The opening moments of U.S. net LMN’s latest docuseries Escaping Polygamy begin with an anonymous text message to 27-year-old Jessica Christensen, the eldest of 12 children born to John Daniel Kingston and Heidi Mattingly Foster – his sixth of 14 wives.
“I want to leave and I want to leave now, but I’m scared and don’t know who I can trust,” it reads.
Trust plays a significant role for the duration of the six-hour RIVR Media-produced series, which follows sisters Jessica and 24-year-old Andrea Brewer along with their 25-year-old half-sister, Shanelle Snow. The series follows the titular two-hour special on the three sisters that aired on LMN in late December.
Having absconded from the Salt Lake City, Utah polygamist group, the Kingston clan – also known as the Order – more than 10 years ago, the three sisters, who share more than 200 siblings, now help loved ones and strangers to covertly escape sects throughout Utah and other southwestern states that practice polygamy, which has been criminalized by the U.S. government since the mid-19th century and banned by the Mormon Church.
“It takes a lot of work on our end to assure them that we can be trusted, that we do have the best intention to tell their story and to tell it truthfully,” Lori Golden-Stryer, executive VP and executive producer at RIVR Media, tells realscreen. “They want to escape, but they just don’t know who to trust.”
By keeping production crews as compact as possible – typically consisting of two cameramen, an audio operator, one producer and a handful of GoPro cameras – the sisters are able to facilitate meetings with potential escapees in various parking lots, restaurants and towns neighboring Salt Lake City, all while accompanied by a private security detail.
And while such clandestine meetings are vital in reassuring safe transit, it also gives producers the chance to unearth the back-stories of those attempting to flee their situations, ultimately constructing a more comprehensive and compelling story.
While the media spotlight has shone on the Kingston clan and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) for some time, especially after former FDLS president Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years in 2008, Golden-Stryer says the prodco’s original intent was to provide as full a picture as possible of life within a polygamist sect. “The intention was not necessarily to show a darker side, but to show the real side,” she says. “What truly happens.”
What unfolded along the way, however, counters other depictions in television of the “happy polygamous family” – as seen in HBO drama Big Love and TLC reality series Sister Wives and My Five Wives – which are, some believe, exploitative of victims looking to have their voices heard.
And despite vigilant efforts to remain anonymous – in addition to traveling with a security detail – the constant concern for the well-being of individuals involved with the production is at times palpable, Golden-Stryer admits.
The most challenging aspect of production, however, remains the unpredictability of the ever-fluid shooting schedule, says LMN’s head of programming Laura Fleury. Because of the potential risks each deserter may face in abandoning the FLDS, including possible “excommunication” from family members still in the church, neither the A+E Networks-owned channel nor the prodco place undue pressure on anyone having second thoughts. Even so, the production crew has deeply rooted itself in these communities and is ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice.
“It really is an embedded filming situation where we’ve been there for months and we really need to be there to capture what happens when it happens, because you can’t make that happen before someone’s ready to do what they’re ready to do – and we certainly wouldn’t want to,” says Fleury.
Since filming the two-hour special, the now-public efforts of Andrea, Jessica and Shanell have resulted in an increasing number of people seeking the sisters’ help to remove them from polygamy – so many, in fact, that filming had to be extended.
“The subject matter is polygamy, but that’s really the backdrop. The journey of these stories is really about overcoming adversity and believing that something better is out there,” Fleury explains.
“It’s interestingly also a message of love and family since these young women are putting themselves at risk in many cases to help strangers, but certainly to help loved ones, who are still in this world that’s not a good one.”
- Escaping Polygamy airs on LMN tonight at 10 p.m. EST/PST.
- Check out a trailer for the series below: