When she was eighteen years old, Carolyn Blackmore became the fourth wife of a fifty-year-old man named Merril Jessop, who was a highly ranking member in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), better known as the polygamous Mormon offshoot community. She gave birth to eight children in fifteen years, one of whom was severely ill and required round-the-clock care. In the meantime, she coped with physical and sexual abuse, competition between Merril’s increasing stable of wives, and mismanagement of household funds that often meant she had to scrounge for grocery money so that her kids could have something to eat for dinner. Considering everything that Carolyn Jessop endured as a “sister wife,” it would have been easy for her to fall into victimhood. However, Mormon history is a history of pioneers, and Carolyn Jessop became one of them.
In 20tk, she escaped the FLDS’ Colorado City compound with all of her children and became the first woman to win custody of her children away from the cult. Her battle was far from easy – in addition to taking on the well-funded and lawyered-up FLDS, she had to deal with finding work, navigating social services, and supporting her family alone. Even some of Carolyn’s own children told her that they wanted to go back to their father’s home and get away from the sins of the secular world. But she continued, undaunted, knowing that new Colorado City prophet Warren Jeffs was a dangerous man who was making the already sheltered community an increasingly dangerous place to live, especially for women. Though Jessop had been raised in polygamy, she had still been able to have some freedoms, such as attending college and driving a car. As former prophet Rulon Jeffs (Warren’s father) grew older and increasingly ill, his cunning and hateful son Warren stepped in to take control. He outlawed radio, television, secular schooling, books, and even the color red.
In 200k, Jeffs’ arrest (for facilitating the forced marriages of underage girls) and the removal of many children from the compound made the FLDS a nationwide story. The HBO drama Big Love and Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Under the Banner of Heaven also brought scrutiny to polygamy and FLDS fundamentalism. Suddenly, Jessop’s story was back in the news too. In an epilogue to Escape, she points out many cases of hypocrisy among the FLDS leadership. She correctly observes that the people sent to speak to the press were the women of Colorado City, not their husbands. These women, dressed in long pastel prairie-style dresses and sporting old-fashioned hairstyles, were presented as martyrs who wanted nothing more than to be reunited with the children who had been cruelly snatched away from them by the religion-persecuting government. However, Jessop saw through the facade, well aware of how cruelly these women were treated and how unhappy most of their lives were. Once again, she saw women taking the brunt of blame for what their husbands were doing – in this case, arranging forced marriages, chasing young men out of town when they became competition for wives, submitting false welfare and insurance claims, and more. Carolyn’s former husband Merril took his remaining wives and children and fled to a different FLDS compound in Texas. Some of her former sister-wives were among the women she saw on television when the compound was raided.
Anyone who buys into the belief that polygamy helps women manage their households and provides them with emotional support must read this book. Many of Jessop’s most horrifying stories happen at the hands of her sister-wives, including one incident where Merril’s favorite wife beat one of Carolyn’s children so severely he almost could not walk as ‘punishment’ for Carolyn being too ill to join a family prayer session. Wives were encouraged to curry favor with their husband by ratting each other out or blaming problems on each other. Wives who had more sex with and more children by their husband had more power, meaning that women tried to make themselves more attractive and competed for their husband’s attention, even if they didn’t love him or enjoy having sex with him. Carolyn tells of her own experiences complying with her husband’s unwanted sexual demands in exchange for protection or help for her kids. And polygamy isn’t great for most men, either. Many young men were excommunicated from the FLDS church for something as innocent as looking at a girl – in reality, they were being kicked out in order to make sure that there were more potential wives to go around for fewer potential husbands. These young men, known as the “Lost Boys,” were kicked out as teenagers with no money or friends outside of the community, and many of them became prostitutes in order to survive. Men who fell out of favor with the church risked being excommunicated and having their wives and children ‘reassigned’ to another man. Jessop’s book does a great job at showing the human struggle of polygamy and the everyday challenges that came with trying to maintain the lifestyle. If you’re a fan of Big Love and want to learn more about what women in polygamy actually experience, this book is essential. Though there have been several other ex-polygamist or ex-FLDS memoirs within the past few years, Jessop’s is the trailblazer and template-maker. Grey’s Anatomy actress Katherine Heigl, who grew up in the mainstream Mormon faith, bought the film rights to Escape and plans to play Carolyn. Make sure you read the real thing before the movie comes out.