I was born in the bitter cold but into warm and loving hands. Aunt Lydia Jessop was the midwife who brought me into the world on January 1, 1968, just two hours after midnight.
Aunt Lydia could not believe I’d survived. She was the midwife who had delivered babies for two generations, including my mother. When she saw the placenta, she realized that my mother had chronic placental abruption. Mom had hemorrhaged throughout her pregnancy and thought she was miscarrying. But when the bleeding stopped, she shrugged it off, assuming she was still pregnant. Aunt Lydia, the midwife, said that by the time I was born, the placenta was almost completely detached from the uterus. My mother could have bled to death and I could have been born prematurely or, worse, stillborn.
But I came into the world as a feisty seven-pound baby, my mother’s second daughter. My father said she could name me Carolyn or Annette. She looked up both names and decided to call me Carolyn because it meant “wisdom.” My mother always said that even as a baby, I looked extremely wise to her.
I was born into six generations of polygamy on my mother’s side and started life in Hildale, Utah, in a fundamentalist Mormon community known as the FLDS, or the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Polygamy was the issue that defined us and the reason we’d split from the mainstream Mormon Church.
My childhood memories really begin in Salt Lake City. We moved there when I was about five. Even though my parents believed in polygamy, my father had only one wife. He owned a small real estate business that was doing well and decided it made sense to use Salt Lake as a base. We had a lovely house with a porch swing and a landscaped yard and trees. This was a big change from the tiny house in Colorado City with dirt and weeds in the yard and a father who was rarely home.
But the biggest difference in moving to Salt Lake City was that my mother, Nurylon, was happy. She loved the city and delighted in having my father home every night after work. My dad was doing well, and Mom had enough money to buy plenty of groceries when we went to the store and even had some extra for toys.
There were soon four of us. I had two sisters, Linda and Annette. I was in the middle–Linda was eighteen months older than I and Annette two years younger. My baby brother Arthur arrived a few years after Annette. My mother was thrilled to finally have a son because in our culture, boys have more value than girls. Linda and my mother were very close. But my mother always seemed very irritated by me, in part, I think, because I was my father’s favorite.
I adored my dad, Arthur Blackmore. He was tall and thin, with large bones and dark, wavy hair. I remember that whenever we were around other families I thought I had the best-looking father in the entire world. I saw him as my personal protector and felt safe when I was in his presence. His face lit up when I entered the room; I was always the daughter he wanted to introduce when friends visited our house. My mother complained that he didn’t discipline me as much as he did my sister Linda, but he ignored her and didn’t seem to care.
We only lived in Salt Lake City for a year, but it was a happy one. Mother took us to the zoo and to the park, where we’d play on the swings and slides. My father’s business was successful and expanding. But he decided we needed to move back to Colorado City, Arizona—a tiny, nondescript FLDS enclave about 350 miles south of Salt Lake City and a stone’s throw from Hildale, Utah, where I was born. The reason we went back was that he didn’t want my sister Linda attending a regular public school. Even though she would technically be going to a public school in Colorado City, most of the teachers there were FLDS and very conservative. In theory, at least, religion is not to be taught in public schools, but in fact it was an integral part of the curriculum there.
When we returned to Colorado City, my father put an addition onto our house. There was more space to live in, but life became more claustrophobic. Mother changed. When we got up in the morning, she would still be sleeping. My father was on the road a lot now, so she was home alone. When we tried to wake her up, she’d tell us to go back to bed.
She’d finally surface midmorning and come into the kitchen to make us breakfast and talk about how much she wanted to die. While she made us hot cornmeal cereal, toast, or pancakes she’d complain about having nothing to live for and how she’d rather be dead. Those were the good mornings. The really awful mornings were the ones when she’d talk about how she was going to kill herself that day.
I remember how terrified I felt wondering what would happen to us if my mother killed herself. Who’d take care of us? Father was gone nearly all the time. One morning I asked my mother, “Mama, if a mother dies, what will happen to her children? Who will take care of them?”
I don’t think Mother noticed my urgency. She had no idea of the impact her words had been having on me. I think she felt my question arose from a general curiosity about dying. Mother was very matter–of–fact in responding to me: “Oh, the children will be all right. The priesthood will give their father a new wife. The new wife will take care of them.”
By this time I was about six. I looked at her and said, “Mama, I think that Dad better hurry up and get a new wife.”
I was beginning to notice other things about the world around me. One was that some of the women we’d see in the community when we went shopping were wearing dark sunglasses. I was surprised when a woman took her glasses off in the grocery store and I could see that both her eyes were blackened. I asked my mother what was wrong, but the question seemed to make her uncomfortable and she didn’t answer me. My curiosity was piqued, however, and every time I saw a woman in dark glasses, I stared at her to see if they were covering strange, mottled bruises.
What I did love about my mother was her beauty. In my eyes, she was gorgeous. She dressed with pride and care. Like my father, she was tall and thin. The clothes she made for herself and my sisters and me were exquisite. She always picked the best fabrics. She knew how to make pleats and frills. I remember beaming when someone would praise my mother for her well–mannered and well–dressed children. Everyone in the community thought she was an exceptional mother.
But that was the public façade. In private, my mother was depressed and volatile. She beat us almost every day. The range was anything from several small swats on the behind to a lengthy whipping with a belt. Once the beating was so bad I had bruises all over my back and my legs for more than a week. When she hit us, she accused us of always doing things to try to make her miserable.
I feared her, but my fear made me a student of her behavior. I watched her closely and realized that even though she slapped us throughout the day, she never spanked us more than once a day. The morning swats were never that intense or prolonged. The real danger came in late afternoon, when she was in the depths of her sorrow.
I concluded that if I got my spanking early in the morning and got it out of the way, I would basically have a free pass for the rest of the day. As soon as Mama got up, I knew I had a spanking coming. Linda and Annette quickly caught on to what I was doing, and they tried to get their spankings out of the way in the morning, too.
There were several times when my mother spanked me and then screamed and screamed at me. “I’m going to give you a beating you’ll never forget! I am not going to stop beating you until you shut up and stop crying! You make me so mad! How could you be so stupid!” Even though it’s been decades, her screams still echo inside me when I think about her.
I remember overhearing my mother say to a relative, “I just don’t understand what has gotten into my three daughters. As soon as I am out of bed every morning, they are so bad that no matter how much I warn them, they will just not be quiet until I give them all a spanking. After they have all gotten a spanking, then everything calms down and we can all get on with our day.”
When my mother beat me, she would always say she was doing it because she loved me. So I used to wish that she didn’t love me. I was afraid of her, but I would also get angry at her when she hit me. After she beat me she insisted on giving me a hug. I hated that. The hug didn’t make the spanking stop hurting. It didn’t fix anything.
I never told my father about the beatings because it was such an accepted part of our culture. What my mother was doing would be considered “good discipline.” My mother saw herself as raising righteous children and felt teaching us obedience was one of her most important responsibilities. Spanking your children was widely seen as the way to reach that goal. It wasn’t considered abuse; it was considered good parenting.
Some of the happiest times for me would be when we would have quilting parties at home. The women from the community would spend the day at our house, quilting around a big frame. Stories and gossip were shared, there was a lot of food, and the children all had a chance to play together. Quilting parties were the one time we had breathing room.
Once I was playing with dolls with my cousin under the quilt when I heard my aunt Elaine say, “I was so scared the other day. Ray Dee was playing out in the yard with her brothers and sisters. Some people from out of town stopped in front of our house. All of the other children ran into the house screaming, but Ray Dee stayed outside and talked to the out–of–towners.”
Aunt Elaine was beside herself that her daughter had spoken with outsiders. We were taught that outsiders were “agents of the devil” who wanted to kidnap us and take us away. They were seen as evil people who wanted to destroy the work of God. If they could get access to the children of God’s chosen, then they would try to hurt or destroy us.
Our community was so isolated it was rare that we ever saw anyone from the outside. Most of my cousins only left the community to go shopping with their mothers and had almost no sense of the outside world. I still had memories of our happy lives in Salt Lake City, where we even had a TV. (My parents also had a coffeemaker; coffee was strictly forbidden in the Mormon Church.)
As my mother’s depression worsened, she spent more of the day in bed. She neglected the house until the day before my father came home and then went into a cleaning frenzy. My father wanted his house spotless. One night he came home and we were all in our pajamas, clean and ready for bed. The house was immaculate. But my father walked over to the refrigerator and ran his finger across the top. It was dusty. He lit into my mother and said she had to do a better job of cleaning. My mother began screaming at my father to go to hell. She’d accuse him of not caring how hard she worked to keep up his home and care for his children. If he didn’t like the way she cleaned, then maybe he should take over the job and raise his children by himself.
Our home became a battleground, at least when our father came home. He and Mom would be going after each other within five or ten minutes after he walked through the door. The house was tense, the atmosphere ugly. But the spankings stopped when our father was home, which was a relief. For the most part, Mom avoided hitting us then, although she made it known that our behavior was expected to be perfect.
But there were days when Mom was happy and didn’t want to die. She loved to play games with us when she was in a good mood. One of our favorites was the Three Little Pigs. Linda, Annette, and I were the pigs and Mom was the big bad wolf. We’d build our playhouses of sticks and mud and she’d come and blow them all down until we made the brick house, which was stronger than she was. We also spent happy hours listening to Mama read fairy tales. She rarely read us religious scripture and, to our delight, much preferred the fantasy world of fairy tales.
Mother was devout, but she had a frisky side. One time when my father was away she and a friend went to town and came home with a Christmas tree. Imagine! This was completely forbidden in the FLDS. We decorated it with lights and homemade ornaments. I knew it was wrong to participate in such a worldly tradition, but I was having too much fun to care. Mother beamed. She loved our Christmas tree. We popped popcorn and made garlands for the tree. Before we went to bed that night we hung up our stockings and Mama told us there would be a prize in each of them the next morning. Nothing like this had happened in our lives before. The thought of presents made us wild with anticipation.
The next morning we found not only candy canes and fruit in our stockings but a present under the tree. My father let us have candy once a year—no more. My mother was clearly disobeying our father in giving us sugary treats. And she let us eat them before we had our breakfast!
Linda and I were old enough to realize that Mama was going to have to pay for her disobedience, but we loved feeling so spoiled. We had pancakes for breakfast and then went to the house of Mama’s friend, who’d also given her children a Christmas. These children told us Santa Claus had brought them presents, but we said ours came from Mama.
My father came home the next night. I went to sleep listening to them fighting and screaming. The next morning, our Christmas tree was gone. Mama was crying when she fixed us breakfast. When we finished eating, Linda and I went outside to play and saw the Christmas tree lying under the house, stripped of its glittery lights.
My mother was a beautiful person when she was happy. She glowed with delight and laughter the night we put up the tree. During these good times, Mother carried herself with poise and elegance and realized that she was a woman worthy of love. In Salt Lake City, we had been very happy and Mother was engaged in the world around her. In Colorado City, she was locked into a world of constant pregnancies, a loveless marriage, and a rural community strung together with dirt roads.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Escape by Carolyn Jessop and Laura Palmer. Copyright © 2007 by Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.