Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Victim of Mormon polygamist keeps faith intact

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No fiction writer, not even one as darkly imaginative as Stephen King, could create a villain creepier than Warren Jeffs.

The 57-year-old convicted rapist is the feature miscreant in Rebecca Musser's engrossing memoir of life in a closed society of polygamist Mormons.

The Witness Wore Red

The 19th Wife Who Brought

Polygamous Cult

Leaders to Justice

By Rebecca Musser with M. Bridget Cook

Grand Central,

340 pages, $29

Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) members, living mainly on a patch of desert straddling the Utah-Arizona border, observe every pronouncement he sends to them from inside a Texas penitentiary where he is serving a life sentence.

FLDS members cling to the doctrine of "plural" or "celestial" marriage, a principle discarded by the mainstream Mormon church in 1890. They believe a righteous man can secure a place in the highest level of heaven by taking three or more wives.

In clear, crisp prose, Musser and co-author Bridget Cook take us on a journey from growing up in a household with more than 20 other children and more than one mom, to being a teenage bride for an 85-year-old man, to escape and a life of advocacy for the oppressed and enslaved.

This insider's account includes truly shocking details on how the sect robs girls of their freedom and dignity.

Perhaps the most disturbing content is a partial transcript of an audio recording of Jeffs having sex with a 12-year-old wife while other wives watched. In comparison, the renegade sect leader Roman Grant in the HBO series Big Love was a choir boy.

But Musser and Cook aim for inspiration rather than sensationalism, with themes of faith and empowerment.

Musser was born Rebecca Wall, the fifth of 14 children from her father's second wife. Her father eventually had three wives and 24 children.

Shortly after her 19th birthday in 1995, Musser became the 19th wife of Rulon Jeffs, who was president of the FLDS and Warren's father.

They lived in the Jeffs family's sprawling compound in Hildale, Utah, and Rulon added many more young wives before his death at age 92 in September 2002.

Warren repeatedly admonished Musser that it was her religious duty to obey and please the old church leader in every way, including sexually.

Two months after Rulon's death, Warren as the new FLDS president told Musser she must remarry.

He said her new husband could be him, and the possibility wasn't far-fetched since he had already married some of his father's other young widows.

In response, she quickly planned and executed an escape from Hildale.

She and a young FLDS man named Ben Musser fled to Oregon and married.

They're now divorced but both live in Idaho, where they are parents to a son and daughter.

She has testified against Jeffs and other FLDS men to help bring them to justice for their crimes against girls as young as 12.

She wore red each time she testified against Jeffs because he had banned FLDS members from wearing the colour.

As founder of a non-profit foundation called Claim Red, she is now a voice for victims of human trafficking.

A younger sister, Elissa Wall, co-authored the 2008 book Stolen Innocence about her own experiences in and escape from the FLDS.

Atheists hoping The Witness Wore Red slams faith will be disappointed. Musser rejects leadership by one man, but not religion and spirituality.

It's also notable that the word "cult" appears in the subtitle but nowhere in the memoir itself, as Musser remains respectful and sympathetic toward the community she left -- even though much of that community despises her as a traitor.

Mike Stimpson is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 A1

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