"ESCAPE" BY CAROLYN JESSOP WITH LAURA PALMER
•The sect practices polygamy in marriages between underage girls, young women and much older men.
•Women without children have no power or status.
•A woman is supposed to be in complete harmony with her husband.
•Working wives hand over their entire salary to their husbands.
•Refusing to have sex with one's husband is committing adultery.
•A woman's value in marriage is assigned.
These are just a few of the numerous doctrines practiced by the Fundamentalist of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint (FLDS) polygamist sect. The religious compound is located in Colorado City on the Arizona strip where the El Capitan Peak, the eighth highest peak in Texas, not only guards three cliffs, but shields the activities of this male-dominated community.
"Escape" by Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer begins with a daring escape, but the outcome is not revealed until pages later. The suspense does little to curtail the knot forming in my stomach. I'm overly anxious as Carolyn shares an overwhelming, first-person account of her oppressive life within the FLDS community.
Born into the FLDS, Carolyn Jessop is one of several women who trades her freedom for security. Abused as a child, she never feels secure, especially not in the care of her volatile mother.
Marriage in the FLDS is a divine revelation. The prophet receives the news and then tells the couple. And in keeping with tradition, she is forced to marry Merril Jessop, who soon becomes one of the most exalted men in the polygamist community. Carolyn is 18; Merril is 50. They enter into an arranged marriage that is actually part of a business deal between Merril and her father.
Her illegal and plural marriage with Merril consists of six other wives: Barbara, Faunita, Ruth, Tammy, Cathleen and Lorraine. Polygamist wives have no say in whom they marry and divorce is out of the question.
"Understand that we were taught to believe we were better than everyone else in the entire world because of our beliefs." Carolyn explains. "Since I had been selected to come to such a royal bloodline, my grandmother told me that I had the chance to become a goddess if I lived polygamy and proved worthy. It was our own version of the Cinderella story. Just having the opportunity to live in a plural marriage was sold to me as a special blessing that few would ever have."
Carolyn refers to her experiences with the FLDS as “ugly realities.” Little did she know how ugly it would get. She struggles to survive and protect her children in the ruthless world of Merril Jessop and extremist Warren Jeffs. She often witnesses the mistreatment of sister wives and their children. Heart-wrenching accounts of similar abuses are shared among the wives at their secret “coffee parties.” Freedom is limited in this religious cult defined by betrayal and conspiracy.
Carolyn lives in a house with six wives and 46 children; and it is in constant chaos. Physical and verbal confrontations are common among the children, wives and Merril. Barbara is the favored wife and she complains and obsesses about the others. She demands and receives constant attention from Merril, and who according to Carolyn, seems to enjoy this kind of attention, including the times they would fight over who would have sex with him.
“One of the reasons Merril tried to keep us all pregnant was that it created the illusion that he was having a relationship with each of us. But that was a myth,” Carolyn reveals.
And finally, Carolyn begins to question her religion, her sanity and her relationship with Merril and the other wives. But what drives her to escape is an overwhelming fear for the safety of her eight children. Interference is not allowed from other families, so she is on her own. Ironicially, it is the help of kind strangers that encourages her to break a cycle of fear.
Why write a book about polygamy? Why share so many personal details? These are popular questions; and after reading Carolyn's story, the answers are obvious. She wants to give oppressed and emotionally scarred women hope. And what better way to prove that a better life is possible than by sharing her personal victory with others.
"Escape" threatens to destroy my strong conviction in not passing judgment on any religion, including the FLDS polygamist sect. But as an outsider, it's tempting.
•The Short Creek Raid on July 26, 1953, happened in Short Creek, Arizona, when the Arizona state police and the U.S. National Guard took action against Mormon fundamentalists by arresting polygamists, both men and women. The entire community was taken into custody, including 236 children.
•The Texas Raid occurred on April 3, 2008. A raid by armored police was conducted on a polygamist compound of the FLDS in Eldorado, Texas. The number of children removed reached a total of 416. It was presumably prompted by a phone call from a troubled, 16-year-old girl.
FIRST-PERSON ACCOUNT OF A POLYGAMIST
Carolyn Jessop, Laura Palmer
Listen to an excerpt from Escape
MORE POLYGAMIST TITLES WORTH TALKING ABOUT
When Men Become Gods
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Authors: Elissa Wall, Lisa Pulitzer
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication Date: May 2008
Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife
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"The Week's Most Talked About Book" is a weekly book review and literary criticism column that publishes every Friday. Selected titles are based on popularity, public opinion, research and observation. Questions, comments and suggestions should be sent to book lover and columnist Karla Mass at email@example.com. She is a content producer for McClatchy Interactive.