Review of When the Moon Turns to Blood by Leah Sottile
Twelve Books, 2022, $15.99 – 320 pages
Over a decade ago, I came across a fascinating story about whom Vice News had dubbed the “Mormon Mansons”. The LeBaron Family is certainly a frightening bunch, a polygamist sect about 5 schisms removed from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (henceforth, LDS church), who committed dozens of murders across decades in the Southwestern US and Northern Mexico. However, the fringe LeBarons were an obscure tale that didn’t penetrate the American heartland, or even the Mormon heartland, the way that the Manson’s did in 1969. Move over LeBarons, it’s time to meet the Daybells.
Right now, the trial of 21st century Mormonism is underway. The five mysterious deaths, mostly in Rexburg, ID, do not begin to describe this case. Chad and Lori Daybell have been connected to the deaths of both of their spouses, Tammy Daybell and Charles Vallow, as well as two of Lori’s minor children, JJ Vallow age 7 and Tylee Ryan age 16, in 2019. Lori’s brother and prior ex-husband, whose deaths are not charged, have also raised suspicions. I am being painfully brief, the timeline of this case contains so many bizarre details, it’s easy to get caught up in what could easily be written off as yet another sad case of family annihilation, which is something even the Mormon people are familiar with (take your pick).
The prosecution opened with “money, sex and power” as the primary motives, their only reason for discussing religion is to demonstrate how Lori used her beliefs to manipulate others towards these motives. The defense’s strategy has been to make this muddy wherever possible, which some have speculated is to make Lori seem as if she was under the influence of a charismatic leader. From here, a whole underworld comes bursting to the surface like a geyser in Yellowstone National Park.
Leah Sottile’s When the Moon Turns to Blood gets at why this case is so existential for Mormonism. The LDS church today admits it is in a faith crisis, members are leaving in droves, and many that are staying are inflicting a great reckoning. Thanks to folks at MormonLeaks, we know the LDS church identifies a few movements and figures that are driving people out, including groups like Ordain Women and pro-LGBT dissidents like podcaster John Dehlin. The most relevant threat mentioned, brought to light for many by the Daybell case, is an enigmatic man named Denver Snuffer.
“Do I have a second comforter?” Zulema Pastenes testifies under immunity, asking this question to Chad Daybell during the months in 2019 when the murders occurred. It is quiet bombshells like this that you need Sotille to help you hear. The Second Comforter is the title of a book by Denver Snuffer. Snuffer’s ideology and movement is too complex to really describe accurately here, but it’s important to note his excommunication from the LDS church for his unorthodox views. He believes strongly in the power of personal revelation, seeing Jesus and receiving divine knowledge. Adjacent thinkers, such as John Pontius, author of a book called Visions of Glory, have led a surge in LDS books about “near-death experiences” (henceforth, NDEs). Chad would craft his own end-times prophecies in his books on NDEs, expounding on Pontius’ visions of Saints finding refuge in “Tent Cities”, making many into camping enthusiasts. A copy of Visions of Glory is found in the car that Lori was arrested in, and every place you turn in this case.
Snuffer also believes LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, Jr. was a monogamist, and this is where things get especially interesting to me. This view is shared by the inhabitants of an online forum called “Another Voice of Warning” (henceforth, AVOW). You can think of AVOW as being like Stormfront for LDS people who are into everything from NDEs to doomsday prepping, with “at least one believer of every far-right conspiracy theory”. At the same time, the message board proclaims itself to be in complete allegiance with the LDS Church and its prophet, careful (at the surface and on paper) to not conflict with the mainstream church’s positions. A prolific poster and topic of discussion on this forum is none other than Chad Daybell.
If online antics simply began and ended with posting, we would not be having this conversation. Sottile lays out exactly how this online radicalization goes IRL (“in real life”) through a world of podcasts, conferences, and book deals. You might question “who buys this stuff?”, and the answer is, a lot of people. What is striking is how this milieu used the LDS church to promote, recruit and network. Deseret Book, the publishing and distribution outfit for the LDS church, distributed NDE and apocalyptic books by Chad Daybell and others on his book outfit, Spring Creek Books. Members were invited to unofficial firesides, which are evening meetings on special topics usually sanctioned by the church, but sometimes used by alternative voices, like those in Denver Snuffer’s movements. From there, they attended frequent conferences including the “Preparing a People” conferences, where Mormon new age spiritualists intermingle with doomsday preppers, like a series of live action AVOW threads.
While this might seem like the activities of an eclectic fringe, partially true, the distance from the stalwart-on-the-ground Mormon heartland is virtually non-existent, these were people who comfortably held certain statuses, such as temple recommends and Relief Society callings. The trial has brought us even more knowledge, the Daybells and company were Temple tourists who went to dozens of different temples across the country almost daily, even in correspondence with their macabre acts. They were altogether fanatical about everything Mormon, even as their views become more and more unorthodox.
Sottile frequently refers to the legendary status of Ezra Taft Benson and the John Birch Society, two artifacts of Mormon anti-communism, and how this has shaped the ideology of the Daybells and their contemporaries. At the same time as all of this, a double standard exists where other doubters of other church doctrine on women and LGBTQ people are being excommunicated. It is questionable how long this double standard can hold up. The LDS church is often seen as an ideological fortress imposing itself by divine revelation from above, but the history I’ve looked at so far has shown a highly dynamic organization, slowly but surely responsive to upheaval from below, for better or worse. It’s precisely this that Snuffer seeks to proliferate, not insidiously but overtly, he believes divine revelation in the church should be democratic.
So many have called Mormonism the quintessential American religion it is not worth mentioning who came up with it first. I find this to be a bit reductive. Contrary to the popular belief conjured by clean-cut missionaries with black ties and white shirts, the Mormon stock has always had a counter-cultural strain. From its origins in the second great awakening movement, Mormons saw themselves as challengers to the establishment of High-Church Protestantism. Their conflicts with secular establishments in the Midwest, which led them into the Salt Lake Valley, have left them with a historic memory of persecution. For decades upon decades, the Church has cycled through denial and apologia for their wild western warfare and in particular, the Mountains Meadow Massacre. I think the massacre has persisted as a relic of Mormon anti-Americanism in an era in which Brigham Young prophesized that “eastern capitalists” would gut their Kingdom of God and sell it off to the highest bidder. And that is precisely what happened.
Statehood for Utah came with the more well-known practice of polygamy falling out of fashion within the LDS church. What’s less known is the mass disenfranchisement of the Mormon working class that came with the church’s expropriation. Suddenly the cooperative economy held together by commons was enclosed, and the federal government instituted a sort of “shock therapy” that changed the church forever. An explosive working class came onto the scene, and a burgeoning socialist movement followed and turned Utah into a hotbed for revolutionary movements. The church responded by doing its own damage control work in the First Red Scare. It is not hard to see how Benson and the John Birch Society were able to ascend in the defeat and fallout of these movements.
Part of the Mormon’s anger is the sacrifices they’ve had to make in order to become American. The LDS church today tries to minimize its belief in “blood atonement”, a form of sacred vengeance, but if Irish and Italian Americans spilled the blood of black and Indigenous people in order to become white, we see a similar phenomenon at play in how the Mormons became American. The Mormon form of Americanism is potent, but paradoxical. Sottile draws on her past work on the brilliant Bundyville podcast to examine how this paradoxical Americanism manifests in the belief in an unofficial, hidden church doctrine known as the White Horse Prophecy, shared by the Bundys and the Daybells alike.
Back to the facts of the case. There are almost, as if with many things FBI and LDS, official and unofficial “narratives” and counter-narratives emerging. It will be important for many years how this story is told and remembered, and there are things we may never know. Even as the trial unfolds before our very eyes as I type this, we are still left with a myriad of questions that haunt us like a blood moon.
What does this say if the jury is not sequestered, but video and live audio of the trial are forbidden, with no minor witnesses called so far? Why are LDS members told to not cooperate when questioned about the case? Are we to believe that Chad and Lori acted alone aside from their deceased co-conspirator, Alex Cox, or did others assist them? If so, why has only one of them been granted immunity? Did Alex Cox, who fits the textbook profile of a patsy, really die of natural causes? Who are the psychiatrists treating her, and who told who to call the LDS church seeking legal counsel? Who has been excommunicated and who hasn’t? What are the power politics at play in Eastern Idaho, the northern tip of what is called “the Mormon Corridor”? Is the LDS church’s tolerance of the community that Chad and Lori are a part of a form of “prior knowledge”? Who and what is really on trial here?
If you’ve watched Netflix’s Sins of our Mother, you need to read Sottile’s When the Moon Turns to Blood for the real story. I found this documentary quite disappointing in comparison, not just because such a massive case cannot be contained in 3 short episodes, but because Sotille’s book put this case into its socio-political context. Everyone laughed at Netflix’s inclusion of Julie Rowe, who might seem like a crank by claiming “prophetic gifts”, but Rowe is actually an important figure in the Jesus-seeing doomsday prepping world that created Chad Daybell. The Netflix series barely scratches the surface of the garbage bag that Sottile rips apart.
In the epilogue, Sottile engages several different commentators on the case, sociologists, anthropologists and psychoanalysts. Each provide their own clinical diagnosis of the Daybell’s essence. Sotille puts forward the analysis of anti-cult industry guru Steven Hassan, which of course includes “brainwashing”. I’ve been critical of brainwashing theory and deprogramming before, so when I came across Hassan’s words, I was a little disappointed: “It’s the cult person killing the kids, believing they’re helping. It’s not a person’s authentic self.” But then, Sottile follows up immediately with the perfect antidote: “Aside from identity, this is also a story about a culture.” If that’s not convincing enough, listen to Sam Brower, author of Prophet’s Prey, who has been privately investigating the FLDS polygamist sect for decades. Brower says in the conclusion of the documentary adaptation of his book, “we talk about brainwashing, but it’s not brainwashing, the level of devotion comes from an ingrained cultural thing.”
Sottile casts the moonlight in the direction of the Daybell’s obsession with death. It is by approaching death that NDE believers can know and feel God. I think the book shows another death obsession, the Daybell’s obsession with the death of America. Through trial testimony, we’ve learned that Alex Cox, Lori’s brother and believed to be the person to physically carry out the murders, took out a $21,000 high interest personal loan and purchased over 40 guns in the months surrounding the murders. Chad believed that Rexburg, ID would be the gathering place of the LDS church in the end times. To be in with these people, you had to have a certain caliber of camping gear. These people saw, in the present moment, the potential for the American death-drive to mutate into something even more grotesque. I look at them and see the same thing.
There are only a few reasons I cannot give this a 10/10, the first is that this is likely to be superseded by an even more detailed book after the trial is over, and the quest begins for the information the FBI has yet to release. Slightly discomforting is Sotille’s occasional use of a politically ambiguous “extremism” for a white supremacy that in my opinion should be specified. The book’s unique fusion of a dialogue heavy True Crime novel and deep historical and political analysis may leave those who are primarily looking for one of those things sifting through the pages based on their interests. As someone who has been mesmerized by this case for years, I wonder how the non-linear chronology used in the book reads to those who aren’t yet. Regardless of this, the execution and style made it easily worth rehashing the same events that have been in my mind for so long.
Hard Crackers readers are especially encouraged to tolerate a little bit of the True Crime genre to get a major dose of the “spaces between”, the true America that is stranger than fiction. This is the real-life story of manifest destiny in the white supremacist Wild West. America is a ticking time-bomb, and it blew up in Rexburg, ID.
UPDATE: While writing this review, Lori Vallow Daybell has been found guilty on all counts, including the murders of her children JJ Vallow and Tylee Ryan, and Chad Daybell’s first wife Tammy Daybell. She will face sentencing in approximately 3 months. The case is not over, Chad Daybell’s trial is tentatively projected for April 2024. Lori still faces charges in Arizona for the murder of Charles Vallow, and the attempted murder of Brandon Boudreaux, her niece’s ex-husband.
9.5/10 (my rating – GB)