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.