FRUITLAND, Idaho — Rebecca Musser lives a life now that is worlds away from her past.
The Fruitland mom is a licensed realtor in Idaho and Oregon and spends most of her days helping her clients find their dream homes, hiking Idaho’s highest mountains, and playing music with her two teenage kids, Kyle and Natalia.
Rewind to life 20 years ago, and Musser lived on a polygamist compound in southern Utah under the power of Warren Jeffs, a religious leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The far offshoot of the Mormon church practices polygamy, also known as plural marriage.
Her experience growing up in the FLDS is highlighted in the new four-part Netflix series ‘Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey,’ including her efforts to assist authorities investigating the church after her escape.
Watching Keep Sweet Pray and Obey
The series’ title sent shivers down Musser’s spine the first time she heard it. The phrase “Keep Sweet” is a painful reminder of her past and the way women and children in the FLDS are expected to submit to absolute obedience.
“The (Netflix) producers would give us updates and I asked if they had a name yet, and she said, ‘Oh, yes! It’s Keep Sweet Pray and Obey,’ and I was like, ‘Oh!'” Musser said. “I feel like I got punched in the stomach, like, you’ve got to be kidding me.”
Musser doesn’t hear those words very often anymore but the new docuseries showcases decades-old home videos and photos where the phrase was often front and center.
On the series’ title “Keep Sweet”:
“It felt like I got punched in the gut (…) I do not like ‘Keep Sweet’. That is like this cage that just locks around someone and I can almost hear it and feel it click where there’s no emotion, no honesty, only absolute obedience.” pic.twitter.com/Wxc4fKR5NQ
— Karen Lehr (@KarenLehr) July 19, 2022
“I could have puked in my mouth,” Musser said. “I like the word ‘sweet’, but I do not like ‘Keep Sweet’. That is like this cage that just locks around someone and I can almost hear it and feel it click where there’s no emotion; there’s no honesty; there is only absolute obedience. Every part of me wants to buck and bolt and I just have to have a minute where I realized, ‘Hey, that’s okay, that’s okay. That’s not my life now.'”
Musser hadn’t seen most of those old photos and videos since she left the church 20 years ago. Seeing herself at 15 years old stirred up an array of emotions.
“My gosh, I remember her,” Musser said, speaking of her younger self. “It just gave me this deep sense of appreciation for what my journey has been and even in that constrained society, the effort that my mother went through to try to make good moments for us. I admire her resilience for that.”
Seeing the footage, where Musser and each of her siblings and sister wives were forced to wear pastel colors, neatly braided hair, and long puffy sleeves, oddly brought a sense of nostalgia and a feeling of familiarity.
“As corny as those looked on film, those were some of our best moments that we had, and there was this warm sense of nostalgia of remembering where you belonged,” Musser said. “Even though there was so much about our life that wasn’t good, there’s that sense of belonging and I think that’s a sobering thing, because how often do you stay in bad situations just because it’s familiar and we feel like we have roots there?”
Life in the FLDS
Musser was born into a life of polygamy. Her younger years were spent in the heart of Salt Lake City and her family trees get complicated. Her mother was one of 65 kids and was her father’s second wife. She thinks she likely has thousands of cousins.
Life in the FLDS is sheltered. The church controls most aspects of its member’s daily lives including how they dress, where they go, what they learn, and who they marry.
At 19 years old, Musser was married to the prophet, Rulon Jeffs. He was 85.
In the Netflix series, Musser explains how her marriage to Rulon was considered a great honor for her entire family. It wasn’t until after his death in 2002 that his son Warren Jeffs took over operations for the church.
Warren took it into his own hands to reassign his father’s wives after his passing. In a matter of weeks, he married several of them himself. It was that pressure that lead Musser to leave the FLDS life for good.
Leaving the Compound
The decision to leave came quickly.
In the fall of 2002, Musser recalls a conversation with Warren Jeffs, who was determined to remarry her to a new husband by the end of that week. Within three days, she was gone.
Each night, she moved a few of her belongings, grabbing her sewing machine, musical instruments, and a few dresses which she still owns today.
Because security around the compound was the lightest on Sunday mornings, Musser decided she’d run away at 4 a.m. that Sunday. She had to hop a fence to make it out and says after her escape, the walls got higher.
“I remember what it was like to close the door of my room and realize I would never walk in there again,” Musser said.
She kept her composure, fully aware of the surrounding cameras, and slowly walked down the street and around the corner where a car was waiting. It was a male member of the church who was also planning to leave the FLDS after getting in trouble with church leaders for talking with Musser. The two would go on to get married and have two children together before separating. They now co-parent their two teenagers.
Before her escape, Musser left a note behind on her bed for her mother and sisters.
“I (wrote), ‘I know you don’t agree with what I’m doing, but I feel like God will have more mercy on my soul if I’m honest and tell the truth about what I feel rather than do something I certainly don’t agree with,'” Musser said. “I told (my mom and sisters) how much I loved them and that I hoped they would understand.”
Many of her siblings have left the church since Warren Jeffs’ arrest, but several family members still share FLDS beliefs and practice polygamy.
“It’s like dying and living again but remembering your previous life,” Musser said.
A second chance at education
Growing up in the FLDS, Musser spent most of her school years attending the Alta Academy, a private FLDS school where Warren Jeffs omitted topics related to reproduction, evolution, and several areas related to science and history.
As many parents do, Musser was helping her kids with homework years ago, when seemingly simple subjects stumped her.
‘When my kids hit like 4th grade and they’re really starting to dive deep in history and sciences, and they would be like, ‘Mom, what is this?’ and I’m like, ‘Well, hold on a second!’ and I’d be Googling it because I didn’t know,” Musser said. “My son finally said, ‘How come you don’t know this?’ And I was like, ‘Kyle, I didn’t go to a real school! We never learned this stuff! Lucky you!”
Musser’s son Kyle is getting ready to attend college. Her daughter, Natalia attends a charter school in Fruitland. Seeing her kids get a traditional, quality education is one of her proudest accomplishments.
Stopping the Cycle of Abuse
The Netflix series covers real-life situations that are hard to watch.
Two women share their stories about being assigned to marriages at the age of 14. One was Musser’s younger sister, Elissa, who was the same age as Musser’s daughter, Natalia, at the time.
“The sorrow that you feel for the young girls, there are so many,” Musser said. “And then to realize here’s my daughter, who has never known FLDS life, she has never lived that, she’s never seen polygamy.”
Musser watched much of the series with her daughter, really putting the experience into perspective.
“The life and the choices she has compared to what that could have been,” Musser said. “I was just crying on the couch, more at that; the gratitude that the cycle stopped with me.”
Life in Idaho
Life in Idaho is what Musser always dreamed of.
“I lost my roots and my belonging and it has taken a long time to learn how to give that to myself and to give that to my kids,” Musser said. “I think that is one thing that really pours my heart into the work that I do now as a real estate agent. To have the opportunity to help people find their home where the best moments of their lives are lived. It is such an honor to be part of that process.”
Musser is fully aware of how different her upbringing was compared to most people, and it’s not something she openly shares when meeting new people.
“I do not just lead off and say, ‘Hey, I’m Rebecca! I grew up in a cult and I escaped!'” Musser said. “I love that generally, people will have no idea (about my past). Every once in a while someone will say, ‘You look really familiar!’ and I say ‘Oh, I just have one of those faces!'”
Rebecca Musser opens up about sharing her past with new people
She says she doesn’t purposely lie or mislead people about her past but she will often skirt around small talk when it comes to growing up in Utah and relocating to Idaho.
“I think that there’s a lot of people, not just in our country but in this world, that don’t have the parents we deserve,” Musser said. “And I think certainly I’m a better parent because of the parents I had, and also the grace of having other people come into our lives to fill that space.”
She and her children have formed a tight relationship with a couple nearby that Musser describes as filling a grandparent role for her children, especially around the holidays.
The safety and security she feels at home in Fruitland is something she would have never thought possible 20 years ago.
“The fact that I decide who walks in my front door, and this is a safe space for my kids when I never knew that before I left,” Musser said. “There was never a boundary that couldn’t be violated by someone in authority or a male. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”
In light of the recent Roe v. Wade ruling, Musser opened up about thoughts on bodily control.
“I don’t think that it’s ever a good idea when one person is telling another person what should happen to their body,” Musser said. “And anybody who has ever known what it’s like to not have that choice would feel very strongly about this issue.”
Embracing the Outdoors
Musser’s relationship with God now looks different. She doesn’t belong to a particular church and instead turns to the Idaho outdoors to find her greater purpose and direction.
She’s hiked Idaho’s highest mountains, learning something new about herself along the way.
Rebecca Musser opens up about embracing the Idaho outdoors
“It healed my heart. It was like this opportunity to gather up all the pieces of me and it went from going to the mountains because my heart was hurting, to where now it’s just joy,” Musser said. “Just looking around with nobody around, and just realizing, ‘My gosh, I am so lucky to be here.’”
Follow along on Rebecca’s journey on Instagram here. You can also learn more at her book, ‘The Witness Wore Red’, at her website here.
Watch the full interview here:
Full interview: Rebecca Musser opens up about life from the FLDS to Fruitland, Idaho