Long before the days of COVID, while drinking with friends one evening at the pub I mentioned I’d picked up a half dozen or so books at used book sale, one of them David Ebershoff’s best-selling novel The 19th Wife. Upon hearing this a friend suggested I also read Rebecca Musser’s memoir The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice. I took her advice to heart and made a note to someday read it, should the opportunity ever arise. During a recent visit to the public library that day finally came, when I spotted a copy on the shelf nestled with the other memoirs. After finishing it a few days ago I’m happy to report my friend did not steer me wrong.
Published in 2013, Musser and her co-author M. Bridget Cook recall the years Musser spent growing up in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, her arranged marriage at 19 to octogenarian cult leader Rulon Jeffs, departure and eventual cooperation with law enforcement and legal officials to bring the cult and its leaders to justice for their numerous crimes, chief of which was orchestrating forced marriages and sexual abuse of the cult’s teen girls. This firsthand account of surviving a horribly oppressive and insular community and the long road to finding ones freedom and personhood in a larger world makes for sobering yet inspirational reading.
A repressively puritanical community ruled by an authoritarian theocrat where girls are forced into polygamous marriages to men decades older than them could easily describe some ISIS-controlled enclave of the Middle East or Afghanistan under the Taliban. But instead of some faraway place this dystopian nightmare occurred much closer to home. After the LDS church renounced polygamy in the late 19th century those who wished to continue the practice formed their own communities in the American Southwest and on the cult’s satellite property in British Columbia, Canada. Musser was raised in this environment and as a young adult after growing disillusioned with life under the cult’s new leader bolted to safety.
In 2002, after maneuvering himself into the office of “President and Prophet, Seer and Revelator” upon the death of his father Rulon Warren Jeffs quickly amassed dozens of underage wives, eliminated his rivals, made the cult’s already strict moral even stricter and forced his followers to obey his every whim. (One of which was to prohibit the wearing of the color red, declaring it immoral.) Originally promised by Warren Jeff she could remain single, or marry again, this time to a man of her choosing Jeffs quickly changed his mind. Ordering Messer to instead marry him he threatened to “break her” or worse if she refused. Seeing the not so subtle handwriting on the wall she fled the cult’s compound in the predawn hours along with Ben, a fellow young cult member she’d grown close to first personally then romantically. The couple settled in Coos Bay on the Oregon Coast where Musser’s brother lived after being excommunicated and began building a life of their own, free of FLDS control. Unfortunately as the years went by their marriage began to sour and the two divorced, about the same time Musser would be called upon by state and federal authorities to assist them in their efforts to apprehend Warren Jeffs and his accomplices for their crimes and provide courtroom testimony to convict them.
It’s hard for most Americans to believe a cult like the one ran by Warren Jeffs could exist in 21st century America. According to Musser and Cook this was possible because Warren Jeffs commandeered a close-knit religious community built on one man rule, in which the cult’s president was also prophet and high priest. With every rule and pronouncement ordained by God nothing could be questioned. Outsiders were seen as apostates or heathens destined for eternal damnation and not to be trusted. Most, if not all contemporary art, music and literature were deemed unwholesome. The cult’s theology enshrined polygamy, female subservience, puritanical morally and religious separatism. Warren Jeffs could do as he pleased and none of his congregants could stop him.
In 2018 for Nonfiction November’s Be the Expert series I posted a piece on memoirs by women who’d walked away from their respective religious communities. I’m pleased to say The Witness Wore Red would make a worthy addition to that list of fine books.