Warning: Descriptions of child sexual abuse from Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey follow.
Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey director Rachel Dretzin says she chose to include some of the goriest details about the Warren Jeffs case in the Netflix documentary about the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because she believes it’s important for audiences to “directly experience some of the horror of what he did.”
That includes an audio sex tape Warren Jeffs made of a “heavenly session,” in which he can be heard commanding a group of girls, including a 12-year-old, to remove their clothes, promising to teach them “the greater degrees of the spirit of God.” The tape was played at Warren Jeffs’ 2011 trial, which ultimately resulted in Jeffs being convicted of sexually assaulting two minors. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years, which he is currently serving at a men’s prison in Palestine, Texas.
Dretzin says the decision to play just a short portion of that tape in Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey was a tough but necessary choice.
“It was a very delicate process, and to be honest, it was very prolonged back and forth not only amongst ourselves, but with Netflix, about how much to play and how much to reveal… There’s a lot on that tape we just didn’t feel comfortable playing,” she told MovieMaker. “I did feel strongly, and I think everybody agreed on both Netflix’s side and my company’s side that you do need to directly experience some of the horror of what he did in that temple to just appreciate some of the depravity he was willing to go to.”
Dretzin also said there were a lot more details she unearthed during the making of the docuseries that she couldn’t include in just four episodes.
“The lengths of depravity that Warren went to in terms of [what] he commanded people to do after he went to prison… we only could scratch the surface of, because it was just so unbelievably bleak that at a certain point, you’re just like, ‘I can’t.’ People can’t take it,” she said. “He basically starved his population and he told people — he issued a revelation that families were not allowed to have any more children. Husbands and wives are not allowed to have sexual relations anymore, and they don’t. There are no children being born anymore, because Warren said at some point years ago, ‘No more.'”
Today, Jeffs is 66 years old. He’s currently housed at the Louis C. Powledge Unit, a men’s prison in Palestine, Texas. Reps for Jeffs and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the docuseries.
Dretzin also said she’s fully aware of how counter-intuitive that sounds, considering that one of the main beliefs associated with Fundamentalist Mormon ideology — which was echoed by several former FLDS members in Keep Sweet — is the idea that having large families with multiple wives and many children brings members of the sect closer to God.
“I met young women who are not getting married and not having children because that’s what the Prophet said, and they’re waiting for him to be released from jail, and they desperately want children,” Dretzin said. “Since Warren has been in prison, it seems like he’s deteriorated a lot mentally… some people think since he can’t have sex, he doesn’t want anybody outside to have sex.”
Dretzin also said that although the FLDS may not have started out that way, she believes it has become a cult.
“It became a cult under the Jeffs family rule, and in particular, under Warren’s rule,” she said. “In some ways it was the worst kind of cult, because these people were born into it so they have no no other frame of reference. So their brains were completely controlled.”
“He tortured them,” she said of Warren Jeffs. “There were all sorts of commandments about — they had to turn over every item in their house. This is when it really got absolutely bleak. After he’d gone to prison, every boby pin had to be counted and only the absolute essential things that you needed to survive, could you keep… it goes on and on and on and on and on. So we we did make a choice, at a certain point, that we just couldn’t keep chronicling the horrors of what this man had done. And so we didn’t use some of that, just because it would have been overwhelming to people.”
If you or someone you know has left the FLDS and is in need of assistance, Dretzin recommends reaching out to Holding Out Help, an organization that helps people from polygamist cultures become self-sufficient.
“It’s an organization that helps people who are survivors of polygamy rebuild their lives. Those are the kinds of organizations that really need funding and support,” Dretzin said.
Netflix’s Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey is a Participant and Ark Media Production directed by Rachel Dretzin (Who Killed Malcolm X, Far From the Tree). Executive Producers include Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Miura Kite, Zachary Herrmann, Rachel Dretzin, and Alison Dammann. Grace McNally serves as co-director and producer.
Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey begins streaming June 8 on Netflix.
Main Image: A still from Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey courtesy of Netflix.