OTI Online Summer 2009 American Taliban: Sect Controls Women Destinies by Carolyn Jessop and Laura Palmer
In our Summer '09 edition, On The Issues Magazine writers and artists discuss gender norms and differing perspectives of gender identity in Our Genders, Our Rights

American Taliban: Sect Controls Womenís Destinies
by Carolyn Jessop and Laura Palmer

Had I not escaped one night five years ago with my eight children from the manipulation and control of the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), I would have been one of the women in that infamous “prairie-style clothing” on that Texas polygamist compound that was raided last year. My children would have undoubtedly been among the 439 seized in the raid.

Women have no power over their own lives or bodies

I know because my ex-husband, Merril Jessop, runs the compound in Eldorado, Texas and is one of the most powerful men in the FLDS. I feared that if we were ever moved beyond those compound walls—and it was meant just for the elite in the cult—my chance of ever freeing myself and my children might be over.

Now that the media has moved on and the headlines disappeared, few Americans appreciate what a travesty has occurred in Texas. The FLDS won, big-time.

All 439 children—except one—my step-daughter who had been married at 12 to the now-imprisoned FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs—were returned to the compound, back to the perpetrators and the parents who turned the other way while their underage daughters were being molested or married off to much older men.

How did this happen? I think the turning point was when the FLDS manipulated the media by showing weeping FLDS women crying for their children. Except I was told by child protection workers in Texas that many of the women the FLDS put before the cameras crying for their children were not those whose children had been seized. Those women were too traumatized to speak.

OTI Online Summer 2009 American Taliban: Sect Controls Women Destinies by Carolyn Jessop and Laura Palmer
Courtesy of Carolyn Jessop; Carolyn is on the far right

Meaningless Steps, No Protection

The men who run the FLDS are master manipulators. They have deep pockets to tap, too. My ex-husband, Merril Jessop, who has never paid a dime in child support to any of our eight children—including his profoundly handicapped son—managed to find the thousands of dollars necessary to keep an expensive personal lawyer on retainer for over a year after the raid.

Yes, the Texas Supreme Court did rule the children had to go back. Whether the legal reasoning of that ruling is sound is debatable. But what makes me most angry is that after the ruling, the Department of Family and Protection Services basically closed down the children’s cases and walked away from the issue completely. Yes, caregivers were required to attend two four-hour sessions on parenting. Yes, 63 girls from 10-17 were asked to attend four hours of instruction on sexual abuse and the illegality of underage marriage. Yes, mothers of 10-17 year old girls were required to sign safety plans to protect their children from abuse. But there will be no follow-up to make sure they are safe. Twelve million dollars later, case closed.

OTI Online Summer 2009 Courtesy of Carolyn Jessop; Carolyn's mother Nurylon (middle), her sister Linda (left) and Carolyn is pregnant
Courtesy of Carolyn Jessop; Carolyn’s mother Nurylon (middle), her sister Linda (left) and Carolyn is pregnant

But those measures are meaningless in a cult where people are brainwashed to believe the outside world is evil. I was part of it, I know. I was 35 years old when I fled and I was one of the rare women who had a college education. But it was not until a year after I had escaped that I learned I had rights—inalienable rights guaranteed to me by the U.S. Constitution—to protection under the law.

The report from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services about the Eldorado Investigation found abuse or emotional neglect in two-thirds of the families investigated from the FLDS compound. The report also found evidence that 12 girls, from age 12 to 15, had been "spiritually" married to adult men. One of the men, central to the Supreme Court ruling, Danny Jessop, a father with two young children, who was portrayed as broken-hearted by the raid, had sexually molested my younger daughter. (It was reported to the authorities when I learned about it after we escaped; itís been investigated and my daughter gets counseling paid for by the state as a result.)

As discouraged as I am, I am not without hope.

Twelve men from the FLDS will go on trial this fall in Texas on charges stemming from sexual abuse and marriage to underage girls. I think crimes against women and children will stop only when there are serious consequences. Behavior might change if men start spending years behind bars.

Help to Escape is Needed

It is hard for women to protect their children in the FLDS because they have no power over their own lives or bodies. Women believe God speaks to the prophet and tells him who she should marry. When I was forced, at 18, to become the fourth wife of a 50 year-old man I had never spoken to-- the price I would have to pay to go to college -- I thought it was God’s will. I also was brainwashed to believe my husband would determine where I would go in the afterlife. I lived in a world where any woman could discipline my children. We were not permitted to hug and kiss them because that would be assigning individual worth and only the father was to do that to a child.

My children and I are now free and safe, except for my daughter, Betty, who chose to return to the FLDS after turning 18. She now lives on the compound in Texas with her father. My heart breaks for the children who were returned, many of whom I know and am related to. They were traumatized by the raid, and then, although assured protection if they spoke honestly about their lives, returned to their perpetrators. I was told that six women who had been taken into custody with their children wanted to leave the FLDS but were warned by attorneys sent into the shelter by Merril Jessop that the FLDS would fight to win custody of their children.

What would help? I think there needs to be watchdog group to monitor abuse in closed polygamist communities like the FLDS. I think there needs to be a public relations firm that will stay on top of this issue and go up against the massive PR machine of the FLDS that manipulated the media into being sympathetic to weeping women in weird clothes. Federal and state laws need to be enforced, and there has to be more protection—and programs—for women fleeing the FLDS.

In my book, Escape, Iíve tried to call attention to the crimes routinely committed by the FLDS which has been called "The American Taliban" against women and children. It is frustrating and sad to see how hard it is to implement the kind of change that would make women and children safe in their families and in their lives.


Carolyn Jessop and Laura Palmer collaborated on "Escape" and are now working on a second book, "TRIUMPH: the Art and Joy of Personal Transformation," which explores the psychological work Jessop did to free herself before she fled and to cope with her new life afterwards.

Also see on conservative religions by Mary Lou Greenburg in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

ALSO see Busting Bogus Biology and Beliefs by Mahin Hassibi in this issue.

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