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Reviewed in Australia on 9 May 2020
This is not great literature. Sometimes you have to work to figure out which person a pronoun is referring to. But mostly it’s well told. What makes it absolutely astonishing is the story it tells. Most of us know, vaguely, that there’s a branch of Mormons that still practices polygamy. To be taken inside the life of such a sect - which the author herself calls a cult - is to feel as though you’re losing your hold on reality. If you were to theorize that many women married to the same man, each trying to outdo each other in fertility might lead to tensions, you’re at the bare beginning. Throw in a lot of weird Christian-sounding justifications and promises and a huge amount of excruciatingly patriarchal behaviour and start imagining lives that have to Big Brother themselves: you get to create your own Kafkaesque Gestapo gulag of the mind to survive. No doubt many people found support and purpose in this exile community but the spying, snitching and manipulation, let alone the outright neglect, cruelty and abuse dished out by both genders make for eye-popping reading.

It took a lion-hearted person like Carolyn Jessop to escape. She was the first woman to do so with all her (8) children and win custody of them. Things became steadily worse as leader Warren Jeffs issued ever more bizarre requirements. Teenage boys were summarily exiled. Younger and younger girls married off. Wives and children arbitrarily assigned to other men. Fathers excommunicated if they didn’t toe the line. After being on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list, Jeffs is now in jail. He was accused by a young male relative of years of sodomy but went to prison for other crimes.

Carolyn was 18 when she was married off to Merril Jessop, 32 years her senior. She was the fourth wife and had stepdaughters older than herself. She came from a long line of polygamous Mormons and had no other reference point. She tries to get us to see how brainwashed they all were. After meeting Carolyn, the Utah Attorney General remarked that he’d got himself a state with a section that was worse than living under the Taliban. It’s to her credit that despite many challenges, Carolyn got herself and kids out. Praise and thanks must go to the good people who helped her too. In a state where many cops are in the sect, it was no easy task. Rather sad that after finishing high school in Salt Lake City, her daughter Betty decided to re-join, but then, she had always been a favourite with her father, whereas he could easily ignore many of his other kids. This book would make a fascinating if gruelling movie.
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