Lately memoirs by ex- FLDS Mormon women have come into vogue due to the media attention surrounding the removal of the children that took place a few months ago (The children were ultimately returned to the FLDS land.). Within the past few months, I have read three memoirs by ex-Mormon women, all of which were great books.
Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife
by Irene Spencer
Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs
by Elisa Wall
Escape by Carolyn Jessop
All of these books were beautifully written, full of spirit, fascinating, and heart-breaking.
In Shattered Dreams, the author Irene is raised in polygamy, where she is brainwashed to believe that she is going to hell if she doesn't follow "The Principle." Her mother tires of her alcoholic husband and leaves polygamy entirely. Sadly Irene can't think outside of what she has been taught and marries into polygamy as a teenager. Her relatives pressure her into it, and she also does not want to go to hell. Her husband Verlan is one of the better polygamous husbands. He doesn't beat her, doesn't rape her, and has a generally good heart. She is his second wife and within the relationship, he attains more than seven wives, and she has thirteen children.
The interesting twist to this book is that the family moves to Mexico in order to "live freely" in polygamy. Verlan is from Mexico, so he gets to be amongst his family members. For Irene the move makes for a much harder life for her because she is living a primitive, isolated existence. In addition to not wanting her daughter to be polygamous, Irene's mother had warned Irene not to marry into Verlan's family due to the family having a genetic propensity towards "insanity." It was nearly like a horror movie when Irene arrived in her new home in Mexico to find that she was living in a dirt hut on an impoverished farm amongst relatives of Verlan's some of whom seemed to be unmedicated schizophrenic people. Check please!
Now these Mormon women are incredibly hard-working survivalists. On the one hand, it is admirable how many skills they have in taking care of themselves and their families. On the other hand, it is just sad. No one should have to live that deprived of an existence, particularly when children are involved. What I've noticed in these memoirs is the phenomenon of some Mormon women simply going out of their minds. They just can't take the absolute horror of FLDS life for women, and so they snap. One such women in this book who literally lost her mind was then forced to live in a small hut with bars and no roof where she would lick the walls and rant about what she had endured. Irene would visit this woman and bring her a flower and give her some attention. Irene was so alone that she found companionship in this woman. Sadly she didn't consider how years down the road she would narrowly avoid this fate herself.
Irene's husband took wives as young as fourteen, and generally the wives were kind and good people. I noticed in the memoirs that whatever the character of the husband was usually corresponded to the character of the whole family. Irene's family was the best of all the families I read about in regard to caring for one another. And yet it was still horrific by nature of how the FLDS works. Verlan and his wives would be sent out to earn money but not for the family, mainly for the church. Thus Irene, for instance, was left for months at a time caring for twenty-five children on her own. She was given approximately twenty dollars per week to survive on. There was no electricity or running water either. And she did this for twenty-eight years before having a total nervous breakdown and leaving. Can you imagine?
The family also lived in Nicaragua where the children all had worms living inside them and open wounds from insect infestation. Irene would share a bed with four of her kids and her feet would hang off the end. She would have children without medical care, and her body began to deteriorate. I noticed that still-births and repeat miscarriages seem very common in FLDS culture. Women have horrendous nutrition, no medical care, work constantly, and have little rest. There are rituals for dead babies that are a part of Mormon culture and happen all too often. Dorothy Allison wrote a short piece of nonfiction about her family and relatives called "A River of Names." In this she wrote about how in the abusive and neglected community in which she grew up, people died for all number of reasons much more frequently than is ordinary. Similarly, in the FLDS culture, I read how often kids, wives, and babies die. One of Irene's little children fell through the rickety boards in the outhouse and nearly drowned in the waste. Many children are not known to exist by the government, so the deaths go unrecorded. Physically and mentally challenged children are always registered, however, because the members of FLDS get higher welfare rates for children with special needs. Because of this much coveted benefit from having a child with special needs, it is celebrated when a child is born who has problems. Children with seizure disorders and other conditions associated with marrying and having children within the genetics of one's family are, of course, prominent.
Irene's turning point is when she decides to have her tubes tied. This is a sin of huge proportions in the FLDS church. She does it without permission in a hospital in Mexico because her body is falling apart, and she just cannot bare to continue to be pregnant at all times and to go through home births. Despite her having given Verlan thirteen children, he is disgusted with her decision to go against "The Principle." In her early thirties now and aware that she will no longer be able to have sex again due to sex outside of procreation being forbidden, Irene descends into madness, having lived on the edges of it for quite some time. She begins to have panic attacks, attempts suicide, and neglects her children. Mental health care is forbidden and so she lives in a chronic state of deep depression, anxiety, and psychosis. And this is when she sees the light, that no hell could be worse than what she is living now, and she leaves.
In Stolen Innocence Elisa is forced to marry her first cousin who she can't stand when she is only fourteen years old. She is from a family in which the father was ambivalent about polygamy. I've found in the books that for a woman to take the incredible step of leaving a cult with all of her children she generally has one parent who is questioning of "the Principle." In Elisa's family her father's ambivalence trickles down to many of his children. Elisa's brothers are one by one kicked out of the church, for asking too many questions and for being competition for all the older men who want wives. These boys are referred to amongst ex-Morons as "the lost boys." This refers to the phenomenon whereby in order to keep the population balanced with many wives for each man, extra young men (teenagers) are dropped off on the side of the highway like trash. Elisa describes her pain as she loses one protective brother after another.
Questioning children are also sent to FLDS groups in freezing regions of other countries where they are allowed to sleep only a few hours each night, are nearly starved, and are forced to perform slave labor all day and night. This continues until the children realize that they should feel lucky and grateful to have the life they do within the FLDS community from which they came. They are then sent back with the threat of this punishment for questioning hanging over them.
Elisa is given a necklace by her father whom she loves, and she wears it to school. Warren Jeffs calls her into his office, humiliates her, and has her throw the necklace into the trash. Warren Jeffs uses school to further the FLDS teachings and eventually decides that home schooling is the way to go. In addition, books are forbidden, as are CDs, and any possessions not having to do with FLDS. I'd go nuts!
Eventually Elisa's father is excommunicated from the church and Elisa is placed in a family with her mother's new husband, an unkind man who is high up within the church. This is when she is forced to marry her cousin. She begs Warren Jeffs, the "Prophet," not to make her marry this man, but he tells her it is God's decision. Elisa goes into the marriage not knowing how babies are made or what sex involves. She begs her mother to explain it to her before she is faced with going to bed with an older man but her mother insists that within FLDS beliefs the husband will show her what sex is. Elisa makes it be known to her husband that she can't stand him and doesn't want him to touch her (she's fourteen and terrified), and so he begins to rape her every night.
Elisa goes to Warren Jeffs again to beg for him to annul the marriage but he refuses. He also chastises her husband for not controlling his wife. Due to fear of Elisa going to Warren again to complain, Elisa's husband doesn't protest when Elisa begins to drive her husband's car to a field at night and sleep there instead of with her husband. Amidst all of this, Elisa has repeated miscarriages. As a teenage girl sleeping alone in her car she is at times approached by the police who end up doing nothing for her because they are also in the FLDS. One night she is approached by an ex-Mormon man who sees her situation and befriends her. Eventually she develops romantic feelings towards him and leaves the FLDS. She also successfully testifies in court against Warren Jeffs, who is found to have been sexually abusing boys in addition to forcing young teenagers into marriage. I could not get through these books if I didn't know that there was an escape at the end.
Escape by Carolyn Jessop was my favorite of the books I read. It is a suspenseful page turner. Carolyn is in the most abusive situation of all the women I've read about, and she takes an incredible risk in leaving with all eight of her children. Women are not allowed to leave with their children, and police who find women and their children leaving return them home because the police in the community are part of the FLDS. There really is little chance of escape, and after women escape they are stalked by the FLDS.
Carolyn grows up with a cold, absent father and a severely depressed mother who beats her terribly. Her only "fun" is the game in the fields that she is allowed to play with other children in which they pretend that the world is ending, and only the Mormons are allowed to go to Heaven. When she becomes a teenager she is married off to an evil man with mean wives and two wives who have already been driven insane. She is made to work in a dangerous motel in another state, is separated from her children, is stalked by one of the Motel residents, and is earning money that goes only to the Church.
At home life is even worse. Children are beaten, wives are vicious towards one another, and she spends all day trying to survive and to keep her kids alive. She has a child with intensive special needs and is given permission to go to the hospital in order to keep him alive. Her time spent with her son at the hospital is what opens her mind to a world outside of polygamy. She has been brainwashed within the FLDS to believe that anyone who is not a member of the FLDS is evil and hates her. This is reinforced by others' reaction to her layers of long, old-fashioned clothing that she is forced to wear and hair that is not allowed to be cut. People stay away from "pligs" as they're called by those not in the FLDS who live in the same area. However at the hospital, she is treated so kindly by workers who are not in the FLDS that she becomes to question whether the outside world is really out to get her.
She leaves in the middle of the night and is chased but manages to make it out. She stays with a family not associated with FLDS who she met through her work. However, the FLDS people continue to pursue her. She develops a severe flu that continues and wears her down as she attempts to take care of eight children in a tiny trailer that she eventually secures. With mental health intervention, she learns that she has severe PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), not the flu, and she slowly does what she needs to do to recover. As if out of the movies, she attends a class and meets a doctor who falls in love with her and she him, and he takes her in as well as all of her children. Finally she is free and happy.
These books are inspiring in a feminist way. They show how certain women defy all odds and create an entirely new life for themselves and their children. I wish that the abuse within the FLDS church were taken more seriously. Books like these can only help the cause.