Abraham, Rachel, Soren and Liam. Our life together in Smalltown, Idaho.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Book Review: Escape

by Carolyn Jessop
(with Laura Palmer)

Escape is the memoir of a woman who was born into the Fundamentalist church of Latter-day Saints, a group she now refers to as "a radical polygamist cult." At the age of 18, Carolyn Jessop was coerced into becoming the fourth wife of a 50-year-old man. This book describes her personal experience of living in an isolated religious polygamous community. It follows her through 17 miserable years in an abusive marriage, 8 pregnancies, and her final decision to take her children and leave her husband, her community, and her church.

Escape offers a fascinating glimpse into a world that, because of the illicit nature of polygamy and the separatist doctrines preached by FLDS leaders, has long been hidden behind double veils of secrecy and isolation. The book sheds light on this American enigma-- and also draws you into the emotional aspects of that world. After reading for a while, you can't help but feel as though you, yourself, have been repressed, controlled, abused, manipulated, isolated, and mocked. During the four days that it took me to read this book (Escape is another book I dragged around with me like a security blanket), I found myself overflowing with anger at my husband, not because of anything he had done, but because the injustices inflicted on the women in the book were described so clearly that they made me feel as though my life, like the lives of so many FLDS women, had been taken from me by a powerful patriarchy. (Poor Abe would walk into the kitchen and innocently offer up some friendly words, like, "Hi honey!" which I would immediately pounce on with, "Don't look at me like that! I know the Male Gaze when I see it! I've got skills! A college education! I don't have to live like this!")

That said, this is not a book you'd pick up for the writing style, though it's not bad or even distracting; it's just not terribly spectacular-- and it can wax repetitive from time to time. Reading Escape occasionally feels like spending time with one of those people who tells you the same things over and over because they don't think that their their stories, perceptions, and ideas are important enough for you to remember. It sometimes feels as though the authors don't trust you enough to remember that Barbara was a wench or that Merrill treated his wives like naughty children. And once in a while, you start to wonder if they think you're just plain dumb. "Yes, yes," I wanted to say, when the authors kept spelling out things that were perfectly clear from the stories and experiences shared within the text, "Ruth's behavior spoke for itself in that situation. You don't actually have to say, 'Ruth was acting a little crazy.' I could draw that conclusion all by my big self."

Another issue I have with the overall novel is the gaping hole left in the text by the complete omission of Carolyn Jessop's spiritual journey. We hear about her expedition out of a culture and out of a marriage, but not much about what it was like to leave her faith. And while she speaks a great deal about the FLDS society and its expectations, and occasionally mentions that she remained faithful to her church for much of her life, she doesn't delve deeply into the spiritual aspects of her life as a believer. There is very little mention of her relationship with God, her prayers, her study, her spiritual experiences, or her thoughts about any doctrines besides those related to "the principle of Celestial marriage." Though she mentions receiving one priesthood blessing that was important to her, she doesn't elaborate on her feelings about that experience, nor does she describe any other spiritual experiences. I'm uncertain as to whether she left out spiritual content for personal reasons, or if the absence of spirituality (vs religiosity) is representative of how the entire FLDS church functions.

But despite its deficiencies, and the toll that it might take on your marriage, Escape is a book that I would recommend to anyone, not only because it's interesting, but also because it addresses an issue that is growing more and more important to contemporary Americans. While the Texas compound affair brought modern American polygamy to the forefront of American consciousness, increasing debate centering on the legal definition of marriage has also forced many Americans to take a second look at a long-outlawed marital practice. And while you may think that Escape simply underlines the reasons that polygamy should be illegal, Carolyn Jessop believes that decriminalizing polygamy would improve the lives of members of the FLDS, allowing families to "live honestly and in the open and with dignity," giving their children more opportunities to interact with the outside world, gain an education, and observe other lifestyle options-- key experiences that would allow them to confidently choose their own way of life.

1 comment:

Nick said...

They should do a "This American Life" episode on polygamy. They probably already have.


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