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.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    A heartbreaking thing in the book at the end was that her daughter Betty, who was her father’s favorite, when she turned 18 decided that she wanted to return to the FLDS. That of course was her right and Carolyn let her go. But she was very concerned for her, because she knew that because of her education and exposure to the outside world she would be perceived as tainted within the sect. This was a recent development so it hasn’t fully played out yet. But it had to be hard for her to go through all she did to get her kids out only to have one of them voluntarily decide that she wanted to return.

  2. I’ve invested a great deal of time in teaching these little investigators of mine and if I were to leave the church, I would not be surprised if several of my children returned when they were adults. “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

    It’s a bit of a surprise that only one of her children has gone back. How old are the rest of them?

  3. Kevin,

    It sounds like an interesting book. But I really have questions about how much we can take away from it.

    There’s all sorts of research that’s been done on the reliability of apostate narratives, and the general view is that they’re highly unreliable. In particular, the more marginalized the group is from mainstream society, the more likely exit narratives will pander to or reinforce inaccurate perceptions about the group.

    (For a really interesting discussion, ask Armand Mauss some time about the reliability of apostate narratives.)

    This is a problem, of course, because for groups like the FLDS, apostate narratives may be all that we’ve _got_ for some areas.

    Some people have tried to get around the reliability problems by trying to find ways to locate good information in those narratives. In particular, I know Seth Payne has written a little about this, in the LDS context (such as his Sunstone West presentation this year, which was really good and interesting stuff). He’s of the view that you can find good information in apostate narratives, but that’s in part because LDS culture is sufficiently mainstream that apostate narratives are less likely to be sensationalized. And, he’s got a database of 200 of them. (Neither of which apply to FLDS/Escape.) And I still don’t know if Armand buys Seth’s theory.

  4. (I should note that I’m good friends with some former members of the church, and my “reliability of apostate narratives” comment isn’t meant to denigrate anyone’s individual story, certainly not my friends’ stories. I’m just refering to what I believe is, in my own limited understanding of the sociological literature (and conversation with Armand and his much greater knowledge of the material), a known and recognized phenomenon.)

  5. Thanks for the review, Kevin.

    What did she have to say about “under-age” marriage and sexual abuse – meaning in the case of the Texas situation, girls who were being married or abused sexually before they turned 16? (or 14 prior to the change in legal marriage age in TX)

    I am appalled by most of what she describes, but I would like to know the legal side of her perspective regarding under-age issues.

  6. Thank you for this review, Kevin. I have not read the book, but I plan to. I have read this short account by Martha Barlow Jessop, and I wonder what you think of it, and how the details fit with what Carolyn writes in the book.

  7. oops, my bad–that account is about Flora Jessop, got them mixed up. Sorry everyone.

  8. Researcher says:

    Wow. Some observations about BIV’s link. I will try and be careful to not say anything libelous.

    It seems like it is very heavily edited.

    The tone of the article is rather puzzling. In some way it seems to be a little girl speaking rather than a mature educated professional woman.

    It seems like an extremely patriarchical system. I have read nothing like that in my extensive readings in Mormon history. People make charges about Mormons being patriarchal but (to repeat myself) I’ve never read anything like that.

    Many parts of Martha Jessop’s account about Flora Jessop were rather puzzling. For instance, one of the times when Flora wanted to come home, her grandparents said it would be fine if she was tested for venereal disease. Are people really like that?

    Bottom line, my reaction was that the link in #6 seemed to be very puzzling and not a simple and straightforward account.

  9. …her grandparents said it would be fine if she was tested for venereal disease.

    Actually, I know people like her grandparents. They consider themselves “good Mormons”. I won’t use names, but the depth of their insensitivity never ceases to surprise me.

  10. Researcher says:

    I will try and be careful to not say anything libelous

    I should also be careful and try to not split infinitives.

  11. About the reassignments–

    I have wondered if the reluctance by the FLDS at YFZ to DNA testing to determine parentage (aside from their civil rights issues) was because of the reassignments. I get the idea that many of the father figures there might not be the actual fathers as reassignments have seemed somewhat punative.

  12. So how does the Flora Jessop in BiV’s link relate to Carolyn Jessop, the author of the book?

  13. #12 – By marriage.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    #2 Jami, only a couple of her kids have passed 18. The rest are spread out down to kindergarten age.

    #3 Kaimi, point duly noted. Carolyn would repeat rumors that were flying about the FLDS community, but typically would label them as such. Examples: (a) two boys claimed to have been sodomized by WJ; one of these later committed suicide. (b) A major impetus for her to escape was when she came home one day and her 12-year old daughter was missing. No one would tell her where she was; her husband simply told her she was fulfilling her father’s wishes. She later found out she had been at a sleepover at WJ’s house. It was a big slumber party, and it was considered a plum to be invited. The girls had fun; no sex or abuse was involved. But she saw it as a chance for WJ to scope out the upcoming talent and try to establish relationships with the girls he would later want to marry. (c) When WJ was coming under increasing pressure from law enforcement, his response was to accelerate his marriages, not put them off. The rumor was that he was up to 180 wives.

    Now, who knows the truth of these matters? WJ was a principal at a private FLDS school and was known to beat students in public to set an example, and presumably if a young man committed suicide that could be verified. But did WJ sodomize boys? Don’t know. Perhaps there was no subtext to the girls’ sleepover at the prophet’s house, and it was all pure innocence. (But would you want your 12-year old daughter to sleep over at WJ’s house?) And perhaps 180 was a wild over-estimate of the number of WJ’s wives. But before the marriage binge he had 70 (his father before he died had 60 wives and over 100 children). So if the number wasn’t really 180, it was more than 70.

    So yes, you have to read the text with a grain of salt. But as I say, the macro framework surrounding WJ is all a matter of public record. We’re not relying on this account alone for the fact that WJ accelerated the age at which young women were placed into marriage, for instance.

    #5 Ray, yes, underage marriages have become common under WJ. If I were a member of the AUB or an independent polygamist, I’d be plenty pissed off at WJ. Polygamy is a hard enough of a PR sell as it is, but those folks practice it as consenting adults. For WJ to introduce underage marriages on a massive scale has made it all that much harder for more responsible polygamists to get a fair shake in the court of public opinion.

    #6 BiV, thanks for the link. All I can say is that that is a different story. Carolyn didn’t leave as a teenager; she bore eight children within the FLDS system. I would love to read a similar letter from the FLDS side giving their account of Carolyn’s story.

    #11 ESO, I’ve wondered the same thing.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Flora is Carolyn’s cousin by marriage.

    I found this on one of the Big Love message board threads (lots of discussion of polygamy there):

    Carolyn Jessop is actually very credible. Her story lines up very well with known facts. She is
    respected among those who have been FLDS.

    Flora Jessop on the other hand is nuts. Take what she says with a huge grain of salt.

    If you want to pursue the commentary, see here.

  16. My gut feeling regarding Flora Jessop’s reliability:

    Flora Jessop: FLDS as Martha Beck: LDS

    If you are not familiar with Martha Beck, she seems like a drama queen, pathological exagerator, inventor of her own history kind of woman. Flora has always struck me as a similar personality.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s a Larry King transcript I found with a lot of the key players on all sides commenting.

  18. Matt Thurston says:

    I remained surprised by the rush to question Carolyn’s credibility. I have not read the book (but plan to), but is there anything in the broad outline provided here by Kevin that does not jell with what is commonly known about the Jessop-lead FLDS? (Or jell with the experience of members of any number of tightly-controlled cults?) It passes the common sense test.

    Carolyn’s experience needn’t necessarily tarnish the experience of other polygamists or fundamentalists. (And I’d even go so far as to suggest that it needn’t tarnish the experience of some women within Jessop’s group… luck (i.e. “assigned” to the right guy) and personal disposition may make some members experience in the Jessop-run FLDS an absolute picnic.)

    But for some people — i.e. women who value, oh, free agency, for one thing — Carolyn’s story is likely a horrific truth.

    I don’t know, maybe we should question the “apostate narratives” of the four people who survived the Jonestown massacre?

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Matt, that was my perspective as well.

  20. Re: Carolyn Jessop’s credibility:

    Keep in mind that during the height of the raids in April, Jessop accused FLDS leaders of waterboarding babies. Not only does nothing in the “public record” confirm such ridiculous accusations, but Jessop oddly ommitted this most damning point from her book as well as any previous discussions of her life as a FLDS. The problem with the “public record” is that much of it has been created based on the reports of individuals like Carolyn and Flora Jessop.

    Matt Thurston,

    What reasons do you have for equating Jonestown with FLDS? Your argument rests on the assumption that all “tightly-controlled cults” are the exact same, which seems rather irresponsible to claim. Similarities between Jonestown and the FLDS are superficial at best. And similarities between surivors of the Guyana massacre and Carolyn Jessop are even more so.

  21. P.S. None of which is to say I haven’t appreciated your summary of the book, Kevin. It’s been informative and interesting. I just tend to distrust the author more than you.

  22. Matt Thurston says:

    Christopher (#20), my comparison of the Jessop-run FLDS and Jonestown was somewhat hyperbolic… and yet, before the mass suicide at Jonestown, were the too communities really that different?

    I did not say that all “tightly-controlled cults” (my words) are the “exact same” (your words), but they are very similar in their broad strokes. Wouldn’t you agree? That among other things, there is strict informational, behavioral, thought, and emotional control? Look up any number of “characteristics of cults” websites — for example: — and the common practices are the same.

    Comparing Jessop’s FLDS and Jim Jones’s Jonestown:

    – charasmatic leader, not accountable to any authorities
    – removal to remote location
    – building up a compound
    – questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished
    – control over sex lives, dress, diet, etc.
    – members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.. i.e. isolation, separation & alienation
    – the cult’s knowledge or purpose is presented as the sole source of easy answers to complex life problems; no access to outside information

    Another comparison is that a good number, maybe even a majority of members, are very happy/content (even ecstatic) being members of the elite group.

    That said, the end result of Jonestown was indeed tragic, and I’m not suggesting the same could/would happen with the FLDS. But such a tragic end is the exception, not the rule. Otherwise, I don’t see how these similarities are only “superficial at best”?

  23. Matt Thurston says:

    “two,” not “too”

  24. Matt, thanks for the list, but it’s pretty problematic. Reductionist is a good word to describe it. All of the elements you list could easily be applied haphazardly to 19th century Mormonism (and in some cases, to 20th and 21st).

    Most LDS would likely be very upset if you applied that list to our institution, insisting on a lot more context, nuance, and balance. I suspect that adherents of the FLDS expect the same.

    Sorry, but appeals to “common sense” just aren’t very convincing. Common sense also tells a lot of people that mainstream Mormons still practice polygamy and hate blacks.

  25. Matt Thurston says:

    Well, I may have stepped into a hornets nest with my Jonestown comments. Nevertheless, I haven’t seen anything that would change my opinion that the Jessop-run FLDS, like the Peoples Temple (Jonestown), bears all of the hallmarks of a classic cult.

    Clearly, with such a loaded label, nuance and context (as David in #24 points out) is everything.

    (However, whether or not the adherents would be upset with such a characterization is really not important.)

    So yes, it would be haphazard and reductionist to compare the characteristics of cults “to 19th century Mormonism (and in some cases, to 20th and 21st),” or any mainstream/open religion, exactly because such a characterization lacks appropriate nuance and context.

    Isn’t the key nuance/context variable here the degree of control or freedom in the community? And isn’t it beyond reproach that the degree of control exercized by the Jessop-FLDS leaders, and the lack of freedom of available to the members, surpasses any normal/rational standard?

    If young boys can be dropped off on the side of the road, forever separated from their families; if girls are assigned to husbands at an early age regardless of their wishes or readiness, or re-assigned to new husbands because of some infraction; does this not qualify as extreme control (or lack of freedom)? Are there not dozens of other examples? Or are we saying these kinds of things just aren’t happening, that they are merely the deranged and exaggerated rantings of a few apostates?

    I’ve taken pains to not paint all Fundamentalists or Polygamists with the same “cult” brush, both explicitly in my comment #18, and afterwards by always referring to the “Jessup-run FLDS”, not to the FLDS or Polygamists.

    But don’t most sister Mormon Fundamentalist groups, and/or Polygamist groups, also decry and deplore the extreme control and lack of liberty found at the Jessop-run FLDS group?

    So someone, please, if I am not seeing something, what level of context or balance am I missing?

  26. The issue of Carolyn Jessop’s credibility never surfaced for me until the statement referenced by Christopher – the waterborading of babies accusation, when nothing of the sort had been included in her account, or anyone else’s of which I am aware. I still believe the general outline of what she has claimed has merit and is not “made up”, but the waterborading accusation made me step back a bit and wonder if there were other hyperbolic claims in her previous statements.

    I have said all along that I am appalled by what I believe happens in the FLDS; that doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t remain a bit skeptical of this woman’s claims that seem unique and hyperbolic.

  27. Has anyone heard of Doris Hanson and “Shield and Refuge Ministries?”

    I heard a passing reference to them and wondered if anyone else had any experience with them or knew the type of work they do.

  28. FWIW (very little), with Carolyn I get the feeling that her story is basically credible, but that in the excitement of the raids, she has gone off the rails into a Flora-esque type of hyperbole. It has been disturbing, after her harrowing tale of rescuing her own children, to see her cheerleading as babies are ripped from their mothers’ arms and put into foster care. I think in her zeal to get out the “truth” about the FLDS leaders, it has somehow become acceptable to deny the basic civil rights of anyone with a different opinion.

  29. snow white says:

    Did anyone read the People article about the polygamist ladies who came to show support for the FLDS? I saw it in a doctor’s office, so I’m not sure what week it was for, but it had a sidebar about the “FLDS look”, which included something about the FLDS, unlike the LDS wearing “nighties” even for sex. I’m assuming they meant the long garment, but I thought calling it a “nighty” was weird.

  30. snow white says:

    But yes, Matt I agree that the FLDS had recently crossed a line (maybe since Jeffs took over) into cult territory. In general I think the groups seem kind of like polygamist Amish. They are exclusionistic and perhaps a little extreme, but their lifestyle isn’t harmful per se. However, I think recently they were trending toward more repressive behaviors that harmed their community (as well as neighboring communities forced to support their rejects) and that were not sustainable.

  31. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, they meant the long garment. According to Carolyn, she and her husband only saw each other naked a few times even though they had eight children together. With one exception (when they were in Hawaii) they always wore the long garment, even during sex. Ugghh.

  32. With all the lies that have been spread about the FLDS how can you trust her book? Sarah, kidnapping, physical abuse, murdering children, burning bodies in an incinerator, sex in the temple, weapons of mass destruction on the ranch. How many of these turned out to be true? Exactly zero.

    Right now, people persecuting the FLDS church have exactly no credibility. I will believe them when corroborating evidence appears — not just accusations and rumor. Can she actually corroborate any single detail in here book? Give me proof, and I will believe. Otherwise, I see it as more people making money off sensationalism and rumor.

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    Karateka, there wasn’t anything about murdering children, burning bodies in an incinerator, sex in the temple or weapons of mass destruction in the book. Are these claims that Carolyn has made? (I don’t think I’ve seen her at all outside the context of the book, so I honestly don’t know.)

  34. Kevin, those were claims that were made (not necessarily by Carolyn) early in the raid on the ranch by anti-FLDS activists.

  35. snow white says:

    Ok you have to laugh at the idea of the FLDS holding Weapons of Mass Destruction.

  36. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, snow white, I thought that one was pretty funny myself.

  37. “Ripped from their mother’s arms”? Hyperbole obviously isn’t a one-way street.