'Escape' from Polygamy

"Escape" (Broadway Books)
Carolyn Jessop
Author, 'Escape' and Polygamy Survivor
Wednesday, April 16, 2008; 1:00 PM

Carolyn Jessop, author of Escape, an autobiography of her upbringing in the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and flight from it with her eight children, was online Wednesday, April 16, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her story.

Jessop will also discuss the current situation at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Tex., where authorities raided the compound on April 3 because of a phone call from an unidentified 16-year-old girl who said she had been physically and sexually abused. Police rounded up over 400 children who were placed under the protection of child welfare services. However, there have been allegations of improper treatment of the children and questions of whether Texas officials violated legal statutes.

A transcript follows.


Alexandria, Va.: Ms. Jessop, you have been an articulate and highly compelling advocate for people trapped in the FLDS and similar communities of abuse. Thank you for writing "Escape."

Why are the Utah authorities so persistently lax in terms of enforcing state laws which nominally prohibit the practices you've described? Is it that the formal FLDS leadership is secretly in sympathy with the plural outcast churches?

Carolyn Jessop: There are accusations of that, I don't know if that's the case. I think that polygamy has been a huge embarrassment for the state of Utah. I think they'd like to deal with it they saw a way to get at the problems. But see, the victims won't speak out that are involved. They defend the perpetrators. That's what's going on in Texas right now.


Washington, D.C.: I heard that a few of the mothers did not return to the compound with the rest of the women. Do you know anything about where they are and whether you think they will not return at all?

Carolyn Jessop: I know that they went to a safe house. All the women were offered that option. As far as them going back to the compound ... sadly that could be a possibility because they don't have any way of surviving in the real world. The women have no life skills.


Charlottesville, Va.: I keep reading about the mothers from the FLDS ranch, but nothing about the fathers. Where are they, and why aren't they asking about their children and standing there with the wives?

Carolyn Jessop: I have the same question and part of it is that they are the perpetrators. What they're putting out to the public now (the women) are their victims. So they're using the women to try to generate sympathy and then if the American public demands that the children be given back to their mothers, they will then get access again to the children. It's just a PR campaign.

These women are being used and that's what it's all about. By men who have committed crimes against them and their children.


Washington, D.C.: Hello,

Thank goodness you were so brave and got yourself and children out! How is Harrison doing?

If generations of women are born into the sect, how would they ever know there are other opportunities out there?

How do feel about a comment on last night's news that the children may be put up for adoption?

Thank you for talking with us.

Carolyn Jessop: Harrison is doing well, he's walking currently but still has a lot of neurological damage.

They don't know about the world outside. The only world they know is the one they were born into. Highly controlling from the time you get up until the time you go to bed at night, including what you're allowed exposure to. You can't watch TV. There used to be a moderate amount of it. When I was there in Colorado City, Ariz., we did not have access to TV, radio, the Internet, newspapers and movies and anything from outside our community. You lived every day in this little town and could only leave with a man and permission.

A mother absolutely has rights to her children but those rights do not supercede a child's right to safety. If the mother can be rehabilitated and with help, provide that safety, it's my hope she'll be able to stay with her children. That's a big emphasis on if she can provide the safety.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think the Texas authorities did the right thing by separating the mothers (with children older than 5) from their children?

Carolyn Jessop: Yes, I do. The women inside went public with the fact that they had cellphones. I know my ex-husband very well. He sent them in there with a protocol being that they would report back to him everything that was going on. So it's my belief that they used that access to traumatize the kids.


Arlington, Va.: One of the things that has really struck me in the coverage of the young mothers is their elaborate hairstyles. Can you tell me anything about this -- are these everyday styles for women in the community? With everything else on them so plain, why the beautiful hairstyles?

Carolyn Jessop: Everything is so restricted and so controlled if you have one area where you can put a little bit of time into yourself, you do it. It's one of their few outlets. It's so controlled, the dress, no personal expression.


Is it a religion, a cult or a cover for abuse for females?: I ask this question because it appears that the true purpose was to isolate and create a Stepford Wife, pedophile and women with no escape from abuse dream world existence for men.

I cannot imagine how these women and perhaps their children will adapt to really living in the United States without wanting to return to the world they only knew.

Carolyn Jessop: They will want to return to it. For me, when I left (April 22, 2003) it was like landing on another planet.

I was a product of six generations of polygamy. Born, raised and indoctrinated into the FLDS religion and then isolated away from any other life other than what they wanted me to have. Your personal identity is lost. If you're ever given a compliment you're not allowed to accept it or take glory into yourself. So then you are to say it's because of my "priested head," meaning your father or your husband.

To comment on the cult thing ... the FLDS meets the definition of the 10 things that make a cult dangerous and destructive, it contains all 10.

I was married to Merril Jessop who was in charge of the Texas compound for 17 hears and in 15 years of the marriage I had eight children. There are multiple things that made me decide to leave but the two things that I would to whatever it took to escape was the fear that we could go into compounds. Harrison had to daily medical care. If I lost access to medical care for him I knew he would die.

My oldest daughter was turning 14 in a matter of months and Warren Jeffs had reset the age to be married for a woman at 14. So I felt like the worst possible thing that would happen if I tried to escape wasn't going to be as bad as if I willingly stayed. I had nothing to lose.

The rest of this story is in my book "Escape."


Munich, Germany: In comparing your case with immigrants to the U.S. from polygamous cultures, I wonder if brainwashing was more prevalent within your group in order to isolate you from the rest of American society. How do you think that brainwashing could have been applied to you and your children?

Carolyn Jessop: Absolutely we were brainwashed. Over generations of this lifestyle it was not a low level brainwashing. This particular cult have found methods with mind control where they actually use a high level programming method that involves pain to program a person.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Ms. Jessop,

Thank you for taking our questions. What is your day-to-day life like now? Granted, you had an advantage over other FLDS women because you have a college education and a means of making a living, but you had to pretty much start over. How is it going?

Thanks again.

Carolyn Jessop: Maybe that's somewhat of an advantage to me. My day to life is better than anything I could have ever imagined life to be. Yes, I did have to start over from the level of bankruptcy. My ex-husband bankrupted me so from a financial place it was pretty difficult in the beginning. But I have something now that I never knew even existed: safety, freedom and hope. And those are priceless to me.


Carolyn Jessop: Regarding daily life, when I'm not doing book promotions I get to spend time with my family, something I've never had. When I lived with Merril he required me to work and so I was isolated away from my children and he had other people responsible for the care of my children and the amount of time I was allowed to spend with them was very limited. My children were not allowed to call me mother or mom, they referred to me as Mother Carolyn. My presence in their life was considered no different than any wife. Now they call me mom.


Life skills?: You said the women are unlikely to leave because they lack life skills. What kinds of skills do you mean and how did you learn these skills when you left?

Carolyn Jessop: A lot of them I didn't have before I left. I learned them after I left. These skills are like how to balance a checking account, how to take child to a doctor's appointment, how to enroll them in school, how to maintain a household. I was clueless at how to pay the bills, how to provide that kind of care for myself and my children.

I went to college in town close to the community and I went with several of my husband's daughters. They monitored everything I did and reported to their dad. I wasn't allowed to work; I was supposed to take a very enormous class load, go to school, and be back so he knew where I was. I never developed relationships with any of the other students because I didn't dare.


Atlanta, Ga.: Could you explain the allegation of taking young men, boys, really, off the compound and dropping them off other cities with no money, skills, etc. Is there any explanation offered to the boys when this happens? What happens to the boys? Is there any explanation for this other than the old guys don't want any competition from the young guys?

Carolyn Jessop: This is true. We have an unofficial count right now of 2,000 boys that have been dumped on the streets of cities and told that the prophet has rejected them; they have no place in the kingdom of God and the family never wants to see them again. Basically they are going to hell, there's no hope for them. They don't survive very well. Once they've been sent away they know they can never come back.


Arlington, Va.: When you were growing up, how aware were you of the world outside the FLDS? What were you told? What kind of a community did you grow up in?

Carolyn Jessop: The community I grew up in was a closed society and had been for generations and because of multiple generations intermarrying, everybody ends up related to everybody. So as a child, any member of that community felt it was their right to discipline me if I strayed from church doctrine.

The outside world was a scary place because I had limited access to it. I was told that everyone were agents of the devil who led ungodly lives and would do anything to destroy the work of God and his children.


Can we help?: Is there any way the average person can help? I've been so struck by how devastating this lifestyle must be.

Carolyn Jessop: There are two foundations right now that are helping the victims: Diversity that's located in Salt Lake City and another one called Hope and Elaine Tyler is in charge of this one located in St. George, Utah.


New Haven, Conn.: I watched three of the women on the Today show this a.m. Did you see them? What did you think? I couldn't decide if they were nervous or scared or if I am simply used to a more polished TV appearance...

Carolyn Jessop: I did see three women today on TV. One of them was a step-daughter of mine. What I'm seeing is that it's scripted. They're saying what they're being told to say by the man (probably Merril Jessop told them what to say). Monica, his daughter, did most of the talking (the one in the middle with red hair and glasses). They seemed that they didn't understand to answer questions that they hadn't been scripted on.


Washington, D.C.: What gave you the courage to escape?

Carolyn Jessop: I was backed up against a wall. It was like jumping over a cliff. I didn't know where I was going to land. I was just at a point where I would rather be dead than live one more day like that. But I was determined that I, as a mother, had eight lives to protect so I was going to do everything I could possibly do to protect them.

After I left, I worked with the state of Utah to write a safe passage grant and there have been a lot of women who have since left the FLDS once a little bit of money was available to give them a chance of a life other than this but we lost the federal money this year. But the Utah Attorney General was able to get the state to fund the safe passage for '08.

But there's not enough help for a woman to survive and get on her feet even with safe passage.


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