Juicy Bits

My Life in a Polygamist Compound

Carolyn Jessop’s FLDS memoir, condensed.

Also in Slate: A “Faith-Based” column looks at the implications of enforcing polygamy laws after the 1953 raid on the Short Creek fundamentalist community. An “Explainer” determines how the FLDS maintained a male-female ratio that allowed men to have three wives.

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.

FLDS Beliefs

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.”

Prophet Motives

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.

Jessop’s Marriage

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.”

Bad Medicine

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.”

Page 224: One woman Carolyn knows gave birth at home and “was given an episiotomy with sewing scissors and then stitched up with dental floss.”

Page 231: Uncle Rulon “began preaching that anyone who needed medical help to heal was a person of little faith. A person in harmony with God could heal him- or herself with fasting and prayer.” When Carolyn’s sister-wife Ruth was diagnosed with skin cancer on her nose, she tried to heal herself with chemicals from a health-food store. The chemicals burned off her nose.

Page 275: Merril blamed Carolyn when their seventh child became gravely ill: “You can take him to every damn doctor you can find, but no one will be able to heal him. God is going to destroy his life because of the sins of his mother.”

Warren Jeffs

Jeffs, who is currently in prison for arranging the marriage of an underage girl, exercised extraordinary control over the community even while Uncle Rulon was still the nominal prophet, and eventually became the prophet himself, when Rulon died in 2003.

Page 195: Some of Carolyn’s stepdaughters were married to Jeffs, and she feared his temper. She writes: “One day he brought one of his wives into the [school] auditorium, which was packed with boys. Annette had a long braid that fell past her knees. Warren grabbed the braid and twisted and twisted it until she was on her knees and he was ripping hair from her head. He told the boys that this was how obedient their wives had to be to them.”

Pages 216, 223, 231, and 234: As Rulon’s deputy, Jeffs banned the color red; movies, television, and the Internet (“except for business purposes”); clothing with “large prints” or plaid; immunizations; and sex not for procreation.

Page 197: The Jeffs family had “a rigid rule … against becoming obese.”

Page 307: The FLDS faithful didn’t see anything wrong with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. One of Carolyn’s sister-wives “couldn’t stop talking about how she and all the righteous people she knew saw the hand of God in the attacks. … Warren Jeffs had been preaching that the entire earth would soon be at war and all the worthy among the chosen would be lifted from the earth and protected, while God destroyed the wicked.”

Pages 324-325: Jeffs began to kick young boys out of the community—”more than a hundred teenage boys” within a month’s span, at one point—for crimes like “listening to CDs, watching movies, or kissing girls.”

Time To Escape

Page 333: Carolyn decided to flee in 2003, soon after Jeffs finally became prophet. She took her eight children, including her profoundly disabled son, to Salt Lake City. As she and her family struggled to adjust to the outside world, Carolyn developed post-traumatic stress disorder. But as she worked to make ends meet, her polygamy background came in handy: An HBO costume director came to town, and Jessop says she made some money sewing costumes for Big Love, HBO’s series about a suburban polygamous family connected to an FLDS-like cult.

Page 370: The transition to life outside the FLDS was toughest on Betty, Jessop’s oldest daughter. After a visit with her father in FLDS-controlled Colorado City, Betty snapped. ” ‘You’re an apostate, owned by the devil!’ Betty said. ‘He wants your soul and he wants ours.’ ” Two days after her 18th birthday, Betty returned to the FLDS fold.

Page 404: Jessop heard “rumors that children were being taken from their mothers and sent to the FLDS compound in Texas. … We heard they were being sent away to be raised the way Warren wanted them to be raised.”

Page 409: Jeffs himself went underground to hide from the authorities after being accused of arranging the marriage of an underage girl to her cousin. Eventually, he was arrested—while in a car that was red, the color he forbade his followers to wear—and convicted. Still, “Warren’s arrest was not the end of his power,” Carolyn says. “They were not going to abandon their loyalty to him overnight because he was in the hands of the wicked.” (Jeffs resigned as president of the FLDS in late 2007.)