This is an interesting story and book, harrowing and pretty nuts. I had read Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven a few years ago (just pre-blogging, I would guess), which is a very good, well-made book that provides an overview of Mormon culture and history, from what I can remember. It’s a more balanced and generally informative study of the broad swath of Mormonism, but with some strong undercurrents of the radicalism and zealotry at the margins of “violent faith,” which include murder (“blood atonement”) and some examination of the radical polygamous “fundamentalist” sect, the FLDS. In the meantime, I was an occasional viewer of Big Love, which was a relatively solid HBO “tweener” approach to the topic: not all polygamous Mormons are super crazy people, some of them are just basic crazy like the rest of us, and we get to watch a “family” that is caught between the fundamentalist insane radicals and standard life as we know it, just the basic stuff that goes on everyday in Utah, or not. Big Love did a pretty good job, I think, of showing how these alternative family structures are experiments in power, with zealotry and extremism leading to dangerous corruption and violence.
Escape is a memoir from inside the belly of the beast, and I found it to be completely compelling–I read it greedily and pushed hard all the way to the finish. It has sensationalist elements and more than a little prurient attraction, and I was glad that I wasn’t reading it in a vacuum, that I had read and thought about a broader perspective of Mormon culture beforehand. The book does a decent job of creating some context for its story, but there’s not a whole lot of it. It’s pretty much all crazy, all the time, right from the start, with a whole lot of story to tell.
Towards the end, as Carolyn Jessop meets with the Utah Attorney General after her escape, the AG says that “there’s a sect in the southern part of the state, at the border, that is worse than the Taliban,” and he’s not all wrong. But things are bad enough at the beginning of Jessop’s story, describing her childhood, then the power dynamics of the sect turn extremely dark as she outlines her adult life, and things really go nuts as her contemporary Warren Jeffs assumes leadership of the FDLS. Jeffs’ insanity and criminality, which was being played out just as Big Love was swinging into gear, pushed the direction of that show towards lurid melodrama, which was probably its original intent and never a bad place to go for TV ratings, but it was all based on real events and actual human behavior.
Reflecting on the larger context of the book and Jessop’s story, one sees how the seeds were planted in the earliest days of this radical lifestyle. Jessop’s mother is horribly depressed, and Jessop grows up surviving and adapting to not just daily beatings and abuse, all meant to control untoward behavior and thouhts, but also an absolutely joyless existence. Jessop’s parents and family are the original culprits in the story, but they retain a shred of humanity and ultimately land pretty far down on the scale of villainy, as degradation and despair escalate rapidly when Jessop leaves home at age 18 to marry 50+ Warren Jessop. It’s ironic how, in the final all-out craziness, Jessop looks back at how things weren’t so bad in her day, as girls were allowed to come of age (reach 18) before being married off to old men.
Life inside the family, and the power struggle for survival between mulitple wives of one vain, bizarre, and relatively weak man, is all just nuts and unbelievable and consistently heartbreaking, just very sad. Jessop’s strength and instinct for self-preservation is remarkable, and needs to be mentioned. One might guess that the compelling villain in the narrative would be her husband Warren, the titanic “Father,” but it’s not really surprising, given human nature, that Warren Jessop’s third wife, Barbara, actually rules the roost and controls the lives of the dozens of people in the family in a chilling, extremely scary way. Barbara is just the worst, most horrible bitch that you’ll ever read about, and there’s just no other way to say it. It’s interesting how in a radical, alternative lifestyle and belief system corruption enables corruption and feeds on itself, piling up victims and gaining an ever more voracious appetite. As Jessop matures, weighted down by her own eight children and Barbara and Warren’s deepening perfidy, the power grab of the FLDS by Warren Jeffs begins to take shape, and his level of evil crazy raises the stakes beyond the chaos created in the family. The depth of darkness in Warren and Barbara is shown, in the background, after Carolyn Jessop makes her mistake with her children, and the 100 or more members of the Jessop family join Warren Jeffs as true believers in the Texas compound he constructs.
The story of Carolyn Jessop’s escape and legal battle and the heroism of her fight is all good enough, and a very real and relatively straightforward account, particularly given the sensationalist and bizarre subject matter. It isn’t worthy of any book awards, and it’s not even especially significant in the thriving genre of the memoir, although that’s perhaps harsh. The narrative is clear and efficient and aimed at its shocked mainstream audience, and the book accomplishes its purpose of telling the story, getting inside, and generating an impact. There’s almost too much pain and suffering and darkness I guess, and the emotional toughness and detachment that enable Jessop to survive and get out makes her telling seem more real and even a little pedestrian–a fair amount of the banality of evil going on here, which makes for a bestseller but not a special piece of writing. But that doesn’t matter at all, as survival and escape and the ability to tell the tale at all are more than enough.