Maclean's - Canada March 30, 2011
On polygamy, child brides and why the stakes in B.C. are so high
Carolyn Jessop in conversation with Luiza Ch. Savage
by Luiza Ch. Savage
Carolyn Jessop, 43, was born in the U.S. into a radical polygamist cult, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (FLDS). At 18, she became the fourth wife of a 50-year-old man and bore eight children. She recounts the abuses she endured and her harrowing flight in a book, Escape. She recently testified before the Supreme Court of British Columbia, which is considering whether polygamy laws violate religious freedom under the Charter and whether they can be used to prosecute FLDS leaders in Bountiful, B.C.
Q: Critics of anti-polygamy laws say that the state should not interfere with the religious beliefs or lifestyle decisions of consenting adults. Do you agree?
A: This is not about consenting adults. My position is it is sexual slavery. I was never asked. I was told what I was going to do. My husband Merril never asked me to marry him. The purpose of marriage is not to fall in love but to provide righteous children. They say it’s a victimless crime. I have not seen a polygamous situation that is not abusive to someone in the relationship.
Q: Ironically, you describe your husband, who had more than a dozen wives and 54 children, as emotionally monogamous.
A: If a man gets many wives, he’ll find one he has chemistry with. Once they fall in love, things get difficult for the other women. If he’s not having sex with you, your status in the family goes down. When he shuts you out, they know you are just a prime target for whatever abuse they want to throw at you because he won’t protect you or your kids.
Q: Did you witness child abuse?
A: Systematic abuse. There is a lot of violence toward kids. Merril did a lot of water torture on his babies.
Q: What is water torture?
A: The concept is that you have to break a child’s will before the age of 2. If you don’t, you’ll never be able to control them at the level that their salvation depends on. A baby may be crying because it is hungry. They would take the baby and spank it to really get it going. Then they hold the baby face-up under cold running water for 30 seconds, and as soon as it gets its breath and starts crying, they’d spank it again. A session like that could last an hour until the baby quits fighting from fatigue. That can happen frequently until the parent feels the baby is sufficiently broken.
Q: And you say the community was rife with child sexual abuse?
A: This isn’t a typical sexual assault of a minor. Parents are involved in this. That’s what makes it so egregious. Underage marriage is a conspiracy to have sex with minors. The parents are involved, the grandparents, the aunts and uncles. The options the girls have for help and relief from those crimes—they virtually have none.
Q: The RCMP are now investigating evidence that cult members were smuggling Canadian girls as young as 12 to marry men in the U.S. One of them ended up being given to your husband.
A: Back in 2008, when they did the raids at the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas, three of the minors that had been sexually assaulted under the pretense of marriage and didn’t know where their parents were, were from Canada. They were brought into the States by the parents, given to [FLDS leader] Warren Jeffs on a silver platter and abandoned. The investigator in Texas, Angie Voss, sent a report to Canada, saying [they had] three girls who were trafficked [there] for the purposes of sex. That got lost in the system and nothing was ever done. As far as I know, they are still in the U.S. Merril married another Canadian girl who was 16 at the time.
Q: What happens to boys when all the girls are married off to the old men of the church?
A: Boys are disposable. It’s simple math. They excommunicate them. They dump a 13-year-old boy on the street, in a big city, and tell him they never want to see him again because he has been turned to the temptations of Satan. There are crimes committed against children in these groups that if committed in a regular household, the family would lose their children.
Q: Why not just leave?
A: Getting out of the community is a huge obstacle. You are not free to say, “Oh, I don’t want to do this anymore.” They hunt you down. They take you back and put you under 24-hour surveillance, take your kids away and tell you that you can’t see them again.
Q: What obstacles did you face?
A: The first was legal: how do you get legal custody of your kids? Merril hired an attorney who was paid around $1 million. Family attorneys would not touch my case because they would be taking on a cult, and they only did family law. I didn’t have any money. My attorney, Lisa Jones, said it was the most stressful case in her career. She did it as a favour to the state attorney general of Utah, who told her we cannot lose. If we lose, no other woman will ever come forward. I was the first one to ever leave the FLDS and get legal custody of all my children and get all of them out. Another problem a woman has is the fact that we are in an illegal lifestyle. When I went into court to fight for my kids, it was viewed as two criminals fighting over the kids. I didn’t get any advantages that women would get who are leaving an abusive situation.
Q: Why didn’t you have any money?
A: My husband had a home worth more than $1 million—it was 17,000 square feet for seven wives and 30-some kids. I had no claim, even though I worked as a teacher and all my money contributed to that home. But it was all in a Church-controlled trust. He had other assets such as construction equipment that he put in the name of other members. It was a fraudulent transfer and the state could have traced it back to him, but they didn’t want to do that. My case didn’t fit the simple system where he gets a paycheque and you garnish it for child support. He would have had to give support for eight kids and one with a severe disability and in critical condition with cancer. That’s one of the problems with polygamy. Women don’t have any protection from financial abuse. He was flying around in a private jet and I was in a homeless shelter.
Q: When you escaped, you discovered he had run up debts in your name.
A: He was using my name to finance different things—credit cards, construction equipment. When I left, he stopped paying. I didn’t know what I owed. He legally got away without paying child support and pushed me into bankruptcy and it did not hurt him because we were not legally married. Harrison, my 11-year-old disabled son, at the time was 4. He needed 24-hour-a-day care. That forced me onto welfare.
Q: How are women prevented from physically leaving the community you were in, on the Arizona-Utah border?
A: The men work construction and are gone during the week. They are not there to watch their wives. They don’t want her taking her kids to go to town but it’s not practical to leave a woman with a lot of little kids with no transportation. So they leave her a clunker that’s unlicensed and uninsured to make sure that she cannot leave the community. The minute I start driving outside of the community, they know I’m leaving without permission. It’s like driving a marked car.
Q: Why not go to the police?
A: The cops are members of the cult. Merril would have called and said, ‘My wife is leaving and you’d better get over and stop her.’ I tried to call a cop outside of the community; they said we don’t have jurisdiction there.
Q: What made you finally decide to leave?
A: It was a combination of how critical things were becoming because Warren Jeffs had become the prophet and he was preaching the “lifting up.” I could see he was starting to program us for a mass suicide. I was also afraid for the safety of my daughter, who was turning 14 and I knew Warren wanted to marry her. The other factor was my disabled son. I was having hell on wheels getting him treatment, keeping him alive.
Q: What do you think would happen if courts strike down Canada’s anti-polygamy law?
A: It could have a devastating impact. It would push the legalization of polygamy into the U.S. It would help mainstream that lifestyle. We want to see specific legislation to go after specific crimes they are committing, such as educational neglect of children, medical neglect, in addition to sexual assault. If Canada says this is legal, there probably won’t be legislation to deal with these crimes.
Q: You tell U.S. audiences Canada represents “hope” because of the potential for prosecutions of leaders of a branch of the FLDS in Bountiful, who had many underage brides.
A: Canada presents a hope to me for two reasons. They are looking very seriously at crimes within the polygamous community. The other encouraging thing is because they are looking at a polygamist population of fewer than 2,000 people, dealing with the situation is more feasible. In Utah we have 80,000. If Canada prosecutes, it would put serious heat on Utah.
Q: What do you think the Canadian government should do?
A: They should pass specific legislation. If children are born into it you can’t take away all their Charter rights in the name of freedom of religion. Regardless of what you believe, you don’t have a right to deprive a child of all their other rights. You couldn’t just take girls over international lines and give them over to sexual abuse when they are 12. You can open the door to freedom for people who are trapped. It’s not about consenting adults. There are children there.
Speaker opens eyes to suffering of women in polygamist cults
Written by Linda Leicht | News-Leader
Carolyn Jessop's new book, "Triumph," is about her life after escaping her ex-husband and the FLDS. / Valerie Mosley / News-Leader
Carolyn Jessop is on a mission.
The 43-year-old mother of eight "escaped" from a polygamist compound eight years ago and is determined to open the public's eyes to the realities of a way of life that holds women powerless and children in peril.
"The crime is still happening, and children are still being hurt," she told a packed house at Missouri State University Tuesday night.
Jessop is the author of "Escape," which tells the story of her life in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and her escape from it, and "Triumph: Life After the Cult, a Survivor's Lessons."
After the petite, blonde woman with a quiet voice told the harrowing story of being forced at age 18 to become the fourth "wife" of a man of 50 and of ultimately escaping with her children, the crowd rose to their feet to applaud her.
"I thought it was phenomenal," said MSU senior Abby Barcomb of Springfield. Although Barcomb had been interested in the topic of polygamy and aware of some of the things Jessop reported, she said, "Everything was shocking."
Ethan Couch, a sophomore from Cassville, attended the talk as part of an assignment for his ethics class. He came away impressed. "(Polygamy) is not at all like I thought it would be," he said, admitting that his insights had only been from the television show "Sister Wives," a reality show focusing on one polygamist family. "It sounded horrible."
Jessop described a life that surpasses horrible in many ways. She came from six generations of FLDS polygamists, tracing her family back to the founder of the cult that broke away from the Mormon church in 1912.
She grew up knowing only a life that offered her no choices but to have children for the man the "prophet" of the group chose for her and face the possibility that those children could be taken from her at any moment.
"I was never allowed to experience anything else," she said. "The mind control is very severe."
Her own father had three wives and 38 children. She saw her brothers banished from the community when they were still teenagers -- a fate she estimates happens to about 80 percent of the boys born into the cult. Her father was later banished, too.
Jessop's decision to leave the cult and take her children with her came after the group made an even more extreme turn. Warren Jeffs, the new prophet, declared that the children would no longer receive an education, he began excommunicating men and reassigning their wives and children to different families, and began arranging marriages between girls as young as 14.
In her family, Jessop faced the possibility that her daughter, 14, would become one of Jeffs' wives and that her son, diagnosed with cancer, would not be allowed medical treatment.
With the help of a sister still on the compound and two brothers who were living in Salt Lake City, she managed to get all eight of her children into a van and drive out of Colorado City, Ariz., a city
completely dominated by FLDS, she said.
Although she had no money, a critically ill son, children who were panicked that they were destined to hell for leaving, and little hope of succeeding, she managed to win full custody of her children and child support, something no other woman from the cult had accomplished.
Today, she is a successful author. Her son Harrison no longer has cancer but was left seriously disabled, and the other children went through counseling and continued in school. Her oldest daughter,returned to the
compound when she turned 18.
"I think the day that Betty went back was more terrible than learning my son had cancer," she said. "I couldn't do anything."
But Jessop is doing plenty to open the public's eyes to the realities of polygamy and cults like the FLDS. In addition to her best-selling books, Jessop has turned to the media, speaks at campuses, and testifies before courts in the U.S. and Canada.
Today, Jeffs sits in jail awaiting trial in Texas, and Canada's high court considers the constitutionality of its polygamy law and the case of two men who brought their 12-year-old daughters to the United States to
marry Jeffs, then about 50.
Jessop wants the government to do more. She wants states with polygamist communities to quit turning a blind eye to the abuse that comes with polygamy. And she wants laws that will protect women who
have no legal rights as a wife because their marriages were never legalized.
"Those women have no power," she says. "They are given like a slave."
Leaving that slavery meant giving up much more than her marriage. "I was willing to give up my religion, my home ... all I knew," she said.
It also meant finding a new power that gives her the strength to speak out for the women and children who continue to live in slavery and danger.
"I strongly believe there's a higher power," she said. "I believe in miracles."
Summary of positions in Canadian constitutional case on polygamy as court begins hearing final oral arguments
Polygamy prohibition is a reasonable limit on religious freedom to protect the equality rights of women and children
Two more plural wives testify in Canadian polygamy case, see no problem with forced marriage or trafficking child brides
Testimony of first FLDS witness in Canadian polygamy case reveals women in denial that their children are being abused
First anonymous FLDS witness in Canadian polygamy case paints cosy picture of plural marriage, seems oblivious to abuses
Affidavit in Canadian polygamy case reveals shocking statistics on child trafficking, child brides and teen mothers in Bountiful
Economics professor considers financial aspects of polygamy that create inequality
Two Mormon fundamentalist women from Utah tell Canadian court positive accounts of polygamy, no hint of abuse
Brother of FLDS bishop describes intellectual abuse, child labour, spiritual abuse and loveless religion in Canadian polygamy case
No freedom from religion for women and children in Mormon polygamist towns where men claim religious freedom to abuse
Mormon polygamist survivor tells court babies smothered to keep quiet, emotional and spiritual abuse worse than sex abuse
Video testimony by Mormon fundamentalist in Canadian court says polygamy provides happy life and harms no one
Survivor tells Canadian court extreme abuses including water torture of babies common in Mormon polygamist communities
FLDS bishop of Bountiful will not testify in Canadian polygamy case so his affidavit will not be read into record
Legal expert tells Canadian court polygamy prohibitions and monogamy tradition pre-date Christianity
The issue of women's rights in the Canadian constitutional review of the polygamy law
Expert in polygamy case says society should assume all members of sects have free choice, but what about children?
B.C. government expert in polygamy case sets out long list of social harms, societies that abandon polygamy do better
Court views video affidavits from Mormon fundamentalist survivors detailing pedophilia, incest, child trafficking and forced marriage
Polygamy expert tells court in constitutional case that it reduces women's freedom and equality and leads to forced marriage
Affidavits from survivors and psychologist's testimony in constitutional case show abusive nature of polygamous lifestyle
Expert witness in constitutional case on polygamy claims Bountiful women freely choose their own religious oppression
Judge allows controversial expert witness to testify in Canadian polygamy case, no decision yet on publication of video affidavits
Pro-polygamy intervenor groups make opening statements as first week of Canadian constitutional case ends
FLDS lawyer in Canadian constitutional case on polygamy claims members freely consent to plural marriage, abuse survivors disagree
Lawyer appointed to argue for striking down Canada's anti-polygamy law in constitutional case makes opening arguments
Canadian constitutional case on polygamy begins with BC government's opening statement
Unique Canadian constitutional case on polygamy set to begin November 22, 2010
Timeline of events leading up to Canadian constitutional case on polygamy which is set to begin
Survivor of abuse by Mormon polygamists documents accounts of sex crimes in the FLDS and other fundamentalist groups
Mormon fundamentalist leader asks court to exclude evidence against him in Canadian constitutional case on polygamy
Fundamentalist Mormon spokeswoman says polygamy doesn't hurt anyone
Mormon fundamentalist claims of religious persecution in Canadian constitutional case on polygamy not supported by the facts
Polygamist leader says BC attorney general guilty of religious persecution
Polygamist leader calls charges religious persecution
More persecution than prosecution
Second Mormon polygamist found guilty of child sex assault, jury doesn't buy defense claim of religious persecution
Claims of persecution ridiculous in societies where Christians have special privileges to indoctrinate children
More pro-polygamy affidavits by Mormon fundamentalists filed in Canadian constitutional case set to begin in November
Judge will allow anonymous testimony from Mormon polygamists in Canadian constitutional case on polygamy
Mormon polygamists seek immunity from future prosecution before giving evidence in Canadian constitutional case
Canadian constitutional case on polygamy triggered by Mormon fundamentalists, but will also examine Muslim communities
Utah law professor uses Mormon polygamists as example of how religious extremism leads to deliberate child abuse
Polygyny and Canada’s Obligations under International Human Rights Law (pdf)
Research paper submitted to B.C. court in constitutional case documents harms associated with polygamy
Man from Bountiful says girls in Mormon polygamist communities "treated like poison snakes", taught to obey men and have many children
Bountiful evidence that polygamy harms women and children - constitutional case likely to reach Canadian Supreme Court
Review of the positions 12 intervener groups are expected to take in upcoming Canadian constitutional case on polygamy
Some religious practices, such as polygamy, are inherently harmful and should not be tolerated in modern society
Women's adovcates: polygamy is an “oppressive institution” that abuses and enslaves women and children
Prosecuting Polygamy in El Dorado by Marci Hamilton
Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearings on Polygamy Crimes: What Needs to Be Done at the Federal Level to Protect Children from Abuse and Neglect
Senate hearing: "Crimes Associated with Polygamy: The Need for a Coordinated State and Federal Response."
Texas Will Attempt to Show That Polygamist Culture Itself Harms Children
FLDS defendants complain their religious freedom violated, while denying religious freedom to their children
Children in Bountiful have religious rights too, but are denied them by parents claiming religious freedom
Some Canadian children are protected from religion-related abuse, while others are not
Polygamy is not freedom
Israeli politicians and women's advocates call for immediate change to polygamy law to protect rights of women and children
New study on polygamy in Malaysia finds evidence of harm to everyone involved
Indonesian Women's Association divided on whether polygamy, which is legal in Indonesia, is harmful to women and children