OGDEN — Twelve years ago, 14-year-old Elissa Wall stood in a hotel room in a handmade wedding dress, and was given against her will to her first cousin in a marriage arranged by Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Eight years ago, Wall escaped from her marriage and her polygamist church, and went on to testify against Jeffs in a case that named him as an accomplice to child rape.
This week, Wall shared her story with students at Weber State University.
“I was lucky enough to be one of the few child brides who escaped,” Wall said. “It was the most excruciating and exciting thing I experienced in my life. We stood up to tyranny and to the leaders of this cult.”
Jeffs was convicted of being an accomplice to the rape of Wall, but the conviction was overturned, on a technicality, she said. Jeffs was convicted of sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault of two girls, ages 12 and 15, and is serving a life sentence plus 20 years.
After Jeffs’ conviction, Wall said, “I realized the next step was to free the people.”
She now speaks for Holding Out HELP (http://holdingouthelp.org). HELP stands for “Helping, Encouraging & Loving Polygamists.” Holding Out HELP was founded by Tonia Tewell, who was drawn to the cause after her pastor asked her to provide emergency shelter for a mother, a daughter and the daughter’s four children, all of whom were fleeing their polygamist community.
“They got in their van, and they were driving away from their families, their religion, what they had been taught was their spiritual salvation, and everything they knew,” Tewell told WSU students.
Because the women had been taught to interact only with community members and not with the larger world, Tewell said her guests seemed like “refugees from a foreign country.”
They had no knowledge to help them get by in their new circumstances, nor did they have education that would allow them to immediately provide for themselves, Tewell said. Some leave the church-ruled communities unable to read.
Tewell said Holding Out HELP has assisted 600 former polygamists so far, and helped another 600 indirectly, connecting them with agencies or people willing to help. Getting a roof over their heads comes first, along with food and clothing, Tewell said. Counseling and educational opportunities follow.
Tewell said 75 percent of her clients report suffering sexual abuse in their polygamist communities.
Wall is now mentor to Suzanne Steed, 17, whose family was featured on a November 2012 episode of “20/20” titled “Breaking Polygamy.”
“My father did something wrong, and they sent him away to repent,” said Suzanne, her head tilted so her long hair would cover most of her face from her Weber State audience, her voice shaky and barely audible.
“They tried to reassign us, but we chose to stay together, even if we had to leave. I don’t think any of us knew what to expect. We just wanted to stay together. We were all really scared, but strangely at peace.”
Suzanne said she feels like she has lived a lifetime in the past year.
“The thing I value most is the ability to do whatever I want and to take care of my family,” she said. “We were raised to believe what they wanted us to believe, and behave the way they wanted us to behave.”
Wall has shared her life story on ABC news shows, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey and with multiple media outlets. The 2009 book Wall co-wrote with Lisa Pulitzer, “Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs,” made it to No. 6 on the New York Times best-seller list.
Wall said her best moment also was when she understood she was free.
“What I value the most is realizing I had the ability to become anything, believe anything, eat anything. That was my ‘aha moment.’ You deserve to be the master of yourself.”