Author Interviews
5:41 pm
Sat September 14, 2013

'The Witness Wore Red': A Polygamist's Wife Finds A New Life

Originally published on Sat September 14, 2013 6:15 pm

In 2007, a breakaway extremist offshoot of the Mormon Church called the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints made national news. Police raided an FLDS compound in Texas where they found hundreds of women and girls. The church's leader, Warren Jeffs, was sentenced to life plus 20 years behind bars for sexually assaulting children.

The star witness in Jeffs' trial was a young woman named Rebecca Musser. Musser grew up in the FLDS church, under the control of Warren Jeffs and his father, Rulon. When she was just 19 years old, she was forced to marry the 85-year-old Rulon. Following his death, Musser made the terrifying decision to escape from the church into an outside world she had been taught to fear.

Musser tells the harrowing story of her childhood, her marriage, and her eventual escape in her book, The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice. Musser told her story to NPR's Jacki Lyden.


Interview Highlights

On how her father came to be part of the FLDS church

My father was a businessman. He was not born and raised in the fundamentalist church, and he was converted to it. He had a wife and five children at the time of his conversion. A couple years later he married my mother for his second wife, and I am the fifth child of my mother. So I grew up in the middle of a very large family. Because of the situation with my father being in business, he was not open about the fact that he was a polygamist, and his second wife and her children lived in the basement of the house and his first wife lived in the upstairs of the house.

On growing up in a polygamist home

My father's first wife did not grow up around polygamy, and the story goes that she at first welcomed my mother into the family but quickly turned to extreme jealousy, and there was a tremendous amount of physical abuse. And there were also sexual violations going on. In my personal experience, I had an older half-brother who sexually abused me and some of my sisters, and even though his mother found out, I was threatened as a 5-year-old little girl. And I grew up with that kind of terror, and I did not tell anyone until I was an adult woman.

On the teachings of the FLDS church

As a child growing up, as a woman, I was taught that the very highest thing I could ever hope to attain was to become a mother in Zion, to be perfectly obedient to the prophet, and one day have the opportunity to be placed by a good priesthood man, to be perfectly obedient to him. Knowing what I know now, I look back on many of those teachings, and I realize the tremendous amount of mind control that goes into place to keep this kind of a controlled environment maintained.

On being forced to marry the 85-year-old Rulon Jeffs

When I found out that I was going to be married to Rulon Jeffs, it was tremendously hard because on one hand, I had all this principle going on in my head telling me this is right, this is holy, this is what I've been taught that I've lived for my entire life. And yet here was this man who was supposed to be God in mortality and then to see the very human, the very carnal side of this man was incredibly overwhelming because I could no longer deny the reality of the incongruity. What we were taught versus what was really going on.

On running away from the FLDS church

I struggled with the decision of what to do. And I did, I finally just realized I could not say yes to something I no longer agreed with, and I did, I left a note on my bed. I was able to slip out past security guards and get away. And for 10 years I was only one from that family who was able to get out.

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. In 2007, a breakaway extremist offshoot of the Mormon Church called the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter-Day Saints made national news. Its leader, Warren Jeffs, had been convicted of child rape after taking dozens of wives.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tonight where a raid is under way at the secret polygamist compound run by the FLDS church, whose leader, Warren Jeffs, is now in prison.

LYDEN: Jeffs was sentenced to a term of life plus 28 years. Rebecca Musser grew up in the FLDS church under the control of Warren Jeffs and his father, Rulon. When she was 19, she was forced to marry the 85-year-old Rulon Jeffs. She tells her harrowing story of her childhood, her marriage and her eventual escape in a new book called "The Witness Wore Red." Rebecca Musser, welcome to the program.

REBECCA MUSSER: Thank you, Jacki. It's wonderful to be here.

LYDEN: This is an absolutely riveting and tragic tale. You were born in 1976 in Utah into a family where there was already a multiple marriage. I'd like you to just kind of take us back into that family. Your father had two wives. One lived upstairs. You and your mother lived in another part of the house downstairs. This is in Salt Lake City. We're not talking about out in the sticks. Tell me a little bit about what that household was like, would you?

MUSSER: My father was a businessman. He was not born and raised in the fundamentalist church, and he was converted to it. He had a wife and five children at the time of his conversion. A couple years later, he married my mother for his second wife, and I am the fifth child of my mother. So I grew up in the middle of a very large family. Because of the situation with my father being in business, he was not open about the fact that he was a polygamist.

And his second wife and her children lived in the basement of the house, and his first wife lived in the upstairs of the house. So life for us was what we knew.

LYDEN: Tell me a little bit about the relationship between these families, between the first wife and your family.

MUSSER: My father's first wife did not grow up around polygamy. And the story goes that she, at first, welcomed my mother into the family but quickly turned to extreme jealousy. And there was a tremendous amount of physical abuse. And there were also sexual violations going on.

In my personal experience, I had an older half-brother who sexually abused me and some of my sisters. And even though his mother found out, I was threatened as a 5-year-old little girl. And I grew up with that kind of terror, and I did not tell anyone until I was an adult woman.

LYDEN: So a real nightmare scenario. You were a member of this extremist offshoot, this FLDS church. Now, this is a form of Mormonism, so I want to ask you about this. Different from mainstream Mormonism, which has condemned it. We should make that very clear. Talk a little bit about the teachings and rules of this sect, the FLDS sect that you grew up in.

MUSSER: As a child growing up, as a woman, I was taught that the very highest thing that I could ever hope to attain was to become a mother in Zion, to be perfectly obedient to the prophet, and one day have the opportunity to be placed by a good priesthood man, to be perfectly obedient to him. Knowing what I know now, I look back on many of those teachings, and I realize the tremendous amount of mind control that goes into place to keep this kind of a controlled environment maintained.

But as a child growing up, that's all that we knew. We were taught these things. And I wanted to be a good priesthood girl who was obedient who could one day be given this great blessing of marriage so that I could go to heaven.

LYDEN: You know, as subservient as that message is, I'm still certain that it came as a shock when at 19 you were forced to marry an 85-year-old man, the leader himself, Rulon Jeffs. Very hard to imagine what that was like for you. How did it change the way you saw the church and your family?

MUSSER: When I found out that I was going to be married to Rulon Jeffs, it was tremendously hard because on one hand, I had all of this principle going on in my head telling me this is right, this is holy, this is what I've been taught, that I lived for my entire life. And yet, here was this man who was supposed to be God in mortality, and then to see the very human, the very carnal side of this man was incredibly overwhelming because I could no longer deny the reality of the incongruency: what we were taught versus what was really going on.

LYDEN: When Rulon Jeffs died, his son, Warren Jeffs, tried to take you as his wife. In the book, you described confronting him about that. It's a very, very scary conversation. He's very forceful about you and your place as a woman in the church, your duty to obey. What happened after that?

MUSSER: When Rulon Jeffs died, he had 56 wives. Those 56 girls were being told you must be remarried. So it wasn't just me. So when I faced Warren and he said I will break you, and I will train you to be a good wife, I begged him: Please do not do this to me. And he said that I had one week and I would be remarried, period.

I think that it's important to understand that my view of the world was that everything on the outside world was absolute evil. It wasn't if. It was when the outside world would hurt you, and that if you did leave, you would become the most wicked, the most horrible of people.

LYDEN: So you ran away.

MUSSER: I struggled with the decision of what to do. And I did. I finally just realized I could not say yes to something I no longer agreed with, and I did. I left a note on my bed. I was able to slip out past security guards and get away. And for 10 years, I was the only one from that family who has been to get out.

LYDEN: Rebecca Musser, eventually, you went to the authorities and testified against Warren Jeffs in this trial for child rape. The title of your book is called "The Witness Wore Red." And this is in reference to the fact that wearing red is banned in the FLDS church. Describe what that whole moment of reckoning was like for you.

MUSSER: Facing Warren in the courtroom was the first time that I had seen him after he told me that he would break me. So wearing red - the first time I wore it in the courtroom - was out of defiance. It was to send him a message that I was not broken. It later has been a reminder to me, as I've learned and I've grown, wearing red to me means that I have choice. It's a reminder that I have a choice every single day, and I have to act on that choice.

LYDEN: Rebecca Musser. Her new book is called "The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamist Cult Leaders to Justice." Rebecca Musser, thank you very much.

MUSSER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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