If you’ve read Elissa Wall’s harrowing Stolen Innocence, you already know a sliver of Rebecca Musser’s story. She’s Elissa’s sister, and was introduced under the pseudonym Kassandra. You’ll remember her as the vivacious young woman married to elderly prophet Rulon Jeffs. She had tried to make Elissa’s underage coerced wedding day less painful, became her lifeline, and left her devastated when she fled the cult. Later, Rebecca helped Elissa begin her escape by giving her a taste of life outside the FLDS. The sisters would later be instrumental in bringing Warren Jeffs to justice.
In The Witness Wore Red, we not only get Rebecca’s own story: we get aspects of Elissa’s story through her sister’s eyes, which helps broaden and deepen the context of both their lives. We see the Wall family as it was in the earlier days, before the new house, when Elissa and Rebecca’s part of the family would have to hide in the basement to escape the violent jealousy of their father’s other wife. We’re shown some of the domestic violence endemic to FLDS families, and the child sexual assault perpetrated so often within them – in addition to the violent other mother, Rebecca has to endure groping and attempted rape by an older half-brother. She, of course, is the one who gets called a whore when he assaults her.
If you’ve read Stolen Innocence first, it’s a bit confusing at first to navigate this book, which is using different names for people we already know from Elissa’s book, but you soon get everyone sorted out. And you’re too wrapped up in the trainwrecks of all these various lives to mind. Rebecca and her co-author are very good at putting you in Rebecca’s shoes, experiencing the stomach-clenching anxiety, anger, and despair of a girl trying to navigate the minefields of her religiously-smothered life.
She survives the FLDS school where Warren Jeffs rules, and gets a brief taste of adult life as a teacher, before being betrothed to 85 year-old Rulon Jeffs at the age of 18. Shortly after her 19th birthday, she becomes his 19th wife, very much against her own wishes. She’s never been given counseling to help her sort out the guilt and shame from her half-brother’s sexual assault, and on her wedding night, is desperately hoping humans are indeed higher than animals and that she won’t be forced to endure Rulon’s sexual advances. FLDS members are supposed to only have sex for procreation, and Rulon is far too old to sire children. But he has no regard for religious rules or Rebecca’s own wishes. Her only reprieve is the notion that with so many wives, he won’t be able to sleep with her often – but then learns that he only sleeps with his youngest wives, ignoring the older ones.
She’s able to go back to teaching, but it’s a difficult life for her. She witnesses the truth of the Jeffs men: they’re not exalted beings, but selfish, grasping men who love to degrade women. When Rulon has a stroke, she watches his son Warren step in and lie to the people. She looks on in horror as he begins to marry off younger and younger women. And then her young sister Elissa is forced into marriage at 14. We see Rebecca ordered to make Elissa happy, and watch her doing her best to cheer her while crying inside.
By the time Rulon dies, Rebecca is already almost at the end of her tether, having endured too much abuse and been forced to witness too many awful things. When Warren Jeffs starts marrying his father’s widows (an act prohibited by FLDS incest taboos, which he as prophet feels free to ignore), she finds herself questioning her faith. She begins a cautious friendship with Ben Musser, the only man she’s ever felt safe with. But after Ben kisses her, Warren tells her she’s cost Ben his salvation, and she’s going to be married to someone else within a week. She’s allowed to tell him her choice of men, but she’ll be forced to do something she’s adamantly against: enter another marriage.
She breaks. Then she makes a break for it, trusting a few scattered memories of the kindness of strangers on the outside. Ben escapes with her, and they begin a new life among the apostates, helped by her brothers who have already been kicked out of or left the cult. She describes how hard the transition is, how it’s difficult to make her own decisions, and learn how to function outside of the FLDS.
Ben begins a relationship with her, one that comes across as dubiously consensual to me. Soon, she’s pregnant, which causes a whole new set of issues. Ben stays with her, but the FLDS life is all they’ve ever known, and they fall into the old patterns of male dominance, which causes considerable strain.
When Warren Jeffs is arrested and Elissa’s former husband is brought up on charges of child rape, Rebecca becomes a witness against them. The last third of the book is her quest for justice, and freedom for the women still trapped inside the cult. She ends up testifying in many trials, always wearing red – a color Warren Jeffs had for forbidden.
Her work with the prosecution exposes her to the extent of the horrors Jeffs perpetrated. She’s there when his Texas compound is raided, and explains the significance of what they find there. Through her, we see the room in the FLDS temple where plural wives would have to witness their husband having sex with each of them, complete with a clerk to record the act. Girls as young as twelve were recorded being raped there. Rebecca listens to the audio of one child rape, and it is horrific, even though she shields us somewhat.
In the end, Rebecca can’t save all of her sisters from the cult. She can’t save her marriage as the strain of repeated trials and diverging worldviews destroys it. But she is able to get justice for Elissa and many other girls harmed by the FLDS cult. And with her story, she shows the way out for many more.
It’s an infuriating, heart-rending book. But it’s also infused with hope. It’s more than worth your time.