Review: Escape by Carolyn Jessop (Nonfiction)

Escape by Carolyn Jessop

The dramatic first-person account of life inside an ultra-fundamentalist American religious sect, and one woman’s courageous flight to freedom with her eight children.

I don’t read much nonfiction, but over the past few years I have enjoyed watching reality TV shows like Sister Wives, My Five Wives, and the very short-lived Escaping the Prophet. Reality shows, despite their name, are not real, so you never really know how the storylines are cobbled together and which scenes are recreated.

All of those shows deal with polygamy, mostly within the fundamentalists Mormon churches. Carolyn Jessop actually appeared on a show called Breaking the Faith. The girls who “escaped” were taken to her safe house. (I put escaped in quotes because it was later discovered that they had all actually left the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints (FLDS) several years before. Of course, the people producing the show knew that all along. The entire show, while it may have been loosely based on real events, was fake.)

Jessop grew up in the FLDS religion, an offshoot of the more mainstream Latter-day Saints (also known as Mormons). Among other differences, members of the FLDS practice polygamy, whereas the LDS church discontinued the practice of polygamy in 1890.

At age 18, Jessop’s father arranged her marriage to Merril Jessop, a fifty-year-old man who already had three wives. Escape is the account of her marriage, her life locked in battle with her sister wives, the rise of Warren Jeffs in the FLDS, the abuse she and her children suffered, and, finally, her escape from polygamy. The details are gripping, and at times it’s hard to believe that this took place in the United States in the 1990s and 2000s. It’s a very different experience than my own life.

I’m not opposed to polygamy in principle — although I would not and could not live it — however, in practice it doesn’t seem to work very well. I don’t have a problem with informed, consenting adults entering these marriages/relationships, and while the leaders of FLDS would probably have you believe that women are willing, that’s not what Jessop describes in Escape. She never wanted to marry a man thirty-two years older, and she tells of the anxiety, apprehension, and fear on the faces of her husband’s newer wives on their wedding days, too.

One thing that Jessop mentions, but does not go into detail about, is “bleeding the beast,” the practice of defrauding government through welfare fraud and tax evasion. When man has multiple wives, he’s only legally married to one of them, leaving the remaining wives technically single. With no access to birth control (it’s forbidden), most of these women have many more children than average (Jessop has eight) and, based on their status as single mothers, are eligible to apply for government assistance. Of course no one wants children to go hungry, but polygamy leads men to father so many children that he can’t possibly provide for them all.

Carolyn Jessop is a strong woman. While it’s easy to wonder why she didn’t take action and escape earlier in her married life, she reminds us that she grew up in this faith. It was normal to her. Almost everyone she knew was in the FLDS and lived this same life. Her options were limited because the authorities in her area were FLDS as well. Even when she did leave, her husband and others from the FLDS tracked her down. She and her children really struggled financially and emotionally. One of her daughters returned to the FLDS when she turned 18, and she remains there today.

The biggest problem with Escape is the writing. It’s simplistic and there are a lot of facts that are unnecessarily repeated. I lost count of the number of times I was informed that Tammy had married Rulon Jeffs when she was 18 and he was in his late eighties. It’s still worth reading, but I wish the editing was better.

3 1/2 stars



  1. Sounds like such an interesting book, too bad that the writing was not good!
    Missie @ A Flurry of Ponderings
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