Instead of playing hide-and-seek as children, we played Apocalypse.
When I saw that Rachel Jeffs, daughter of Warren Jeffs of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was releasing a memoir, Breaking Free, I figured I should tackle some of the other FLDS memoirs I’ve had on my reading list before getting any new ones.
If like me, you’re magnetically drawn to these type of culty stories but get the specific groups a little confused, FLDS are the “Big Love” or Kimmy Schmidt-looking ones, with the long blousy prairie dresses and braids with a poof on top.
Escape is a well-known book in this strange genre. When she was 18, Carolyn was married to Merril Jessop, a high-ranking figure in the church/cult structure (I really don’t know what to call it, honestly.) She was number four of six sister wives.
Her father brokered the marriage, as is common. There’s generally a lot of finagling for power and position within the community, also concerning shady business interests, and it was a good deal to marry his daughter to Merril, who was then 50.
I looked at my father in horror. “How does Merril feel about this marriage? How does he feel about marrying a child?”
“Oh, he’s done it before.”
Born into the polygamous communities of the Arizona-Utah border, Carolyn was already familiar with the “plural marriage” lifestyle. But after marriage, her life became increasingly surreal. Take this exchange, on a trip she took with two sister wives and her husband to Hawaii, a very rare vacation away from their overflowing house in Colorado City, Arizona:
We took the shuttle bus to our hotel. I sat next to Merril, which sent Tammy into the stratosphere. She started badgering him. “Father, are Cathleen and I part of this trip, too?” Merril was unresponsive. Tammy continued, “Father, who are you planning on sleeping with tonight?” Her questions got more specific. “Why are you sitting by Carolyn again? Are you only going to have sex with her? Do we get to be included?” The other tourists were trying not to stare at this freak show. I was mortified.
It’s basically everything you’d ever want to know about the polygamy relationship. She describes the bizarre power plays among the wives – obviously it’s not as sunny a relationship as the “sister wife” concept tries to make believe. This sums it up well:
In order to have power in Merril’s family, I had to make myself important to him. That gave me status over his other wives and protected me and my children from their attacks. It’s an insanely competitive environment…There would be moments when I’d think how weird it was that the three of us were competing for a man none of us loved, desired, or had ever wanted to marry.
Speaking of children, she had eight. She has a sense of humor about it: “I loved every one of my children and would never give up a single one. But my hysterectomy felt like a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
This children element always disturbs me. Even the higher ups in FLDS, as her husband was, are financially hard-pressed when they have multiple wives and dozens of kids (54, in Merril’s case.) She writes heartbreakingly here of being hungry and nutritionally deprived. It’s devastating. I find it so hard to reconcile the belief of groups like this (it seems common across multiple cults and more conservative religions) that it’s fine to have an abundance of children when they’re hungry, often not allowed to receive medical treatment, abused by sister wives and worse.
They also claim a lot in welfare and benefits, and according to beliefs explained by Ruth Wariner in the highly recommended, gorgeously written memoir The Sound of Gravel, it’s considered acceptable to do so because the government is wicked and heathen so taking from it isn’t immoral. Where to begin. I’m glad it’s providing something for these children, but why do this?
As Carolyn explains, she didn’t have much choice in childbearing until her emergency hysterectomy. I should note there’s some very disturbing, emotionally upsetting child abuse detailed here, within her family and beyond. Be warned.
It’s not a masterpiece of writing, despite having a professional co-author. That’s a little disappointing, because Carolyn’s story is pretty incredible and she has a certain strength in the telling of it. She also has remarkable attention to detail, explaining the little odds and ends and clarifications that I usually find myself wondering more about in terms of the logistics of a story or narrative. Her thorough explanations were a nice surprise.
There’s a lot of repetition – it’s like in her eagerness to finally use her voice, she wants to spill everything, air it all out, as extensively as possible. So she ends up repeating her important points and major decisions, conflicts, issues and the like quite often.
Nevertheless, the story is a page-turner from the start, as she seizes a rare opportunity and begins executing her escape, children in tow, clock ticking. Before this, on FLDS I’d only read the aforementioned Sound of Gravel (I think Wariner was a similar group, her family was in a polygamous offshoot in Mexico) and Jon Krakauer’s excellent, unsettling Under the Banner of Heaven, exploring an infamous murder perpetrated by two Mormon Fundamentalist brothers who blamed their crime on orders of faith.
That kind of divine claim features heavily here too. It’s another aspect that I appreciated in Carolyn’s storytelling – when she tells something shocking connected to FLDS doctrine, she explains where it comes from and why. I’m not saying it clarifies much, everything in the belief structure is bananas, but I liked that she put it in context. It’s especially helpful for those like me who haven’t read too deeply on the subject.
This includes her commentary on points that increasingly caused her to turn from the religion she’d been raised in. This struck me:
…In the aftermath of 9/11 [Tammy] couldn’t stop talking about how she and all the righteous people she knew saw the hand of God in the attacks. The Lord’s people had finally proven worthy enough for God to answer their prophet’s prayers. The destruction of the towers was just the beginning. Warren Jeffs had been preaching that the entire earth would soon be at war and all the worthy among the chosen would be lifted from the earth and protected, while God destroyed the wicked.
Tammy’s fanaticism was as idiotic to me as the Islamic extremism of the men who’d flown the planes into the twin towers. I had been taught as a child that only the wicked would be destroyed before the beginning of the thousand years of peace. Thousands of ordinary citizens had been murdered on 9/11, and it was impossible for me to see how anyone—even Warren Jeffs—could spin this as an act of God.
I always think that when I finish reading something about religious extremism or fundamentalism. At their core, so many fundamentalist beliefs are similar. But as Jeffs became increasingly extreme, she made her move. And she gets her happy ending. She’d already earned a college degree and proven she was a fighter, so despite the harrowing experiences she’d endured, it ends with a positive feeling, thanks in no small part to Carolyn’s optimism and tenacity.
When I awoke again I could see the colors of a brilliant sunset through a window in the ICU. I took a deep breath. The sun was setting and I was still alive.
Fascinating and compelling read, if not the best written, of a strong woman’s experience breaking free of a cult that led Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to say, “I have a corner of my state that is worse than [under] the Taliban.”
My rating: 3.5/5
by Carolyn Jessop, with Laura Palmer
published October 16, 2007 by Broadway