True crime is a mess. As I’ve noted before, it’s a genre predicated on the suffering of other human beings, the more horrific and shock-worthy the better the profit margins. That’s a reductive and callous summary, but not untrue. True crime is also endlessly fascinating. I keep up with my cult and serial killer documentaries as much as the next murderino. My captivation with the grisly genre is something I’ve struggled with: it’s ugly, exploitative, and horrible in a hundred different ways. But on occasion there are pieces like Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey: projects that tell an important story and are able to with the resources it deserves because they fall under the umbrella of the big-business true-crime industry.
Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey is Netflix’s foray into addressing the famously heinous circumstances within the FLDS (The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). Keep Sweet recounts the story of an infamous fraction of extremist Mormons who followed (and, to all appearances, still follow) the teachings of a “prophet” who practiced polygamy and extreme subjugation of women, performing dozens of arranged child marriages in which very young girls are essentially given to much older members of the community at the discretion of one man. That man, in Keep Sweet, is Warren Jeffs, one of the many sons of the previous prophet who conveniently enough claimed to be the voice of God after his father’s death. Jeffs is now (spoilers) in prison and will be for the rest of his life. I mean, that’s what should happen when you record yourself raping a child and a court eventually hears it. But Jeffs is still giving direction and “prophecy” to the thousands of FLDS followers still soundly under his control. The story hasn’t ended, and Jeffs’ monstrousness isn’t at an end either.
There is, obviously, plenty of horror and shock value to be had here. (A twenty-year-old married to the previous 86-year-old Prophet can’t remember if she was his twenty-third or the twenty-fourth wife, and that’s just part of the framing.) The problem arises when the genuine horror of a real thing that actually happened to real people becomes equivalent to clickbait headlines, deployed with the intention of getting eyes on a screen and without much more behind it than moth-to-flame mechanics. That is to say, tragedy reduced to a salespoint.
Keep Sweet is an excellent example of true crime that isn’t like that.
In the final segment of Keep Sweet, former cult members give their analysis of the confounding media response to the state finally removing the at-risk children from the Texas FLDS compound. FLDS deployed their enormous financial reserves to launch a play-the-victim campaign, in which frantic mothers wondered tearfully on network TV what had become of their children. To be clear: children were forcibly removed from their mothers frequently in FLDS before this, largely for the purpose of grooming those children into child brides and indoctrinating an obedient next generation. “Keep Sweet” itself is a grooming motto deployed by the cult to instruct women and girls in how to be servile and unthinking.
But here’s the thing: I remember this coverage. I remember this minority religion being cast as a group persecuted by the heartless forces of an uncaring State. Of course, it was all storytelling. Those same women who appeared on Larry King claiming to know nothing of underage marriages were midwives to child-mothers. Oprah chimed in to jerk some tears. Headlines were sympathetic. Looking back, there was a distinct lack of reporting in that coverage. The 24-hour news cycle churns on, turning tragedy into eyeballs-on-screen revenue.
Keep Sweet brings the critical hindsight this debacle deserves, clarifying an intentionally muddied narrative. But it also highlights the dangers of noncritically accepting the story you’re given, something America as a whole could kind of use a lesson in right now.
Keep Sweet becomes a story about storytelling, about being sympathetic to the victims of indoctrination while exposing how vast and absolute manipulation can become. The indoctrination within the cult was communicated convincingly through the mask of wailing mothers, willingly paraded in front of the cameras in self-defense by the men who subjugated them. But theirs was the story that was broadcast. Keep Sweet certainly stirs up rage, but it feels like vital rage. Far from using horror for titillation, Keep Sweet tells an important story and a cautionary one—a cult narrative that millions of “informed” Americans were involved in perpetuating via widespread acceptance of a narrative no one really understood or investigated.
Is Keep Sweet a worthwhile true crime story, a case of taking the good with the bad? Definitely. But it’s equally true that the true-crime trend enabled this depth of storytelling and audiences’ large-scale willingness to pay attention to it.
The other project that comes to mind for me in this category of worthwhile true crime is another Netflix series, The Keepers, which is a grueling (to put it lightly) exploration of a nun who stood up to abuses at a Catholic school and paid with her life for it. The titular “keepers” are the students/victims she tried to protect, coming forward about the abuse and honoring her memory decades later. There are other gems of true crime storytelling like this (see At the Heart of Gold and Leaving Neverland over on HBO) which take important stories you already knew about and give the victims a voice as powerful and wide-reaching as their abusers.
That is all to say, Keep Sweet deserves your attention: it gives power to the survivors of these abuses, after so many years of their abusers taking such pains to keep the narrative in hand.
Header Image Source: Netflix