Series 02: For The Love Of Moxie | Episode 05
Unyielding Courage with Anna LeBaron & Ruth Wariner
We asked Jen’s tribe to submit stories of women they knew who defined “moxie” like no other. Overwhelmingly Anna LeBaron and Ruth Wariner, authors of The Polygamist’s Daughter and The Sound of Gravel, respectively, were at the top of the list. They share how they overcame the worst of circumstances in their childhoods as part of a polygamist cult and how later they discovered the tragedy that bound them, but didn’t define them.
Narrator: Welcome to the “For the Love Podcast” with bestselling author Jen Hatmaker. Come on in, and join us for a chat with Jen and friends about all the things we love. Now, here’s Jen.
Jen: Hey guys, it’s Jen Hatmaker! Welcome to the For The Love Podcast.
We’ve interviewed amazing women in every sort of space and every sort of sphere who have built beautiful things, and overcome amazing things, and started amazing things, and they just inspired me, and taught me, and led me.
Something that we do, that I have grown to love more than anything on earth, is that for each series on the podcast, we crowd source the final episode. So yes, we have all these amazing experts that we’re going to bring in, and leaders, and authors, but right here in our own tribe together, we have the most amazing women. The stories that we just share here collectively are phenomenal. So when it came to this series on moxie, I came to you and said, “whose got it? Whose got moxie?” Over and over and over you told us–Anna LaBaron and Ruth Wariner–and they are both on today.
Let me tell you real quickly about them before we jump into our fascinating conversation. So Anna LeBaron is the author of a book called The Polygamist’s Daughter. Go ahead and get excited about this fascinating story, because it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard. It’s this very, very haunting memoir of her life as the daughter of a notorious polygamist and murderer. So she tells the story of her childhood and escape from this violent cult.
Now, Anna is a speaker and a life coach and she is doing beautiful, holy, healing work in the world. She’s a mom to five grown kids and she lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. We’ve got Anna and with her we have Ruth Wariner. So Ruth—first of all let me tell you this. She’s an internationally renowned speaker and author; so her book was a New York Times bestseller and it’s called The Sound of Gravel. Ruth was also the daughter of a polygamist and it was called Colonia LeBaron and she is going to tell us about it. At the age of 15, she escaped the colony, moved to California, raised her three younger sisters, and earned a GED. She put herself through college and grad school and then ultimately went on to write a New York Times best-selling book.
Here’s what’s crazy; Anna and Ruth are cousins, but they did not meet until last year. They both wrote books about their stories. Anna accidentally got connected to Ruth, and as it turns out their fathers were brothers, and one brother had the other brother killed. It’s just too much. I’ve already said too much. We’re going to talk about all this on the podcast. But now, both of these amazing women are on the podcast today telling their stories and telling specifically how they rose up out of these ashes of abuse and evil, into extraordinary, courageous women who are doing such good in the world. You’re going to love this one, you guys. This is heartbreaking, encouraging, fascinating, shocking.
It’s all in here, so thank you for telling us to have Anna and Ruth on because this is going to be an amazing episode. So thanks for joining us. Without any further ado, on to our chat.
Jen: Anna and Ruth, I’m so tickled. Welcome to the show. I’m honored. I’m excited to have you both on here. I know you already know this, but we’re pretty “jazz fingers” about having you on this series. This whole series is “For the Love of Moxie.” And as you very well know, we crowd source one episode in every series, so basically the question goes out to the tribe: “Guys, we want to know who you think has amazing moxie. Who should we invite out of our own space together online to tell their story?”
And you guys, your names like overwhelmingly came up over and over and over again. I already knew both of your stories. Anna and I have been friends now for years, obviously, and I had read The Sound of Gravel. I’ve read both of your books. And so when your names came up I thought, “One hundred percent yes!” Thank you for being here this morning.
Anna: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here.
Jen: OK, so that’s Anna, listeners. Anna, say, “Hi, I’m Anna.”
Anna: Hi, I’m Anna.
Jen: And this is Ruth.
Ruth: Hi. Good morning. Thank you so much for having me. It’s so exciting. I’m thrilled to be here.
Jen: Oh, same, same, same. So we’re going to get into your stories and some of the details of it and how you overcame, but just for our listeners who haven’t met you yet or your stories are new to them, would each of you just tell us sort of a 35,000-foot view of your story, your childhood, and why we have you on this show today. You want to start, Anna?
Anna: Oh, I sure can. My life started in a polygamist cult where I was born and raised. My father was known by the news media outlets that would report on the atrocities that he committed or had his followers commit. He was known as the, quote, “Mormon Manson.” He was responsible for the deaths of 28 people confirmed. Those were committed by his followers. So I was born into this. I was three years old when the first hit was committed or was carried out. And so I lived–I grew up–and lived my life in fear.
We moved around a lot because my father was wanted by the law. So I didn’t have any type of root system in place, and I was able to escape when I was 13 years old. You know, life went on. But the tragedies continued in spite of just having gotten out. So that’s kind of the overall picture. As a grown adult, I went to professional counseling and found freedom, and found a way to overcome the obstacles that were in my way, and was able to put into words that meant something–for my healing journey–the things that happened.
Jen: So obviously your stories intersect, so Ruth, will you give your version and your side of things, and then we’ll talk in a few minutes about how your stories have dovetailed.
Ruth: Yes, absolutely. I grew up in Colonia LeBaron, and it was — it is still a colony in Chihuahua, Mexico, that my paternal grandfather started in order to practice polygamy. My father, Joel F. LeBaron, became the prophet of that community, and started the church, and ended up having nine wives and 42 children, and I’m the 39th.
In 1972 when I was born, I was three months old when there was a fight in the church, and he was killed.
My story is about growing up in the shadow of his divinity or his calling, as told to me by his followers and by my mother. My mother was 17 when she married my father. He was 42. She was only 25 when he was killed, and it’s the story of my life without him and growing up with my mom. Ultimately it’s a mother-daughter story. It’s a family story; it’s a story of survival, and sibling relationships, and how we learn to survive and become more and more resilient by depending on each other.
My mom’s family left the church, but she stayed and ended up marrying and becoming the second wife to another polygamous man, a devout follower of my biological father, and she had six more children with him, and he was very abusive. It was just a devastating childhood.
It’s that story of my life and what that was like for me as a child, growing up in that kind of situation and watching my mother and her choices, and being brokenhearted by those too.
Jen: I told you both earlier that when I read your stories—both of your books–it feels like reading fiction. It feels like there’s no way that this could be your life. There’s no way that this was how this group lived and how you suffered and how you survived. It’s just so fascinating. It’s sad. It’s shocking.
It’s really interesting because we know that both of you—I mean, really I don’t think this is a dramatic word—you escaped out of these cults, separate factions of a cult run by your fathers who were brothers. They were brothers, but you guys did not know each other as children. Can you tell everybody; how did you end up meeting as grown-ups who have been delivered?
Anna: Well, I probably should answer that, since I was the one who reached out to Ruth, not knowing she was my cousin. I reached out to her on Twitter when I saw that there was a book coming out called The Sound of Gravel, and it was a memoir and I love reading memoirs. So I reached out to her, and you won’t be surprised, Jen, to know that I asked if she already had a launch team in place.
Jen: I’m not surprised.
Anna: I wanted to be on the launch team of this book because I wanted to get my hands on it and read it. I didn’t know it was about polygamy. I didn’t know anything. I just knew it was a memoir.
Jen: Are you serious?
Anna: I am totally serious.
Jen: So it was just something about it was intriguing enough to reach out to Ruth?
Anna: Her publicist, that I follow on Twitter, had posted and said, “must read new memoir January 2016.” So, if it says, “must read” and it’s a memoir, I’m in.
Jen: Wow. You must have been shocked.
Anna: I was floored. The way I found out was a little while later, her publicist posted a GoodReads review. So I clicked and read and there was nothing in that review that would have alerted me that Ruth was my cousin. It was one of the comments on that review that said, “I’ve read a lot of books about polygamy and this is one of the great ones.”
At that point I went, “What?” I wondered which polygamist community she came out of. So I went to her website, started reading her history page. I’m scrolling down reading, and there I see a photo of my Uncle Joel.
Anna: Then, you know, the blood drained out of my head. Then I kept scrolling. Then there’s a photo of my dad’s mugshot. At that point, I went kind of crazy in my head because …
Anna: … it was my father that ordered the hit on Ruth’s father.
Jen: You guys.
Anna: Ruth was three months old. I was three years old when that hit was carried out. That was in 1972. So there has been a 40-year separation between Joel, his family, and followers and Ervil, my father, and his family and followers.
The Ervilites, as we were referred to, were not allowed to communicate with Joel’s children. We weren’t allowed to talk to each other or have anything to do with each other. And that just became the way it was.
Jen: And geographically where were you?
Anna: At the time?
Anna: I probably lived in Mexico. In Encina is my guess. Because I was three years old, I don’t know for a fact, and my mother couldn’t remember a lot. So, I realized that I had Tweeted her publicly. So, I went, “Oh my gosh, what have I done?”
Anna: Then I knew, to delete it, if she had already seen it, would just make everything more awkward.
Anna: So I Tweeted her again and said, “I just now realized that we’re related. You know, I escaped my father’s cult when I was 13,” just to distance myself from the atrocities that my father had committed. Then I private messaged her and began a conversation. I said, “I did not intend to bring up old hurts and old pain, and I’ll delete those Tweets if you want me to.”
Jen: And what was your thought here, Ruth? I mean, this had to have been unexpected for you.
Ruth: It was totally unexpected. I never even—growing up we always knew that my dad was Ervil’s first victim, and I didn’t consider at all that Ervil’s kids were alive and well. I had all these cousins that had also escaped and live productive lives.
So when I saw the Tweet, I was actually in New York City recording my audiobook and doing some media work with my publicist and I saw the Tweet. It said, “Anna LaBaron,” so I knew that she was my relative. I immediately reached out to our Aunt Irene Spencer and asked her about Anna, and that she was a nice person and what she was like. Then, I just didn’t have time to Tweet her back that day. I definitely did not want to have that conversation publicly, either.
Once I heard from my aunt that she was a nice person, and she was very positive, and doing a lot of good things with her life, I responded and we corresponded. As soon as she told me that she also escaped when she was a teenager, too—I was 15 and she was 13–I just thought about it, and I’m like, “You know what? She’s probably just like me.” She was afraid that I didn’t want to talk to her, but I was like totally open to getting to know her.
Ruth: We set up a phone call and I sent her my book right away because I really wanted her to love this story and get behind the story before she started to promote it. That was really important to me. So I sent her the book. I live in Portland, Oregon; she’s in Dallas, Texas. We set up a phone call, probably about a week and a half after the initial Tweet, and sat down, had a conversation, and were just blown away by the similarities.
Not only that, as I was on the phone with Anna, I found out actually that she has sisters, so I have cousins that live here in Portland, Oregon. They’re my neighbors. It’s just incredible. So I was over-the-top excited.
When I escaped my LeBaron family and the situation that I was in at 15, I lost a lot of my LeBaron family relationships and my sisters and half-sisters and that’s been, you know, a void in my life. I was just super excited to meet these LeBaron cousins who, you know, are on similar but different paths. It was just heartwarming and so exciting.
Jen: I want to talk about both of your paths out in a minute, but I’m curious. You’ve obviously connected now and read each other’s books. That must have been fascinating to read each other’s stories, so similar and yet different. Can you tell us a little bit about what you read in one another’s stories that was the same and what was different? Like, what rang really familiar in the way that you were raised in the way that your fathers led their communities?
Anna: A lot of the similarities were the abuses that were taking place, the deprivation, the moving around, the rootlessness and not having a voice. Not having a choice, being groomed to become a sister wife, eventually.
Ruth: Yeah. For me it was surprising, too, to see the similarities and to realize that even though these two people splintered off violently and ended up carrying on different churches—my father was dead by then—but his community is actually still thriving and they still believe he’s the prophet. So I grew up with that belief system and it was surprising that, despite the fact that they broke apart, there were so many similarities about the way women and children are treated, the neglect. Also that mentality of poverty and that secret, like, you can’t talk about the fact that we are the chosen ones, and we have the right way. There was so much of that rhetoric in both of the churches. In spite of the differences, that mentality stayed in both the families.
Jen: I can’t imagine how both alarming and comforting it must have been to essentially read the mirror version of your own childhood in one another’s stories. It’s really extraordinary how much courage you both had to demonstrate; to escape from your situations at such young ages. And somehow, there was something in both of you that resisted this inevitability of becoming a wife to another polygamist and continue the cycle of just devastation, and poverty, and neglect, and abuse for yet another generation. Ruth, I was reading about how strong the hold is that the polygamous head of the family has over the group. You know, just such emotional abuse and spiritual abuse. You wrote about your own mother was brainwashed. So, at what point did both of you—I’d like to hear you both speak into this—what was it? Was there a moment or was it just a growing dawning? When was it that you both understood that this was not a fate you were willing to accept?
Ruth: For me it was definitely progressive. It was something that I started to see in my early childhood. My maternal grandparents lived in the United States, and I spent some time living with them and going to schools. I had been taught that the Americans were Babylonians, that they were sinful. I went to the first grade in central California. I ended up—you know, in my mind I thought that all Americans were mean and awful—but I walked into my first grade classroom, and it was literally like I loved my teacher right away. The people were really nice, and so I was confused. I was confused about what was really true. Even at 6 years old, and we ended up moving back to Mexico and back to a life with no electricity and, you know, an outhouse for a bathroom, the creature comforts that I had in California were hard to let go of and go back to harsher lifestyle.
So that’s when it started, and then I started to see my mom really suffer. You know she was pregnant every year and a half. My stepfather didn’t come around. Then on top of that, he was not only physically abusive towards her, but when I was eight, he started to sexually assault me. And initially I thought it was just me. I didn’t understand what was going on. You know I hadn’t been told a lot about that part of life.
I mean I was a kid, and it wouldn’t be long really—within a year I think of the initial abuse—I ended up finding out that he was abusing other little girls, other stepchildren of his. It was the hypocrisy behind that. Then going to the adults and letting them know what was going on, but never having any consequences for my stepfather, for his behavior and what he’d done. That really, I think, for me was like, this is not right. There is something not right about the situation, and I told my mom, and it still went on. I told my mom again, and I told other people in the colony again, and she stayed. That was an incredibly heartbreaking thing for me.
The absolute breaking point was—my stepfather had built a home that we lived in, and he had hooked up the electricity. He wasn’t an electrician, he did an awful job, and the neglect and the abuse that had been going on for so many years in our lives turned into tragedy. My youngest brother, 5-year-old Micah, and my mom were killed in an accident with the electricity on our property. My youngest sister was five months old; she was still nursing. I had a 2-year-old sister that I was potty training. My sister, Elaina, was four. We lost our brother.
Then I had a 10-year-old brother, and a 17-year-old special needs brother, and an older brother. You know, our family was huge. I could go on and on, but I found out not long after my mom died, not only was he trying to take my 4-year-old sister and be alone with her, I was just like, “You’re not taking those little girls anywhere without me,” because although my culture, my community told me to forgive him, but I was like, “yeah, you know I’m stuck here but you’re not taking those little girls.” There was no way. He was becoming relentless. It was getting more like, you know, I was 15, and I didn’t really have any power in that community. I didn’t have a say. And one day he had been working with my special needs brother and he came home, and he was acting a little bit uncomfortable and my brother has a lot of trouble with communication. He was 17 but the mentality/emotional level of a five- or six-year-old, probably.
Ruth: He sat down and started to talk about his time with my stepfather, and I was shocked. I hadn’t even considered that my stepfather might hurt him. I was sitting across the table from my brother and he started to talk about being assaulted, and I was like—it was that split second, once my mom was gone—she was really the center of our universe because my stepdad wasn’t around. That’s true in a lot of these polygamist communities; the mom is everything. So we were completely, you know, obviously trying to find a way. I was taking care of my sisters and my brother, and it was just this mother bear, primal instinct that exploded inside of me in rage and anger. And I was just like, “we are out of here. There is no way I’m staying.”
I called my brother in San Diego. He came down and we crossed the border. We left Colonia LeBaron in the middle of the night. I packed all their things. We didn’t even have legal paperwork to bring my sisters across the border. I mean it was terrifying. Left that town slowly in the middle of the night. Fortunately, we’re all blond-haired, blue-eyed. So, you know, the authorities let us across the border, and we lived with my grandmother for the first four years.
But at that point, I wasn’t going back. It was literally like—my mother was the one who kept me there and her beliefs—and as you said, the brainwashing, and her sense of, as I wrote about her in my book, I really realized that she lost that core sense of herself in a way, that I had, because I was so much younger and didn’t have a bunch of kids and wasn’t yet brainwashed, I guess you might say. You know that part of me, I hadn’t lost that part of myself, and so that was something that was hard to realize. But because she wasn’t there, there was nothing to bring me back anymore. I started to find a new way when I started raising my sisters. I wanted a better life for us.
Jen: When I think about you doing that at 15, I just want to cry my eyes out.
Ruth: It’s so heartbreaking.
Jen: My heart is just broken. First of all, you had to grow up like that. Second of all, you had to mother everybody, including your older brother. The risk that it took and the courage that it took; it’s just unbelievable, Ruth. I’ve got a 15-year-old. My brain will not compute this, that you had to make these risky adult decisions for so many people at such a young age, having already suffered your own abuse, and you did it. You walked out the door in the middle of the night and never looked back. It’s amazing. How about you, Anna?
Anna: Well, my story is a little bit different. My father was in prison. After the authorities finally caught up with him in 1979, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. So my father was controlling the group from prison while we lived in Denver. So his right-hand man in Denver was using all my father’s wives and children that were located in Denver as slave labor. There’s no other way to talk about it.
We were working 12-hour days all summer long, six days a week, and I’m probably nine or 10 years old at the time. So how much work can you really get out of a 10-year-old? Let me tell you, when you’re threatened with a beating, and I’m watching my siblings get beat violently with dryer cords because we worked in an appliance shop. It was like a sweatshop. I’m watching people get beat. I was a compliant child and figured out really fast to do what I was told, and do it well, so that I wouldn’t be beat. So we were living under those circumstances in Denver, when at some point, and I don’t know all the narrative among the adults, but my older brother was living and working in Houston at another branch of our cult in Houston.
He came and moved my mother and her children to Houston and we began life there. The man that was in charge of the Houston faction was a lot more kind about the way he ran his appliance business. So we were actually paid for our work. We all had to work. There was no getting around that. The used appliance business was how our family brought in income that helped pay for things. But in Denver, we were, you know, dumpster-diving for food, dumpster-diving in the Goodwill boxes for clothes. In Houston, my mom was actually paid for her work. She could shop for groceries in the grocery store, and the money that we earned we could keep.
I remember, you know, buying myself my first pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans with the money that I had earned. You know, $5 a week. It was during that period of time that my father passed away in jail. So I’m 12 years old at that time.
The man in Denver wanted control of the different factions that were in different cities in the U.S. So he convinced my mother to move her family back to Denver. I don’t know exactly what transpired, how I knew, but I knew my mother was going to go back to Denver. So I called a half-sister and let her know that I was not interested in going back to Denver. She said to me, “Start walking.”
Jen: Wow. And you’re 12?
Anna: I’m 13 now.
Jen: You’re 13.
Anna: I had my 13th birthday right after my dad passed away. So I’m 13 now. So I made sure I was wearing my Gloria Vanderbilt jeans that I had worked really hard for and just walked out of my home.
Jen: What in the world?
Anna: I knew the way to my sister’s house. I didn’t know the plan. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just knew that on the route between our house and hers, other family members would be driving as they came home from work or back and forth. And I knew that if anybody saw me that I would be dragged back. And so my sister found me, picked me up, and the first night, she took me to another sister’s house, and I spent the night there. About midnight I’m woken up. I’m told to crawl through the window and go through the back fence and wait there until they come and get me. And it was my mother at the door looking for me.
Anna: So she looked for me that night, didn’t find me, and then packed up all my siblings and moved back to Denver without me.
Jen: Having never made contact with you or spoken to you?
Anna: Correct. I was just grateful that she left without me. My sister picked me up the next day and put me in a hotel for three days to hide me, not knowing if they were going to come back or, you know, if they had left yet. So we waited, and then eventually when we realized they were gone, we went back to the house that had my belongings and moved them.
Anna: But then my mom did come back looking for me.
Jen: She did?
Anna: About a month or so later. I’m home alone, and I see my own mother coming around the corner through the window, and I literally went weak with fear because I was alone. I don’t know how I managed to dial the phone. I called my sister because she was at the other shop and said, “My mom is here,” and she says, “don’t open the door. Mark and I will be right there.” It seemed like an eternity, but they showed up. What I didn’t know at the time was that prior to my mom coming to pick me up, she had tried to get another one of my sisters that had also run away. She tried to take her by force.
Anna: My other sister fought her off and didn’t let her get picked up. So I think at that point my mom just said, “Well, I’ll try to talk her into doing this.” I sat there at the table that night, and she was trying to convince me to go to Denver. I just kept saying, “I want to stay here. I want to stay in Houston. I like my life here.” I’m not sure how I was able to have the emotional fortitude to just stand up for myself and speak what I wanted. But I managed to, and I’m utterly grateful to this day.
Jen: Something in your young hearts—the both of you—rose up fierce and strong even after a whole childhood of subjugation and abuse and trauma. It’s just amazing. It’s beautiful and it’s inspiring.
Jen: Both of you; this is interesting because you’re both mothers, and obviously you can’t even imagine your own children living in these conditions and enduring these abuses and losses. It just seems so other-worldly for your own. I’m curious, and obviously your mothers had different paths and different stories. Can you talk just a little bit—because you know a lot of people listening obviously did not grow up in a polygamist cult like you two did—but a lot of people listening did grow up in abusive homes or they grew up with a lot of loss where maybe in one case or another they felt like their mother was either complicit or did not protect them or refused to leave or to say, “No,” or to stand up or to stand between the children and an abusive dad or stepdad or whatever the case may be. So can you talk just for a minute about just how you have—or if you have, I will not project this onto your story—how have you dealt with your feelings toward your mothers? Have you made peace here? What are your emotions towards your mothers now that you’re grown adults?
Ruth: Go ahead, Anna.
Anna: OK. So my mother is still alive. She is 86 years old and still believes in the practice of plural marriage or polygamy and lives in a community. There’s nobody that believes in my father anymore, just so we can set the record straight.
But there are other polygamist communities all across the southwest up into Canada and down into Mexico. There are a lot of them. My mother has joined another one and lives there with them. So I have had to find a way to have as good of a relationship as I can with her in spite of our very different faith practices and faith beliefs. She and I have basically agreed to disagree. She is part of a community that allows contact with outsiders; not all of them do. I’m grateful for that. I know my mom was very concerned when she heard that I was going to write a book and tell my story. So I assured her that there was nothing in me that wanted to dishonor her in the telling of my story. So I was very intentional about telling my story and not projecting on her or trying to think what her thoughts were at the time. I was very intentional in the way that I wrote the book, and I let her know that when I was done and I turned the manuscript into the publisher that I would come and read it to her, and so I did.
I turned in the manuscript, booked my flight and went and spent a week with her. I knew that she did not know a lot of the things that happened to me as a child because she wasn’t there a lot as I was growing up, and I ran away when I was 13. So she wasn’t there for the rest of my life. I knew that there was so much that had happened to me that her choices and decisions, you know, had brought upon me. So the last thing that I wanted was for her to get the book on her doorstep and sit alone and read alone.
So I went and read her the manuscript out loud over the course of two days. We cried a lot. I knew that she had so much grief locked up inside of her about our childhoods that she had never been able to express. So we sat together and cried and talked about some really difficult things that I had experienced. I went there with my expectations firmly rooted in reality knowing that this wasn’t going to change her mind about her beliefs. I was correct.
She doesn’t believe anymore that my father, Ervil LeBaron, was the prophet at all, ever. But she does believe that the man that she eventually married, you know a spiritual marriage—not legal—was the prophet. So I knew these things. I went there not intending to change her mind. I went there intending to be the hands and feet of Jesus to her in her grief. To be physically present with her, to comfort her heart, because knowing that her choices brought this on me.
Anna: And I wanted to comfort her, no matter what.
Jen: That’s really powerful, Anna. Oh, man. How about you Ruth?
Ruth: I’m so inspired by Anna’s story—this part of it. There’s a part of me that is so envious of it because I didn’t get to have that closure with my mother. That has been probably the most heartbreaking thing of my life. Like I said earlier, my mom was really the center of our universe. She was the kind of mom that made everything fun, in spite of not having money. She went to yard sales and always wrapped up little trinkets and made sure we had stockings on Christmas. She was raised in an LDS Mormon and Southern Baptist Christian family. And she brought that blended faith with her, in spite of her beliefs in fundamentalism, and so she always made life fun. I talked to my half siblings now that knew her and loved her and her sweet and kind spirit, and I just spoke with one of my half-brothers from LeBaron last week, and he said, “You know, when I die and go to heaven, I want your mom to be my mom.”
You know, and it’s so sweet. As I wrote about my mom, I realized that, you know, she lost that sense of herself. She, honestly, at the core of herself didn’t believe she deserved better. She made choices and even chose religions and men—or a religion and men, husbands—that validated the way she felt about herself. That was heartbreaking for me to realize. With my situation, I look at my mom and her choices, and they devastated me as a kid when she decided to stay, especially with my stepfather. It was devastating. But writing about her, you know it kind of…
Jen: It’s almost therapeutic, right? To write through it. I know sometimes for me the process of writing can literally take me by the hand and walk me through forgiveness or acceptance or understanding. So I can imagine that that could have borne out in your own heart and soul as you wrote your story about your mom.
Ruth: Absolutely it did, and it helped me realize, too, that you know she paid the price for her choices, and my little brother paid the price. There is no reason for me to be angry anymore. Also raising her three children; it’s kind of ironic that she always raised me to be a good wife and a good mom. You know, my domestic education was always a priority to her. That being a priority, so it’s kind of ironic that after she passed, I ended up raising her three kids.
Ruth: It’s amazing what we learn about ourselves through our parenting.
Ruth: As I was raising them, especially as they were teenagers, it was like, you know, I was honestly, my forgiveness has been a long process. Honestly, thinking about my mom, the more I got to know myself and my own imperfections and my own ways of being, I really realized that, you know, we’re all imperfect and we’re all in this together.
It was–that part of it–helped me learn to forgive her, too, just realizing my own mistakes and my own humanity and so many things that I had to learn about myself.
Jen: That is so relatable. Well, let me ask you two this. Your trauma was born out of the confines of a radical cult. I mean this is quite a story, you guys. I can only imagine how many heinous and evil things were said and done in the name of religion, in the name of God, in the name of “God sent me, God told me, God put this honor upon me.”
I’m wondering if you can talk for a minute about; how did you or did you at all make your peace with God? I mean, how did you, were you able to embrace a new, a different kind of community of believers in a healthy way or in a way that felt true and honoring and dignified? Anna?
Anna: Well, for me, one of the things that happened was, and it’s a long story— I was enrolled in a Christian school by my sister and brother-in-law that took me in. I know now that probably the teachers there were given a little bit of background about my circumstances and my family of origin. And so the love and the acceptance, the grace that was demonstrated towards me was different than anything I had ever experienced in my life.
Anna: So it was profoundly moving as a teenage girl to experience this whole different life, a whole different way of interacting with God. I remember the day vividly that one of the teachers began her prayer at the beginning of the day. Instead of saying the very traditional and rote “Dear Heavenly Father” that I had grown up with my whole life, she used the word, “Father,” when she prayed, and my ears perked up. In my spirit, I knew she had something that I didn’t.
Anna: That became a quest. I didn’t make a conscious decision at the time, but I know that from that moment on, my heart longed for what she had. So I became just very studious, and it was not long after that that our church youth group went to camp, and I’m sure anybody that’s been to church camp knows that every night you go and sit in a service and sing and have to hear a message, you know?
Jen: Yep. I know it well, sister.
Anna: So I was very ripe for receiving Christ at that youth camp when that invitation was made. That was my experience, making that leap from where I was, what I was born into, to what I now experience.
Now the father piece–that took me decades to untangle. Not having grown up with a father and basically fatherless, even though I knew who my dad was, we were fatherless. I only spent time with him in the same room twice that I remember.
Jen: Oh, was that right? Wow.
Anna: So I grew up essentially fatherless. So making that leap from my experience with my earthly father–that had no bearing whatsoever on the way that our Heavenly Father wants to connect with us. So that took me decades to unravel and unpack, and it’s only been in the last five years or so that that has become that thing that I wanted and longed for as a 13-year-old. Now I’m a 48-year-old.
Here I am, you know, now experiencing that fatherly affection from my Heavenly Father and basking in it.
Jen: That’s beautiful. How about you, Ruth?
Ruth: You know, even in my early childhood I was angry at God. I remember I was always a prayerful child, and I’m an introvert, so I always would reflect on things and go to prayer in my heart. Really daily, throughout the day, in the middle of the day.
I remember probably as an 8-year-old, I was so angry with my mom and my stepdad that I hid behind a bunch of clothes in this musty smelling closet, and I just stuck my tongue out at God. I was so angry with Him, like, “Why are you doing this to me? I’ve been praying my whole life for a better life.” So that childish part of myself, even back then, felt betrayed by God.
Especially when my mom died after I prayed for her to live, it was, I felt at the time, and not even cognitively, I didn’t realize I was feeling this way, but I realize it now. I felt again betrayed by God. I have dealt with that, and part of my therapy has really been being honest with myself about those true feelings. It’s kind of ironic because when I was raising my sisters without a lot of money to pay the bills, and putting myself through college, and you know they all played basketball, they all did these things. I would be driving to one practice, to another, to Girl Scouts, to booster club, etc., etc. just praying, “God, get me through this.” So it’s so interesting because there was always that irony of me asking God for help, but then never trusting that He was going to be there for me.
Ruth: That’s something that I had, you know, I had to be honest with myself about and so I took my little sisters to churches and different places. The LDS Mormon Church hasn’t really appealed to me just because of my childhood, I’m sure, and I know a lot of nice Mormon people and they’re wonderful people. But for me, philosophically, it wasn’t something that touched me, and I’ve always wanted to find that sense of community and look for it. For me, it ended up becoming more of a personal journey. So I still have that prayerful side of me. But there is a part of me that doesn’t want somebody else to tell me God wants, what’s best for me, or that they know better for me than I know for myself. I feel more and more as I meditate in my prayer and my journaling, I feel that connection within myself, and I feel like it’s that intuitive part of myself, that part of God’s communication within me, that gave me that strength and that told me loud and clear like, “You need to run.” It’s that part of me that saved me. I believe that that is where God is, where He is now. So that’s really, you know, it’s interesting how my suffering has helped bring that out in myself and has helped that grow within me.
Our suffering has been a huge teacher for me, and I believe that is where God lives.
Jen: That quiet still voice when I am able to push aside the chaos, and the noise, and the fear; that still, quiet voice of the Holy Spirit in my soul has led me better than any other tool in my life.
Ruth: Totally agree.
Jen: Everything you’re saying is just resonating with me down to my toes. So you mentioned sort of your recovery a little bit. Can you just briefly talk about what your path to recovery was, what were some of the tools that you reached for? You’re in this series, “For the Love of Moxie.” I just wrote a book on that. You’ve heard of it.
Anna: I’ve heard of it.
Jen: In one of the essays I basically I’m trying to bully women into a counselor’s office if they need it. I believe in it so much. So I just I think that it’s not weak at all. It’s the strength to labor toward your own health. I would love for our listeners to know these are the things that you reached for. As you worked actively to find healing for your minds, for your souls, for your spirits.
Ruth: It definitely for me began with prayer. It began with my asking and being patient for answers. That’s definitely been a huge part of my healing process and that led me to other things. I started taking World Religions in college when I went back at 21 when my sisters were little, and I was just fascinated by this idea that I had a choice about how I wanted to believe. I was so lightened up and inspired by that. It was a new thought to me, because I had always been taught, “Oh you know there’s one way and this is what it is, and if you’re not in that particular, you don’t follow those specific rules, then God doesn’t love you.” So that was an exciting part of the growth, too. Again, my relationships with my sisters, too; having a purpose outside myself, I have to say is really what saved me through my toughest years in my grief, having them to care about, having something else that mattered in my life and that was incredibly important to me, and my relationships with them are still very strong and they’ve helped me. Even now, they’re therapeutic for me. Then, going to therapy; and it took me long time. It was 15 years old after my mom died, when I started teaching high school, and I got benefits. There’s a lot of freedom in benefits, and I got to go see a counselor for an hour for a $20 co-pay.
Jen: Wow. Amazing.
Ruth: I know. There was tremendous freedom in, you know, having an income and benefits. It took a little while for me to find the right person, because I needed somebody to be honest with me and to really help me. I needed more than just to talk about myself. I needed somebody to say, “Hey, this is what happens in grief. This is what happens in adult survivors of sexual assault.” Those kinds of things—I needed some of those things. I chose a person who I love and adore, and I still go to therapy. But she called me on my choices, you know, because I had to be honest with myself about the choices I was making that were keeping me single, basically. The choices I was making with my family. Even after all my education, and getting a professional career, and having a professional career, I looked at my life, and I looked around, and I realized that I was still living my conditioning. I was 33, 34 years old with teenagers in my house, broke and alone, just like my mother.
Ruth: Having those kinds of insights about myself and those truths about myself and the choices that I was making — and by that I mean also the good choices. We have to know where we are in order to grow and heal.
Jen: Powerful, powerful, powerful. I just took notes. How about you, Anna?
Anna: My counseling journey began in 1995. I was married and had a few children of my own by that time. I had attended a family wedding where there were people from my past that attended, as well, which triggered a really horrific nightmare that night after the wedding. So I fell asleep and dreamed that a brown van pulled up to my home and my family members got out with guns and came in and shot me. These were triggers of old memories; of experiencing these kinds of things growing up. So the very next day, after having thought I’d put my whole past behind me, which I hadn’t, the very next day I had a play date with a friend. Our kids had a play date. I very tenuously and cautiously told my friend about my nightmare just because it was troubling me so much, and I had made it a point not to tell very many people about my past and my family of origin just because it was so shameful to me, where I came from. So this friend says to me, “If I make you an appointment with the lay ministry counselor at my church, will you go?” And I said, “Sure.” I didn’t know I needed help. The she followed that up and said, “Do I need to watch your boys for you while you’re at the appointment or do you need me to drive you?”
I said, “Yes.” I went, and for an hour, and just bared my soul to this lady, and she very wisely handed me a business card to a woman who was part of the Samaritan Pastoral Counseling Ministry. Because God so divinely orchestrates our lives, this woman that she referred me to had done her thesis on cults. So I began five years of therapy with—her name is Joy—so, so poignant. So I began that process. I remember the first day she asked me, “Tell me about your relationship with your dad.” And how do you wrap that up in a nice—
Jen: Like, lady, you want to start there? How long do you have?
Anna: But really my answer to her at that time was, “He was never around and we dealt with it.” I didn’t have any other context with which to answer that question. It took me five years of consistently attending therapy. She practiced on a sliding scale so I was paying $35 a visit. My children’s father was in the military, so you know about military income. So we qualified for the lower rates that she was charging. So five years into it, I finally completed what she called, “peeling back the layers of an onion.” I arrived in her office not really having the full expression of my emotions for me to grab a hold of and use in life. When you’re born and raised in a cult like ours, you have a very limited range of emotions that are safe. I know you just interviewed Brene’ Brown, and I learned, you know she says, you cannot selectively numb your emotions. If you numb the negative ones, you’re also numbing the positive ones. I walked into that office with such a limited range of emotion. At the end of five years of her just tenderly and sweetly and carefully helping me unpack my childhood, when I got to the core of that onion, what I found was, a little girl that just wanted the love of her father. I sobbed in counseling for weeks and months. It felt like years, eventually, and you know that was the beginning of the process. I am still in counseling.
The counselor that I see now specializes in post-traumatic stress. And I did not know that’s what it was called until very recently in 2015, 16, no, 2014, is when I found out that what I was experiencing is called anxiety that’s triggered by post-traumatic stress.
Jen: I mean, almost textbook, right?
Anna: So for me, the healing journey has been a very long one, and I have pressed in and sought healing and done all of my part to grow and to heal as much as is humanly possible on this side of heaven.
Jen: It’s beautiful. Can you tell everybody, you guys, as we sort of wrap it up here, you’ve both done amazing work. You’ve shown courage from the time you were little, and you are the definition of overcomers. Can you tell us a little bit about what your life looks like now? Where are you? What is your family? What are you doing and could you have ever imagined that this would be your story when you were little girls in a dysfunctional, abusive cult?
Ruth: Me, my gosh, I mean sitting here talking to two authors on a podcast, New York Times best selling author. No, that’s not anything that ever entered my consciousness at that time. I mean there was just no way. For me, it was really, especially, right after my mom died, it was all about survival. I was on autopilot for years and just trying to make things, just to survive.
Jen: Right. Just get a sandwich on the table and get through the day.
Ruth: That is exactly right. Exactly right. Get up in the morning, put one foot in front of the other.Then, luckily, it took me awhile to really start to learn to trust men—a lot of the therapy actually helped me with that–to find that part of myself that didn’t. So I found an amazing husband who helped me as I was writing my book. He took walks with me, he helped support me in every way, and eventually became my agent who sold my book to New York to McMillan.
Jen: He did a little double-duty.
Ruth: He did. He did. We’ve been real partners all along and he’s so generous. The exact opposite of everything that I grew up with. He has enriched my life in so many ways. We have a lot of fun together and a lot of those things that I kind of missed out on in my 20s, although I didn’t completely, you know, I get to do now. I’m celebrating life every day and my little sister, Leah, the middle of the three that I raised, has a little boy, little baby Nolan, and I’m having so much fun being an auntie. Watching the little stages of development in these little children, and you know that little boy was born with a personality. It was those kinds of things that are so simple but bring us so much joy that I didn’t get to appreciate with all my younger siblings. You know I get to appreciate the little things now. I get to savor them and love my family. We’re all like friends now.
Now, I’m not like the mom anymore, although sometimes I am.
Jen: Sure. I’m the oldest. I understand.
Ruth: Yeah, yeah. They’re all still really close, too. My three sisters, especially, and my brother Aaron. We all live in the Pacific Northwest, and they’re in touch with each other constantly, and I still love to fill their stockings.
Jen: Like your mom did.
Ruth: We’re doing well. I am incredibly grateful. I’m so thankful. And I have been blessed. I have been incredibly blessed.
Jen: I’m standing on my chair clapping for that. How about you, Anna?
Anna: Well, I live in the DFW Metroplex. I have five grown children. They all live nearby. So that makes my mama heart very happy. One of the things that I’m most proud of is the fact that I was able to move here 12 years ago, buy my first home ever, and raise my children in the same home where they’ve all five now graduated from the same high school.
Jen: It’s amazing.
Anna: The fact that I was able to figure out how to do that is nothing short of a miracle, after the family of origin that I came from. So I have the #4500, which is my tribe and my people. That’s been expanding, just because of the work that I now do. I couldn’t have ever imagined that this would be my life, where I get to do this amazing work that I’m so proud of and so passionate about. I always say that books mentored me. I entered adulthood not being able to adult. I read voraciously on every topic you can imagine that I needed to be mentored in. So now, the place where I’m at today, where I get to do this, and put books in the hands of the right people in the right audience, the right reader, is so powerful and so enriching in my life. So that’s where I’m at today.
It’s an amazing journey that I’ve been on. One of the ways that I have pressed in for healing is through a program at our church called Freedom Ministry, where freedom is defined as becoming the person that you were created and redeemed to be. I have pressed in for that. As I become more and more myself, I have found that me being exactly the way God created me to be, having full expression of that person that He designed, and that person growing up and having expression, has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Knowing that who I am is enough—it’s powerful and empowering.
Jen: Well, let me tell you both. It’s really a wonder to both read your work and hear you talk today, and neither of you wear your sorrow. If I didn’t know your story, it would never occur to me that you had suffered so much because you are both light and bright and joyful and resilient and beautiful. It is a real testimony to who you are who, you were created to be, who God always wanted you to be, that you’re both still standing today. And not just standing, thriving. I mean, I am walking away from this conversation, inspired and encouraged. I mean, let me tell you guys something. We got it right when we put you in the Moxie series. You’ve got it.
Anna: You don’t know how much that means to me.
Jen: You’ve got it. I should have put your faces on the cover. Listen, you’re living examples of what it means not just to survive, but to be restored. It’s so inspirational. I want to tell you something as we wrap here and really everybody who’s listening in who does not believe that they can overcome whatever has harmed them, whatever has hurt them, whatever is holding them back, whatever is keeping them a prisoner, when really freedom is their song. This is something that I wrote that I said to somebody that I loved who had been harmed. And I see this in you.
I said this, “Your future is beautiful and purposed. You are exactly as God planned you. Jesus loves us and is with us. We are not fragile. We are overcomers and our bodies may suffer but our spirits live.”
I’m telling you, I’m emotional. Your spirits live, and I hear it and I see it and I honor it.
So we’re going to do one last question and it’s just really quick. It’s a question we ask all the podcast guests. And it’s just simply this—and it could be a serious or a simple or a silly or as true as you want it to be. But this is what Barbara Brown Taylor also says. She says, “What is saving your life right now?” So tell our listeners real quick as we wrap up, what is saving your lives right now?
Ruth: For me, it is definitely, you know, my family, my relationships with them, and my prayer and the light within me that helps keep me strong and helps keep me going.
Anna: Yeah. All the hard work was totally worth it and I am definitely reaping the rewards in so many ways.
Jen: Bravo, girls. Hey, thank you for sharing your stories today. Listeners, I know you want to know more. We really could have talked for 70 hours and not covered it all. Girls, will you tell everybody where can they find you, where can they find your books if they want to know more about your story, because both of you went into amazing detail for what it was really like to grow up in your environment.
Anna: My web site is AnnaLaBaron.com. And almost everything you need to know about me is right there. I’m on all your social medias—@AnnaKLeBaron is how you would find me. I love social media. I think everybody knows that that’s on this phone call.
Jen: You make a good living out of it; it’s amazing.
Anna: So connect with me and reach out. It’s been a great journey.
Jen: Awesome. And Ruth?
Ruth: My web site is RuthWariner.com. My first name is Ruth and the last name is w-a-r-i-n-e-r dot com. My social media handle is @RuthWariner. My book is called The Sound of Gravel. And yeah, it’s exciting. I’ve worked with book clubs all over the country on Skype, and that’s been a huge part of hearing other people’s stories and has been just amazing. So I am always honored to hear from readers and would love to hear from you.
Anna: Yeah that’s been fun for me, as well.
Jen: Connecting with readers and their stories?
Anna: The best ever.
Jen: It’s the best thing about being a writer, honestly. So guys, all their books, all their links, all their websites, I’ll have all of that up on my website, too, if you didn’t get a pen fast enough to write it down, don’t worry about it. We’ll have all of that compiled for you. Ladies, thank you. Thank you for joining me today. Thank you for your stories, your vulnerability, your transparency, and your courage. I mean, we are all walking away moved today. You two are the best.
Anna and Ruth: Thank you, Jen. It’s been an honor.
Jen: Wow, I told you those girls have moxie, and it was just a real honor for me to host them on this podcast and just to hold space for their stories. I’m so grateful for their bravery; honestly, in both just surviving, and then telling their stories for the rest of us to hear.
So Anna’s book The Polygamist’s Daughter and Ruth’s book The Sound of Gravel–all of these links will be on my web site. You guys all have links up to their respective web sites too, which includes their travel schedule. These are women worth meeting for sure.
Also, I would love to see you this fall. I’m hitting the road with my girlfriend Nichole Nordeman who you adore.
We are on the Moxie Matters Tour. So you can find all of our dates–we’ve got eight confirmed dates and several in process–so keep checking back, because we may add your city, but all those cities are on my web site. Under speaking you can see all where we’re coming. We would love to see you. These are one night events during the week. They’re super affordable. They’re going to be meaningful, and simple, and nourishing, and fun, and wonderful. We just really want to get our hands on you, so come see us this fall because we are really, really excited to serve you and to see you.
All right you guys– thanks for joining us week after week after week. We love having you. We love hearing from you. Thanks for subscribing. Thanks for writing the podcast. It’s just all been too much fun. So anyway have a great week you guys and I’ll see you next week.
Narrator: Thanks for joining us today on the For the Love Podcast. Tune in next week, when we sit down again with Jen and friends to chat about all the things we love.
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