America watched in shock and disbelief in April 2008, when Texas law enforcement authorites raided a compound called "Yearn for Zion" ranch , removing hundreds of women and children. Who were these people called the FLDS? Why did all the women look like they came from the set of
Little House on the Prairie? They were not really forcing hundreds of young teenage girls to marry and have babies against their will...were they? Elissa Wall is a former member of the FLDS
who in 2007 brought the first successful prosecution of Warren Jeffs, the former leader of the FLDS, to trial for rape as an accomplice. In this book, Elissa courageously shares the details of her own forced marriage and, in doing so, shines a light onto the abuses that are endured by women and children in the name of this religion.
Elissa was born on July 7, 1986, to a family with one father, two mothers, and 16 children living at home. She was the eleventh of her mother's eventual fourteen children, and nineteenth of her father's eventual twenty-four. Elissa's father had converted to the faith, but her mother was a child of a prominent FLDS family. Because Elissa's father did not grow up in the faith, he was unfamiliar with the management of a home with multiple wives, so their family was fraught with tension as the two mothers bickered and struggled to maintain control of the household in the way each saw fit. When Elissa's father brought a third wife into the home when Elissa was nine years old, the problems only intensified. It was seen as an honor to be given a third wife. However, Warren Jeffs, son of the current Prophet (leader) of the church, decided Elissa's father could not manage his home, so Elissa's mother and all of her children were taken from him and relocated from Salt Lake to Short Creek, Utah, an FLDS stronghold. It was there that she first met her cousin Allen, who would later become her husband.
The FLDS church broke away from the more well-known Mormon Church in 1935, after the Mormon Church abandoned their core belief of polygamy. Members of the FLDS church believe that a man must have a minimum of three wives in order to attain admittance into the celestial kingdom, the highest of the three levels of heaven. The FLDS also believe in the Law of Placement, which means that all marriages are chosen by the prophet based on a special revelation he receives from God. They believe that everything the prophet says is the word of God,
thus any marriage he decrees is commanded by God. After marriage, a woman is considered the property of her husband, to be used in any way he sees fit. Their highest responsibility is to "keep sweet"
- literally, to pretend to be happy no matter what, and to be completely submissive in word and deed to whatever their husband demands.
It was in this environment that Elissa was told, when she was just fourteen years old, that the prophet had found a "place" for her - that she was going to be married. Initially, Elissa thought there must have been a mistake.
She was only in the eighth grade, after all, and marriages for girls under the age of eighteen were supposed to be stopped, since they were against the "law of the land." However, she soon found out it was no mistake. She was to be married in just a few short days to Allen, her first cousin, whom she despised. Ever since meeting him as a young girl, she had felt uncomfortable and uneasy around him, and he had tormented her mercilessly whenever they were together. She begged unsuccessfully to be released from this placement, even for a few more years, but Warren Jeffs would not relent. On April 23, 2001, Allen and Elissa were sealed together in the FLDS church "for time and all eternity."
Elissa's marrige was a nightmare. Because as children boys and girls were taught to treat each other as snakes and not allowed to date or even spend time in each other's presence, she had no idea of the physical demands a man was allowed to make on his wife. She was scared and begged Allen repeatedly not to do things that were painful and, she believed, sinful, but he continued. She was pregnant by the time she was fifteen and suffered three miscarriages and a stillbirth by the time she was seventeen. She continued for four years to beg her mother, leaders of the church, and Warren Jeffs himself to help her escape from a marriage that she knew was wrong, but she was continually told that all her problems were of her own making. If she would just learn to submit to the authority God had placed over her, she would be happy.
One night, fleeing from her husband and in the middle of yet another miscarriage, Elissa's truck had a flat tire. It was raining, and she was covered in mud. Suddenly, headlights appeared, and a kind voice asked her if she needed help. The voice belonged to Lamont Barlow, and although she didn't know it yet, he was going to save her. Elissa and Lamont slowly and secretly developed a friendship, hiding and sneaking away so no one would discover them. Eventually, Lamont told Elissa he loved her, and she realized she loved him, too. She knew she would have to leave the FLDS church but was reluctant to abandon her two younger sisters to the horrors she had been subjected to. However, when Allen and other church leaders discovered her relationship with Lamont, she had no choice but to leave her family behind. In 2005, at the urging of her sisters, along with lawyers and members of the Utah law enforcement, she filed a lawsuit against Warren Jeffs, accusing him of conspiracy to commit rape by forcing her to marry an older man. Hers was the first trial successfully prosecuted against Jeffs and paved the way for several more trials in Utah and other states.
Elissa has a truly remarkable story. Because so much of the world in which she grew up is alien to the reader, she has to spend a good portion of the book explaining concepts that many will find difficult to believe. She is still able,
though, to keep the narrative of her story moving forward, making the book nearly impossible to put down. It reads like a thriller, and often the reader must be reminded that this is the author's real life. Elissa does an excellent job of making each of the people in her story seem real, rather than simply caricatures of a repressive religious order. Even in the face of betrayal by her parents and siblings, Elissa shows us that they are just doing what they believe to be right. She has obvious compassion for the members of the FLDS church, and she allows the reader to feel for them as well, even though their decisions seem so obviously wrong.
Stolen Innocence will naturally be compared to
Escape by Carolyn Jessop, the other true story of FLDS life published earlier this year.
Both books are worth reading, but Stolen Innocence captures the fear and helplessness of a woman's life in this religion in a more accessible way. I was captivated by this book from beginning to end and will be encouraging all the readers I know to pick it up.