Feature | Stripped Bare: As FLDS children in Texas begin returning to their parents, ex-sect member Kathleen Mackert asks what future awaits polygamy’s children | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Feature | Stripped Bare: As FLDS children in Texas begin returning to their parents, ex-sect member Kathleen Mackert asks what future awaits polygamy’s children

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LAS VEGAS—Six-year-old Kathleen Mackert packed a suitcase she found in the closet. She put in some food from the kitchen of her family’s home, a blanket, a change of clothes and her nightgown. It was after school and her mother wasn’t home from work. She set off down the street in Kearns, determined to find new parents. Her mother and father could not be her parents. Not a man who did such terrible things to her. Not a woman who failed to protect her from him. They couldn’t be her parents.

She says she had tried to kill herself a few months before. “I was in hell, I might as well go there,” she recalls now, 44 years later. Her suicide attempt came shortly after her father started sexually abusing her. But her mother, Myra Tolman, interrupted her plans. Kathleen Mackert says her mother smelled the aspirin on her breath in the middle of the night and forced her to vomit the pills. Tolman says, however, she saw an empty aspirin bottle and a few pills scattered around her daughter’s bed, dragged her to the bathroom and made her vomit.

Kathleen Mackert walked through the quiet subdivision, spring buds marking the trees in nearby open fields. Surely a parent would find her, take her in for their daughter and love her. But as it grew darker, she couldn’t figure out where she was. She kept walking. No one came out to ask the scared little girl in a long dress, coat and thick braids if she wanted a new home.

“Kathleen Fawn Mackert,” her mother screamed at her as she pulled up in her car. She always used the full names of the seven children she had with her polygamist husband, Clyde Mackert, when she was angry. “What do you think you are doing?”

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Tolman is now 77 and raises Shih Tzu puppies in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, a few miles from Winston Blackmore’s breakaway polygamist community in British Columbia, Canada. She lives with her eldest daughter, Mary, now a Southern Baptist. None of the seven children Tolman had with Mackert live in polygamy. But Tolman still believes in the principle, even though she stopped being a plural wife many years ago.

She doesn’t recall Kathleen running away, although Kathleen’s older sister Rena vividly remembers crying at the door as her sister left. Tolman also disputes her daughter’s version of the suicide attempt. “Kathleen was always eating things she shouldn’t,” she says. However, she adds, that was also around the time that, whenever Clyde Mackert came to visit and sat in the living room with his third wife and children, Kathleen would stand terrified in the hallway.

“I don’t know why she’s so afraid of me,” Clyde Mackert would say to Myra. No one knows, Kathleen Mackert says, of the 27 children he had, how many her father molested.

“No pancake is so thin that it doesn’t have two sides,” Tolman says, who acknowledges that her husband abused her daughters. For her, “my children grew up in a very loving family.” She says she knew nothing about the sexual abuse by her children’s father until 1978, 20 years after Kathleen was born. “I never dreamed a man so religious would be doing things like that with his daughters,” Tolman says.

Kathleen Mackert accuses her mother of rewriting history. “Mothers in that society do not protect their children,” she says. When she watched the women from Yearning for Zion ranch crying for the children the state of Texas took from them in early April to protect them from a culture that allegedly was rife with physical and sexual abuse, she saw only crocodile tears, even as she found herself crying. Suddenly, Kathleen Mackert was 6 years old again, desperate for someone to rescue her from her own family.

On May 28, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that 468 children of parents belonging to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had to go back to their families. “On the record before us, removal of the children was not justified,” the justices said in their ruling.

The courts have spoken. But Mackert has her doubts about the children’s safety and their future—most certainly if their childhood in polygamy turns out like hers. Clyde Mackert and his first three wives achieved national fame after the 1953 Short Creek raid when they were prominently featured in a Life magazine article. Photographs from the story depicted smiling adults in a rural setting, sewing or gathered around the piano for evening hymns.

Behind the smiles, though, Mackert says, was a world where men pounded on the pulpit as they preached that, “a parent may beat a child nigh unto death for direct disobedience.” Her story, with its extraordinary twists and turns from the dark, gothic terrors of her childhood through six years as an exotic dancer, reveals much about institutionalized abuse within the FLDS community as she was growing up, and how that abuse plays out in later years.

Until the YFZ ranch raid, Kathleen Mackert had not, as she puts it, “done media.” Then she started appearing on the Fox network, professionally commenting on developments in Texas. She has done countless hours of therapy to combat the corrosive nature of her upbringing. Part of the battle to overcome that upbringing led her, she says, to a job as a stripper, until it became too destructive.

She says the image of people who leave polygamy is that they are doomed. “They become dropouts from society, marginalized, victims. I never used drugs, I never wanted to lose control. For me, it was about being in control. Everyone has a coping mechanism. Mine was stripping.”

For the FLDS, Kathleen Mackert’s eventual divorce from her husband and move to Las Vegas “confirmed all their worst suspicions about the outside world.” She says she danced for many celebrities. Members of the Utah Jazz came in one day at 4 a.m. after their plane was stranded at the airport. One of the players, she says, was so infatuated, he wanted her to come back to Utah.

“If only he knew how much it took me to get out of there,” she says, laughing.

Today Mackert lives alone in an apartment in a gated community in Las Vegas. She tends bar, dotes on her grandchildren and drives around town in an Audi convertible with the top down. But the scars of her father’s abuse still linger. She’s drawn to unavailable men, she says, something she fights hard to combat. “That’s the hardest part to heal from.”

TWO FOR ONE
Myra Tolman came from a polygamist family going back six generations. Her great-great-grandfather, William Moore Allred, crossed the plains with Brigham Young. Myra’s father, Morris Kunz, was an independent polygamist. An accomplished orator and debater, Tolman studied to be a school teacher at Weber College. One Sunday evening, then 19-year-old Tolman met Clyde Mackert when he and some friends came to visit at her home.

Clyde Mackert was 29, a one time pro-football player and ex-lieutenant in the infantry who served in World War II, Tolman recalls. His first wife converted him to polygamy when he returned from the war. Kathleen Mackert doubts a man of his sexual tastes needed much convincing. Polygamy was perfect for him. Even when one of his wives reported him to the priesthood council for abusing his daughters, they rebaptized him to absolve him of his sins and sent him back home.

Clyde Mackert wanted Myra as his first plural wife. Her father, Kunz, refused to allow it, unless Mackert married Myra’s older sister first. Tolman doesn’t want to talk about her sister, claiming both have come to terms with the past. Kathleen Mackert perceived a situation that led to “extreme jealousies between the two sisters.”

A year after Mackert married Myra’s older sister, he then took Myra as his second plural wife. Myra moved to Colorado City, Ariz., where her husband was one of two school teachers. One night, dynamite explosions woke Tolman up, signaling a raid was in progress. It was the infamous 1953 Short Creek raid by Arizona state authorities. Then Attorney General Ross Jones sent Tolman back to Utah. “We don’t want you here,” he told her.

On the Utah side of the border, things weren’t much better. When a plane flew overhead, the FLDS women hid their children under pine trees so they couldn’t be seen. “[My sister] and I lived with the fear each night we put our children to bed it would be the last time we would see them,” Tolman says.

ICE CASTLES
Clyde Mackert’s daughters had very different fears at nighttime. “The fear every time you went to bed was so intense,” Kathleen recalls. She’d smell his cigarette smoke or see the lit butt and know her father was out there.

“Either you were violated or you were afraid he would violate someone you love,” Kathleen Mackert says. Each child tried to protect the younger ones from their predatory father. Six-year-old Laura asked then-10-year-old Kathleen if she could sleep between her and the wall in Kathleen’s bed. “I told her I would keep her safe, and a good part of my life I tried to protect her,” she says. Kathleen would stroke her back until she fell asleep.

But Kathleen couldn’t always protect her. Clyde Mackert was a remorseless predator. He would steal into a bedroom where sisters Rena and Laura were sleeping, put his hand over Laura’s mouth, Laura recalls, and take her to another room. “He made me touch him and backhanded me when I tried to fight him off,” she says.

Such fears haunted the Mackert girls well into their adult lives. Rena Mackert cannot smell beer, tobacco and Brut cologne without wanting to flee. While her father violated Kathleen, he would tell her how beautiful she was. “He made me feel ugly from the inside out,” she says. When a man in the street told her she was beautiful after she was married, her first urge was to run, followed by a numb desire to swerve her car in the way of a speeding truck. Only the thought of her children kept her from jerking the steering wheel.

After her father bought six acres of land at State Street and 9400 South, he put up a triplex. Then Clyde Mackert brought in his fourth wife, Maurine. He met her at a bar after numerous affairs, Kathleen and her mother agree, including one with a well-known local stripper. Kathleen Mackert says he promised Maurine he would eventually leave his other wives for her. She was allowed to smoke, to drink, to wear her hair down and show a little cleavage. “The others hated her, thought the things she was allowed to do evil,” Kathleen says. She was also, she adds, the only mother who hugged and played with the children.

Kathleen loved the way Maurine pounded out Tchaikovsky on the piano. She remembers Maurine’s room decorated in purple and turquoise, and full of flowers. The rest of the house, she says, was stale and lifeless, with only pictures of Christ or the prophets in the women’s bedrooms. The other wives crocheted booties. Maurine did a needlepoint of a proud peacock which now hangs in Kathleen Mackert’s Las Vegas apartment. In 1988, Maurine died of lung cancer at age 60.

“She had been very worldly,” Myra Tolman says about Maurine. “She was not of a strict religious background. She came into the family, didn’t do any work, sat around and played with the kids and we were supposed to treat her right.”

Tolman’s fondest memories of polygamy do not include Maurine. She says the three wives were fairly well-educated compared to many in the community. Tolman and Clyde’s first wife liked to cook, sew and entertain, while Tolman’s older sister—whom she calls an accomplished poet—was more into writing. They would go on family outings with their many children, picnicking in one of the canyons. “All working together, there were many happy moments between us,” she says.

But Kathleen’s most shining childhood memory is away from her parents, rather than with them. In winter, a nearby Sandy canal would freeze. As she and her siblings ice-skated, the canal’s walls echoed with their shrieks of laughter. For a little while, the children were hidden and safe.

Even that memory can’t dilute the cruelty of her father’s actions. It culminated on her 16th birthday in a ritual he inflicted on all of Myra’s daughters. He took Kathleen out to dinner and explained he could do whatever he wanted to her. Now she was on a par with her mothers sexually. “After the date, he came into my bedroom and demonstrated things physically,” Kathleen Mackert says.

This echoes a pattern an affidavit in the Texas YFZ case refers to, when a social worker accused the FLDS of both indoctrinating and “grooming” minor females through sexual abuse to become wives of adult members of the sect’s patriarchal leadership.

Kathleen believes her mother could have spared her that horror. According to her and her sister Rena, in the fall of 1971, shortly after she begged her father to stop molesting her, then 17-year-old Rena went first to her “aunt/mother” (Tolman’s older sister), then to Myra, and told them a little of what their husband did to her. Her aunt rebuked her. Myra did nothing. Kathleen was 13 at the time. Three years later, Kathleen went on her daddy-daughter date. Before the youngest sister, Laura, went on hers, Tolman told her what Rena had said but did nothing to stop the so-called date.

Tolman adamantly denies this. She says Rena told her in 1978 that her father had fondled her breasts and that she warned Laura. By then, Rena had been married six years. Tolman says she made plans to leave Clyde Mackert, although it took her three years to do so. “In a plural marriage situation, men can hide [abuse] better,” she says. “I would come home from work, ask the children why their father came home while I was out, and they’d say, “I don’t know,” and clammed up. If they had told me, I would have protected them.”

Her mother’s denials infuriate Kathleen Mackert. “She’s like a child who can never accept she did anything wrong,” she says.

PLYG BRIDE
One midnight just before Kathleen Mackert’s 18th birthday, her father roughly woke her, shaking her arm. A year before, she had told him never to touch her again or she would go to the priesthood council. He did not molest her again. That night, he summoned her to his office. The four wives were lined up behind his chair. She stood there in her nightgown, silent, quaking with fear that she would be “poofed.” This was the term used by young polygamous girls when a bride on the day of her wedding disappeared from her family. This happened to Kathleen’s oldest sister, then 17-year-old Mary, after she married a 50-year-old man with six other wives.

“The prophet [then LeRoy Johnson] had a revelation on who God wants you to marry,” Clyde Mackert said.

Kathleen was too terrified to reply.

“Don’t you want to know who it is?” her father boomed.

“Yeaahh,” she said hesitantly.

He told her it was her stepbrother, William. He had come to live with them three years before. [Editor’s note: William is a pseudonym. Kathleen Mackert requested her ex-husband’s real name and that of her children not be used to protect their privacy.] He was Maurine’s oldest son. He had just got out of the Air Force and was handsome in his uniform, Kathleen Mackert recalls.

“Thank God,” she thought. “He’s someone I know, he doesn’t have other wives. I’m not going to disappear in the middle of the night.”

Tolman disputes Kathleen was forced to marry. “She could say yea or nay.”

Kathleen and William’s spiritual marriage took place at LeRoy Johnson’s house on Lincoln Avenue near downtown Salt Lake City. On a rainy November 7, a week after her 18th birthday, it was sealed for time and all eternity with a secret handshake. Her father wore the black and gray charcoal suit she had sewn for him from fabric she had kept in her hope chest.

“Somehow, I felt guilty telling him to leave me alone,” she says. Making the suit was “the little girl in me trying to make him love me like a daddy should love his girl.”

As she walked down the street after the ceremony, looking down to avoid a puddle, her husband grabbed her and kissed her for the first time.

The newlyweds received permission from LeRoy Johnson to live outside the community, in northern Utah, because of her husband’s work. Kathleen Mackert suffered four miscarriages in as many years. “I thought God was punishing me for what my father did to me,” she says.

By the time her first daughter was 9, Kathleen knew she had to get out of the FLDS. She convinced her college-educated husband they could never hand over their daughter to the FLDS leadership to assign to whom they wanted. They agreed to leave polygamy.

“My leaving was made so much easier by others who had left before me, my sisters Rena and Mary,” Kathleen Mackert says. Both her sisters had successfully fought to take their children out of the sect. “If it was possible for them to be free, then I could be free, too,” she says. “That’s what I’ve been looking for my whole life: freedom.”

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OUT OF THE FRYING PAN
Kathleen Mackert and her husband joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After a year, they were married in the LDS Temple in downtown Salt Lake City. It was an experience that deeply disturbed the 30-year-old mother of four. The ceremony’s wording, the subservience of women to men, the secret handshakes through the veil—it was alarmingly similar to the FLDS ritual. “When we left, I was in shock at how different it was from what I had been led to believe in and how similar it was to what I had already gone through,” she says.

A year later, in 1991, she asked her husband for a divorce. The marriage didn’t survive, she says, “because it wasn’t based on love.”

For a year, she worked as a dispatcher for the Brigham City Police Department. When her $10-an-hour position was cut, she desperately struggled to make ends meet, frightened she would lose her kids if she couldn’t provide for them. Her boyfriend suggested she try stripping. She went to a club in Ogden. The dancing “was almost artistic,” she says. She auditioned and was hired. The first night she pulled a double shift and earned $800, more than she made in a month at her previous 9 to 5 job. It still wasn’t easy. “I was a mother of four in my early 30s,” she says. “The other girls there were 21 years old. I was very self-conscious of people critiquing my body.” She tried a humorous tack to her new profession, stripping out of a white wedding dress and veil to Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” for bachelor parties. As a sideline to make more money, she and her children made pasties for her and other dancers. One set, which she used when she danced to the song “Angel Eyes” by the Jeff Healey Band even had an eye that winked.

Polygamy had left Kathleen Mackert with no discernible skills, except sewing. Stripping, in turn, not only paid well, it was something she was good at. Her boyfriend told her, “You have a way of looking at a man that says I want sex more than anything, and you are going to give it to me,” she says.

STRIPTEASE
When Kathleen Mackert first moved to Las Vegas in 1991 with her four kids, she knew no one, other than her boyfriend, from whom she eventually split. She auditioned at the up-market Olympic Gardens topless club. “The manager told me I was stunningly beautiful with gorgeous breasts, but I needed to work out,” she recalls. He sent her to a sleazy club farther down the strip with reputed Mafia links. She kept away from the area where some dancers administered oral sex to patrons.

At first, she says, “I was out of my comfort zone.” Without the pasties mandatory in Utah, she felt naked. As long as she wore panties, she felt “sheltered,” she says. “At least that part of me was covered and sacred and not to be shared with anyone.”

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Kathleen insists prostitution was never part of her stripping life. She quit that club after she was almost coerced into having sex with a Mafia hood from New York. She says she only got away from him because she was able to partly fake an emotional meltdown. As a child, she says, she would go outside of her body when her father violated her. This time, she hadn’t frozen. “I could defend myself enough to get away from it.”

Rena Mackert believes stripping empowered her sister. “The fact that she could do this, make men feel this and no one could touch her,” she says, had an enormous impact on her. “You create that fantasy that you want them,” Kathleen says. “They are desirable to you, that’s where the control comes in. It makes them feel they are the most important person in the world to me.”

She developed stripping alter egos named “Monique” and “Chalice.” Monique hailed from Coventry, England. Despite having not visited England, Mackert used a soft English accent and even developed a simple back story to explain how Monique ended up giving lap dances at a Las Vegas club. Mackert did stints at clubs such as the Crazy Horse Two, the Glitter Gulch and finally the Olympic Gardens.

While her children went to school, she slept. Then, in the evening, for two-hour periods, she worked out in a gym with other strippers. She and a group of stripper-friends looked out for one another, particularly when it came to club owners after sex.

Men who went to the clubs, she told one of her children, were dollar signs to her and other dancers. That said, the money she made as a stripper slipped through her fingers. When her youngest sister, Laura, then living off of child support and alimony, came to visit, Kathleen took her out for escargot and the best seats in the house at a David Copperfield show. But before she went to work, Kathleen Mackert would often be in tears.

She was on the verge of hating men. “If I did it much longer, I would never have a chance of a healthy relationship,” she says. She realized gradually that she was effectively reliving her sexual abuse through exotic dancing and trying to change the outcome, she says. In 1997, she was offered a job as a bartender at a chain saloon called Doc Holliday’s. She quit stripping the same day.

RESCUE ME
Kathleen Mackert runs her marble, plasma-TV festooned and mirrored-glass casino bar for an eight-hour shift as if, says one long-term customer—an overweight business adviser named Mike—she were “the queen bee.” His friend, a business executive named Mo, is shocked when he learns about her history. “She’s not a victim of that crap,” he snaps. “She’s a survivor, a victor.”

Bartending in Vegas is hardly free of sexual exploitation. If Kathleen Mackert didn’t look much younger than her 50 years, she says she wouldn’t be working where she is. “In this town, they have you audition in a bikini and dance on high heels to get a job bartending,” she complains.

Kathleen Mackert loves bartending not only for the good money, but because, she says, “I get a front seat on human nature.” She enjoys making people feel welcome as she practices her mixology. “Everyone needs that sense of belonging,” she says.

She has been able to give her children, she says, lives that are free of the scars she experienced growing up. Her son plays with his children as a father should. She did not attend her own father’s funeral in 2002. Neither did Myra or Kathleen’s other sisters. Clyde Mackert’s death at the age of 81 was tortured, Kathleen says. The woman who cared for him in his last years as he battled Alzheimer’s told Kathleen Mackert that, every time her father lay down in bed, he started screaming and flailing because he felt like insects were crawling all over him, eating his insides.

For both Kathleen Mackert and Myra Tolman, it is the children who finally unite them in an odd way. When the Texas raid was first broadcast in early April, Myra Tolman experienced a flood of memories. “It was harder on me than when they were going to take my own kids,” she says of the 1953 raid. “I don’t know why it affected me like that.”

Like her mother, Kathleen Mackert was overcome by the sight of the children boarding the bus from the ranch on their way to an unknown future. She and her sisters “had predicted this was going to happen for so long,” Kathleen says. “Some day in our lifetime someone would go in and rescue the kids from the abuse.”

The Texas courts have ruled—but Kathleen Mackert remains convinced the children still suffer. She’s waiting now to see what the DNA evidence taken from compound members will reveal about the bloodlines in the FLDS. She has no doubt many of the children are physically abused, as she and Rena Mackert both accuse Tolman, some of her sister wives and, worst of all, their father of doing to them as kids.

Kathleen Mackert recalls a time Tolman hit her on the behind with a hairbrush until it broke. Tolman acknowledges the incident, but says she hit her once with a brush that was all but broken. “I might have swat their butt, but I never, ever bruised them,” she says. Rena Mackert claims her mother took out her frustrations with her polygamous lifestyle on her children when she returned home from long hours working as an office manager at a doctor’s clinic. “I saw her use hairbrushes, wire hangers and pancake turners,” Rena Mackert recalls. Tolman denies this, although she admits one of the other mothers was very abusive to some of the children.

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Wherever the truth lies, what concerns Kathleen Mackert most is what she considers the endless cycle of abuse bred into polygamy’s children. She wants to see that cycle broken. She remembers when she was 18 looking after a relative’s crying child. “I took a hanger and hit her on the bottom,” she says. “That’s what I grew up doing.” Rena Mackert snatched the hanger from her and scolded her. “I wept when I realized what I had done,” Kathleen Mackert says. “But where did I learn that was appropriate behavior?”

Which is why, looking at the YFZ ranch children returning home, she is reminded of herself as that 6-year-old girl with thick braids and a lost look in her eyes wandering the night-darkened streets of Kearns looking for love and shelter. “I would have loved to have been in their shoes, I would have loved to have been rescued.”