There's no shortage of reality shows about polygamy these days. Between Sister Wives, Seeking Sister Wife and Three Wives, One Husband, there's really something for everyone curious about the practice of plural marriages.
But Lifetime's Escaping Polygamy might be the darkest and realest of them all, as it shows three sisters — formerly of the polygamist Kingston clan — helping others break free of the polyamorous lifestyle.
And one woman in particular, Ava (AKA Michelle) Michaels has been on everyone's mind lately. "Wondering what happened to Ava," asked one person on Twitter. "I hope we get an Ava/Michelle update," echoed another.
So, what happened to Ava from Escaping Polygamy?
When we first met Ava, who also goes by her mother's namesake, Michelle, she seemed terrified of having to continue her life as part of the Order. "I kind of feel like a puppet in the Order," the then 17-year-old admitted. "In the Order, marriages are arranged. If I get married to the person they want me to, he's 19 and he's my cousin. I would be his fifth wife."
"The incest in the marriage makes me feel uncomfortable, but that's the situation that it is when marrying in the Order," she continued. "I always thought it was weird that my dad is my mom's uncle. And I don't want to be married to my cousin. That's not what I want for myself and I don't want my kids to be going through the things that come with polygamy or come with the Order."
Ava was able to get a high school and college education — while in the Order.
Surprisingly, Ava was fortunate enough to receive an education as a woman in a community that very seldom allows schooling for girls. For her elementary years, she attended the Order's school, Ensign Learning Center, where classes are taught exclusively by teachers who are members of the Order.
Although Ensign isn't accredited for high school, Ava's mother advocated for her to attend a local public high school, a bold move for a female from such a secluded society. After persuading Ava's very spiritual father, who had to take the matter to the Order's leader, Ava was finally granted the opportunity to attend Brighton High School, a secular secondary school just a few miles from Salt Lake City.
Ava graduated from Brighton High at the age of 15 with honors, two years earlier than her peers. And although she was able to pursue her college education while still in the Order, Ava "recalls knowing for years that she would leave if 'things did not change' when she became older," an update on the website Hope After Polygamy reads.
Her father let her take college classes, but "chose her degree, picked her classes, then put her brother in charge of her." Ava wasn't allowed to attend a single class that her brother didn't also attend. This meant the siblings partnered together on every group project, and hung out solely with each other, in order to avoid outsider interactions.
These days, Ava is glad she made the best decision for herself.
Although Ava was able to go to school, she wasn't in fact free at all. Her brother (one of her 130 siblings) was always by her side and she was required to devote a lot of her time to the Order, despite her rigorous studies. Ava had also been facing a decade of pressure (since she was 8!) to marry her cousin.
Since she was expected to get married by the age of 18, Ava had to face the hardest decision of her life a few months before her birthday: Would she fall into line like the other women of the Order or would she try to seek emancipation from the oppressive Order?
The Kingston sisters were able to help her escape — although Ava wanted to stay with her family, she knew she couldn't give up her sense of self and continue watching the cycle of abuse continue.
"With a well-thought-out plan," Hope After Polygamy explains, "she was successful; the judge granted her emancipation when she was 17 years old. After leaving, she continued her education and graduated with her associate's degree two days after her 18th birthday."
Although her family isn't happy with Ava's decision to leave the order, she has no regrets. "She stands strong in her truth knowing that she made the best decision for herself," Ava's success story continues. "We know that her education was a lifeline and want to support her through her bachelor's degree. She is an example to many and a shining light of hope to girls in polygamy."
Way to go, Ava! Her story made us emotional and we hope other young women are able to find freedom outside of polygamy with the help of the Kingston sisters.
New episodes of Escaping Polygamy air Mondays at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.