#3. Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs – Elissa Wall with Lisa Pulitzer
In September 2007, a packed courtroom in St. George, Utah, sat hushed as Elissa Wall, the star witness against polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs, gave captivating testimony of how Jeffs forced her to marry her first cousin at age fourteen. This harrowing and vivid account proved to be the most compelling evidence against Jeffs, showing the harsh realities of this closed community and the lengths to which Jeffs went in order to control the sect’s women.
Now, in this courageous memoir, Elissa Wall tells the incredible and inspirational story of how she emerged from the confines of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and helped bring one of America’s most notorious criminals to justice. Offering a child’s perspective on life in the FLDS, Wall discusses her tumultuous youth, explaining how her family’s turbulent past intersected with her strong will and identified her as a girl who needed to be controlled through marriage. Detailing how Warren Jeffs’s influence over the church twisted its already rigid beliefs in dangerous new directions, Wall portrays the inescapable mind-set and unrelenting pressure that forced her to wed despite her repeated protests that she was too young.
Once she was married, Wall’s childhood shattered as she was obligated to follow Jeffs’s directives and submit to her husband in “mind, body, and soul.” With little money and no knowledge of the outside world, she was trapped and forced to endure the pain and abuse of her loveless relationship, which eventually pushed her to spend nights sleeping in her truck rather than face the tormentor in her bed.
Yet even in those bleak times, she retained a sliver of hope that one day she would find a way out, and one snowy night that came in the form of a rugged stranger named Lamont Barlow. Their chance encounter set in motion a friendship and eventual romance that gave her the strength she needed to break free from her past and sever the chains of the church.
But though she was out of the FLDS, Wall would still have to face Jeffs—this time in court. In Stolen Innocence, she delves into the difficult months on the outside that led her to come forward against him, working with prosecutors on one of the biggest criminal cases in Utah’s history, so that other girls still inside the church might be spared her cruel fate.
After reading Escape by Carolyn Jessop a few weeks ago (read my review) I immediately grabbed this book off my shelves to read next – I couldn’t wait to hear more about these womens’ tumultuous and courageous lives. Elissa Wall’s story is quite different from Carolyn Jessop’s in a few ways. Wall was married, completely against her will, to her COUSIN at age FOURTEEN, while Jessop was able to wait until eighteen to marry and was married to a much older man, an important figure in the community. Wall seemed to be much more helpless than Jessop – I mean, of course they were both powerless in their situations – but Jessop had an education and a job, which gave her a degree of financial stability that Wall could not have hoped for. Yet even with her paralyzing circumstances, Wall still managed to stand up for herself and get out of the community. It is pretty clear that Wall had two advantages over Jessop that allowed her to get out sooner during the timeline of her life – she had no children (where Jessop had eight) and she had an individual, a friend (who later became her husband) who motivated her to leave the community and helped her do so.
The most interesting part of this memoir for me was the courtroom scenes in the end, when Wall testified against Warren Jeffs and played a major role in getting him behind bars. It was crazy to me how so many members of the FLDS community testified on behalf of Jeffs, and what lengths they were willing to go to in order to get him out of the punishment he absolutely deserved. According to Wall, many people blatantly lied on the stand, discrediting Wall’s story and making Jeffs look like a saint. Unfortunately for them, the jury ultimately believed Wall and sentenced Jeffs to something like ten years or more in prison. Those courtroom scenes really showed the power Jeffs had over his followers – they literally believed that everything he told them was sent directly from God and, therefore, they had to do as they were told to achieve the highest spots in Heaven.
Stolen Innocence was fascinating and I couldn’t put it down. I highly recommend it.