There aren’t enough trigger warnings in the world to prepare you for Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, the harrowing Netflix documentary that chronicles the crimes and capture of polygamist cult leader and child rapist Warren Jeffs. Though the four-part series from director Rachel Dretzin is extremely hard to watch at times, the first-hand accounts from survivors are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
When his father, Rulon Jeffs, died in 2002, Warren stepped into the power vacuum and declared himself President and Prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The splinter sect of the Mormon church had been practicing polygamy in the American West for decades, often with underage brides, but under Warren’s leadership, the FLDS Church became an even more sinister operation. Using tried and true cult practices — cutting his parishioners off from the outside world, taking control of their finances, threatening all doubters with certain annihilation — Warren amassed more than 60 wives (one as young as 12), and parceled out girls to his older male followers as a reward for their loyalty.
It’s sickening stuff on its face, and it’s made even more agonizing by Dretzin’s interviews with Warren’s FLDS victims, who recount their abuse with unblinking bravery. “The front of my wedding dress just got more and more soaked [with tears],” says Elissa Wall, recalling the day she was forced to marry her first cousin when she was only 14. “I would do anything I could to make him fall asleep,” says Elissa’s sister Rebecca, who was married off to 83-year-old Rulon when she was 19. “Then I could pass by another night without having him touch me.”
Both women played key roles in bringing Warren down — though putting the cult leader and pedophile in jail would require an extensive operation involving multiple branches of law enforcement, as well as relentless investigations by a local journalist and a private investigator. Keep Sweet balances the gravity of Warren’s crimes with the chase-thriller suspense of his existence as one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted fugitives — complete with burner phones, money smuggled in cans of Costco tomato sauce, trips to Vegas and Disney World. The horrific depths of his depravity are revealed in the final episode, through audio recordings that will absolutely haunt me for weeks (if not years) to come.
Though Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years, Dretzin and her team don’t end their series on a note of triumph — out of respect for the survivors, who are serving a different kind of life sentence. “So many of us are still functioning under the shadow of the past,” admits Elissa. But the mere fact that she and the others who escaped are functioning at all is the miracle that gives Keep Sweet its power.