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Carolyn Jessop is known as the first woman to escape and gain full custody of all of her children from a well known polygamist group, and she’s coming to the Ozarks. KSMU’s Chasity Mayes tells us her triumphant story.
It was April 22, 2003 when Carolyn Jessop realized her window of opportunity was finally open. For the previous year and a half Jessop had known she needed to leave her abusive polygamist community and take all eight of her children with her.
“I was looking for a window of opportunity to get out. That was my biggest thing. I needed all of my children at home and I needed Merril out of town. My oldest son Arthur, he had been taken out of school when he was 12 years old. So, he was working outside of the community doing construction. And what happened is that my son was home for a dentist appointment Monday. Monday night at 10 I found out Merril had already left to Salt Lake. I mean I found out at 10 o’ clock that night that that was my window. I had to get out that night,” says Jessop.
Jessop is a sixth generation polygamist. She was forced to marry a stranger at 18. Her then-husband, Merril, was a prominent leader in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS. He was also 32 years older than Jessop with three other wives. Although each man is only legally married to one woman, they’re spiritually married to the rest. By the time Jessop was ready to make her escape, her husband had seven wives and 54 children living under a 17,000 square foot roof.
Jessop says she felt there was no one she could trust, but she was finally forced to get help from her own siblings.
“I actually went to my sister’s house and she helped me contact a brother who had left years before. He agreed to drive all night to come and get me but my problem was my van was out of gas. The van I could take was out of gas and I had to find a way to get my kids to cooperate and come with me. And there’s no way they would’ve agreed to come if they would’ve known what I was doing because the mind control in this group was pretty intense,” says Jessop.
Jessop’s children were in multiple rooms throughout the house on the night of the escape. She had to find each child, dress them, and get them into the van without waking up any of the other wives. Once she had done that, she had another big obstacle to overcome.
“The other thing is that the community’s watched 24 hours a day by we refer to them as ‘Warren’s God Squad,’ and they were just men that he appointed to watch the community. And to this day I mean if you drive through that community you may be followed and it will be by the “God Squad.” But the problem with me leaving was the car that I could take wasn’t licensed and insured and I was basically driving a marked car,” says Jessop.
Women in the FLDS religion are given cars that aren’t registered for transportation; the cars are just supposed to used within the walls of the community. Many police officers in the area are also member of the FLDS church and watch for unregistered vehicles outside of the community. Jessop says all her husband would have had to do was notify the police to watch for her and they would force her to go back with the group.
She says this kind of behavior is illegal, but it happened all the time.
“Then it would’ve been my word against theirs and they did it to women all the time. And then the first thing you’re accused of is you’re mentally ill. And then they there’s doctors in the community that are FLDS-- they’ll say that you’re bipolar or diagnose you with something and it’s just really hard to get people to listen and believe what’s going on,” says Jessop.
Violence was also a significant part of the FLDS lifestyle. Jessop says it was very common for women and children to be physically and mentally abused.
“You know it starts at a very early age, it starts with infants. And you know, you’re raised with violence all your life. There’s usually a lot of violence in the family if you do not respond and do what you’re supposed to do then you get in trouble and that usually spells violence. A lot of men in the community do beat their wives and they’re physically violent with them. That’s how they control them and it’s seen as ok. I mean if a man is beating his wife then the woman is seen as the problem,” says Jessop.
Since leaving the community, Jessop has been shunned from the group. She says they consider her to be evil. Although her children did have a difficult time leaving the only family they’ve ever known, over five years of therapy has helped them pull away from the control they were once under.
Jessop says the transition wasn’t easy, but getting to do some of the things they’d missed out on for so many years helped.
“In some ways it was like an opportunity to go to Disneyland. I mean they’d never in their lives been able to watch tv. On the first show they watched was Shrek and they were just fascinated with that because they had not been able to watch cartoons or movies or anything,” says Jessop.
All of the children were very behind in school because of the lack of education they had received while they were in the FLDS community. Jessop says all of her children adjusted to the outside world well considering what they’d been through. Jessop’s oldest daughter, Betty, struggled the most. She went through 12 different therapists but, eventually, she returned to the FLDS community.
Jessop says she and her family no longer belong to any kind of organized religion. She says all of her children understand that being in a controlling abusive relationship isn’t normal.
Currently, Jessop travels the country telling her story and encouraging women. She’ll be at Missouri State University on March 29th at 7:00 pm. The event is free and open to the public.
For KSMU News, I’m Chasity Mayes.