A couple of months ago, I had the distinct honor to review and help share the word on an important novel called Destroying Their God: How I Fought My Evil Half-Brother To Save My Children by Wallace Jeffs, Shauna Packer and Sherry Taylor. You can read the full review here. This book is an extremely important look at the FLDS cult and the impact it has on it’s members and their families. I am now fortunate to be able to share an exclusive interview with one of the authors, Shauna Packer. Here is what she had to say about her experience writing this story and how she views the events related in it.
1: Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you meet and eventually collaborate with Wallace Jeffs and Sherry Taylor?
Sherry and I have known each other for years as we volunteered in leadership positions through the League of Utah Writers. Sherry became acquainted with Wallace from a business networking group in the Salt Lake area. Wallace was in the movie, Prophet’s Prey, and a big-name producer/director (won’t name drop here) approached him and said he wanted to make a movie based on Wallace’s life story, but first, he wanted a book written. Wallace approached Sherry to co-author the book, but at that juncture, the timeframe for completing the project was only six months, so she asked me if I would like to join so it could be fast-tracked. As a professional writer for many years, I have been asked to collaborate on multiple books and, though I find all ideas interesting, have always refused. But when I heard Wallace’s story, of almost dying in order to protect his daughters from spiritual slavery, I knew this was one opportunity I couldn’t pass up! I believe strongly in a commitment to family, and the loyalty and sacrifice Wallace made for his children proved a theme that resonated deeply with my core values. I am continually grateful I had a chance to work on this project with Sherry and Wallace. After four years of co-authoring together, we get along well and enjoy a friendship and strong team commitment to each other individually as well as to our book.
2: What was the process like working on Destroying Their God?
Sherry and I would go to Wallace’s place and interview him as he told his life story. Or, sometimes we met at a restaurant or bookstore (nearby patrons were often quite intrigued by our conversation!). Some evenings there were things he wanted to speak about in particular; sometimes we had questions and we directed the interview. Then, I would come back to my home office and write the chapters and send them to Sherry for her feedback and addition/deletions. Quite often, we would have a lot of additional questions as we started laying out chapters and sections, so there was a great amount of follow up and digging down to do. We also had to make sure we put things into the correct historical context, sometimes that proved a challenge because access to FLDS records can be spotty or completely unavailable. Personally, I was super interested in the everyday life of an FLDS family. As a mother of children myself, I marveled at how you would even go about cooking meals for the sixty-five-plus children. So, alongside the details of Wallace’s life, Sherry and I asked a lot of questions about family dynamics. From a reader’s perspective, the feedback has been interesting: some of our readers felt like we included too many day-to-day details and some were quite frustrated that we did not include a whole lot more! But that’s the great thing about reading, it is a personal experience and preference.
3: What message do you hope this book sends to readers who are unfamiliar with FLDS or who don’t realize the affects both physically and psychologically on those who escape destructive religions?
The truth of what happens in the FLDS and the reality of Wallace’s life is shocking to a lot of people. It certainly was to me. As a writing team, we genuinely strived with this book to illuminate, without hitting people over the head with the message, that being raised in the FLDS lifestyle demands certain behaviors and compliance or you doom yourself to destruction. It can be easy when reading about another’s life to become somewhat of an armchair psychologist. However, although highly suspicious to an outsider, this lifestyle literally represents life and death to people who are in the midst of the madness. If Wallace, or any other faithful FLDS member, would have chosen to leave, they would be banished from their family, their homes, their livelihood, their friends, and ultimately, in their minds, their salvation. Leaving the priesthood people and land equates a total loss of everything and utter destruction. This is especially a heavy reality when your own father, the prophet, and your mother represented this as absolute truth from birth. It is a culture of control and fear. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Wallace’s healing and ability to operate in a world he was raised to believe was wicked. I hope that the book not only educates, but also allows people to examine their own personal values. Wise individuals with sound moral compasses can indeed be manipulated by a parental and religious culture.
4: What would you say was the most difficult aspect of writing this novel?
There is some really raw information included in the book. In order for the reader (and Sherry and I) to understand why Wallace was willing to die to protect his children, we had to spend a lot of time with dark and gritty subject matter. This included listening to many hours of audio tapes made by Warren of his degradations. As a woman and mother to daughters myself, I can still scarcely believe what these women had to endure in order to attain salvation. However, I believe that writing should be about truth and we need to stand in that truth. Some publishers were interested in the story, but wanted us to remove some of the more challenging subject matter. We agreed as a team that as much as we found what happened repugnant, we had to recount it in truth, without allowing it to become gratuitous.
There is also a building up to extreme cruelty toward Wallace. Warren is a master of creating custom-made punishments, tailored to the individual “sinner”. I don’t want to give away too much of the book, but after Wallace defied his brother, Warren customized a punishment that is every parent’s worst nightmare. The night we discussed this event was a somber one indeed. I waited until I got to my car, because Wallace doesn’t like to see women cry and it seemed disrespectful to get rattled about something so personal to him, but how the tears flowed when I was alone! I even traveled down to St. George, Utah (about five hours from where I live) because I wanted to see the house where these painful events occurred and I also wanted to see where Wallace’s accident took place. Even though I have read this book dozens of times, I still get choked up when I read certain parts. I always have to call Wallace or text him to say, “I’m so sorry you had to go through this!” His reply is generally, “Thank you, but it’s what made me the man I am today.”
5: If you were able to reach out and talk to those still living the FLDS life, what would you want to say to them?
That there are people and resources available to help them leave this cult. I do not believe it is God’s wish for families to be torn apart and for a prophet to constantly preach a message that says members are not worthy of the blessings of heaven. I would also share with them the many audio files Warren recorded, which are actively withheld from the FLDS people by leadership, and his own jail confession that “I am not the prophet”. They don’t have to lead a life based completely in fear, there are many who will help them discover the truth and find their own path!
6: What was the process like working with Wallace and diving into the ins and outs of FLDS and their practices?
Fascinating! I wanted to know everything and could still spend hours asking questions. When we are interviewed as a team, I never tire of listening to what Wallace has to say. The reality of growing up FLDS is a little hard to wrap your mind around. I really admire Wallace’s bravery; he always has an open and forthcoming attitude. Wallace has had a lot of things happen to him in his life, but he never wants to be seen as a victim. To write a book such as this, you really need to crawl through the cobwebs and challenge, probe, examine and then examine some more. There is a lot of digging into emotions and difficult memories. However, we chose to write the book in a more journalistic tone to match Wallace’s personality and so it wouldn’t seem overly emotional, as if he felt sorry for himself for the life events he experienced.
7: What’s next for you personally as an author? Any other projects on the horizon? Would you want to work on a memoir similar to this in the future?
I am always open to discussing future book ideas. If another project like Wallace’s came along that captivated me with a story of courage, love, and triumph, yes, I would definitely consider working on another memoir. I think Wallace has a few more books in him as well, and we have discussed further collaboration. I have my writing business, consulting with executives, corporations, and fiction authors on their content and editing needs. That keeps me happily occupied as I work on new books. Currently, I am in development on another non-fiction project. I also have a fictional short story that I wrote years ago and would and like to turn into a novel. It’s more of a happy story about redemption and it feels right at this moment in my career to work on something a little more upbeat. I have two completed novels I am in the process of marketing to agents. One is historical fiction called The Shadows of Plain Sight, set in post-Civil War Nevada, and the other, Ways To Go, is a women’s fiction novel.
Thank you for your time. It was an honor to speak with you and thank you for sharing this important story with the world.
Shauna Packer has been a professional corporate and freelance writer, researcher, and content editor for over twelve years. She is a multi-award-winning fiction and non-fiction author. Shauna has been published in several commercial anthologies, including Angels to Bear You Up, Utah Voices: A Literary Annual, and Mother’s Messages in a Bottle. Though she has crafted a great deal of non-fiction over the years, Destroying Their God is her first full-length non-fiction book. She resides in the Salt Lake area with her family, including two cats named after candy bars.
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