When Men Become Gods (book review)

I just finished reading the book When Men Become Gods: Mormon Polygamist Warren Jeffs, His Cult of Fear, and the Women Who Fought Back, by Stephen Singular.

The book moves from the narrative of Joseph Smith in 1820 and walks the reader through the roots and evolution of the FLDS Church. Since I have not spent much time studying the FLDS Church (or the history of other fundamentalist Mormon sects, for that matter), the book filled in several gaps in my knowledge of the history and connections between the groups and the families involved, as well as the context of the infamous 1953 Short Creek raid and some understanding of how Warren Jeffs ended up in charge of the FLDS Church. My husband Joshua is pretty much an expert on the different Mormon groups, both “fundamentalist” and otherwise, so I am always the weak link in our discussions on those topics. I’m glad I read this book and I hope I can find others to read that are just as interesting and informative. If you have any suggestions, let me know.

Warren Jeffs was arrested in 2006 and convicted (the first time) in 2007. The book was published just a few weeks after Jeffs’s sentencing, so the narrative ends rather abruptly with a courtroom scene; it doesn’t go into any of the FLDS drama that has happened in the last 10 or 11 years.

I felt like the (obviously non-Mormon) author was fair in his treatment of the doctrines and the stories. He helps the reader understand what the terrible problems were in Short Creek. Polygamy itself is not actually on that list.

The book says that in 1953, when Governor Pyle organized the raid,

The governor had made several miscalculations — but one was huge. The press had known of the coming raid but held off reporting on it until it took place. Now the media repeatedly showed heartrending images of families torn apart by law enforcement, with FLDS men being hauled off to jail as their wives cried and reached out for the children they’d just been separated from. Photos from that time show the adult males of Short Creek being treated no differently from thieves or murderers. Confronted with these pictures, the public confounded the governor and began to feel sympathy for the people of Short Creek. What right did Arizona have to tell these folks how to live? They weren’t harming anyone, so why not just leave them alone? Neither polygamy itself nor the problems surrounding it were as black and white as the governor had imagined (both then and now, some women much prefer plural marriage to conventional matrimony). There was more to life in The Crick than sexual license.

When I first picked up the book, I assumed that the author would demonize polygamy the way so many people in my life have done. I was pleasantly surprised at the neutral writing and I appreciate that the book was sprinkled with notes like the one above.

The trial itself was also amazingly neutral about polygamy and religion. It sounded like the judge did a fantastic job of making sure the jury understood and focused on the crime at hand: accomplice-to-rape for Jeffs’s role in a 14-year-old’s monogamous marriage to her 19-year-old first cousin. Polygamy actually had nothing to do with that marriage, nor with Warren Jeffs’s conviction, nor was it a factor in many of the other FLDS marriages with problems that were described in the book.

If I could change one thing about the book, I would have it emphasize the monogamy of those marriages. I recognize that some people, FLDS included, call themselves polygamists even if they are unmarried or monogamous. So in one sense, the term “polygamist” can simply mean a person who believes in polygamy or desires to be a polygamist.

On the other hand, consider this: When a crime is committed by a polygamist, the news headline never fails to highlight it, but when a crime is committed by a monogamist, that fact is always left out. The number of wives a man has isn’t what makes him violent or non-violent. Polygamous men, monogamous men, and single men alike can all be violent criminals and child molesters. In fact, being a polygamist might be evidence that a man isn’t a creep.

I like the following excerpt from When Men Become Gods. The part in bold reminds me of Tianna Foster’s answer to the question of why she wants to practice polygamy someday.

A group of plural wives in Centennial Park took the attorneys general of both Utah and Arizona on a tour of their community, explaining why they’d freely entered into this way of life and how no one was being harmed by it.

These women and others spoke out in favor of polygamy to CNN and ABC, citing various reasons. They liked knowing where their husbands were at night; sharing their sexual duties with other women; having several mothers around to help take care of all the children; and a stable environment that provided them with the financial, emotional, family, and spiritual resources to assist them in every phase of living. They enjoyed belonging to a culture and a faith that offered them religious absolutes, moral clarity, and protection from the external world. They didn’t approve of what America had become — particularly its political leadership and emphasis on consumerism — seeking instead to separate from mainstream values and beliefs. Sex was far less important in their lifestyle than outsiders believed: they simply didn’t place that much emphasis on it. Like Warren Jeffs himself, they felt they were answering to a calling higher than secular law, and any sacrifices or hardships endured were for the glory of God and their own salvation.

Some of the women mentioned the specific psychological benefits of polygamy. Plural marriage had helped them come to terms with difficult feelings like jealousy, insecurity, competition, and thinking that they “owned” their spouse. Instead of denying these complex emotions, they’d been forced to confront them in order to make their marriages work. They saw all this as a growth experience — a lifestyle that was not only tolerable, but preferable.

The most visible supporter of plural marriage was LeAnne Timpson, the administrator of the Masada Charter School in Centennial Park. Timpson, who described herself as a polygamist and a feminist, had attended Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and was outspoken about her legal right to be a plural wife and the virtues of her choice. She considered her activism civil disobedience and eventually hoped to go all the way to the U>S> Supreme Court to have plural marriage decriminalized. Within her community, she often appeared before civic groups and the media to show that a woman with her educational background could embrace plural marriage. One of her patented replies to the charge that polygamists were abusing polygamists was that “monogamists are abusing monogamists.” …

After Utah and Arizona officials ended their tour of Centennial Park, they restated their point of view: they weren’t against polygamy among consenting adults and weren’t going to investigate or prosecute that. They were only interested in pursuing cases involved sexual abuse, forced marriages, and crimes against minors.