Flora Jessop was born into the Fundamental Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of the Mormon Church that claims to still follow the teachings of church founder Joseph Smith and who refused to abandon the practice of polygamy when it was renounced by the church in 1890.
Fortunately, she said, her grandmother was not.
Jessop is one of few women of the sect who have successfully escaped, making her break about 18 years ago after the death of her beloved grandmother and earlier failed attempts. The picture she paints of her life with the FLDS, and the fear she still feels paint a horrible picture of religion gone awry.
Her grandmother, her best friend, was one of few outsiders to have married into the church, she said, and it was her “outside” views, Flora said, that made her question the “perfect obedience” doctrine she was raised under.
“My grandmother stood up for me when I was 10-years-old and she died for doing it,” Flora said. “She stepped in to try to stop the abuse. I was lucky, she taught me that I had worth. She died to protect me.”
According to Jessop, her grandmother, who was on dialysis, died a short time later, leaving her truly alone. She’s convinced her grandmother was killed by the church for her disobedience to “God’s will.”
“She was on dialysis, and when she died there was so much salt in her system that her heart crystallized,” Flora said. “I was taunted that had I just submitted to the will of God, she’d still be alive.”
At age 13, Flora took the unheard of step of filing a lawsuit against one of the men who allegedly abused her, and sought protection from the state of Utah. Instead of getting help, a judge dismissed the case and ordered that she be returned to Colorado City, Utah, and her family.
“When I got back to Colorado City, they built a wall at the end of a hall and kept me a prisoner in solitary confinement for three years,” she said. “They beat me daily, trying to purge Satan from me, telling me every day that I was consigned to hell and that I’d killed my grandmother.”
After her confinement, she was held a virtual prisoner in her uncles home. But the watchful eye of the church, she said, grew more lax, and now 18, she fled again.
This time she avoided the authorities, living on the street and hiding from her pursuers.
“You leave because it’s reached a point you don’t believe hell could be any worse than the heaven they promise,” Flora said. “Girls just don’t leave, and you leave knowing that if you’re caught and returned, you’ll pay a price worse than death.”
She stayed on the streets, in hiding, for five years. In time, she began to develop friends among the people she’d been raised to believe were minions of Satan, and eventually she married. She, her husband and their two daughters now live in Phoenix, and Flora has devoted her life to doing what she can to help others like her who want to flee the oppressive dictates of a church that she said owns the very lives of each of its adherents.
In the past four years, she said, her organizations, Help the Child Brides and the Child Protection Program, has helped 85 to 90 church members, and she personally has rescued nine people.
It’s hard to imagine how a religion can come to exert such strength, but even though she said we’d just scratched the surface, her explanation provides a rare glimpse into the daily lives of those who follow its dictates.
“People don’t understand, you’re born into this,” she said. “You have no newspaper, no television, no books. Everything you see, eat, hear or learn is dictated from the pulpit; you’re never given the chance to develop decision-making abilities. To you, this is normal; it’s what everybody’s life is like.”
From birth, she said, children are indoctrinated in the principal of “perfect obedience,” not only to God, but to the “prophet,” and their elders. Infants are trained not to cry, she said, by slapping their faces or holding their heads under water. By the age of six months, she said, their only means of communicating their hurt, their fear, is suppressed, and as they grow the learn to keep all other emotions in check as well.
“You’re not allowed to show love, you’re not allowed to have friends outside your family,” she said. “The emotions and feelings don’t change or go away, you just learn to hide them. If you come to question the oppression as I did, you’re labeled insane or possessed, and you’ve failed as a human being and consigned your life to hell. What chance do you have?”
Those who do make it out, Flora said, are most often unable to cope, have no where to go and no one to help them. Her own experience is reflected in what others who escape face.
“I’m not here to help victims,” she said. “I don’t have the time or the energy. I’m here to help survivors, because it’s a long and difficult road to erase the dogma they’ve lived with all their lives and learn to see that there is life outside the FLDS.”
Her experiences have shown her that the path to a normal life takes, on average, five years. And there’s little to no other help available to those who want to escape the oppression.
“The women who come out cry every day for three to five years,” Flora said. “If you ask them why, they can’t tell you. But these women, raised from birth to give up everything earthly, even their emotions, leave with absolutely nothing except sometimes their children. They enter a world that’s foreign to them with little education, no social skills, no one to help them.”
Many of those who have escaped, young men and women both, some 15 to 18 years old, are tested in public schools and most show around a second grade educational level. And rather than provide the tutoring they need to catch up, she said, the state decrees that they have to enter into the classroom at their age level, regardless of their educational level.
“These kids are thrown into school as sophomores, juniors or seniors, yet they can barely read or write,” Jessop said. “They know nothing about making friends or fitting in with people they’ve been taught to shun all their lives. Very few are able to cope.”
Education in church-run FLDS schools, she said, is a sham.
“Their educational aspect is that girls don’t need an education because they’re going to be wives, and boys don’t need an education because they’re going to be stakeholders, labor in the churche’s corporations,” she said. “They see no need for anything beyond a basic ability to read and write. In the kids coming out, we see no short-term memory abilities. They’ve been taught by rote and they never developed the critical thinking skills they need. For them, making a decision is almost impossible.”
By the time the young women begin to question their lives, they have become “celestial brides” and have several children they have to protect, making it exceedingly difficult for them to leave.
And what they face as celestial brides, “wives” given by the “prophet” to faithful adherents who may have ten or more, is bleak.
“I don’t care how you look at it,” Flora said, “it’s not marriage when a child is forced into it.”
There is no question, she said, that young women, some just 13-years-old, are shuttled between the communities to fulfill their role as wives, taken from their parents and given to older men they’ve never even met, joining in households with several other “wives” who rule over them ruthlessly. Those communities are widespread, from Mexico to Bountiful, British Columbia, and little is done to stop the human trade.
“We’ve submitted hundreds of names of these young girls who are shuttled between the community for sexual slavery to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” she said. “While there is sexual abuse, most of the domestic violence comes at the hands of the women. Think of any woman you know, any one. Imagine that her husband comes home and tells her to build a room next door for her mother, her daughter, for a complete stranger, who’s coming into the house to make love to your husband in a room you just built. It’s difficult to contemplate, and the women who are faced with it don’t cope with it well. There are beatings, they prey on each other’s children and on each other. It’s a vicious cycle; the most competitive, humiliating process you can go through.”
While milder than it is in Utah, she said the situation she describes is the same in Bountiful; it’s the same regardless of where the church settles its communities.
“The situation is the same in Bountiful,” she said. “It’s just in a milder manner.”
And trying to turn to the communities they’re raised in isn’t an option, Flora said. In the town she was born in, Colorado City, Utah, everything; the streets, the lights, the homes, the land, was owned by the church. The mayor, the police chief, the city council, were all ranking members in church leadership.
“If you complain, it shows them that the principals of perfect obedience hadn’t sunk in, so it is the victim, not the perpetrator, who is punished,” she said.
One of the first things Flora did after she’d freed herself from the bonds of the church and began looking for ways to help others who shared her plight was to seek out experts from around the nation who may know what could be done to ease their transition back into mainstream society. She found no one, she said, who had the slightest clue.
“I asked them what to expect when these kids hit the street, and no one could tell, no one at all knew what might happen when second or third generation kids exit,” she said.
What she’s learned in her years of helping, she’s learned on her own, and she’s found similarities to the situation faced by members of other religious cults who escape, but the fact that these kids have had a lifetime of church brainwashing and know of no other way of life makes them unique.
“What you see when someone is freed from a cult is that they typically regress, emotionally and mentally, back to the time they were taken into the cult,” Flora said. “What we’re seeing with the FLDS kids is that nearly all of them regress back to about the age of seven or eight. Mentally and emotionally, they become children. When I got out, I went through it, though I didn’t understand what was happening.”
The reason for the conformity of regression, she believes, is that the church teaches that age eight is the “age of accountability,” the time when they are baptized and start school, the time their sins are judged and they are held accountable for everything they do.
“The programming starts at age eight,” she said. “Before that, the kids are pretty free.”
The reason she succeeded in escaping the bonds of the church, she said, is that she had an angel on her shoulder.
“When I came out, God put an angel, my grandmother, on my shoulder to show me the way,” she said. “I came out with a profound hatred of God, and it took me ten years to see that it wasn’t God, it was the church. I lived on the street for five years, they were after me for five years. You live all those years with the fear and guilt they instill in you, and you actually damn yourself to hell because you believe you’ve failed your God and your church. It brings severe depression, and ridding yourself of it takes a lot of tears, a lot of pain. And in the end, the only thing that can help you is time, there’s no one who can take that burden from you. There is no easy way. You wish you could save these people yourself, but it doesn’t work that way. All you can do is hold their hand and be there.”
While media attention on the church has intensified since former “prophet” Rulon Jeffs died and was replaced by his son, Warren, Flora said the rift that’s developed is nothing new.
“What’s interesting is that every time there has been an internal division at the death of a prophet,” she said. “This isn’t so much because Warren Jeffs took over as it is because Rulon died. When you have men who believe they are God or will become God, they will do everything necessary to get that power. They can’t pull their heads out of their butts and see what it’s doing to the children, and if they could, they wouldn’t care.”
And it’s unlikely, she believes, that federal, state or local governments will take any decisive action, though the crimes she alleges are being committed are serious and wide-spread.
‘”The FLDS has its own law enforcement, and their prime rule is that members “keep sweet,’ that is, not talk to outsiders or spill secrets,” she said. “Anyone who does must be crazy. It’s all about politics, money and a very careful cultivation of their image.”
She’s concerned, she said, not only for the child brides, but for the boys as well, most of them excommunicated from their church and shunned by their families not because of transgressions or sins, but to preserve the young women for the older men who have proven faithful in the “prophet’s” eyes.
“There are over 400 boys on the street with no education, no skills, nothing,” she said. “This is another nightmare coming on, people just don’t see it yet.”
When asked if there is a solution, her answer is simple, “let us do it.”
“A little bit of help goes a long way,” she said. “What these kids need is education, counseling, a chance to transition between what they left behind and where they’re going. The problem is immense.”
Her ideal, she said, is to locate a facility, an old hotel would do, where the women and their children who leave have a place to live. While she’d like to provide housing for five years, she believes two years is more realistic.
“Put them in classes, give them an education, get them counseling,” Flora said. “Give them time to learn and cope. The hardest thing we see when these kids are thrown in public school is that they have no concept of making a friend, they’ve never had one. There is nothing normal about the way these children are raised.”
She credits the “outsiders” who stood beside her when she had “nothing but hate and rage.”
“I really have to admire those who helped me, who stood beside me,” she said. “I made some very dear friends.”
Even though her life has gained a semblance of what most Americans consider normal, her fear of the FLDS is unabated.
“I’m the one they’d love to kill,” she said matter-of-factly. “But it’s not me they’d come after, they’d come after my daughters. They are cowards and bullies, and they won’t come on my turf because they don’t know it. They’d take my daughters to lure me to their turf, and I would go, even though I know we’d never be seen again.”
Despite her fear, she continues to be a thorn in the side of the FLDS.
“This story isn’t mine any more,” she said. “My role now is to help others.”