Friday, 18 September 2009

Would you like to live in a world where you turned over every penny you made to a husband who had been chosen for you, where your main duty was to 'live in harmony' with him and with your sister wives, where you had no access to birth control, you were forbidden television and newspapers and your children could be beaten? That is the life that women live in a sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). This sect is a 'radical offshoot' of the Mormon Church; you may have seen pictures of the women of the sect in, I think, 2008 when a compound belonging to the sect was raided after a complaint of sexual abuse was made by one of the young girls there. The women all wore their hair in a complicated braided style, wore long sleeved and skirted dresses, and were accompanied by lots and lots of small children.

I have just finished a book written by Carolyn Jessop, a woman who managed to leave the strict control of her husband and community. The book is called "Escape" and describes how she grew up in the FLDS, how she became gradually disillusioned with it and how she managed to get out, taking her children with her, and build a new life. The book is riveting, sometimes horrible, sometimes amazing. One of the most saddening parts is the description of her eldest daughter, a young teen when the family left, who went back as soon as she was eighteen and has now become a spokesperson for the sect and is, I gather, quite critical of her mother's decision and book. The book is not objective, how could it be, but I think there is enough in it to make it very believable.

I don't have any problem with plural marriage in the abstract if it were to be as advertised; sister wives helping one another and supported by a man who was even-handed and just to the whole family. In fact, when my children were babies and I had to work at least part time to put food on the table, I often wished there were two of me, or even three. One to satisfy the husband, one to care for the babies, and one to work and look after herself. The situation Carolyn Jessup describes was not like that at all. The family was at war with itself, the husband did things that were lazy and uncaring and the family and community were toxic with fear.

I do have trouble with religions that rely on a 'prophet' (or bishop or imam) to direct the whole community. I have trouble with religions that restrict what their adherents can read or listen to or learn, and that limit their children's schooling. The argument that the children must be kept 'pure' is, for me, a specious one. Children are not 'pure'. They are innately curious; they need to have their world explained to them, using language and examples appropriate to their age level of course, but never talked down to or ignored. And they should never, never be beaten into silence and 'good behaviour'. They should never be persuaded to be afraid.

Carolyn's description of her childhood is full of examples of how the whole community was taught to believe that the rest of the world was malevolent and threatening to them. The children were routinely slapped and spanked to improve their behaviour. Nonconforming wives could also be beaten. Even worse, for me, was the doctrine that to be admitted into Heaven, the children had to please the adults and the women their husbands, to conform to a very stultifying norm, to be unquestioningly obedient. It's a long way from the doctrine of free will.

When I went to my confirmation, as a child of twelve, I was convinced that the Holy Ghost would descend to me and that I would become a good person, inspired by the love of Christ. It did not happen that way and I was horribly disappointed. I remained within my church for many years thereafter but gradually drifted away from all organized religion, finding it patriarchal and top heavy and increasingly irrelevant to the life I wanted to live, a life in which service to my family and community was balanced by self growth. It did not help that as we moved from place to place each new church I joined asked me for money pretty well as the first thing they did to welcome me.

Over the course of many years I have come to understand that no one can be the keeper of my conscience for me. Rules that make little or no sense, tenets of belief that are not clear or helpful, dictates from on high, are all distasteful to me. And it seems to me that a lot of organized religion, of whatever form, thrives on these things. The FLDS is an extreme example; while I read her book my heart ached for Carolyn Jessop and her long journey into a life she could shape for herself.


  1. Interesting review and well-reasoned point of view. I can't add anything.

  2. I heard an interview with her about a year ago that intrigued me enough to get her book. I found it difficult reading, even knowing the outcome. I cannot imagine the pain and sorrow, and even betrayal, she must feel at Betty's actions. At the time of the interview, she still (she said) had some hope, but that is likely lost by now.
    Very good review, I must say.

  3. I love watching Big Love, but of course, that is a romanticized, fictional picture of plural marriage. That said, I've often thought that I could use a wife. I'll definitely put this on my list.