CHARLOTTE, N.C. — She was raised by her father and his three wives, surrounded by 12 siblings.
There was no TV, no radio. At school, she was taught that man never landed on the moon. She and other girls in the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints were required to “keep sweet,” free of jealousy or anger, or risk beatings or humiliation.
And by the time Kathy Jo Nicholson turned 14, she was sewing her wedding dress, knowing that any day she could be thrown into marriage with a man three times her age.
Nicholson never finished that dress. Instead, she began to question her faith and, at 18, walked out on it.
All those memories flooded back after authorities removed more than 500 women and children — she knows many — from a Texas compound run by the men who once controlled her life.
“I am happy for the children, though I know they’re terrified,” said Nicholson, 37, who has lived in Charlotte with her husband and two sons since 2004. “But now, they have a chance.”
“Their mothers, too, have a chance if they’ll just grab onto the hands that are reaching out. I know they’re conflicted. I know the mind control.”
She was 3 when her father, John Nicholson, moved his four daughters, a son and two wives from California to Utah to live among other polygamists. They joined the FLDS, a breakaway sect of Mormons that practices “the principle” — the idea that men must have three wives to reach heaven.
At the church, the leader, or prophet, placed young girls with husbands in nonbinding but sacred “spiritual marriages.” If a wife served her husband faithfully, he’d take her to heaven.
The Nicholsons didn’t live in a compound like the followers in Texas, but in a middle-class neighborhood outside Salt Lake City. They were near the church run first by Leroy Johnson — Uncle Roy — then Rulon Jeffs and later his son, Warren.
Their neighbors were traditional Mormons, who’d rejected polygamy long ago.
“I was always aware of being different, and I really hated it,” Nicholson said. “When we were little, we had friends in the neighborhood. As we got older, they rejected us. They threw bricks through the window. They egged us. They called us names, four-letter words, and ‘polygs.’?”
John Nicholson worked for church-run companies. Sundays were spent at the temple, where Uncle Roy told followers he would live forever. Kathy Jo believed him. He died when she was 15. She began to see her faith as “a big lie.”
She grew rebellious at the church-run Alta Academy, where Warren Jeffs was headmaster. He forbade students from watching TV. “Hard metallic music,” he’d preach, “is the devil.”
Jeffs made girls wear “prairie dresses” of the same fabric — “we looked like we were on a wagon train.” If students disobeyed, they were beaten, physically or emotionally.
“We had to pray Warren’s way,” Nicholson said. “We got to sing songs that Warren approved. He just systematically ripped us of every individual thought or action or unique trait you could possibly have.”
Caught passing a note to a boy, Kathy Jo was expelled and sent to work at a church-run factory. There, she fell in love with a man named Matt. He was seven years her senior, worldly, but also questioning the faith.
Break with faith
They eloped, married by a justice of the peace. The church refused to sanction the union. Their families shunned them.
They grew unhappy and began to drink.
“We felt we were a constant disappointment,” Kathy Jo said. “I just wanted to be alive — so we left.”
They moved to California.
Suddenly, there were friends from different cultures and “provocative” clothes and makeup. Just as suddenly, their lives spiraled out of control. “We didn’t know how to make decisions. We were wrapped in this no-boundaries lifestyle.” They hit the clubs, and their drinking and drug use rose. Soon, their marriage fell apart. Divorced, Nicholson met a man named Tim. They had a son together. At 26, she knew she “had to clean up.” Tim didn’t, and they drifted apart.
“I was a single mother, and I had hit rock bottom,” she said.
By then, she had met Brian. At first, she hid her past. But as they grew closer, bits of it came out. She was surprised that he didn’t seem to mind.
“When we met, Kathy was on her way to getting healthy — away from the mind control,” said Brian, who asked that his last name not be used. “I marvel at the courage that took.”
When they married in 2001, John Nicholson brought Kathy Jo’s biological mother and his other two wives. Soon, the new couple traveled to Colorado City, Ariz., where Kathy Jo’s parents had moved with the church. By then, the church was expanding to “the ranch” outside Eldorado, Texas, and some of her siblings had moved there.
“I was shocked at the massive amount of kids, everywhere,” Brian said of Colorado City. “We were definitely outsiders. We were watched.”
The newlyweds lived in California, Maine, then suburban Charlotte. Along the way, Nicholson got years of counseling. She has also tried to keep up with family and her former church.
A year later, her mother and a brother left the church and came to live with her.
In 2006, Nicholson learned that the FBI was hunting Jeffs on charges that he arranged marriages in Utah between men and underage girls. Last year, a jury convicted Jeffs as an accomplice in the rape of a 14-year-old girl. He’s now jailed in Arizona on similar charges.
Nicholson was elated.
“I always thought he was evil, and I felt vindicated,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not the nut. He is.’”
Now, she watches the Texas scene unfold and grieves for her family. She and her mother have lost touch with relatives. She learned from a reporter that her father died in January.
She doesn’t know how many nieces and nephews she has, but believes some are in Texas. “I’ve been e-mailing social workers, but I don’t know what they look like,” she said.
“I know the women feel everything is crumbling. But this could be a new beginning — if they’ll just let it.”
Nicholson has appeared on TV talk shows, such as Larry King, Anderson Cooper and Nancy Grace to tell her story. She also set up a Web site (www.outofpolygamy.com) to help others trying to separate themselves from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.