Book Review - Shattered Dreams My Life as a Polygamist’s Wife

Cultic Studies Review, 7, (3), 2008, 297-306 

Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist’s Wife

Irene Spencer

Hatchett Book Groups/Center Street, New York, 2007. ISBN-13: 9781599957197 (hardcover). $24.99. 400 pages.


Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer

Broadway Books, New York, 2007. ISBN-10: 0767927575; ISBN-13: 978-0767927574 (paperback). $14.95 ($10.17 448 pages.

Stolen Innocence

Elissa Wall with Lisa Pulitzer

HarperCollins (William Morrow Imprint), New York, 2008. ISBN-10: 0061628018; ISBN-13: 978-0739496343 (hardcover). $25.95 ($17.13, 448 pages.

Reviewed by Livia Bardin, M.S.W.

Books by Elissa Wall and Carolyn Jessop, born and raised in the polygamous Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS), tell gripping though very different tales of their lives, first as children, then as unwilling wives in the isolated, tightly controlled sect, who eventually managed to leave. Irene Spencer, a generation older, describes life in the polygamous Colonia LeBaron group, a less-tightly-controlled polygamous community. Her involvement was entirely voluntary, and the pains and hardships she experienced seem almost inevitable concomitants of a polygamous relationship.

Irene, author of Shattered Dreams, was born in 1937, the 4th of 6 children born to her mother and the 13th of 31 children of her father, a fireman in the Salt Lake City area. Irene was early indoctrinated into the practice of polygamy with its promise of future glory for those who hold fast to “The Principle,” as it is called. She early learned that asking questions showed “disrespect” and “lack of faith,” and also that her family’s adherence to The Principle was a secret. It was a secret difficult for a child to keep, as shown by her amusing tale of three 5-year-olds marching together into public kindergarten and explaining to the teacher that, although they all had the same last name, the same address, and the same father, they were not triplets and had different birthdays and different mothers.

Irene’s childhood was marked by poverty. Her father, struggling to support his large family on a fireman’s income, developed a severe drinking problem; and when Irene was 5 years old, her mother left, taking her children with her. Years of living on welfare ensued. When Irene was 12, her mother embarked on a homesteading venture and shortly thereafter married again, an abusive monogamist whom Irene disliked. She coped with the situation in part by long visits to her Aunt Rhea, her mother’s half-sister and her father’s first wife. Aunt Rhea had also left her husband but remained a committed polygamist. She lived in Hurricane, Utah, a small town not far from the FLDS center, then known as Short Creek (now Hildale-Colorado City). Aunt Rhea often took the family to Short Creek, where young Irene experienced the liberating feeling of being among her own kind, no longer having to conceal her core beliefs.

Among the teenaged girls in Short Creek, marriage was a hot topic. Girls were selected for marriage by men who received word from God that a particular girl was to be “sealed” to him. This caused confusion about some of the more attractive girls, as several different men might get the same word from God about the same girl. This eventually led to the Prophet’s decision that only marriages revealed by God to him were acceptable.

Irene’s mother tried to discourage her daughter from entering into polygamy. But the teenager, although powerfully attracted to a monogamous young man whom her mother supported, opted instead to marry 23-year-old Verlan LeBaron, who was already married to her half-sister Charlotte. Irene was attracted to Verlan and eager for the match. The LeBarons claimed to be “spiritual direct descendants” of Joseph Smith, giving the name a certain cache, even though the family was also known for mental instability. Indeed, Verlan was a brother of the notorious Ervil LeBaron, who eventually murdered, among others, his brother Joel and Irene’s uncle, Rulon Allred. Ervil’s murderous career is described in Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.

Not only because the marriage was polygamous, but also because Irene’s mother would have prevented it had she known, the ceremony was secret and surreptitious, achieved with the connivance of her Uncle Rulon. Shortly thereafter, an eager, committed 16-year-old got on the bus to Mexico in 1953, where the LeBarons had started a colony, and where she would commence 28 years of hardship, bearing and raising 13 children in conditions of physical and emotional deprivation that made her earlier life seem almost comfortable.

The author describes complexities of her polygamous life openly and frankly: the lack of sexual and emotional intimacy; the constant scrounging for food, clothing, and other necessities; the frequent moves within Mexico and elsewhere in search of economic sustenance; and the complex relationships—the jealousy, competition, but also friendship, and support—among her husband’s ever-increasing collection of wives. Verlan was not physically abusive. It was the overwhelming string of broken promises, mainly about relationships with other women, combined with the exhausting task of providing for her own and, at times, other wives’ children, that drove Irene to leave. The parting was prolonged: a 5-month stay with a sister’s family, then an attempt at reconciliation that included a trip to Europe (and where did Verlan get the money for that?), and 3 years “out in the world,” followed by another year back with the group in Mexico. The story ends with Verlan’s untimely death in an automobile accident. The reader is left without details about Irene’s final transition to the outside.

Irene Spencer’s experience, grim as it was, pales beside the outright tyranny the two younger authors endured. Carolyn Blackmore Jessop, author of Escape, was born a generation later, in 1968, and, except for one early year in Salt Lake City, raised in the Hildale-Colorado City enclave that straddles the border between Utah and Arizona. While Carolyn’s parents were descended from a long line of polygamists, they were monogamous for much of her early childhood. Although she was favored by her often-absent father, Carolyn describes frequent spankings and beatings by her severely depressed mother, given in the name of love, and viewed by the community as “good discipline.” There were also good things—quilting parties, games, and friends, and a powerful message from her grandmother: FLDS members were of the elite few who, by practicing plural marriage, could win their way into Heaven. Supplementing this teaching were the children’s own games that reflected the coming apocalypse and the evil ways of all outsiders. Carolyn attended the local public school, which was staffed and run by FLDS members as its own indoctrination center, and where teachers employed physical violence (occasionally at sickening levels) against the students, under supervision of a principal who was close to and protected by “Uncle Roy” (Leroy Johnson), the prophet.

When she was about 10 years old, Carolyn’s father took a second wife, her cousin Rosie. A nurse, Rosie was better educated than most FLDS women. She worked in a nearby town and often took young Carolyn with her to take care of her infant daughter. Rosie’s job contrasted powerfully with the factory work of most FLDS members and Carolyn was strongly impressed with the value of education.

During Carolyn’s early teen years, she began to feel the group’s constraints. She struggled mightily to continue her education after the eighth grade, and contact with boys her own age was strictly limited. The first great turning point of her life came when her older sister, Linda, reached age 18—at that time the age of eligibility for girls to marry—and fled from Colorado City to avoid marriage with a much older man, disgracing the entire family and, in the eyes of the believers, consigning herself to Hell. Hunted and harassed by her father and other members of the group, Linda eventually was so worn down that she consented to a marriage with a different, younger man she knew but did not want to marry, on condition that she would not have to return to Colorado City. Even though Linda’s “apostate” status was then revoked, she remained cut off from her family and trapped in an unwanted marriage. From this Carolyn learned that “escape was not the answer…. if I tried, I’d be hunted down and then forced into a situation that guaranteed misery and unhappiness” (p. 60).

Through luck and diligence, Carolyn not only graduated from high school, but also was able to fit in a year of community college before she turned 18. But her luck turned when “Uncle Roy,” the prophet, decreed that she should marry Merril Jessop, a 50-year-old crony of his. After the distressing experience with Linda, the family was taking no chances of another humiliation. On very short notice, and under close guard against escape, Carolyn became the fourth wife of a man who was so indifferent to her that he did not address a single remark to her before the wedding.

Merril Jessop’s household was dominated by his jealous, tyrannical second wife, Barbara. Carolyn quickly learned that life there turned on the ability to intrigue and manipulate. She contrived to get Merril to send her to college, in large part because her absence would please Barbara. He also sent one of his daughters (a contemporary of Carolyn’s) along with her as a monitor/spy.

In November, 1986, Uncle Roy died and was succeeded by the elderly Rulon Jeffs. Merril’s power within the group increased as he allied himself first with Rulon, and then with Warren, Rulon’s son and eventual successor. (In 2008, Merril Jessop was in charge of the YFZ ranch in Texas when child-welfare authorities raided it.) Along with the increase in power came an increase in wives and children, with a predictable increase in household intrigues, manipulation, and disorder.

Carolyn bore 8 children in a series of difficult pregnancies, coping not only with raising the children and holding her own in the complex home environment, but also with assisting Merril to run his various businesses. Having married her as part of a business proposition, Merril’s attitude toward Carolyn gradually changed from indifference to hostility. However, the precipitating factor in her departure was the serious illness of a small child. Carolyn began to compare the care and support given by the supposedly evil outsiders at the hospital where she took the child for treatment with the blame accorded by her husband and other FLDS members, who objected to the child’s receiving medical treatment on the grounds that her own sins were the cause of his illness.

The reader is awestruck by the determination and courage of this mother, who desired nothing more than to get away, but who would not leave her children behind. She tells a gripping tale of how she planned her escape and eventually fled in the middle of the night in a car with just about enough gas to get to the nearest town, and with 8 children, one of whom required an oxygen mask, and several of whom were convinced that, as one of them put it, “Mommy is taking us to Hell.”

When Carolyn managed to get an appointment with Mark Shurtleff, Utah’s Attorney General, her story became the catalyst for long-delayed state action to investigate the FLDS and initiate attempts to protect members in need of help.

In Stolen Innocence, Elissa Wall both fills out and carries forward the grim narrative of Warren Jeffs’ career. The 11th of her mother’s 14 children, Elissa is about 18 years younger than Carolyn. During her early years, Elissa lived near Salt Lake City, in an environment in which secrecy about polygamy was required. Her father, a geologist and businessman, earned enough to provide a pleasant home for his large, but contentious family. The children attended Alta Academy, a private school for FLDS members, whose principal was Warren Jeffs, Rulon’s son.

Unlike Carolyn’s parents, with their four-generation history of polygamy, Elissa’s father and his first wife joined the FLDS as married adults. However, Elissa’s mother, her father’s second wife, came from an old-line polygamous family. The tension between the two wives, their 19 children, and later a third wife, was extreme, due not only to personality differences and rivalry for their husband’s attention, but also to their differing backgrounds and perspectives. Elissa was 10 years old when the controversy first boiled over, resulting in the expulsion of her oldest full brother, Craig, aged 18. Under orders from Prophet Rulon Jeffs, Elissa’s mother dutifully drove her son to a highway at the edge of town and dropped him there.

Elissa’s mother and an older sister, Rachel, who was married to Prophet Rulon Jeffs, had discussed the family difficulties with Rulon and Warren. The family strife did not abate, as Elissa’s younger brothers also began to ask challenging questions. The upshot was a ruling that the father could not properly control his family. Elissa’s mother and her children were summarily removed from his care and sent to live with a family member in a distant rural area; the children had no chance even to tell their father good-bye. More than a year went by before the family was again reunited.

The family disintegration continued as younger children followed their brother Craig’s example of questioning, even disobeying, their father’s increasingly strict edicts. Five more of Elissa’s older siblings were punished one way or another before the situation spiraled into a crisis that led to a second, permanent separation of wife and children from the father who could not keep them steady in the faith. Elissa’s mother and the 5 children still with her, including 12-year-old Elissa, were placed in Hildale at “Uncle” Fred Jessop’s house. Elissa’s mother was “removed” from her father and given to Uncle Fred.

Stolen Innocence describes the rise of Warren Jeffs in detail, starting with the author’s personal encounters with him during her elementary school years; continuing with his ascension to complete power over his aged, ailing father; and finally including the crafty stages by which, after Rulon’s death, he extended and increased his control, which ranged from elimination of TV watching to destruction of all books not approved by the leadership, to encouragement of family members to spy on one another and report violations to the prophet. Elissa also details the sect’s preparation for the coming of Doomsday (at the turn of the century) and its response to the nonarrival of the promised Doomsday.

Like Carolyn, Elissa entered into a forced marriage, but of a different sort. She was underage—only 14—when she was forced into marriage with a young cousin who had treated her cruelly when she was small, and whom she despised. Repeatedly raped by her husband during the marriage, Elissa experienced a string of difficult pregnancies without medical care, all ending in painful miscarriages. Desperate to prevent further disastrous pregnancies, she effected a separation by staying away from home and sleeping in a truck.

Alienated from the group by its destructive role in her family during her childhood, hating her marriage, unpersuaded of the validity of the doctrine, and encouraged to leave during visits to the siblings who had already left, Elissa nevertheless stayed on, reluctant to desert her needy mother and two younger sisters. She did not actually depart until she fell in love with and became pregnant by another man, also a disaffected member of the group. Once this situation became known, she was forbidden to see her mother and, her sole reason for staying removed, she was able to leave. Ironically, she soon learned that her previous miscarriages were to the result of her Rh negative blood type, a condition that would have been routinely dealt with had she been provided appropriate medical care.

The heart of Stolen Innocence is the narrative of Elissa’s decision to testify against Warren Jeffs at his 2007 trial, and the events leading to his eventual conviction on charges of accomplice to rape. The process by which she reached that decision, the pressures on her and her family to prevent her from testifying, the support from the government attorneys to counter that pressure, and much of the actual trial proceedings are set forth in gripping detail. One can only imagine the courage it took for her to take the stand, to reveal and subject to cross-examination intimate details of her life, and to maintain her composure in the face of the united hostility of those she had lived among most of her life.

One could enjoy all these books for their stories alone, gripping narratives of hardship and courage culminating in events that effectively raised the curtain on the secret world of the FLDS. But for the student of cults and cult involvement, there is much more.

All three authors convey the stunning power of belief. Why did Irene Spencer stay in a marriage that required her over and over to welcome additional wives whose presence deprived her even more of the emotional and physical intimacy she craved? What brings a mother to abandon an 18 year-old son by the roadside? Or a child to struggle, as Carolyn Jessop’s daughter did, to return to a life of constriction, stigmatized by her mother’s apostasy?

But we also see that even in a high-demand, tightly controlled group, life has pleasures and joys, whether annual celebrations in Hildale-Colorado City, teenagers sneaking out of lectures to socialize clandestinely, family picnics, or even the gathering of pine nuts in the Sierras.

While Irene Spencer in the 1960s and ‘70s experienced many evils as a polygamous wife, Carolyn Jessop and Elissa Wall a generation later lived under far tighter control. From the perspective of Warren Jeffs’ reign, Carolyn Jessop looks back with nostalgia to the benevolent rule of “Uncle Roy”; yet it was during Uncle Roy’s reign that she experienced serious physical abuse and the forced marriages of both her sister and herself. Elissa Wall describes Warren Jeffs’ impact, first on her school in the Salt Lake City area, then on the entire community, as his power grew. One can see how much a totalist organization is subject to the personality of the leader, and how much can change on short notice. Members might find themselves in a system vastly different from the one they entered, yet they accept change because refusal would bring dire consequences.

For all three women, contact with the outside world, and the growing conviction that this world was not really populated by evil people, was key to their decision to leave, while family ties anchored them to the group. Irene talks about the kindness of people in the European countries she visited with her husband during a reconciliation attempt. Carolyn noted not only the kind treatment she received at the local hospital, but also other kindnesses she experienced while managing a motel for her husband. Elissa made long visits to siblings who had left. Her ingenuity in getting permission to visit them for stays of several weeks was considerable; but, despite her enjoyment, she found it impossible to abandon her mother and sisters. Neither Irene nor Carolyn would leave children behind. For all, these emotional ties kept them in the group long after they became disillusioned with its beliefs and practices.

All three struggled mightily after leaving. Carolyn found the available services—housing, health care for her children, and protection—miserably inadequate for her large family; and despite her efforts to convince them, not all her children would stay out. Elissa, supported throughout by a loving companion, had fewer practical problems, but relates in touching detail the powerfully symbolic act of cutting her hair.

Although finding it more difficult to slough off the theological burden, Irene’s description of her attempts to re-integrate into mainstream society echoes these themes:

I felt like a zoo animal let loose in the wild. I had no job skills, so we lived off welfare. ... Everything was different. The variety among the people and the ideas I encountered was … a huge shift from my prior life, in which everyone thought and acted the same way … And then there was my constant doubt and guilt over the choices I made to leave Verlan and the church.

The cultural adjustment was even harder for her children, who had never lived “outside.” Irene—explaining to a school psychologist that the child in question was not retarded, but simply had never seen a baseball mitt, a fire hydrant, or even a light bulb, and in fact had never seen a single one of the items pictured in a test he had flunked—eloquently conveys this struggle.

Perhaps the most salient message of these books is the variety of ways life can impose misery in a totalitarian group, and the valor and resiliency that can overcome a lifetime of indoctrination.