Ruth Wariner looks back at her childhood with as much amazement as anybody, and she certainly understands when people tell her it's hard to believe.
In fact, upon writing "The Sound of Gravel," the story of her upbringing in a Mormon colony in Mexico, which included abuse and murder and salacious activity in a polygamist family that included 42 children and her very strong mother, the publishing company (Macmillan Publishers) and its attorneys asked her whether it all really happened.
"They asked me if I made stuff up, and I told them I did not embellish," she says. "I've had readers respond and say it reads like fiction, it was so compelling. I wrote the story so honestly so people would believe it."
Wariner, a Lake Oswego resident who taught at Gladstone High School, worked on the book for five years.
"It was an amazing process, years in the writing and years in that deep exploration of her inner self," her husband, Alan Centofante, says. "Amazing watching her go through the process. She had a lot of guts; it was incredible to talk about a story that is so personal.
"Before she put it in the book it's not something she even told her closest friends. I felt privileged that she opened up to me early in our relationship. I was an early reader, and captivated — 'Wait, your dad had how many wives?'"
Wariner, 45, will share her story as a guest of the VOICES, Inc. lecture series, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7, at Tiffany Center, 1410 S.W. Morrison St. For ticket info, see www.voicesinc.com.
"It was something that was burning inside me, to tell my story," Wariner says.
She was born and raised at Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua, Mexico. Her mother, Kathy Wariner, was one of nine wives of Joel LeBaron, who was considered the prophet in the fundamentalist Mormon colony, which he helped found. Ruth Wariner was her mother's fourth child and her father's 39th at the time, 1972.
"They still believe he was the prophet," she says.
Her father was killed under quite the circumstances, when Ruth was three months old.
His brother, Ervil, and he had started to disagree about how the church had been run, and Ervil had visions of being the prophet himself and that Joel had to be killed.
Ervil and his followers tricked Joel into attending a meeting about the prophecy, and three men beat him and shot him. Joel was the first of 25 victims of Ervil's over a decade. "They called him the Mormon Manson," Wariner says. "He had convinced his followers to basically kill anybody who challenged his priesthood."
Ervil left the colony and was finally tracked down, arrested and imprisoned, where he died in 1981.
"He left a hit list behind, and ended up having more people killed," Wariner says.
Her mother remarried to a man named Lane Stubbs, who abused her physically and sexually from age 8 to 12. "I told my mom about the abuse and she didn't leave him," Wariner says. But, Stubbs had abused other girls, and the colony's tribunal kicked him out — without prosecution — but allowed him to return.
By age 15, her mother had 10 kids, and she met her fate in an electrical accident. Apparently the stepfather had installed electricity in their house, and the mother and a child died in an incident involving an electric fence.
Wariner, who revered her mother, knew that she needed out.
"We didn't have a mom, and I found out (Stubbs) was abusing one of my brothers, and he kept trying to take one of my little sisters away and be alone with them," she says. "I said, 'You're not taking her anywhere.' I had a grandmother in central California (Strathmore), and we ran away when he was out of town.
"It was the best thing that could have happened in my life."
Wariner received her GED in California, moved to Grants Pass at age 19 and attended Southern Oregon University, where she attained an undergraduate degree in international studies and Spanish literature and a master's in teaching.
How in the world does a young woman hold her life together after such childhood trauma?
"I kept it together because I had my sisters, they were 5 months, 2 years and 4 years old," she says. "That's what I learned from my mom, no matter what you survive. I had been babysitting those girls my whole life. I had six younger siblings, I had always been my mother's little helper."
Wariner eventually moved to the Portland area, taught Spanish for eight years at Gladstone High School and focused on her writing. She met and married her husband, and seriously set about writing her memoir.
"The Sound of Gravel" has been compared to "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls (a guest of the VOICES series last year). "It's a book that sticks with you," Alan Centofante says.
"It was therapeutic, but I needed to find a voice," Wariner says. "I needed to understand this situation for myself to understand how it affected me and patterns in my life and choices made. The more self-aware and honest I was about myself and the situation, the better I became and healthier I became."
Of course, therapy was involved for many years.
"I felt like I left a lot of my story on the page," she adds. "I feel more distant from it. I feel it was healing when I talked to readers about it and heard their stories of survival and overcoming adversity; there was a lot of meaning and connection with that."
She adds: "I was very stubborn, still am. I was an intuitive person. I started trusting myself ... We have to be stronger or we're a victim our whole lives. We're not put on this Earth to be victims."
Two of her younger sisters live in Portland and another in Seattle. Wariner stays in touch with many of the step-siblings and half siblings, including a brother who still lives in Mexico and has 15 children. LeBaron, she says, has modernized, and most people have computers and get on Facebook.
Wariner has disavowed the Mormon religion, and has taken on a spirituality. "I saw my mom suffer so much, and she lost so much of self because of somebody telling her what to do," she says. "My mom lost that personal feeling and relationship (toward spirituality)."
Wariner, who married at 37 and didn't have any children of her own, is working on the second phase of her memoir, with a working title of "Sistering." It's about her life beyond Colonia LeBaron and finding her way outside of fundamentalism. She's also had discussions with potential filmmakers.
"I think the second book is better than the first," her husband says.