Sunday, April 12, 2009

Books About Polygamist Cults by Former Members

Escape by Carolyn Jessop: I was born into a radical polygamist cult. At eighteen, I became the fourth wife of a fifty-year-old man. I had eight children in fifteen years. When our leader began to preach the apocalypse, I knew I had to get out.
Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall: My story of growing up in a polygamous sect, becoming a teenage bride and breaking free of Warren Jeffs.

Recently, I picked these two gems up at the library. I'm a big fan of reading similarly-themed books in pairs and the theme of "books about polygamist cults written by their former members" seemed like a good one to delve into. While on a road trip with my family through the whole of Utah a few years back, I read Jon Krakauer's excellent book "Under the Banner of Heaven." That book tackles the shared history of the modern Mormon church and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the latter of which is a polygamist cult that practices its own branch of Mormonism in southern Utah, Texas, Canada and in tiny communities scattered around these places.

Krakauer's book was interesting and disturbing. That book, combined with the Lifetime movie "In God's Country" about a woman's escape from the FLDS, and a business trip to Salt Lake City this summer all combined to stoke my interest in learning more about life under the mantle of FLDS membership. Fortunately for me, two books have come out within the past few years on this very subject.

"Escape" by Carolyn Jessop focuses on the life of a woman born into an FLDS family, who lives her entire life within the church as a true believer in its doctrine. When at eighteen she is forced to marry a 68-year-old community leader, she becomes the fourth wife in a polygamous family. Jessop describes the pains of sharing a husband she does not want with other "sister wives" and trying to raise her children well in a home where they are not loved or valued. How could they be, when there are dozens of others living under the same roof? Merrill Jessop, Carolyn's husband, would go on to marry many other women and had fathered well over 1o0 children by the publication of Carolyn's book.

Carolyn undergoes some abuse, both emotional and physical, at the hands of her husband Merrill, and also from her "sister wives." It is the abuse her children face from their "other mothers" as well as their older siblings that finally forces Carolyn to run away one night with all eight of her children. She later managed to secure full custody rights, and was the first FLDS woman to escape with her children and to retain them. The book concludes by talking about the family's ongoing struggle to reconcile their upbringing and worldview with the outside world of suburban Utah. It also touches on the changes in the church that occurred after the death of the last prophet, Rulon Jeffs, brought on by his son Warren. A cult of personality developed around Warren who preached that families must forsake any member that was unworthy (in other words, any member that Warren kicked out of the church), and who talked constantly of the coming apocalypse.

"Stolen Innocence" by Elissa Wall is also written by a woman who escapes the FLDS but her point of view differs from Jessop's as Wall is 18 when she escapes and a larger portion of the book is devoted to her highly publicized court case in which Warren Jeffs was found guilty of accomplice to rape of a minor. Shortly after her fourteenth birthday, Elissa, who grew up in a polygamous household within the church, is told she is to marry a local man several years older, already an adult. Her tumultuous marriage begins with her rape at age fourteen by her "husband." Their bond is not legalized because Elissa is not of age. Elissa does not like the man she has been placed with, who grows frustrated at her unwillingness and rapes her continuously for the next four years, sometimes violently. Elissa suffers three miscarriages and a stillbirth by the age of eighteen, when she runs away and is convinced by authorities to testify against Warren Jeffs, the FLDS prophet who arranged and performed her marriage and who threatens Elissa when she tries to get out of it.

Elissa is somewhat vindicated when Warren is convicted and sent to prison, where he remains.

Each of these books dealt with different but horrifying traditions practiced by the FLDS cult: plural marriage and the marriage and rape of young girls. Good reads both, although Carolyn's was quicker and more exciting while Elissa's was more detailed.


Amanda said...

Recently, I found out one of the members of my book club (a local one, not online) had been raised in a polygamous sect. She's in her late 40s or early 50s now, and I'm not sure when she left the sect, but it was interesting to hear some of her insights based on what she experienced.

Jim said...

I mean we could sit here and bash polygamists all we want... But really, doesn't the system have its own built in punishment? I mean, two wives!?


Christopher said...


Meagan said...

another weird thing: because these two women were both in the FLDS, a lot of characters in the books kinda overlap. weird.

Laila said...

I've read Escape & its a fantastic reaqd! It flowed really well & was informative yet intresting.

the Watchdog of Dating said...

I have this filipino friend who had been telling me about this book, since, I am a reading-addict I had to get one!

Elissa Wall's courage in the face of incredible opposition is astounding. The book is written in a very straight forward style. Wall holds nothing back. I found myself rooting for her and hating Warren Jeffs so deeply that I had to google him after I finished the last page.

Brent Waggoner said...

The prior comment would be much more appreciated without the advertising. Thanks.

Fayelee_Darkclaw said...

i read escape i couldnt put it down amazing story i want to go get it so i can read it again