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August 20, 2013

How I Fled a Life of Polygamy

Married at 19 to the 85-year-old Prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Rebecca Musser thought she was free after his death seven years later—until she was told she must remarry. So she escaped from her faith, family, and the only way of life she had ever known.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Musser

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I had one week to choose a new husband. In absolute agony, I felt as if I were already falling to my death—all roads seemed to lead to a hopeless future. Four days before the deadline, I glanced into the mirror before bed—my eyes were sunken and colorless, surrounded by graying, sallow skin. Months of righteous fasting for the failing health of my late husband, Rulon Jeffs, had played havoc on my body, but it was my spirit that felt broken. After years of striving to be a good church member and a good wife—one of 65—to a man chosen for me, I was tired. Trying to look at my options with less fear, I kept coming up against a door I didn't dare open. If I did, I would have to rely on the kindness of the outside world. That thought petrified me, nearly as much as marrying again. I couldn't begin to think of how to live among the wicked, corrupt, ignorant, and unkind people of this world, as outsiders had been described to us since birth.

Wicked … Unkind … Was that really my experience? Memories flooded my mind: neighbors offering sympathy and supplies after my childhood house burned down; a former violin teacher who nurtured my talent; the owner of a stringed-instrument shop who encouraged me to play—I took a long, hard look at all the things that new church leader Warren Jeffs had said were absolutely true that I knew were not. If I was going to leave, I would have to take a chance on that outside world, whatever it held for me.

In the predawn hours of a Sunday morning in 2002, I put a note on my bed for my mom and my sisters. Taking an exit to avoid the cameras and security patrol on the Jeffs' sprawling estate, I pushed the heavy oak door of the mansion quietly behind me until I heard the latch click shut. My heart pounding, I walked as casually as if I were out for a stroll. I made my way around the side, then turned toward the fence. The gates were locked, as I knew they would be. I scaled the tall fence that protected the Jeffs family from "outsiders and wicked apostates." In doing so, I became one of them.

The spikes at the top of the 6-foot-high wrought-iron gate I had to slip over were tricky to manage in my long skirt, yet nothing compared to the half-mile walk I had to trek to meet Ben, who would meet me in his brother's truck. Technically, he was my grandson, as he was the 19-year-old grandson of Rulon and one of my sister-wives. He had shown kindness to me, telling me not to be forced into doing anything I didn't want to do. Without him, all was lost. I had no escape route and no time for a new plan. Between the horror stories I knew from the inside, and with the police in Warren's pocket (God's law was above man's law, we were told, and law enforcement in our area was either the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or affiliated with the FLDS), I could not win on my own.

My heart pumped wildly as we passed our neighbors' homes on the way to Highway 59, which would draw us away from Utah toward Las Vegas. In the silence of the growing light, I stole furtive glances at Ben, whom I barely knew. I had just left everything and nearly everyone I'd ever known, and so had he. We were headed to Oregon, where my brother Cole lived. He had been kicked out of the FLDS six years earlier when he tried to shield our younger siblings from a beating.

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