April 18th, 2008
10:24 PM ET

FLDS became more restrictive, secretive and threatening

[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/04/18/art.escapefinal.jpg%5D

Carolyn Jessop
co-author of ESCAPE, her memoir of life in the FLDS and her escape from it

One of the aspects of my former life people are always curious about is the clothing women in the FLDS wear. Sometimes the media refers to it as “pioneer-style” clothing or “Little House on the Prairie” attire. With their long dresses, long underwear and hair piled high on their heads women in the FLDS look like they are racing headlong into the 19th century.

It looks bizarre to me now, but I wore clothing like that for 35 years. This all started after the disastrous Short Creek raid in 1953. That raid is a focal point in FLDS history. Arizona officials raided the polygamist community and tried to break it up. But they failed when wrenching pictures of mothers being separated from their children were published in newspapers and there was a huge public outcry.

But the raid turned out to be a huge plus for the FLDS because so much sympathy was generated. After the court case was tossed out, people came home and continued the polygamist lifestyle but became even more secretive.

That’s when the clothing changed drastically for women—but it wasn’t the only thing. Women lost a lot of rights in 1953. They no longer had any say in who they could marry nor could they choose how to dress. The way this was spun was that since the community had come through the raid so successfully, it was now ready to practice a higher form of God’s law. (God is always the explanation when things get more restrictive; change is presented as a prize for being righteous and faithful. We were always told we were worthy of a higher law.)

The new rules forbid women to wear pants, short sleeves, or low cut necklines. Hair had to be worn long; trimmed, but never cut. It had to be worn up on the head, nothing short, convenient, or easy to manage.

In those first years, women could wear prints, plaids or any color they chose. But every ten of fifteen years it seemed things got more restrictive. (Men had restrictions, too. They could not wear short sleeves and were not allowed to roll up their cuffs.)

Thankfully, when I was growing up, I did not have to wear long underwear. That change came in with the prophet Rulon Jeffs. We were told it was preparations for the sacred underwear we might one day wear as Temple garments.

A lot of us hated the long underwear. It was hot, uncomfortable and made us look like big blobs. When Warren Jeffs took over, even children had to wear long underwear as soon as they were potty-trained. Warren also banned the color red. He prohibited us from wearing bright purple or any florescent colors.

One thing the dresses did was set us apart. It made us outsiders. People made fun of us. We’d be called “polygs.” I was one of the rare women of my era to go to college and I remember the cruel stares of strangers and how bad that made me feel.

The clothing also desexualizes women. Our chests are flattened out and any natural shape is hidden.

We were always told by Warren Jeffs when the dress and choices became more restrictive that is was a sign that “God loves you so much he wants you to be more like him.” (We believed Warren received direct revelations from God.) What we were losing were rights and any sense of control over our lives and all individuality.

For several years, a small group of women in the FLDS had a secret coffee club. We bitched about the long underwear. We’d say we didn’t need to diet; “all we have to do is take off our long underwear and we’ll lose 30 pounds!” We hated that our breasts were so squished we looked like boys.

The clothing we wore was like a fence drawn around us that made us untouchable.

One woman in the coffee club was more rebellious than most. She cut her long underwear off at the knees to make it more comfortable. When she had her period she refused to wear it at all. Her husband reported her to the prophet—then it was Uncle Rulon.

He had other complaints; he said she wouldn’t turn over the money she made to him and she wouldn’t fix his dinner. She also had stopped having sex with him because they only had one bedroom and she didn’t want to have sex in the same room with their kids.

The prophet said she could lose her husband and her children if she didn’t shape up. The threat to a woman is always that her kids will be taken away from her if she doesn’t behave. This woman’s husband bought her new pots and pans to make him dinner. She stayed for another six years before she finally found a way out of the FLDS.

I escaped with my eight children five years ago this month. It’s been astonishing how much our lives have changed. It was really hard at first. We spent a month in a homeless shelter and I went on welfare. For a time I was even sewing underwear for “Big Love” when it was just getting started.

I had to go into hiding after I escaped because my then-husband—Merril Jessop–who now runs the compound in El Dorado, Texas, had a posse of men hunting me down immediately. A friend of a friend hid us in her home.

One of my sweetest memories of my children is from that first night. I was exhausted and told to go and rest. My friend gave my children a bath while I napped and got them ready for bed. (In 17 years of marriage, that was the first time anyone helped me get my children settled down for the night. Never ever did I have help—not even when I was sick and pregnant nor when I was overwhelmed in caring for my handicapped son.)

On our first night of freedom, Merrilee, my five year-old, had her first bubble bath. She had been given a nightgown to wear and panties with rosettes. When she saw me she pulled up her nightgown and squealed, “See the roses!!!!” She was elated and discovering the joys of being a little girl for the first time in her life.

I wrote about this and so much more in my memoir ESCAPE which I, of course, hope you have a chance to read.

Filed under: Carolyn Jessop • FLDS court hearing • Polygamy
soundoff (125 Responses)
  1. Marie

    In response to Katie and Carol –

    Your comments sound exactly like the mean spirited, hurtful words hurled by the other sister wive's children. You sound like FLDS. Wake up there is freedom in America.

    Bless you Carolyn for having the courage to take the huge risk of leaving and saving your children. We can only pray that those other mothers still in bondage will see your shining example.

    April 20, 2008 at 12:03 pm |
  2. Aunti

    This FLDS outfit is nothing more than a child abuse cult hiding behind the guise of "religion". It seems anyone can get away with anything just by saying it's in their "religion".

    All cults should be permanently destroyed.

    April 20, 2008 at 5:52 am |
  3. sally

    i like to see them woman get help and learn how to live like us with there children they don;t need men like that i like to be a friend to you please write back i feel for the woman and children and wass thinking what can we do to help them they say they will leave the ranch well we will see if they really want to get right i glad that you left and got you life back i know it;s hard but it can be done look at you you go and may god bless you and your family and help you throw this . thank;s sally

    April 20, 2008 at 2:43 am |
  4. alice

    Hi, I am from California. I am writing this because I am pissed off at these stupid people practicing this fake religion. I hope these mothers and fathers rot in hell. I do appreciate the short story but please if I was a judge or a lawyer, I would do something about this case. People please do something about and not just talk about. Thank you. By the way, love Anderson Cooper!!!

    April 20, 2008 at 2:42 am |
  5. Marie

    I read Irene Spencer's book , Shattered Dreams and yours and my heart went out to you both and your children for what you have gone through. I am amazed that you stayed sane with all the emotional abuse and brain washing. And to think that those in the FLDS blame God for their inhumane power! The mean spirited bullying of the wives and children of the mothers who are not the "favorite" wife was so heart breaking, it sounded like slavery.

    Thank you for the courage to tell your story. I hope it will give other women and children the courage to seek those who can help them get the strength and support to get free of the bondage and fear that they are forced to live in.

    April 20, 2008 at 1:35 am |
  6. Lynn Ribar

    Carolyn –
    I read your book last fall and I couldn't put it down until I read it and I'm going to read it again, now learning more about the FLDS. Watching the drama unfold on t.v. and in print, I just can't get this out of my mind what's going on at the "compound." My heart aches for all those affected.

    I am GLAD that you are in the media, telling your story, unlike some of the comments from others here that you are "exploiting" the story for personal gain. Nothing could be further from the truth. You are "speaking" for perhaps hundreds (or thousands maybe) of helpless victims caught up in this and this story NEEDS to be told and in the forefront. God bless you for being the voice of the voiceless!!!

    April 20, 2008 at 1:30 am |
  7. Kat Ramani

    In all of CNN's copious - and overdone - coverage on this story, no one seems to have asked the question of what is the justifying philosophy behind having these multiple, and clearly quite young, wives.

    Only when we can understand the philosophy that has kept these women voluntarily imprisoned can we even hope to replace it with another - the secular, monogamist philosophy that clearly we are all assuming is the "right" one in America ...

    April 19, 2008 at 9:38 pm |
  8. eddie

    If your book is read my just one person in FLDS and the word gets out there is freedom on the other side and people who understand your Job is done .
    Bless you Girl..

    April 19, 2008 at 7:07 pm |
  9. Danny & Leona

    I found this after watching the news. I have read your book and could not put it down. As I read your book I felt that I was going through everything and had all kinds of feelings.
    I so glad you wrote this book and that we had a chance to read it. We have known you since you were a tiny one, but just never realized what was going on.
    I pray that you can keep on trying to help the ones that are so programed.
    Hopeful someday others will be able to have a better life because of your bravery.

    April 19, 2008 at 6:59 pm |
  10. leti

    The reply from a Kati that "Carolyn is vindictive and spiteful and just plain mean" is ignorant. Kati, have you ever though about the children's fate if Carolyn kept quiet?

    April 19, 2008 at 6:23 pm |
  11. Susie Cowan

    Hi Carolyn,
    congrats on your five year aniversary:). I can´t even begin to imagine how hard it was for you to leave. After the decision was made, you faced many challenges. You survived. Kudos to you and your family.

    I live in Denmark with about five million others, and we are shocked to see the conditions that the FLDS live under.

    When Jeff was arrested we all cheared, but I still don´t think we all had any idea what was really going on. Lets hope that some of theese women feel brave enough to change their conditions.

    I think that your story is an inspiration.

    Susie Cowan, Denmark.

    April 19, 2008 at 4:56 pm |
  12. Kat

    Hooray! Hooray! You got away! Congrats on five years, and on your positive adjustment. It's about time more Americans realized how fundamentalist cults force women into what is, for all practical purposes, a state of abusive slavery. So keep publicizing. Perhaps more people will be inspired to escape abuse. There will always be people who complain about what you say, or who think you're too much in the media. Just remember you don't have to pay attention to people who lack compassion and people who are too stupid to change the channel.

    April 19, 2008 at 4:49 pm |
  13. gigi

    THANK-YOU Carolyn. I am so happy for you and your children. I can't wait to read the book. Thank-you for bringing this truth to light in our country and sharing your experience, strength and hope. I find you to be a woman of incredible courage and strength. May God bless you and your kids.

    April 19, 2008 at 4:38 pm |
  14. Wendy Ellis

    I read Escape – what a tremendous story of courage. I commend Carolyn Jessup fr doing whatever it took to get her kids away from a destructive way of living. At the end of the book, it is mentioned that the oldest daughter returned to the FLDS. Is that daughter still there and is she one of the people in the compound in Texas?

    April 19, 2008 at 4:36 pm |
  15. Deedee


    The reason why evil continues to thrive in society is because sometimes good people shut up and say nothing, one person (and more to follow) had the courage and is changing that, Kudos to Caroline. Let us band together as a society and support these families. Anderson a few of us would like to send educational toys, games, clothing and books to the kids and some make-up and new clothes for the moms. Is there an address to send it to?

    April 19, 2008 at 4:10 pm |
  16. Mickey

    It isn't LDS it is FLDS. There is a difference–a big one.

    April 19, 2008 at 4:08 pm |
  17. Judith


    Do not listen to all the negative comments on this post. You are bigger than to let these people take away what has and is sacred to you and your experiences.

    I want people to know that this woman is the bravest of women to escape and make a life for herself. She and the rest do not deserve a lifestyle that is abusive and done in the name of "god".

    God is loving, gracious, safe and give people freedom of choice. This is not the God I know that these men and their religion created.

    Good for Carolyn to write a book. She and her children deserve the royalties as no one can ever replace the evil they have suffered.

    She deserves to be a spokes person on every channel on television as she is the voice for those who need to be free and are free from this terrible human tragedy.

    Toronto, Canada

    April 19, 2008 at 3:25 pm |
  18. Karen

    Kati, It sounds as if you are joulous and wish you had the courage to make decisions for yourself. It sounds as if you are very co-denpendent and in need to tear someone down for making a positive change for their family. Carolyn has always seemed very positive and uplifting to a community that has done nothing but shown her heart break. To tell you the truth Carolyn has provided good PR for the women on the compound then the ones that live there. When the compound ladies speak about wanting their children and comparing the situation to the Jewish community it is sicking. The women sound pathetic and the Texas goverment is not planning on killing the children like the Nazi's did to the jews. Carolyn provides listeners/viewers with an empathic understanding of how and why people may do such things to children without knowing that they are endangering the child.

    April 19, 2008 at 2:52 pm |
  19. KP

    I applaud Carolyn for sharing her story and I plan to buy the paperback when it comes out. I pray that her story will help other women and children from sharing the same cruel fate.

    In response to the negative comments to the book, I just want to say that with any kind of abuse, secrecy is the only thing that keeps the abuse cycle going. It would be easier for Carolyn to keep this to herself. I'm sure sure she re-lives her experiences each time she shares, but I believe that her motive is strictly to help others. To me that takes guts! She is a brave woman. Think of escaping with all 8 of your children and one who is disabled?! It would be frightening and I'm glad she has told her story. Polygamy is a cancer in our U.S. and Canadian societies. To think that such sin and wrong doing is going on under our noses! Think of all the other women & children who have to endure the same plight. To me that is terrifying!

    April 19, 2008 at 2:31 pm |
  20. Anne


    Your book and your commentary on CNN only continue to prove your courage, and for that you are a true inspiration. Thank you for what you are doing. The domination, control, abuse, and degradation you are standing up to is not exclusive to FLDS. I pray that all of your fortunate children follow in your brave footsteps.


    April 19, 2008 at 2:09 pm |
  21. Shan

    Thank you so much for educating us on the F0DLS. You are a courageous woman. It was amazing to hear that you actually knew the women talking on CNN. I thought they looked so empty and you said that they were just the shells of the people they used to be. You have been able to put a personal side to this community and explain it better than any expert or outsider could. God Bless You!

    April 19, 2008 at 2:03 pm |
  22. jc

    my. this really puts a pretty face on evil...personally, i refuse to sympathize by turning this human disaster into a sterilized autobioghraphy.

    April 19, 2008 at 1:48 pm |
  23. John

    This is truly a sad situation, and I’m glad for those who are able to make it out of such circumstances. I did want appeal to David in Seattle and PJ to stop using the terms “LDS” and “Mormon” in connection with this FLDS religion. These terms are widely used to describe The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is not the same religion as FLDS. I realize that in most cases this is an honest mistake born of lack of knowledge about other people’s religions. However, please try to make sure you understand the terminology before you use it. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or “Mormons” is a worldwide church that does not practice polygamy or live in compounds. If it helps to use actual people, Mitt Romney, Harry Reid and David Archuleta are Mormons or members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Rulon Jeffs and Warren Jeffs are members of the FLDS church. Hope that helps.

    April 19, 2008 at 12:05 pm |
  24. susan

    My husband and I noticed from pictures in our local paper about the custody hearings that, the men's dress was fairly modern. It appears that the women are just short of wearing a "burkha" (sp)

    April 19, 2008 at 11:38 am |
  25. Char Hinners

    I'm amazed that this can be going on in this day and age and would like to know also where their money comes from because it is the root of all evil!! I'm surprised that people are vindictive in their comments when no one is supposed to be imprisoned against their will in this country!! My blessings on everyone and on the 416 children who are scared and adrift in our court system right now!!

    April 19, 2008 at 11:37 am |
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