Stolen Innocence: My Life Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs, by Elissa Wall (with Lisa Pulitzer)

Eight stars

Biographies that detail the lives of those who have been involved in religious organisations can be particularly difficult to present, though my literary journey has brought me three in a row. While the thoughts of this review are my own, I realise that religion and politics are so deeply seeded in the psyche of us all that we can take opinions that differ from our own to heart. I fall victim to personal sentiments at times and am using this book as a foundation to discuss fundamentalism within the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). My long and convoluted biography journey brought me to this piece by Elissa Wall, whose entire childhood was shaped by the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). Born into the Church, Wall grew up with the rigid beliefs of the FLDS, many of which are peppered throughout the narrative. Wall offers the reader a backstory of both the Church and how it broke from the modernising ways of Mormons in the late 19th century. The schism went through a few permutations, finally becoming a strong and compact community, primarily focussed in Utah and on the border with Arizona, though also closely affiliated with a community in rural British Columbia. Wall also crafts her own familial story to allow the reader to see a personalised cog in the wheel that is the FLDS. Throughout the narrative, Wall returns to discussions of The Prophet, a man drawn from the Church Elders who is seen to have a direct connection with God and whose will is not to be challenged. This is how the reader learns of Warren Jeffs, who would play a key role throughout Wall’s story. She explores the hold the FLDS has over its members, particularly the children in their scholastic endeavours, with this trust and complete subjugation continuing into adulthood. Wall offers countless examples of strict adherence to a set of beliefs, due both to tradition and the decisions of the Prophet. To question these pose the possibility to banishment, which comes with complete isolation from one’s family. Apostates are vilified by FLDS members and it is encouraged that a complete mental and emotional scourge occur to retain purity. Leaving to practice even with the mainstream Mormon Church is seen as complete apostasy and Wall shows how the community pressured her own family to banish her after she challenged a number of the preconceived notions the Church laid out for her and the feelings of abuse that she was not able to vocalise. This treatment that Wall faced at the hands of the FLDS is almost beyond comprehension, detailed throughout the narrative and then further challenged when Wall was used as a victim to bring Warren Jeffs to trial. It is at this point that the biography takes on its most interesting aspect, as lawyers seek to parse through insinuation and actual messaging by Jeffs, going so far as to turn the entire subservient nature of members on its head. Wall has a powerful story to share and she does so well. Readers who have the stomach for some of the most heart-wrenching tales of abuse and subservient behaviour in the name of God may find this glimpse into the FLDS fascinating, as well as the legal battle that opened it up to the jury of public opinion.  

I found myself drawn to this piece more than simply because it was a recommended buddy read. I am always drawn to churches and religious sects that fail outside the norm, especially those who are vilified in mainstream media. Trying not to paint the mainstream Church with the same brush as the FLDS can require mental acuity, though I admit I know there IS a difference and that not all are drinking from the Kool-Aid of the teachings Warren Jeffs professed in this book. Wall offers a wonderful insight into growing up inside the FLDS and how she pushed boundaries on a regular basis. Her narrative does pose a number of legal and sociological questions that remain with me even afterwards. ‘Can a woman be raped by her husband?’, ‘How can the State of Utah be so clear that sex with a 13 year-old is rape, but one with a fourteen year-old has a slew of caveats?’, ‘Is religious teaching a defence against some of the criminal charges brought up in this book?’, and even ‘Does society have the right to “help” those who are living blindly under these strict rules to be “free”?’ I will not respond to these now, but have a number of opinions after completing this book. My academic side must also rear its head, leaving me to wonder at times if Wall remembers things as clearly as they happened or if she sought to spin a youth that would fit all the checkboxes in order to highlight the evils that lurked in every corner of the FLDS. I was left to query how much was fact and where the fanciful storytelling might have gone, not because this is not a life that one woman could live, but that it was so all-encompassing. One might turn to the co- (ghost?) author, Lisa Pulitzer, to wonder if they tried to cram everything into one biography. This is my second book where Pulitzer has helped a child within a religious sect tell their story, both of which use a strong format of vilification and the struggle to leave the fray. That should not detract from the fact that the book was well-paced and clearly sought to exemplify much to the reader. The true message of any higher power is rife with interpretation, as can be any book one reads. That is why the world created Goodreads, for readers to offer insight and present their passionate opinions, right?!

Kudos, Madam Wall for your succinct look into a life riddled with hurdles and struggle. Thankfully, you have made it out and I can only hope, looking forward, you have a healthy future as you surround yourself with those who love you.  

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