Friday, July 13, 2012


Escape, by Carolyn Jessop

Since a young age, probably middle school, I have been fascinated by religions- more specifically sects and cults. For a while I fancied that I would become "The Expert" on this topic and I would sit in a university office (with a window view including lots of ivy) and wait for the media and police to call me needing information on the newest group of fanatical worshippers. Yes, I was a bit odd. At about the same time I became intrigued by communes and communal living. Thus, learning of polygamy, it was the perfect marriage of cults and communal living- pun intended. The FLDS is, of course, the foremost image of this lifestyle. So, when I come across novels of women who have escaped such arrangements, I am interested to read their insights and life stories.

Carolyn Jessop writes of her childhood growing up in a plural-family home in Colorado City. At nineteen, she became the fourth wife of Merril Jessop, a prominent leader in the FLDS community. She had eight children, one of the youngest born with severe medical issues for which she was forbidden to seek help since it was believed the baby's health issues were a result of his mother's disobedience to her priesthood (husband) and not medical problems. A rarity in this lifestyle, she earned a teaching degree and spent many years of her marriage working outside the home, although the money was not hers to spend and this "privilege" did not decrease her duties at home.

The strength in her writing is in the way she describes her relationships with the people in her life. There are so many conflicts for survival in this situation that rob her of basic freedoms and dignity- in her childhood home, school, marriage, and with her sister-wives (including those that continue to be added to her family). It is the twisted struggle for power between the many wives that is the most fascinating. Also, there are the power exchanges between the wives and Merrill's favored older daughters (many close to Carolynn's age), who would antagonize or tattle on wives to gain their father's favor. Most gut-wrenching is Carolynn's eldest daughter, Betty, who- through Merrill's influence- manipulated her family following the escape, as she was biding time to turn eighteen and return to the community.

Carolynn's final years in the FDLS were during the ascension of Warren Jeffs to power. A community in which abuse- physical, psychological, and sexual- were hidden issues reached fanatical extremes, from the color red being banned to girls being married as young as twelve years old, while hundreds of young boys were forced to leave Colorado City and survive on their own in a world they never experienced, or face being atoned for their proposed sin by bloodletting.

Here's the thing with me...
I don't understand how polygamy can be any more illegal that gay marriages. How can the government exert the right to define who we are allowed to marry? As long as it is consensual (which would be a lot easier to monitor if legal), then it is a personal choice. Yet it seems that the media and the law enforcement are more focused on THAT law being broken than on investigating the extensive abuse in such communities. Yes, I am sure there are loving marriages and happy families in those very same communities. However, I am also sure that society as a whole is too overly sensitive to offending someone's religious beliefs, too afraid of another Waco or Holy War on American soil, to get in there and address these problems.

Here's the other thing...
Within this religion, within many religions that are considered "fanatical" or "extreme," there are always central core beliefs that do not differ greatly from mainstream Christianity. Religions like to draw lines- What we believe vs. What they believe. I don't think the differences are as vast as most people are comfortable believing. I think the chasm is created when the focus of power goes from a god to a man... and I think that is possibly in many more churches than society would like to believe.

(I cannot allow myself to overlook adding a footnote here that there are as many branches and belief systems in the Mormon religion as in Baptist and any other belief. Educate yourself if you care to understand the differences. Don't assume your friendly Mormon neighbor is hiding her sister wives in a house across town.)

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