I rarely read “ripped from the headline” memoirs of people’s harrowing life experiences. It’s just not my thing. If I want a shocking true story, I’m more likely to turn to a third-person accounts (Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer) or first-person accounts that happen to be by accomplished writers (Lucky by Alice Sebold). So Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs by Elissa Walls is not a typical read for me; however, my book club chose it for our October meeting, and where Book Club goes, I must follow.
In general, the writing is serviceable but occasionally clunky. Every surprising revelation “shocked [Wall] to the core,” and there’s a sort of “we went there, this thing happened, this is what I thought” pattern that gets a little tedious. However, I don’t really think the writing is the point with this kind of book. Getting the inside story is the point, so it doesn’t seem quite fair to criticize the book for not rising to the level of books by writers like Sebold and Krakauer.
Wall grew up in an sect called the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints). Polygamy was the norm; there were three mothers in Wall’s house. Group members are taught to isolate themselves from the outside world and obey the “prophet” (the head of the church) without question. Women are placed in marriage by the prophet, and they are generally treated as property. If the marriage doesn’t work out or the husband runs afoul of the church, wives and children can be transferred to other men.
At the age of 14, Wall was placed in marriage with her 22-year-old cousin. Wall tried desperately to get out of the marriage but in the end she agreed to be obedient to the prophet—or actually his “spokesperson” Warren Jeffs. Later, Jeffs was convicted as an accomplice to rape because of his involvement in Wall’s arranged marriage.
Wall’s story is unpleasant—like The Handmaid’s Tale but with every women being called a wife and treated like a concubine. Seriously. I had read Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven about Warren Jeffs and the FLDS and followed some of the news stories about the raid on the community this past spring, but none of those accounts offered this level of detail. For example, when Wall was writing in her journal, expressing her distress about her upcoming marriage, her mother told her she should only write “proud things” in her journal, which, to me, was as good as telling her she mustn’t even think negative thoughts. Chilling.
It is hard to know how typical Wall’s experience is within the FLDS. She herself mentions that teenage marriages were unusual, which explains her shock at being placed in a marriage at 14. Based on her account, Jeffs appears to have been a much more autocratic leader than is usual in the communty. However, it does seem clear that the group’s governing system leaves itself wide open for this kind of abuse, and that in itself is a problem. One can only hope that the scrutiny from the outside will bring about change.
NOTE: Stealing an idea from Bookchronicle, I’m planning to post this book to Bookmooch next week. If any of you readers out there have a Bookmooch account and a want to read this book, comment by September 24 with your Bookmooch user name and I’ll reserve this copy for you! First come, first served!