'My husband had five other wives and sex with him was gross'

When Carolyn married Merril Jessop she moved into his home with all his other wives and children. She bore him eight children in 15 years. Then, she tells Ciara Dwyer, she finally made her daring escape

Belfast Telegraph/February 6, 2008

When Carolyn Blackmore was 18, her mother woke her at 2am to tell her that her father wanted to speak to her. He told her that the head of their church had received a message from God that she was to marry a man called Merril Jessop.

Carolyn knew of this man as a respected and powerful member of the community, but had never laid eyes on him before. He was 50 - 10 years older than her father - and Carolyn was to be his fourth wife.

The sudden nature of this arrangement was a shock, but one she had to accept. This was their way; marriages literally were made in heaven in this religious community, or so it seemed, at first. Carolyn had been born into the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (FLDS) which was an extremist group splintered from, and renounced by, the Mormon Church. They all lived in an enclosed community 350 miles outside Salt Lake City. It was the largest polygamist cult in America.

They practised polygamy as part of their celestial marriage principle, under which a man must have multiple wives if he expects to do well in heaven; then he can eventually become a god and wind up with his own planet. Also, the more wives he has on Earth, the higher his status in the community.

When a woman marries, she becomes the property of her husband and must obey him and become one with him in every way. (For example, it was wrong for Carolyn to like something that her husband didn't.) If a wife works outside the home, she must hand over all her earnings to her husband.

The FLDS is an extremist religious cult - nothing to do with the regular Mormon religion -and it is still in existence. It has many bizarre rules. For example, when a young girl is growing up, she starts building up what is called 'a hope chest'. This is like a trousseau of sorts, except that the girl starts to collect items long before there is a husband on the horizon. It contains practical things to set her up for married life - pots and pans, sheets and towels. Sometimes a girl is only given two hours' notice before she gets married.

When Carolyn married Merril, she moved into his home with his three other wives and their various children. She bore him eight children in 15 years. Their marriage and the entire familial situation was something she endured as best she could.

But on April 22, 2003, at the age of 35, she could take no more of her life with him in the FLDS. Things had been bad but when a new leader called Warren Jeffs took over as the head of the church, making up his own increasingly abusive rules as he went along, it became intolerable. (He ended up on the FBI Most Wanted List and was later sentenced to prison for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl.)

Carolyn knew that if she was going to survive, she would have to escape. That is what she and her eight children did. She has written her story, with the help of Laura Palmer, in a book called Escape.

For someone who has been through so much, she sounds incredibly sane, and has a very healthy sense of humour.

In the book, she explains that her community were convinced that they were the chosen people, going to heaven, and that people on the outside had rejected the word of God and were evil.

Like most girls in the FLDS, she had her 'hope chest', but she laughs when I tell her it should have been called her death chest. Before Carolyn got married, she tells me that her mother stayed up all night making her a white wedding dress.

"I should have gone wearing black. It would have been more appropriate."

She laughs again and I cannot but comment on her great attitude.

"To get to where I am today has been a long and difficult journey. I was brainwashed, so I had to have therapy and get de-programmed. I did hypnosis and all that stuff. I'm pretty happy now."

She remembers the first night she slept with Merril. In keeping with the FLDS's rules, he kept his long johns and long-sleeved vest on.

"I wasn't physically attracted to him whatsoever. He was a monster and I don't know what sort of relationship we could have had, because there were two generation gaps between us. He was impotent and then his other problem was premature ejaculation. It was really gross. Needless to say, I had a very bad attitude towards sex for ... about 35 years."

She laughs again.

"Then I met Brian (her current partner) and he redeemed it."

She wasn't long married before Merril let it slip that there had been a mix-up. He had asked the head of the church to arrange a marriage for him and, against the rules, he had suggested a specific wife. He had picked Carolyn's sister, who had long blonde hair but he had got the names mixed up.

It wasn't long before Carolyn learnt that part of Merril's plan of marrying into her family was so that her father would drop a law suit he had against him. As soon as Merril made Carolyn his wife, her father did indeed drop the case. There were rules in the FLDS, but Merril was a law unto himself.

Carolyn explains the various complications in their home, what with the other three wives.

"To me, polygamy is unnatural to everybody's human nature. The husband is supposed to treat his wives equally but in reality, he usually has a favourite wife. The physical side of polygamy is very unhappy, too. Thank heavens we didn't have to deal with any sexually transmitted diseases but we did have a problem with yeast infections. As soon as you'd get cleared up, you'd get it again."

It wasn't long before Carolyn was pregnant. The FLDS didn't believe in contraception, and a woman wasn't allowed to refuse her husband sex.

Because Merril enjoyed having sex with Carolyn, he rewarded her by letting her go to university and later on, out to work. But when she would arrive home at the end of her working day, it was taboo to just pick up her baby and change his nappy.

"I wasn't supposed to change my own baby's diapers, without changing the four other babies' too." The wives bickered a lot. Then things became even stranger when Merril brought home two more wives. Some of the scenes in Carolyn's book are so surreal that it is hard to imagine them, like the time when Merril decided to get an old Greyhound bus and bring his six wives and 34 children on honeymoon to San Diego Zoo. Luckily, Carolyn can laugh at it now.

"One of the wives had a mental breakdown on the bus. It was a disaster."

The world of the FLDS is extremely odd, and when Warren Jeffs took over, Carolyn knew she had to escape. When she fled to the outside world, the authorities told her she was like a refugee. Applying for social welfare would have been easier if she had been from another country. Her life in the FLDS was a long and complicated one, but she has left her past behind her. She managed to escape with her children and make a new start. With this book, she has been able to get off social welfare.

Then she got lucky. She tried to go back to studying and met Brian - "the love of my life.

"I have somebody I love and trust and we have an amazingly rewarding relationship. I can enjoy sex again because I've met a great guy. He takes me disco dancing and kind of exposes me to life."

Escape, by Carolyn Jessop, with Laura Palmer, Penguin

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