(Repost) How a Cult Programs You to Stay in the Trap: Escape Chapter 1 (Part Two)

In our last installment of Escape by Carolyn Jessop, we got a taste of the depression, despair, and abuse Carolyn lived with in her FLDS community. Today, we’ll see how her childhood conditioned her to fear the outside world, and accept her lot as an abused wife pumping out endless babies in a loveless plural marriage.

Colorado City, AZ and Hildale, UT are communities where children literally run screaming away from strangers. It isn’t because of stranger-danger or regular, if exaggerated, fears. Carolyn tells us she and the other kids

were taught that outsiders were “agents of the devil” who wanted to kidnap us and take us away. They were seen as evil people who wanted to destroy the work of God. If they could get access to the children of God’s chosen, then they would try to hurt or destroy us.

And the kids believed it because they were kept so isolated from the world around them.

Carolyn explains that FLDS members believe polygamy is the most important doctrine of all, and if a person proves themselves worthy through their polygamous marriages, they will become gods and goddesses in the afterlife. They’re taught to see plural marriage as a “special blessing,” and that they are “better than everyone else in the entire world” on account of their faith. All the suffering their lifestyle causes is a sacrifice “to preserve the work of God and prove worthy of the celestial kingdom of God.” And women are taught that their “sole purpose on earth [is] to have as many children as possible.” It’s a doctrine designed to prevent people from rebelling, from exploring, from living their authentic lives.

Polygamy is illegal, of course, but it wouldn’t be cause for concern if it wasn’t for the forced marriages, rampant domestic violence, and other forms of spousal abuse so common in these communities. Child abuse is endemic – Carolyn states that “Violence toward children was incorporated into our belief system.” But when the authorities try to act, they feed into a persecution complex. People are so lost down the rabbit hole that rescue looks like an attack, and they’ll fight to stay with their abusers. The story of their brave resistance to the enemy is passed down the generations, reinforcing the feeling of specialness and destiny that keeps them chained.

Carolyn’s grandmother loved to tell her grandchildren about the raid on Short Creek* that happened in July of 1953. That raid was a PR disaster for Arizona authorities, who were photographed prying howling children out of their distraught mothers’ arms. People are able to overlook all sorts of abuse and danger to kids if the families seem sympathetic – even today, we get sucked in by a good sob story. And our legal and social systems aren’t prepared to deal with hundreds of indoctrinated children and fanatical adults. The Arizona authorities hadn’t prepared, didn’t gather the evidence they needed to convict, and Carolyn says they lost on an arcane point of law that was trumpeted as a victory from God among the FLDS folks.

Image shows Johnson, a thin and balding old man in a suit, talking to many male reporters in ten gallon hats and other caps, scribbling in notebooks.
FLDS Prophet Leroy Johnson used the Short Creek raid to seize greater power over his flock. Here he’s spinning the raid to the press. Public domain photo courtesy L. MacKay Phelps.

The raid caused the sect to retreat further into secrecy and fundamentalism. Women, who before may have tried to break away to the outside if the leadership went too far, now didn’t trust outsiders to help them escape. So the male leaders gradually took away their freedom to marry whom they wished. The cult leaders forbade them from wearing pants, and micromanaged their appearance right down to their hair styles. They had to obey completely to be saved.

What can we learn from this? We need to be much more prepared to successfully prosecute the leaders and fully support the followers. We can’t let child abuse, domestic violence, and other serious crimes pass. But we do have to be far more careful about how we act, lest we make all the problems worse, and cause a backlash against the people who are trying to rescue the abused.

And we need to remember that we, too, have “swapped [freedom] for security.” It’s something humans do. We need to be more wary of that tendency, and compensate for it.

Our own experiences with that tradeoff should make it easier for us to empathize with Carolyn and her FLDS friends and family. We’re not quite as different as we might wish to believe.

That concludes the first chapter. Next, we’ll get to see the kinds of games FLDS kids play. Adjust your reading space to accommodate outrage in safety, my darlings, because you’re about to be utterly horrified.

Image is the cover of Escape, which is photo of Carolyn Jessop on a black background. She cradles a framed picture of herself as an FLDS teenager in her hands. She is a woman in her thirties with chestnut hair and blue eyes.

I’m reviewing Escape chapter-by-chapter. Pick yourself up a copy if you’d like to follow along.

*The FLDS name for Colorado City and Hildale.

(Repost) How a Cult Programs You to Stay in the Trap: Escape Chapter 1 (Part Two)