4th Aug 2011
Triumph by Carolyn Jessop
Carolyn Jessop was born into the largest polygamous cult in the United States, an extremist Mormon sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).
Aged eighteen, she begged permission to receive a college education. Her request was granted on condition that she married a 50-year-old stranger.
She agreed, because she had been taught that ‘girls had absolutely no right to set their hearts on a certain man’. As such, she became the youngest of six wives, bearing her husband eight children during a seventeen-year marriage.
Bullied both physically and emotionally by various members of the cult, particularly her husband’s other wives, Jessop came to realize that though the way was perilous and fraught with obstacles (she only had $20 to her name) her only hope of happiness both for her and for her children, lay in fleeing the sect.
Her first book, Escape (co-written with Laura Palmer) chronicles the empowering tale of her bid for freedom. She had hoped the book would mark the end of her story with the FLDS.
Thus when the state of Texas raided the FLDS headquarters (a compound completely shut off from the outside world, referred to by its members as ‘The Centre Place’ and presided over my Carolyn’s ex-husband Merril Jessop) in response to a phone call from a teenage girl alleging physical and sexual abuse, Jessop was shocked and alarmed, as she was abruptly forced to reconsider once more the horrors of her past.
Triumph is written in two parts. The first documents the raid, explaining how Jessop was brought in to aid the Child Protective Services (CPS) in understanding that concealed behind the devout façade of the FLDS was:
‘a highly organized conspiracy involving the sexual assault of children through underage marriages with the complete knowledge, tacit or otherwise, of their parents.’
The story is a shocking one, made all the worse by the fact that the many of the abused children were made through mind-control to believe that they were being treated with the utmost respect.
Jessop’s own twelve-year-old step-daughter was married to the 50-year-old leader and ‘prophet’ of the FLDS, Warren Jeffs. The match was deemed a great honour for the Jessop family.
For the reader with no previous knowledge of the FLDS, Jessop’s revelations of her life in the cult have enormous power to disgust and appal, and I constantly had to pause to digest the enormity of Jessop’s anecdotes, which are often relayed in a deceptively offhand manner.
In the FLDS women are not allowed to have friends outside their immediate family. They all have to wear shapeless, sexless pastel-coloured dresses and long, uncomfortable underwear. More than one out of every four pubescent girls on the raided Texan ranch was in an underage marriage.
‘I learned after my marriage that Merril had intended to marry my sister as part of a business deal but had mixed up our names and asked for me instead,’ Jessop writes and I recoil, as I do when I read her words: ‘I was constantly told that Harrison [her son’s] cancer was my fault because I was a rebellious wife’.
The horrors continue. ‘We weren’t supposed to have sexual needs; we were merely the breeding stock that kept the cult replenished.’ The book is at its best in this mode, it is powerful, direct and haunting and makes for a compelling read.
Unfortunately as the book progresses its power wanes and as I read the second section my previously rapt attention began to stray. Entitled ‘My Personal Power Source,’ it concerns itself primarily with the message that: ‘you too can transform your life in simple, gradual, and consistent ways’.
Her story is certainly heroic and inspiring; her experiences shocking. But the increasing repetition of information, statistics and jokes made for a fairly tedious end to a riveting story of a woman’s triumph over violence.
I began to sense that the author had run out of material when I found myself reading a four-page address to a woman named Venus, an apology for ‘not reaching out to [her] with more honesty’ and a description of how a night-time vision of Jessop’s dead grandmothers led to a miraculous qualification for financial assistance from the state.
Triumph, whilst containing several anecdotes supplementary to Escape, does not hold the first book’s status of ground-breaking story; carrying instead the vague aura of an appendix, or an interview with the author.
Although she is an admirable and inspirational woman who deserves to be championed, for me the power of her story was lessened upon each reiteration of her ‘message of triumph’.
I would thoroughly recommend this remarkable story to anyone, but would perhaps hide my copy of Triumph and point them instead in the direction of its first telling: Escape.
Recommended for: An empowering tale of a woman’s escape from and triumph over an oppressive patriarchal society.
Other recommended reading: Almost 500 women and children in the compound shared only 18 surnames, so it comes as no surprise that the author of Church of Lies (another FLDS escape story) is named Flora Jessop. ‘I’ve been called apostate, vigilante, and crazy bitch, and maybe I am…’ she writes. Intriguing. For a male perspective on the sect, try Lost Boy by Brent Jeffs.