Monday, June 8, 2009

She Said Book Review: Stolen Innocence

As you can see, Dr. B. and I have decided to include book reviews on our blog. Occasionally we will read the same book, and I think you might find our discussions interesting. Case in point: Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall and Lisa Pulitzer. I think Dr. B.'s review may show more about him than it does about the book. I am sure my review will do the same.

Just looking at this photograph of Elissa Wall at age 14, the age at which she was constrained to marry her 19-year-old FLDS cousin, one can see that the title of Elissa's memoir is apt. This child was much too young for marriage, and the story she tells in her book is tragic. There are many reviews available for this particular book, so I won't try to summarize or duplicate what's already been said. Instead, I'd like to look at the polarization caused by the FLDS practice of arranged marriages. Elissa introduces us to the heartbreak caused by this practice when she describes how her father, Douglas was found by Warren Jeffs to be unworthy of the Priesthood and unable to control his family. This was evidenced by physical fighting between father and sons, and complaining on the part of the wives. Warren decided to solve the problem by "assigning" Elissa's mom, Sharon, to another man. Now I realize that it is a very flat pancake that doesn't have two sides. Warren may have felt that Sharon truly was not happy in the situation she was in, and that the family problems could be solved in this manner. But in Stolen Innocence, we see the turmoil this decision brought to the family members, especially the children, as they were torn between the teachings of their religion to follow the prophet's counsel in all things and their attempts to keep a troubled family together. I agree with Dr. B. that this could have been our family. We're not a perfect model of good LDS teachings, but the Church is deeply ingrained within us, and we are more than willing to follow our leaders' well-meaning advice. So I can see how some of the problems the Walls encountered happened, and I'm hesitant to blame either Sharon, Doug, or Warren Jeffs. But I think the breaking up of the family caused many problems later, including the horrible marriage into which Elissa was pressured.

In the book, Elissa insists that she made her objections to her marriage to Allen Steed known to her mother, her mother's new husband, Fred Jessop, to Warren Jeffs, and to Allen. This picture I found of Elissa and Allen seems to me to be a perfect illustration of the reluctance that she describes. While Allen looks happy to be married, Elissa is turned away, stiff, she even looks frightened. He looks straight into the camera, while Elissa's gaze is elsewhere, embarrassed. At 14 years of age, the FLDS girls knew nothing of what was expected in marriage. I feel sorry for her that she had to endure the trauma that she did. In addition, I feel a lot of sympathy for the 19-year-old Allen.

Even through Elissa's story, one can see that Allen was really trying to make the marriage work. The marriage was not consummated for some time. Allen seemed to be patiently trying to figure out how to win Alissa's love. He wrote her love notes, took her on trips, and stumblingly attempted to teach her the ways of marriage. No wonder that it was less than a success. Some commenters have opined that Allen should have been tried for rape, and was as guilty as Warren Jeffs for this crime, but I am not so sure. Allen himself was young, and had been taught that his marriage to Elissa was proper, and seemed to show great restraint for someone in his situation. Elissa writes that she was forced to have sex, but fails to support that Allen raped her by her own descriptions of what happened. She instead portrays herself as reluctantly submitting to Allen's pressure, as in the following paragraph:
“I’m doing it out of love,” Allen declared. Everything he did was a contradiction, and before I knew it he was playing the guilt card again. As he continued to put his hands all over me, I just froze.

“Okay, fine,” I uttered. “Get it over with.”

In her description of their sex life, Elissa betrays a lack of understanding of the consideration that the newly-married, passionate young Allen was extending her:
It felt like we were having marital relations all the time, at least once or twice a week.

As I read on, I found the story more and more heartbreaking, as Elissa continued to search for love and friendship outside the boundaries which her family and religion would find acceptable. The conclusion of her tale brought forth a mix of emotions in me. I was relieved that she was able to find strength within, enough to find her own voice and to escape the bondage of Warren Jeffs. I was happy to see her reunite with her siblings and her father. I am glad she has found joy with her new husband, Lamont Barlow. But I ached for Allen and for her mother, both of whom endured great hardship to remain true to their faith and the things they had been taught.

I think it is incumbent upon us to read this book with compassion toward all who are involved. There is a great temptation to blame Elissa Wall's situation, and other failures in FLDS family life on Warren Jeffs and the practice of arranged marriages. As far as I am able to tell, the strict control of a prophet over the marriages of the people of a Mormon-based religion is limited to Warren Jeffs. Jeffs' father and previous leaders of the FLDS did not require this, and neither do other fundamentalist groups of which I am cognizant. Now that Jeffs is in prison, it seems clear that he was at fault. I feel no compunction to defend him. But I feel that it is important to be aware that there is another side of the FLDS story that I wish I knew better. We have Elissa Wall's and others' depictions of Jeffs as a fearsome, controlling, dictatorial leader. But I have seen pictures of a slight, gangly, geeky-looking Warren. I've heard tapes of his soft-spoken voice. I've heard the testimonies of those who have met him of his unassuming character. As Dr. B. has said, I think Warren Jeffs had power because his people gave him respect and authority over their lives. They believed the words he spoke to them.

There's a blog I read sometimes that is written by a man in Douglas Wall's situation--his wife and children were taken away from him by Jeffs because he was deemed unworthy. This man continues to defend the faith and to strive to one day be worthy to get his blessings back. He has a different way of looking at all of this. My heart hurts when I read about him and I wish I could hear more of his thoughts. He joins the ranks of Sharon Wall, of Lamont Barlow's grandfather, and many other faithful FLDS. Where do they find their faith? I'd like to read their stories too.


  1. BiV, these posts have been amazing. It's fascinating to get a glimpse inside your hubby's head as well. I've not read this book yet, as I've been reluctant to immerse myself in the emotional turmoil Elissa experienced, self-imposed or otherwise. I appreciated your review.

  2. If you liked Wall's book, you will really like Carolyn Jessop's "Escape". It seemed a better page-turner to me. You'd probably enjoy it!