I’ve been eyeing The Witness Wore Red for a few months now, and last night/this morning I thought I would finally bite the bullet, sit down and read it. It was a huge mistake – not because it’s not great, because it really is – but because it’s so compelling that all the stuff I was going to do today before work (like go to the pool, do all my laundry and organize the rest of my Christmas presents), just got thrown right out the window.
A weird thing that you should probably know about me is that I find the whole issue of the FLDS – the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints – completely fascinating. I’m not entirely sure why, though I know that it started right around the time that I read my dad’s copy of Under The Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer in 2003, right before university. If you haven’t read this, you really should. I’ve read it about four times and it’s a brilliantly-researched, smart and intriguing look into the spin-off sects and subcultures that are rooted in early Mormonism (but have absolutely nothing to do with modern Mormon faith – this is a really, really important distinction).
From there, I read Carolyn Jessop’s Escape and Elissa Wall’s A Stolen Life – both stories of courageous young FLDS women who fled their plural marriages at great personal risk. Both were inspiring for different reasons – Jessop’s because she blazed a trail for other young women to follow (and because she managed to escape the FLDS with all of her children) and Wall’s because I was shocked to discover that Elissa Wall is actually one year younger than me. It’s actually mind-blowingly awful to believe that in modern North America, when I was getting As in English, worrying about my lack of basketball skills and getting ready to go to grade nine dances for lots of sweaty hand-holding, a grade eight girl just a day’s drive from me was being promised in marriage to her own cousin. Why don’t more people know this is going on? Why wasn’t anybody doing anything? I wondered. My heart broke for Elissa.
I also read Jessop’s moving follow-up book Triumph: Life After The Cult while I lived in Sydney – and of course, I’m a huge, huge fan of the HBO show Big Love (Roman and Alby Grant are loosely based on Rulon and Warren Jeffs, and there’s even a scene where Roman Grant watches news footage of Warren Jeffs’ arrest). And I was completely riveted by the 2008 news coverage of the raids on the Yearning for Zion ranch, as well as Warren Jeffs’ 2011 trial. I’m fully aware that this is a really odd thing to be very well read about (in part, I blame my journalism degree). It’s just so interesting and terrible and…well…it just doesn’t seem possible that it continues to happen in post-2000 USA.
If you think all of these other books are great reads – or if you’ve never read anything about the FLDS before – The Witness Wore Red is one of the best first-hand accounts of this culture I’ve come across. Rebecca Musser (who is the sister of Elissa Wall, who I had been wondering about since I read Stolen Innocence) is articulate, resilient and independent – and her keen eye for detail makes for a comprehensive portrait of life in the sect for young women, particularly when she becomes the 19th wife of ‘prophet’ Rulon Jeffs at age 19 (he was in his mid-80s).
For seven years, she faced unspeakable emotional, sexual and physical abuse until her husband died – at which time, the expectation was that she would then marry his son, Warren Jeffs. With nowhere to go and nobody to turn to, she made what might possibly have been the bravest and scariest decision ever – she hopped the fence and escaped, knowing she had no money, resources, education or skills and that she was turning her back on her entire family and the only life she had ever known.
She writes about her experiences immediately after she leaves the FLDS. Rebecca can’t even make a single decision about who she should be, what food she should order on a menu or even what her hair should look like on her own.
But she finds her voice. And what a voice! Rebecca ended up being a key witness when Warren Jeffs and other FLDS leaders finally went to trial over the crimes they had committed against women and children while in positions of power. She also consulted heavily with the Texas Rangers during the Yearning for Zion raids. It cost her a lot of money, several years of court cases and in the end, even her marriage, but her courageous fight for trapped young women who don’t know that they have voices of their own is a truly inspiring story. Now, she’s an international motivational speaker, and an advocate for human trafficking victims. You should spend some time checking out her website.
The Witness Wore Red is truthful, courageous and hopeful – and a great read. Check out the trailer here: