Carolyn Jessop was 35 when she made her escape.
She was fleeing both her home in Colorado City, Arizona, and the polygamous sect in which she had grown up, the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints.
At the age of 18, Jessop had been assigned in marriage to a 50-year-old man. She was, at the time, his fourth wife.
‘The Choice was Freedom or Fear’ — at least, this is the title of Jessop’s Preface. In reality, her decision to leave the FLDS was far from clear-cut. Indeed, what makes this incredible memoir so compelling is that it reveals the workings of a brainwashed mind.
As a child, Jessop played ‘Apocalypse’ rather than hide-and-seek. The end of the world was to be welcomed, and all those outside the sect feared.
What’s more, as the descendant of ‘a faithful bloodline’ Jessop was FLDS ‘royalty’: ‘I felt like the luckiest little girl to be one of God’s elite.’ The reality of her early years, however, was unenviable. Realising that her volatile, depressive mother hit her hardest in the afternoons, she would ensure that she was naughtiest at the start of the day. She never told her father about the beatings because they were ‘an accepted part of our culture’.
This phrase recurs throughout Jessop’s account, the matter-of-fact tone a measure of her conditioning.
Abuse in the classroom was also the norm for children of the FLDS, but Jessop realised early the importance of education (thanks in part to her father’s second wife).
Following her own marriage, Jessop went to live with her husband, Merril, his youngest children and his three wives. In doing so, she surrendered her privacy, control of her finances clutches and, effectively, her will. Merril soon married twice more. By then, he had 34 children, all of whom accompanied their seven parents on a mass honeymoon, travelling 500 miles to San Diego by coach.
Jessop acknowledges that her situation was often surreal. Her husband’s second wife was seriously unstable — ‘In the FLDS culture, people believe that the mentally ill have invited evil spirits into themselves’ — and would water her shoes.
Long underwear was worn at all times, even during sex. On a trip to Hawaii, Jessop could not shed even one of her three pairs of socks. But the farcical aspects of her existence pale when compared with the grimmer truths of her married life.
In their appallingly crowded polygamous household, a form of domestic Darwinism took effect. Wives vied for their husband’s favour, the more successful treating the others as slaves.
Jessop’s worth, she quickly realised, was determined by her ability to please her husband sexually — and provide him with heirs.
Eleven months after her marriage, Jessop fell pregnant with her first child. Birth was strictly regulated by the FLDS: wives were expected to attend each other’s labours, to remain silent while they gave birth, and of a to abstain from any form of pain relief. Moreover, Jessop’s morning sickness, severe and lasting, was regarded as divine punishment by her ‘sister wives’.
As Jessop’s pregnancies continued, the FLDS became more radical. With the ascendancy of a new leader, Warren Jeffs, the age of brides began to fall. Jeffs, a racist homophobe, outlawed medical treatment (along with talk of fun and the colour red).
It was reported that, after giving birth, one of Jeff’s wives received dental floss stitches.
When Jessop’s seventh child was born with cancer (a consequence of Jessop’s sin, in his father’s eyes), it strengthened her growing resolve to flee. But when Jessop finally escaped with all eight of her children in April 2003, it was testament to her cunning as much as her cult courage. The local police force were members of the FLDS: if they caught her (or if her husband reported her), she would probably be returned.
For days before, she had to hoard her sick son’s medication.
The gamble that she took in leaving behind his oxygen machine must have been agonising in the extreme.
Although Jessop succeeded in breaking free from the control of the cult, her children remained mentally in its grip for some time. Jeffs, meanwhile, was added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list in May 2006. In 2007, he was convicted of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14- year-old girl. Ironically, Jeffs was driving a red car when he was apprehended — the colour he had banned from the cult.