Triumph is a different kind of story; one that, like me, you will probably admit you never really considered. Imagine a story of psychological and physical abuse, isolation from family and the outside world, and systematic brain-washing and mind control. This isn’t a story of an isolated military prison; this is occurring every day in fundamentalist polygamist sects.
Carolyn Jessop is one of the rare, lucky women who made her escape, with her eight children, after living in this heavily controlled sect for over 35 years.
The story begins with Carolyn providing advice to the team of social workers and child welfare advocates who were working for the state of Texas after a state and federal raid on the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) ranch, a closed polygamist community called the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, controlled by self-professed “prophet” Warren Jeffs. If you follow the news, Jeffs is currently serving a prison sentence of life plus 20 years for sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault of children. His youngest “wife” was just 12 years old.
Carolyn details the methods with which the men who lead the sect maintain control – many of which are shocking. They include:
- Home School and Isolation – Admittedly, there are some very good home-schooling parents, and Carolyn readily admits this as well. But this sect uses home-schooling as a way to keep the children isolated and uneducated. Most children only get a cursory education, and are pulled from “school” when they get older to work long hours in construction, or to be married off young. In recent years, radios, books and children’s toys have been prohibited within the FLDS communities. This isolation is sometimes coupled with fantastical horror stories of the outside world, effectively preventing escape.
- Abuse and Disrespect of Women– Sister wives, as they are referred to in the sect, are encouraged to rat each other out to their husbands, for even the most petty of infractions. Not only does it destroy any sort of trust, it leads to a dog-eat-dog world in which wives try to one-up each other in their tattling in order to gain favor with their husband. Women are not permitted to “own” anything, and theft is commonplace. Carolyn tells of locking her bedroom door at all times to prevent her shampoo from being stolen. Children are taught to be disrespectful and belligerent towards women in the household, and only respect the men.
- Child Abuse – Children are beaten as punishment, often before they even have the capacity to understand what they have done wrong. Any wife in the family is permitted and encouraged to harshly discipline children, and many do. Wives who stand up to others and refuse to allow the abuse are chastised, marginalized and told they are going to hell for their disrespect.
- Sexual abuse – Girls are married to men that are often decades older than themselves. There are confirmed reports of girls as young as twelve married to men in their 50s and 60s. Girls often become mothers by the time they are between 14 and 16 years old.
- The Lost Boys – Since boys and girls tend to be born at fairly even rates, a polygamist community with a handful of powerful men who want to marry several young girls apiece has a problem. Those young girls tend to be more interested in boys their own age. The solution? Trump up some ridiculous charge against a teenage boy – like holding hands with a girl – and expel him from the community. These Lost Boys are simply dropped off on the highway outside the community with a few dollars in their pocket and only the clothes on their backs. 14 seems to be the usual age.
- Prohibition on Medical Treatment – In the family Carolyn was married into, it was forbidden to take a child to the doctor without her husband’s permission. She relates the story of her son who contracted pneumonia, and she had to literally beg to be able to take him to the hospital. Her husband scolded her and her son for causing a scene and being disobedient. Why wouldn’t they want a sick child to receive medical attention? Presumably because they don’t want doctors to find the signs of abuse.
- Hunger – Although these communities are to be swimming in money (welfare fraud is a very effective way of earning an income), food is scarce. Women and children go hungry, and are not allowed to buy food that provides proper nutrition. Most women in the community are overwhelmed with the chores and mealtimes were inconsistent in Carolyn’s family.
- Financial Control – Most women don’t earn their own money, and their welfare checks go straight to their husbands. Carolyn was a rare exception, in that she worked as a teacher for a period of time and was able to have a small portion of her paycheck secretly diverted to a savings account. It wasn’t much, but this small act of defiance undoubtedly helped her to break the cycle of abuse.
- Excommunication – Even men aren’t immune. If you fall out of favor with the leaders of the cult, they have no qualms about kicking you out either. And if you are married and have children, no worries, your wives and children will simply be assigned to another man. Presto – Change-o!
Carolyn manages to put a face and a voice to a system of systematic abuse that is mostly invisible to those out in the regular world. She humanizes the plight of these women and children, who typically have no idea that there is another life out there. Change is desperately needed – hopefully state and federal authorities will stop turning a blind eye to this very real problem.
Have you read Triumph, or Carolyn Jessop’s first book, Escape?