[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/04/18/art.escapefinal.jpg%5D
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.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
Questions or comments? Send an email
Want to know more? Go behind the scenes with