I have to admit that I’ve become somewhat fascinated with polygamists cults in the last few years. As I read headlines about kids being removed from polygamist parents—and given back—I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to live in such an alternative universe. The idea of living with a husband and several ‘sister wives’ really has an ick factor for me because of the sexual issues, but I also think I wouldn’t be able to live with ‘sister wives’ in my house even if they weren’t my husband’s concubines. Who wants some other woman telling her how to run her household?
In “Escape,” Carolyn Jessup affirms my suspicions about too many women in the home. When she’s only eighteen years old, Carolyn is forced to marry a man who is something of an enemy to her family—a man who already has three other wives and will go on to have at least two more (the six that are discussed in the book) and is more than thirty years Carolyn’s senior. OK, so this had more than an ick factor for me—it was just plain gross.
Carolyn’s husband plays his wives off of one another. It’s interesting because all but one can’t stand him, and yet they vie for his affection and are jealous of one another. He alternates sleeping with (and impregnating) them. Carolyn has baby after baby—eight in all—and one of her children is severely disabled. Yet none of the other ‘sister wives’ will help her when she is ill—at one point pregnancy and childbirth almost kill her—because they are envious. They tell her that her child’s disability is God’s judgment on her for being willful and disobedient. The “alpha wife”—the one that Jessop cares for—rules the roost, making the others cook and clean. She beats the children that are not her own. (Kids of the lesser wives have to watch out because life is precarious for them.) When Carolyn’s insides finally fall out and she has a hysterectomy, I thought she’d be saved from sleeping with the dirty old man because, according to the religious tenets of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), the point in polygamy is to procreate. But no, Jessop stills demands sex, that is, when he isn’t sending Carolyn off to work in some hole-in-the-wall motel.
Elissa Wall of “Stolen Innocence” has a slightly different story. She is only fourteen when forced to marry. She tries everything she can to get out of it, but the church’s leader, Warren Jeffs, won’t listen. He arranges the marriages based on his visions from God. (He is the community’s prophet—he arranged Carolyn Jessop’s marriage as well.) Elissa’s husband is also young, and she is his first wife. However, the ick factor is there. He’s her first cousin, and one with whom she has never gotten along. He was always mean to her. At fourteen, having lived in a super-protective environment, Elissa knows nothing about sex. Her husband rapes her on a regular basis. She is so afraid of him that she takes to sleeping in a truck.
Elissa has several miscarriages and a still birth. I guessed that all her unborn and just-born babies had died from genetic deformities caused by being the products of first cousins. However, the book doesn’t discuss this. When Elissa does finally break away and marry the man she wants to marry, she has healthy children.
Both books have a lot of detail about the structure of the FLDS society and its leader, Warren Jeffs. I finally had my question about boys answered. (If each man is supposed to have so many wives, aren’t there extra boys, and then men, left over? Yes, there are—they call them lost boys and throw them out on the road to fend for themselves when they are young. This keeps the ratio of men to women low.) When Jeffs is arrested, Elissa is one of the primary witnesses against him in his trial. The situation of the women in the FLDS sect–-to submit to husbands in mind, body and soul—reminds me of the situation of women today in some third world countries. It also reminds me of the novel (so, yes, that means it’s fiction) “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. That book is about a not-too-distant future United States after some sort of nuclear event when a religious sect takes over the government and reduces all women to servants and concubines. “Escape” and “Stolen Innocence” remind us that sometimes such things actually happen—and right in our own backyard.