The Witness Wore Red, review by:
The Witness Wore Red
The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice
By Rebecca Musser
Co Author M. Bridget Cook
The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice
--by Rebecca Musser (with M. Bridget Cook)
“There are no fundamentalists,” the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley once said to Larry King. But thousands of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) live, breathe, and believe otherwise, adhering to the early church teachings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor—specifically, the practice of polygamy, or “Celestial Marriage.”
Hypocrisy, abuse, secrecy, fear, guilt, shame, control, manipulation, brainwashing—all trademarks of cult life—are covered in Rebecca Musser’s memoir as she details her life inside the nightmarish bubble that is the FLDS, including her marriage at 18 years of age to the 85-year-old Prophet as wife number 19 of what would become 65 wives total. She also tells of her risky escape. In this culture, the freedom to walk out the door is nonexistent, and often escapees are captured, returned, and forced into greater submission.
While reading, I had only one yeah, right! moment—when the author describes her mindset as an eighth grader: “I wasn’t interested in boys, except as the perfect Priesthood bride for a man when I was older—or at least creating a life that would be pleasing to God, whether that entailed the affections of a man or not.” Then I realized this is completely probable when considering her upbringing. These were the kinds of thoughts she kept not because she was as pure as powdery snowfall, but because this was how she had been programmed to think by her FLDS role models, one being her mother, a warm, loving, nurturing, but irretrievably indoctrinated woman.
Part of Musser’s as well as all FLDS children’s programing from the cradle includes being sown with a deep mistrust of the government. But eventually after her escape, she agrees to work with the state of Texas, testifying against Warren Jeffs and other high-ranking FLDS leaders for their crimes against children. While she praises the agencies of Texas that worked together to prosecute these men, she has something altogether different to say about the integrity of law enforcement in Arizona: “Within a few minutes during my first conversation with the investigator, however, he moved directly into forbidden territory. . . . When I refused to answer, he tried to force information from me with threats and intimidation. I hung up and refused any additional calls from him or the state of Arizona. The investigator’s behavior epitomized why I had been taught to distrust government.”
There were two things about this book, or rather the absence of two things, that left me wanting. One, what are the author’s beliefs now that her paradigms have shifted away from FLDS culture and practices? Does she identify with a specific religion, or are her beliefs more generalized? Despite the immense role religion plays throughout her memoir, other than a shout-out to a few spiritual self-help gurus (Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Louise Hay), she doesn’t really say.
The second involves Warren Jeffs’ trial, in which Musser was a prosecution witness and in which Jeffs represented himself. The author teases with her suspenseful and understandable nervousness: “For the very first time since I left the FLDS, I would have to confront my old teacher, principle, ‘son,’ and one-time leader. To say I felt rocked to the core was a gross understatement. Since I had first learned that Warren was representing himself, I’d been secretly terrified. Despite my now-vast experience on the stand, I would have much rather confronted Warren’s nastiest lawyer than face him in person.” Yet she walks us only through direct examination. Conspicuously absent was any further mention of her showdown with enemy number one. Having followed Musser this far in her story—less than 20 pages to the end—it would have spelled rich satisfaction for the reader to be able to share in her experience of finally confronting (as a now strong, brave woman) the man who had exerted control and manipulation over her from the time she was a child, and who for years fed her the lie that the Priesthood possessed the power to revoke at any time her eternal salvation. I reread the previous few pages just to be sure I hadn’t somehow missed it, but Musser offers neither a crumb nor a clue as to what took place when (or even if) Warren Jeffs cross-examined her.
Despite these two elements that left me with questions, this book is well-worth a read for anyone interested in what cult life is like for victims on the inside and the challenges of transitioning into the world outside. Musser rightly likens her experience to The Truman Show in that her way of life, education, and access to information had all been fixed and tightly controlled. Unfortunately, insular life inside the FLDS is much darker than the cheery, choreographed existence of the fictional Mr. Truman. Musser has now channeled her experiences into advocacy for all victims of oppression, abuse, and human trafficking.