by Elissa Wall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Stolen Innocence / 978-0-06-162801-6
I read "Stolen Innocence" in the same weekend as "Escape", and it was interesting to note how many of the family names are repeated in both stories. Although I do not know that either woman ever met the other, this really drove home the dynamics of the polygamist community they suffered in, that so many of their abusers were so closely related to other abusers, creating a fundamentally abusive situation for all the women and children caught in their midst.
In many ways, "Stolen Innocence" provides us a greater picture of the larger community than "Escape" - Elissa provides us with several accounts of escaped women (including several of her own sisters), and shows an important aspect in the "Lost Boys" - the male children forced out of the community with literally nothing, dumped by the side of the road as human waste to be discarded. These boys are 'trimmed' from the community largely because a polygamist community that requires three brides to every man (and hundreds for the patriarchs), needs to have an artificial surplus of women in order to achieve this, thus the removal of as many boys as possible from the society, keeping only a select few within their ranks.
If "Stolen Innocence" has a failing, it is perhaps that it is too detailed in some ways. Although roughly the same length in page numbers as "Escape", the story feels twice as long, as Elissa takes pains to excuse those who most should have looked after her, and yet did not, namely her mother and father. This is her right and prerogative, to insist that she does not blame her parents, and that she does not believe her mother had any other choices available to her, but after awhile the narrative does tend to get bogged down in this regard. I did not feel, ultimately, that this was a detriment to the book, but I do believe that if you're just looking for a quick and intense introduction to FLDS, I would recommend delving into "Escape" first - if "Escape" is a quick weekend trip to insanity, "Stolen Innocence" is a week-long tour.
"Stolen Innocence" is, in many ways, a fascinating look at child abuse in general. Elissa and her brothers and sisters are so deeply and institutionally damaged by their parents and peers that it is amazing that so many of them have managed to pick up the pieces and make solid lives for themselves. For all that Elissa does not blame her parents for abandoning her brothers, one by one, on the side of the road with no education, no work skills, and not even enough food to last a day, we can blame them, as well as the society that drove them to believe, unconditionally, that this is proper child-raising. The abandonment issue, coupled with the rampant sexual abuse deeply underscores how much we need government oversight to care for these poor children.
One thing that "Stolen Innocence" fails to underscore as well as "Escape", though, is the difficulties of escape from the community. Because Elissa does not have any children after a series of painful miscarriages and stillbirths (due to an easily treated medical problem that she does not know about in a community that refuses modern medicine treatments), she has an easier time leaving that most women in that situation - the patriarchy seems to view her as damaged goods not worth bothering with. Indeed, had she not been instrumental to the rape case that brought down Warren Jeffs, she might have been left alone entirely after her departure, due to her unusual circumstances. The other women that escape with her over the course of the novel are also, for various reasons, childless (her sister had been married to an octogenarian unable to father more children), and because of this, their escapes seem easier than the more common reality. Women with children in the community have a much harder time escaping because they might make a legal stink in an attempt to obtain access (or even custody!) to their children - a fact that Carolyn Jessop is able to illustrate clearly.
I would recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about FLDS, but be warned that this is not a light book. And I would also recommend reading "Escape" first, for the very useful counterpoint that book provides.
~ Ana Mardoll
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