(Repost) “I Knew I Was Walking a Tightrope” – Escape Chapter 19: Resound of Music

Merril is rapidly gaining prestige in the FLDS community by delivering daughters for marriage to the prophet. Now that he’s traded three of them, he’s “one of the most exalted men in the community.” Let’s have a closer look at this exalted man, shall we?

Content Note: Emotional, verbal, and financial abuse.

Merril is an abusive shit, especially to his wives. Reading between the lines of what Carolyn says about him not being as predictable as her (also abusive) mother, we find he’s prone to blow up with very little or no warning. It’s taken Carolyn many years of monitoring his behavior closely to figure out when it’s time to get the hell away from him before he unloads. But she can’t just leave the room – she has to manufacture an excuse that won’t “make him suspicious.”  I assume from the context that means he’ll verbally assault her if he doesn’t find her reason for leaving his presence satisfactory.

Imagine having a husband who won’t let you leave the room because he’s upsetting and/or about to attack you. Imagine having to find a way to leave so you won’t be the one subjected to his abuse. I hope you do have to imagine it. If it’s your current reality, please call someone who can help you.

If a wife is unlucky enough to miss the signs and get caught in the room when Merril explodes, he’ll accuse her “of being rebellious and having a weak character.” It doesn’t matter how obedient she is, or how impeccable her character is. It’s “a terrible insult” in the FLDS to accuse a woman of these things, and so it’s what Merril uses to attack them.

Merril also ranks his wives. Barbara, of course, is “a goddess,” with all other wives far beneath her, until we get to poor Faunita: “the lowest of the low.”

Wot a prize their husband is.

Merril’s not satisfied until he has at least two wives crying from his vicious verbal abuse: “Humiliating just one wife was never enough.”

Remember: the FLDS leadership loves this guy. They don’t really care how he treats his wives as long as he keeps giving his pretty young daughters to powerful old men.

Despite all this, Carolyn has managed to adapt and even thrive to a degree. She’s got her students and her four children surrounding her with love and purpose. She’s involved in community events, which give her a focus outside of her toxic marriage. But it’s a precarious balance. She could fall at any time.

Sepia-tone photo of a woman in a short 19th century dress, walking on a tightrope suspended over the Niagra River.
“Signorina Maria Spelterinain in her tight rope performance.” Public domain image by George E. Curtis.

And Barbara and Merril, infuriated at their inability to break her, step up the abuse, hoping to force her into complete submission as they have with the other wives. So they cut her off financially. They freeze their accounts at every business in town, forcing her to come to Merril for everything she needs. She has to turn over her entire paycheck to him, but often, he won’t even spare her a penny of her own money for necessities:

The first time I went to his office I told him I needed a few items. He ignored me and didn’t even speak. I left, suspicious.

The next week I went into Merril’s office to turn over my salary check. When I did, I asked Merril for five dollars to buy Arthur a pair of shoes. He ignored me again, refusing to respond.

Carolyn plants herself in his office, determined to get an answer. Barbara comes in asking for money for pictures, and gets a check from Merril nearly the size of Carolyn’s paycheck. When Carolyn confronts him about it, he goes all red in the face and blusters, “There is money for those who do the things I want.”

Unfortunately for Merril, Carolyn is too resourceful for his financial abuse to work. She marches out of his office and promptly goes about finding ways to survive that don’t include complete surrender. She files her tax return and collects the money without telling her spouses. She begins selling cosmetics on the side. And she’s good at it.

There were months when I sold $5,000 worth of cosmetics in a community where makeup was strictly forbidden. A banner month could net me $1,000. There was so much competition in the community among wives that when a man took one wife on a trip, the others would come and blow a few hundred bucks on cosmetics to stay competitive.

In a funny way, Merril is the one enabling his wife to defy him. He treats her like shit in private, but displays her “as his young trophy wife” in public. Other men, perhaps wanting the same status and prestige, give their wives permission to buy makeup from Carolyn, because surely it can’t be that forbidden if the mighty Merril is allowing his prized wife to sell it, right?

And the effect on Carolyn is fantastic:

Doing my own taxes and hiding money was the first time I’d ever gone against the teachings of the prophet. I didn’t care. I felt no guilt, no shame. This was the beginning, the fragile, tentative beginning, of mentally breaking free from the context of my “religion.”

She still believes – right now, she thinks it’s just Merril that’s the problem. But the foundation of her faith is well and truly cracked now.

Meanwhile, everyone else is busy stroking Merril’s already gigantic ego. The family always puts on a performance of some sort for his birthday. Carolyn doesn’t take part in the 1994 extravangaza due to being sick with her fifth pregnancy, but all of Merril’s 40+ children, along with their spouses, take part. They do a polygamist version of The Sound of Music, written by his daughter Margaret, in which Maria is sent from her polygamous family to be a nanny for happily-married Captain Von Trapp, who’s thinking of joining the FLDS. Everyone tries to escape the Nazis so they can do God’s (polygamous) work in America.

And who’s among those playing a Nazi?

Image shows a headshot of Jeffs, who is a gaunt white man with a snide half-smile and steel-rimmed glasses. He's wearing a white shirt. There is a tree in the background.
Warren Jeffs. Image courtesy FBI.

Yep. Warren Jeffs.

I can think of few people more suitable for that role.

No one laughing and clapping at that performance could imagine they’re watching their future tyrannical prophet stomp across the stage. But the shadow is about to fall. Jeffs is about to live up to the promise of that Nazi uniform.

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 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, Volume 2: Exodus, and Volume 3: Leviticus today!


(Repost) “I Knew I Was Walking a Tightrope” – Escape Chapter 19: Resound of Music