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I dedicate this book to my eight children: Arthur, Betty, LuAnne, Andrew, Patrick, Merrilee, Harrison, and Bryson. My love for you knows no bounds. Even in my darkest days, you always gave me the meaning and reason I needed to go on.
This book is also dedicated to the women and children who may feel as desperately trapped by polygamy as I did and may wonder if they even deserve to dream of freedom and safety. You do.
I grew up with a love of reading, and I treasured books. When my library of books was seized and destroyed, it was another sign to me of the evil that was overtaking my world.
But if someone had told me then that one day I might write my own book, I would have found that as unimaginable as it was incomprehensible. Nor could I have
believed that I would work with a team of talented professionals who would guide, support, and inspire me every step of the way.
The incomparable Kris Dahl at ICM believed in this project from the very beginning. As my literary agent, her advice, insight, and enthusiasm were crucial in making this book a reality.
Laura Palmer first met me as a reporter, then became my collaborator and, ultimately, a friend. She helped me find my voice and translate it to the page. Her compassion was invaluable as I revisited the most traumatic moments of my life.
My editor, Stacy Creamer, spearheaded a remarkable team at Doubleday who made excellence look effortless day after day. Bill Thomas, the editor-in-chief, and Steven Rubin, the publisher, have had a steadfast and unwavering commitment to this book, for which I am deeply grateful. Attorney Amelia Zalcman patiently and meticulously helped navigate legal issues. David Drake and Joanna Pinsker are so dedicated to publicity that they are the answer to an author’s dreams.
Chris Fortunato did a superb job of coordinating the production of the book, recruiting a superb copyeditor, Sue Warga, and the talented Tina Henderson, who designed the text.
I also want to thank Laura Swerdloff at Doubleday and Montana Wojczuk at ICM, whose abilities as “assistants” far transcend their job descriptions. They contributed in immeasurable ways to all that this book is.
But there would never have been a book at all if I had not had the steadfast and unyielding support of friends, family, and strangers who rallied around me immediately after I escaped.
These who provided refuge, understanding, support, and love were Alleena and Dan Fischer, Shem Fischer, Jalleena and Neil Jessop, Saraleena and Louis Jessop, Danica and Daniel Loveridge, Tammy and David Fischer. The shelter and safety they provided for my children and me made everything else that happened in our lives possible. It is not an overstatement to say I could not have survived without them.
Jan Johnson and Laurie Allen made it possible for me to even begin thinking about the book I dreamed of writing. Jan’s faith in me and the insight, guidance, and confidence she gave me were what I needed to start the ball rolling. She has my heartfelt gratitude, as does Laurie, who helped me at home when I most needed it so I could begin the long process of writing this book.
My family members—Thelma and Arthur Blackmore, Cathleen and Darrel Blackmore, Linda and Theil Cooke, Annette and Robert Jessop, Karen and John Zitting, Jane and Isaac Wyler, and my good friend Kevin Belt, stood by me without ever flinching. The hope they gave me reinforced my own, and there were times when that really kept me going.
My freedom meant nothing until I felt safe and won custody of my children. Mark Shurtleff, Utah’s attorney general, his spokesman Paul Murphy, and attorney Lisa Jones Reading did everything they could to support me and then even more. Words feel too small to express my deep gratitude to all of them.
Audrey, Merril Jessop’s daughter, and her husband, Merlin Johnson, were the only relatives from my ex-husband’s family who reached out to me in kindness after my escape. Thank you.
I found inspiration and hope from mentors like Jon Krakauer, Crystal Maggelet, and Dorothy and Bruce Solomon. They, too, had faith in me that often felt stronger than my own. A strange new world became less mysterious to me because of the generosity of their spirits and hearts.
My children needed to be stabilized before they could even begin to face a new future, let alone function in it. Connie Crosby, Patty Whittaker, Mitzi and John Magleby, Rhoda Thompson, Lodeen and Paul Peterson, Lee D. Bird, Hill Dalde, Gary Engles, Jean Alport, and Lara and Paul Cox were the people most instrumental in helping them make a positive transition into new lives.
Lorial Mousseau and each and every member of the American Association of the University of Women Wasatch Branch invited me to speak and then took me under their wing to support and encourage me. They believed in this book from the moment it was first mentioned, and their enthusiasm was invaluable. It meant a lot to me to hear them say that I had a story worth telling.
Last, but by no means least, I want to thank the people whose kindness and generosity have made it possible for my family to have Christmases four years in a row. One year a church adopted us; another year a book club made sure we had presents. This helped relieve an annual pressure for me. I remember being so strapped one year I was saving my change to buy laundry detergent. Christmas presents would have been out of the question if it weren’t for the kindness of strangers.
The FLDS is constructed on a scaffolding of lies. We were all brainwashed into believing that everyone in the outside world was evil. Every Christmas, when I see the delight in my children as they unwrap presents from people they never met, I realize what a monstrous lie we were taught to believe.
For all the kindness, then, both large and small, that has come into our lives from so many directions I give thanks, again and again.
The Choice Was Freedom or Fear
scape. The moment had come. I had been watching and waiting for months. The time was right. I had to act fast and without fear. I could not afford to fail. Nine lives were at stake: those of my eight children and my own.
Monday, April 21, 2003. At ten o’clock that night, I found out that my husband had left earlier in the evening on a business trip. All eight of my children were home—including Arthur, fifteen, my oldest, who often traveled on construction jobs. There were two things that had to happen before I could escape, and they just had: my husband was gone and my children were all home. I had to act within hours.
The choice was freedom or fear. I was thirty-five and desperate to flee from polygamy, the only world I had ever known. I came from six generations of polygamists and was part of a sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). Ten thousand of us lived in a small community along the Utah-Arizona border.
At eighteen, I was coerced into an arranged marriage with Merril Jessop, a fifty-year-old man I barely knew. I became his fourth wife and had eight children in fifteen years. They ranged from Arthur, my oldest, to Bryson, the youngest, who was then eighteen months old and still nursing. The six children in between included my son Harrison, who was almost four and severely disabled with nerve damage from a highly aggressive cancer known as spinal neuroblastoma.
The first thing I did when I realized I might be able to escape was go to my sister Linda’s house to use the telephone. I couldn’t call from my home because the phones were monitored. My husband’s six other wives were suspicious. I had a reputation for being somewhat independent and thinking for myself, so the other wives kept tabs on me. If anyone suspected something, one of the wives would immediately call Merril.
My sister was part of the FLDS community, but she and her husband were not in a plural marriage. She knew from our previous conversations how desperate I was to escape. We both felt the sect was becoming too extreme and frightening under the leadership of its prophet, Warren Jeffs. The running joke between us on the phone was “Don’t drink the punch.”
Ever since Jeffs had taken over the sect after the death of his father, Rulon Jeffs, he had been preaching that he was Jesus Christ incarnate and that his late father was God. He also started talking in apocalyptic terms about moving his followers to what he called the “Center Place.” We feared that meant a walled compound from which there would be no escape. Jeffs did not believe people had the right to make their own choices. My husband was a powerful member of the FLDS community and very close to Jeffs. With his seven wives and fifty-four children, the odds were my husband would be one of the first to be taken to the Center Place. It would be tantamount to a prison camp for me and my children—one where we’d be required to report on others who strayed from or disobeyed the word of God.
When I was growing up in the FLDS, our lives had not been as extreme as they were becoming under Warren Jeffs. The children in the community attended public schools. But that ended when Jeffs took over. He felt that teachers in the public schools had been educated by gentiles and were “contaminated.” Jeffs ordered all FLDS children into church-run schools, called private priesthood schools.
Jeffs preached that our children were the “chosen seed of God” and that it was our duty, as God’s people, to protect them from all things unclean. In the FLDS-run schools, children were brainwashed, not educated. My kids were taught that dinosaurs had never existed and that men had never set foot on the moon. I could see how fast they were falling behind.
I had been a public school teacher and cherished literature. I had collected more than three hundred children’s books. Shortly after Jeffs took over, he decreed that all worldly material—including books—be banned from the community. My husband ordered us to comply. Our home was scoured; all literature was confiscated and destroyed, including my children’s books.
It was common knowledge among us that Jeffs was marrying off younger and younger girls and taking more wives for himself. (At last count, he had seventy.) I came home once after one of Harrison’s hospitalizations and could not find my twelve-year-old daughter, Betty. My questions were ignored when I tried to find out where she was. I was upset. Someone eventually told me that she was “in compliance with her father’s wishes.” I finally learned that she and several other young girls had been invited to a sleepover at the prophet’s house.
When I arrived at my sister’s house, the first call I made was to the police. There was no answer at the Arizona police station at that hour; I got their voice mail. But the Utah police answered. I asked if anyone would be willing to help a woman and her children leave the FLDS community. The police said they had no jurisdiction because even though we were just a mile or so across the border, we were legally in Arizona.
It was getting close to 11
. I tried calling a group that assists women fleeing polygamy. No one there could act immediately.
I felt the trap closing as midnight approached. My sister and I called my brother in Salt Lake City. Arthur had left the sect four years earlier to marry the woman he loved, who was also his stepsister. When our father’s third wife moved in with us, she came with her eight children. Arthur fell in love with Thelma, one of her daughters. They were not allowed to marry even though they had no biological relationship. When the prophet at the time, who was Warren Jeffs’ father, assigned Thelma to marry someone she didn’t want, she and Arthur fled, quit the FLDS, married, and built a happy life in Salt Lake City.
Arthur was home when I called. “Arthur, if I do it tonight, I can get out. Will you help me?”
“Carolyn,” he said, “I’ll do everything I can to help you, but even if I leave right now, the soonest I can be there is five in the morning.”
“Will you do it?” I tried not to sound as desperate as I felt. We were three hundred miles away. He would have to drive all night.
“I’ll be there,” he said.
We agreed to meet at Canaan Corners, a convenience store three miles from town on the Utah side of the border. Arthur said he’d bring a trailer to drive my van back to Salt Lake City. It was registered in my name but had expired license plates. (Women in the community could drive—but our cars had either no license plates or outdated ones, so if we tried to leave without our husband’s permission, we’d be stopped by the police.) The nine of us could fit in Arthur’s SUV, and he said he’d ask our other brother, Darrel, to drive down, too.
I told Arthur my van was almost out of gas but I’d do everything I could to get there. “If I don’t show up, come looking for me,” I said. “I may have no way out of town, but please don’t leave without me.”
Now I needed to figure out what to tell my children to get them out of the house and into my van. They would never leave if they knew we were fleeing the community.
My children were terrified of the outside world. We were taught that everyone outside our community was evil. Impending doom is an integral part of the FLDS culture. Instead of playing hide-and-seek as children, we played apocalypse. The belief is that when God comes to destroy the wicked, everyone outside the community will be killed. But those who’d proved their worth would be lifted up to the celestial kingdom and preserved as God’s chosen people.
When I was younger I remember being looked at with scorn and disgust when we went into town in the long pastel dresses that we wore over dark leggings. People called us “polygs” and sometimes threw rocks at us. Their hostility confirmed that all the evil people in the outside world were poised to hurt or even destroy us.
It was just after midnight when I left my sister Linda’s house. It was quiet when I returned home. I took two black garbage bags from the kitchen and then quietly slipped into my children’s rooms to collect clothing—a two-day supply for each. Since I was often up late at night doing laundry, no one would be suspicious if I was spotted carrying my children’s clothing from room to room.
My bedroom, in the basement, faced a terraced area. I could leave and enter my room through large French doors. When I came back from my sister’s I parked my van in front of my bedroom so it would be easy to pack. I carefully loaded the children’s clothing, our family pictures, and Harrison’s medications into my van.
I’d been hoarding Harrison’s drugs for the past five months so I’d have medicine to give him after we escaped. I didn’t know how long it would be until I found a new team of doctors. So I started cutting back on his daily doses—a milligram here and there—until I could accumulate a small supply.
Harrison was almost four, unable to walk or talk, and still in diapers. He couldn’t eat food by mouth. He had a feeding tube that sent high-calorie liquids directly into his stomach. To help build up his strength, I began expressing my breast milk—I was still nursing my youngest baby—and adding it to Harrison’s feeding tube. I did this for six months, and it seemed to work. Before I started Harrison on breast milk, I was taking him to the hospital about once a week. But in that six-month period before we fled, I didn’t have to take him at all.
But I did have to get him to eat food by mouth. Harrison screamed and fought me whenever I put food into his mouth. He hated it. But I knew I couldn’t take all his equipment and feeding supplies with us when we escaped.
Pizza saved the day. Harrison loved it. I finally got him to chew and swallow bits of pizza. It took almost four months, but I finally convinced him to eat small bits of other foods.
Harrison was profoundly handicapped, but he helped save us. He needed nearly 24/7 care. I know my husband thought I would never be able to escape with Harrison. How could I? Harrison needed oxygen to sleep. I kept an oxygen machine by his crib so he’d be able to breathe. I was worried about taking him off the oxygen, but it was a risk I just had to take.
. I started getting everybody up. I was very matter-of-fact when I awakened each of my children. I said Harrison was sick and needed to go to the doctor. This was completely plausible—Harrison went to doctors a lot. The younger children thought this would be a great adventure. They didn’t get to leave the community very often. I told the older children that since Arthur was home, everyone had to come with me so we could take family pictures afterward at Sears.
My older children were annoyed. They didn’t want to come. I insisted.
One of Merril’s other wives walked in as my daughter Betty was getting dressed. She was suspicious and started questioning Betty. It was about 4:20
. She then apparently called my husband and reported that I was up and dressing my children. My father told me later that Merril called him about 4:25
. and said, “What the hell is Carolyn doing? She’s up and getting all her children dressed.” Dad was telling him the truth when he said he had no idea what was happening. I think Merril was caught off guard. I’d been so careful not to arouse any suspicions in him in recent weeks. We’d even had sex two days before.
Merril called the house again, desperately trying to find me. I heard my name paged over the house intercom. I knew if I talked to him I’d never be able to leave. It was almost 4:30
. I had only minutes left.
One by one, I put my children in the van and told them to buckle their seat belts. I was frantic. I was also out of time. Harrison was the only one left. I ran inside, turned off his oxygen, and grabbed him from his crib. I strapped him into his car seat, turned on the ignition, and counted to see if my children were all there. Betty was missing.
I had seconds to decide.
Do I leave one behind to save seven?
No. It had to be all or nothing. I ran inside and found Betty crying and furious in her room.
“Mother, there is something you’re doing that’s wrong! Why doesn’t Father know what you’re doing?”
I grabbed her arm. She fought back, struggling to break free. I pulled hard. “Betty, I’m not leaving you behind. You are coming with me.”
She kept screaming. I got her into the van, slammed the door, and started the engine. One phone call from Merril to the local police and we’d be trapped. The local police are members of the FLDS and the men whom Merril would rely on to stop my escape. The community also had a watch patrol that drove around during the night. If anyone saw me, I’d be stopped and asked if my husband knew what I was doing.
The night was deathly dark. My eyes locked onto my rearview mirror watching for any other car. If someone started following us, I’d hit the accelerator.
After about two miles, my engine began to sputter. I was almost out of gas. The kids knew something was wrong and were getting scared. I could see Canaan Corners in the distance. My heart was racing. I couldn’t breathe. When it felt as if the van was about to die, I pulled over to the side. I told the children we were out of gas but that I saw people up ahead who might be able to help us. I left the van and ran ahead to where Arthur and Darrel were waiting.
I threw my arms around them. But there was no time for excitement or relief. I told my brother that my kids didn’t know anything yet, nor could we tell them—the truth would be overwhelming.
When we got back to the van I told the children that these two men were giving us a ride to get more gas. My son looked at my brother, his namesake, and said, “Is that Uncle Arthur?” I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to lie, but the others would explode if they knew what was really happening. When I didn’t answer, Arthur figured out what was happening. But he kept quiet.
The ride went smoothly for the first twenty minutes. I didn’t know where we would hide when we reached Salt Lake City. I knew Merril would come after me. I couldn’t stay with family because that would be the first place he would look. I had to find someone my husband would not expect to help us. But who? Maybe I’d knock on strangers’ doors until I found someone who would hide us.