Triumph: Life After the Cult--A Survivor's Lessons, p.1Carolyn Jessop
ALSO BY CAROLYN JESSOP
This book is dedicated to everyone who gave their all to protect the FLDS children in the aftermath of the raid on the YFZ Ranch. People drove themselves past the point of exhaustion day after day and week after week because they believed FLDS children deserve to live in freedom and security like every other American child.
This book is also dedicated to my children—Arthur, Betty, LuAnne, Patrick, Andrew, Merrilee, Harrison, and Bryson—who center my life in a love that knows no bounds and grows stronger every day. And to Brian Moroney, who makes me laugh and never lets me forget that I am loved unconditionally, I dedicate this book to you, too. You help make our family a triumph.
Kris Dahl, my agent at International Creative Management, remains a shining example of what it means to be at the top of your game.
My collaborator, Laura Palmer, has come through again for me as always with her talent and kindness. We make a great team.
Diane Salvatore, publisher at Broadway Books, brought her passion, intellect, and commitment to ensure that this book would be the best it can possibly be. Lorraine Glennon, my editor, brought more steadfastness and dedication to this manuscript than I thought was humanly possible. Diane and Lorraine were backed up by their incomparable assistants, Hallie Falquet and Annie Chagnot.
David Drake, the head of publicity at Broadway, makes excellence look easy and is a gift to every author he supports. Ellen Folan, the publicist for Triumph has the competence to match her enthusiasm.
Jean Traina has my grateful thanks for designing the elegant cover on this book. Janet Biehl proved that the art of copyediting is far from dead.
Last, but in no way least, Laura Neely, Kris Dahl’s assistant at ICM, is almost peerless in her ability to keep up with everything essential in an author’s life, from the moment negotiations begin until manuscripts are completed. Thank you.
I met some of the finest people I have ever known in Texas during the raid. The love and dedication for the FLDS children expressed by the team at CASA, the Children’s Advocacy Center of Tom Green County, Inc., was miraculous. CASA is headed by executive director, Debra R. Brown, and ably managed by program director, Shirley Davis, and case managers Paulette Schell, Connie Gauwain, Judy Morehouse, and Valerie Trevino.
Kathy and Randy Mankin, publishers of The Eldorado Success, demonstrate week after week that a shoestring budget doesn’t mean you can’t do accurate and honest journalism. Their dedication in pursuing the facts, wherever they may lead, is exceptional. I am proud to know them.
Lisa Jones and Natalie Malonis have been the attorneys who stood up with me when I stood up to Merril in court. I could not have had more superb help. Thank you.
Jeff Schmidt worked relentlessly as an attorney in pursuit of justice and protection for the FLDS children. He is one of the unsung heroes of that time. Sharing his dedication to the welfare of children is Charles Childress, who helped and supported this book. Nick Hanna came through for me and my family.
Dan and Leenie Fischer, Sam Brower, and Gary Engels have all dedicated much of their lives to confronting the crimes of the FLDS.
Doris Besikof has been enormously supportive of me and I am grateful for her expertise and guidance on legal questions. Kathleen Cochran, in San Diego, helped my family have one of our happiest times together.
Crystal and Chuck Maggelet have been wonderful and supportive friends here in Salt Lake City. Thanks to Jan Johnson, who helped me get started as a writer. Venus Cederstom was always there for me as a good neighbor and a great friend during one of the toughest times in my life.
Thank you Stan, Mollie, and Hannah Helfand for graciously including us in Emilie’s bat mitzvah, which helped me see how religion can be such a positive influence on life. I’d also like to thank Frank and MJ Chmelik for making me feel welcome at Brian’s Claremont McKenna College reunion. Thanks, too, to Jacqueline McCook for providing the photographs of the Harvard reunion I attended with Brian. My love and gratitude to Brian’s mother, Edith Moroney, for accepting all of us into her life.
Dr. Lisa Sampson is always on call for my family. I know Harrison, my most vulnerable child, is safe in her care. Angela Barrett-Locker, Harrison’s case manager, is dedicated to making his life all it can be. Thanks are also due to Freyja and Shad Robison who welcomed Harrison into their home with love and support whenever I had to be away and to Cindy Nelson who provides love and care to Harrison each morning.
I also want to thank my children: Arthur, LuAnne, Patrick, Andrew, Merrilee, Harrison, and Bryson, who all sacrificed a lot of time with me so this book could be written; and to my eldest daughter, Betty, who returned to the FLDS but has never left my heart. Grateful thanks to my dad, Arthur Blackmore, who stepped up for me in my child-support case. Finally, I would like to thank Brian Moroney for showing me what unconditional love is.
In Escape, the memoir I published in October 2007, I told the story of my dramatic, middle-of-the-night flight from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the Mormon polygamous cult that I’d been born into thirty-five years earlier. I was elated when Escape was published, staggered when it went as high as number two on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, and utterly convinced that that was the end of the story. My children and I were enjoying our freedom and flourishing in our new lives.
Then on April 3, 2008, I abruptly collided with the past I thought I’d put so firmly behind us. That’s the date when law enforcement officers representing the state of Texas, acting on a telephone tip from a girl calling herself Sarah Barlow, surrounded the FLDS compound near Eldorado, Texas. That dramatic night was the beginning of months of upheaval in my life unlike any I had experienced while escaping from the cult.
The raid was shocking, alarming, yet it also filled me with hope. Perhaps, I thought, the crimes committed by the FLDS against its women and children would finally be revealed to the rest of the world.
Like the millions of Americans who watched the crisis play out on television, I was sickened when I saw the faces of the children being removed from the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch. I shuddered to imagine the fear and trauma they must have been feeling as they left the only world they had ever known. But even as I viewed the same dramatic footage as everyone else, I saw it from a unique perspective because I was intimately familiar with the major players. For seventeen years I had been married to Merril Jessop, the FLDS leader who was running the YFZ Ranch. When I was eighteen, I was forced to marry him, a man thirty-two years my senior, as the price I had to pay before I could go to college. We had never even spoken to each other. I became his fourth wife, and we had eight children in fifteen years.
We lived in Colorado City, Arizona (just across the border with Utah), in an FLDS community of ten thousand people. I fled before Merril relocated to the compound in Texas, which had been built for the sect’s most elite members. I’d heard Warren Jeffs, the “prophet” of the FLDS, talk about moving his followers to “The Center Place.” I knew it would be an isolated enclave cut off from the rest of the world, and I was sure that if my family were ever forced to live in such a place, I would never be able to protect my children from the radical extremism that Jeffs preached. That was just one motivation among many for my desperate desire to get out.
But even though I fled the FLDS, I never stopped loving my stepchildren. I had reason to believe that at least eight of them were on the YFZ Ranch, and my heart was torn apart by what they might be going through. I also realized that if I hadn’t escaped, I could easily have been one of the dist
With so many people I cared about involved, I started working behind the scenes with the authorities to help them understand the religious culture they were dealing with. I tried to help the dedicated child-care advocates who were suddenly struggling to care for and cope with hundreds of FLDS children who’d been separated from their mothers.
I’ve written Triumph to tell what I know about what went right—and what went terribly wrong—with the raid in Texas.
But I also wrote Triumph to explain why I was able to break through the crippling and destructive elements of the FLDS mind control into which I’d been indoctrinated since birth. I have been asked over and over, “What made you different? Where did you find the determination to get yourself out with all your children? How did you hold on to your courage?”
Just recently I was in Texas to testify in one of the criminal trials resulting from the Texas raid. I met a woman who’d left the FLDS rather than be forced into a second marriage with a man she abhorred. She had no children, so she had only herself to get to safety. Yet she told me how hard it had been for her and how overwhelmed she’d been with fear and doubt when she first got out. She questioned everything about her decision. “I even questioned if I was turning against God,” she confided. “I had so many, many questions. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I’d had crying children, begging me to allow them to return.”
She was right—it was hard, at times almost crushingly so. But I can honestly say I never looked back after I made it to safety. I never questioned myself or wondered if I did the right thing. I had periods of confusion about where I was going in my life and how I would get there. Living in a homeless shelter for a time with my eight children—one of whom is profoundly disabled—was one of the most difficult challenges I encountered. But I never doubted that I’d done the right thing; nor did I feel guilty about leaving the FLDS.
The woman I met in Texas had left the FLDS suddenly, when an opportune moment presented itself. So she faced a host of massive changes all at once. That’s sometimes the way transformation happens. But my message in Triumph is about how you can transform your life in simple, gradual, and consistent ways, especially when you don’t have money, support, or a guarantee that you can get where you’re trying to go.
I did not completely change the way I viewed my world in one moment. My shedding of decades of FLDS mind control came in stages. Looking back now, I can see that I was transforming my life years before I fled. It happened incrementally. Sometimes it was a day at a time, sometimes just an hour. But each moment was a building block that led me to the next stage in my journey, and then the next. Working gradually helped me amass the psychological and emotional strength I needed to trust myself. (About the need to keep my children safe, I had no doubts whatsoever.)
We live in a culture where everything happens so fast that we often forget that our lives do not—and usually cannot—transform themselves overnight. In my life there were no quick fixes. My experience was traumatic, but the tools I used are available to anyone who wants to find a new and better direction.
I hope no one reading Triumph will ever be in a situation as desperate as mine. I lived in a world that was so rigidly controlled that if I had been caught reading a book like this one, it would have been confiscated and destroyed. I would have been punished for having contact with the evil outside world. My life in the FLDS was so extreme and dangerous that when I decided to leave, I had no margin for error. Each choice and every strategy I pursued had to be careful and deliberate.
But at some point nearly everyone, no matter what her situation, has to face change that is terrifying and overwhelming. I had virtually no money (I left with twenty dollars in my wallet), but I radically changed my life through a series of ordinary steps that anyone can take. What worked for me can serve as a guide for others.
Change is often so frightening that we resist, deny, and run away from what we know we need to do, deadening ourselves to other possibilities. It’s not easy to tackle our monsters and confront our fears. When I fled from the FLDS with my eight children, it was like leaping off a cliff. I had no idea where we would land or what might happen to us. Survival was my primary goal. But I did more than survive: my life with my family became a triumph. It is by no means perfect; my heart aches for my daughter Betty, who returned to the FLDS two days after turning eighteen. But I am filled with gratitude and the wisdom that I have worked so hard to earn.
As I’ve crisscrossed the country over the past few years promoting Escape, the question I get asked more than any other is “How did you do it?” It’s not just women who want to know. Men also show up at my readings and events, and they too shake their heads and ask the same question.
The questions got me pondering: What were the tools of my transformation? My path was never sure, but I feel I now have some answers. I’d like to share them with you. May my triumph help create yours.
Taking On the FLDS
It was Thursday, April 3, 2008. I was home in West Jordan, Utah, folding laundry in my bedroom, when my cell phone rang.
“Carolyn, it’s Kathy. Something is going on at the ranch. Law enforcement is at the gate, and the country road has been shut down.”
Kathy Mankin and her husband, Randy, publish The Eldorado Success, the local newspaper in Eldorado, Texas, the town nearest to the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a $20 million compound spread across seventeen hundred acres in West Texas. The YFZ Ranch is owned and operated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the polygamous Mormon cult in which I’d spent my entire life until fleeing in April 2003. My ex-husband, Merril Jessop, had been running the ranch since becoming one of the highest-ranking men in the FLDS in 2006.
Kathy and Randy had been covering the FLDS since 2003, when the ranch was bought under false pretenses as a corporate retreat and lodge. On March 24, 2004, with the headline “Corporate Retreat or Prophet’s Refuge?” the Mankins broke the news to the residents of Eldorado—a town of roughly two thousand residents, thirteen churches, three restaurants, and an aging motel—that their new neighbors were members of an extreme polygamous sect. Kathy and I had been in touch since 2006, when she called to find out what might be going on at the ranch and to broaden her knowledge of the FLDS. This time, though, her voice sounded urgent.
“Randy asked one of the law enforcement officers where they were all coming from, and he said they were coming in from everywhere,” she told me. She said it was hard to get information because law enforcement was keeping the media out of the area. She was worried about an ugly showdown if the FLDS did not cooperate.
My phone rang nonstop for the rest of the night. It soon became clear that Merril was in a major confrontation with the law. Since the national media had no idea what was going on yet, we couldn’t turn on the TV for information. All I knew were the bits and pieces that my callers told me.
Of course I knew just how dangerous this situation could become. It was no secret within the FLDS that members would be proud to die for the prophet. In fact, Warren Jeffs, the now-imprisoned leader of the FLDS, once asked at the regular monthly meeting for FLDS men how many would be willing to die for him. As the rest of the community learned immediately afterward—this was the kind of news that spread like wildfire—every single one of the men stood. Then again, no one would have dared not to.
My greatest fear was that whatever was happening at the YFZ Ranch could explode into another Waco, the Texas town where seventy-six people died back in 1993, when the Branch Davidian compound, run by the self-styled prophet David Koresh, burned to the ground after being raided by federal agents. Footage of that raid circulated among the FLDS as an example of how corrupt the government had become. FLDS leaders blamed the governme
I had eight stepchildren on the YFZ Ranch who were younger than eighteen and several more who were adults. I had taught a few of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs’s wives when I was a schoolteacher, and I was concerned that they might be on the ranch, too. Severing myself from the FLDS did not mean I stopped caring about those I’d loved when I was there. It was a constant source of guilt that I’d been unable to protect those loved ones as much as I’d managed to protect my own children. In the nearly six years since I’d fled, my life—and my children’s—had steadily improved. Knowing firsthand how joyful life could be made me yearn even more that those still mired in the cult might one day cut themselves loose.
But my deepest concern was for my daughter Betty, who’d broken my heart when she returned to the FLDS in 2007 immediately after turning eighteen. For about a month we lost all contact but gradually began talking again by phone. Our last conversation, just four days earlier, had lasted forty-five minutes. She was not living on the YFZ Ranch but was cooking and cleaning for her half-brothers, who were working on construction jobs outside Texas. She never talked about why she wasn’t on the ranch with her father, whom she idolized, but I suspect Merril wanted to make sure she was truly committed after living for four years “on the outside.” My heart froze as I contemplated what this new crisis might mean for our still-shaky relationship. But above all I felt relief that Betty wasn’t at the ranch.
It was an endless night. When the calls stopped, my mind didn’t. Something huge was unfolding in Texas. What terrified me most was that Merril was in charge of the hundreds of children inside the compound. Merril saw himself as invincible and had never been reasonable or accountable to anyone. He was a bully and a coward. And that, of course, made him even more dangerous. He was careful to protect his own safety, but if he felt desperate and trapped, he was capable of doing something stupid.
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