Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Strange, evil, riveting: a book about a polygamous sect leaps into the news

What a peculiar and interesting reading experience I've had these last two weeks. There I was, doing a spot of lurking in my local branch of Exclusive Books, looking for something interesting to read over the weekend, when my eye fell on a new release: Escape by Carolyn Jessop.

I love a juicy autobiography, and I particularly appreciate Amazing Tales of Survival and Derring-Do, and this book caught my eye because it looked rather promising. First, it was at least seven centimetres thick (ie, plenty of bang for plenty of bucks). Second, its cover featured a particularly arresting photograph of a young woman with beautiful candid blue eyes. Third, it promised to spill the beans about how the author, Carolyn Jessop, 38, managed to escape the evil clutches of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a shady American sect that broke way from the mainstream Mormons after the latter renounced polygamy.

I started the book at eight that evening, and seven hours later I was still matchstick-eyed. I finally finished it the next day. It isn't a particularly well-written book but, by my sainted pink pantaloons, it was absolutely riveting. Shocking. Upsetting. Infuriating.

I was shaken to the marrow to learn that polygamy, child abuse, under-age sex, arranged marriages and shocking abuse of women still take place in the name of God (snort) in the 'land of the free' (double snort), and then, apparently, right under the noses of the authorities.

I don't know why this book struck a chord with me, but it did, and I couldn't stop thinking about it. Still, indignant though I was, I took it all with a wee pinch of salt. (The book is written in a 'he-said-she-said' style, and could have done with a good ghost writer. Besides, you can't believe everything you read.

Then, unexpectedly, the thot plickened.

Imagine my astonishment and goggle-eyed interest when I turned on the news to learn some 416 children had been rescued from the self-same sect after a sixteen-year-old child-bride phoned authorities to complain. Details here, from The Guardian.

To say that my nose has been flattened to the screen of my TV set for the past week is an understatement. Very gratifying and entertaining it is, reading a book like that, and then seeing it spring spectacularly into the news. Very sobering it is to see the author herself interviewed
at length on CNN, looking not radiant and calm, but shell-shocked. And how very sweet it is to know that justice might actually prevail.

Most interesting of all: every time a name of one of the sect leaders involved in the scandal came up on the news reports, I recognised it, thanks to Jessop's book. I was fully informed about the doings, screwings and spewings of these goatish old men, with their myriad teen-bride wives.

And instead of feeling a scornful fury at the sight of those drab Stepford Wives trooping up the courtroom steps to attend one of several hearings to determine the fate of their children, I felt sorry for them. Instead of wanting to slap their dazed, robotic faces as they denied marrying their under-age daughters off to the aforesaid old goats, I felt a sense of empathy, because, thanks to Jessop's book, I knew exactly how they got there in the first place.

I wanted to weep, looking at their clumpy old shoes, their dowdy prairie dresses (all of which are cut, apparently, from one permissable pattern) and their weird hairstyles: upswept and hairsprayed into a coiffy wave over the forehead, and double-French-plaited and looped at the back. Even the young girls dress like that - check out these pictures at the sect's new protest site, 'Captive FLDS Children'.

What I learned? Not dismiss everything I read in a book. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

Read the book (there's a long excerpt here), then watch the story unfold on CNN.

(Which reminds me, apropos of nothing, of a wonderful story reported in the news when Richard Adams's 1970s book about rabbits, Watership Down, was selling like hotcakes across the world. An enterprising butcher in the UK who dealt in game put a notice outside his high-street butchery:

'Watership Down,' the sign said. 'You've read the book, you've watched the movie. Now eat the cast.'

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1 comment:

Muriel said...

I read a similar book a few years ago about a woman who escaped a Mormon sect -- I can't remember its title and it's no longer in my bookshelf; alas, another one of those that has walked -- and I have to admit I was less sceptical than you from the outset: the story was equally riveting and rang true, and I was, like you, horrified and disturbed by it. You have to admire those women who actually make the break, and then have the courage to tell their stories. Let's hope they keep doing it.