SALT LAKE CITY – On an icy evening before Christmas, two teenage boys pulled their Christmas tree from its slick new box and stared in wonder.
They fluffed the branches and puzzled over ornament placement – how exactly does this work? Are you supposed to follow a pattern or just stick them on? They knew they wanted piles of lights, and the boys laughed as they chased each other around the tree, spiraling light onto the dark branches.
“This is, like, my first real, actual Christmas,” says Johnny Jessop. He is 16 years old.
Jessop grew up in Colorado City in a polygamous home with 39 moms and more than 300 brothers and sisters, but no Christmas. The holiday is not observed in his religion-ruled town, where the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has orphaned more than 400 teenagers like Jessop in order to leave young women for marriage to the older men. The men believe they need three wives to get to heaven.
Shunned by their families and forbidden to return home, the “Lost Boys,” as they are known, are left to fumble darkly through a world they can’t comprehend. With no money and often only eighth-grade educations, many end up homeless or in jail. But a lucky few have found their way to a Salt Lake City support network of mentors who are sending them to school, finding them jobs, giving them homes and asking these boys, for the first time, what they’d like for Christmas.
Their answers are both teenage and touching. Snowboards and cars would be awesome, of course, but then there’s this:
“What I want for Christmas? What my wish would be?” says Jessop. “To spend a whole day with my mom and sisters, and just have them pretend to like my company.”
In the apartment shared by five of the Lost Boys, since the day they put the tree up, the Christmas tree lights have never been turned off.
The tree “fills up space, fills a hole,” Jessop says.
There is light, where darkness was before.
On most nights at these Lost Boys’ apartment, the light comes from the TV. Each of the boys has one in his room, next to a stack of DVDs, heavy on the action films and past episodes of Alias. “TV is my bearing on the world,” says Deloy Steed, 20, who left a few years ago because if he didn’t walk out, he’d be forced out instead. “It helps me understand a lot what it is like out there.”
The first time Jessop saw Christmas lights, they were on TV.
When you first leave Colorado City, they say, you sit on borrowed sofas in small towns across southern Utah, in the home of whoever has let you in, and stare at the TV screen, uploading American culture.
In the twin communities of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, TV is banned by FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, who is in hiding and wanted by the FBI. He was indicted on sexual misconduct charges for arranging the marriages of underage girls. He is also being sued by a group of the Lost Boys, who contend he forced them out to reduce competition for wives.
Also against the rules in Colorado City: kissing girls, having a dog, swimming, listening to secular music, celebrating worldly holidays, wearing short-sleeve shirts, talking to people outside their faith and being outside after dark. These are the charges, along with underage drinking, levied against the boys when they’re told to go. The Colorado City police ticketed Steed for listening to his music too loud. At the time, he says, he was wearing headphones.
The boys go to work in construction at age 8, handing their paychecks over to their fathers. By age 14, they’re operating heavy machinery. Education is administered through a religious sieve: no history classes and no biology instruction; and for most, schooling ends after the eighth grade. The only book they read is the Book of Mormon, although the FLDS and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not associated; the FLDS split from the mainstream Mormon church more than a century ago over the practice of polygamy.
FLDS members are taught to disdain Blacks, that women are subservient to men, and that as soon as they’re all worthy, God will lift their community to heaven and destroy the rest of the world. On more than one occasion, FLDS members have been gathered onto a field, waiting for the assumption to occur. Most importantly, they’re taught that if they leave the community or break its rules, they are condemned to an eternity of darkness and suffering.
When a boy reaches his 20s, if he’s followed all the rules, he might be allowed to marry, but he won’t choose the girl.
“You get a call on the phone,” says Brad Zitting, 21, and it’s the prophet. ” ‘Be in my office in one hour.’ He marries you right there, work clothes and everything.”
Then, you’re sent off to consummate the marriage, whether you like her or not.
“You know what the worst thing is?” says Zitting, who was exiled for kissing. “The worst thing is when you have the hots for this girl, you’re just like uhhhhn. And then she marries your dad.”
But in recent years, as a young teen, it is far more common that you’d have a message from Jeffs that goes like this:
” ‘Warren wants you out,’ ” recalls Jessop, banished one week into eighth grade as punishment for visiting a friend’s house outside of Colorado City. “I went up to my mom’s room, and she was crying. All she said was ‘Why?’ “
Once forsaken, the boys are only allowed contact with their families on the phone, if at all. The families don’t violate this code, for fear of being expelled themselves.
“They’re just as much victims as we are,” says Jessop, and this is why the parents are not prosecuted for child abandonment. It would hurt the boys just as much, and they’d never testify against their parents, they say, even if their dads slam doors in their faces when they try to come home.
“They won’t let you come in the house because you’ll desecrate it,” Jessop says. “They’d have to rededicate the house.”
The boys are dropped off in neighboring towns, facing hunger, homelessness and homesickness, and most cripplingly, a belief in a future of suffering and darkness.
A mentor, a mother
This Christmas, Lost Boy Sam Icke is buying just one gift. He’s having a plaque engraved for a man who has everything, and has given Icke and the other Lost Boys everything in return.
“It’s an award from me, for being the kindest man I know,” says Icke, 22, now a straight-A college student.
He will present his plaque to Dan Fischer at the Lost Boys’ Christmas party “in front of everybody,” he says, “so that everyone understands that there is the ability to have kindness in your heart if you’re from Colorado City.”
Fischer is white-haired, with kind eyes and a dignified air. He grew up in polygamy, and once had two wives himself. He is the eldest of 36 children, and his own father was expelled from the faith, his mother reassigned in marriage to another man. For years, he has been watching this exodus of broken-hearted boys.
“We all come to a point in life, I think, of realizing that if you don’t step up to the line, it might be that no one will,” says Fischer, 56, who started the Diversity Foundation to help the boys, and has donated more than $2 million to their plight.
Their “apartment” is a building next to his home, and the boys pay no rent. They call his wife, Leenie, “mom.” He finds them work at Ultradent, the dental-supply manufacturing company he owns in the Salt Lake suburbs. He sends them to college to illuminate their minds, gets them into therapy to correct what was there before. He’ll be with them on Christmas morning, and he has bought 55 of the Lost Boys Christmas gifts: a Leatherman tool and either snow pants or a leather jacket.
In return, he asks that they go to school, keep a job, return phone calls, and learn, above all, to see their lives in a new light.
“When they discover that they’re not wanted, that they’re abandoned, that takes a toll on the brain,” Fischer says. “It takes a while to sort out that they’re not garbage, that they have value, that they can be a success and make a contribution in the world.”
Others are trying to help the boys. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has on his priority list a bill expected to pass in the spring that will lower the emancipation age of a minor from 18 to 16, which would allow these boys to go to school and work without parental permission, which some have been unable to secure.
Fischer hired Dave Bills, a longtime Boy Scoutmaster, to be the Lost Boys’ mentor, their jovial Peter Pan. Bills holds court in a white-walled office that’s a safe place where the Lost Boys can just be plain old boys, hitting each other and jumping over office chairs, reveling in comparisons of body piercings and smack talk about girlfriends.
“Their emotional age is about 6 years old,” says Bills, 55. “If they haven’t been sexually molested, they’ve been beaten repeatedly or emotionally abused. They don’t know where they’re at or where they’re from. They’re lost because they don’t know where they’re going.”
A different path
In Colorado City, the streetlights are few and illuminate only the main road in constant light: one route, one course. It was the only path the boys could see.
On one of the angriest nights before Carl Ream left Colorado City, when he and his friends were so mad at Jeffs that their minds twitched with rebellion, they broke curfew, crept out of the obedient walls of their homes, and sped down that main road, shooting out the streetlights.
“We got 52 before they caught us,” says Ream, 17, and they made that town as dark as their anger. “We just didn’t like the lights . . . and we kind of got in trouble in it, I guess.”
Recently, Bills loaded the boys into his truck and took them to see the famed Christmas light display at the Mormon Temple Square in Salt Lake City. He squired them about the grounds pointing out the sights, letting them absorb the 700,000 twinkling bulbs.
The air was stinging cold, and while Bills was talking and touring, Jessop wandered over to a heat lamp, and tipped his face up to the white glow. He closed his eyes and stood perfectly still, to let it all soak in.
“It’s warm here,” he said, “in the light.”
The Lost Boys have been busy with Christmas preparations. There’s the party, of course, and Bills is making the boys write thank-you notes for their gifts. He ordered the stationery in bulk, and is prepared for the squirming, which has already begun.
“Even now, I feel guilty about accepting presents,” Ream says. “I have to accept that that’s what happens around Christmas, which is really weird to try to do.”
Jessop remembers that on the night he and Ream strung lights on the first official Lost Boys Christmas tree, there “was a cozy-type feeling,” even if they didn’t know any carols to sing and they listened to the metallic crunch of Papa Roach instead.
“Me, personally, I don’t know exactly what Christmas feels like,” Jessop says. It could have been that coziness. It could be the strange mix of angst and joy he’s feeling about picking a gift for his girlfriend, Melissa.
“All women love jewelry,” he says. “I want to get her something that will say I really love her.” (They’ve been together a month.)
And it could be that the Lost Boys have Christmas figured out, after all, that this holiday about giving and family has settled into their minds, creeping in along with the lights of the season.
Fischer gave Jessop, Ream and another Lost Boy $100 each to buy a gift for someone else. They pooled all of it and went to Sam’s Club to buy a necklace for Leenie, their adopted mom, because she was each boy’s first pick.
For an hour they stood before the jewelry case, arguing and agonizing about what would be best, and in the end, they got something with diamonds, which will sparkle under the light of the tree.
Jessop won’t see his own mother on Christmas, but the day is about making peace, after all. The day is also about the promise of witnessing delight that you have, somehow, brought about.
Jessop can’t wait to watch Leenie unwrap that necklace.
“I want to see the look on her face,” he says.