Tales of women's hard fight for freedom

Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer

A Life in Pieces
Richard K Boer
For many women life is about trying to escape. It's easy to forget that when your life is working well, but as well to remember that for many, many women life is cruel and arbitrary.

Escape and A Life in Pieces both tell the stories of young women trapped in their own nightmares.

Here's one scenario: you're 18 years old and, even though you are a member of a fundamentalist sect that generally doesn't encourage young women to go off and study, you have plans to go to college. Then one day you come home and hear that your life course has been changed just ever so slightly and you are about to marry a man who is 32 years older than you and already has a few other wives.

Second scenario: you wake up after giving birth to your second child and you have no idea who you are. The situation seems threatening, and when your mother and your husband come into your hospital ward, you don't know who they are.

Welcome to the worlds of Carolyn Jessop and "Karen".

Jessop was raised in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). Not to be confused with the mainstream Mormon Church, this is a sect, shunned by Mormons. The sect practises polygamy. Marriages are ordained by the ruling "prophet" of the time, and women have no choice but to accept the husband who has been picked for them. Jessop tells of her life married to an abusive man, whom she spent 18 years with, giving birth to eight children along the way.

It's a fascinating look into a hidden society where sister-wives are frequently not very sisterly towards each other, where the power of the man of the house is complete, and where power can be seized and wielded by dangerous power-hungry men.

Escape is not an easy read, it's very difficult to understand why any woman in this day and age would subject herself to what amounts to slavery, but Jessop tells her story in a way that makes the reader understand the conflict she feels between honouring the faith she has grown up in, and the twisting of said faith by its leaders for their own benefit.

Escape is a very frightening story and there are moments that will make the reader wince. The desperation of wives to sleep with their autocratic husbands, to bear as many children as possible, the near impossible dynamics of living in a family where there are constant struggles for power, and the ever-present threat of violence or rejection, could have become a gratuitous shock-horror book if it was not for the saving grace of Jessop's sense of clarity about her situation, humour (be it ever so dark at times), and the fact that in the end she triumphs and escapes with her children.

It's also a documentation of the conviction that the life she was being forced to live was a corruption of her faith, and, in fact, her daring escape led to the arrest of the cult's leader by the US government.

There is a generosity of spirit in the book that lifts the reader even in the darkest moments of Jessop's life story, and her honesty in admitting the pain that leaving her community caused her when she decided that she could no longer live under a mantle of fear and subjugation.

The story of Karen told in A Life in Pieces is a complex and intriguing story, written by a psychiatrist about a young woman who came to him for treatment after the birth of her second child. She was depressed, dreary and, quite frankly, Richard Baer didn't really find her an attractive option as a patient in the initial stages of their therapy.

And then things go all "Sybil-like" and Baer comes to realise (although he expresses the suitable professional squeamishness about multiple personality disorder) that Karen is, in fact, a collection of alter egos. These egos all have different names and different functions and have been "born" at various times in her life in order to make it possible for her to cope with the most horrendous child abuse by her father and his friends.

Over a period of almost two decades, Baer works with Karen in order to integrate her alters, and to put together the shattered pieces of the puzzle that make up the real woman.

This is definitely not an easy read, although the style is almost novel like, and at times I had to pinch myself in order to remember that this is a true story. You don't have to be a psychological health-care professional to read it, although I'm sure many will.

What I liked about A Life in Pieces is the subdued nature of the story. This is not an hysterical, dramatic tale, but rather a journal of how a very ordinary woman came to find psychological coherence through persistent and, at times, intuitive treatment by a psychiatrist.

A Life in Pieces also gives the reader insight in the processes used by analysts in their work. Baer has resisted the temptation to glamourise the process or to imply that the woman he helps put back together is anything other than a very ordinary person, who is only extraordinary because of the power her mind seems to have had to protect her.

I have to add one caveat - I find it remarkable that, given the horror of the abuse and the criminal acts committed against her as a child, there is no indication that any legal redress was sought for Karen and this may make some people doubt the veracity of all the details.

What is interesting about both these books is that they address the issue of women enslaved by those more powerful than themselves.

In Escape the agent of entrapment is external, in A Life in Pieces the subject has herself formed a protective prison in order to allow her to endure the abject suffering she has been exposed to.

Of course, not everyone who is abused ends up splitting their personalities, it is a very rare and contested psychological diagnosis, but A Life in Pieces does help to make sense for the layperson of how this might happen.

Neither of these books is what I would call "easy reading", but they do open one up to very cogent stories about real people.

I was hesitant about reading them, but found that once I started I was drawn in and learned a lot. Books to read when you feel like a challenge.
Originally published January 25, 2008