Without realizing it, my memoirs and biographies this quarter had a theme going on: escape from perilous situations. Um... how about we not psycho-analyze that!
What I can say is that each account I read has made me that much more thankful for my own life and circumstances. These strong women--they were all women--inspired me with their utter determination, their resilience, and their courage. They were utter realists--they had to be--and yet they didn't give up hope that something better was possible and even attainable.
, by Carolyn Jessup
5 stars: I was riveted.
Carolyn Jessup was raised as a part of a polygamous family in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) church, a break-off group from the mainstream Mormon church. She was taught that becoming a plural wife someday was a great privilege, reserved for God's most faithful, and that it would secure her eternal happiness.
She was married at age 18 to Merrill Jessop, as his 3rd wife. She didn't even know him at the time, but was soon to know more than she ever wanted. His first 3 wives and their older children--some of whom Carolyn attended high school with--were jealous and constantly keeping tabs on her (and later, on her children). She survived the abuse and the constant tension, even earning a bachelor's degree in elementary education.
As the years went on, she had 8 children with Merrill, and he married more women, all of whom added their own personalities to the toxic mix. A large part of her life revolved around keeping her children safe, but as she couldn't be with them all the time, they were all physically abused at one point or another. It took some time, but she came to realize that this situation was not normal and that she could expect more from life and from marriage. She became so miserable that she began looking for a way out.
It wasn't just her own situation that was spiraling downwards. Warren Jeffs had taken over leadership of the sect and began instituting increasingly tyrannical and abusive rules. For instance, all the public schools were shut down, so the children would be taught the "truth" at home. As one of the schoolteachers, Carolyn was devastated, and knew that most children would simply not receive any schooling any more. Jeffs also began taking younger and younger girls as plural wives. Carolyn's oldest daughter was around 12 years old and was said to be one Jeffs had his eye on. Carolyn could not let that happen.
She had become more and more disenchanted with her religion, despite how strongly she used to feel it was true. She knew leaving would probably mean she would go to hell. It was when she realized that hell couldn't be much worse than what she was already experiencing that she decided it was truly time.
However, she knew that the odds were against her. She refused to leave her children behind, and no FLDS woman had ever defected with her children, and managed to keep custody. At the time of her escape, she had a child who needed medical care almost around the clock and a newborn, in addition to her 6 older children. She also knew that as soon as Merrill heard of her attempt to leave, he would get a posse of men and bring them all back--by force, if necessary.
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As you probably already know, I am Mormon. Some of my ancestors practiced polygamy 150 years ago, and I would not be here today were it not for that. This book was fascinating to me on so many levels.
First and foremost, I was so impressed by Carolyn Jessup. Her determination, intelligence, and courage saved her children from a lifetime of brainwashing and abuse. Her frankness and perspective on all that was going on made it all come alive in my mind. I appreciated that she didn't paint herself above anyone else. She truly believed in what she had been taught for a long time; it was a collection of experiences here and there that finally broke those chains in her mind, and allowed her to free herself and her family. Then her work was not done, as they had to all survive on the outside.
Secondly, it was so interesting to read what her life was like. The FLDS church is quite secretive and doesn't allow much in the way of public interaction or discussion--except for what it spins itself. Jessup paints a vivid picture of what daily life was like in a large polygamous family, including a disastrous vacation to California at one point. She also gives an insiders view on Warren Jeffs and his leadership, and the growing climate of fear and distrust that accompanied his time in power.
Finally, it was super interesting to learn more about the FLDS religion itself. As a Mormon, we share common beginnings, but when the main body of the Mormon church stopped practicing polygamy back in the late 1800's, this group split off and continued on. So she would mention something about early church history that was familiar to me, but at times, her/their interpretation of some of those sayings or events was quite different than what I grew up with. The same thing with many of the doctrines she talked about--for instance, views on the afterlife. Many similarities, but also some key differences. Anyway, very thought-provoking.
Content: Frank discussion of sex--though not graphic, descriptions of abuse, some language.
(Finished reading July 18.)
, by Carolyn Jessup
4 stars: I had to know what happened next!
The continuing story of Carolyn's family, including her assistance with the raid on the Yearning for Zion compound, which her ex-husband Merrill was running at the time of the raid. With her knowledge of what it was probably like inside the compound, as well as the struggles the women and children inside would face, Carolyn was called upon to advise federal officers and social services workers. Despite their best efforts, there were far more children pulled out of the compound than the state was prepared to deal with, and most went back.
This is also the story of Carolyn's own children and how they all began to acclimatize to the outside world--except for her oldest daughter, who eventually went back to the FLDS life, and lived in the compound.
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Once I read the first, I knew I would be reading this one as soon as I could get my hands on a copy. This one didn't have the same urgency and high-stakes as the first, but it was still compelling, especially the parts where she discusses the custody trials that went on after the raid, with all the money and marketing the FLDS church put forth to get public sympathy on their side. (It worked!)
It was great to get an update on her family and how well they've adjusted, for the most part. After reading the first, I felt like I knew them, and I really wanted the best for them after all they had been through.
(Finished reading July 29.)
The Girl With Seven Names: Escape from North Korea
by Hyeonseo Lee
4 stars: A fascinating, heart-wrenching true story.
Lee grew up in North Korea, with constant propaganda, an atmosphere of fear and mistrust surrounding every movement, (anyone could turn in anyone else to the government for the slightest infraction of the rules), and a mother who knew how to work the system. Lee's mother had figured out just the right combination of bribery, flattery, and pulling rank in order to get what the family needed and even a few luxuries, like bananas or oranges.
They lived right on the border of China, with just a river between the two countries. Lee's mother imported Chinese goods and sold them on the black market in North Korea, and was very successful at it. Her father worked in the air force for most of her childhood, until he got a new job for a trading company. He fell under suspicion and was arrested by the secret police. After 2 weeks of not knowing where he was or what was happening to him, the family was finally notified that he was in the hospital and they could see him. He never recovered from those experiences and died about 2 months later.
In the mid-1990's, famine struck North Korea. Lee's family's was not as affected as most, as her mother's job with the local government bureau provided opportunities for extra food. Lee began awakening to the idea that her country was not the prosperous paradise that all the propaganda claimed it to be. As time went on, power cuts become more and more frequent and order was breaking down. Lee became more and more curious about life in China, just across the river from her home.
When she was 17, she crossed the river alone one night, against her mother's orders. She just wanted to look around--it was a last little rebellion, before she turned 18 and such things would come with heavy consequences. She thought if she could contact her father's relatives in Shenyang she could stay even longer than the few hours of her original plan--perhaps 4 or 5 days.
With the help of one of her mother's trading contacts, she was able to make it up to her aunt and uncle, who welcomed her. Her stay extended to a month. Then she received a phone call from her mother telling her it was too dangerous to come home. Little did she know that she would not return to North Korea for more than a decade--and then only in the greatest danger, in an effort to bring her mother and brother out.
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Unlike the other stories I read, Lee's escape from her country was not the climax. It wasn't even very well thought out or planned--she knew one of the guards that patrolled the river, and sweet-talked him into letting her cross one night over the frozen ice. She had told her mother that she was going over to a friend's house and would be back in a few hours.
However, once she realized that she would have to stay indefinitely, like these other women I read about, she began doing what she had to do to survive her situation. She barely spoke a word of Mandarin when she crossed, but she began learning the language to fit in. (The Chinese police were in league with North Korea and would often do round-ups, sending any suspicious persons back--usually to be dealt with by North Korea's secret police.)
She eventually learned Chinese and spoke it fluently enough to completely hide her identity and find work. She never could completely trust anyone enough to tell them her true name or where she came from. The few times she did, she had close brushes with deportation. She was finally able to make it to safety in South Korea, but then decided she must go back for her mother and brother.
This was an incredible story. I didn't know much at all about North Korea, other than newspaper articles about nuclear building programs and such. Lee's account of her childhood opened my eyes and brought it all to life.
Content: Includes some vivid descriptions of public executions, famine victims, prison conditions, and other intense situations. Recommended for older teens and adults.
(Finished reading August 17.)
Follow the River
, by James Alexander Thom
4 stars: An amazing true account of wilderness survival.
Mary Ingles was living in Draper's Meadows, Virginia with her husband Will and 2 young sons when the settlement was attacked by Shawnee Indians. It was 1755, during the French and Indian War, and their settlement was not the first or the last to be targeted. Mary was days from giving birth to a 3rd child when the attack happened. Her husband and brother-in-law were down in the fields, far enough away to escape the violence, but her mother and baby nephew were among the dead.
Mary, her two sons, her sister-in-law Bettie, and one other man were taken captive at the end of the raid. They were taken far upriver, to a Shawnee settlement along the O-y-O River. Mary's baby girl was born along the way. Somehow, despite the pain and terror of their circumstances, Mary managed to keep her wits about her enough to memorize landmarks along the trail.
After a few months living at the Shawnee settlement, she and another white captive woman--an older but strong Dutch woman named Ghetel--were sent with some braves and a few French traders to an enormous salt lick to boil brine for salt. Her boys had already been taken away from her and given to a Indian family to raise. She had to make the worst decision of her life: what to do with her 3-month old baby. She was planning to escape, but she knew her infant would never survive the journey.
In the end, she managed to convince Ghetel to come with her. The rest of the story is the harrowing journey back over several hundred miles on foot, in the late fall and early winter. Crossing ice cold streams and rivers, scavenging for food, and starving. As the journey continued, her already ragged dress disintegrated around her. She was naked and barefoot for the greater part of the time. Ghetel became as much a liability as a help, as she became crazy with hunger.
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My first reaction as I finished this story was skeptical disbelief. I thought there was no way this really happened. How could someone walk hundreds of miles while starving, half-frozen, and naked? It just boggled my mind. I appreciated the author's note at the end. It was real, folks.
I thought perhaps he had taken some creative license in the narrative. I read some articles and what I could find about source materials online. As it was told from Mary's POV, he obviously had to come up with her inner thoughts and feelings, appearance, and personality--the sources didn't give him much to go on there--and he made up the dialogue, too. Other than that, all of the plot was taken from the original sources.
Mary's youngest son had written an account of his mother's story, and later on a great-grandson did some research and was able to name most of the locations she mentioned in her journey. Thom himself did extensive research on the Shawnee people, as well, which he used to flesh out events in the Shawnee settlement. He even did his best to recreate the journey himself, hiking and camping along the route she took.
Even with all that, I still am having a hard time wrapping my mind around it. She overcame the impossible.
Content: The massacre is vividly described, as are the tortures some of the prisoners were subjected to--running the gauntlet, death by fire, and so on. Mary at times remembers intimacy with her husband in short but graphic detail. For adults.
(Finished reading September 20.)
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I truly have much to be grateful for. These stories will stay with me for a long time. If you read any of these, let me know--I would love to have someone to discuss them with! In fact, I'm going to see if my book club wants to read one of them.
Perhaps this last quarter I can move on from the "escape" memoirs!