PARK CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – She’s a former sister wife turned personal chef – and now she’s on the front lines of the fight to get mental health, medical and financial assistance for people escaping bigamy-related abuse.
Her name is Nicole Van Tassell Henderson. Living in Park City, she worries her husband will one day come and kill her. Henderson met her husband in high school; infatuated and rebelling against her family’s wishes, she married him at 18, joining Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), a polygamist sect in Utah. As soon as they were wed, she says the abuse began.
About a month into the marriage, she said she asked him to cuddle her for a few more minutes before he went to work.
“He kind of threw me against the wall,” Henderson recalled. “He said ‘I cannot wait until you have a baby so you smother it instead of me.'”
Thus followed more than 20 years of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, Henderson said.
“I was chattel, and he told several people he was just gonna keep me barefoot and pregnant and get as many kids out of me as he could,” she said. “I had 15 children in 19 years…13 living. You’re not supposed to do that.”
Due to have triplets, Henderson said she lost two of the children in 2010. The many pregnancies took a serious toll on her mental, physical and emotional health. Court documents reveal her husband did plead no contest to several abuse claims, including assault. Many of the incidents happened in front of her children, she said.
When Henderson received a text from a male high school friend in 2016, he said her husband flew off the handle.
“He asked me to cut my throat as a blood atonement in front of my children to say that was the only way I could repent from texting this other man and be forgiven, and disembowel myself…and he said that in front of my children,” Henderson said. “And that was the only way I could repent and be forgiven in the celestial kingdom.”
Henderson said her husband married another wife in 2012. Polygamy is considered a second-degree felony in Utah.
She said the psychological abuse made her believe she was worthless. Finally, after more than 24 years, she decided to escape. She could only take one of her 15 children with her.
“It is the hardest thing you’ll ever do,” said Henderson of leaving. Currently, all of her children live with her husband, even though bigamy is a felony. She said she couldn’t take them with her because she suffered from mental health issues and had to check herself into a rehabilitation clinic for alcohol abuse related to her ordeal.
Henderson said she hopes to get all of her children out of that situation, afraid for their safety.
Her divorce has still not been finalized.
Now, Henderson is working with several non-profits to help victims of bigamy and polygamy-related crimes find a new lease on life. Henderson is now a personal chef. She attended culinary school after escaping her abusive marriage.
“Cooking is like therapy for me,” she told ABC4 News.
Currently, in Utah, victims of bigamy-related crimes receive no direct funding from the state’s Office for Victims of Crime, though the office does provide funding for non-profits to help victims get back on their feet, a spokesperson said.
But House Bill 214, which passed in a House Judiciary Committee Friday, would add bigamy and polygamy-related crime victims to the list of eligible individuals who can receive mental health, medical and other assistance once they escape. The groups fighting for it are not alleging that all polygamist situations are abusive. Non-profits involved like Holding Out H.E.L.P. said they are simply hoping to make more resources available for those who leave.
Henderson said her goal is not to convince women to leave polygamist relationships – but to leave abusive ones.
Henderson had a hand in that bill passing committee, testifying before the committee Friday. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Kyle R. Andersen (R- North Ogden).
“I have a voice. Maybe I can make a difference for some of these other women and say ‘you can get some financial help,'” said Henderson. “So many women leave (polygamy) and they don’t have financial help and so they end up going back. Every time you go back you’re more shamed, more punished. You’re more mentally impacted.”
Henderson said her seven minor children will need psychological help after she gets full custody of them. For that, she will need help paying.
Her message to all survivors of abuse is that if she can create a new life for herself, anyone can.
“You get a chance to live again and find out who you are,” Henderson said.