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Former polygamist member Carolyn Jessop fled Colorado City, Ariz., in 2003 and has since written two books about her experiences. (Globe files/Globe files)
Former polygamist member Carolyn Jessop fled Colorado City, Ariz., in 2003 and has since written two books about her experiences. (Globe files/Globe files)

Former member of polygamist group recounts lifestyle Add to ...

After five difficult pregnancies, the fifth involving a dangerous complication, Carolyn Blackmore Jessop told her husband she was afraid she might not live through another one and asked whether it was wise to conceive another child.

What mother wouldn't give her life for her baby, her husband responded. And, when she said she already had five children who needed a mother, he told her not to worry.

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They have many mothers, he said. They'll be fine.

The exchange, recounted by Ms. Jessop in B.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday, came as she described her life in Colorado City, Ariz., where she grew up and, at 18, was married to a powerful man more than 30 years her senior who already had three wives and dozens of children.

"I grew up feeling like I was a commodity," Ms. Jessop said of life in the community, whose residents are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamous sect that has had a long-time Canadian presence in Bountiful.

"And that when I got married, I would be a possession."

Ms. Jessop fled Colorado City with her eight children in 2003 and has since written two books about her experiences.

She testified in a landmark case that is weighing the constitutionality of Canada's law prohibiting polygamy. The attorneys-general of Canada and British Columbia are arguing that the law should be upheld because of the harms they say are inextricably linked to the practice. A court-appointed amicus is arguing the law should be struck down because it contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Ms. Jessop has spoken publicly, and did so again in court, of decriminalizing polygamy to provide more rights to women in polygamous relationships. But she is not certain that decriminalization would address problems she associates with polygamy, such as the expulsion of young men from communities, the marriages of young girls to much older men and poor education of women and children in closed FLDS communities.

"At some level, these are crimes against children - and those need to be prosecuted," she said outside court after testifying.

Over several hours in court, Ms. Jessop told how she fought to be allowed to go to school beyond eighth grade and had no choice as to who she was to marry or when that would happen.

"It's a lot like someone holding a gun to your head and telling you they are going to pull the trigger if you say no," Ms. Jessop said. "The consequences are pretty significant."

She also testified that babies are routinely subjected to a bizzare form of abuse, usually by FLDS fathers, to teach them to fear authority. Babies are spanked, she said, and when they cry, they are held face up under running water. When the baby stops crying, it is spanked again "and the cycle is repeated until they are exhausted."

Ms. Jessop said she was terrified of her husband, Merril Jessop, throughout their marriage, and was galvanized to leave out of fears for her children, especially a teenaged daughter Ms. Jessop worried would be spirited away into an arranged marriage.

Beatings, threats and intimidation were routine, she said.

"My fear was that Merril would hurt my kids," she said. "He had learned he could beat his wives and there was some control there - but if he hurt their kids, he could bring [his wives]to their knees."

In response to questions from FLDS lawyer Robert Wickett, Ms. Jessop said the funds earned from book advances and royalties were her primary source of income. Under questioning, Ms. Jessop also acknowledged that one of her daughters has given accounts that differ from Ms. Jessop's and that the daughter has returned to Arizona City to be with her father.

Outside court, Ms. Jessop said she is not in regular contact with that daughter but that her other children are doing well, with some attending college.

Canada's law against polygamy dates back to 1890. Before charges were laid against Bountiful leaders Winston Blackmore and James Oler in 2009, a polygamy prosecution had not taken place since 1937.

Charges against Mr. Blackmore and Mr. Oler were stayed in 2009 after a court ruling that found flaws in the way the province had pursued the case.

Rather than appealing, the province referred the matter to the B.C. Supreme Court to decide whether the polygamy law is constitutional.

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