Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book Note: Escape by Carolyn Jessop

I have never posted on a non-academic book, but I just finished reading Carolyn Jessop's book, Escape, and I am so traumatized by it that I have to say a few words about it.

The book is not an outstanding literary work. What makes it "good" is the story that it tells and its relationship with everything that has now been going on in Texas with the Zion Ranch. The word "good" is relative. What the book really is is harrowing. I know no other word to describe it, other than perhaps "unbelievable." Immediately in the first chapter I felt like I had entered a surreal realm. But knowing now what I do about Warren Jeffs and the Zion Ranch because of some research that I have done in the aftermath of the Texas CPS case, this book brought me face to face with the reality of a living horror.

Carolyn Jessop was the fourth wife of Merrill Jessop who eventually moved to the Zion Ranch with a dozen wives and his children with these wives. Carolyn is the first women to escape the FLDS with all of her children and actually get custody. She fled just as Warren Jeffs became the prophet and the Zion Ranch was set up. So she never lived there. But her ex-husband Merrill, according to the press reports I have been able to find, is thought to be the head of the Zion Ranch compound.

Carolyn's book tells her whole story, from the time she was a child, to her marriage to Merrill, her years in the polygamous relationship, the births of each of her eight children, and how she fled in a van almost out of gas. She was only saved because she was able to secure overnight a protective order against Merrill, who went after her and the children to discipline and force them back into his home and obedience to him their "priest head." Women in this tradition are taught to be completely obedient to their husband who is the one who gets to decide whether or not the wife will go onto the afterlife with rewards or be thrown into hell. If a woman does something that is not in obedience to her husband, she is disciplined - beaten, starved, humiliated - in order to punish her (or one of her children is so that she will come into line). She is also taught that all illnesses - her own or her children - are due to her disobedience and are punishments from God. Medical care at hospitals and doctors can only be sought with permission from the husband, who often withholds this in order to force his wife and children to be obedient to him in everything. Children are regularly abused - actually routinely would be more to the point - often by step-siblings and wives in the family who have more favor with the husband than the real mother does. Sex is the only commodity of exchange that allows the wives to control what happens to them and their children. As long as she stays in sexual favor with her husband, she and her children have some sort of protection from abuse by step-siblings and the other wives because the husband might be willing to stand up for her.

Carolyn Jessop also talks about Warren Jeffs and his rise to power since Merrill's family was a power family in the FLDS close to Jeffs and the two prophets prior to him. Jeffs is portrayed as a person as bad as one can get, tearing families apart, arbitrarily taking wives away from husbands and remarrying them to others, committing sodomy and rape, allowing the sacrifice of live animals by cutting off their heads in front of school children in order to teach about blood atonement, beating children and women, and the list goes on. According to Carolyn, Jeffs has been grooming the FLDS community to commit mass suicide. There was a running joke among the women in Carolyn's circles that they shouldn't drink the punch.

Carolyn's testimony before the Attorney General of Utah was what launched a state-wide investigation and response. Jeffs is now behind bars after he was hunted down by the officials. He was put on the top-ten most wanted list, and this is what brought him in at last.

Carolyn published this book in October 2007. I praise her for the courage that it must have taken for her to not only escape, but write this book. Her story is about what is happening now. And it is a nightmare. My hope is that the CPS raid on the Zion compound has broken up the community enough to allow others to escape. The reports we are getting in the paper here in Houston is that most of the families are not returning to the Zion Ranch, that CPS is monitoring the families, and that criminal cases are being investigated at least with the men who have fathered children with the underage girls. I hope and pray that this is enough.

1 comment:

Alecia said...

I literally just finished the book and was, in the same way, tramatized by what I read. I lived right behind a Mormon Church so I was familiar with the religion and it's roots. I also took a world religion course so I was exposed to FLDS, but what I read was like reading fiction except that it was very real. I did find myself wanting to know more about Carolyn and her life. Wanted to know if Betty left FLDS after her return, but I couldn't find any updates other than Carolyn went to Texas to find her daughter's half sisters. If you find anything please feel free to post.