I was mar­ried at1985- to an year-old


Marie Claire (South Africa) - - SNEAK PEEK - WORDS RE­BECCA MUSSER

ihad one week to choose a hus­band. In ab­so­lute agony, I felt as if I were al­ready fall­ing to my death. Over the next few days, I felt like the walk­ing dead.All roads seemed to lead to a hope­less fu­ture.One night,just four days be­fore I was to be mar­ried,I went into my bath­room to get ready for bed, glanc­ing into the mir­ror. My eyes were sunken and colour­less, sur­rounded by grey­ing, sal­low skin. Months of right­eous fast­ing for the fail­ing health of my late hus­band and Prophet,Ru­lon Jeffs,had played havoc on my body, but it was my spirit that felt bro­ken. Af­ter all the years of striv­ing to be a good church mem­ber and a good wife – one of 65 – to a man cho­sen for me,I was tired. Try­ing to look at my op­tions with less fear, I kept com­ing up against a door I didn’t dare to open. If I did, I would have to rely on the kind­ness of the out­side world. That thought pet­ri­fied me, nearly as much as mar­ry­ing again. I couldn’t be­gin to think of how to live among mur­der­ers, rapists and thieves – the wicked, cor­rupt, ig­no­rant and un­kind people of this world, as out­siders had been de­scribed to us since birth. Wicked… un­kind… Was that re­ally my ex­pe­ri­ence? Mem­o­ries flooded my mind: sym­pa­thetic neigh­bours who helped us af­ter our house fire, a for­mer vi­o­lin teacher who nur­tured my talent, the owner of a stringed-in­stru­ment shop who en­cour­aged me to play.

A mem­ory I had care­fully tucked away whirled into my con­scious­ness. Walk­ing into the Sears depart­ment store in St. Ge­orge as a young bride, search­ing for vac­uum parts. Briefly sep­a­rated from my sis­ter-wives, I strode alone into the ap­pli­ances sec­tion, where I was un­ex­pect­edly mes­mer­ized by a vast sea of tele­vi­sions, which dis­played the most strik­ing black woman on ev­ery screen. It was sac­ri­le­gious to watch, but the woman was cap­ti­vat­ing. Even as clois­tered from the world as I had been, I rec­og­nized the face of Oprah Win­frey. In­ter­view­ing a woman who had be­come a fos­ter mother to a whole neigh­bour­hood of cast-off chil­dren – tran­sients, run­aways, chil­dren of ad­dicts and so on – Oprah was cel­e­brat­ing her gen­er­ous heart, and even gifted her with items that would serve her hodge­podge

fam­ily. I was floored. Those two beau­ti­ful women com­pletely re­futed ev­ery­thing I had ever been taught about the out­side world – es­pe­cially about black people! Our new church leader, War­ren Jeffs, said blacks were from the seed of Cain, and he used words like ‘un­couth’,‘wild’ and ‘ig­no­rant’,‘im­moral’, and ‘filthy’, say­ing they were cursed, loved Satan, loved evil, and that not one soul was clean, pure or right­eous. He had been wrong. At the time, I had to put that knowl­edge on the shelf with so many other things that did not mesh with our teach­ings. Now, I took a long, hard look at all the things that War­ren had said were ab­so­lutely true that I knew were not. I pulled that nugget of wis­dom re­gard­ing Oprah and the lovely people I had met in the out­side world off the shelf and tucked it into my heart, where it be­longed.If I was go­ing to leave,I would have to take a chance on the kind­ness of strangers, and that out­side world, what­ever it held for me. Once again I thought of War­ren but, this time, I felt a fire ig­nite in


my belly; I would not al­low my­self to be bro­ken.In the pre-dawn hours of Sun­day morn­ing, I put a note on my bed for Chris­tine, my mom, and my sis­ters.

Tak­ing an exit to avoid the cam­eras and any of the men on se­cu­rity pa­trol, I pushed the heavy oak door qui­etly be­hind me un­til I heard the latch click shut. My heart pound­ing, I walked as ca­su­ally as I could, as if I were out for a stroll on the grounds. I made my way around the side of the mas­sive Jeffs man­sion, then turned abruptly to­ward the fence.The gates were locked, as I knew they would be. Long skirt and all, I scaled the tall fence that pro­tected the Jeffs fam­ily from ‘out­siders and wicked apos­tates’. In do­ing so,I be­came one of them.The spikes at the top were tricky to man­age in my long skirt, yet noth­ing com­pared to the half-mile walk I had to trek to meet Ben, fight­ing my urge to bolt back to my sis­ter-wives, whom I was hav­ing great dif­fi­culty leav­ing. Tech­ni­cally,Ben was my grand­son as he was Ru­lon’s 19-year-old grand­son with a sis­ter-wife. He didn’t

be­lieve that I should be forced to do any­thing I didn’t want to. Af­ter I fi­nally reached the back­side of ALCO, a Fun­da­men­tal­ist Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-Day Saints (FLDS) mem­ber-run busi­ness, Ben rounded the cor­ner in his brother’s shim­mery gold truck, loaded with a mini trailer from his pre­vi­ous em­ployer. My heart flooded with re­lief and con­tin­ued to pump wildly as we passed our neigh­bours’ homes on the way to High­way 59, which would draw us to­ward Las Ve­gas and on to Ore­gon where my brother Cole lived.He had been kicked out of the FLDS six years ear­lier when he tried to shield our younger sib­lings from a beat­ing. In the si­lence of the grow­ing light,I stole furtive glances at Ben,whom I barely knew. I had just left ev­ery­thing and nearly ev­ery­one I’d ever known, and so had he. I tried to fathom why in the world he would do this for me. Ben had al­ready scan­dal­ized him­self and his fam­ily by kiss­ing me one day, but he would place him­self in very real dan­ger if he

Though not a liar nor a

thief, I’d had to steal

my own be­long­ings

away to claim my very life

had the au­dac­ity to turn against War­ren and es­cape with the Prophet’s wife. For two days be­fore I left, I at­tended ev­ery meal and class so it wouldn’t oc­cur to War­ren that any­thing was dif­fer­ent.Care­fully,I had selected only a few favourite long dresses from the closet, so that it would still look full.I couldn’t leave all my pho­tos and scrap­books be­hind, as my fam­ily and friends were too pre­cious. Nei­ther could I leave my sewing ma­chine, nor the boxes of ma­te­rial in my closet. Be­sides mu­sic lessons, I had felt that sewing would be my only way to make a liv­ing on the out­side.That thought still ter­ri­fied me.Mak­ing sure my room looked as if ev­ery­thing was still in­tact, I’d had to sneak the most im­por­tant items out with­out be­ing seen, then hide them some­where off the Jeffs’ es­tate.Though not a liar nor a thief, I’d had to steal my own be­long­ings away to claim my very life.

When my let­ter of ex­pla­na­tion was dis­cov­ered in the light of day, War­ren was adamant in the or­der he is­sued to the com­mu­nity: find us be­fore night­fall, ‘to save that girl’s soul be­fore she com­mits adul­tery’. All of War­ren’s broth­ers and sev­eral mem­bers of the God Squad were sent on a mas­sive man­hunt for us, scour­ing Colorado City, St. Ge­orge, Cedar City and the sur­round­ing en­vi­rons. He used the threat of adul­tery to get the men to move quickly, as a woman’s virtue was prized among the FLDS. How­ever, War­ren was also very con­cerned about some­thing else, though I wouldn’t un­der­stand that un­til much later.As the for­mer Prophet’s widow, I knew far too much about the in­ner work­ing of the Jeffs fam­ily and the true un­der­tak­ings of the FLDS. I was a dan­ger­ous li­a­bil­ity to the new Prophet. People in the rest stops and restaurants stared cu­ri­ously at our at­tire and my hair­style. A FLDS woman must never cut her hair be­cause, as the New Tes­ta­ment story in Luke de­scribes Mary and an­other woman wash­ing Je­sus’ feet and dry­ing them with her hair, so must we do for our hus­bands. Once in Ore­gon, I was paral­ysed by fear of the out­side world.I had no idea how to do my hair, how to dress, and what cus­toms, hol­i­days, or so­cial rit­u­als to fol­low. I was still wear­ing long dresses,the only clothes I owned,and pouf­ing my hair,so Cole de­cided to take me shop­ping. ‘Buy what­ever you want,’ he said. With no idea what to choose, I ended up with a jog­ging suit and a shirt in the shock­ing and on­ce­for­bid­den shade of red. Af­ter­ward, Cole brought me to a hair sa­lon.I was ter­ri­fied:I had never cut my hair,ex­cept to trim the ends. I wasn’t fac­ing the mir­ror, but I blanched

as I saw my rich brown locks hit the ground. My hair was gone; it now looked ugly and made me feel that way in­side. For days I cried in pri­vate, feel­ing home­sick and miss­ing my mother and sis­ters and friends des­per­ately.

In the mean­time, Ben and I needed to start earn­ing money. Two weeks and count­less ap­pli­ca­tions later, we both got jobs at restaurants.Ev­ery­thing was new,ex­cit­ing, thrilling and sober­ing to me. I be­gan read­ing vo­ra­ciously, fol­low­ing Cole’s rec­om­men­da­tions. I was fas­ci­nated by the philoso­phies of suc­cess­ful people like Stephen Covey, Joe Vi­tale and Deepak Cho­pra. Ex­cit­edly, I sat on Cole’s front porch and called my mother for the first time, anx­ious to share with her what I was learn­ing in life and through books. While she was glad to know I was safe and re­lieved I had re­con­nected with Cole, she was neg­a­tive about ev­ery­thing else, telling me I was trad­ing my sal­va­tion for ma­te­rial goods.She was more closed off than I had ever heard her.War­ren’s warn­ings had clearly af­fected her. I knew she had been or­dered not to talk to me, and that I was sup­posed to be ‘dead’ to her. She risked her FLDS mem­ber­ship and sal­va­tion by the very act of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with her apos­tate chil­dren.People had been kicked out for less.

when I watched tele­vi­sion, I was sur­prised and of­ten scan­dal­ized by how dif­fer­ent it was from when we were kids. One night Cole and Ben and I watched an R-rated movie in which a man and a woman had sex, and I be­came alarmed when they started mak­ing noises – loud ones! Did ev­ery­one in the out­side world do that? Cole had no­ticed that Ben and I were get­ting closer and was em­phatic that Ben was wel­come to stay as long as there was noth­ing sex­ual be­tween us. Un­for­tu­nately, it was a tough prom­ise to keep. We both wished to hon­our Cole’s re­quest, but we felt mag­net­i­cally drawn to each other. One day, Cole in­sisted that I watch a movie called The Tru­man Show. The main char­ac­ter, Tru­man Bur­bank, is adopted as a baby by a tele­vi­sion stu­dio. As he grows, ev­ery im­por­tant per­son in his life is sim­ply an ac­tor; ev­ery part of his life is a set – but he doesn’t know it.When­ever he wants some­thing the pro­duc­tion team can’t pro­vide, he’s told that it’s just not avail­able.‘Why would you want that?’ dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters ask him.‘Your life is so per­fect the way it is.’ When he starts re­al­iz­ing that things just aren’t right, he fi­nally faces his fear of wa­ter and sets off in a boat for the hori­zon. Barely sur­viv­ing a vi­o­lent and hor­ren­dous storm man­u­fac­tured by the pro­duc­ers, Tru­man dis­cov­ers the hori­zon is a painted back­drop and re­al­izes that his en­tire life has been a lie – set up for the cam­era and the ben­e­fit of strangers, the view­ers. Full of dis­ap­point­ment with his false re­la­tion­ships, he walks off the set and into his new life.

The movie mir­rored my own life.Be­fore ev­ery de­ci­sion I’d ever made, I’d asked my­self: what would the Prophet have me say or do? For ev­ery ques­tion, there had been an ap­pro­pri­ate,pro­grammed an­swer.I was never al­lowed my own opin­ion; I had never de­vel­oped the abil­ity to choose. All of my people were like that, too. How had our be­lief sys­tem be­come so screwed up? I gave my­self per­mis­sion to look deeply at polygamy in a way I never had be­fore. All of a sud­den, noth­ing seemed holy about the struc­ture that must be in place for polygamy to work. Why would God put a roughly equal num­ber of males and fe­males on the earth if he wanted a polyg­a­mous so­ci­ety? This struc­ture meant women didn’t get the time, af­fec­tion and val­i­da­tion they so crave.And, be­cause only a se­lect num­ber of male lead­ers are right­eous enough to re­ceive mul­ti­ple wives, not only do a high num­ber of young men get kicked out, but the mar­riage­able ages of girls be­comes in­creas­ingly younger as de­mand in­ten­si­fies. Throw these fac­tors into a cli­mate in which the lead­ers make the people feel as if they can never ques­tion those lead­ers be­cause that means ques­tion­ing God him­self, and one has a recipe for spir­i­tual abuse. Ev­ery way I ex­am­ined it,polygamy was nei­ther healthy nor holy.Why could no-one see it? For days I was fu­ri­ous,and all I knew was I did not want that per­verse dic­ta­tor War­ren di­rect­ing my show from his self-right­eous pul­pit.

Clock­wise from top left Re­becca Musser as a teenager (fourth from the right) with six of her sis­ters at home in Salt Lake City; at age 19 when she be­came 85-yearold Ru­lon Jeffs’ 19th wife, 1995; Musser in 2011.

From far left to right Musser play­ing roller hockey (front cen­tre), a rare pas­time; on her fifth wed­ding an­niver­sary, 2000; her mem­oir.

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