Thursday Book Talk: “Escape,” by Carolyn Jessop

Escape by Carolyn Jessop

Carolyn Jessop (with Laura Palmer)
Broadway Books, 2008 (ISBN 0767927575 / 9780767927574)
Nonfiction/memoir, 448 pages

First sentence: “Escape. The moment had come.”

Random clip (page 91)
: “After several terrible years with Faunita, Audrey said, Merril was forced to marry Ruth. He resisted this marriage as well, until he was reprimanded by the prophet and forced to wed.”

Book description: When she was eighteen years old, Carolyn Jessop was coerced into an arranged marriage with a total stranger: a man thirty-two years her senior. Merril Jessop already had three wives. But arranged plural marriages were an integral part of Carolyn’s heritage: she was born into and raised in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the radical offshoot of the Mormon Church that had settled in small communities along the Arizona-Utah border. Over the next fifteen years, Carolyn had eight children and withstood her husband’s psychological abuse and the watchful eyes of his other wives who were locked in a constant battle for supremacy.

Carolyn’s every move was dictated by her husband’s whims. He decided where she lived and how her children would be treated. He controlled the money she earned as a school teacher. He chose when they had sex; Carolyn could only refuse—at her peril. For in the FLDS, a wife’s compliance with her husband determined how much status both she and her children held in the family. Carolyn was miserable for years and wanted out, but she knew that if she tried to leave and got caught, her children would be taken away from her. No woman in the country had ever escaped from theFLDS and managed to get her children out, too. But in 2003, Carolyn chose freedom over fear and fled her home with her eight children. She had $20 to her name.

Escape exposes a world tantamount to a prison camp, created by religious fanatics who, in the name of God, deprive their followers the right to make choices, force women to be totally subservient to men, and brainwash children in church-run schools. Against this background, Carolyn Jessop’s flight takes on an extraordinary, inspiring power. Not only did she manage a daring escape from a brutal environment, she became the first woman ever granted full custody of her children in a contested suit involving theFLDS . And in 2006, her reports to the Utah attorney general on church abuses formed a crucial part of the case that led to the arrest of their notorious leader, Warren Jeffs.

Comments: I bought this book several months ago after seeing several bloggers’ posts about it, and just after finishing The 19th Wife seemed like the appropriate time to read it. That was a fictionalized look at polygamy in history; Escape is a contemporary exploration of how it continues today, as experienced by Carolyn Jessop, her children, and her “sister wives.”

Carolyn Blackmore’s hometown of Colorado City, Arizona, was essentially a “company town” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the FLDS), a group that had split from the original Mormon Church a century ago over the issue of “celestial marriage.” The FLDS continued to believe in and practice polygamy; Carolyn’s own father took a second wife when she was ten years old, as instructed by the FLDS ‘ leader, or “prophet,” who was believed to speak for God and who assigned all marriage partners. At 18, Carolyn herself became the fourth wife of Merril Jessop, a business partner of her father’s, as part of their settlement of a debt, but it was by mistake; Merril had wanted her younger, prettier sister Annette, but got the girls’ names mixed up.

Although she was married and, before too long, a mother, Carolyn was granted the unusual privilege of continuing her education; she earned a college degree and became a second-grade teacher in Colorado City. Her education gave Carolyn a perspective that many of her neighbors and family didn’t understand or share, and she began to question and doubt the ways of her religion. Her husband was abusive to her and most of his other wives, and uninterested in most of his children (of which 8 were with Carolyn). Husbands had full power over their wives and children as “priesthood heads,” and demanded obedience and “harmony.” This followed the decrees of the prophet, who controlled all details of their lives. Access to education was curtailed; girls were assigned in marriage at younger and younger ages to middle-aged and elderly men; wives and their children could be taken from one man and “reassigned” to another; and young men were being driven out of the community. As life in the FLDS grew more constrained and dangerous, Carolyn became determined to get herself and her children out of what she came to understand was a cult.

In a recent guest post by Tracy Wolff for My Friend Amy, the author discussed the difference between “writers” and “storytellers.” I’m not sure I’d say Carolyn Jessop is a “writer;” Escape is co-credited to Laura Palmer, and to me, it reads a lot like oral history. Some of the other reviews I’ve seen of the book have suggested that it could have used better editing; I’m not sure I agree, but there is some repetition and inconsistency throughout. I’m not sure Jessop is a “storyteller” in a general sense either, but I believe the story she tells here – her own – is one that really matters. It’s a rare inside view of a fringe culture that, under “freedom of religion,” engages in a way of life that flouts the law and endangers the welfare of women and children while enriching a select few men, and perpetuating that culture by nurturing fear and cutting its believers off from information and input from the larger world around them. It’s a world that’s hard to wrap your head around if you’ve never lived that way, and it’s unsettling to understand how it goes on today.

Escape is a book to be read for the content, not the writing – and I found the content absolutely riveting. It’s enlightening, horrifying, suspenseful, and ultimately triumphant (not a spoiler – the title of the book is Escape, after all, so you know eventually it’s going to happen). I can’t say I loved it, but I do think it’s an important story well worth reading.

Rating: 3.75/5

This is one of the books that inspired yesterday’s discussion post about legalizing polygamy – did you see that one yet?

If you’ve read and reviewed this book, please leave your link in a comment here or e-mail it to me at 3.rsblog AT Gmail DOT com, and I’ll edit this review to include it!

*** On a related note, I’m giving away a copy of The 19th Wife – it’s open until June 26, and the details are here! ***

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  1. Thanks for linking to my review! I agree with you, this is an important story worth reading, even if her writing leaves something to be desired. As you said, it's a book to be read for the content anyway.

  2. I read this book last summer and you're right, it's meant to be read for the content – it doesn't pretend to be great literature. I wondered if I would have had Carolyn's strength if I'd been in the same situation. I enjoyed your review.

  3. Avisannchild – Like I said, it read more like recorded oral history to me, and once I framed it that way, the writing really didn't bother me all that much.

    Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I don't know if I could have gone through what she did, seriously.

  4. it was a staggering book! suspenseful! could not put it down! whatever happened to that violent, no-good, nasty wife and child abuser??? don't tell me he got off scott free.
    littleton, colorado

  5. Laura – Carolyn mentions it in the epilogue of the book, but I can't remember the details. I think her ex-husband has suffered some consequences, but probably not enough.