The time is nigh for books about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as the FLDS. As I'm sure many of my readers know, self-proclaimed FLDS propet Warren Jeffs is currently in prison. In early April, the Yearning For Zion ranch, the FLDS compound Jeffs and his followers built, was raided by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The FLDS has been all over the news lately. I'm not sure if that's why Elissa Wall and Lisa Pulitzer chose to publish their 2008 book Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs now, but the timing does seem to be fortuitous.
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In any case, Stolen Innocence is Elissa Wall's story of how she grew up in Utah, a faithful member of the FLDS church, the daughter of one of her father's three wives, and one of many children. Though she was born in 1986, Elissa Wall's upbringing seemed more like that of a girl born one hundred years earlier. Like other FLDS girls, Wall wore handmade prairie dresses, never cut her pretty blond hair, and never played with boys. Her formal education ended in 2000, when she had finished the eighth grade at the public school in Colorado City, Arizona.
In straightforward prose, Wall and her co-author describe what life was like for Wall as she grew up in the FLDS church. As Wall explains it, Warren Jeffs began to take over "prophet duties" from his father, Rulon Jeffs, when the elder Jeffs started to grow feeble due to old age. While Rulon Jeffs had been a strict leader, Warren Jeffs took his leadership privileges to the extreme. He directed young boys and girls to regard each other as poisonous snakes. They were not to socialize until it came time for them to be married. At that point, they were to submit to marriage to whomever the prophet revealed would be their spouse.
Elissa Wall was a spunky but sheltered young woman. When young women proved to be troublesome, they were married off as soon as possible; troublesome young men, by contrast, were denied wives and eventually got pushed out of the community with no money or life skills. In Elissa Wall's case, the prophet decreed that since she had been so "troublesome", she should marry her twenty year old first cousin, Allen Steed.
Wall was only fourteen years old when she was judged old enough to wed. Moreover, she hated her cousin, Allen, whom she regarded as an unattractive bully. Showing an unusual amount of pluck for such a sheltered teenaged girl, Wall begged Warren Jeffs and his father not to force her to marry a man she hated. She asked them to consider letting her at least wait until she was sixteen before her wedding. But her pleas fell on deaf ears. Warren Jeffs insisted that she must wed Allen Steed for "time and all eternity".
Forcing Wall to marry against her will was apparently an especially harsh punishment. When other community members were disobedient, they were shipped off to an FLDS community in Canada for reform and eventually allowed to return. In the FLDS church, however, marriage is forever, even beyond death; or at least it's forever as long as Warren Jeffs declared it as such. By Wall's account, men who were deemed "unworthy" at Jeffs' whim could be quickly stripped of their wives and families. Whomever took the man's place would inherit their wives and children, even to the point at which a biological father would no longer be considered a biological relative.
Wall married her cousin, but not willingly. Worse, because she had not been allowed to associate with males, she had no idea what sex was. Her new husband pressured her to let him touch her, but she had been taught that males were akin to "poisonous snakes". In fact, FLDS members were not even allowed to use the word "sex". Instead, they were to refer to the act of sex as "marital relations". In one heartbreaking scene, the newly married Wall describes asking her mother how babies are made. She didn't know. Over the course of two years, she would become very familiar with the act of sex as her husband forced himself on her. She would also learn how women get pregnant, as she conceived three times and lost each child to miscarriage without benefit of medical care.
As the pressure of being married to a man she hated weighed heavily on Wall's shoulders, she started to seek ways to survive her ordeal. Part of her means of survival involved falling in love with another man, who had himself been a faithful member of the FLDS church and was cast out for being too "difficult". Wall's forbidden relationship with the man who would eventually become her legal husband and the father of her children is what ultimately led her out of the FLDS faith and spelled the end of Warren Jeffs' freedom.
Stolen Innocence is a fascinating and timely book. In fact, it's so timely that Wall even mentions the recent raid on the Yearning For Zion compound. I was very surprised to find just how up-to-date this book is at this writing, especially since the raid occurred just two months ago. As I mentioned before, Wall's and Pulitzer's timing is amazing.
Having also read Carolyn Jessop's book, Escape, I couldn't help but compare Wall's story with Jessop's. I thought both books were fascinating and even saw some overlap of some of the same people. For instance, Carolyn Jessop's ex husband, Merril Jessop, is mentioned more than once in Wall's book. In terms of readability, I'd say the two books are comparable.
Wall includes plenty of color photographs, mostly of her as a young girl. As I read her story, it dawned on me that Elissa Wall is at this writing only 22 years old! For someone as young as she is, she sure has accomplished a lot. Her voice comes through very maturely in this book, which I'm guessing is because of Pulitzer's writing skills. There are only a couple of incidences in this book where I saw clues that Wall was someone who wasn't educated beyond the eighth grade. In any case, she's obviously very brave and was intelligent enough to press charges against Warren Jeffs for being an accomplice to her rape.
While Stolen Innocence is at times a shocking and sad book, its message is overall a hopeful one. I did get the feeling that as weird as many people may find the FLDS faith, it was all Wall knew. Through her story, she did present a side of the faith that made it easier for me to understand why its followers defend it so vehemently. Of course, I also felt kind of sad for the FLDS members whose lives were so tightly governed by Warren Jeffs' whims. And I felt happy for Wall, who was able to escape the FLDS church and live a less restricted life with a man she actually loves.
I will recommend this book to anyone who is curious about the FLDS church and Warren Jeffs' fall from grace. I will also recommend it to anyone who just enjoys reading a good memoir.
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