5 Things I Learned as a Mormon Polygamist Wife
Polygamy has been around for as long as marriage has been a thing -- anyone talking about "traditional" marriage has to admit that tradition has often involved one dude with half a dozen women doing a rotation through his bed. Of course, when you hear about polygamy these days you automatically start thinking of a creepy cult situation -- there just aren't that many well-meaning, equality-minded folks out there looking to start a harem.
Yet, the world is full of women who are either in this situation right now or just recently got out. We sat down with a woman who escaped life as a "plural wife" in a fundamentalist Mormon sect. She says ...
A Creepy Old Dude Decides Who Will Be Your Spouse
There's no courting for fundamentalist Mormon kids. The idea is, you're supposed to get your own "personal revelation" about whom you're meant to be with. Since that comes directly from God, dating is forbidden. In practice, though, the revelation is subject to approval by the Prophet. That means, in reality, what matters is whom he thinks you ought to marry. So some guy who looks like this:
Or maybe this:
Or, in my case, this:
If that wink doesn't make you queasy, your stomach is defective.
... is the sole arbiter of your sexual future. The process by which they pick brides for husbands is the creepiest part of all, and we'll get to that later (hint: it doesn't appear to involve a revelation from God).
My church was a fundamentalist offshoot of the Church of Mormon called the Righteous Branch, and that snowy-haired manwich above would sit down with every 18-year-old girl and tell her whom she ought to marry and fuck. And in that respect, we were lucky -- most of these fundamentalist Mormon groups start earlier, sometimes when the girls are as young as 14. Thankfully, I was (barely) an adult when I was told who would be my husband.
As opposed to a lot of girls for whom cootie catchers might as well be a legally binding contract.
Every six months our church held a conference. We'd gather at the temple, hear the word of the lord, etc. I'd just turned 18. I was a skinny young thing, and attracting boys. I was conflicted between wanting to find my own love and wanting to follow the path of the Lord, and I asked the Prophet for a blessing. I didn't know that, in reality, the decision had already been made.
At the time, I was living with a friend of the family and his wife (let's call them "Bill" and "Beth") who were members of the church. If you think it odd that nobody would have concerns about a married man inviting a 17-year-old girl to live under his roof, well, you've already guessed the next plot twist: the Prophet had already spoken to both Bill and my parents behind my back, encouraging them to let me move in, because he decided Bill was to be my future husband. Meanwhile, I just thought they were nice people giving me a new start in a new city (fundamentalist Mormon teenagers can be on the naive side). So, during the blessing, the Prophet told me that "my salvation" lay with Bill. Beth (his existing wife) wasn't crazy about that, but for the next few weeks Bill and the church leaders bullied her into accepting me. Eventually she gave in, and the wedding was set for five days later.
A time frame that might give you some idea of how much a young girl's dreams
of her big day were going to play into things.
"But wait," you might be saying, "I thought Mormons didn't do the whole 'multiple wives' thing anymore ... "
Well, most don't. To understand this, let me give you a quick and dirty history of Mormonity's seedy underbelly ...
The Church's Backstory Belongs in Game of Thrones
Polygamy was an official part of the mainstream church's doctrine until 1890. Non-creepy Mormons view this ban as a positive development. Dudes like this, however ...
... and their "totally appropriate for a family of 10"-style shacks ...
... didn't take it well. This small chunk of true believers (in their need to take child brides) broke away from the Mormon Church. These breakaway groups came to be known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS.
All of these groups are formed around prominent families, in a very Game-of-Thronesian manner. For instance, the Kingston Group is known for intermarrying, including marrying brothers and sisters to each other. The LeBaron family is notorious for putting hits out on people.
"There are parts of the Bible we like, and parts we don't like. Deal with it."
Some of the members of the latter, in fact, murdered the head of one of the largest fundamentalist polygamist churches, a guy named Rulon Allred. A man named Gerald Peterson Sr., claimed Allred's spirit appeared to him an hour after his death and proclaimed Peterson the new head of the church. Allred's son, Owen, wasn't about to be denied his inheritance by some ghost story. He fought back and took most of his dad's church. But a small chunk splintered off with Peterson, and that's how my church -- the Righteous Branch -- began.
In 1978, the mainstream church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS) allowed black people to be ordained for the first time, which convinced my father that the church had lost its way ("Everyone knows the real Jesus was in favor of polygamy and was a bitter racist!"). He sought out one of the fundamentalist sects that agreed with him on that issue and that would let him collect a bunch of hot, young wives.
"Much better you marry a man who keeps his beloved harem in a cot-lined barracks than, say, a black guy."
Yeah, let's be frank here: my father's true motivation was church-sanctioned adultery. He wanted to find wives who were younger and skinnier than my mom, so he could add babies to them. At one point before we joined, he even left my mom to pursue a much younger woman, convinced he'd been called to it like a sacred task. It was quite a disappointment to him when he finally got assigned his first official second wife (when I was about 12). She was about his age, postmenopausal, and overweight -- which is the downside of having some old dude choose for you (I'll get into the disturbing reason he got stuck with her in a moment).
Not that it was any better for her, probably. I can say from experience that ...
Being a Plural Wife Sucks
Our wedding ceremony took place in Bill's cousin's family room. My father officiated, and the first wife had to give her blessing. When it was done, he kissed me on the cheek and we were married. There was a wedding party after -- I was excited. I really wanted to sit next to my husband. But his wife was on one side, his daughter on the other, and they didn't make any room for me. They also made it clear I wouldn't be allowed to take pictures alone with him, only with the family. That night I slept on the living room floor. He squeezed my shoulder before going to bed with his wife, and that was my wedding night.
Let's pause here: raise your hand if you're a male who thought plural marriage was a sexy, nightly threesome?
"Sexy" if you have a serious pioneer/bouffant fetish, at least.
Well, I didn't kiss my husband for more than a month. Remember when I said the current wife wasn't exactly on board with this arrangement? Well, let's just say that Bill slept in my room the following week, but we just slept in the same bed -- no intimacy, certainly not sex. According to our church, we weren't actually married until it was consummated, and it took five months for that to happen. When it did, well ...
The night before, Beth had told me that Bill would come to my room early the next morning to do the deed (he'd have to leave my room before the kids woke up, she said). He came in, we prayed and dedicated the room to the lord, then we stripped down to our long garments (yes, we wore "magic underwear" -- they were like long underwear with the crotch open from the navel around to the small of the back and ties across the front). We spent less than 10 minutes on the actual act, and he didn't even kiss me, because he had a cold sore. When it was over, he lay next to me for five minutes while I cried, then went back to bed with Beth.
In hindsight, his leaving was the good part.
There were periods when Beth would have such trouble coping with me that she'd cut me off from all interaction with Bill unless she or the kids were around. I got depressed and cried myself to sleep every night. I lost an unhealthy amount of weight. Eventually, I decided that if I could have a baby I'd be fine -- that was my whole reason for getting married anyway. I thought if I had a child I could stay in the marriage and focus all of my love on my baby, because I sure as hell couldn't focus it on my husband.
So, I told them I wanted to have a baby, that it was my right as his wife. Want to guess how that went? Bill came back a week later and said, "My family is falling apart, and you're the reason why." And thus, after eight shitty months of emotional abuse, the marriage ended that day. He performed a ceremony, and I moved out the following day. That was that.
"Married men sleeping around on their wives always ends so well that you are clearly the only logical explanation."
So, then I left the church and lived happily ever after!
Or not ...
I Soon Found Out "Sister-Wives" Is Often a Literal Term
I came out of the marriage a shell of a human being. Most fundamentalist polygamist sects don't really acknowledge depression; you don't get medication or therapy -- you just pray that God will help you through it and "if your faith is strong enough," he will. If you remain depressed, it must mean your faith is weak, which gives you more reason to be depressed. Clearly what I needed, according to the church, was to be bundled into another marriage.
Nothing says "pick-me-up" like another loveless, shattered family.
So, after a tough few months, my sister and her husband came to me and said I should marry her husband and be part of their family. This isn't unusual: her husband had a brother married to three sisters. They call us sister-wives, which is supposed to symbolize how tight the relationship between plural wives should be. In reality, men use the term as an excuse, figuring, "Hell, the word 'sister' is right there -- why not just fuck the whole family?"
I agreed, because I was too broken and depressed to say no. It lasted a week before I realized there was no way I could stay. It turned out the church leadership had (again) gone behind my back to encourage my brother-in-law and sister to make that offer. They were determined to keep me in the church (young, desirable women are their most precious commodity, after all) and felt they were under pressure to "reward" my brother-in-law's service and dedication. They decided to kill two birds with one stone by "giving" me to him.
"OK, for Mark's reward, who votes 'fruit basket' and who votes 'naive teenage sexual offering'?"
And here's the thing: There are probably a lot of you who don't get why there's such a knee-jerk revulsion toward polygamy in the modern world. After all, if anyone can marry whom they choose, what's wrong with a bunch of women choosing to marry the same dude, or vice-versa? The problem is that, in the real world, it hasn't worked out that way. You'll notice you never hear about one woman marrying four guys -- in polygamist cultures it's all about males collecting lots of wives, usually in a way that gives the females very little say in the matter.
Traditionally, there is also a lot of overlap on the Venn diagram between "sister-wives" and "child brides." The leader of my old church married two of his nieces when they were just 16, as well as a third 16-year-old girl from another family. Then there was my sister's brother-in-law, who was accused of molesting his daughter. He admitted to it and was excommunicated ... then welcomed back a week later. At least two other men were accused and convicted of molesting their children. One guy had four daughters, every one of them a victim -- he spent years in prison despite his wife's defense of him.
That's what happens when women are treated as commodities to be collected or gems to be awarded to males as prizes. And, in fact ...
Wives Are Bought and Paid For
I mentioned earlier that my dad thought he got shafted on his second wife -- it took him a long time to get one, and when he did, she was older and well past child-bearing age. The reason for this is that he was poor at the time, and that's all he could afford. Oh, they don't have you pay an advertised price for the girls, or anything -- it's just an unspoken agreement based on how much you donate. And my dad simply hadn't been able to donate much money to building their giant pyramid temple.
Oh shit, did I forget to mention that? Yeah, we had a pyramid. The top floor was where the temple resided, and only those deemed worthy were permitted inside. There we engaged in weird temple ceremonies that you're forbidden to discuss outside of the temple, to the point that during the ceremony you vow not to discuss it on penalty of death.
Which, for context, sounds a lot more legit when you've spent your entire life
in a clandestine, fanatical splinter group.
So the older, wealthier men had money, they donated it to help build the temple, and those men got the younger wives. The young women are basically just currency for all of this -- living, breathing cash to be exchanged for a sweet, sweet pyramid.
As for me, I did finally make a break for it. I got the fuck out of Utah and took a job nannying on the East Coast. I spent the next 10 years getting over the brainwashing I had endured during the previous 10. It wasn't easy. I suffered from a long, undiagnosed, and untreated depression. I made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of foolish things trying to reconcile the bullshit dogma of the Righteous Branch with the real world I was finally beginning to see with unclouded eyes.
Apparently, the rest of the world considers isolated, ritualistic pyramids a bit suspicious.
Within five years we'd all left the church -- my sister and her husband were next, and then eventually my mom and dad. After that, my siblings and I not only fell away from the church but from religion entirely. For me, that journey away from God began when I married a man for all eternity, and then found out that an eternity was only eight months. That is, the length of time it took the man to decide it was inconvenient.
But not everyone's story ends like mine -- there's a reason some Mormon sects have been doing this for almost 200 years now. For instance, at the time my dad left he had a second, second wife. He asked her to leave with them, but at the same time the leaders of the church asked her to stay and offered her a new husband. She took them up on it.
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Robert Evans a Twitter now. So you should follow him while he experiments on himself with dangerous drugs for an upcoming book.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Disturbing Things I Learned in Scientology's 'Space Navy' and 5 Ways Growing Up Inside Scientology Was a Nightmare.
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