I wish I’d had this book as a teenager.
I went to high school in Page, Arizona, a complete nowhere town with virtually nothing for kids to do. One of the ways we’d amuse ourselves on boring nights was by driving up to the Utah/Arizona border and gawking at the polygamists’ houses in Big Water. We’d make fun of their extreme size and shoddiness. There weren’t many there. They were weird and isolated, and we rarely caught a glimpse of any people around them. We had no idea what went on behind those blank walls, aside from knowing it involved one man, lots of women, herds of children, and extreme Mormon religion. If we ever encountered actual polygamists visiting or working in Page, we didn’t realize it. We’d probably have done something stupid if we had. We were almost completely ignorant about polygamy and the lives people in the more fundamentalist sects lived.
Escape by Carolyn Jessop and Laura Palmer is showing me what we rude teenagers couldn’t see. And in the FLDS case, it’s a horrifying enough picture that a single review isn’t enough to capture the sheer scale of the awful – I’ve got to review it chapter-by-chapter. Pick yourself up a copy if you decide to follow along.
Carolyn Jessop was born and raised in the FLDS cult1*. These are the extremist Mormons who believe polygamy is required by God. If they sound familiar, it may be because their prophet, Warren Jeffs, is in prison for sexually assaulting children and arranging child marriages.
The Preface of Escape opens with Carolyn’s escape from the cult with her eight children. She’d waited and planned for months. We get some insight into communication (or lack thereof) in her polygamous family: she hadn’t known until 10 that night that her husband was away on a business trip. With all of her kids at home and her husband gone, this was their one chance to get out.
(Some people may wonder why she didn’t just ask for a divorce and let the courts settle it. Those people have no idea how cults and religion-sanctioned abuse work, so they just need to read on.)
Carolyn has a nearly impossible task ahead of her. She’s got an 18 month-old toddler, a 3 year-old boy who’s severely disabled from spinal neuroblastoma, and several older but deeply indoctrinated kids to rescue. She’s got six highly suspicious “sister wives” to evade. Fortunately, she’s got a sympathetic biological sister nearby whose phone she can use – her only means to contact the outside world.
This is the era of Warren Jeffs, Carolyn tells us. Warren had stepped into the Prophet’s role after his father Rulon’s death. He’s now claiming that he’s Jesus Christ and preparing to move his faithful to an isolated compound he calls the “Center Place.” Carolyn knows her husband and his family will be among the first to go there – and once trapped there, all chance of escape will be gone. Her young daughters will end up as child brides. None of her children will get an education, or have much of a future.
By the time Carolyn is at her sister’s house and able to make phone calls, the Arizona police aren’t answering, and the Utah police can’t help because she’s a mile outside their jurisdiction. No one at the charity that helps women like Carolyn flee their polygamous marriages can assist on such short notice. Desperate, Carolyn calls a brother who’d fled the FLDS with his lady love several years before. He can’t get there until 5am, but he promises to come.
Now we begin to learn why Carolyn can’t just drive herself and the kids to safety:
[My van] was registered in my name but had expired license plates. (Women in the community could drive – but our cars had either no license plates or outdated ones, so if we tried to leave without our husband’s permission, we’d be stopped by the police.
Yep. They use classic abusive spouses’ tactics to keep their women under control.
Carolyn also has the challenge of her children’s conditioning to overcome. They’ve been “taught that everyone outside our own community was evil.”
And the outside world didn’t disabuse anyone of that notion:
When I was younger I remember being looked at with scorn and disgust when we went into town in the long pastel dresses that we wore over dark leggings. People called us “polygs” and sometimes threw rocks at us. Their hostility confirmed that all the evil people in the outside world were poised to hurt or even destroy us.
So, this. I want to pause here and discuss this, because it’s some critical insight. We’ll see in another book by a former FLDS woman that it was the kindness of people she’d been assured were evil and hell-bound that put the first crack in her FLDS programming. Here, we see a woman trapped in the FLDS cult because no one challenged the narrative of the evil outsider. This is one of the countless reasons why, although we give religion itself no quarter (nor should we), it’s imperative we don’t abuse the people trapped in those religions. They deserve the kindness and respect we should be extending to all human beings, just by virtue of their humanity. But they also need those things from us in order to challenge their indoctrination. Do you want to defeat religion? Never stop deconstructing and revealing the terrible things it teaches and causes people to do. By all means, call out the leaders and harmful behavior. But offer the followers compassion, not abuse.
These folks, especially the women and children, have often been so sheltered that they have no other choices. They’re often not even aware there are any. Remember that. Be ready to show them by your actions that everything they thought they knew about you, the Big Scary Worldly Person, was wrong. Okay, most of it. I mean, obviously, we’re still freaky non-believers.
We’ll talk about this some more soon. I’m sure we’ll have plenty to debate, but let’s at least agree to not hurl slurs and rocks at people. (And what I love about this side of the rift is that you’ll say, “Well, duh, Dana, of course no rocks and slurs! Hopefully, other folks will, too.)
Back at home, Carolyn stealthily collects a few changes of clothes for each child, and packs the van. All she can take is those few outfits, some family photos, and the medication she’s been hoarding for her disabled son. We learn how she’s spent six months trying to prepare a child who’s so ill he can’t walk, talk, breathe well without oxygen equipment, or eat without a feeding tube. She’s so determined to strengthen him that she adds her breast milk to his feedings. She gradually trains him how to eat solid food, because she can’t take his feeding equipment when they flee. And, because little Harrison is so sick, she has a smokescreen. No one expects her to be able to manage to abscond with a critically-ill child. And her kids are used to being hauled along to emergency doctor’s visits, so they don’t suspect a thing at first when Carolyn wakes them and tells them they have to take Harrison in. She gets her older kids to come by telling them they’re all going for a family photo at Sears afterward, since everyone’s here.
It almost goes smoothly. But then a wife wakes up and gets suspicious, starts questioning Carolyn’s oldest daughter Betty, and then calls their husband. Merril Jessop immediately phones Carolyn’s father to ask what she’s doing, because of course women aren’t responsible for themselves. Good thing she didn’t clue Daddy in, or the jig would’ve been up.
Carolyn has no time left, but Betty resists. “Mother, there is something wrong that you’re doing!” she sobs, angry and afraid. Carolyn won’t leave this poor 12 year-old behind, and with a little pulling, gets her into the van. They have to leave fast:
One phone call from Merril to the local police and we’d be trapped. The local police are members of the FLDS and the men whom Merril would rely on to stop my escape. The community also had a watch patrol that drove around during the night. If anyone saw me, I’d be stopped and asked if my husband knew what I was doing.
So, between that, the Colorado City/Hildale police being FLDS, and the non-FLDS police in both states being either MIA or out of their jurisdiction, and I do not want any ignorant blathering about how these women should just call the police. I’m talking to you, lurking atheist assholes.
Carolyn’s van runs out of gas just before they reach her waiting brothers in Hildale, Utah, a few miles down the road. Fortunately, they’re close enough for her to fetch them on foot. Her oldest son recognizes his uncle and the jig is up, but Arthur’s a sensible enough boy not to tip off the younger kids and spark a rebellion. They get everyone into the brothers’ vehicle, and they’re off to seek safety. Unfortunately, they can’t stay with family – Carolyn’s husband will track them down and drag them back if he can find them, and family members’ homes will be the first places he’ll check.
Betty catches on that they’re definitely not going to the doctor when they take the exit to Salt Lake City rather than St. George. Imagine being in a car, fleeing with no safe destination, while many of your children demand to know why you’re taking them to hell. Your husband will be hunting you down. You have virtually no money and very limited options.
But for now, you’re finally free.
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!