Monday, November 10, 2014

Stolen Innocence: A Review

I've been on a bit of a nonfiction kick lately and it all started with one memoir. Stolen Innocence is the story of a young girl who grew up in the Fundamentalist Later Days Saints' community. Basically, when the mainstream Mormon church banned polygamy in an effort to get Utah accepted into the United States (you can read more about the history behind that here), there was a small group that broke off and continued the practice. Polygamy is one of those things that seems to go along with oppression of women and child abuse and I distinctly remember this particular group. The author is the main defendant in the 2007 case against the "prophet" Warren Jeffs. I was a senior in high school when this happened and I remember hearing about the case and, a year later, the police raid on an FLDS compound in Texas. That said, I really wasn't familiar with the details. I didn't know any names except Jeffs and I certainly had no concept about what the daily life of his followers was  like. 

The full title is Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs by Elissa Wall. That pretty much sums it up. The book starts out with the Wall's childhood - what it was like to grow up in the FLDS. I think the author does a great job of not vilifying the people who are caught up in this lifestyle. The majority of them were born into it and were never exposed to the outside world. Coming from a radically different background (on all levels), it was fascinating to me how "normal" aspects of daily life for them can be. They have hopes and games and family drama (though considerably more with multiple wives/mothers). Ultimately they are a family like any other. They want to raise their kids to live as good a life as they can imagine. They want a comfortable home and to feel secure with their place in the world. These memories of Wall's are painted with a warm glow and are pretty much presented the same way anyone's childhood memories would be. Even so, from the beginning there is an uneasy tension running through all the pleasant memories.

Wall's childhood, while idyllic at times, was also fraught with conflict. Conflict between the wives. Conflict between the children and the other mothers. Conflict between the sons and the father. Conflict between the family and the church. All of these stress pulled at Wall's family and eventually fractured it. When her father wasn't able to keep his children under control (several of the sons leaving the church permanently), her family was split up.

In the FLDS church, one of the core beliefs is that a man has to have three wives in order to reach the highest level of heaven. Wall's mother was the second wife and there was a lot of trouble between the two women. The first wife, having not been raised in the FLDS church, was not terribly comfortable with the arrangement and didn't know how to interact with a second wife, often choosing to be domineering and authoritarian (keep in mind this story is being told from the point of view of one of the second wife's children, so grain of salt...). After the head of the church - at the time it was Rulon Jeffs, heavily assisted by his son Warren - found out about the family's struggles, Wall's father was assigned a third wife. It was thought that the new addition may have a calming effect on the household, but no. The family's troubles continued. Eventually Wall's father had his second and third wife taken away from him. The trauma of having your family destroyed on the whim of some old man is devastating. Wall does a magnificent job of showing us the effect it had on her and her siblings. 

Matters only got worse with Rulon Jeffs' death. His son, Warren Jeffs, takes over and imposes new restrictions on the community. He marries many of his father's wives. He forces all the followers to take their children out of school. He shuts down community gatherings, even church. Basically the entire community gets more and more isolated, everyone terrified that they will be the next to be banished, the next to have their family taken away.

Warren Jeffs (at the back) with some of his wives.

Elissa Wall eventually became the lead defendant in the first case against Warren Jeffs. When she refused to conform to the expectations of the church, he forced her into an abusive marriage at the age of fourteen (obviously illegal). He was tried and found guilty in a civil suit, then with the raid of the Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldoardo, Texas, he was eventually found criminally guilty and sentenced to prison where he is still serving out his sentence.
I can't imagine the level of fear that these people lived with on a daily basis. I can't imagine the isolation and helplessness of those who were brave enough to leave, but who often had no where to go. No resources. No family. Often they didn't even have some sort of ID because their births were not officially recorded. This whole reality is so far removed from my realm of experience that it's difficult for me to remember that Stolen Innocence is nonfiction. But it is. As much as memories can be. 

There are flaws with the book. Wall is very obviously not a writer. She was assisted in writing this book by Lisa Pulitzer, but even so, the language is often awkward and inelegant. On that same note, the pacing is iffy in places, occasionally dragging the story down. But even with the book's technical flaws, it's an exhilarating read. I read this as research for one of my books, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone who's looking for an interesting (and terrifying) real life story. 

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