Life Inside a Cult: The FLDS Exposed via Carolyn Jessop

19 May

Quite a while ago, my friend and colleague JAZ suggested I read Escape by Carolyn Jessop, the autobiographical story of a young woman born into the polygamous sect of Mormonism referred to as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).

Carolyn Jessop was married at a very young age to a much older man, Merryl Jessop, and became one of his many wives.  She had eight children by him, including one, Harrison, who had spinal cancer and was severely disabled, and another, Bryson, who was born very premature.

She was lucky enough to earn a college education while married to Merryl so that she could be employed to teach (and turn her salary over to her husband, the lord and master of her home).  As she continued to learn and grow as a person, she began to question her faith and eventually came to believe that what she had been taught her entire life, and what she fervently believed, was wrong.

She writes in Triumph:  Life After the CultA Survivor’s Lessons:

I did not completely change the way I viewed my world in one moment.  My shedding of decades of FLDS mind control came in stages.  Looking back now, I can see that I was transforming my life years before I fled.  It happened incrementally.  Sometimes it was a day at a time, sometimes just an hour.  But each moment was a building block that led me to the next stage in my journey, and then the next.

As Rulon Jeffs, the prophet of the FLDS aged, his son Warren Jeffs, began to control those living in the polygamous sect.  His restrictions became so prohibitive and controlling that Carolyn knew she had to get herself and her children out if they ever wanted a chance at a normal life.

You may have heard of Warren Jeffs, by the way.  In 2007 he was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution in Utah.  He was found, arrested, and found guilty of being an accomplice to rape (because underage girls were forcibly married to much older men).  He’s currently serving ten years in prison.

She narrowly escaped, with all of her children, and though it was extremely difficult, she was able to survive on her own and was even granted custody of all her children.

The story fascinated me!  I was so intrigued by cult life—the brainwashing, the communal living, the lack of identity given to women and children—it all bewildered and amazed me that this actually occurred.

I read this book shortly after the now infamous raid by Texas authorities on the FLDS compound—Yearning for Zion ranch—after receiving a call from a young girl named Sarah saying she was being abused.  This resulted in over 400 children being removed from the compound and some of the more prominent male members of the compound being found guilty of various crimes.

I was so fascinated by their belief system that included the now famous long hair piled upon their heads and the “prairie dresses” made famous on the news.

Carolyn Jessop’s tale is terrifying.  Her story of the life she led—the fear she held within her for herself and her children, how she was dominated by both her husband and her sister wives, how her children were abused by their other mothers—was all so scary to read.  I could never imagine being in her place.

Jessop is indeed an exceedingly strong woman.  She never crumpled under these living conditions.  She stayed strong for years, slowly planning her escape.  I was moved by her story of love for her children, courage in the face of ever-looming defeat, and pure strength of will in the toughest and scariest of situations.

Months later, JAZ again suggested a book for me.  It was Triumph:  Life After the Cult—A Survivor’s Lessons, Jessop’s follow-up to Escape.  I eagerly checked it out of the library and devoured it in a matter of hours.

Trimuph picks up where Escape left off, giving information about how Jessop and her seven children’s lives have improved in the past few years.  And, yes, I said seven children.  Not eight.  Two days after her oldest daughter Betty turned eighteen she [Betty] decided to return to her father, Merryl, and his family at the YFZ Ranch.  (Jessop and her children escaped prior to their move to the compound.  If she hadn’t, she says she never would have been able to escape.)

More interestingly, Jessop discusses, in detail, the raid on the YFZ ranch.  She obviously wasn’t there when it happened, but was called in by authorities in Texas to help them to understand FLDS culture.

Anderson Cooper’s partial interview with Carolyn Jessop after the raid:

She discusses the way children are raised to treat women and other races, considering them both as unworthy:

One of the biggest issues was that many of these kids had no respect for women.  This was common in the FLDS culture but hard for outsiders to grasp.  That lack of respect, combined with racial prejudice (another part of FLDS dogma), meant that many CPS workers had no authority whatsoever.  The only way a woman could get some children to cooperate was by having a white male stand beside her demanding that the children be respectful.  The worse scenario was when an African American woman was placed in charge.  This was a surefire disaster.  FLDS children are indoctrinated to believe that all people of color were put on the earth to preserve evil and will burn in hell when they die.

I’ve seen tapes of Warren Jeffs’s racist preaching on YouTube.  In one of his rants he says, “You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, or rude and filthy, uncomely, disagreeable or low in their habits, wild and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind.”  (Inflammatory statements like this about blacks and homosexuals led the Southern Poverty Law Center to declare the FLDS a hate group—the first time it ever gave a religious sect that designation.)

Warren Jeffs’s views on race were even more extreme than those of the traditional FLDS, and he actively encouraged people to hate African Americans and other nonwhite races. 

I am so glad that the SPLC declared the FLDS a hate group!  Beliefs such as those above are of no use to anyone.  I’ve seem them before.  In Mein Kampf.

(I thought about searching for and posting some of Jeffs’ YouTube rants, but ultimately I decided I didn’t want to give more “airtime” to a belief system that is so radically opposite of my own and does nothing to improve our world today.  If you’re interested in seeing them, sorry.  You’ll have to Google on your own.)

As already mentioned, the raid by Texan authorities removed over 400 children from the compound.  I was fascinated—and creeped out—by the following statistic that Jessop shared regarding the raid:

The numbers say it best:  CPS removed 468 people from the ranch—439 children and 29 women.  But among the 468 there were only eighteen last names.

The DNA began illuminating other disturbing evidence.  The children’s parents in several cases had married double first cousins.  In other cases, full sisters married the same man, making their children half-siblings as well as first cousins. 


One consequence of all the intermarrying is that FLDS children have a higher incidence of a rare and catastrophic genetic disease, fumarase deficiency, than children anywhere else in the world.  Up until 1990, only thirteen cases were known worldwide, but since then twenty have been reported in the FLDS community I fled, although none on the ranch.  Fumarase children are subject to severe mental retardation, epileptic seizures, and encephalopathy.

Ultimately, the raid ended up failing the children, and women, who so desperately needed the help.  But along the way, I found out so much more about this cult’s culture.  For instance, all the weeping women shown on the news clips apparently did not live at the YFZ ranch but at another compound and were brought in as part of the FLDS political propaganda to show the world that they were victims.

Jessop goes on to talk about how her mindset, her core values, and her belief system evolved into what they are  today, and how those beliefs can help anyone to change what can be a very terrible situation into something better.

She gets a little “self-helpy” near the end (or her ghost writer does), but her message is true, clear, and strong.  Stay true to what you believe.  Protect those you love and do what is right by all human beings.  Everyone deserves respect, love, support, and the rights granted to all citizens of the United States.

I highly recommend both of her books.

Escape was written by Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer and published in 2008 by Broadway Books.  Triumph was also written by Jessop with Palmer and published in 2010 by Broadway Books.


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