“The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice,” by Rebecca Musser with M. Bridget Cook is the story of the former’s immersion in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), eventual liberation and then her seeking justice therein.
Ultimately, this is a book propelled along by the sheer “wow” factor along with the suspense of when Becky, as she’s called in the story, will finally break free of her conditioning and brainwashing. I found the writing to be rather sub-par, at times tedious and there were certainly a copious use of exclamation points.
For an instance of tedium, there were some passages throughout the book that felt like re-treads wherein she detailed moments she felt ready to quit and give up, but then some nature-inspired, God-like divine moment would occur to encourage her forward. While I don’t mind that she had those moments – she is religious after all – I did feel it was a bit hokey, admittedly.
Now that I have the criticisms out of the way, let me focus on the positives. I cannot recall having read a memoir with more fully-realized descriptive scenes, especially involving dialogue. Becky’s ability to recall events, even when she was young, is remarkable and lends credibility to her shocking story. Not to mention, I thought it helped achieve what she sought to do: contextualize and add complexity to the narrative. That is, those of the FLDS, while most certainly “brainwashed,” should not necessarily be painted with such a simplistic brush. Far from being mere relatives of an abundance of FLDS members, she grew up with them and loves them. Throughout the book despite going from an insider looking out to an outsider looking in, she has to remind herself of her roots.
The “wow” factor I mention is sprinkled throughout in startling anecdotes and facts. In one example, Becky touches a dinosaur bone in her early education and relays this fact to her teacher at the Alta Academy (the FLDS school she went to later on). The teacher remarks that there are no such things as dinosaurs. Becky is persistent, though, and says she touched the bone. Nope, dinosaurs are the government’s way of fooling and deceiving us, the teacher retorts. And so it goes. But that anecdote serves as a primer to Becky’s skepticism, which never fully leaves her and one day enables her liberation.
As for the facts, well, they’re clear. The so-called Prophet Rulon Jeffs of the FLDS soon takes Becky as his 19th wife. By the time he dies a few years later, he would have wives totaling 65. If the Prophet was a polygamist, dirtier, fundamentalist version of Hugh Hefner, then his son, Warren, whom assumed the mantle after his passing, was Ted Bundy, if Ted Bundy had ten thousand followers at his command. Say what you will about Rulon, but at least he never condoned child brides and sex with a 12-year-old girl. Warren’s manipulations are a thing of psychopathic brilliance. Evilness, sure, but brilliance all the same.
While it’s not entirely apt, the irony here is that in her liberation, Becky jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Most assuredly, she was better off leaving the FLDS – that’s where evoking this idiom is a bit flimsy – but the man she ran away from the church with and whom would soon become her husband was not much better. I can hardly blame him, though, for he was assuredly brainwashed. All he ever knew and saw was how men treated women per fundamentalist doctrine. And so that’s how he treated Becky. Fortunately, she eventually liberated herself from those chains, too.
I suppose the real triumphant of this book is just the incredible insight into the mechanizations and functions of a ten-thousand-strong cult day-to-day and how the Prophets and leaders manage to keep their stronghold. Not to say anything either of how Becky reveals the double-standards of the leaders. In one instance, she recalls going to a Chinese restaurant where the Prophet and other leaders of the FLDS talked most of the dinner about the waitress’s breast size and that of the other wives they had, even though they preach not lusting after women or objectifying them.
Becky’s willpower is almost unparalleled, though, as the book progresses into the justice system phase. She testifies over twenty times against FLDS men charged with sexual assault, bigamy and the like, and even against Warren Jeffs. Unfortunately, amazingly, Warren Jeffs, even behind bars, still has his hands on the puppet strings of his followers. But that doesn’t mean Becky “lost.” For one, he is behind bars. But for two, she partook in a courageous act. She could have conformed to her family’s wishes, including her husband’s, and not testified, not helped Texas prosecutors and police with the task of taking down the FLDS, but she did.
Plus, I have to mention, her decision to wear red was a thing of scintillating beauty. In the FLDS, you’re not allowed to wear red. Essentially, as a “Fuck you” to that, she wore red to her court proceedings and wrote “LOVE” on her hand to give herself strength. It’s a tiny, tiny detail, but one has to remember how fearful and objectified she was when inside the FLDS. Wearing red is a tribute not only to her liberation, but a reflection of her newfound womanliness and sense of being.
As a primer to this book, I would highly recommend reading “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith,” by Jon Krakauer. The book is the most thorough and compelling look into the development and history of Mormonism alongside the angle expounded upon in Becky’s book: the fundamentalists; in Krakauer’s book, he looks at two brothers that committed a double murder. Then after you read that, I would read this one. Sure, as I side, the writing can be plodding sometimes, but the content is an unbelievably valuable insight into a cult unlike anything you’re sure to have read before.