In the middle of the night, Carolyn Jessop packed up her children and fled a marriage to a man 32 years older than she was.
There was just one problem.
“I had nowhere to go,” she said Tuesday.
She drove from the Fundamentalist LDS border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., headed for Salt Lake City.
“I just felt like, worst-case situation, I’ll start knocking on doors until I found a total stranger who would take me and my eight children,” Jessop said.
She had left behind the only life she knew — as Merrill Jessop’s fourth wife — headed for an unknown future outside of the cloistered FLDS Church.
“It was pretty scary,” she said of her situation.
Now, Jessop is telling her story in a book that is garnering her an award — before it even hits store shelves. The ex-polygamous wife will be honored today by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce’s Women’s Business Center as a “Renaissance Woman.” Her story will be celebrated at a high tea honoring some of the state’s top businesswomen.
“She’s such a sweet, dear person, and obviously so strong,” said Nancy Mitchell, the executive director of the Women’s Business Center. “When you look at her, you can’t imagine the strength she has.”
Jessop’s book, “Escape,” is a memoir of her life inside and outside of the FLDS Church. At age 18, she married Jessop — then 54 — and over the course of 15 years bore him eight children. She feared her husband.
When FLDS leader Warren Jeffs took power, Jessop said she knew it was time to get out of the church.
“It changed 100 percent in a different direction from what I’d been born into,” she said. “When Warren came in, he threw it all out the window.”
Jessop remembers the day that she left — April 21, 2003. She waited for her husband to leave on business. Her son was finally home from work, and she packed them all up and drove to Salt Lake City.
“He had people in the city looking for me before I got here,” Jessop said of her husband.
Ex-FLDS member Dan Fischer, who has sheltered numerous other people kicked out of the polygamous sect, harbored her. She got a protective order and spent the next year battling her husband for custody of their eight children.
Because one of her children is disabled, Jessop was unable to work. Once, a group of schoolteachers paid her utility bills. She went on public assistance briefly.
“Every month, I didn’t know how I was going to pay the bills,” she said.
It was Jessop who told the Utah Attorney General’s Office about the dilemmas facing her and other women leaving polygamy. It led to the creation of the “Safety Net,” a program to help those leaving abuse and neglect in closed societies.
“Carolyn is a heroine,” said Paul Murphy, the coordinator of the Safety Net program. “She came from an abusive situation, but she still cares about the people left behind. She paved the way in explaining to us how the government needed to understand the culture before we could extend a hand to help.”
Jessop said the Safety Net is good but more can be done.
“When you leave this closed community, it’s like landing on another planet,” she said. “You have virtually no to limited skills of how to function in this world.”
Since she left four years ago, Jessop said she has had no contact with her ex-husband. Merrill Jessop is now over the FLDS Church’s enclave in Eldorado, Texas. She said that, with the help of therapy, she was able to move beyond the hurt and anger she felt after leaving.
“I don’t want to waste the valuable years ahead feeling bad about the past,” she said.
Warren Jeffs is scheduled to go on trial next month on charges of rape as an accomplice. He is accused of performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. Jeffs elicits some level of empathy from Jessop.
“Warren is a symptom of the problem,” she said. “This society created him, and it created more men like him.”
Jessop said she hopes her book will enlighten people about life in polygamy. It is scheduled to be released Oct. 15. When she is able, she said she will go on a book tour to promote “Escape.” Next year, she is scheduled to travel to Europe — her first time overseas.
“It will enlighten society about the truth,” she said. “The fundamental truth, about polygamy. About what life is like for children and women in society.”
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