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 own 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 the FLDS 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 the FLDS. 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.
Praise For Escape: A Memoir…
—Jon Krakauer, Author of Under the Banner of Heaven, Into Thin Air, and Into the Wild
Crown, 9780767927574, 464pp.
Publication Date: December 30, 2008
About the Author
Laura Palmer is the author of Shrapnel in the Heart and collaborated on five other books, including To Catch a Predator with NBC's Chris Hansen. She lives in New York City.
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. Carolyn Jessop tells us that she was born against the odds, after her mother’s difficult pregnancy. How did her spirit of survival help her throughout her life? What gave her the courage to ultimately escape her fate?
2. How is religion used to justify FLDS beliefs about sex, marriage, and parenting? How do these beliefs affect the daily lives of FLDS members? How are women particularly affected by the risk of sexual shame?
3. What are the biggest differences in the way men and women are treated in the FLDS? How does this influence the relationships between spouses?
4. Discuss the dynamics between the wives described by Carolyn. How did the situation cause cruel behavior, often driven by scarce resources? What does it take to reduce humans to such destructive levels of competition?
5. Why do you think polygamy has continued to exist in the modern world? Why would a woman stay in a community that strips her of power? Are there any advantages to living in such a situation?
6. How do Carolyn’s recollections of her childhood both sustain her and haunt her? What did her two mothers teach her about the role of women in the world?
7. How do the Nusses at times act like typical teenagers? What alliances does Carolyn build with them? What does marriage do to the Nusses’s sense of sisterhood?
8. Early on, Carolyn dreamed of becoming a doctor. How would you describe the FLDS’s attitude toward healthcare? What was the rationale for ignoring her near-deadly experiences with pregnancy? What was the FLDS’s approach to her children’s healthcare needs? Ultimately, what forms of healing, emotional and physical, was Carolyn able to find?
9. How do FLDS children adapt to living in extremely large families? Do they typically accept their new brothers and sisters? How are favoritism and competition handled? How does this experience shape the way they view the world and their relationships with others?
10. Carolyn mentioned on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that she favors decriminalizing polygamy, so that “people could live honestly, in the open, with dignity, and their children could be more mainstreamed.” What are your thoughts about such a plan? How far do you believe legislators can go in dictating behaviors that contradict religious beliefs?
11. How did you react when Carolyn described the ex-convict who began working at her husband’s motel? Why didn’t Merril care about her personal safety? How was Colorado City affected by the fact that the FLDS controlled local law enforcement?
12. Well into her marriage, at a later age than most FLDS women, Carolyn was allowed to receive the prophecy of her destiny. The reading predicted that she had special intellectual gifts that would be applied to unusual purposes. Why were such revelations of a woman’s destiny kept private? Do you believe she received any sort of true prophecy that day?
13. Carolyn describes how Warren Jeffs used 9/11 as an excuse to launch bizarre survivalist training. What led so many people in the FLDS to follow Jeffs’s apocalyptic preaching at that point? What happened to those who were skeptical?
14. How was money managed in Carolyn’s family and within the FLDS? How did Carolyn learn to make do and become a good provider for her family? How was Warren Jeffs able to build his fortune? Is it ever appropriate for someone who claims to follow Christ to accumulate wealth?
15. Why do you suppose Carolyn’s daughter, Betty, returned to the FLDS? Why was she more vulnerable to the threat of damnation? Could she become an agent for change within the organization? How is Betty’s rebellious spirit different from her mother’s?
16. How have the FLDS and other cults survived in America, despite widespread media attention? Will this ever change? What are your reasons for this prediction?
17. Education is tightly controlled by the FLDS, another tactic that limits the freedom of women. What led Carolyn to graduate from college, despite constant obstacles?
18. In her memoir’s closing scenes, Carolyn relishes spending time with the man she loves and is thrilled by a simple dinner and a movie. How has her story affected the way you see your own life? What actions are you inspired to take to help other victimized women and children in your community, or elsewhere in the world?