Let me preface this review by saying that reading books had been something of a struggle for me over the last two years, and I’d been lucky to manage a chapter or two a night. So when this book came, I thought it would last me a good while.
Ha ha ha nope. I read it in one night.
This is a fast read; that does not make it an easy read. There are graphic descriptions of child abuse, child sexual assault, and child rape. There is truly horrific religious abuse, and infant death, and a suicide attempt, and forced medical procedures. There is an appalling unwillingness on the part of authorities to do anything about the above. Triggers abound. And Flora Jessop pulls not a single punch. Kid gloves are absolutely never worn. So be gentle with yourself, and probably skip big parts of this book if you’ve suffered the above abuses. And consider that paragraph the content warning for this review.
Flora was raised in the FLDS, the extreme Mormon cult that practices forced polygamy. The book unflinchingly chronicles her upbringing in Short Creek, the FLDS owned and run town on the Utah-Arizona border from which escape is all but impossible, both physically and mentally. If you were reading along with my chapter-by-chapter review of Escape on ETEV, you’ll remember how pervasive abuse is there, and how difficult it is to flee.
Flora’s early childhood is a story of escalating sexual abuse by her father. She doesn’t take us into that history gently or gradually; it’s being relived starkly within the first few pages, and we quickly arrive at the day when 12 year-old Flora is brutally raped while the rest of the family is away at a celebration.
She attempts suicide to escape the abuse that day, and is rescued by a vision of a Native American man (this section veers into some rather racist territory and she uses the outdated term “Indian,” so CN for that). She returns home to her personal hell with a new will to survive.
Over the next several years, Flora attempts to escape and is caught; forced to return to her father, who impregnates her at 13; undergoes a forced abortion in the Short Creek clinic performed with a coat-hanger by her Aunt Lydia; is sexually assaulted by high-ranking FLDS boys; and tries to report her father to the police. All that comes of reporting him is a $400 fine and a few weeks’ banishment to Salt Lake City. This is what passes for “justice” in the FLDS-dominated systems in Utah. Flora tries once more to report his assaults, this time in St. George. For her efforts, she’s thrown into juvenile detention until her mother picks her up and returns her to a community where she is now shunned for trying to get justice.
Once she turns 14, Flora knows she could be assigned in marriage at any time. Typically, FLDS girls are assigned to a man they’ve barely met or have never seen, who may be decades older, and are given almost no notice. With the help of her caseworker and a few sympathetic citizens, she escapes to Las Vegas. Unfortunately, without a support network and people who could help her make the transition from Short Creek to the outside world, she ends up going back, where she’s held captive in her Uncle Fred’s house for years, beaten, shunned, and forced to work without pay. Her captivity doesn’t end until a few weeks before her 17th birthday, when she’s suddenly married to her first cousin Phillip Jessop.
Marriage, which is meant to tie young girls to the sect forever, sets Flora free. She moves to St. George, and after three weeks as a wife, convinces Phillip to drive her to Las Vegas and leave her with a friend who had previously escaped. Phillip is one of the few decent FLDS men: he doesn’t try to control Flora. He lets her go.
After her escape, things don’t become magically better. She’s raped by her friend’s dad, ends up halfway across the country and lands in an abusive relationship, and spends a while marinating in drugs. But a kind new friend always gives her a safe place to land and some guidance on how to human in the outside world. She gets off drugs, has a daughter, kicks the abusive asshole to the curb, evades FLDS kidnap squads trying to steal her back, and exposes the sect on national television. She meets and marries a fantastic man, and builds a happy family.
This isn’t the end, though. Her youngest sister is trapped within the cult, and at age 14, is married to a stepbrother she loathes. A month after being forced into marriage, she calls Flora to rescue her. Ruby escapes to their brother’s house, but before Flora can get to her, she’s kidnapped by FLDS members and hidden away, far from anywhere Flora and the law enforcement agencies she calls on can reach.
This tragedy galvanizes Flora, and she begins a campaign to save as many fleeing FLDS women and children as she can. She works within the law when possible, outside it when not. Her experience inside and out of the cult allows her to help people who never would have made it out and stayed out without someone who understands both worlds intimately. And her firey personality and willingness to stand up to literally anyone serves her rescues in good stead when law enforcement fails to protect them and FLDS goons come after them.
There are times in the book that seem beyond belief. Sometimes, you look down at your leg, expecting it’s being pulled. But I’ve read enough books by FLDS survivors by now to know that if she’s exaggerating, it’s not by much. Things really are that bad, and Flora Jessop is fighting hard to get folks free.
If you’re at all interested in the FLDS, this is a book you’ll want to check out. Just make sure your evening’s free.