Excerpt from Stolen Innocence
I also knew that I was different from other girls in my community. I wanted an education, and maybe even to become a nurse or teacher someday. During my year in public school, I'd come to realize things were possible that I'd never dreamed before. Sure, I knew that I wanted to be a mother of good priesthood children, but not at fourteen. I wanted children and a future, and I dared to think that both were possible.
It took a little while for me to absorb what Uncle Fred had said. As I turned it over in my head, I couldn't digest the idea that the prophet wanted me to marry, and it didn't feel right. Still thinking that perhaps Uncle Fred had confused me with one of the older girls in the house, I decided to speak with him. I climbed the stairs to Uncle Fred's office on the second floor and waited in the hallway for him to notice me. When he saw me standing in the doorway, a kind smile widened across his face and he invited me in to talk. I swallowed my fear and took a seat, eager to tell him how I really felt about the pronouncement. The office appeared much like Uncle Warren's office at Alta Academy, with a big desk, a couch, and a few chairs for those who came to seek counsel. As a respected member of our community, Fred held a lot of clout. He had been appointed the bishop of Short Creek by Leroy Johnson long before Uncle Rulon took over as the prophet, giving him the position of second counselor to the prophet and placing him third in the leadership hierarchy, right behind Warren, who was first counselor.
Taking a seat in one of the brown leather chairs, I held my tongue until I was invited to speak, and when Uncle Fred signaled me to share what was on my mind, the words almost spilled out of my mouth.
"I want to make sure you understand that I'm fourteen," I said, mustering a soft, respectful voice despite my anxiety. "I'm worried that you have me mixed up with someone else." Uncle Fred was well into his seventies, and sometimes he'd forget things, even people's names.
"No, you are going to be married," he replied with certainty.
Not deterred, Uncle Fred instructed me to "go and pray about it."
I was at a loss for words, and I realized that he intended for me to go forward and marry. I asked if he could at least share the identity of my future husband. Perhaps if I knew who God had chosen for me, it would set my mind at ease.
"That will be revealed to you at the right time," he replied.
I felt physically ill as I stood to leave. The conversation was over, and there appeared to be nothing more I could say.
In the days ahead, I was flooded with congratulatory words from my family and many stepsisters, who, much to my surprise, knew that I was among the three girls chosen for marriage. I struggled to hide my true feelings as they told me how lucky I was, and at moments it felt nice to have so much attention. Getting married is the highest honor for a girl in the FLDS church. It was what women lived for—our dream and our mission. Even though I was only fourteen, it was hard not to get caught up in all the excitement. Soon, though, those feelings would pass, and the anxiety returned.
I discovered I wasn't the only young girl who had been assigned a husband. The prophet had also chosen my stepsister Lily, who was only a few months older than I was. She would be celebrating her fifteenth birthday before me. The third girl chosen was Nancy. She was a few years older than Lily and me and seemed excited at the prospect of achieving what she'd been preparing for her whole life.
As we looked at our similar situations, Lily and I formed a bond in our attempt to come to terms with our futures. Like me, Lily had been through a difficult time. A few months earlier, she'd begun a secret friendship with an older FLDS boy who had recently moved to Hildale from Salt Lake City. Since the prophet is the only person who can authorize romantic relationships, this friendship went against church teachings. Inevitably, Uncle Fred found out what was going on and forbade her from seeing the boy again. Lily was beside herself with sadness, and she tried to take her own life using Tylenol and ibuprofen.
Her attempt failed, but her marriage announcement seemed to be in reaction to her improper friendship, as though the powers above her thought that marriage would force her back into the correct FLDS mindset. At moments, it even appeared to be working, as Lily seemed to share Nancy's excitement. But my resistance never wavered, and despite everyone's words, I remained unconvinced that this was my time.
It sure has been an amazing weekend. Many things have happened to make things feel a little upside down. Yesterday was quite a nerve-shaking day. It was about…
My mother came into the room, and I could feel her standing over me as I began to put my worries and questions on the paper.
"Lesie, you should be careful what you write," she cautioned, interrupting my stream of consciousness. "Your words are not private."
Looking up at her, I expressed surprise. "What do you mean? Who would be looking at my personal journal?"
"Well, what you write about this important time will be your legacy for your children, and it should be proud things. So you don't want to regret it later."
Mom's words overwhelmed me. I was being told that I shouldn't express how I was really feeling about what was happening. I was horrified that my private writings might not actually be private, and that these personal reflections would be seen as disobedient and unfaithful. This new pressure to write only what I should have been feeling engulfed me. I flipped the page of my butterfly- covered spiral notebook and started over.
Sunday, April 15, 2001
Today was the most beautiful day. It was as though the Lord sent it just for me. The morning was so peaceful that it gathered peace to my soul. This weekend has been quite a time. Many things have happened to make my world go upside down. There [are] many things that are very weighty on my mind. If it wasn't for the Lord, I would be feeling quite overwhelmed. Yesterday was quite an experience. It was about ten o'clock when Mother Amy called up to the room and told me that Father wanted to see me. As I was getting ready to go see him, I was trying my hardest to think what it might be about. A dozen things or happenings went through my head. I walked in his office when he was talking to someone else, which gave me a few minutes while I stood there by his side. Soon he saw me and turned and began talking. He stated to me that he had talked to Lily and me on the subject of getting married. When he had said anything before he had talked about things happening some time in May. Well he told me that the prophet was thinking to do it sometime next week. It caught me by such surprise that I just stood there. I will never forget the emotions that went through my head. For a long time now, I have been pleading with the Lord to please prepare a place for me by a man who will love and teach me. Most of all I pray that the Lord will give me a testimony that I will be able to know with all my heart that where I am placed is where I am supposed to be.
"I can't do this," I told him during another conversation. "You know, I just don't think this is right for me. I have prayed about it. I don't feel good about it. My heart and my gut just tell me that I need to grow up a little. And I need to prepare myself for this kind of responsibility."
Uncle Fred's tone was gentle yet firm. We had been talking about this for a few days, but finally he gave me a new response: "This is the prophet's calling, and you will have to take it up with him if you feel like you're not prepared."
A wave of relief swept over me. I had his blessing to contact the prophet about my situation. I walked out of Uncle Fred's office pondering what I would say when I got Uncle Warren on the phone the following morning. That night I barely slept, worrying about how Uncle Warren would react to my request to see the prophet, and I was lying in bed awake when the black night sky gave way to the purple lines of daybreak. I hadn't had much contact with Uncle Warren since my days at Alta Academy, and I knew I had to first speak with him before I could see his father. The thought of our conversation filled me with the same dread that I'd always felt as I climbed the steps to his office at Alta Academy.
That morning, Mom sat next to me as I picked up the phone to dial his office. Eventually, I was patched through to Uncle Warren, and in a shaky voice, I told him why I was calling. Trying my best to calm my nerves, I explained that I didn't feel the marriage was right for me, making it clear to him how old I was. "I don't feel like it's right for me to marry at this point in time. It's just that I'm not ready for this kind of responsibility."
I was frightened by the eerie silence on the other end of the phone. The lull was broken by the sound of his hypnotic voice. "Are you questioning the prophet and his revelations?" he asked.
Stumbling over my words, I tried to clarify that I wasn't trying to defy the prophet. "I just want to make sure he knows that I'm only fourteen and how I feel."
"I will speak to the prophet," Uncle Warren assured me. "I will tell the prophet that you feel that you're too young and need some time. Say your prayers." He said he would contact Uncle Fred after he had spoken with Uncle Rulon.
Back in my room, I knelt by my bed and spoke to God as if he were my friend. "I believe you are listening to me," I said, closing my eyes and envisioning him before me. "And that you have my interest in mind. I'm begging you." Fighting back sobs, I gathered strength. "I know you are up there and you can hear me. If I have proven myself worthy, then you can change this situation for me."
When I awoke it was the middle of the day, and I was on the floor next to my bed. I'd been so exhausted from not sleeping the night before my conversation with Uncle Warren that I'd fallen asleep in the middle of my private prayer session with God. But I was sure God would see that I was a good person and hear my pleas. With that realization, my mood began to lift, and the darkness that had lingered over me for days temporarily receded.
Over the next few days, both of my stepsisters were told whom they were going to marry. Lily was invited for a drive around the town with our twenty-three-year-old stepbrother Martin, whom the prophet had revealed as her husband even though they'd been raised as brother and sister for a few years. Nancy's intended husband, Tim Barlow, was already married to one of Nancy's blood sisters, Mabel, and one of her stepsisters, Catherine.
For members of the FLDS, dating is not permitted in any traditional American way. However, once a girl has been promised to a priesthood man, sometimes the new couple is given a chance to spend some quiet time alone together. The man will typically come by the girl's house and pick her up for a ride in his car. Both Nancy and Lily had the chance to meet and talk to their future spouses like this, yet for some reason I was still in the dark about whom I was to marry. It was troubling, but I held out hope that it meant that now was not my time after all.
My hope turned out to be short-lived. When a few days passed and Uncle Warren still hadn't responded, my anxiety returned and once again the future became uncertain. I kept replaying my conversations with Fred and Warren in my head, insisting to myself that they just didn't understand how old I was.
His words hit me like a sharp slap. I could barely stay focused as he continued, "This is God's calling and your mission. You must open your mind and heart and do what has been revealed for you."
"I just don't know if I can do it because I don't feel like it's right," I pleaded, swallowing the knot in my throat. Carefully I explained that I didn't want to disobey the prophet; on the contrary, I believed that following his word was the key to my eventual salvation. I'd be much more willing to accept any decision from the prophet if he'd just let me wait a couple of years until I felt more ready.
Fred heard me out but continued to state that this was the will of the prophet and of God. Still, something inside of me kept pushing back. Uncle Fred insisted that this was the path that God had chosen for me. It felt like I was being punished, and I wasn't sure why. Though it was hard to see a way out, I remained resolved to fight for what I believed was right.
By the end of the week, I'd grown tired of everybody talking to me about my impending marriage and of the spiteful attitudes of some of my stepsisters. I could feel that many of the older girls were worried that they'd been passed over for someone so much younger. If it were up to me, I would have gladly traded places. I said as much to Uncle Fred during one of my conversations with him, but he'd frightened me when he told me that if I refused to follow the destiny that the prophet had revealed for me, I would likely not get another opportunity. Eternal salvation depended on marriage to a priesthood man. I believed his words and was terrified of that fate—being alone for all eternity, stuck between worlds forever.
When I arrived at prayer service on Thursday night, I was emotionally exhausted. I'd been in my mother's room for hours sobbing over my situation. I knew that she too had doubts about my marriage, and even though I was being viewed as disobedient, she encouraged me to stand up for myself. Nevertheless, she had to tread carefully. All it would take was Uncle Fred getting wind of her support for me, and she herself would be subject to reprimand from the prophet. There would be extreme consequences for her if she overstepped her role as a submissive wife, and her eternal salvation, for which she had already sacrificed so much, could be taken away in an instant.
When she declined, preferring to remain on the floor, I grew worried. Maybe everyone was angry with me. Many people viewed my actions of late as immature, and their attitudes made me feel like a child throwing a temper tantrum. To them, accepting the will of the prophet was simply what you were required to do. There were no questions involved, no other options. Even though the temperature in the living room was comfortable that night, I felt cold and wrapped myself deeper into my fuzzy jacket. It was then that I saw Allen standing in the doorway.
"Great," I thought; the night couldn't get any worse. It was hard to imagine that I was related to him. I was hoping he wouldn't even look my way; in my current state I couldn't even pretend to be polite. I watched as his bulky frame clumsily stepped into the room, and I grew immediately unnerved when I realized he was walking in my direction. He would never come straight toward me in a setting like this—unless there was something else going on.
Watching Allen lumber over, I kept hoping he was going to turn and walk in another direction, but he didn't. He walked directly toward me, then without a word sat in the only empty chair in the room, right beside me. In an instant, the realization of my fate hit me, robbing my lungs of air. I could feel the eyes of everyone in the room taking in my every move. Overcome with disbelief, I could no longer handle the pressure, and without thinking, I jumped from my chair and sprinted upstairs. I was afraid, disgusted, and angry at everyone. They knew how I felt and how much I did not want this, but no one seemed to care.
Winding my way through the halls and rooms of the enormous house, I felt tears flow down my face. Part of me wanted to pass off Allen's actions as happenstance, but I knew that for him to make such a public display and sit in the one empty chair beside me meant something. The fact that the mothers had chosen to sit on the floor instead of the seat next to me meant that this had been arranged. The whole family was in on it. They all knew who I was going to marry before I did. Not only would they force me to get married at fourteen, they would force me to get married to the one person I had come to loathe in my short life.
"I know who I'm going to marry!" I shouted.
"Really? Who?" Mom asked, sounding completely in the dark.
"Allen!" I yelled back without even raising my head from the pillow. I couldn't believe Mom hadn't been hit with the same realization the minute he sat down next to me.
"He's your first cousin," she assured me. "They wouldn't do that to you." The she began to cry herself. When I finally calmed down, I sat up to hear Mom out. "If you're really concerned, you need to go and talk to Father about it," she said, trying to console me.
"I will not get married!" I announced defiantly, emboldened by my mother's words. "I will not marry Allen!"
It wasn't ten minutes before I was paged over the house intercom. "Elissa, Father wants to see you."
"Oh, great. What now?" I thought. I didn't even try to make myself presentable. I was almost beyond feeling as I made my way across the house to Uncle Fred's office. I expected that he'd be angry with me for my outburst and was a little surprised to find him seemingly unfazed.
"Sit down, Elissa," he instructed, motioning to the leather chair facing his desk. "How are you doing?" he asked casually.
"Father, I know who I'm going to marry," I blurted out.
I watched the corners of his lips lift into the beginnings of a smile. "Oh, really? Who?" he asked.
"You are going to place me by Allen."
It took him a moment to validate my suspicions. But I was right. "Well, yes," he said. "That is what the prophet has revealed for you."
"No! I want you to know that I won't do it. I will not marry Allen. I just don't want to marry that man!"
I was momentarily surprised at my own courage. I hadn't even hesitated before saying those words. A week before, I would have stumbled and tripped over my own tongue, but now I was determined. Knowing that Allen was to be my husband had only strengthened my resolve. I paused to take a breath. To this point, I'd clung to the hope that Uncle Rulon would come to see that this was not right for me. But at that moment, I realized that I needed to speak to him myself.
The look of puzzlement on his face quickly faded and was replaced with a stern stare. "You would defy what the prophet has revealed to you?" he retorted.
"This makes no difference in matters of the Lord," Uncle Fred told me. Members of the FLDS believe that intermarrying among family members is okay if it is what the prophet reveals. Even concerns over birth defects are diminished with the explanation that a child who comes to the earth "imperfect" was sent that way by God because the child was "too special" and would again be whole in the Celestial Kingdom. Birth defects are never blamed on cousins marrying or incest but rather occur because "God wanted it that way." While rumors continuously circulated outside of our community that babies born with birth defects were drowned at birth, it was simply not true. These children were held with reverence because of how special God thought they were. That my marriage had been a revelation from the prophet negated any worldly concerns about interfamily marriages and their consequences.
"Well, I want you to know that I'm not going to be able to do this," I huffed. "I just can't bring myself to do this. I will not marry that man."
"Well, then, you need to go and speak to Uncle Warren, because this is something that has been revealed for you. So, you need to talk to the prophet and tell him this."
I don't even remember who answered the phone when I called Uncle Warren the next morning. Usually it was one of Uncle Rulon's wives or sons.
"I need to come up and see the prophet," I told whoever was on the other end of the line. I was unyielding in my position that I would not get married unless I heard of the revelation from the prophet's own mouth. After several moments, I was given an appointment for the very next day.
I tried to calm myself as I thought about everything that had happened in the last few days. By this time tomorrow, I would know whether I was getting married to Allen, but before that decision was reached I would get the chance to approach Uncle Rulon myself, to speak to him and tell him in person that I didn't feel this wedding was right for me. While I was anxious, I was also hopeful that seeing me in person would bring him a new revelation from God, a revelation that I was too young, that I was destined for something beyond being a fourteen-year-old bride. I was destined to do other things, to learn, to grow, to get an education—possibly even become a nurse. I could see this destiny for myself, but in the end, the only thing that would matter was whether the prophet could see it as well.