Vic­tim of Mor­mon po­lyg­a­mist keeps faith in­tact

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

NO fic­tion writer, not even one as darkly imag­i­na­tive as Stephen King, could cre­ate a vil­lain creepier than War­ren Jeffs. The 57-year-old con­victed rapist is the fea­ture mis­cre­ant in Re­becca Musser’s en­gross­ing mem­oir of life in a closed so­ci­ety of po­lyg­a­mist Mor­mons.

Fun­da­men­tal­ist Church of Je­sus Christ and Lat­ter-Day Saints (FLDS) mem­bers, liv­ing mainly on a patch of desert strad­dling the Utah-Ari­zona bor­der, ob­serve ev­ery pro­nounce­ment he sends to them from in­side a Texas pen­i­ten­tiary where he is serv­ing a life sen­tence.

FLDS mem­bers cling to the doc­trine of “plu­ral” or “ce­les­tial” mar­riage, a prin­ci­ple dis­carded by the main­stream Mor­mon church in 1890. They be­lieve a right­eous man can se­cure a place in the high­est level of heaven by tak­ing three or more wives.

In clear, crisp prose, Musser and co-au­thor Brid­get Cook take us on a jour­ney from grow­ing up in a house­hold with more than 20 other chil­dren and more than one mom, to be­ing a teenage bride for an 85-year-old man, to es­cape and a life of ad­vo­cacy for the op­pressed and en­slaved.

This in­sider’s ac­count in­cludes truly shock­ing de­tails on how the sect robs girls of their free­dom and dig­nity.

Per­haps the most dis­turb­ing con­tent is a par­tial tran­script of an au­dio record­ing of Jeffs hav­ing sex with a 12-year-old wife while other wives watched. In com­par­i­son, the rene­gade sect leader Ro­man Grant in the HBO se­ries Big Love was a choir boy.

But Musser and Cook aim for in­spi­ra­tion rather than sen­sa­tion­al­ism, with themes of faith and em­pow­er­ment.

Musser was born Re­becca Wall, the fifth of 14 chil­dren from her fa­ther’s sec­ond wife. Her fa­ther even­tu­ally had three wives and 24 chil­dren.

Shortly af­ter her 19th birth­day in 1995, Musser be­came the 19th wife of Ru­lon Jeffs, who was pres­i­dent of the FLDS and War­ren’s fa­ther.

They lived in the Jeffs fam­ily’s sprawl­ing com­pound in Hil­dale, Utah, and Ru­lon added many more young wives be­fore his death at age 92 in Septem­ber 2002.

War­ren re­peat­edly ad­mon­ished Musser that it was her re­li­gious duty to obey and please the old church leader in ev­ery way, in­clud­ing sex­u­ally.

Two months af­ter Ru­lon’s death, War­ren as the new FLDS pres­i­dent told Musser she must re­marry.

He said her new hus­band could be him, and the pos­si­bil­ity wasn’t far-fetched since he had al­ready mar­ried some of his fa­ther’s other young wid­ows.

In re­sponse, she quickly planned and ex­e­cuted an es­cape from Hil­dale.

She and a young FLDS man named Ben Musser fled to Oregon and mar­ried.

They’re now di­vorced but both live in Idaho, where they are par­ents to a son and daugh­ter.

She has tes­ti­fied against Jeffs and other FLDS men to help bring them to jus­tice for their crimes against girls as young as 12.

She wore red each time she tes­ti­fied against Jeffs be­cause he had banned FLDS mem­bers from wear­ing the colour.

As founder of a non-profit foun­da­tion called Claim Red, she is now a voice for vic­tims of hu­man traf­fick­ing.

A younger sis­ter, Elissa Wall, co-au­thored the 2008 book Stolen In­no­cence about her own ex­pe­ri­ences in and es­cape from the FLDS.

Athe­ists hop­ing The Wit­ness Wore Red slams faith will be dis­ap­pointed. Musser re­jects lead­er­ship by one man, but not re­li­gion and spir­i­tu­al­ity.

It’s also no­table that the word “cult” ap­pears in the sub­ti­tle but nowhere in the mem­oir it­self, as Musser re­mains re­spect­ful and sym­pa­thetic to­ward the com­mu­nity she left — even though much of that com­mu­nity de­spises her as a traitor.

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