Carolyn Blackmore's hometown of Colorado City, Arizona, was essentially a "company town" of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the FLDS), a group that had split from the original Mormon Church a century ago over the issue of "celestial marriage." The FLDS continued to believe in and practice polygamy; Carolyn's own father took a second wife when she was ten years old, as instructed by the FLDS ' leader, or "prophet," who was believed to speak for God and who assigned all marriage partners. At 18, Carolyn herself became the fourth wife of Merril Jessop, a business partner of her father's, as part of their settlement of a debt, but it was by mistake; Merril had wanted her younger, prettier sister Annette, but got the girls' names mixed up.
Although she was married and, before too long, a mother, Carolyn was granted the unusual privilege of continuing her education; she earned a college degree and became a second-grade teacher in Colorado City. Her education gave Carolyn a perspective that many of her neighbors and family didn't understand or share, and she began to question and doubt the ways of her religion. Her husband was abusive to her and most of his other wives, and uninterested in most of his children (of which 8 were with Carolyn). Husbands had full power over their wives and children as "priesthood heads," and demanded obedience and "harmony." This followed the decrees of the prophet, who controlled all details of their lives. Access to education was curtailed; girls were assigned in marriage at younger and younger ages to middle-aged and elderly men; wives and their children could be taken from one man and "reassigned" to another; and young men were being driven out of the community. As life in the FLDS grew more constrained and dangerous, Carolyn became determined to get herself and her children out of what she came to understand was a cult.
In a recent guest post by Tracy Wolff for My Friend Amy, the author discussed the difference between "writers" and "storytellers." I'm not sure I'd say Carolyn Jessop is a "writer;" Escape is co-credited to Laura Palmer, and to me, it reads a lot like oral history. Some of the other reviews I've seen of the book have suggested that it could have used better editing; I'm not sure I agree, but there is some repetition and inconsistency throughout. I'm not sure Jessop is a "storyteller" in a general sense either, but I believe the story she tells here - her own - is one that really matters. It's a rare inside view of a fringe culture that, under "freedom of religion," engages in a way of life that flouts the law and endangers the welfare of women and children while enriching a select few men, and perpetuating that culture by nurturing fear and cutting its believers off from information and input from the larger world around them. It's a world that's hard to wrap your head around if you've never lived that way, and it's unsettling to understand how it goes on today.
Escape is a book to be read for the content, not the writing - and I found the content absolutely riveting. It's enlightening, horrifying, suspenseful, and ultimately triumphant (not a spoiler - the title of the book is Escape, after all, so you know eventually it's going to happen). I can't say I loved it, but I do think it's an important story well worth reading.