In the preface of Escape, Carolyn Jessop gave a brief, body-clenching account of the night she and her eight children fled her polygamous arranged marriage and the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints cult. Now she takes us back in time to her childhood. For the next several chapters, she’ll immerse us in her early life and the FLDS, showing us how a harsh fundamentalist doctrine enmeshes the mind, and leads to the awful abuses many people, especially women and children, suffer in such sects.
Carolyn very nearly wasn’t born into it at all:
Aunt Lydia couldn’t believe I’d survived. She was the midwife who had delivered babies for two generations, including my mother. When she saw the placenta, she realized that my mother had chronic placental abruption. Mom had hemorrhaged throughout her pregnancy and thought she was miscarrying. But when the bleeding stopped, she shrugged it off, assuming she was still pregnant. Aunt Lydia, the midwife, said that by the time I was born, the placenta was almost completely detached from the uterus. My mother could have bled to death and I could have been born prematurely or, worse, stillborn.
It appalls me that a woman could hemorrhage during pregnancy and just disregard it. But this is what can come of fundamentalist philosophy. Many of these very controlling sects prefer using midwives to OBs. The gynecological care for women is poor or non-existent. You frequently end up with pregnant women choosing – or being forced – to take enormous risks with their health. You get women “shrugging off” dire emergencies like maternal hemorrhage. You too often end up with injured or dead mothers and babies. Carolyn and her mom Nurylon were extremely fortunate. (Oh, and if you’re tempted to paint this gamble as the beautiful result of trusting “natural birth,” please go read the Skeptical OB. There’s a reason poor women in other countries go so far as to swim raging rivers so they can give birth in a hospital. It’s because “natural” childbirth is wildly dangerous.
Carolyn’s father Arthur gave her mom a choice of two names. That’s the extent of egalitarian parenting in their world. Carolyn’s mom was sixth generation FLDS. She knew her place was to submit, the man’s to decide.
When Carolyn was born, her father had only one wife. The family moved from Colorado City, Arizona to Salt Lake City, Utah when Carolyn was five. Her mother thrived there, where her husband could come home from work nightly and they had enough money to feed their growing family. They could even afford toys for the kids. Nurylon loved taking her kids to the zoo and the park. And she was “thrilled,” after three daughters, “to finally have a son, because in our culture, boys have more value than girls.”
The fact that her father favored Carolyn over the other kids caused tension, but despite that, the year they spent in Salt Lake City was good. But then her father decided to move the family back to Colorado City, because his eldest child, Lydia, was about to start school, and he wanted her taught in the FLDS-soaked (nominally) public schools. Couldn’t have her learning real stuff, of course!
The move back to their cramped little home and the dusty, claustophobic little FLDS town caused Nurylon to sink into a deep depression, one so severe she couldn’t even try to hide it from the kids. She would talk constantly about wanting to die, “having nothing to live for,” and sometimes would inform her children over their late-morning breakfast that she planned to kill herself that day. She assured her terrified kids that the Church would assign their dad a new wife, so they’d have a new mom to take care of them. She beat her children almost daily, sometimes bruising them so severely the marks would linger for over a week. The kids had to become experts in her behavior to survive, going so far as to provoke her into spanking them every morning once Carolyn had figured out she only spanked once per day, and the morning spankings weren’t as severe. She then wondered why her children were so bad in the mornings…
Many fundamentalists advocate spanking, relying on the Bible for justification. They have entire rituals dedicated to it, including spanking from love and hugging the child afterward. Carolyn’s experience shows why this doesn’t work:
When my mother beat me, she would always say she was doing it because she loved me. So I used to wish she didn’t love me. I was afraid of her, but I would also get angry at her when she hit me. After she beat me she insisted on giving me a hug. I hated that. The hug didn’t make the spanking stop hurting. It didn’t fix anything.
This was considered good discipline in the FLDS community. But it’s not discipline. Spanking is abuse.
Abuse was rife in the FLDS community. Carolyn remembers seeing women in dark glasses, hiding black eyes and other bruises, quite often as a child. Her mother wouldn’t explain that those bruises came from battering husbands.
On the outside, Carolyn’s family looked perfect. Her mother kept them dressed in beautiful handmade clothes, and they were exquisitely well-behaved. Everyone thought their family was perfect. Keep that in mind when you see the Duggars playing happy huge family on teevee.
In Salt Lake City, Carolyn’s mother had been happy, engaged with the world around her. “In Colorado City, she was locked into a world of constant pregnancies, a loveless marriage, and a rural community strung together with dirt roads.” She and her husband fought constantly when he was home. She had to put on a facade of perfection with him, but it was never perfect enough. He complained about dust atop the refrigerator when the rest of the house gleamed. He complained about the children’s behavior, no matter how well they behaved. He wanted his already-thin wife to be thinner, despite keeping her almost continually pregnant.
There were flashes of the person she could have been, had she not been crushed by the FLDS lifestyle and her husband’s abuse. She loved playing games with her kids, and read them fairytales. She delighted in Christmas, even going so far as to smuggle in an FLDS-forbidden Christmas tree one year. She and her kids had a wonderful night decorating it, and a joyous Christmas morning opening their presents and eating candy.
My father let us have candy once a year – no more. My mother was clearly disobeying our father in giving us sugary treats…. Linda and I were old enough to realize that Mama was going to have to pay for her disobedience, but we loved feeling so spoiled.
Carolyn’s father came home the following night, and blew up. He and his wife fought at top volume long into the night. When Carolyn woke the next morning, the tree was gone, and her mother wept as she cooked breakfast. Their first Christmas was their last. Her mother’s depression grew so severe she couldn’t get out of bed or take care of the house. Her spirit was crushed.
After a few days, the friend who had been her Christmas co-conspirator came over and told her to stop feeling bad about herself. If her husband didn’t want her to have fun with her kids, that was his problem. Mother rallied, but she never again did something with us in defiance of our religion. I did notice that she became more demanding of us and insisted on more perfection after the Christmas episode. I’m sure she would have preferred to play games with us instead of spanking us, but her own mental slavery prevented her from being who she was.
It’s unbearably tragic when religion and/or ideology confines people in strait jackets so tight they’re strangled. I wish Carolyn’s mother could have broken those bonds, but it’s nearly impossible for women with no power and resources to do. And next week, we’ll see how the FLDS church kept its members in chains. We’ll also see what happened when they were almost set free.
For now, all I can say is, fuck religion. Yes, I’m aware that families can have abusive and controlling dynamics without it. But at least those abusers don’t have a mandate from God for their abuse. At least they can’t so easily claim that what they do is holy. And good people aren’t turned bad against their will, believing they must do what God wants, even if it means harming themselves and their kids. At least they don’t believe their salvation depends upon it.
I’m reviewing Escape chapter-by-chapter. Pick yourself up a copy if you’d like to follow along.