Polygamy was the norm in Carolyn Jessop's life. After all, her own father had three wives by the time she was in fourth grade. Her family was part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a radical offshoot of the Mormon Church. But Jessop's own experience in the cult was so disturbing that she ran away with her eight children four years ago. Last month, the FLDS was in the news when its leader, Warren Jeffs, was found guilty of being an accessory to rape for forcing a 14-year-old girl in the group to marry her 19-year-old cousin. Jessop, 38, tells her extraordinary story in a riveting new book, Escape (Broadway). TIME's Andrea Sachs spoke with Jessop from her home in a suburb of Salt Lake City.
TIME: You were 18 when you were told you were going to be the fourth wife of Merril Jessop, a 50-year-old leader of the FLDS. How did you feel?
Carolyn Jessop: I was shocked. I was devastated. I really wasn't expecting that I'd be getting married. I didn't want to get married. I really had my heart set on going to college. The biggest concern I had with it was that once you're married, your husband really does own you.
Did you try to escape?
I had watched my sister make an attempt to try to get out of an arranged marriage. She ran away and then what happened to her was just so devastating and I didn't see any hope.
She got dragged back, right?
She did. I just didn't see where she had gained much by trying to run. Plus I had nobody to contact for help. The night my father told me [that I would be married], he made me sleep in my mother's room. I never was allowed out of their sight the entire time until the marriage took place [a few days later]. So I wasn't even able to tell my younger sister I was getting married and what was happening to me because they wouldn't allow it. I couldn't tell any of my friends.
The beginning of your marriage must have been like rape.
I was just shocked. I was so unprepared for a man that old to make those kinds of advances towards me, and I had no experience with men and no experience with dating other than a few little child's play situations which were a joke. I didn't really understand the concept of rape, but I did understand the concept that a man had the right to father children with the woman once he had married her. Your salvation, basically, depends on whether your husband wants you in his life or not.
You write about how having children or having your husband sexually favor you is how a polygamist's wife gets status.
Yes. That's how I thought. I think that most of us in the community thought the same because it was pretty obvious that the woman he liked to have sex with was the one who could get shoes for her kids and the basic necessities she needed, and the other women in the family had to just basically go without.
There was tremendous competition between the wives, wasn't there?
Oh, tremendous. We were all required to live in the same home, and there's just a lot of dominance that goes on about who has the right to rule. And, of course, the woman who has the most favor with her husband is going to rule over the other wives and their kids.
Those families were so enormous. Your husband had 50 children. How did anybody pay the bills?
Life is not the same as normal society. There's not enough money to go around. So somebody is going to have to go without the basic necessities they need. The other thing is, we worked really hard. There might be one woman who would try to maintain life in the home, and then everybody else had to work. I worked as a teacher and I gave Merril all my money. It was just a mandatory requirement. You'd turn everything in. He pays the bills and then he gives you back what he feels you deserve or need. If he chooses to give you nothing back, then you just have to deal with that. He also had the power to decide whether he wanted to eat out at fancy restaurants and eat steaks, and we went without groceries. As a man, that was his choice.
If I had seen you on the street, would I have immediately known that you were religious?
Oh, yes. My entire life, I never dressed normally. We'd go to the movies and everybody would stare at us on the line. We'd go to the grocery store and everybody would stare at you. I dressed like the fundamentalists do in the community right now, with the exception that their dress code is a lot more rigid than when I was there. You had to wear a dress or skirt that was mid-calf, six inches below the knee at least. And you had to wear long sleeves and something with a high neck. You just had to have everything covered. And then we weren't allowed to cut our hair and there were particular hairstyles we had to wear.
You describe physical abuse and beatings. How widespread was that?
It was a big part of the culture. Dominance and control. It was all to maintain the work of God. If it was done in the name of God, then you didn't question it. It was just a fundamental part of life. I think that in the community people did have their limits when it came to physical violence of what was okay and what was not okay. And so there were cases of extreme violence in families and people viewed that as not being okay. But a man was believed to have the spirit of God and he could get divine revelation from God that pertained to his family. If he had a revelation that in order to get a wife in line physical violence [was required], then he was within his right to use whatever means he needed to have control of his family. Mostly it pertained to children. It was frowned upon for a man to beat his wife, but they did it all the time.
After having been brought up that way, what made you realize that what was going on was wrong?
In the religion, we believed that men are not supposed to favor [one wife over another]. It happened all the time and everybody knew it happened and it was kind of a way of life. But many didn't operate as lopsided and as extreme as Merril did. A lot of men might have their favorites, but then they were a little more careful about how badly they treated the rest of the family. Merril wasn't at all careful. The first statement he made after I married him was that a dog was better than a new wife because a dog was more loyal. I just felt that was completely wrong. So right when I first married him, I was adamantly opposed to a lot of the things he did, and I didn't feel they were right and I didn't feel they were even justifiable with my religious beliefs. And then as the religion became more extreme and Warren [Jeffs] started taking over, that's when I couldn't go there.
How long did the process of leaving take?
Nearly three years. I tried to get some help, to get some protection from Merril. I saw Warren. And Warren told me that Merril was a good man and I was an immoral woman for criticizing my husband. [But] I had a right to complain about that kind of abuse. It just got to the point where I wasn't going to do it. I was sick of it. My dad warned Warren and said, 'my daughter has taken as much abuse as she's going to take.' He said, 'if you don't handle this problem and give her some protection, she's going to cause you some problems.' And he didn't really tell Warren that in a threatening way. He was just trying to say, I know my daughter and she's not going to do anymore. And Warren didn't listen. It was just more abuse and more battery. So I just thought, I'm going to shut up and I'm going to find my way out of this, but I'm not going to live like this. It was getting very scary, the things that Warren was talking about.
What was scary?
He was talking about moving people to what he called "The Center Place." I knew Warren well enough to know what he had up his sleeve, and I knew he was going to move us into compounds and separate us from family, friends and relatives. The main thing that held me to the life was my family and the fear of being alone and not being able to see them. Because once you leave, they won't ever speak to you again. When I realized we were going into compounds, which I could see being prison camps, I knew I would be separated from my children and I knew I wouldn't have access to my family anymore. I was going to lose it all anyway and if I didn't get out as soon as possible, and I went into one of those camps, I would never get out. To me it became very scary at that point. I knew I had to run.
Now that you're out of the FLDS, what do you think of Warren Jeffs?
I see him as a very dangerous man. I see him as a man who has destroyed thousands of lives. He is so radical and extreme. He's dangerous. I'm so relieved, for the people I love and care about who are still in that community and that religion, that he is behind bars. I know he's going to still try to manage things behind bars, but there are limits to the kinds of orders he can give and what he can do.