I finally finished Carolyn Jessop’s Escape, which I bought from Benchmark at MHA. It was quite good; I really enjoyed it. It gives an inside view of what it was like for her to grow up FLDS, and the challenges she faced in leaving it.
The book opens with a Preface that describes the actual escape itself, on April 21, 2003. She had been preparing for this moment for a long time, squirreling away some cash and some extra medications for her children. She needed a time when her husband Merril was gone and all eight of her children were home. The sect had become increasingly extreme under the leadership of Warren Jeffs, and she was desperate to get out. Things like pulling all the kids out of public schools. Destroying all outside literature (including her collection of 300 children’s books that she cherished). Killing all the dogs in the community , Banning the color red. Forcing younger and younger girls into marriages with old men. Kicking 400 boys out of the community. Excommunicating men who were perceived as a threat and reassigning their wives and children to other men (sometimes such reassignments happened multiple times; one women complained that she felt like a “polygamy prostitute.”).
She went to her sister’s house and called her brother in SLC and asked him to help her. He agreed to meet her at Canaan Corners, a convenience store three miles from town on the Utah side of the border. She piled her kids in the van, which had hardly any gas in it, and started off. She lied to them about where they were going (kids there were socialized to be terrified of the outside world), but when it became clear what she was doing some of her older kids freaked out and screamed at her to go back. Five hours later they would be in SLC and go into hiding.
The book then goes back to the beginning. She was born in the community to a man with two wives. Her mother regularly beat her and the other children, which is common in their community. Her father and grandmother were kind to her.
She says the 1953 Short Creek raid was a problem because it sabotaged the trust that women had had in the outside world. After that, changes came, very slowly, incrementally. They began to be told how to wear their hair and what to wear. Several years later, the practice of marriage by prophetic revelation (assignment marriage) began. Slowly, access to public education was curtailed as well.
One of the games they would play as children was Apocalypse, which was an FLDS version of hide and seek, but involved the fiery end of the world and destruction of the wicked.
Carolyn’s dream was to become a pediatrician to help all the women who had babies in the community. She had graduated high school and asked her dad to talk to the prophet about it. She was 18. At two in the a.m. she was awakened and brought to her father. He said he had spoken with Uncle Roy (the then prophet) and he said she was a smart girl and could go to school to become a teacher. She felt her pediatrician dreams crushed. But then he announced that she was being given in marriage to Merril Jessop, a man of great influence in the community, one of her father’s business partners, and over 30 years older than her. The marriage would be held on Saturday, two days away. The description of the wedding, the way Merril basically ignored her, the wedding night (for a girl who had zero knowledge of sex) was quite fascinating.
If marrying a man 30 years older felt like a bad deal to her, the girls who were assigned to the prophet (always the very prettiest) were marrying a man 60 years older than they were, and so infirm he couldn’t actually have sex. She had friends who had been married ten years and were still virgins.
Much of the book has to do with the dynamics in Merril’s home among him, the other wives, the children and the rest of the community. I found all of this very interesting.
I know several people expressed concerns about the need to take her tale with a grain of salt. Generally, I found her account to be very credible. Most of the macro details, especially concerning the megalomania of Warren Jeffs, are part of the public record and well known. The details of her own life struck me as credible, and she is after all the world’s expert on her own experiences.
I recommend the book.