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Opinion / Analysis / Essays
Escape Author Carolyn Jessop Speaks Out

November 5, 2008

The basic facts of Carolyn Jessop's story--that she was a sixth-generation member of a fundamentalist polygamous sect until five years ago, when she escaped with her eight children--were known to most of the people who packed into Gamble Auditorium on Tuesday, October 30, to hear her speak. But as the evening took shape the enormity of her ordeal sank in deeper and deeper.

As hard as it is to wrap one's mind around the existence in twenty-first-century America of the stark and overtly violent form of patriarchy that she endured, the details Jessop offered of her harrowing physical, emotional, and intellectual journey to freedom were nothing if not mind-bending. Her experiences raise deep philosophical questions about the drive for self-determination, as well as legal, political, and even spiritual conundrums about how a democracy can regulate behavior within its borders.

For more than a century, since mainstream Mormons rejected polygamy, breakaway groups like the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (F.L.D.S.), to which Jessop belonged, have persisted in the practice of men propagating huge families with, as they term it, plural wives. Born into this subculture Jessop was forced, at the age of 18, to become the fourth wife of a man more than three decades older. She had no say over the basic decisions of how to structure her life. Add to this that she lived in an isolated community straddling the state line between Utah and Arizona many miles from the nearest city and that a cult mentality pervaded almost every aspect of her day to day existence. Moreover, the sanctions for disobedience were not only brutal, but there was no compunction within the group about enforcing conformity to its leader's arbitrary notions of rectitude.

The forum at Mount Holyoke, organized by the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts as part of the Body Politics series, featured a discourse between Jessop and the Rev. Gladys Moore, the College's dean of religious and spiritual life and director of diversity and inclusion. As they sat on a pair of upholstered chairs at the front of the hall Moore asked Jessop, who now resides in Salt Lake City, to reflect on how she was able to overcome the brainwashing of the cult and in the process discover her "authentic self."

Jessop described a long internal struggle to first break free mentally from the idea that her fate was not inevitable before moving to actually extricate herself and her children from a lifestyle that she described as a form of slavery. "I had a near death experience that brought my authentic self out, and it was never suppressed again," Jessop said, describing the agonizing physical pain she endured while giving birth to her youngest child after a pregnancy with nearly fatal complications. It's not that she hadn't questioned the total submissiveness she and the other women in the F.L.D.S. are expected to exhibit toward the dominant males in the group. But facing actual death led her to an epiphany about facing the fear that was instilled in all of the group's members as a control mechanism.

"I don't call it overcoming fear, I think it's more surrendering to fear and realizing you have to face it and get through it," Jessop said. Then you can do "whatever it takes to follow your heart."

Mount Holyoke sophomore Sophia Axtman found Jessop's story deeply inspiring. "She showed that if you look inward you have the power to escape from bad things," said Axtman, adding that she had not been aware of the "magnitude this situation." Learning that the F.L.D.S. has more than 10,000 members "was just incredible," Axtman said. "It left me speechless."

After the talk Jessop signed copies of a book she authored last year together with Laura Palmer. The title is simply, Escape. Weissman Center director Lois Brown said she first heard Jessop giving a television interview over the summer. "I actually was stopped in my tracks and listened to this powerful and compelling story, and I thought I just have to bring this to campus," Brown said. She termed it an "epiphany moment" to see somebody "who is powerful, who is courageous, who is tackling an institution that seems absolutely insurmountable and is doing it with grace and a sense of absolute persistence." Jessop's book, said Brown, has "unearthed the depth and breadth of this community, it's staggering."

Last July Jessop testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Nevada Senator Harry Reid introduced her. He branded polygamous communities in the United States "a form of organized crime." Jessop said she was heartened by Reid's desire to establish "programs to help women who want to leave this lifestyle." Among the crimes being perpetrated, said Jessop, are rampant and severe child abuse as well as rape and statutory rape. In recent years, she said, girls as young as 12 years of age have been forced into marrying much older men.

"I think it's a form of pedophilia hiding behind religion as a protection," Jessop said. It is "a desire to control and manipulate and torture people and religion is used just as a front cover." Breaking away from the cult was akin to "jumping off a cliff," Jessop said. "I was a refugee in my own country making a desperate attempt to escape from the only lifestyle I had ever known."

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All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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