‘Escaping Polygamy’ stars discuss setting Utahns free in Season 2
“That’s just what polygamy is. It looks like that, and it’s gross.”
So says Andrea in a new episode of “ Escaping Polygamy,” a Utah-based reality series premiering its second season on Sunday night on the A&E network. The Salt Lake City resident, who prefers omitting her last name for privacy and security, is looking at a photo of herself as a young teen. She’s laughing in the photo. So is her much older polygamist uncle, who was grooming Andrea to be his future wife.
Twelve years ago, Andrea and her sister, Jessica, escaped from the Kingston Clan — also known as The Kingston Group, the Latter Day Church of Christ, The Davis County Cooperative and The Order, among other names — a polygamous sect of more than 3,000 members spread throughout the Salt Lake valley and beyond. She and Jessica are looking at a chest filled with old photos provided by Jennifer, their 18-year-old sister who recently sought assistance separating from The Order.
“Honestly, I would rather just throw these away,” Andrea adds.
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“Escaping Polygamy” chronicles the sisters’ work helping others remove themselves from The Order. They’re joined in their efforts by Shanell, another former Order member who escaped six years ago. All three have the same biological father, Daniel Kingston. Kingston’s relative, Charles W. Kingston, started the religious movement in the 1920s and, along with his followers, was excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Getting out of The Order wasn’t just freedom from teenage marriage and a set of religious beliefs. On “Escaping Polygamy,” the sisters discuss the severe physical, sexual and emotional abuse they experienced while still in The Order. According to the sisters, this ranged from physical beatings to drinking spoiled milk to eating their own vomit.
The Order doesn’t dress in old-timey clothes — they live in normal neighborhoods and many of the youth go to public schools. Shanell said most of the sect’s youth attend schools run by The Order, and eventually work for a number of Order-owned businesses.
“When I went to public school, my mom told me the same thing that her parents had told her: ‘You can be friends with them at school, but you don’t take them home, you don’t go to their house after school,’ ” Shanell said in a conference call with Andrea and Jessica, adding that they weren’t permitted to get involved with any kind of afterschool clubs or activities growing up.
“They don’t really spend any personal time with outsiders,” Jessica added.
Still, the “outside world” — or at least Utah culture — finds its way through: When Jennifer receives a text message from her family in Season 2’s first episode, she utters, “Holy frick.”
The sisters maintain a Facebook page through which Order members can request help, and many of these extractions start there. Jessica said members of The Order have since been discouraged from having Facebook profiles.
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Though Andrea, Jessica and Shanell have formed new lives outside The Order, they’re still extremely close to it. In addition to regularly assisting other members exit, Andrea and Shanell still live in the Salt Lake valley. (Jessica is attending school in Seattle.)
“I try to compartmentalize my past life and helping people,” Andrea said. “And I don’t always introduce them into my normal life right away. I wait a little bit sometimes with some people. And if I feel like this isn’t something I could do by myself, because it’s too emotionally draining and demanding, I need to be able to check out for a few days and let Shanell and Andrea take care of things. And vice versa.”
Understandably, the sisters’ efforts have been met with considerable resistance from The Order. In March a member of The Order sued the makers of “Escaping Polygamy” for trespassing and emotional distress. That suit, which is still pending, arose from a Season 1 episode in which the sisters tried to help the plaintiff’s daughter, Melanie, move out of her childhood home. There are numerous reviews on the show’s IMDb page claiming it’s fake or heavily staged. Whether those reviews came from Kingston Group members isn’t determined, but is understandably suspected.
“Well, we got to the house and they were physically holding Melanie down and her brother had punched her. So how did we fake that?” Andrea asked. “Did we call ahead of time and tell the family, ‘We’ll be there in five minutes. Hold her down and punch her in the face so we’ll have a good show’?”
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For those who remove themselves from The Order, getting out physically is only the beginning of a series of new struggles.
“The people that want it have to do the work,” Andrea said. “And they have to be willing to do the work, because it is hard work. There are hard things they’ll have to endure after they leave. We’re not the ones that cut their families off from them when they leave. Their families cut them off.”
The enormity of the sisters’ task, Shanell said, can be hard to handle at times. Those seeking their help aren’t always strangers — they’re often their own direct family.
“And we focus more on our futures, and the futures of those that we can help,” Shanell said, “because a lot of the people that we want to help won’t accept the help anyway.”
In Season 1, for example, the sisters speak with their mother, who expresses a desire to leave The Order but chooses to stay.
Adds Jessica, “With the people that do reach out and want help, where their life ends up and what they end up doing with that help, we don’t have control over that. And if they choose to go back or choose to stay out or whatever, the whole point is that’s their choice.”
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Jessica recalls taping Episode 1 of Season 2, and looking through all those old photos of her childhood. She and Andrea didn’t take any photos with them once they separated from their family in 2004. This was the first time in 12 years she’d seen this kind of documentation of her childhood.
“And seeing the memories of the good times — I mean, it was our family, and there was a lot of love there — but then knowing what some of those little kids in those pictures are now experiencing, it’s hard.”
“Escaping Polygamy” Season 2 premieres Sunday night on the A&E network. Check local listings for broadcast times.