This is one of the worst chapters in Escape. Considering how much abuse we’ve seen already, and how bad it gets later on, that’s saying something. Needless to say:
Content Notice for severe child physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional abuse.
Carolyn starts the chapter with her excitement at finally being old enough to start school. She’s now six and a half. We learn that FLDS kids don’t attend kindergarten; supposedly home is better. But Carolyn’s home is one without books, without even fairy tales. I can’t even stand this. My mom filled my childhood with books. I started to read a bit on my own by age 3, and some of my best memories are of afternoon reading time with my mom. I became a writer because she’d told me every fairy tale she knew and run out of ideas for new ones by the time I was six, so she encouraged me to make up my own. My thirst to learn and imagine was never quenched – that would be impossible – but Mom gave me bottomless springs to drink from. Carolyn was just as thirsty, and was only given a few pitiful drops to drink.
There wasn’t even a public library, in a town of several thousand people, overflowing with children. That’s practically criminal. And no, I’m not being sarcastic.
Just before Carolyn starts school, they have one of those magnificent southwestern summer downpours that turns the desert into an instant wetland. Oh, I remember those! I remember the lovely sudden deep water, and the glorious scent of rain on desert soil – petrichor. The air would be cool, achingly fresh, with an exotic kiss of humidity. We kids would wait impatiently for the torrents to stop, then rush out and splash in every temporary river and pond until the ground drank them in.
Carolyn and her sisters are just as eager to explore that ephemeral world, just as tempted to wade in the water. They’re allowed outside. But if one of them gives in to the siren song of streams, they will all get spanked for the transgression of getting muddy.
That day, the children of a new polygamist family come bounding outside and dive right in. They don’t have dolls, but they have freedom. One of the girls teaches Carolyn to make dolls from twigs and flowers, which are even better than actual dolls. They become fast friends, and soon, schoolmates.
Being a child should not mean navigating from horror to horror. Children should have some escape from abuse. Carolyn and her friends don’t. The best they can expect at home is at least fairly frequent beatings: later in the chapter, Carolyn will explain that their FLDS church preached “that if you didn’t put the fear of God into children from the time of their birth, they would grow up and leave the work of God. Abuse was necessary to save a child’s soul.”
On the bus to school, the bus driver would often “stop the bus when a child misbehaved. He’d walk back and hit a child so hard his or her face would slam into the window of the bus.” This is the ordinary abuse. Carolyn sees the results of worse, such as one girl who pulls back her long sleeve to show her friend an arm that looks “melted and raw.” The same girl later has her hair hacked off, likely to shame her for some supposed transgression.
Eventually, Carolyn stops riding the bus. She’d rather run the mile than be stuck in a tin tube with a driver that regularly rains violence down on the kids, and where she sees kids showing off their hurts from home. But she has to beat the bus home, or get spanked. Imagine a child of six or seven, running in her long prairie dress until she can’t run anymore, walking until she catches her breath, and then running again, just so she won’t get beaten by either the bus driver or her own mother.
Her best friend Laura, the dollmaker, joins Carolyn in hoofing it after the bus driver hurts her little sister.
At school, it’s a common sight to see the principal kicking and beating his intellectually disabled son. This seems to be his way of trying to punish the poor ten year-old out of wetting his pants – a problem he likely has no control over, and is probably worsened by his father’s brutal beatings.
“First grade was the only year I didn’t have a violent teacher,” Carolyn recalls. “Most families controlled their children with scripture and a whip. This philosophy extended into the classrooms, too.” Kids are beaten with yardsticks until they break. The principal regularly treats students to a public kicking and beating, “onstage for the entire school to witness.” Children are hit in the head with yardsticks if they misbehave in line. The beaten children are usually presumed guilty of whatever transgression they’re accused of, and have to apologize in addition to being physically attacked.
And this isn’t a private school, mind. This is ostensibly public. But the FLDS has such a stranglehold that
religion was taught openly in school, and if a subject contradicted our teachings, it was dropped. It was very common to get textbooks with entire chapters missing because they’d been cut out. We were taught things that were patently false – such as the “fact” that dinosaurs had never existed. In some classes, the teachers taught stories from the Book of Mormon.
No one complains of the constitutional violations or the violence. No one dares. Not many people within the school are from outside the FLDS, so not many see any problem. Those who do are silenced.
When the principal goes too far, beating nearly an entire classroom of kids – only stopping because one little girl runs with her bloody nose to her mother’s classroom – all he gets are some threats from angry fathers and a lecture from the school board. Church leadership shields him because of his ties to the prophets. Beating up an entire roomful of small children and then screaming at them about learning the word of God is merely an indiscretion.
And it gets worse.
The school doesn’t teach sex ed, but Carolyn learns all about it from a fourth grade classmate on the playground.
One of my classmates announced to us that her brother was teaching her how to have a baby. She had told him she didn’t want to learn, but he insisted. He wanted to show her, not just tell her.
She said he pointed to the parts on his body and then told her what he was going to do with them on hers. Then he did it. When it was over, he said this was how her husband would make babies with her. She said she hated it and hated him.
The kids don’t believe her – they can’t believe their parents would ever do anything so disgusting. She ends up reading them the dictionary definition of sex, and they still can’t believe her, not until their older siblings confirm that is, in fact, what sex is. Keep in mind, this is a culture that endeavors to keep their kids so ignorant that some girls go to their marital beds believing babies are made by kissing. And yet, horrific sexual abuse is rife, and everyone knows it. Physical abuse is endemic, and no one does anything to stop either outrage.
As a community, the feeling was that the outside world was our enemy. Its laws and rules did not apply to us in any way. There was no way someone in the FLDS would report abuse that they’d witnessed or suspected to the authorities for investigation. Anyone who did that would have been seen as a traitor to the entire community.
All in the name of God.
Sometimes, I wish Jesus exists. Sometimes, I wish he’d return bearing millstones. But there’s no savior for those kids. There’s only us.