|Young Wife's Tales of Polygamy|
By Carolyn See|
By Carolyn Jessop (with Laura Palmer)
Broadway. 413 pp. $24.95
Up against the Arizona-Utah border lies a town comprising about 10,000 zealots, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They differ from conventional Mormons in that they continue -- with enthusiasm-- the practice of polygamy. Their current prophet, Warren Jeffs, recently was convicted of being an accomplice to rape. They've been the subject of some marvelously over-the-top journalism, from Michael Fessier's landmark magazine piece decades ago in New West magazine to Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven," which appeared in 2003.
Carolyn Jessop's "Escape" is different from Fessier's or Krakauer's work because it's written in the first person by a woman who was raised as a member of FLDS, and lived by the tenets of the faith until the age of 35, when, with her eight children, she felt she absolutely had to get out. It must be said up front that her narrative is inconsistent at times and irritatingly vague. You never know, for instance, whether she thinks that her escape has ruined her chance for salvation, whether she even believes in God, or whether, indeed, she ever did. But the book is fascinating for all that, mainly because of its close attention to the details of her everyday life and how it seemed to her. She took each event as it came, until her existence became unbearable, untenable, and then she came up with the courage to radically change her life.
Carolyn was born into a FLDS family that had only two wives. She was a daughter of the first wife, whom she remembers as melancholy and physically abusive. Her father was an extraordinarily devout man. His second wife seems to have been a breath of fresh air, but the family -- out in the desert, in a closed society -- lived within a very strict belief system. A woman's salvation could be granted only through her husband's permission. The more children you brought into the world, the better. Members of FLDS enter into a personal covenant with God, whose wishes are made known to the population by an exalted prophet, who, at the beginning of this narrative, was a comparatively moderate man named Uncle Roy.
It's all too easy to be taken aback by someone else's idea of the deity, but it seems passing strange that the God of this town has spent most of His time matchmaking. But that's the way it was, and so it came to pass that Carolyn, who already had managed to begin college, became the fourth wife, at age 18 (with only a few day's notice) of 50-year-old Merril Jessop, a fairly successful businessman and grumpy old coot.
His other wives were Faunita, who'd been out of favor for years and stayed up all night and slept all day; Ruth, who bore beautiful children but was always on the verge of a nervous breakdown; and Barbara, who after having had nine children ruled the roost and wrapped Merril around her little finger. In theory, the wives of a polygamous family should all be equal in the sight of God and their husband, sisters to each other and mothers to each other's children, but as Carolyn Jessop remembers it, that theory turned out to be bosh. According to her, Merril utterly ignored and disdained Faunita, had sex with Ruth only enough to keep her producing those beautiful children, and spent the bulk of his time with the volatile, fawning, abusive Barbara. It's a strange position to find yourself in: being married to a person you find physically, emotionally and intellectually repugnant, yet knowing that your own sexual seductiveness is the only thing that gives you an advantage in the marriage -- let alone that elusive ticket to salvation.
The author spends less time on the mechanics of her escape than on the dynamics of plural marriage itself: what it means, for instance, to take the wives and kids on a road trip to the San Diego zoo, except by this time Merril has married two more women, so it's six wives and 34 children who make the trip, and two wives (Carolyn and Cathleen) who make enough sandwiches, sweet rolls, breadsticks and so on for this veritable army. It's a domestic nightmare. The family does more harm to the motel rooms they stay in than the most deranged rock group. They can look at the Pacific Ocean but not go in it because water is the realm of the Devil. They carelessly leave one of the kids behind in a gas station. It's an interesting intersection -- where the male fantasy of having as many women as you want meets the horrid reality of 34 kids and six bickering wives.
Eventually, circumstances in the community become more malignant. Uncle Roy dies and is succeeded by Uncle Rulon, whose authority is undermined and finally usurped by the notorious Warren Jeffs, who delights in breaking up marriages as much as putting them together, invites little girls over for suspicious sleepovers, and dumps unwanted, uneducated adolescent boys out in the middle of the desert (because only the old men get the cute girls). On a personal level, Carolyn's pregnancies become more life-threatening and her seventh child has serious health problems, which her husband and the rest of the wives blame on sins in her own spiritual life. After much agonizing, Carolyn manages to escape, eke out a living for herself and survive in the outside world. Her 12-year-old daughter berates her, saying Carolyn is taking them all straight to Hell. Carolyn answers stoutly that she's been living in Hell a long time already and that living in Heaven with the creepy Merril would be worse than Hell itself.
Again, it's hard to get a handle on other people's religions, or even that salvation we hear so much about. Where should tolerance be exercised and where should it stop? "Escape" doesn't presume to answer these questions. It just tells a fascinating story that would properly horrify us if it occurred in Arabia or Afghanistan, but right here in America, it's just baffling.
Carolyn See can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Originally published Friday, November 2, 2007
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