Carolyn Jessop tells her personal story of control and abuse
COURIER photo/Gabriel Fenoy
Carolyn Jessop

Former Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints member and New York Times bestselling author Carolyn Jessop speaks at Balch Auditorium at Scripps College on Tuesday night.
COURIER photo/Gabriel Fenoy
Carolyn Jessop

Carolyn Jessop signs copies of her bestselling book, Escape, at Scripps College on Tuesday evening after her talk.

Powerful. Moving. Shocking.

Former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and New York Times bestselling author Carolyn Jessop, shared the story of her life and eventual escape from the polygamous sect at the Balch Auditorium on Tuesday night.

The first speaker for this seasonís Alexa Fullerton Hampton Speaker Series: Voice and Vision, Ms. Jessop took the audience on a 37-minute journey that spanned from her experience within the sect as a child, to her current life as a mother.

"The lifestyle ó when you're born into it ó it's not just a lifestyle any longer," Ms. Jessop told the audience on Tuesday. "It actually becomes a culture that is separate and different than normal society. And you're taken away from that to the level that you don't know anything different."

Born into what she refers to as the "largest FLDS sect" in 1968, Ms. Jessop became a 6th generation member and was raised according to its lifestyle and teachings. While she wanted to attend college after high school, she instead was forced to marry current FLDS leader Merril Jessop at just 18 years of age. Mr. Jessop was 50 years old at the time and the marriage was his 4th.

From her childhood, the former FLDS member was taught to believe people outside of the church were evil and her rights as a woman were determined by her father and later on, her husband. Yet it was her experiences apart from the FLDS community that began to open her up to a different reality and break the effects of control she had been subject to from an early age.

"I was taught that people outside of FLDS were evil and that they were being used by the devil to destroy the work of God," she said. "But once I experienced normal society, it began to break down the mind control. I found that there are really good people in normal society that would help you if you needed help. And once I got that concept, I never went back."

Due to increasing manipulation and disturbing revelations under Warren Jeffís leadership, Ms. Jessop came to the conclusion not to continue to raise her children under the volatile circumstances. It was during this period in the late 1990s that she questioned the direction of FLDS, which progressively grew darker as she got older.

"My first breakthrough was when I thought about my daughters," Ms. Jessop explained. "I didnít want them to live the life that I lived. I thought to myself, ĎI donít want them living this way. Ironically, the core values and the core beliefs that I had and didn't compromise on are the same values and beliefs that ended up pulling me out of that society."

Her strong regard for her children eventually led to her spearheading their escape in 2003 with just $20 to her name. Ms. Jessop then sued and eventually won custody of her 8 children, becoming the first woman to be granted full custody of her children in a contested suit involving FLDS.

Since then, Ms. Jessop has shared her story across the nation through lectures and through the New York Times bestseller Escape, a book that she co-authored with Laura Palmer.

"Itís just an amazing and powerful story," said Scripps College senior Kara Schnabel. "Itís pretty amazing that something like that could be happening right here in the United States. She has been through a lot. She is a model of strength and definitely one of the more powerful speakers weíve had."

Scripps junior Laura Williams heard Ms. Jessopís story firsthand back in May and strongly advocated for the bestselling author to speak to students in the fall. Along with hearing Ms. Jessopís account on multiple occasions, Ms. Williams has read the written version in Escape.

What stood out to Ms. Williams was the large amount of violence that takes place within the sect. Ms. Jessop described as being "as common as the sun coming up." In Ms. Jessopís account, a number of FLDS husbands behaved violently towards their wives, parents acted violently toward their children and competing wives were violent with each other.

"For me, the biggest thing was the violence and abuse by women to women and also to the children,í Ms. Williams said. "She didnít even begin to touch on how bad it was. In reality, itís really disturbing and something has to be done about it."

Ms. Jessop hopes that her efforts will not only help her relatives and friends, but help the public become more aware about the consequences of the polygamous lifestyle.

"I do what I do in an effort to educate people," she said. "And nothing can change unless society is made aware of it."

According to Harvey Mudd College biology lab manager Elaine Guerra, more awareness and support are needed for women who come from abusive backgrounds. While Ms. Jessopís abusive experiences came from within the FLDS system, Ms. Guerra believes that they still speak volumes to all women."

"Sheís advocating for abused women [in general]," Ms. Guerra said. "Abuse of women is more prevalent than we think. When youíre abused, you need support and you need somebody to lift you up."
Originally published November 15, 2008