22 Apr 2011

Book investigating Mormon polygamy suggests prohibition enables sect leaders to commit sex crimes



Religion Dispatches April 22, 2011

40,000 Fundamentalists Can't Be Wrong: Investigating Mormon Polygamy



Interview with  Sanjiv Bhattacharya, author of  Secrets & Wives: The Hidden World of Mormon Polygamy  Soft Skull (2011)



What inspired you to write Secrets & Wives: The Hidden World of Mormon Polygamy? What sparked your interest?

I’m one of those unbelievers who’s obsessed with religion, so moving to America, from England, was a bargain. The Bush presidency was underway, the Christian right were on the march and the country was going down the tubes so fast you could hear a sucking sound.

But I was only peripherally aware of Mormons. I remember the polygamist Tom Green appearing on Jerry Springer once, with his harem, but it wasn’t till Jon Krakauer’s book,Under The Banner of Heaven, came out that I started paying attention. And right on cue, Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the FLDS, went off the deep end in epic style — he banned laughter and the color red and set about building a giant temple in Texas with the FBI in hot pursuit. There are few things I find more entertaining than a cult leader going clear off the reservation.

I’ve always been drawn to outsiders and fringe groups — people who stand apart from the mainstream. So the mere existence of a subculture of 40,000 fundamentalists living outside the law in America struck me as tremendously exciting. Not to mention the fact that their faith is American — it could scarcely be more so — and yet they live in hiding, worshipping at secret churches with scores of secret wives. I couldn’t resist.

I wrote a few articles and made a documentary, all of which focussed on Warren Jeffs and the FLDS, as most media coverage still does. But it soon became clear that the FLDS was just one group. There were 30,000 other polygamists out there — a broad diaspora of smaller churches and independents that remained discreetly marbled into the populations of Utah and Arizona especially. What were they hiding? Was hiding really necessary? Would they open up to me if I asked nicely? That’s how Secrets & Wives began.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

There are a few. That Utah is bubbling over with self-declared prophets and messiahs — the Mormon religion is strong potion. That the illegality of polygamy is a boon to cult leaders who wish to control their flocks and commit sex crimes with impunity.

And most of all, that not all polygamists are alike. Attitudes seem to have shifted lately from suspicion to sympathy — many now see polygamists as victims of persecution who ought to be left alone. But this is as insufficient as the opposite view — that polygamists are sinister deviants who must be prosecuted. The truth is more complex. Certainly, some groups like The Order, did strike me as sinister — the practice of incest, for instance, or of changing surnames to mask identity, not to mention the allegations of child labor and underage marriages. No question about it — there are shocking stories of abuse within fundamentalism. But equally, some groups are comparatively benign and more inclined to open up to outsiders.

I believe it’s time to decriminalize polygamy and bring these people out of the darkness. Too many awful things happen in the dark.

Anything you had to leave out?

Some stories were cut for length. The story of a liberal businesswoman from the Bay Area for instance, who fell in love with a younger fundamentalist carpenter and became his second wife. Her mom was a hippy and now she lives in an exclusively polygamist community in Arizona. That’s one of them.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

That polygamy is somehow drab or dismal — a bunch of oppressed women in prairie dresses doing household chores and suckling babies, often at the same time. But that’s not the case. (Not completely anyway — there’s bound to be some oppression and suckling going on.) The truth is, polygamy is intense. It’s a cauldron. Much stranger and richer than Big Love or Sister Wives.

This is a world in which men converse with God, the stakes are eternal, the apocalypse is imminent and no one “out there” can be trusted. It’s all belief and longing and paranoia. All the dials are turned up to 11 — there’s more risk, more conflict, more drama. It’s a world where a few men have over 100 children a piece. One guy has over 250. Drab doesn’t get a look in.

I was often shocked on my travels. Shocked I never imagined that polygamists would get me drunk on margaritas, for example. Or that fundamentalist children would have started a Bollywood movie club. Or that way out in the Moab desert there is a polygamous community that inhabits a giant rock powered by solar panels. For all their faults — which are many — fundamentalists have a point when they say that Mormonism lost its most colorful characters when it abandoned polygamy.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

As a topic, polygamy appears to have a very broad appeal, so I’m hoping Secrets & Wives will too. I wrote it for anyone who’s interested in American religion, Mormonism in particular, the religion of Mitt Romney and Glenn Beck; in how modern polygamists actually live and why; in prophets and followers and the dynamics of cults; in child brides and women’s rights; and in how a subculture of zealots might respond to an English atheist with a funny name asking deeply personal questions.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

Pissing people off was never a mission objective, though I doubt Mormons will be rushing out to buy copies for their friends. But to inform and entertain? Absolutely.

This is a first-person exploration of polygamous groups and the issues they raise, and I always thought of the reader as my traveling companion as I went around Utah knocking on doors. Sometimes things didn’t go according to plan. While some groups invited me to stay over for weeks on end, others threw me out into the street. And occasionally, I would stumble across some drama or intrigue that sucked me right in.

But however the adventure unfolded, that’s how it is told — I stayed true to the rollercoaster. And that goes for tone too. Polygamy is certainly rich in heartbreaking stories and serious issues, but there were also funny moments along the way. So I’m actually hoping that readers will laugh uproariously in some places and weep sweet tears in others. And world peace would be nice.

What alternate title would you give the book?

We toyed with titles and tag lines till the cows came home, but I think we chose wisely in the end. Here are a few options that didn’t make the cut. To Be A God: The Secret Lives of Polygamists, When One Won't Do: The Hidden World of Mormon Polygamy, First You Get The Wives, Then You Get The Planet: The Things I Learned About Polygamists During My Summer In Utah, and Mormon Polygamy: A Gentile Investigates.

How do you feel about the cover?

I love it. I feel very lucky. Adrian Kinloch is the designer and he’s managed to perfectly evoke a hidden people, a life in the shadows. There’s a wife standing there but we can’t see her, her identity is concealed, she’s a secret. And look at those dramatic skies ahead of her. That’s polygamy — a gathering storm in the desert.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for obvious reasons. But also Jeff Sharlet’sThe Family - impeccably researched, expertly constructed and of lasting importance. Simply the best and most frightening expose of the Christian Right in America. I’m also envious of Sam Harris whose book, The End of Faith, was a brilliant blast of dissent at a time when religion appeared to be on the rampage in America.

What’s your next book?

There are a few ideas cooking but I don’t want to say too much. I might be an atheist but I believe in jinxing.

Sanjiv Bhattacharya is a writer and editor from England, now living in Los Angeles. He blogs here.



This article was found at:



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6 comments:

  1. Polygamy and me: Growing up Mormon

    By Maggie Rayner, Special to The Sun December 16, 2011

    When my family lived in Richmond, a group of Mormon fundamentalists from Bountiful, near Creston, visited our mainstream Mormon congregation extolling the practice of polygamy, also called the principle or plural marriage. They were looking for wives to add to their collections. They targeted families who had young girls.

    My oldest sister at 16, with blond hair, blue eyes and a blossoming body, was a magnet for the young men and 19-year-old missionaries of the Church. One Sunday after Sunday school, I watched an older man from Bountiful rush over in the parking lot to open our station wagon door for her. He left the wife he had with him struggling to open their car door on her own, a baby on her hip, a diaper bag over her shoulder, and two toddlers clinging to her legs. I was 10 years old. I giggled at his ardour, finding his behaviour ridiculous, while a queasiness roiled in my stomach.

    My parents weren’t swayed by the arguments to take up a polygamous lifestyle and my two sisters and I were saved from the principle.

    Even so, my mother explained, “Polygamy is a hardship for men.” This did not make any sense to me.

    My mother told me Joseph Smith introduced polygamy in the 1830s, soon after he founded the Mormon Church, because of the shortage of men and the abundance of women. “There were a lot of widows and older women immigrants, that worked as housekeepers and servants, joining the Church,” she said, “It was practical for the men to take more than one wife to ensure the older women were taken care of.”
    ...

    The Church’s current position on polygamy, not widely known among younger Mormons, let alone non-members, is that God suspended the practice and temporarily disallowed plural marriage to spare the membership legal and political problems. The president in Salt Lake City, considered a living prophet by members today, could, at any time, give the word, and Latter-day Saint men would once more be called upon to marry multiple wives. ...
    ...

    While I was growing up, the books I read were censored, limited to Church-approved literature. My parents dedicated themselves to breaking my child’s spirit to accept their beliefs. The friendships I was permitted and the activities I could pursue were all closely monitored. They were unsuccessful. While I was physically present at the services and activities I was forced to attend under fear of punishment, my mind refused to be taken prisoner.
    When I left home and had the freedom to question, and seek out history books not sanctioned by the Church, I read with astonishment, and a growing sadness for my mother’s and father’s gullibility, of the chronological events surrounding the introduction of plural marriage. ...
    ...

    My mother wouldn’t have known what a sex addict was or how to recognize one. While she was growing up, there was little, if any, information available about sexuality. The anatomically correct names used to describe intimate parts of the body weren’t common knowledge. Frank discussion of carnal desire or marital relations did not take place. She told me the intimacies of married life came as a surprise to her on their three-day honeymoon in Calgary, after she married my father in the Cardston temple.

    I can’t, as a result, fault my mother for believing Smith was following godly direction rather than earthly appetites. She simply didn’t have the knowledge or experience to make informed decisions on what she was taught, and therefore believed, without question.

    Whether the same can be said for my father, I don’t know. He held the highest level of priesthood conferred, only on men, by the Mormon Church, and the respected position of a bishop with his own congregation. ...

    Maggie Rayner lives in Vancouver.

    read the full article at:

    http://www.vancouversun.com/life/Polygamy+Growing+Mormon/5874641/story.html

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  2. Polygamy policy - Utah County attorney gets it right

    Editorial, Salt Lake Tribune Jun 02, 2012

    The Utah County Attorney’s Office may have raised eyebrows when it declared in a court filing that it would not, as a matter of policy, prosecute polygamists under the state bigamy law unless some form of abuse, violence or fraud were involved. In Utah, this makes practical as well as legal sense.

    Polygamy as practiced by several of Utah’s fundamentalist Mormon clans is pernicious. It enslaves women from girlhood in a patriarchal and religious web that denies them education, reproductive freedom, self-actualization and career opportunities. It can be equally corrosive in the lives of boys.

    But there are exceptions. When consenting adults enter into religious marriages that are polygamous, without the expectation of the benefits of the state’s legal sanction, and there is no fraud, violence or abuse involved, there’s nothing to be gained by prosecution.

    Several of the state’s attorneys general have realized this for many years. Current Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has made it a formal policy, and the new policy in Utah County mirrors that reasoning.

    The county attorney there stated in the legal filing, "The purpose of this policy is to prevent the future prosecution in Utah County of bigamist marriages entered into for religious reasons." Again, absent any fraud or abuse, it makes sense for prosecutors the err on the side of religious freedom and respect for privacy in intimate relations.

    Literalists will point out, correctly, that polygamy is outlawed explicitly in the Utah Constitution. But as in other areas of law enforcement, limited resources must be prioritized. There are an estimated 30,000 polygamists in this state, and it would be impossible to enforce a ban on polygamy across the board. The costs would be too high, and the human price to be paid in broken families would be even higher.

    However, when one partner deceives another to achieve a bigamous relationship, or when older men make brides of children, or when incest or violence or sexual assault come to the attention of authorities, that’s when charges should be brought and cases tried.

    Some legal experts argue that there should be no prosecutions of polygamists based on religious marital status alone, that the laws against other crimes give prosecutors the tools they need to punish and deter abuse without crossing into the difficult constitutional areas of religious freedom and the right to privacy.

    That may be correct, and it is the practical consequence of the new policy in Utah County.

    http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/opinion/54226826-82/utah-county-policy-attorney.html.csp

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  3. Living the life of polygamy

    Author tells personal story, seeks to help others leave polygamous lifestyle

    St. George Daily Spectrum June 5, 2013

    While growing up, Kristyn Decker, who now lives in New Harmony, was a seventh-generation polygamist on her father’s side. More recently, she has made efforts to share her experiences of growing up in a polygamous community by writing “Fifty Years in Polygamy: Big Secrets and Little White Lies.”

    “I want people to realize that children and women living in polygamy need more attention and protection,” Decker said.

    Decker wrote of her childhood and marriage in polygamy. Her unabridged version is scheduled to be out in July.

    As she spoke at events across the country to promote her book, Decker became more involved in helping others leave polygamy. Decker heard so many stories similar to her own that she realized there was a dire need to create a coalition of like-minded people to raise awareness about the adversities of generational patriarchal polygamy. As a result, she founded Sound Choices Coalition.

    “The Sound Choices Coalition is a partnership of organizations and individuals uniting in an effort to end human rights violations due to polygamy and other forms of patriarchal abuse,” Decker said.

    Decker’s heart is always open to assisting those who want to leave polygamy and find genuine happiness.

    “Every time someone has a successful escape or departure, my soul celebrates with their soul. I laugh and cry for joy,” she said.

    A rough childhood

    Decker is the 12th child of 23 biological children. Her mother, Vera Cooke, was the first of 13 wives to Decker’s father, Owen Allred, one of the early leaders of the Allred Group in Murray.

    “I don’t remember my mother being very happy. She was often crying and depressed. For many years, she was verbally and physically abusive, as was her father, and always hid herself behind a book, especially the scriptures,” Decker said.

    Decker’s difficulties went beyond her home life. In public schools, Decker was branded as a “polyg,” made fun of and shunned by the other students. In elementary school, she only had two dresses and had to wear boy’s shoes.

    “The teachers were not protective of me when the kids picked on me. I never felt safe in or out of the polygamous culture,” Decker said. “It was a rough childhood.”

    One such difficult incident in her life occurred when her father took her to the doctor for an examination prior to entering kindergarten. Without her father in the room, the doctor molested her, and when she didn’t cooperate, “He told me I was a naughty little girl. I was hurt physically and very confused about it. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t tell my dad because the doctor told me my dad would also be mad at me,” Decker said.

    She wasn’t safe at home, either.

    “One stepbrother, age 13, wanted me to play a game with him when I was 7 years old, a game that didn’t feel right to me. But since he was older and bigger than me, I couldn’t fight him off as he sexually abused me repeatedly for several years. He told me he would beat me up or hurt someone I loved if I ever said anything,” Decker said.

    continued in next comment...

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  4. Life as a polygamous wife

    At the age of 17, Decker married an independent polygamist who was 24, not of the Allred group, a first marriage for both of them.

    “Even though my father counseled against the marriage, I had a choice as to who to marry,” Decker said. “We struggled with our marriage mainly over religion, as we were from different polygamy groups, which held to different requirements. Polygamous wives are required to always act happy even when we aren’t. You don’t want others to know that you are being deceptive.

    “I later learned from other women that I was not the only one who felt heartache and jealousy. You learn to look happy and put on a good show, but I always felt that God hated me and was punishing me because I never behaved as good as I should have done.”

    They were married for eight years before her husband took another wife — Decker’s second cousin. When children came along, not only did she watch after six of her own children, but she also watched three of her sister wives’ four children.

    “It was not a choice. The doctrine I grew up with was to live polygamy, keep sweet and have as many children as you can. I was so busy taking care of our children that I didn’t have time to take care of myself while trying to deal with my emotions,” Decker said.

    With all this pressure on her shoulders, she became depressed and started having suicidal thoughts.

    “After my second to the last baby, fulfilling my obligation to have as many babies as God would give me, I realized I couldn’t take care of the ones I had. I hated me as a wife and as a mother. I wanted to die,” Decker said. “But I hung around because I knew that no one would love my children as much as me. They are what kept me going.”

    Leaving the lifestyle
    Then, a major thing happened in her life. Her 16-year-old daughter, who was addicted to drugs, ran away from home. When her daughter was arrested, the state mandated therapy for both of them.

    “I began to discover myself,” Decker said.

    After years of looking straight ahead with blinders on, Decker said it became impossible for her to ignore the never ending dysfunction, lies, cheating, abuse, leadership control and human rights violations that were going on around her.

    “I realized the foundations I’d been taught to believe in had always been faulty and fractured; by then, it was crumbling into pieces,” Decker said.

    To prepare for life outside the polygamous community, she decided to attend college at Southern Utah University to learn a skill to provide for herself and her children.

    “I had to live or die. I felt if I stayed, I might suffocate,” Decker said. “Attending school was one of the best years of my life — I was finding and discovering more about me than ever before. I came to the realization that I would not be damned to hell for not living polygamy. I had already left polygamy in my heart and mind.”

    Now that she has left the polygamous lifestyle, she is married to LeRoy “Dub” Decker.

    “He’s my gift from the universe. I was very resistant as I felt that I didn’t need or want another man in my life, but Dub is the best man on earth,” Decker said.

    For information, visit Kristyn Decker’s blog. at www.fiftyyearsinpolygamy.com or email her at kristyndeckerbooks@gmail.com. To learn about Sound Choices Coalition, email soundchoicescoalition@gmail.com or visitwww.sound-choices.com

    http://www.thespectrum.com/article/20130605/LIFESTYLE/306050012/Living-life-polygamy

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  5. Smith polygamy essays commendable, but still not the full story

    By Gary James Bergera, Op-ed Salt Lake Tribune November 03 2014

    The LDS Church’s publication of essays on its practice of plural marriage represents a good first step in acknowledging the history of the controversial doctrine (see Peggy Fletcher Stack, "New Mormon Essay: Joseph Smith Married Teens, Other Men’s Wives," Salt Lake Tribune, Oct. 22,). While the essays are presented as news releases, they exhibit an informed grasp of the growing number of the relevant scholarly articles and books that have appeared since the 1980s.

    The authors of the essays, though anonymous, tackle head-on some of the most problematic aspects of the church’s embrace of what it once called "celestial marriage." This includes church founder Joseph Smith’s marriages to young women, at least one of whom was 14 (the essays characterize her as just shy of 15); Smith’s marriages to other men’s wives (which the essays contend may not have included sexual relations); Smith’s concealing most of his plural marriages from his civil wife, Emma Hale; Smith’s and the church’s carefully worded denials regarding the practice of polygamy; the church’s "civil disobedience" in performing the illegal marriages; and the church’s clandestine attempts to keep plural marriage alive for a decade or more even after publicly disavowing it in 1890.

    In dealing with these and other controversies, the essays recognize that the church cannot explain away, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction, the many inconsistencies, misstatements and contradictions that accompany the history of plural marriage. In fact, the essays’ candor is sometimes jarring, like a splash of ice-cold water. Clearly, the authors believe that "hard facts" are a more effective palliative than spin.

    The essays risk falling short in three areas. First, the essay on polygamy during Joseph Smith’s lifetime reflects an emerging apologetic argument that seeks to portray Smith as a reluctant polygamist who had to be coerced by an angel into engaging in sexual relations with his plural wives. Such a position misrepresents Smith’s zest for life and self-perception as Heaven’s lawgiver, while imposing on him a particular brand of morality that was foreign to him. "That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another," he taught (History of the church, 5:134). He also stated that there were "many things in the Bible which do not, as they now stand, accord with the revelation of the Holy Ghost to me" (Words of Joseph Smith, p. 211).

    continued below

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  6. Second for reasons not stated, the essays fail to mention, even in endnotes, some of the most important scholarship on Mormon polygamy. These omissions include, but are not limited to: Martha Bradley and Mary Woodward’s Four Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier (Signature Books, 2000), a ground-breaking study of women and polygamy; Lawrence Foster’s Religion and Sexuality (University of Illinois Press, 1981), an early important work by an eminent non-LDS historian; George D. Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy (Signature Books, 2nd ed. 2011), a work especially valuable for its statistical and genealogical data (apparently cited in one endnote without reference); and D. Michael Quinn’s truly ground-breaking discussion of post-1890 polygamy, "LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages" (Dialogue, Spring 1985). Granted that space in the church’s essays was limited, still the failure to credit these, and other past, researchers for their contributions seems deliberate.

    Finally, the essays cite primary manuscript sources held by the church that are not available to the general public to consult. This makes it appear that access to the church’s vast archival holdings is more open than is actually the case. These documents include the diaries of George Q. Cannon, Francis M. Lyman, Heber J. Grant, Matthias F. Cowley and others. Historians and other researchers can only hope that such records may one day be as accessible as the essays imply.

    There is much to recommend the LDS Church’s new essays on Mormon polygamy. There is also much still left to be done in narrating as fully and as accurately as possible the tumultuous history of the church’s distinctive, controversial practice.

    Gary James Bergera is managing director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation (Salt Lake City) and the author of six published studies of early Mormon polygamy. He is past publisher of Signature Books and past managing editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

    http://www.sltrib.com/opinion/1764594-155/essays-church-smith-polygamy-plural-mormon

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