A new memoir is shedding some harsh light on a largely mysterious way of family life: growing up in a religious colony of polygamists.
Ruth Wariner, 43, spent many years teaching before marrying and settling down with her husband in Portland, Ore. But before that, she lived a childhood filled with abuse, trauma, poverty, and crippling amounts of responsibility in the rural Mexican desert, and she’s written about it all in her memoir, The Sound of Gravel.
“The sound of gravel was the sound of home,” Wariner tells Yahoo Parenting, explaining that Chihuahua, where she grew up, was very rustic, with no paved roads. “We had no electricity and lived in an adobe house that was unfinished.” But it was home base for the fundamentalist Mormon cult her young mother had gotten into by marrying Joel LeBaron, the cult prophet. Wariner was the 39th of his 42 children.
Ruth Wariner today. (Photo: Facebook)
“Three months after my birth, my dad was rumored to have been killed by his own brother in a bid for church power,” Wariner writes in an excerpt of her book published Thursday in the New York Post. “My mother, Kathy, remarried, becoming wife No. 2 of a man named Lane. She already had four children with my father and went on to have six more with Lane.”
That’s when things truly turned tragic for 8-year-old Wariner, who was repeatedly molested by Lane. But when she reported it to her mother, she was urged to “practice forgiveness.” The family subsisted on beans and eggs, while her mom regularly went to collect welfare checks in the U.S. and Wariner was left to care for her young siblings, many of whom were mentally disabled. Lane pulled her out of school at 14 so she could help out at home, and a year later, Wariner found her brother and stepbrother dead after they’d been accidentally electrocuted on a wire fence.
“I screamed in horror,” writes Wariner in the excerpt. “My mother came running out. ‘Do not touch the fence!’ I yelled. But she did. She died, too.” Shortly after that, the orphaned teen knew she had to get out, and with the help of an older brother who had moved to California, managed to escape with three younger sisters.
Ruth, right, with siblings and their mom. (Photo: Ruth Wariner/Flatiron Books)
“I had my grandmother, and that’s who we ran to. Having that purpose — helping to care for her and for my sisters — gave me the strength to persevere,” she tells Yahoo Parenting about how she’s healed from those difficult formative years. “I’ve also always been prayerful and spiritual, and my education [including grad school] helped me see that I had a choice about how I lived my life.”
Wariner became a teacher in her 20s, and had health benefits for the first time, which is when she sought professional counseling. “I found a therapist who helped me see the patterns in my life that came from living with trauma and abuse,” she says.
Wariner and a brother. (Photo: Ruth Wariner/Flatiron Books)
Remarkably, Wariner says, she has found a way to forgive her mother. “I think I had to create my own definition of forgiveness,” she explains. “Growing up, it just meant that you put up with it. But this [forgiveness] was for myself, in order to not have to continue being angry with her. But it’s a practice and a process.” Writing about her mother has also been healing, as it’s helped Wariner see her mom as “a complex human being,” she explains.
Photo: Ruth Wariner/Flatiron Books
“She was 17 when she married my father, who was 42 and a very charismatic prophet. She was never nurtured or adored, and it was a hard way of life,” Wariner says. “She didn’t have the self-love needed to make healthy life choices … Her cultural beliefs limited her.”
Wariner, married now for just a few years, has decided not to have kids of her own. A “big part of” that decision, she says, was that she’d spent her life raising her siblings. She calls herself a “single mom” to the three little sisters she raised once they left Mexico. “By the time I got married, at 36, they had grown up and moved out, and I felt like I was about 150 years old,” she says. “Plus, it was also his second marriage,” so the arrangement worked for both of them.
The release of her memoir, she admits, has felt “a little scary,” but also positive, as it’s helped people share their own difficult stories with her. “So it’s been inspiring,” she says. “I’m grateful for that.”