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.

How I fled a life of Polygamy
(Image credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Musser)

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.

How I fled a life of Polygamy

(Image credit: Matt Spencer)

For the two days before the escape, I had attended every meal and class so it wouldn't occur to Warren that anything was different. It had been agonizing deciding what to pack besides my violin. Carefully, I had selected only a few favorite long dresses, my photos and scrapbooks, and my sewing machine and boxes of material—besides music lessons, sewing would be my only way to make a living on the outside. I'd had to sneak the most important items out without being seen, then hide them somewhere off the Jeffs' estate. Though neither a liar nor a thief, I'd had to steal my own belongings away to claim my very life.

I had worked for so many years to be an example to my family and my community, and that thought made me want to stop and go back. But the knowledge of my destiny under Warren brought reason. When my letter of explanation was discovered in the light of day, Warren was adamant in the order he issued to the community: Find us before nightfall "to save that girl's soul before she commits adultery." Many of Warren's brothers and several members of the God Squad were sent on a massive manhunt for us, scouring Colorado City, St. George, Cedar City, and environs. As the former Prophet's widow, I knew far too much about the inner workings of the Jeffs family and the true undertakings of the FLDS. I was a dangerous liability to the new Prophet.

People at rest stops and restaurants stared curiously at our attire and my hairstyle. A woman's hair, usually worn piled high atop her head, was her crowning glory. As Mary and another woman did to Christ in Luke in the New Testament, a wife will wash her husband's feet, anoint them with oil, then dry them with her long hair. That's why an FLDS woman is never to cut her hair. The FLDS bought hairspray by the caseful.

Once in Oregon, I was paralyzed by fear of the outside world. I had no idea how to do my hair, how to dress, and what social rituals to follow. The only clothes I owned were the long prairie dresses of the FLDS dress code, and I continued poufing my hair. When Cole took me shopping, with literally no idea what to choose, I ended up with a jogging suit and a shirt in the shocking and once-forbidden shade of red. (Rulon said it signaled a proud and immoral woman.) Afterward, at a hair salon, I blanched as yards and yards of my rich brown hair hit the ground. Even though it felt so foreign and naked, I thought perhaps I could live with short hair. The next day, it didn't look anything like it had the day before. Not only was my hair gone, it now looked ugly and made me feel that way inside. For days, I cried in private, feeling homesick and missing my mother and sisters and friends desperately.

In the meantime, Ben and I needed to start earning money immediately. Two weeks and countless applications later, we both got jobs at restaurants. Everything was new, thrilling, and sobering to me. Excitedly, I called my mother, anxious to share with her what I was learning in life and through books. While she was glad to know I was safe, she told me I was trading my salvation for material goods. Warren had warned that anyone who associated with either of us would be considered traitorous and deeply immoral. Our families were not to contact us—their eternal salvation was at stake—so she was risking everything by the very act of communicating with me.

How I fled a life of Polygamy

(Image credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Musser)

When I watched television, I was surprised and often scandalized by how different it was from when we were kids and allowed only certain programs (Little House on the PrairieMister Rogers' Neighborhood, and Sesame Street until it, like cartoons, was deemed idolatrous for imitating God's creations). One day, Cole insisted that I watch a movie called The Truman Show. The main character, Truman Burbank, was adopted as a baby by a television studio. Every important person in his life is an actor, every part of his life a set—but he doesn't know it. Whenever he wants something the production team can't provide, he's told that it's just not available. He has inklings things aren't right and finally realizes that his life is a total lie—set up for the camera. When Truman finally makes it to the edge of a painted canvas and recognizes it for what it is, he walks off the set and into his new life.

The movie was a mirror of my own life. Before every decision I'd ever made, I'd asked myself, "What would the Prophet have me say? What would the Prophet have me do?" For every question, there had been an appropriate, programmed answer. I was never allowed my own opinion; I had never developed the ability to choose. All of my people were like that, too. I gave myself permission to look deeply at polygamy in a way I never had before. Nothing seemed holy about the structure that must be in place for polygamy to work. Why would God put a roughly equal number of males and females on the earth if He wanted a polygamous society? This structure meant that women don't get the time, affection, and validation they so crave. And because only a select number of male leaders are righteous enough to receive multiple wives, not only do an extraordinarily high number of young men get kicked out, but the marriageable girls become increasingly younger as demand intensifies.

Throw all of these factors into a climate in which the leaders make the people feel as if they can never question those leaders because that means questioning God Himself, then one has a recipe for spiritual abuse. Every way that I examined it, it was neither healthy nor holy. Why could no one see it? Because they would not—unless, like me, they were denied the good graces of Warren Jeffs. All I knew was that I did not want that perverse dictator running my show ever again.

POSTSCRIPTRebecca Musser, now 37, was the key state witness in the 2008 trials of Warren Jeffs and several FLDS leaders. In 2011 Jeffs, who counted a 12- and 15-year-old among his reported 80 wives, was convicted of sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault of a minor and is serving a life sentence plus 20 years in a Texas prison. Musser, a motivational speaker and the founder of Claim Red Foundation, which supports victims of human trafficking, lives in Idaho with her two children. The FLDS, based in Arizona and Utah, maintains a membership estimated between 6,000 and 10,000.

Excerpted from The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice by Rebecca Musser with M. Bridget Cook. Copyright © 2013 by Rebecca Musser. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.