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Ex-sect members escape polygamy but not pain

  • Story Highlights
  • Women share stories on Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
  • Flora Jessop says she escaped abusive community, now helps others do same
  • Woman who cared for escapees: "You literally have to take them, deprogram them"
  • Expert says women often stay, fearing "terrible forces outside"
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By Eliott C. McLaughlin
CNN
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(CNN) -- Long after she escaped a polygamist Colorado City, Arizona, community in 1986, Flora Jessop found another way to escape: cocaine.

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Flora Jessop says she ran away from a polygamist sect in 1986 after being married to her cousin.

"It killed the pain. It killed the hurt," she said. "I didn't have to hurt so bad because I missed everything I knew."

Once she fled the fundamentalist Mormon sect, she was an apostate. She believed God hated her. Her parents and siblings thought she was wicked. Worst of all, she knew she was damned to hell, Jessop said.

Jessop, then 17, began hitchhiking across the country, almost killed herself with cocaine, worked as a topless dancer and eventually became pregnant, she said.

Fearing that church members would hunt her down, she looked over her shoulder for five years, she said. She occasionally drank alcohol -- she liked tequila best -- but preferred to use cocaine because it kept her alert.

"When you're running for your life, you can't afford to get to the point you cannot run," she said. Video Watch Jessop explain how running was an education »

It was a need to protect her daughter that finally convinced her there was more to life, she said.

Today, Jessop, 38, escapes by freeing others trapped unwillingly in polygamist sects: 84 to date. She finds particular solace in rescuing women and children, some of whom are child brides like she was. It was a marriage to her first cousin Philip that prompted Jessop to run.

Her story strikes a common theme among those who have left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that disavowed the mainstream church in 1890 when it abandoned polygamy as a pathway to the highest level of heaven.

The FLDS has strict rules, especially for girls: no pants, haircuts, drugs, booze or boys; just "keep sweet" and obey. So young women who leave often delve into worldly pleasures once outside, indulgences as innocent as blue jeans and as destructive as heroin and prostitution, survivors and an expert say.

Jenny Larson experienced such urges in 1946, when her mother, Berna, left a polygamist household in Glendale, Utah, with seven of her nine children. In those days, however, rebellion bore a different hue.

Larson, 73, recalls how "you wouldn't have caught me wearing a long-sleeve blouse" after leaving Glendale.

"I think I was one of the first girls in the seventh grade to wear lipstick. I put henna in my hair to make it red. I wasn't going to look like a little 'polyg' kid," she said, using the slang "polyg" with all the contempt of a racial slur.

Larson -- who goes by Aunt Jenny to the dozens of girls she's helped escape and who wrote the book "Brainwash to Hogwash: Escaping and Exposing Polygamy" -- concedes it's rare that young women can shed the sect's psychological shackles.

So how did she know polygamy wasn't for her? Larson recalls seeing her father, Vergel, smack her mother for expressing jealousy over his second wife, Mae. Video Watch an ex-sect member say she's now free »

"There was no way in hell I was going to live that way," Larson said.

And Larson quipped of the men hounding her for her hand in marriage when she was 11: "Some of them were so ugly I wondered how they could have sex without putting a sack over their head, but I'm being mean."

Larson's and Jessop's escapes are not typical. Many women don't want to leave, ex-sect members and an expert said.

The purportedly rescued women often return to polygamy. An example is the 1953 raid at Short Creek (now Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City), where dozens of women and more than 260 children were placed in state custody.

Three of the then-children taken in the raid recently said that they eventually returned to polygamist lifestyles, including Fawneta Caroll, who was 7 when she was taken from her family. She remembers clearly what she felt 55 years ago, and it wasn't relief, she said.

"We knew that the object was to take us away, adopt us out and we would never be back to our homes," she said.

Religion -- the reason these women say they stay -- is also used to validate the brainwashing and, in some cases, physical abuse employed to keep women and children submissive, said Marci Hamilton, author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children."

The women are wholly dependent on the patriarchal community, Hamilton said. They often lack education and marketable skills, and they're told of "terrible forces outside the compound," namely evil people who wish them harm, she said.

And there's always the prospect of eternal damnation, said Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law who has studied polygamist sects for 10 years.

"It's not only physically dangerous to leave, you're also risking your soul," she said. "Staying in the compound, even though they're being abused, may look like a smarter choice to a lot of these people."

Joni Holm has taken care of four children who escaped Colorado City, and she concurs that youngsters who leave the community have trouble shaking their indoctrination.

"You literally have to take them, deprogram them and reintroduce them to society," she said.

Flora Jessop brought Fawn Holm, 16, and Fawn Broadbent, 17, to Joni Holm's Sandy, Utah, home in 2004. Video Watch Jessop talk about life in a sect »

Fawn Holm, Joni's sister-in-law, feared that she was about to be married to now-imprisoned FLDS "prophet" Warren Jeffs, who is serving time in Utah for being an accomplice to rape. Broadbent's name had just been placed in the church's "Joy Book," meaning she could be married off any day, and probably without warning.

The "two Fawns" were smart, Joni Holm said, but had elementary school education levels. They had bizarre mannerisms and wouldn't look people in the eye. They would sometimes jump off elevators because "they were taught they could never be alone with a man," she said.

Fawn Holm began using drugs and alcohol, and Broadbent dabbled in drinking, Joni Holm said.

It's a common phenomenon, Larson said. "When you're held down and can't have any freedoms, they go the opposite way when they get out: drinking, drugs, sex. They're going to hell anyway; they just jump headfirst in."

Joni and husband Carl's greatest challenge, however, was teaching the teens to trust. So entrenched was their distrust of "outsiders" that they needed even the simplest things proved to them, especially examples of how the FLDS "twisted" the Book of Mormon, said Joni Holm, a mainstream Mormon.

"You have to show them factual stuff, because this is what their dad has taught them all their lives," she said.

When Texas authorities seized 416 children from the FLDS Yearning for Zion compound in Eldorado this month, there were similar signs of indoctrination, said Helen Pfluger, whose Baptist church in nearby San Angelo volunteered to help feed and clothe the children and their mothers.

"They were very quiet and didn't want to look us in the eye," she said. "We never knew for sure which child belonged to which mother. It was very communal."

They refused to play board games. Clothes had to be cotton and plain, no patterns and no red, "the color of the devil," Pfluger said. The children shunned processed food, white bread and sodas, and essentially subsisted on yogurt, fruit and lots of almonds, she said.

"Another San Angelo church had brought some coloring pages and crayons," she said. "They didn't know what to do with them, and their mothers didn't either."

Learning to color will be one of many challenges the children will face if they're permanently removed from YFZ ranch.

Joni Holm said it takes five to 10 years for a sect child to learn how to live a life society would deem "normal." Larson said it could take longer. Jessop said she might never be normal.

But Jessop said she would rather wage the battles she faces on "the outside" than live a life of submission and abuse. She reckons many FLDS children would feel the same way if given a choice, she said.

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It was difficult to give up the life she was taught was her only path to salvation. But she had to do it to get away from a culture that she felt was backward and malevolent, she said.

"The pain got so bad in heaven that I was willing to damn myself to hell to escape it," she said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Gary Tuchman and Amanda Townsend contributed to this report.

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