Monday, August 15, 2011

Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall and Lisa Pulitzer

My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs

Stolen Innocence is Elissa Wall's memoir about growing up as a member of the Fundamentalist LDS (FLDS) religion. This is the Mormonism spin-off religion that occupies Colorado City, Yearning for Zion Ranch and lots of other compounds around rural Utah, Arizona and Texas. Wall grew up in a polygamous household, completely isolated from anything but FLDS culture. Her family initially lived in Salt Lake City and attended a FLDS school run by Warren Jeffs before moving to Southern Utah. Wall was forced by Jeffs and the rest of her community to marry her much-hated first cousin, Allen Steed, when she was 14 years old.

I found this story very compelling because of the candor with which it was written and the shocking events taking place in my country, even in my state. It is particularly disturbing to me because she is the same age as I am. While she missed out on basically the entirety of a normal childhood and youth, the few cultural experiences she mentioned that I also experienced (watching Pirates of the Caribbean, for example) at the same time were startling to me when I thought about how young I was then and the impossibility of coping with her circumstances.

Wall eventually broke away from the FLDS, and even testified against Jeffs in his trial for rape as an accomplice. A significant portion of the book is dedicated to the trial, which I found fascinating. Wall's is an unusual perspective from which to view the American justice system and I found the details of her trial very interesting. I could read an entire book about the case itself, I wonder if such a thing exists...

Wall's future was compromised not only by her early marriage, but by an education that completely failed to prepare her for life. She was forced to drop out of school around 9th grade, and even prior to that was only provided with what little education the FLDS deemed appropriate. Her writing style is not very complex. It is exactly what you would expect a smart but poorly educated person writing with an indeterminate amount of help from a co-writer to sound like. At times the odd turn of phrases or trivial inconsistencies were distracting, but just drove home the reality of Wall's situation.

After reading this book I can think of few combinations of words more insidious or disturbing than "keep sweet." Keep sweet is the instruction constantly given to FLDS girls as they grow up. It means to smile and be happy even if you are miserable inside. It goes hand in hand with the way FLDS women are expected to give up control of their lives to men around them with prayer as their only recourse. Keeping sweet was what Wall was constantly told to do during the period she was suffering rape and psychological abuse from Steed when she asked for help. This culture of submission is incredibly disturbing to me.

If I had a complaint about this book it would be her portrayal of Jeff's defense team at his trial. The defense team were naturally doing their best to get Jeffs acquitted and she took this personally. She really seemed to hate Jeff's lawyers, and portrayed them far more negatively than seems necessary. The idea that defendants are entitled to representation even if it makes plaintiffs/ witnesses/ victims uncomfortable seems to be completely lost on Wall. Of course, Wall has a pretty good excuse for not fully appreciating the justice system.

I would recommend this book. FLDS and other extreme, isolationist sects are a part of America that most of us never have to think about. Seeing the harm this religious extremism did to Wall and her family is really compelling. The line between religious tolerance and protecting children from abuse is really fuzzy here and Wall's perspective is extremely valuable.

5/5 stars

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