Being Proud of Polygamy Instead of Ashamed

I distinctly remember the first time someone looked up to me for being a polygamist.

We had been invited by some polygamous friends to a Thanksgiving dinner that was attended by an eclectic group of fundamental Mormons (some were members of a sect of Mormonism, but many were independent).  I knew almost no one there.  (This was the first time I met Benjamin Shaffer, the attorney who purchased Drew Briney’s law firm when the Brineys moved away from Utah.)  I was introduced to a married couple and I asked them if they were polygamists.  The wife said, “No, not yet.  I wish.  Are you guys polygamists?”  When I answered in the affirmative, she said with sincerity, “Oh, that’s so great.  I hope I can be a plural wife someday.”  (She’s a plural wife now and one of the best I know.  As one example of how she’s so supportive: She has a huge picture of her husband and sisterwife on their wedding day on her living room wall.)

That was a very nice moment for me.  Up to that point, people expressed many different feelings about my marital status, ranging from outright rejection to disgust to fascination to neutrality to supportive, but I had never met anyone who was actually jealous of me for being a polygamist.

I didn’t consider myself a fundamental Mormon, but after that Thanksgiving dinner I started to feel more and more comfortable hanging around Mormon fundamentalists because of their general belief that polygamy is acceptable, desirable, even preferred.

I still spend plenty of time with people who merely tolerate my polygamy.  When I’m around those people, I will either hide my polygamy or at the very least I feel an overarching sense of embarrassment/shame about it, like the girl who keeps brushing her bangs in front of the zit on her forehead.

However, those feelings of shame or embarrassment are left over from when I cared what those people thought.  I’m not ashamed to be a polygamist.  I’m actually quite proud of my plural family and in particular of my husband.  I’m proud of my husband for keeping two emotional women happy most of the time.  I’m proud of him for financially supporting a large family.  I’m proud of him for bearing the weight of a marred reputation caused by society’s feelings about plural marriage.  I’m proud of him for always putting his family first and for being the most selfless person I have the privilege of knowing.  I’m proud of him that God trusts him with such a great responsibility.  I’m proud of him for keeping peace (and restoring it when it’s lost) between all the members of our family.  I’m proud of him for his wisdom in difficult decisions.  I’m proud of him for functioning on 2 hours of sleep when one of his wives needs to talk with him all night.  I’m proud of him for never putting himself first but for always always serving God and his family and others around him.  I’m proud of him for being stable when one or both of his wives are being crazy.  I’m proud of Joshua for so many reasons.  I think of him as a king and I feel it an honor to be married to him.  I’m proud to be one of his queens.

The feeling of pride I have over our functional, beautiful plural family has grown and expanded almost imperceptibly until an event that happened yesterday.  We went to a party for Joshua’s aunts, uncles, and cousins.  This party is held annually, but it was our first time attending since becoming polygamists.  We used to go every year (and to other events with these people as well), and Joshua and I have been married for 17 years, so I’ve known these people for a good long time.

The family is a pretty big group, I would say about 85 people, and almost all of them are active LDS.  This is the kind of group I have historically felt awkward to be around.  None of them are excited that we’re polygamists, and many of them openly disapprove (even writing letters and making phone calls to make sure we know how they feel).

And yet, yesterday when we walked into the party, I held my head high.  I felt like a queen.  I look at Joshua as a king and Melissa as a queen, and  yesterday I felt no shame or embarrassment whatsoever.  I greeted everyone with a confident hug and just acted like my old pre-polygamy self.  If anyone felt awkward, it wasn’t me.  If anyone wished I wasn’t there, it wasn’t me.  I didn’t feel like I was inferior to any of the monogamists in the room.  I didn’t feel like I had anything to apologize for.  I didn’t feel like I had a zit on my forehead I was trying to hide.  I just felt proud of my plural family and proud of my kingly husband.  It was a wonderful experience and certainly made me feel as tho I have progressed in my journey as a plural wife.

How Joshua and I Met

There he stood, in the front of our Ethics and Values classroom, curly brown hair, leather jacket that couldn’t hide his muscular arms, sexy 5 o’clock shadow, a deep voice.  He was discussing the pros and cons of capital punishment, the controversial ethical topic assigned to his group.

I had dated a lot in high school, but now that I was in college, I was trying to be pickier, trying to figure out what my type was, and I had picked up the habit of analyzing men to discern which of his physical traits I liked and which I didn’t.  I had never found a man I couldn’t improve upon, but as I sat on the back row that day watching and listening to Joshua, for the first time I couldn’t come up with a single thing I would change to make a man more attractive.  I had found my ideal man, at least on the surface.  Not only was he the most handsome men I’d ever met, but he was intelligent, well-prepared, and well-spoken.

At the end of Joshua’s presentation, I raised my hand to add to the discussion.  Was it just my imagination, or did he like what I had to say?  A little while later, I raised my hand again, but then I noticed that class time was almost gone, and I lowered it again.  He noticed the question left hanging, and he approached me as the classroom emptied and asked what I had intended to say.

We talked for a few minutes before going our separate ways.  But that was enough to get the ball rolling.

It was a series of coincidences that had led to our meeting.  You see, we weren’t exactly classmates: We were taking the same course, but we were in different sections taught by the same professor.  If things had gone according to schedule, Joshua and I would never have met.  But something happened to shake things up: My brother had been called on a mission for the LDS Church, and I wanted to go with him and the rest of my family to see him enter the MTC, or Missionary Training Center.  The end of the college semester was approaching, and since class time was being taken up with group presentations, my professor had started making class participation part of our grade to prevent attendance from declining.  If I was going to see my brother enter the MTC, I would miss my class, so I talked to my professor in advance and got permission to make up the participation points by coming to another of her Ethics and Values sessions.  I searched my schedule for a time when that would be possible.  Most school days at 1:00 p.m. I was busy as an ASL interpreter for a religion class.  Fortunately, those classes weren’t held on Fridays, which meant I was available for that one hour — which happened to be, of course, the day and hour of Joshua’s presentation in his own section of Ethics and Values.  That’s how I came to be there that Friday afternoon.

After Joshua and I had parted company.  I went to work for a few hours and then got ready for a date — a formal dance I was going to with a man named Ryan.

Now, Ryan and I were very close friends, and sometimes we acted as tho we liked each other, but the truth was that the woman he wanted to marry was away from home serving a mission for the mainstream LDS Church, and I was just a placeholder until she came home a few months later.  I wasn’t particularly into him either, but we got along splendidly, and our relationship was convenient.  We carpooled to school together, worked on our Calculus 3 homework together, hung out as friends on the weekend, and when one of us needed an official date for an event, the other person was usually available.

(As a side note, two fun stories: After his girlfriend got home from her mission, Ryan and she came together to my wedding reception, which was so romantic that they ended up getting engaged at it.  They’re still happily married and have half a dozen kids.  He’s a successful engineer, so I guess it worked out for him to study calculus with me, ha ha.  Another guy I dated met someone at my wedding reception, soon afterwards they started dating, later they were also engaged.  Have you ever heard of a wedding reception so romantic?)

I had asked my friend to do my hair in a fancy up-do for the dance with Ryan, and while she worked, I chatted endlessly about this man named Joshua I had met at school that day.  I don’t know how I came up with so much to say about someone I’d only talked to for a quarter of an hour, but you and I both know how silly girls can be.

At some point in the course of our conversation I told her, “I think I’m going to marry him!”  She responded by telling me I was crazy.  (I still have the professional photo taken of Ryan and me at the formal dance, and it’s one of my favorites because of the fond memories I have of that day and even of my hairdo.)

I couldn’t stop thinking about Joshua for days, and he must have had a similar weekend.  On Monday he got my phone number from our professor (with my permission), called me up, and the rest of our story is for future chapters.

Being Plural in Public

I just didn’t think about it.

I’m pretty affectionate in public and I simply don’t think about how it could be perceived by others until I have this moment of shock, clarity, and realization that we are not a “normal” family.

Joshua sometimes goes on business trips. When he flies back into town the rest of us like to meet him at the airport. Everyone loves watching for him and being the first to call out when they see him come down the escalator to baggage claim where we are all waiting for him.

The last time we did this, He kissed both Charlotte and me upon greeting.

I then had this moment of “Whoa! what did we just do?”

His coworkers had come in on the same flight. He had not told them about our family. If they saw, what would they think? More importantly, what would they do? There is a law here in Utah making my marriage illegal. Potential reprucussions, although unlikely, huge.

We have this happen every so often in public. Affection in public shown to both wives and I don’t think about it when it happens, and then I look around and see people avert eyes, or stare. It gets all weird. I just want to live my life. I don’t want to be a spectacle.

Tom Thumb and the Mormons

Brigham young had a quick wit and a sharp sense of humor that wasn’t appreciated equally by everyone.  For instance, a woman once told him that her husband had told her to go to hell.  She then asked him what she should do. “Don’t go,” he replied.

During one session of the church’s general conference when tensions with the U.S. government were particularly pointed in Utah, Young announced from the pulpit that U.S. President Zachary Taylor — who was no friend to the Mormons — “has died and gone to hell.” Federal officials monitoring the conference took Young aside between sessions, and told him to publicly apologize or they would make more trouble for the already-beleaguered church. That afternoon, Young took the pulpit again and said, “Zachary Taylor has died and gone to hell, and I’m sorry.”

But I digress; this blog is about polygamy, so I’ll relate one other instance of Brother Brigham’s wit in relation to that.  Salt Lake City is known as the Cross Roads of the West, a name which it received in Pioneer days.  Many visitors came passing thru the city, not only because it was a convenient place to resupply while coming or going from points farther west, but also to get a glimpse of the strange people known as Mormons and their unusually large families.  One such visitor was the famous author, Mark Twain, another was the similarly famous, Tom Thumb.

Charles Sherwood Stratton and Lavinia Warren marriage.jpg

Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known by his stage name “General Tom Thumb“, was a dwarf who achieved great wealth and fame as a performer under the circus pioneer, P.T. Barnum.

Brigham Young’s daughter, Clarissa Young Spencer, tells this story about the visit of Tom Thumb to the Salt Lake Valley in her biography about her father.

While attending a reception with Brigham Young, who was rather large in build, Tom Thumb looked up at the President and said, “Mr. Young, there is one thing that I can’t understand and that is this belief in polygamy”.  Smiling down at him Brigham answered very genially, “I couldn’t understand it either when I was your size.”

Seeking Sister Problems

Humans are obligatory problem solvers.  They cannot help it.  If they didn’t have problems of their own, they would invent them.

We humans love problems!  Dealing with problems is essential to our health and well-being.  Our brains are designed to anticipate them, think about them, worry about them, and eventually solve them.  Our brains do this all the time, very well, and sometimes too well.

Even tho tendencies we may have are natural, evil can come of them when they are allowed to roam too far, or wander outside of the bounds the Lord has set. Problem-solving is one such tendency.  It is so ingrained in our being that when things are going generally well, and no problems seem to be presenting themselves to us, we will, of necessity, create our own problems.

If they chose to, most people could objectively look at their lives and see how frequently the problems they had were of their own engineering, and their suffering self-inflicted.  Yes, it is true that time and chance happens to everyone, and yet, it is also true that our lives are largely of our own making.

While these two ideas may seem to be at odds with one another, they are both true.  It is true because: what happens to us is only half of our life.  The other half is how we respond to the things that happen.  This weightier half is made up of what we think and do about the things that happen to us, and those around us.  It is our response to both the past and present, and also our response to the future.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.  – Shakespeare (Hamlet; Act 2, Scene 2)

We interact with the past thru our our mental and emotional analysis of our memories.  We interact with the future thru our mental simulations of possible events.  We imagine the things we might say or do, and we play these things out on the stage of our mind.  The data we have collected, and analyzed, from the past is fed into these simulations of the future.  We interact with the present thru our choices, which are determined by the outcomes of the simulations of our future.  After running these simulations, we do a mental calculation.  We weigh the pros and cons, consider the benefits and costs, the difficulty and feasibility.  In other words, we plan, and then we choose the action based on our plan, however hasty or shortsighted it may be.

molehills“Problems” have everything to do with our perception of them.  As I mentioned above, we even have the power, in our minds, to transform non-problems into problems, or small issues into big issues.  The proverb speaks of turning mole-hills into mountains.

For example, it is normal to have disagreements with those around us.  It is even normal to argue about those disagreements, but it takes special effort to turn agreements into something to argue about.

Here is an example of what I mean.  In episode 10 (of the second season of SSW), Brandy comes back to visit the McGees.  Brandy is spending the day with Paige, chatting and helping with the household chores.  In this scene the two women are folding laundry together, and we quickly see that things are not going very well.  I don’t know how much of this scene is the result of “editorial sculpting”; regardless, this exchange is illustrative.

Brandy: “Do we fold the same?”
Paige: “That’s what I was looking at.  I was like, yeah, she actually folds like I do.”
Brandy: “Nice.”
Paige: “That’s pretty cool.”
Brandy: “So, are you particular about, like, say I would have, (she begins to demonstrate folding a towel another way) because there is another way, and so…”
Paige: “No, I would have fixed it.  I wouldn’t have said anything; I would have just fixed it.”
Brandy:  “You would have fixed it?”
Paige:  “Mm-Hmm.”
Brandy: “Ok, so there is a particular way of doing things?”
Paige:  “Yeah.  There’s a right way and a wrong way.”
Brandy:  “Any other, like, pet peeves or particulars?  Like, if it was my day to do dishes – would you come in behind me and see if the dishwasher was loaded right?”
Paige:  (Nods, Yes)
Brandy:  “Yeah?  I used to be very particular, but now I’m just so grateful if someone helps.  I’ve gotten to where I’m just like, just put it in the closet and shut the door.”
Paige:  “No.  Towels, they have to be put in a certain way because they will fall over.  So, you have to fold them a certain way.”
Brandy:  “So, how would that work, you know, with me coming in?  If I come in, like, how would that work?”
Paige:  “You’ll just have to learn to do it my way.”

Towels

If you can grasp the reality, that our lives are largely what we make of them, and yet you continue to feel like you can’t stop worrying, can’t stop creating problems for yourself, can’t stop creating problems for others, cant stop sabotaging yourself and your relationships; then perhaps there’s something wrong with your understanding of the human brain and our search for happiness and satisfaction.

We aren’t made to experience “happiness” in the way normally think of it: carefree,  pain free, completely fulfilled, excited, and free of any suffering.  Rather, we were made to survive, and survival, in a very human sense, means to create.  The strange thing is that suffering (that is, the mental component of suffering), and creating are connected.   A large part of suffering involves a mental process called rumination.

Rumination is when we focus all our attention on the ways we are suffering, on its possible causes, and on our failures (and the failures of others) that have led us to our suffering.  These thoughts are repeated over and over (thus the name, rumination) without resolution.  We allow ourselves to rehash and dwell upon the causes and consequences of our suffering, rather than dwelling on its solutions.

Instead of devising the next step for our life, we ruminate on the last one. Rather than imagining new opportunities, we assume nothing better is possible. Rather than taking control of our life, we embrace an attitude of powerlessness. We become helpless, and our suffering becomes meaningless because we are at the whim of how the world makes us feel, but we were meant for better things.  We were created to create.  We were made to act, and not to be acted upon (See 2Nephi 2:14-16).

So what is the connection?  Rumination (a component of mental suffering) and creativity are controlled by the same parts of the brain, and they have an inhibiting effect upon one another.  Suffering will result when we stop creating, and visa versa.

Pain is Inevitable, Suffering is Optional

When we focus on creating, our pain is no longer meaningless – it is no longer “suffering for suffering’s sake”.  Rather, as pain cannot be altogether avoided, it becomes an expected part of the process – the pain becomes “worth it”.  When we focus on creating and doing, we no longer categorize our emotional experiences as: “things that feel good” or “things that don’t”. Instead, we use the vastly superior categories: “things that are worthwhile” and “things that aren’t”.

Use your mind and energies to create, to do, and to improve.  It will give your brain something productive to do.  These are the things in life that are worthwhile.  These are the things that will give our lives actual meaning, and in a deeper and more satisfying way than complaining and worrying about things will ever do.  I repeat, our lives are not made meaningful nor satisfying by complaining.  Our lives are not made meaningful nor satisfying by worrying.  Our lives are not made meaningful nor satisfying by suffering needlessly, nor by needlessly increasing the suffering of those around us.  

Our lives are made meaningful and satisfying by the things we do and create.

Increase the talents given to you, rather than hiding them.  Read a book, write a book, grow a garden, fix your marriage, plan a trip, learn a foreign language, learn to play an instrument, go back to school, make your children a larger priority in your life, become a regular volunteer for a local charity, change your own motor oil, quit an addiction, start exercising, organize a chess club, get yourself right with God. 

The possibilities are quite literally endless.  There are so many things you could do.  There are so many thing you ought to do, and you know it.  God is the creator, and we are made in his image.  We were made to create.  We were made to improve.

Excuse me, ma’am, but Jacob had 4 wives.

I was still an active member of the LDS Church, and I was substituting as the pianist in primary.  Singing Time was over for the Junior Primary, so I had a few minutes to relax before the Senior Primary came in.

The Primary President was in charge of Sharing Time, and she was having the children role play some Bible stories.

Since we believe we are Israelites, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) is a key person in our story and covenant heritage.  The trouble for a strictly monogamous Church is that Jacob/Israel inconveniently had 4 wives, and each wife was the mother of at least 2 of the sons who would become the namesakes for the “tribes of Israel.”

How does one tell the story of the family and hold Jacob/Israel up as a good example we should emulate without condoning his polygamy???

When trying to role play this awkward marital situation, what is a Primary President supposed to do?

She did what any self-respecting monogamous Primary President would do.  She pretended that Jacob had only one wife, giving her the credit for birthing all 12 of his sons (and 1 daughter).

I wasn’t a polygamist back then — in fact, I didn’t even like the idea of polygamy — and yet I was shocked at this blatant mis-telling of the common Bible story.

(Side note: The famous musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat mentions Jacob’s “wives and states that Joseph’s mother was Jacob’s favorite wife.  As far as I remember, the play leaves it at that; the plural wives are not major characters and they are never explicitly named, so the screenplay skirts around the polygamy issue without either making a big deal about it or being inaccurate.)

Screenshot 2019-10-29 17.21.24

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Back to the Primary President.  She invited 1 boy and 1 girl to the front of the room and let them dress up in some simple homemade costumes.  Then she introduced them to the primary as Jacob and his “wife“, who were the parents of the 12 sons we know as the tribes of Israel.

I was stunned.  I couldn’t let this error pass without comment, so from the back of the room, I raised my hand and opened my mouth and said,

“Excuse me, ma’am, but Jacob had 4 wives.”

The Primary President blushed and hemmed and stammered and couldn’t find a way to remove herself from the embarrassing situation she’d put herself into.  The story was cut short and the children were shooed back to their seats.

I felt bad for correcting the Primary President in front of everyone, and yet, what would you have done?

An hour later, when the same activity was being done with the older age group, I noticed that the Primary President still had children act out Adam and Eve, Noah and Mrs. Noah, Jonah, Daniel, David and Goliath, and so on, but she didn’t dare repeating the Jacob-and-his-monogamous-wife incident, and that story was left out.

Jacob family tree