By Sarah Osman
Rachel Dretzin’s superb documentary delves into a baffling question: why didn’t these cult members just get up and leave?
Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, directed by Rachel Dretzin. Streaming on Netflix.
“Keep sweet” is a phrase that the now deceased prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Rulon Jeffs, told women over and over again. He was so dedicated to the sentiment that he even had it written on the soles of his shoes. The term “keep sweet” actually meant “to obey,” which his son and successor, Warren Jeffs, took to perverse extremes in the harrowing docu-series, Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey. Chronicling the patriarchal horrors of Jeffs’s cult, this drama is a disturbing yet fascinating watch thanks to the care taken by its director, Rachel Dretzin.
In 2008, the Jeffs Texas Ranch was raided by authorities, and more than 400 children were rescued. Many viewers may have some knowledge of this incident and may remember reporting about the child brides who had been “married” off to men twice their age. Many young boys were methodically kicked off the ranch and left to fend for themselves. Dretzin’s documentary doesn’t begin with this insanity but goes back to 2002, when Jeffs first took over the church from his father. From the beginning, FLDS was a radical version of Mormonism: men were allowed to have multiple wives, so it followed that the more wives you had, the more powerful you were. One survivor testified that she was married off to Rulon Jeffs so that her father could take on another wife. This behavior is sickening, but it’s nothing compared to the terror Warren Jeffs unleashed on the church’s members.
Why could this happen? Partly it was because the followers of the FLDS were isolated from the outside world. Jeffs controlled hearts and minds without interference: he decided what the cult’s children learned and what jobs they could perform. He even dictated what hairstyles women could have (elaborate french braids). Jeffs further manipulated his followers by preying on their fears about being ‘saved.” He declared himself to be the “one true prophet,” so that his word was literally the word of God. He told the members of his flock that — if they did not follow his every command — their souls would be damned, eternally. He often tricked girls as young as 14 into marriage by asking them, “Do you think you know better than the Lord?”
While women were treated as second-class citizens, not all of the men lived particularly rosy lives. Jeffs “rewarded” his most subservient followers with underage brides. Any man who stood up to Jeffs was immediately kicked out. Women and their children would be assigned new husbands. How did Jeffs populate his ranch when he needed new recruits? He deemed it to be the most holy place on earth and took children from their parents. It was kidnapping in the name of saving their souls. Jeffs’s successful ploy to rip apart families is devastating. But what’s truly shocking is how many families went along with it without questioning.
Dretzin’s documentary delves into a baffling question: why didn’t these cult members just get up and leave? The answer is conditioning and class: most had been raised with these beliefs since birth, and dissenters lacked the money, education, and know-how to survive in the real world. As one survivor puts it, she wasn’t aware of places that could help her become independent, such as women’s shelters. This confession is key to understanding what life under a dictatorship is truly like. (Ironically, Jeffs called himself a “benevolent dictator.”) Thus the importance of documentaries like this, which is not just about exploiting public interest in the bizarre — they explain how easy it is to strip away people’s freedom.
At no point throughout the series does it feel like Dretzin is judging or exploiting her subjects. She simply lets them tell their stories and inserts archival footage and unreleased audio to support their statements. Investigators and one of the first journalists who helped expose Jeffs explain just how difficult it was to take him down. In addition to lackadaisical responses from the judicial system, many of Jeffs’ followers did their best to protect him. This loyalty is horrifying, but also remarkable, given that it dramatizes just how powerful psychological manipulation, when protected by isolation, can be.
There is some poetic justice in the fact that it was the cult’s women who brought Jeffs down. It is also immensely satisfying. Had it not been for the women’s bravery, there is a good chance that Jeffs would not be in prison. Still, Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey doesn’t end on a conventional triumphant note. Women who were subjected to Jeffs’ reign of terror are still dealing with their own demons. But, by coming forth and telling their own stories, they regained control of their lives by understanding what they had undergone. They proved that “keep sweet” really means asserting your independence.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman