The 16-year-old girl whose whispered plea for help on a borrowed cell phone exposed the sexual and physical abuse of young girls by an austere polygamist cult showed extraordinary courage and resilience, cult experts said.
"There is a part of her that is extremely strong," said Paul Martin, a psychologist and the director of Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, a facility that treats cult victims. "She has some amazing courage [to speak out against the group]."
The girl, who authorities have not been able to locate and do not know whether she is one of the 416 children taken from Yearning for Zion Ranch earlier this week, placed several calls to a local family violence clinic explaining her "spiritual marriage" to a 50-year-old man and how he forced her to have sex with him.
Already the mother of one child, the teen told the investigator that she feared she was pregnant again and detailed how the man "would beat and hurt her whenever he got angry."
One beating was so severe, according to the court documents, that the girl suffered broken ribs and was taken to the hospital.
But despite her alleged brutal treatment, at the end of the phone conversation the girl begins to cry and pleads with the investigator to "forget" her story.
"She began crying and then stated that she is happy and fine and does not want to get into trouble and that everything she had previously said should be forgotten," court documents stated.
The teen's sudden change of heart is common among cult members, particularly those debating whether to escape a world that has held them so close for so long.
"For one moment, that internal sense of self was saying something isn't right, and by the end of the conversation she was going back into the cult identity," said Martin. "You see this back and forth all the time between what might be called the true self and the pseudo-self that is formed by being in these cult compounds."
Inside The Mind of a Polygamist Whistle-Blower
Martin said that while many cult members are completely controlled by the group's theology and never think to stage an escape others, like the 16-year-old in this case, many eventually realize that something isn't quite right and act on that gut feeling.
"You can never predict when someone is going to pop out of that sense of control," said Martin. "She may have had some clandestine contact with the outside world that got her thinking, 'Is this right? Is what I'm going through really right?'"
"There is an internal tug of war that everyone feels in highly controlled situations," said Martin. "The external controls just may not have been strong enough to fight her doubts."
The abuse may have become so bad, said Martin, that the girl figured life outside the compound couldn't be much worse than what she was already facing.
"She might have just grown tired of the abuse," said Martin. "She may have thought, 'If I stay in the group I'm in hell and if I leave the group I'm going to hell.'"
The quiet conversation the 16-year-old had with authorities shows her fear of being caught and punished by the group, another reason experts laud her courage to speak up.
"[She] showed extraordinary courage," said Steve Hassan, who also councils former cult members at the Freedom of Mind Center in Massachusetts. "Often victims will change their minds about coming out about their abuse because they're so afraid."
"The consequence of facing the abuser and in this case the entire community and everyone she knows is daunting," said Hassan, who said he wasn't sure if they would have killed her had they caught her, but said that he's heard of this happening in other religious cults.
"I don't know how far this group will go [to punish her], but just being publicly exposed in a group like this would give her a sense of ostracism," said Martin. "If she gets identified within the group that sense of isolation and the sense that they've been labeled as a failure creates overwhelming anxiety."
Once a Victim, Teen Is Now a Hero to Others
There are no clues as to where the 16-year-old is — hiding among her peers in the state-provided shelter or on the run by herself — but experts say no matter where she is, she's sure to suffer from guilt.
"You think about [this type of decision] for years before you actually do it," said Hasson. "It's not something that happens overnight and once people are out they often feel sorry for the people still [inside the compound]."
"She'll feel guilt for turning them in," said Martin. "As long as she sees that group as having some sort of power over her the more guilty she'll feel."
And while she may be feeling a tremendous amount of responsibility for uprooting her community's home and lifestyle, experts hope that eventually she'll realize what a hero she actually is.
"I think she speaks for probably every other girl in there with of course a few exceptions," said Martin of the teen's heroism. "I'd say 90 percent of the other girls are probably thinking 'Wow, I'm glad she did this.'"