My Life in a Polygamist Compound
Carolyn Jessop's FLDS memoir, condensed.
When Texas authorities seized 416 children in a raid on a compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Americans quickly learned that the religious group encourages polygamy and the marriage of young girls to older men. Escape, a memoir published last fall, offers a more detailed portrait of life with the FLDS. In the book, Carolyn Jessop, a sixth-generation polygamist describes her life as the fourth wife of Merril Jessop, who ran the recently raided Texas compound. Carolyn left Merril in 2003, before he moved to Texas, but her memoir sheds light on the man and on the beliefs and practices common within the insular community. Below, Slate flags Carolyn's most intriguing, strange, and heartbreaking allegations.
Page 17: The FLDS split from the Mormon Church more than 100 years ago, after the latter outlawed polygamy. Members, like 19th-century Mormons, believe that "[a] man must have multiple wives if he expects to do well in heaven, where he can eventually become a god and wind up with his own planet." Not every man marries multiple wives; being encouraged to take more than three signifies that you're considered important by the leaders of the community.
Page 25: In a favorite children's game, called Apocalypse, kids act out the FLDS vision of the end of the world. According to FLDS lore, Native Americans who were mistreated and killed in pioneer days will be resurrected in the end times, when God will allow them to wreak vengeance on those who wronged them (the presumably also-resurrected settlers). In return for this indulgence, "resurrected Indians" will also be "required to take on the job of protecting God's chosen people"—FLDS members—by killing FLDS enemies with invisible tomahawks that can sever a person's heart in half. Very cowboys and Indians!
Page 37: Carolyn, who grew up in the FLDS communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, was educated in a "public school," but the teachers and students, like the rest of the area community, were almost exclusively FLDS members. They were taught that dinosaurs never existed and man never landed on the moon.
Page 157: Polygamy isn't the only way FLDS doctrine differs from that of the Mormon Church: "Many of us in the fundamentalist faith drank coffee, tea, beer, and wine, all of which is strictly forbidden in mainstream Mormonism."
Pages 72-73: The community's rules changed as different leaders—called prophets—established different priorities. When Carolyn was 18, the prophet was a man called Uncle Roy, who gave her permission to attend college, an honor granted to very few girls in the community. But there was one major caveat: In order to do so, Carolyn had to marry Merril Jessop, a 50-year-old man with a reputation for cruelty who already had three wives.
Page 313: When Uncle Roy died in 1986, a man called Uncle Rulon took over. But Rulon was elderly and frail, and his favored son, Warren Jeffs, held the reins for many years. Carolyn says that marrying off underage girls was relatively rare before Rulon: "When Uncle Rulon first came to power, girls didn't marry until they were over twenty. After his first stroke, the age dropped into the late teens. The sicker he got, the younger the brides in the community became."
Page 234: As the FLDS leadership became increasingly radicalized, Uncle Rulon began to discuss blood atonement, a draconian punishment for anyone who committed
"[i]mmoral acts for which there could be no forgiveness … such as fornication and adultery." Blood atonement, Carolyn explains, is "murder": The sinner submits to being killed as punishment for his or her crimes. The practice is rejected by the mainstream Mormon Church. Carolyn became terrified that the FLDS might adopt it.
As was the case with many FLDS unions, Carolyn and Merril's marriage was "spiritual," not official, to help avoid charges of polygamy. (Having technically single mothers in the community also helped bring in government benefits.)
Page 80: Carolyn was fearful of consummating her marriage: "Merril spread my legs apart but could not get an erection. I felt angry, humiliated, and embarrassed. Should I fight him? I began to try to free myself, and after a few minutes he released his hold on me." Though the couple eventually had sex, in their 17-year marriage, Carolyn never saw Merril fully nude.
Page 181: Merril became furious with Carolyn when she ordered shrimp, which he dislikes, at a restaurant: "A devout wife would never even desire to eat something her husband disliked."
Page 147: Carolyn and Merril eventually had eight children together, but that's hardly a big brood by FLDS standards: "Producing large numbers of faithful children was a way for a woman to gain favor not only with her husband but with God. It wasn't uncommon for a woman in the community to have as many as sixteen children, and most had at least twelve."
Page 189: FLDS leaders don't look kindly on modern medicine. During childbirth, "a doctor was never present, nor was pain medication ever used. Women were expected to be perfectly silent during childbirth. If a woman screamed or made loud noises she was criticized for being out of control. Sometimes she'd be reprimanded by her husband during her delivery."
Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project from Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that covers emerging technologies and their implications for society and policy.