Escape by Carolyn Jessop – book review – polygamy

Filed in Gather Family Essential by on November 10, 2007 0 Comments

Escape is Carolyn’s touching and sensitively told personal story: At 18, Carolyn became the fourth wife of a 50-year old man in Utah. This was in the 1980s.

In 2003, when Carolyn was 33, she and her eight children escaped from her husband and the Polygamous FLDS sect, in the middle of the night. She had $20 to her name. Carolyn is the only woman to have escaped Polygamy, bringing all her children. 

The FLDS is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The FLDS is the radical sect  that split off from the Mormon (LDS) church and is not to be confused with the mainstream Mormon church. 

Written with Laura Palmer, Escape is a best-selling book and a venture into a world of which many have never heard -  this is an inside look at the horrors of the polygamous world of the FLDS.

The FLDS was started after the mainstream LDS church no longer allowed polygamy in the late 19th century. Polygamy is the issue that divides the FLDS from the LDS.

The FLDS sect in the twin city area of Hilldale, Utah/Colorado City, Arizona – is the sect into which Carolyn Jessop married.

Carolyn grew up in polygamy, from 6 generations of polygamy on her mother’s side.

Many who grew up in Utah, such as myself, have such polygamy far back in our ancestry. In fact, virtually all of the original Utah Pioneer settlers had to have more than one wife. All my great and great-great grandfathers had at least two wives and one of my great-grandfathers had 6 wives and 54 children from the five surviving wives.

But that was in the mid-19th century. Progress has marched on for many of us, but it was not so for Carolyn and those still in the FLDS today.

During her childhood in the 1970s. Carolyn grew up with her parents, her father’s other wives, and her siblings in Salt Lake, away from the FLDS community. Her mother was happy and her parents briefly had a Christmas tree and a coffeemaker in the house, both of which are taboo in the religion. 

Once Carolyn’s parents moved to the Colorado City FLDS compound, her mother grew desperately unhappy.

Colorado City was run by the then-Prophet Leroy Johnson (Uncle Roy).  The Prophet was the leader of the FLDS and his word was the word of God. What the Prophet said was a matter of law. The Prophet was believed to speak directly with God.

In her acknowledgements to the book, Carolyn describes the FLDS:

“The FLDS is constructed on a scaffolding of lies. We were all brainwashed into believing that everyone in the outside world was evil.”

 Referring to her life now after her escape, Carolyn continues:

 “Every Christmas, when I see the delight in my children as they unwrap presents from people they never met, I realize what a monstrous lie we were taught to believe.”

In her book, Carolyn describes her escape.

“Escape. The moment had come. I had been watching and waiting for months. The time was right. I had to act fast and without fear. I could not afford to fail. Nine lives wee at stake: those of my eight children and my own.”

…”At eighteen, I was coerced into an arranged marriage with Merril Jessop, a fifty-year-old man I barely knew. I became his fourth wife and had eight children in fifteen years…

“The first thing I did when I realized I might be able to escape was to go to my sister Linda’s house to use the telephone. I couldn’t call from my home because the phones were monitored. My husband’s six other wives were suspicious. I had a reputation for being somewhat independent and thinking for myself, so the other wives kept tabs on me. “

…”When I was growing up in the FLDS, our lives had not been as extreme as they were becoming under Warren Jeffs. The children attended public schools. But that ended when Jeffs took over. He felt that teachers I the public schools had been educated by ‘gentiles’ [non-FLDS] and were ‘contaminated.’ “

So Carolyn’s children attended the private FLDS schools. Warren Jeffs believed he was Christ incarnate, and spoke of moving the FLDS members to a walled-off area within the compound from which there would be no escape. 

Jeffs believed the FLDS were the ‘chosen seed of God’ and that it was his duty to protect them from everything unclean, such as the ‘outside’ world. Jeffs ordered all secular [non-FLDS] books to be destroyed.

Carolyn had been a public school teacher before Jeffs took over. She had had more than 300 children’s books, which were destroyed under Jeffs’ rule.

One night in 2003, Carolyn returned home but could not find her oldest daughter, Betty, who was then 14. Warren Jeffs was known to marry off girls to older men – girls as young as 14. Jeffs himself had dozens of wives – at least 70. 

[Since the writing of the book, Warren Jeffs was arrested, tried, and convicted of two felony counts of arranging under-age marriages of girls to older men. News updated November 10th include release of documents that Jeffs tried to hang himself in his jail cell in September while awaiting trial, and also confessing to ‘immorality’ with a ‘sister’ and a ‘daughter.’ His nephew, Brent Jeffs, is suing Jeffs for sodomy when Brent was an underage student in one of the schools and Warren was the principal. Jeffs is awaiting sentencing for the two felony convictions.  He could face life imprisonment.]

When Carolyn returned home one night to find 14-year-old Betty at a sleepover at Jeffs’ house with other 14-year old girls, Carolyn knew she had to act fast: her worry was that Betty would soon be married off to an older man.

…”One by one, I put my children in the van and told them to buckle their set belts. I was frantic. I was also out of time. Harrison [severely disabled since birth] was the only one left…I strapped him into his car seat, turned on the ignition, and counted to see if my children were all there. Betty was missing.”

Carolyn found 14-year old Betty in her room but Betty resisted Carolyn taking her into the car. After a brief skirmish, Betty acquiesced and Carolyn left southern Utah in her van with her eight children, bound for Salt Lake City.

On the escape drive, Betty saw that her mother had lied as to where they were going.

“You are stealing us! Mother, you are stealing us! Uncle Warren will come and get us.”

“Betty, I can’t steal my own children.”

“We don’t belong to you! We belong to the prophet! You have no right to us.”

Five hours later, Carolyn and her children were in hiding in Salt Lake City, and her husband began to hunt them down like prey.

Carolyn describes what it was like to move to the FLDS community in Hilldale in the late 1980s, and to learn that the sunglasses the FLDS wives often wore usually covered black eyes.

Power was in the hands of the husband, and the wives and children’s fate and rank within the family was determined by how obedient and subservient they were to him.

The prophet Leroy Johnson had announced that he had  a revelation that Carolyn should marry Merril Jessop – Carolyn had been planning on going to college to become a doctor, but her father knew that once the prophet spoke that he must act quickly and marry Carolyn to Jessop.

There were no questions asked: Carolyn’s family did what they were forced to do. Carolyn later learned she had been a pawn in a business deal between her father and Jessop. 

When Carolyn married Jessop -  who was very high up within the FLDS priesthood -  she, at 18, had never had a previous relationship with a man, had never dated (dating was forbidden) and she did not love Merril  -  she did not even like this man whom many others called cruel.

On their wedding night, Carolyn was bound to wifely duty, as a possession of her husband. She cringed when he touched her, and was relieved when he was not able to consummate their wedding night. She later learned to use sex as a safety weapon in the relationships with the other wives and children. Sex was the one power the younger wives had over a more powerful wife.

Carolyn became Jessop’s fourth wife – of the previous wives, only Barbara was still having sex with Merril, and Barbara was the wife to whom all other wives, children and Merril answered. Barbara made Carolyn’s life miserable. Carolyn was watched wherever she went.

Jessop was later to add two more wives to his plural marriage.

Abuse against wives and against children was not only permissible, but a way of life.

  “It was preached at church that if you didn’t put the fear of God into children from the time of their birth, they would grow up and leave the work of God. Abuse was necessary to save a child’s soul.”

Encouragement was few and far between.  One of the wives later approached Merril, and spoke up against him on behalf of Carolyn:

“Merril, it’s wrong for you to use your daughters against your wives and encourage them to be hurtful and mean to us and your other children. “

At one point, Carolyn realizes she missed an important step in the teachings and blessings of the FLDS religion: She had never received a Patriarchal blessing. The Patriarch is third in line from the top – the prophet, Council of 12 Apostles and the Patriarch – (third in line – similar to an Archbishop’s rank in the Roman Catholic church).

The importance of a Patriarchal blessing is that the Patriarch tells why you were put on this earth.  When Carolyn did finally receive that blessing, she learned that she was born with the gift of discernment – that she could look at someone and know if they were good or evil.

It was that gift of discernment, among her many other gifts and strengths, that gave Carolyn the strength to escape, and to finally find happiness and peace.

Carolyn tells her gripping story in a matter-of-fact way that does not undersell the horror of the facts themselves – nor does it do short shrift to the beauty and the power of humanity that finally surfaces in her heroic tale.

A must read.

Escape on Amazon.

Escape by Carolyn Jessup with Laura Palmer, published by Broadway Books (October 16, 2007) hardcover.

ISBN-10: 0767927567

ISBN-13: 978-0767927567

List price is $24.95, but Amazon offers it at $16.47, and used for $12.

About the Author ()

An article of mine, 'On Marriage, Life, Death and Remarriage' was published in "Blended Families (Social Issues Firsthand) by Greenhouse Press." An article of mine was referenced in this book: "Margaret Atwood: a reference guide" by Judith McComb

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