Coming up with something to say about Carolyn Jessop’s Escape is harder to do than I imagined. And it’s not because the book isn’t good. It’s well-written, the kind of memoir I like, focusing on the perception of events and making clear what was later retold or what gaps were filled in. Jessop’s style is easy to digest and it was a quick read – I found myself reading it while walking from class to class, from work to home, from the gym to the car…it was literally like I couldn’t put it down. What makes it hard to talk about is just how outrageous and horrifying the experience of this woman truly was.
Carolyn Jessop was born in to a polygamist family as part of the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), a fundamentalist splinter group of the mainstream Mormon church. While Jessop spends the first few chapters of her book explaining the history of Mormonism, polygamy, and the break-away of the FLDS from the Mormon church, what was far more interesting in her novel was her description of modern life in an FLDS community (note: the book was originally published in 2007, updated with an epilogue in 2008, and includes the verdict after the YFZ compound raid in Texas).
Carolyn’s father has two wives, and she’s raised in a home where her mother’s fragile mental status and her father’s tyrannical emphasis on obedience shaped the lives of her and her two sisters, one of whom fled the compound at 18. Carolyn has dreams of going to college, becoming a doctor, and helping the fellow women in her community. Instead, at the age of 18 she is married off to Marril Jessop (at the time, he was 50 years old) and becomes his 4th wife in a very unstable home.
What Jessop makes clear from the beginning just how pervasive and deep the mental control of the FLDS leaders truly went. Women were taught that their husband – called their priesthood head – had the power to dictate whether or not they would gain entrance in to the celestial kingdom, and whether or not they would be made exalted goddesses or lowly slaves to their husbands and sister-wives for all eternity in the afterlife. The way to ensure a positive experience in the afterlife was to give your husband absolute obedience, never questioning either him or the prophet of the community (believed to be in complete communication with God). Husbands were encouraged to take multiple wives and have as many children as possible, as children were signs of God’s pleasure with you and the larger your Earth family, the larger your celestial kingdom would be in the afterlife. As wives knew that the best way to please a husband was to have his children, there was often fierce competition between sister-wives. This system of ideologies, although not always abused (Carolyn makes clear that there were many FLDS men who sought to live in harmony with their wives, to not abuse them, treat them as equal, and to follow the teachings of the doctrine as rightly as possible), was the ideal situation for people like Merril Jessop to use and abuse their children to solidify their power.
Carolyn’s relationships with her sister-wives is rife from the beginning. The first wife, Faunita, has been desparaged and berated so severely by Merril that she sleeps all day and only comes out at night to watch televison. Rosie, the second wife, has been mentally and physically abused to the point of suffering a number of nervous breakdowns. Third wife Barbara, Merril’s favorite, ran the house with an iron fist, running to Merril at the first sight of problems and using her powers of manipulation to abuse the rest of the sister-wives. Carolyn is never happy, but feels more devoted to her sense of duty and her belief in her salvation in the afterlife. After Carolyn begins having children with Merril, she is able to bring a sense of centrality and order to her life, waking up more and more to the horrors of her life. Because the sister-wives were seen as sharing the responsibility of properly raising the children, when Carolyn began to be more vocal about the abuse and unfairness of her current situation it meant that the abuse and violence was turned to her children. After 13 years of marriage, two more cruel and mentally broken sister wives, and eight children (one of which is severely disabled due to a severe cancer case as an infant), Carolyn escaped the compound, made a life for her children in Salt Lake, fell in love again, and won the first every custody case against the FLDS. Her story, one of such horror, ends in happiness and hope.
Wow! Talk about nothing to say. I guess it’s more a matter of just getting started! It’s almost impossible to fathom the horrible things Carolyn Jessop had to experience. She was told, constantly, that she deserved the abuse and it was a punishment from God for not complying with her husband’s wishes. Her children are beaten to the point of passing out, without Carolyn’s knowledge. The older ones are told to pray for her death to mend her rebellious ways. She witnesses women being beaten to the point of miscarry, witnesses an epistiotomy done with scissors and sewn up with dental floss. The FLDS has been placed on lists of hate groups along with the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nation. And the saddest part of all is that the women either aren’t able to get help (most local police are also FLDS and won’t provide any help to a woman without her husband’s awareness and permission) or don’t think they need to, believing in the teachings of absolute obedience.
I more than anyone understand the importance and need for religious freedom, but as with all things, there becomes a point where fanatical religious beliefs cross over in to human rights dangers for a larger portion of the citizens involved. And that’s the thing. They are American citizens and deserve the same rights and protections as any other. But with the FLDS’s deep pockets and the fear of the American legal system to take on the biggest cult in America, it’s not exactly a hopeful picture. But I urge you to read this book. It’s a story of a strong woman, a strong mother, and what happens when one person takes on the entire system. It’s wonderful, and horrifying, and touching and uplifting all at the same time.