The AUB is mostly located in Utah, ‘but they have communities and churches all throughout the United States and even in Mexico and the Philippines.’ At first glance they are pretty similar to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saint (that is a mouthful of a name), ‘BUT, they believe in a lot of the older teachings that were practised by Brigham Young (the second leader of the Latter Day Saints), for example, ‘having more than one wife will help pre-establish your salvation in Heaven and bring forth more children in the kingdom of Zion.’ Both churches are willing to go to extreme lengths to cover up secrets and scandals, with the main difference being stricter dress standards and having multiple wives.
Does all this sound a little familiar? Well, you’ve probably heard of the AUB from Sister Wives. The show followed Kody Brown and his four wives and their 18 children as they tried to highlight what life is like with four wives. The show itself got mixed reviews, but anything that seemed out of the norm naturally made for great TV. Leah-Georgia was around for the whole Sister Wives thing. ‘I always loved Christine Brown, as she was not a very judgmental person in comparison to many people in the AUB. She was always very kind and open minded. I didn't particularly like the show, but only because I know how hard it is to be yourself in front of a camera and I've experienced how much they cut and chop and change just to make the episode more interesting. You never really know how much of what you are saying is really going to end up on the show, so I'm sure that must have been very hard....’ It can be said for sure, that Sister Wives showed a somewhat glamorized version of life in the AUB.
Leah-Georgia joined the AUB when she was 10 years old. ‘My family started bringing me to meetings then, but I found out as I got older that they had been studying things about AUB long before that.’ Despite her parents bringing a young child into a heavy-going religion and that child eventually leaving, Leah-Georgia remains on good terms with her mother. ‘I do still keep in close contact with my Mum, luckily my Mum has changed a lot and become so much more open minded as my younger siblings have started to leave as well.’
Life inside the AUB would prove to be strange and confusing for Leah-Georgia. Sometimes all the wives lived in the same house. ‘The houses had separate apartments, so each wife had her own section of the house. Her own bathroom, bedroom, living space, but not too far from everyone else. We were basically just a wall apart.’And what happens if you don’t necessarily agree with your husband’s choice of partner? Well, you just kinda have to deal with it. ‘ I don't think anybody really enjoyed living together in the AUB, but my own Mother suffered a lot of emotional and verbal abuse from the other wife and it just made it even more miserable for everyone. There wasn't a day that my siblings and I enjoyed living in that home with two women that hated each other, but our Mum tried to make our own space as comfortable as she could. It was just always a bit cramped and we had to live off of the charity and generosity of others for the first few years.’
As for Leah-Georgia herself, well she just didn’t fit in. And this was a huge factor in why she was able to leave. It isn’t easy to just have your own views and to speak about your own views when you live around people who are brought up to believe that there is only one type of view and one way to live. ‘I knew I never fit in from day one. I was always opinionated and defiant and I questioned everything. The other kids didn't like that and bullied me for years. The council members and parents in the community didn't like that and they always made me feel like I would go to Hell for it.’ That’s pretty intense stuff to be telling a kid who is just trying to come to grips with the society they live in. So, she took measures into her own hands. Her defiant nature made her show everyone that she no longer wanted to be part of the AUB.
‘I got kicked out of the private school, I was banned from hanging around a lot of the leader’s kids and I got kicked out of church for being disruptive.’ But none of that really seemed to make a difference. Well, besides being told that she would be going to hell. So, ‘ In the end, I figured I would have to do something unforgivable to get out. Having sex before marriage was considered a pretty big sin, so that is what I went with.’ As to how that went, well, not exactly as planned. ‘ I definitely didn't get the reaction I wanted from going that particular route. I basically was told we needed to get married, that I needed to be re-baptized. When I refused (hello, we were FOURTEEN!), I was basically put on lockdown for the good part of a year. No cell phone access, no computer access, no friends, no leaving the house, unless my parents did and then I had to accompany them.’
Leah-Georgia knew that she had to leave. Being forced into marriage at age 14 isn’t what any young person wants. Being cut off from friends was another nail in the coffin. So her next move was even more drastic. She left home, but it wasn’t an easy feat, ‘The hardest part about leaving was knowing that I could be losing my family over this. They believed in choosing God first, and for many years after I left, they still were.’
Imagine going from living in strict conditions where you are told if you step out of line that you will be chilling with the devil for eternity to a world where people kinda don’t really care about your religion. It can’t be an easy transition. ‘The clothes, the interactions with other people, the things I had been taught were "ungodly" were now suddenly okay and I wouldn't go to Hell for them. It was my own personal Heaven.’ Luckily Leah-Georgia had her best friend looking out for her, she had left a bit earlier, and from then she was introduced to Holding Out Help. Holding Out Help is specifically for people who come from a polygamous culture and need help transitioning.
Today, Leah-Georgia has no regrets. ‘Since I've left, I've developed a confidence that I never knew I could have. I'm not afraid to stand up for myself or what I do or don't believe in. I'm not waiting for life to start. Instead, I'm out there, living it! I'm 23 now, and I have a beautiful daughter. I am a photographer and makeup artist, and I have helped pave a way for my siblings so they not only know that it's okay to leave, but they have somewhere to go, someone who will take care of them and help them through it. I have not only left behind everything I knew, but I have thrived in doing so. Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone, and it is so much brighter and beautiful than I ever imagined it would be.’
Photography by Calvin Freeman