I had been watching and waiting for months. Nine lives were at stake: those of my eight children and my own. Now, at 10 p.m. on April 21, 2003, I found out that my husband Merril Jessop had left on a business trip. The moment had come. But I had to act with caution. My husband’s other wives were suspicious. I had a reputation for being independent. If anyone suspected something, one of the wives would call Merril. The choice was freedom or fear. I was 35 and desperate to flee from polygamy, the only world I had ever known.
I came from six generations of polygamists and was part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS. 10,000 of us lived in a community along the Utah-Arizona border. The principle of celestial marriage defined our faith. A man must have multiple wives to do well in heaven, where he can become a God and wind up with his own planet. My grandmother told me I had the chance to become a goddess if I lived polygamy. It was our version of the Cinderella story.
It was the one way in life that I felt special. That my parents argued and my mother beat me were facts. Brutality toward children was the norm within the community as a method of control. It was seen as discipline, not abuse. A woman with obedient children had status as a faithful mother.
At 18, I was coerced into marriage. At 2 a.m. one morning I was awakened. “Uncle Roy,” Dad said, referring to Leroy Johnson, the FLDS prophet of God, “wants you to marry Merril Jessop.” I was stunned. Marrying Merril, who was 50, was like marrying my grandfather. “If you want him to love you and your children,” my father said, “you should find yourself in perfect obedience to him.” Children? I had never even been on a date. I was so scared I felt like the zombie bride. But I believed that to reject my marriage was to reject God’s will.
Over the next 15 years, I would have eight children, four involving life-threatening pregnancies. Harrison, born in 1999, was severely disabled and in crippling pain from a highly aggressive cancer in his spine. Merril had utter contempt for Harrison. His first year, Harrison got no relief from traditional medications. When someone gave me the name of a holistic doctor, Merril objected. He grabbed my arm and threw me in the alfalfa field. “It is your fault that he is sick,” Merril said. “God is going to destroy his life because of the sins of his mother.”
What were those sins? I had begun refusing to have sex with Merril. In the FLDS, refusing sex with one’s husband was considered adultery. I also decided to no longer let Merril work me like a slave. Through my seventh pregnancy, I’d been in Caliente, managing a hotel he owned. Another wife told me that when someone asked how he could send me to such a bad location, Merril replied, “I’m trying to get rid of her.”
That was the turning point. If Merril wanted to get rid of me, why would he take me with him into the kingdom of God? Even if I didn’t end up in hell, I didn’t want to spend eternity with a man I hated.
My marriage was over, but Harrison was too sick for me to think of escape. Merril kept coming into my bedroom. When I refused to have sex, he became abusive toward my children. They were not allowed to eat. Now I had to sneak food to my own children. I offered up my body in sacrifice. In April 2000, I started vomiting. I was pregnant for the eighth time.
Over the next three years, as Harrison’s health stabilized, life in the community became more extreme. Hundreds of teen boys were arbitrarily ex-communicated. After Warren Jeffs proclaimed himself the prophet in ’02, he began marrying off younger and younger girls and taking more wives himself. He also started talking in apocalyptic terms about moving followers to “The Center Place.” Odds were that Merril, one of the most powerful men in the FLDS, with seven wives and 54 children, would be one of the first taken there. It would be tantamount to a prison camp. I had to get out fast.
The moment I realized Merril was out of town and all my children were home, I called my brother Arthur, who had left the sect. FLDS women could drive—but our cars had no license plates or outdated ones, so if we tried to leave without our husbands’ permission, we’d be stopped. We were 300 miles away. Arthur would have to drive all night. “I’ll be there,” he said.
At 4 a.m. I got everybody up, saying Harrison needed to go to the doctor. My older children were annoyed. “Why doesn’t father know what you’re doing?” Betty, 13, demanded. I grabbed her arm. She fought back. I pulled hard. “I’m not leaving you behind.” I got her into the van. After about two miles, I pulled over. My heart was racing. I told the children we were out of gas—but that I saw people ahead who might help. I got out and ran to my brother. When Betty realized what was happening, she shrieked, “You’re stealing us!”
Five hours later we arrived in Salt Lake City and went into hiding. I had eight children and $20 to my name. For the first time in 35 years, I was free.