Literary Review: Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall

If you were to ask me why I decided to pick up a few audiobooks about those that have fled the “polygamist cult” also know as “The Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints” – FLDS for short – I wouldn’t be able to give you a straight answer.

I think it started while I was browsing various news articles one day on and came across one about a young woman by the name of Ruby Jessop who fled FLDS and reached out to her sister (or was it cousin) Flora Jessop who had left years earlier.

The Yahoo News article expanded by talking about others that have fled including Suzette Steed and her children when their father/patriarch – Carling Steed – was banished from the FLDS community by Warren Jeffs. Within the article a few of the daughters mentioned how they were most afraid of being arranged in a marriage with someone that they would dislike… to which a cousin of theirs – Elissa Wall – understood.

According to Elissa she was forced to marry her first-cousin when she was 14 and he 19 (much like Ruby Jessop who was forced to marry her second-cousin when she was 14 and he in his early 20s). Elissa recounts her experiences before, during and after her ill-fated marriage in her personal memoir: Stolen Innocence.

What struck me about this memoir is that I had the feeling that if Elissa had been allowed to marry her cousin a couple of years later as opposed to at 14, she may have relented and none of this would have happened to her…

At the same time with her inert need to run and escape the polygamist sect, she may have found some other reason to leave. Who knows.

Elissa, to me, is probably one of the few women / children / young adults that would have any inkling that what the FLDS is and has been doing is wrong. A lot of it (from what I was able to derive from the memoir) was instinctual… had to have been instinctual. After all by the time that Elissa was married to her first-cousin, women in the FLDS community were not allowed in the public school system any longer, let alone allowed to receive secondary or university education.

Prior to Elissa though (like Carolyn Jessop) those in Carolyn’s age group had the opportunity to attend the university, but very few are allowed to… but that is another post for another time.

It is difficult to formulate an opinion based on the testimony of those who left the polygamist sect, after all there are reasons why those leave the polygamist sect (including being kicked out as was the case of Suzette Steed) and there are reasons why so many choose to stay (close-knit family ties, fear of the unknown, don’t know any better, brainwashed).

In Elissa’s case, she admits that a lot of it for her age group deals with being brain-washed. She was a child and scared to death about what would happen to her. I don’t remember if this was from her memoir but it would appear that the way FLDS deals with problem girls is by marrying them off and getting them pregnant as soon as possible… while with problem boys it is never marrying them off no matter what. Kind of ironic isn’t it?

Even to the end she didn’t feel like she had any way to leave even though so many people around her had left prior to her departure… siblings from the eldest on down were leaving FLDS the first moment a major change was happening to them and they felt that they were either drowning or suffocating where the only way for them to survive was to leave.

Whileas Elissa was unable to leave for a variety of reasons, the most prominent that I was able to discern was that she always seemed to find a way around her situation. She never really felt that she completely cornered with no way out because she always found some life raft to keep going. I know that this could be argued about for hours, but look at it… if she didn’t like life with her husband she just drove out into the middle of the desert and found ways to avoid him. She flew to wherever she needed to go or there were others that aided in keeping her away from her homelife. In other words they were “enabling” her – as it were – to stay with FLDS… even if it is really to help her keep her sanity and wits around her.

In the end it took the unconditional love of her lover and the realization that she was carrying his child as opposed to her husband’s for her to find the courage to truly leave the sect for good. Granted I remember wondering why did it take her so long to make that leap… as I know there are plenty of other naysayers saying the same thing… but as I put myself in her shoes it isn’t that difficult to realize that it is really hard to make such an abrupt change like that when the FLDS was the only life one has ever known.

Sure, it is easy for those of us out here in the open to realize which side of the fence we would rather be on, but for someone who has been in one community all their lives, where they have only ever known one life and brought up in that one life all their lives… it is rather difficult to think of how life could be otherwise.

I think that is why I am so intrigued with this particular memoir… it comes off as one young lady’s story of how they start to realize that there is a life outside of the FLDS and it isn’t all bad. There are difficulties no matter what life you lead… but with time, patience, understanding and the help of loved ones (as in the case of Elissa all her older siblings) it is slightly easier to realize that life on the outside is not nearly as bad as ‘The Prophet” makes it out to be.

Granted telling that to a true-blue believer inside FLDS is probably going to be a hard sell… and people on the outside isn’t always going to realize that. Nor should they, after all it takes a lot to walk in another person’s shoes and understand their mindset when it is so easy to judge using our own…

The thing about this memoir is that Elissa goes through a lot of details and backstories about the major players in her life as she knows them to be, be it her mother, father, siblings, close friends, community heads, etc… Because of that her memoir may feel disconnected at times because when she starts talking about someone that as affected her in her own life she’ll pause and go back to talk about said person and a bit of their backstory before moving on.

In many ways I enjoyed this, mainly because then it gives a reader more knowledge and understanding of the players around Elissa and how they could have affected Elissa in the grand scheme of things.

Another thing I give Elissa props for is that she doesn’t stop with her escape, she continued onward with how hard her life with her beau after she left FLDS was and the subsequent trials against Warren Jeffs where she had to testify. How all of that affected her provided additional insight with how she grew as a person over time.

FInally she was able to face the man that was the starting point of the suffering of not only Elissa but of so many loved ones and others still within the community.

However, the memoir ends with the first conviction of Warren Jeffs in 2007/2008 and a lot has changed since them… In some ways I am kind of curious of how Elissa has continued to cope and adapt to her new life and how she is helping other to move on like she did with Suzanne Steed and her family when they left FLDS (or forced out depending on one’s point of view).

Then again… she has moved on and has (hopefully) closed that particular chapter of her life personally and continues to aid others in their escape and eventually acclimation in life outside of FLDS, particularly since they probably did not have a public school education or any kind of education that could be equal to the public school system.

But… who knows really?

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