04 December 2013

Defiance in professional garb

I can never get enough of books about FLDS, of which this is just the latest onslaught (and surely not the last).

Rebecca Musser grew up in Hildale, Utah in an upstanding FLDS household; her mother was a second wife to a prominent businessman who would entertain his aeronautics clients upstairs while his other family hid downstairs. Despite knowing she and her family were different from the rest of the world, "Sister Becky" was a happy young woman, musically gifted and curious, but her coming of age coincided with a bizarre chapter in FLDS history in which the wishes of late patriarch Rulon Jeffs became more and more erratic and paranoid. One such wish was granted when Becky was given in marriage to him at the age of 18, joining 18 other wives in a social arrangement only slightly less byzantine than the court of Marie Antoinette. Despite her best attempts to "keep sweet" and accept the wishes of the Prophet delivered through Rulon, Becky grew miserable with the restrictions continually placed on her -- unable to wear the color red, cut her hair or talk to men outside her family. She was constantly told to submit to her husband, and that soon enough she'd have a baby and wouldn't be able to rebel any more.

After Rulon's death, his son Warren began to make his own pronouncements, including hinting that he was prepared to take on his father's wives (seen as a privilege to them rather than to him). Despite having no formal education past high school and no money, Becky escaped the church with the help of a distant relative, later assisting others who wanted to leave. Eventually, she helped law enforcement prepare for the 2008 "Yearning for Zion" raid (in which over 400 women and children, virtual prisoners in a secluded FLDS compound, were removed peacefully while several of their elders faced arrest); Becky's role was primarily to act as a cultural translator between cops and church members. Her experiences during that raid led her to discover FLDS secrets even more destructive than the ones she had witnessed as a young wife in the church. (Some of these secrets may be revealed in the new TLC show "Breaking the Faith," which in keeping with my obsession I watched on Sunday night.)

Musser chooses to focus a lot of the second half of the book on the experience of testifying against former FLDS elders and leaders -- facing tough cross-examinations on the witness stand and even tougher criticism from the people she was trying to help. Her marriage fell apart because her husband didn't support her testifying (even though he was a fellow ex-FLDS member); despite a promise of anonymity, she found video of her testimony splashed all over Fox News. This wasn't the ending of the book I was expecting, but adds nuance to the reality that for victims of the Jeffs family and other church elders, arrests and convictions weren't the end of the story; they also had to find a way to live in a world that in no way reflected their upbringing. (Musser's younger sister Elissa has also written a book about her experiences with the FLDS, focusing more on the experience of being a teenage bride and the accompanying assault. I reviewed that one in this post.) The contrast is sharp between the FLDS language of subjugation, specifically through an aggressive domesticity (many children, close together, coexisting with other wives in the same house), and Musser's pursuit of justice.

In a way, leaving that piece of her behind in the FLDS community -- as well as her younger relatives who were there -- meant she couldn't disengage from the fight to give them their freedom. Like Elizabeth Smart, Musser comes to frame her experience as one of human slavery, linking it to thousands of women and children around the globe who live in similar situations but whose plights do not receive as much media attention. It's an incredible perspective from someone who was so sheltered as to believe her suffering was deserved.


Peter Knox said...

You have to see this doc:

I caught it at the Tribeca Film Fest, but I don't know where you can see it now.

Meanwhile, I've only read Under the Banner of Heaven, but I can appreciate your obssession.

Ellen said...

Thanks for the rec! It looks like you can download it now on Vimeo so I will definitely check it out.