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Mount Holyoke College
Weissman Center for Leadership

Flight and Fight: Escape from Polygamy

Body Politic(s) | Events | Speakers | Seminars | Resources

Carolyn Jessop escaped from a polygamous marriage with her eight children and became the first woman ever to be awarded full custody of her children in a suit against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Born into polygamy and into a fundamental Mormon community, she is the sixth generation descendant of a polygamous family.  In 1986, at age eighteen, she became the fourth wife of Merrill Jessop. During her seventeen-year marriage, she bore eight children until increasingly life-threatening pregnancies forced her to have an emergency hysterectomy and brought an unsettling end to one of the most complicated aspects of her unequal and disempowering marriage.

Ms. Jessop became determined to leave the family in which she witnessed child abuse, and herself endured physical and emotional abuse from more senior wives and her husband. She was especially insistent that she would not leave without all eight of her children.  Her escape pitted her against her sister wives, as well as against the God Squad, the armed militia squad that the sect's leading prophet Warren Jeffs, established to maintain his power and complete order within sect communities. Carolyn faced overwhelming threats, including the possibility that a failed escape would lead to her own exile into a FLDS mental institution and the permanent loss of access to her children. She persisted, though, ultimately undaunted by the outside world, one that her FLDS community insisted was inhabited by "agents of the devil" who "wanted to destroy the work of God."

Warren Jeffs, whose father Rulon Jeffs had an estimated seventy-five wives and sixty-five children at the time of his death, was indicted in 2005 for arranging marriages of underage girls.  Warren Jeffs succeeded his father as head of the largest polygamous group in North America and became the prophet of the FLDS.  The combined twenty-year leadership of father and son resulted in the increasing dissolution of councils that ruled the sect and more power for the Jeffs. Arrested in 2006 after spending some fifteen months as a fugitive from justice and being listed on the FBI's Most Wanted List, Warren Jeffs has been sentenced to consecutive terms of five years to life for being an accomplice to rape of a fourteen-year old girl whom he married to her older cousin.

Carolyn Jessop, who was a second-grade teacher in the FLDS community, staged an unforgettable escape and since establishing herself beyond the FLDS family in which she spent almost two decades, she has faced harrowing choices and threats to herself and her children.  She is outspoken and direct about the need for state protection and resources for women, girls and families who leave or seek to leave the polygamous sects where there is no freedom or choice for wives and daughters. "[I] if the government is not going to prosecute polygamy," she asserts, "then at least they should make sure that women do have free choice."

Escape, the memoir that Ms. Jessop published in 2007, documents her life within and beyond the Jessop family and the FLDS community.  Her story, which has been described as "devastating and tragic," led author Jon Krakauer to grapple with the "astonishing look behind the tightly drawn curtains of the FLDS Church, one of the most secretive religious groups in the United States." According to Krakauer, "[t]he story Carolyn Jessop tells is so weird and shocking that one hesitates to believe a sect like this, with 10,000 polygamous followers, could really exist in 21st-century America. But Jessop’s courageous, heart-wrenching account is absolutely factual. This riveting book reminds us that truth can indeed be much, much stranger than fiction."

Her lecture illuminates the politics of marriage, the nature of women's disempowerment and the price of freedom for some in 21st century America.

Event Details

Date: Thursday, October 30
Time: 7:30 pm
Speaker: Carolyn Jessop
Place: Gamble Auditorium, Art Building, Mount Holyoke College
Free and open to public