. When we lived there, we lived in an adobe house that hadn’t been finished, so there was always a draft through the adobe bricks. We didn’t have electricity or a phone. We had a faucet in the kitchen that sprouted up out of the floor that we used for water. So the difference between living styles was really exciting for me. When I started the public school that was close to my grandparent’s house, it was beautiful. It had heating and bathrooms and so many playgrounds. For me, it was like Disneyland, because it was so different than where I had come from.

One of my dad’s teachings was that the people in the United States were Babylonians basically. He had visions that the United States was going to crumble and fall apart. He and the people in his church refer to it as Babylonia, this wicked place where these bad people were. So when I was exposed and saw my teacher and how nice everybody was, I was like, “Wow, this is totally different than what I was told it was going to be like.” So it was much more comfortable and a more fun way of life. We lived with my grandparents for a few months, and my mom moved out on her own there in Stratford, California in the small town where my grandparents lived. So we were there for about two and a half years. During that time, my stepfather started to show up again. He and my mom got back together. By this point, he had a third wife. So we ended up moving back to El Paso, Texas to be closer to LeBaron. My mom continued on with the religion, because part of the reason why she left California was not just to work on her marriage with my stepfather, but also she felt like she belonged in LeBaron. That was her place. She was pregnant again as well. So we lived in El Paso for a couple years.

During that time, I was about eight years old when my stepfather started to sexually abuse me. I told my mom about it initially, but she stayed with him and the abuse continued. Then I found out from two of my stepsisters that were also his daughters, he’d been abusing them as well. At that point, I went back to my mom with my stepsisters, and we talked about it. My mom talked to my stepdad, and she decided to stay with him because he apologized and promised he would never do it again. So eventually, we moved back and forth between the States quite a bit because my stepfather worked here (the states) a lot and my mom, because she was American, collected government benefits – welfare basically.

SHY: What are the differences between polygamous and non-polygamous Mormon sects – the difference between LDS and the fundamental Mormon church your father started?

RW: Joseph Smith was the founder of the original Latter-Day Saints church that exists now in the United States – the monogamous Mormons basically. But in his original teachings, he preached that polygamy was a commandment of God and that it was important to go forth and multiply to have as many kids as you could. The church was established in the 1830s. By 1890, the U.S. government told the Mormons that they weren’t allowed to live in polygamy. The church at that point stopped practicing polygamy and ordered its followers to stop practicing polygamy too. That was the Latter-Day Saints Mormons. They became a monogamous church, and they had a particular president and a prophet that was telling its people how to live basically. And when polygamy became illegal in the United States, there were several Mormon sects, fundamental Mormons – the Mormons that still believed in Joseph Smith’s original teachings. Those Mormons moved south of the border to keep practicing polygamy. We call them the fundamentalist Mormons because they were the ones who held onto Joseph Smith’s original teachings. For example, my dad didn’t believe that God changed his laws, but the LDS church definitely believed that God had sent a new vision and that the Mormons were supposed to stop practicing polygamy. That’s the biggest different from my understanding between the fundamentalist Mormons (the family that I came from) and the Mormons that practice here in the United States.

SHY: What prompted you to leave Colonia LeBaron with your sisters to your grandmother’s house?

RW: There was a pretty tragic accident when we were on the farm. Lane had finished building a bathroom. He also bought and installed electricity in our house, but he wasn’t an electrician, so the electricity was put in pretty faulty. There was an accident and my mom and my younger brother Micah, who was only five, ended up being killed on the farm. At that time, my youngest sister Holly was five months old, my sister Leah was two, Elena was only four, and my brother Aaron was 10. I also had a special needs brother, Luke, who was living with us, and he had about the mentality of a five- or six-year-old. He was pretty young in his mind; he was developmentally delayed. And my autistic sister was hospitalized and institutionalized when she was in California.

So once my mom and my little brother died, I was still under my stepfather’s authority. He was still a polygamist; he had two wives at the time after my mom died. He kept trying to take my sisters and be alone with them, and I was living between his two wives’ houses. I definitely had these strong mother bear instincts. Because I knew he was abusive, I wouldn’t let him take them. But he’d been taking my brother Luke to work with him in the mountains where he had farmland, and they’d be gone for a few days at a time. Then one day, they came home, and my brother Luke who had trouble communicating, who was still like a child, sat down and said to me that Lane had been abusing him. And at that point in the colony, people just said, “You need to forgive him because he said he’s sorry. Get over it.” But I knew he hadn’t really ‘repented’ as they called it.

When I found out about Luke, I had an older brother living in San Diego, California, and I knew we had to get out of LeBaron to get away from my stepfather. So I called my brother in San Diego and said look this is what’s been going on, and I was really afraid he was going to take my little sisters. And my stepfather had gone to El Paso to collect rent on trailers that he had been renting out there. So to my brother, I said, “You have to come and get us now because he’s gone and this is the only time we can take the kids.” At that point, my brother Aaron was living at my grandmother’s house, so he had already gone up there. But right after my mother died, we had the discussion about the option of going to stay with my grandmother for a while in California, but Lane said no way. He didn’t want us to leave because he was afraid we would stay at my grandmother’s, and he wouldn’t be able to raise my sisters and me and continue raising me in the religion.

So we left. Once my brother heard what was going on, he came down immediately the next day with his Oldsmobile station wagon. Lane was still gone and we were staying with his wife. I let her know what was happening, so she offered to pretend to be our mother and Matt, my brother, came down the next day. That very night, we left in the middle of the night, inching our way out of town with our lights off with all the kids. We crossed the Arizona border early in the morning and went to my grandmother’s house at that point.

SHY: You pursued your G.E.D., and then put yourself through college and even graduate school while taking care of your three younger sisters. What motivated you to seek the level of education that you did? Did your sisters seek similar levels of education?

RW: I was 14 when my mom took me out of school. At that time, I was fine with it because I didn’t want to do homework. But from her perspective, I needed to stay home to help her with her kids, because at that point she had 10 kids. When I went to live with my grandmother, initially, I wasn’t in school. But the welfare system and the legal system told me I had to go back to school. But my sisters were so little: they were just a few months old – two and four, and my brother was 10, so Aaron was the only one still going to school. So I went back and I took G.E.D. classes or basically homestead classes. I went in once a week, took my test and studied at home while I helped my grandmother with my little sisters. And I found at that time, it was really exciting for me to learn. I loved learning.

When I was 19, my grandmother was pretty advanced in age. She had advanced diabetes and wasn’t able to continue taking care of us. So I moved with my three youngest sisters to Grants Pass, Oregon, to live close to my mom’s youngest sister and her husband. I was there raising my sisters and keeping my family together. I had cousins that wanted to separate my sisters: take care of one in California, one in southern Oregon, and one in central California. Because of where I had come from, and how familiar I’d been with my family, I definitely wanted to keep them together. I was taking care of them, and working part-time in a wrecking yard – I was an account receivable secretary, and I was making $6.75 an hour. It was just over minimum wage. During that time, I spent a lot of time in their classroom. I just loved how kids, in general, loved learning and how they got so excited about figuring something out – that inspired me.

I was 21 when I finally decided to go back to college. I started out at a community college because I wanted a better life for us. It was hard. I was working part time, we were always poor, I was still on welfare, and I just wanted a better life for myself and for my sisters too. My brother had come to live with us too, and he was a sophomore in high school. That’s pretty much what it was. I was tired of not having money, not having a career, and not having freedom to make decisions that finances always held us back from. We were in a living situation in a low-income housing, so I had help paying for that. And I applied for financial aid and student loans and spent three years at a community college before I finally got to the university level. I basically took classes when my sisters were in school. We survived at that time on student loans. I worked part-time in the summers and welfare. I was just really tired. I had a lot of shame with so much poverty and being on the system, and I wanted more than that. So I finally  got my AA (Associate in Art) transfer degree from community college and transferred to  Southern Oregon University, where I majored in Spanish literature and international studies. Again, with my sisters, I was taking classes during the time that they were in school. So I was going to school right along with them. And I took out a lot of student loans to help us survive at the time.

Eventually, I finished my bachelor’s and when I started looking for work with my bachelor’s, I realized it was hard to find a job that I was making more than eight or nine dollars an hour, so I was stuck back in the position I had been before I even went to college. I was about 26 at the time, and I worked as an elementary school teacher in a private school. I still wasn’t making enough money to raise my sisters on or to really survive or to move ahead in life. So I applied for graduate schools and scholarships, and I literally got every scholarship I applied for to go back to graduate school. I did that for a year and that was my teaching certification program. I student taught at three different schools and the spring before I graduated graduate school, I applied at a school called Gladstone High School in Portland Oregon. Portland is northern Oregon, and I was in southern Oregon; it’s about a four-hour drive south of where I am now, so I got my first job out of graduate school in Portland, Oregon, and that’s how I ended up coming here. When I moved up here, my brother Aaron was at Oregon State and he was studying mechanical engineering, so he was moved out. But I had my 3 sisters still with me. Elena had graduated high school, but she was attending Clackamas Community College, so she started at a community college as well. And my two youngest sisters, Leah and Holly, were in High School. So I ended up teaching them at Gladstone High School where I was teaching Spanish.

But when I first started going to college I was 21. I just had that love of learning. I started taking a lot of literature classes and philosophy classes and world religions. Because of my background, the fundamentalist side of it and where I had come from and not having a choice as a young woman about how I wanted to live my life, I was fascinated by this idea that I can figure my own life by myself. Having this freedom to choose, I started studying other religions at a comparative level. I loved the fact that I could decide for myself. There was a tremendous amount of freedom in that. So my education really, after having come from the tragedy and the abusive background that I did, gave me a sense of choice and a freedom in a way that I had never understood before. So I found freedom in that. And I was excited about it, and I stayed in school because I loved learning more about it – how to figure it out and how to question things. And how to think about what I wanted for my life and realized I had this freedom to actually figure it out for myself. I wanted my sisters to be able to find that too.

They’re pretty strong women now. My sister Elena graduated from the University of Oregon, and she’s doing pretty well. Leah graduated; she did a 2-year degree at Central Oregon Community College, and she’s been taking classes now and again, but she hasn’t finished her bachelor’s yet. And then Holly started college, and she just found that it wasn’t right for her. So she’s a waitress, and she lives close by too. She and Leah live together. And they’re all doing really well. They’re very independent women, and successful in their own lives in different ways.

SHY: What led you to share your story with the public?

RW: It was for my sisters. It was when I was still in college. Leah, Holly, and Elena were eight, ten, and twelve. I was in my mid-20s, and it was in the mid-90s. They had been so young that they didn’t remember anything about Colonia LeBaron where we came from, and they didn’t have a memory of my mom. Elaina had a little bit of a memory of my mom the day she died, but really they didn’t know who she was. And so at that age, when they were preadolescent, they started asking about my mom, about what happened to her. We were at a Burger King, eating off the dollar menu one afternoon, and Leah asked me what happened to our mom. They knew I wasn’t their mother, that we didn’t have parents, and they knew that our mother had passed away and we lost a little brother.

But I hadn’t really thought about it at that point. I had been so busy surviving and working and trying to make things work out that I didn’t realize I hadn’t told them the whole story. Plus, they were pretty young too. So while we were sitting there and eating dollar cheeseburgers, I told them what happened to our mom, about the accident, and what happened to our brother. By the time I was finished with the story, they were just in tears. They were just crying and crying. I didn’t have the time to start writing, but I realized then, I wanted to record our story to write for them about our mother that they didn’t have any memory of – the way I perceived her growing up, about Colonia LeBaron, why we left there and why we didn’t have parents.

So it was always a very personal reason to start it. As I was writing, initially I thought, “I’m going to write this for my family, this is an important part of history.” But as I was writing, of course, I realized too that it was even more so for myself, for me to understand what had happened – for me to understand my mom and her choices and what had happened and why I left. As I was writing, there was so much healing in the story, and I felt so much compassion, realizing my mother and her situation and the way she felt about herself and how that influenced her decisions and her life for herself and for her children. It was a huge healing process, so I decided to share my story because I think there’s this tremendous amount of healing power in all of our stories, and I thought it would help other people too that came from similar circumstances. There’s a lot about this story that is very universal. We were a family that lived a different religion. We were human beings. To me, it’s a very human story that needed to be told and needed to be shared.

SHY: What do you want your readers to take away from your story?

RW: As I was writing, I realized how far I’ve come in my own life and it helps me feel grateful for what I have. I think my readers have felt a tremendous amount of gratitude for their own lives as they’re learning about what mine was like. So I’d like my readers to have a sense of gratitude for their life, for their choices, and for who they are. I also think that we all have, us humans, have this strength, ability, and resiliency that I had as a child. I’d like for my readers to recognize that same strength within themselves. And hopefully, my story will help them tap into their own strength and resiliency. I also think it’s so important for us to understand that we can become and grow stronger than our circumstances and our situations by the choices we make. It’s a lot of hard work, but at the same time, we don’t have to stay stuck in this oppressive situation that somebody else has forced upon us. So I’d like my readers to know, we have that freedom to make those kinds of choices.

Liked this? Check back tomorrow for Part 2!

Written by Diana Kim

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