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By Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer
Broadway Books, 2007

Carolyn was the first woman to escape from the Colorado City FLDS community with all of her children. Her autobiography is a desolate moonscape of unrighteous dominion gone mad.

The real horror is the likelihood that the men in this true story who pervert the notion of spirituality to an obscene degree sincerely believe they are honoring their priesthood.

A turning point in the horrifying tale occurs when Carolyn, for the first time, is told by a person outside the community that her husband is abusive. It has simply never occurred to her to associate that adjective with her priesthood head. ?

I told him Meriil had never hit me.

Doesn ?t matter. It doesn ?t have to be physical abuse. Emotional abuse is just as bad. I ?ve never seen a man more emotionally abusive than your husband. He ?s dangerous. ?

This was all new to me and not easy to process.

I ?d known Merril was dangerous from the moment I met him. But I ?d never had the right words for it until I heard James describe it.

I felt like the gravity had been stripped from my world. What James was saying undermined a main premise of my faith: That only my husband could determine whether or not I was worthy enough to enter into heaven. James did not comprehend what I knew in my bones to be true.

James wasn ?t finished. I know the kind of man your husband is. I have seen his like before. You ?re going to end up dead if you don ?t wake up and get away from him. ?

Men like him start out with abuse but they will eventually kill their victims. ?

The story is the tale of Carolyn ?s unprecedented escape, executed when she was nearly dead from complications of childbirth, and caring for a critically ill toddler and a premature newborn. I have never routed so desperately for a rebel. This is the true story of an amazing woman.

It is also a detailed story about everything that can go wrong in a totalitarian society. I hope it is also a cautionary tale about the social consequences of perverting scripture. John 13:35 is a clear example. We are taught in John 13:35 to recognize followers of Christ by their love for one another. If we think for a moment about the people in our lives who demonstrate that discipleship, we know in our bones, ? as Jessop puts it, what this sort of Christlike love looks like in real life

Merril Jessop and Barbara, his cruel first wife, say they must beat and starve their children because they love them and it is their responsibility to discipline them, to keep them focused on God ?s work. I think they believe every word of it, as they brutally batter a screaming four-year-old until he is trembling, vomiting, and too exhausted to cry.

Carolyn Jessop explains that she is amazed, over and over, at the kindness she sees in the world outside the complex. Strangers go out of their way to anticipate her needs, comfort her and protect her children. She gradually sees for herself that nonmembers of her cult are not the diabolical monsters she was warned about. In fact, as she endures unimaginable trials, she sees for herself that it is actually the other way around. She has believed ridiculous lies. The notion of discipleship has been contaminated beyond recognition in her family. It is not until she has finally escaped and triumphed in her custody battle, that counselors begin to teach her to demonstrate affection for her children, whom she loves with all her heart. Physical affection between parents and children was not permitted in the FLDS community, and she didn ?t know how to hug.

How can people be so vulnerable to such blatant deceit?

I have read that victims of certain brain injuries can be told to perform a simple task, but the area of the brain that processes linear logic does not communicate with the area that heard the verbal cue. When they are asked why they opened the book or closed the window or walked across the room, they don ?t recall the instruction, but they always know the reason. They were looking for a shopping list tucked in the book, or they felt chilly, or they needed to stretch their legs.

One conclusion, from observing this phenomenon, is that our brains are remarkable at inventing a narrative that will explain our actions. We believe these fictions ourselves. We are not consciously aware that we are weaving alibis to explain or excuse our behavior.

If this is accurate, then it is credible that unstable people might sincerely believe they are following a prophet of God when they commit hideous atrocities and/or allow their lives to be savaged by increasingly demented tyrants. We tell ourselves stories to convince ourselves that our behavior is logical and justified.

If you read Escape, or if you have known people who left radical fundamentalist cults, you will want to scream, How could you allow yourself to be sucked into such obvious madness? ? It is a question worth asking, and you will find an explanation in Jessop ?s story. I believe the allure of excuses and lies is one important reason why our leaders have always emphasized that every member, from childhood, should read and re-read the scriptures, search, ponder and pray.

1 Corinthians 13:4, might protect us from some of the elaborate alibis we spin for ourselves, to make it OK to be sarcastic to a waitress or to snub a colleague who we find annoying. It might lift us up when we have an impulse to say something cutting about a difficult person in the ward or a family member who has disappointed us.

Most of us will never confront anything like Carolyn Jessop ?s passage through hell. But her story reminds us that abusers are among us; that we ourselves are capable of abusive impulses; and that God has given us scripture power ? against evil, and the light of Christ to guide us.

{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Alison Moore Smith May 4, 2008, 11:08 am

    Kathy this is a great and timely review. Thank you!

  • agardner May 4, 2008, 12:51 pm

    Great review, and I look forward to reading the book. With recent events, I’ve really been wondering what is happening behind the scenes and with the thought processes of those involved.

  • facethemusic May 4, 2008, 1:30 pm

    She gradually sees for herself that nonmembers of her cult are not the diabolical monsters she was warned about.

    Sounds like M. Night Shamalyan’s “The Village”!! (Highly recommend watching it if you like thriller/suspense films) Only it’s real life.

  • Ray May 4, 2008, 8:05 pm

    I want to believe Ms. Jessup (I really do.), since I do believe the situation had deteriorated significantly since Jeffs took over leadership, but she just keeps making allegations that seem a little too . . . “convenient”, for lack of a better word. I also know of other people who have left the FLDS whose accounts are markedly different than Ms. Jessup’s.

    The latest example, if I understand it properly, is her allegation that the men would waterboard infants in the sink in order to control them. First, I have a very hard time believing that such actions would be tolerated if known, but I also see that she (apparently) did not make this claim until national attention was focused by the Texas raid – and that simply is not something you would forget or forget to mention earlier. She just seems like a stereotypical ex-FLDS, acting like some of those who have left our own church and will say just about anything in order to hinder our work.

    What she claims is appalling. If I am incorrect about this and other similar things I have heard, and if she is correct, it is unbelievable and should be handled as directly and unmercifully as is allowed by law. I just have a hard time accepting her as a credible source of information.

  • Alison Moore Smith May 4, 2008, 8:52 pm

    Although I understand your concerns about this particular woman’s claims–and know really nothing more than the average new-watcher about the FLDS in particular–I don’t find the claims to be out-of-the-ballpark unbelievable. I have read parenting guides (generally offered by fundamentalist Christian publishers/lecturers/groups) that advocate all sorts of stuff that most of us would consider harsh, if not abusive.

    One that comes to mind is the method for getting a baby to go to sleep by laying her down in the crib, sitting next to her, and whacking her with a spoon each time she lifted her head. Can’t remember if that was the Babywise group (Ezzo) or another. Often it’s in the name of showing exacting obedience to parents, etc.

  • Ray May 4, 2008, 9:05 pm

    I know about those tactics, Alison, but, as I said, it’s more the timing of the most egregious allegations that concerns me. I tend to believe here initial claims; I just have a hard time believing the ones she has made since she became “popular” with the media. I see a move toward hyperbole that is troubling.

    That’s really my concern, in a nutshell. Her earlier allegations gave a solid basis for removing all teenage girls from their “spiritual husbands,” but her later allegations almost read as an exaggerated justification for removing ALL kids from ALL parents. It’s almost like she said, “Ooh, now I have a chance to shut down the entire group. SWEET!!”

    Again, I might be wrong about this, since I’m dealing only with very subjective impressions and accounts from others who have left the FLDS – not one of whom I am aware who has made allegations of things like the waterboarding abuse.

  • davidson May 4, 2008, 11:38 pm

    Waterboarding infants? Do I want to know?

  • kiar May 4, 2008, 11:46 pm


  • Alison Moore Smith May 5, 2008, 12:00 am

    Ray, honestly my reaction was similar when I heard her in an interview. Don’t know what to think, but I do think it’s problematic to look to disaffected members as THE source for information. The FLDS need their own Jan Shipps.

  • klgreen1 May 5, 2008, 12:00 am

    Ray, thanks for your balance. It’s true that you can’t believe everything you read. There’s also a perverse ethical question. If members of FLDS communities genuinely believe in their lifestyle and accept their disciplinary sanctions freely, it becomes a thorny issue. I think it’s a legitimate concern when cult leaders punish any communication outside their walls, confiscate books, ban TV, etc. These tactics prevent members from exercising free will because they deny information. I also believe power is rarely relinquished willingly; especially “unrighteous dominion.” Historically, it has always required a revolution. There will be tragedy and chaos as radical cults are confronted by legal authorities. Separation of church and state will be hammered out, with imperfect solutions on both sides. Removing kids from parents is an impossible puzzle in any case of criminal neglect or endangerment. The kids are heartbroken either way. My thought is this: Anyone who does not choose to stay should have the basic human right to leave. Anyone who questions religious or political beliefs has the right to freedom of speech as an American citizen. And women obviously have the same civil rights as men. I hope those who are confronted with the social clash will find a way to resolve the worst of the criminal behavior with the least trauma to the families involved.

  • klgreen1 May 5, 2008, 12:27 am

    Naomi, Jeffs’ niece, who was also interviewed, mentioned the water torture too if I am remembering correctly.

  • east-of-eden May 8, 2008, 11:09 am

    So Kathy…

    Does the author mention how they worshiped? I’ve read sevearl other accounts from people who left the FLDS and they said that when Rulon Jeffs took over things got bad, no music, outside things, and then when Warren took over there were no books at all allowed not even the Bible. So did/do these people read the scriptures, have “church” meetings and such?

  • klgreen1 May 10, 2008, 9:48 am

    Carolyn touches on that in her book, but she had stopped going to church early on. She did elaborate on the book ban. She was a school teacher, and she had a private collection of award-winning children’s books, all of which were confiscated. According to reports from her close friends, church soon turned into another form of intimidation, with lengthy rants against whomever Jeffs was down on. I sent an Email to Naomi, Jeffs’ niece, who has been sharing the spotlight since the El Dorado raid. Naomi does not publish her last name, but she sent me a detailed message about the problem as she sees it. One of Naomi’s comments was the hypocrisy of such vicious cruelty while preaching Christian doctrine and insisting that the purpose of the isolated compound was to further God’s work. So there must have been some bible teaching at one time. It was stunning to her that Jeffs and others, especially the principal of the private school, pretended to be Christian while savagely beating children every day just to intimidate them.

  • abish19 May 17, 2008, 8:20 am

    This may be a small point, but Barbara was not Merrill’s first wife. I believe she was his third (it’s been a few months since I’ve read the book); however, according to Carolyn, Barbara was his favorite wife.

    Just wanted to clarify! Thanks for the review.

  • Alison Moore Smith May 18, 2008, 11:33 pm

    abish19, welcome to Mormon Momma!

  • Alison Moore Smith May 18, 2008, 11:34 pm

    Now, isn’t that “favorite wife” thing pretty much the VERY thing that makes it most repugnant?

  • davidson May 19, 2008, 10:54 am

    Agreed, Alison. Ouch to the heart. Imagine being the “nonfavorite” wife.

    Abish19, yes, welcome! I am fascinated by your name. Abish is one of my favorite woman heroes in the Book of Mormon, and I have always wished we knew more about her. (By the way, I refuse to call them heroines. Having a favorite heroine might get you arrested!)

  • klgreen1 May 25, 2008, 1:46 pm

    Posted By: abish19This may be a small point, but Barbara was not Merrill’s first wife. I believe she was his third (it’s been a few months since I’ve read the book); however, according to Carolyn, Barbara was his favorite wife.

    Just wanted to clarify! Thanks for the review.

    Good point, Abish. Thanks. I think Ruth, the woman who eventually suffered from delusions, was ahead of Barbara chronologically. Faunita was first, per page 76. I think you are right; that places Barbara at number three.

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