28 September 2014

Celebrating the Freedom to Read

With Banned Books Week coming to a close, I thought I'd take some time to blog about what I've been reading. This past week I read Escape by Carolyn Jessop, a former member of a cult, who fled the FLDS with her eight children several years ago. While reading the book I was alarmed by several of the cult practices, including censorship of everything and the poor treatment of women and girls.  I'll explore only the censorship aspects of the book here because it would take another whole post or two to comment on the mistreatment of women and girls (another topic about which I care deeply).

One of my former students gave me this Banned Books bracelet
You might remember Warren Jeffs in the news several years back when he was arrested, tried, and imprisoned for sexual assault of minors. Carolyn Jessop, was the fourth wife of Merril Jessop, one of Jeffs' top men in the cult. Carolyn's strength throughout the book is phenomenal, and over and over again, she gives credit for her ability to get out of the cult to her education because it helped her learn to think for herself and to question the cult's practices she experienced her whole life. Carolyn was more fortunate than many of the women and girls because she actually graduated from both high school and college. Many girls in the sect are not permitted to become educated because "education was seen as a threat…making them too involved with the ways of the world (p 666)."

Jeffs' power and brutality elevated in the years Carolyn was married to Merril Jessop, and education became "one of the first areas where his [Jeffs] imprint was punitive and spiteful (p 529)." Very few individuals (women or men) were permitted to attend college. In the end Carolyn was fortunate; many others not. The lack of access to education "created a population that was even more isolated by its lack of exposure to reading, critical thinking, and the arts. It also meant there was a real shortage of trained teachers (p 529)."

Carolyn became a second-grade teacher who taught young children while also collecting a library of children's books she could secretly read to her own children.  At the same time, she says "It was very common to get textbooks with entire chapters missing because they'd been cut out." She was a well-respected teacher because she could teach any child to read.  This, no doubt, made her an even greater potential source of irritation to Jeffs and her husband because she questioned the decisions of the leaders. Carolyn knew her real threat was Jeffs and his self-appointed power and brutality over the people in the sect. "In a cult, you have two identities: your cult identity and your authentic self." Jessop writes about how she operated from her cult identity most of the time because it was the only way she could survive.

As Jeffs' power grew over the years,  people began to fear changes even as they sensed danger. Infuriatingly, husbands were seen as the lord and supreme master who held exclusive power over the lives of wives and their children. Carolyn became more and more involved with her position as a teacher in the school system because she knew "well-educated children might one day think for themselves (p 535)." Unfortunately, Jeffs' power extended even into the public school system, and he crushed Carolyn's dreams to work on a new school plan in the community. "For the fist time, I began to see how religion could suppress something positive and life-giving. Failing to educate our children was unconscionable (536)."  Jeffs also ordered all books be destroyed, so the other wives of Carolyn's husband found her secret stash of children's books and destroyed them. Carolyn was crushed and even more determined to find a way out of the cult. Eventually, she did make it out, and after many court testimonies and struggles later, she also had custody of her eight children and was able to begin building a new life with them. The people who helped her escape told her she was in a better position than many others they had helped escaped because she had a college degree and work experience. Carolyn says "freedom was something I had always been able to imagine. It was the opposite of oppression, slavery, and degradation (p. 932)." She concludes the book with "my children and I now know what it means to be safe. Freedom is extraordinary, and love a miracle (p 979)."

1. Page numbers referenced in this post are page numbers from my Kindle version of the book.
2. The Southern Poverty Law Center characterized the FLDS as a hate group in 2005.