Carolyn’s back home after graduating college, but that home is anything but sweet. She and Tammy are the only two wives trying to make the family chaos more orderly. Merril’s business has been fined for violations of some sort, and they have less money than ever to manage on. He gives them only $100 per week to meet all the needs of almost 40 people. Merril’s older daughters, the nusses who had lorded it over all the other girls in school, are now stuck at home doing housework and childcare, and they show their displeasure by doing a piss-poor job of it.
Content note for financial and verbal abuse, food insecurity, starving children, and forced marriage.
Merril, of course, doesn’t let himself or his favorite wife suffer. He and Barbara enjoy expensive dinners out in Page. When he comes home, he takes all of his wives out to eat – which only increases his daughters’ resentment.
Carolyn and Tammy take over the shopping, organize meals and cleaning, and plant a garden. People who haven’t gardened in the northern Arizona desert won’t understand what an undertaking is, but it’s not simple to nurture plants in that environment. “Personal items” like soap are a luxury they can’t afford, so the household does without. The two women are virtual superheroes. They keep everyone fed and the house somewhat in order – as much as is possible under the circumstances – but Merril isn’t grateful. He’s upset to the point of tantrums that they didn’t consult Barbara on their activities first. He expects them to follow the orders of a woman who is never there and doesn’t have to live in dire poverty. He’s beyond ridiculous. Carolyn can’t even think of him as her husband: he’s “that man, an egocentric bully,” forced on her, and not a “gift from God” as her religion teaches. But she still clings to her faith. At this point, it’s very nearly the only thing she has, aside from her kids.
Winter arrives. There’s no more produce from the garden, just a dwindling supply of tomatoes picked green and left to ripen in buckets. The family is subsisting on cracked wheat for breakfast, and tomato sandwiches for lunch and dinner, while Merril and Barbara live it up in Page. Children, including Carolyn’s son Arthur, are losing weight, and she’s afraid she won’t get enough nutrition herself to keep producing breast milk for baby Betty.
Pushed to the edge, she finally drops her good FLDS wife facade and confronts Merril that November during one of his visits home. During a family meeting in which he decrees “that only Barbara could implement changes in family policies or assign jobs,” she unloads for letting his children subsist on tomato sandwiches while he and his favorite wife dine on steak. It’s pretty mild, considering the provocation she’s under. But it’s still more than Merril can take. He can’t tolerate even mild dissent and sarcasm.
If Merril had a gun he would have aimed it at me. I was scared of him, but I’d been pushed to the point where I didn’t care. Merril was seething. “Don’t you accuse me! You act like a tomato sandwich isn’t something that is good to eat!”
The room goes quiet. Carolyn doesn’t back down.
I had been in survival mode. In a cult, you have two identities: your cult identity and your authentic self. Most of the time I operated from my cult identity, which was pliant, submissive, and obedient. But when I was pushed to the point where it felt like my survival was at stake, my authentic self came to the fore. The worse life became in Merril’s family, the more confidence I found in my authentic self.
In a steady and sure voice I said to Merril, “If tomato sandwiches are so wonderful, why aren’t you and Barbara eating them for dinner like the rest of us?”
Too bad Merril hadn’t given them enough money to buy burn cream.
Emboldened by Carolyn’s defiance, the other wives pile on with their own grievances. They unload it all, including their frustration over having to care for Barbara’s neglected children in addition to their own. They’re so unrelenting they reduce Barbara to tears and drive her from the room. It’s gorgeous. I’m cheering.
Merril makes some empty threats, but in the end, all he can do is give them more money for food. I like to think he and Barbara ended up having to dine more often at Taco Bell than Bella Napoli and other fine Page, Arizona establishments. I enjoy envisioning them trying to have a romantic meal at the local burger joint, stuffed uncomfortably in a booth in a room full of shouting teenagers. It’s beautiful.
Carolyn, thanks to Merril’s influence, lands a full-time job as a second grade teacher. The job gives her one area in her life she can control, although leaving her own children in the dubious care of the nusses causes her no end of anxiety. As if it’s not bad enough to be stepmother to the mean girls you went to school with, now you have to entrust your own kids with them? Ugh.
There are plenty of unmarried older daughters at home, thanks to Rulon Jeffs’s lack of enthusiasm for arranging marriages. He is not, however, so disinterested when it comes to his own matrimonial situation. He ends up marrying Barbara and Ruth’s young sister Bonnie, who is 60+ years his junior. Tammy, having been there and done that, is devastated on her behalf:
“It feels like her parents took her like a lamb to slaughter and sacrificed her purely for the purpose of having a daughter married to the Prophet of God.”
Well, I imagine it feels that way because that’s pretty much exactly what happened.
When Carolyn sees Bonnie after the marriage, she says the girl looked “as if her being had been evacuated.”
And she sees that expression again months later, when Merril sacrifices his young daughter Loretta to Rulon. To add humiliation to sex slavery, he makes her late to her own wedding by insisting on taking the entire family and stopping to fish on the way. He doesn’t care how distressed he makes her. He only cares that he now has direct access to the Prophet.
These men. They are beyond horrid. And they’re only going to get worse.
I’m reviewing Escape chapter-by-chapter. Pick yourself up a copy if you’d like to follow along. The full list of reviews to date can be found here. Need a chaser? Pick up a copy of Really Terrible Bible Stories Volume 1: Genesis or Volume 2: Exodus today!