Everyone at the party stopped talking and watched to see what would happen next. They all knew Joshua and I are not siblings, and they were curious to see how our new acquaintance would take the shocking news of real-life, in-your-face polygamy.
Just minutes earlier Joshua and I had met Sophie* for the first time and were getting to know her and her family. Melissa was supposed to have been there to make introductions, but a phone call had unexpectedly pulled her away from our Chanukah party before Sophie arrived. Melissa had texted Sophie telling her she would be gone and to “look for Joshua and Charlotte”.
So there we were, just chatting away. Joshua and Sophie made the connection that they both used to live in the south. She and I talked about Jewish feasts, home childbirth, and extended breastfeeding. Sophie said to Joshua, “This is a nice area! How long have you lived here?” He wasn’t sure how to answer because Melissa and I currently live in the same house, but we moved in 2 years apart. So which date should be given as his answer? I think he said, “Well, Melissa moved here in June, but we’ve owned the house for 2 years.” Sophie followed up, “So, were you renting it out in the meantime or something?” Awkward.
I started to realize that Sophie didn’t know that her friend Melissa was a plural wife, and that it wasn’t going to be Melissa that broke the news to her. At the same time, Sophie was trying to sort out what exactly my connection to Melissa was.
She gestured to Joshua and me, “So, are you two brother and sister?” That was the moment when our conversation got interesting to the rest of our party guests. All faces in the room turned to us as I tried to decide how to answer.
Our polygamy is not a secret (anymore), and we don’t lie about it, but we also don’t announce it everywhere we go. We like to tell people when it comes up naturally (altho, for various reasons, we occasionally make a point of going out of our way to tell someone). The awkwardness was simply the fact that it was Melissa’s friend, not my own, who asked the question.
I looked at Joshua and said, “She doesn’t know!” He gave me a knowing nod and I said, “And it’s up to me to tell her?” He laughed and said, “I guess so!”
I turned back to Sophie and said with a smile, “No.”
She said, “Oh, I noticed from the Facebook event invitation that you all have the same last name. Are you Melissa’s sister?”
The confusion was setting in. It was time for the truth to be told. I simply said, “No. Melissa and I are both married to Joshua.”
Then we all waited. We have had so many different reactions when people learn we are polygamists; we never know what we’re going to get.
I was pretty surprised when Sophie got excited and spoke with a voice punctuated by exclamation points. “Oh! I had no idea Melissa was a polygamist! I love polygamy! That’s great! Are you guys Mormon? I wish the LDS Church still practiced polygamy!”
Our long-time friend Hugh* butted in on the conversation and teasingly said to Sophie, “Stop encouraging them!” I bantered back by telling Joshua to spit in his food.
“I have so many questions for you!” Sophie went on. And she really did. She was interested and positive and was a good listener. Her response was amazingly supportive.
That moment of truth, that moment when an acquaintance learns about the polygamy, is bound to make or break a budding relationship. Some of my friendships have ended over the issue of polygamy; other potential friendships have never really gotten off the ground. Quite frankly, it could just as easily be a non-issue: I’m happy to be friends with people who are single, monogamous, or polygamous — why do so many people care which I am? There’s a lot more to me than the fact that my husband has another wife. I am grateful for those people in my life who haven’t let my polygamy get in the way of knowing me personally.
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.
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.
About ten years ago, my husband and I bought our first house together. While I lived in that house, I planted trees and gardens. I bought furniture. I hosted events. I had a variety of houseguests. I put up pictures and had pets and houseplants. While I lived there I went from 1 child to 3 children and began homeschooling. I had a variety of Church callings and a good selection of friends and friendly neighbors. I was in living that house when my belief system about the LDS Church crumbled (although I stayed an active member for a number of years). I also gave birth in one of the bedrooms upstairs.
In that same bedroom, my husband and I first discussed the possibility of his marrying my best friend Melissa. (Short version: I could no longer ignore the spiritual experiences I was having regarding God’s will in the matter. Joshua and I had never talked about it before, but I opened the conversation with: “So, Joshua, are you going to marry Melissa?” His answer: “Well, I don’t know.” My shocked reply: “What do you mean you don’t know? I know!” Two days later he had his first conversation with Melissa about it; I think it’s fair to say the latter conversation was far more awkward than the former.)
A few weeks later, in that same upstairs bedroom, I announced to my husband my plan to essentially give the house to Melissa and her children and move with my children more than an hour away, in order for her teenagers to have the space they needed to finish growing up.
That very day, about 5 years ago, we packed up a single carload and I moved away from my trees and animals and gardens, most of my possessions, my friends and neighbors, and the only home most of my children had ever known.
Gradually, tediously, over months and many many many trips between the two houses, Melissa patiently helped me finish moving out of the house which was now, bewilderingly, hers. And she made that house her own, changing out the kitchen appliances and paint and window coverings and furniture and animals and gardens to better suit her preferences. She continued the arduous task of parenting children without their father. And she got used to being a plural wife.
Melissa has now lived in that house longer than I ever lived in it.
For 5 years, my children have had just one parent half the time. I tell you, it sure is a special treat for the kids when Baba walks in that front door after they’ve been stuck with only me for a couple of days. Two of our children don’t even remember life before their father was a polygamist. They don’t remember what it was like to eat dinner and have devotional with him every single night. They’ve developed habits such as asking me every couple of hours whether Baba will be here today, and writing things down they don’t want to forget to tell him.
For 5 years, my husband has had more than one carpool to get to his job. (It’s very confusing for his fellow carpoolers.) He’s had multiple houses and yards to maintain. He’s been forced to have duplicates of numerous things (including cars, lawn mowers, and property tax bills) so he can frequently seesaw between his two domiciles. And I can’t even count the number of times he’s needed something but has turned up empty-handed because the tool or other item was in a different county. He’s been like an unlucky stepchild, constantly going back-and-forth between two houses.
Over the last 5 years, all of us have had more difficulties than I care to list right now. We’ve also had a lot of personal growth and character-building, but I’ll save that for another time. I’d rather get to the good news.
For 5 years, Melissa has been finishing the job of turning children into adults. Her youngest is now 18 years old. He recently graduated from high school and is launching out on his own.
We are all ready for a big life change.
Melissa’s time in my old house is coming to a close.
Our husband will no longer need duplicates of so many things. He will get to come home to his entire family every evening. The children will get to see their Baba and their other mother daily. Melissa will have to do a lot less driving. And she and I get to begin a new phase of our relationship.
My heart goes out to the Fosters as tragedy struck their family today. Enoch and Lillian’s house caught on fire and her 2-year-old son Adonijah (the one Lillian gave birth to in the first episode of the show Three Wives, One Husband) was badly burned and he died.
Enoch and Catrina’s 17-year-old daughter Cherish is in the hospital with smoke inhalation. Lillian is understandably in shock and keeps passing out and is going to the hospital.
A GoFundMe page has been set up for the funeral expenses. https://www.gofundme.com/baby-fosters-funeral
I wish Lillian could wake up from her nightmare and hold her baby again. Sometimes this life seems so cruel.
When I first heard about Joe Darger and his 3 wives, my immediate reaction was, “He has 3 wives? What a creep!”
That reaction seems comical now. At the time, I didn’t know any polygamists in person. I assumed if a man has several wives that he must be a controlling jerk who likes to get served by lots of women.
At some point I realized how illogical that thinking was.
If several independent, intelligent, free-thinking women all choose to get married and stay married to the same man, that should actually make me think, “Wow! He must be an amazing man for so many women to want to be married to him! He must be a remarkable husband to be able to keep that many women happy!”
I’m not speaking of institutionalized underage marriages that are compelled by the cult leadership. I’m talking about the situation in which a single woman who has freedom makes the decision to marry and stay married to a man with plural wives.
Nowadays my thinking is very different than it used to be. Why would multiple women choose to be married to a creep? No, if a man successfully keeps more than one woman satisfied, he must be an extraordinary man, and he very likely works hard to serve his wives.
Morning sickness during pregnancy is very common, especially in the first trimester. There is an extreme form of morning sickness called hyperemesis gravidarum (HG). Women with HG have a lot of nausea and vomiting and often have difficulty keeping anything down at all. HG can persist all the way through the pregnancy rather than only the first few months. Some of these women lose weight rather than gain weight; some are hospitalized because they can’t keep enough fluids down to stay hydrated.
My cousin gets HG so badly in all of her pregnancies that she can’t even take care of herself, much less her children; she has to live with her parents or her in-laws when she’s pregnant so she can have constant help.
My first 3 pregnancies were easy compared to my 4th pregnancy. But that last one was a doozy. I had HG and vomited all the way up to my due date. I was usually at my sickest in the evening, when I ought to have been singing to my kids and snuggling with them as they were being put to bed. Instead, my then-9-year-old daughter basically ended up putting her siblings to bed on a fairly regular basis, no bedtime songs and cuddles with Mama because she was lying on the floor with her face over a bowl.
I didn’t have HG as badly as some other women I know of. I was able to gain a normal amount of weight in my pregnancy, and I only had IV fluids once. However, I used many, many remedies to keep myself reasonably functional, including all the natural remedies such as peppermint and ginger and frequent snacks. A prescription of Zofran (from a certain CNM named Karla Jo Bennett) wasn’t helpful. What did help me was taking Unisom — the one with 25 mg of the active ingredient doxylamine succinate — twice a day (three times a day helped with the nausea/vomiting even more but it made me way too sleepy), taking loads of vitamin B-6 (micro-doses all day and a slow-release dose at bedtime), completely stopping my consumption of all grains, and most helpful of all, getting a shot of b-vitamins every day or two.
The first midwife I went to for b-vitamin shots was Karla Jo, but eventually my regular midwife taught me how to give myself shots, which was far less expensive and far more convenient than driving to the midwife’s office and paying her to do it every time.
I got tested for H. pylori (a bacteria in the stomach that is one cause of HG) and the test came back negative. Karla Jo was the midwife who was lucky enough to keep my stool sample in her freezer until the the lab came by to pick it up.
Karla Jo is a Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM), which is the kind of midwife with the most education and privileges (such as writing prescriptions). Since she has more privileges than my regular midwife, the two of them worked together to meet my needs for medical care. (I saw several other types of medical professionals to try to get some answers about my HG, but in the end, no one could solve the puzzle, and eventually I gave birth and the problem ended on its own.)
Karla Jo is not just my CNM but she’s also my mom’s first cousin. I was close friends with her kids (my second cousins) when I was younger. We went on homeschool field trips together; I played Foosball in their basement; and her daughter and I wrote sticker-covered letters back and forth. I remember having dinner at their house once when they ordered plain cheese pizzas and added their own toppings after the pizzas were delivered (that was so foreign to me). I attended the baby shower of one of her daughters and drove across Los Angeles to visit her other daughter, who was on a layover.
I was surprised when I saw Karla Jo in the sneak peek of Seeking Sister Wife, and I excitedly texted her and said, “You’re my friend Vanessa’s midwife! I saw you on TV!” and we laughed about it and she told me about her experience with the TLC film crew.
Karla Jo was the midwife who performed Vanessa’s ultrasound in episode 5 of Seeking Sister Wife. She had to give Jeff and Vanessa the sad news that Vanessa actually wasn’t carrying a baby, and the further bad news that she probably had a molar pregnancy. It turns out she was correct, even though in 20 years of caring for women and babies, this was the first time Karla Jo had seen a molar pregnancy.
Molar pregnancies occur in roughly 1 out of 1000 pregnancies. This means it’s highly unlikely you will have one, but it’s likely that you know someone who’s had one. Karla Jo’s sister had one. So did my mother-in-law. My regular midwife has seen 3 in her career.
In a normal pregnancy the hormone hCG (which is responsible for morning sickness) appears at implantation, increases to a peak between 8-11 weeks of gestation, and then decreases. The levels of hCG going down after the first few months is the reason why the symptoms of morning sickness typically lessen at that point.
The hCG hormone is measured in milli-international units per milliliter (mIU/mL). Normal levels approach 300,000 mIU/mL at the peak. In a molar pregnancy they go much higher, so even though the woman isn’t carrying a baby, she feels sicker than someone having a normal pregnancy. She also has positive pregnancy tests despite there not being a baby, because hCG is what’s being tested with pee-on-a-stick pregnancy tests.
When you watch the early episodes of Seeking Sister Wife, and Vanessa is so sick, you can bet there’s a good reason she was experiencing the worst morning sickness out of all of her pregnancies. When Vanessa’s hCG level was tested it was 1,200,000 mIU/mL!
When Vanessa’s regular midwife Sherri Price couldn’t hear a baby with her doppler (as shown in episode 4), she asked her good friend and fellow midwife Karla Jo if they could come to her office (which is at her house in Pleasant Grove, Utah — not in Genola, Utah like SSW implies) and have Karla Jo take a look with her ultrasound machine.
After Karla Jo said yes, Sherri mentioned that, oh by the way, a camera crew is coming.
Karla Jo hadn’t planned in advance on being filmed that evening, and she didn’t get home until just before the film crew wanted to start filming. She had had a full day and the film crew and everyone else beat her to the house. Her husband fed them ice cream and entertained them for an hour. (At one of my appointments with Karla Jo, her husband took my kids into their backyard and let them collect the eggs from their chickens.)
Most midwives don’t have their own ultrasound machine (they’re a pretty expensive piece of equipment to just use occasionally), but Karla Jo has one. So she is kind of the go-to when another midwife wants her client to have an ultrasound done.
Karla Jo says it was an interesting experience to have a film crew present while she did her work. Normally she would have dimmed the lights in order to see the ultrasound screen better, but the film crew needed the lights bright.
She didn’t get told anything that happened after everyone left that day. She didn’t know for sure if she would end up in the final cut; she didn’t get a copy of the episode; she didn’t get told when it was airing.
As far as the filming and editing of the show, Karla Jo say the editing was done in a deceiving manner. For instance, the audio is edited enough so that at times she is shown saying the exact opposite of what she actually said (for instance, the word “don’t” got cut out of one of her statements). She also thinks the scenes she’s in that were posed (like when she was standing outside with Sherri) felt very fake.
Technically Karla Jo can’t use an ultrasound to diagnose a molar pregnancy, but you’ll notice that she was able to give a better idea of what was happening than the first midwife was, and she gave good advice to go ahead and get checked out by a radiologist.
I have seen people on social media criticize Vanessa for going to another midwife instead of the emergency room. The show said Vanessa’s problem was “possibly life-threatening,” but that doesn’t necessarily make it an emergency. Cancer is life-threatening as well, but no one calls an ambulance. Vanessa wasn’t bleeding or even cramping; the situation wasn’t so urgent that they needed the emergency room, and going to the ER wouldn’t have changed the outcome. Please, let’s leave the ER for true emergencies, rather than clogging them up with important but less-urgent medical situations.
As I said, at the time of Vanessa’s first prenatal with Sherri, she wasn’t bleeding. However, early in Vanessa’s pregnancy, after taking a positive at-home pregnancy test, she was spotting quite a bit and even bleeding a lot at one point, so she thought maybe she was having a miscarriage. She got an ultrasound, which appeared to show a very early embryonic sac. She also got blood work done twice showing that her hCG hormone levels were rising at an expected rate. So according to all that she was definitely pregnant. She figured that she was either going to miscarry or not, but that it was out of her hands.
The bleeding eventually slowed and she continued to be pregnant (as far as she could tell), so she just figured things were progressing normally. There seemed to be no other reason for concern, and she planned her first prenatal for 12 weeks gestation as usual.
Her first prenatal is shown in episode 4, and the follow-up appointments and surgery are depicted in episode 5. What the TV show doesn’t tell you is what happened after Vanessa’s surgery.
The pathology report fortunately came back negative for cancer from the mass that was growing inside her, and for a short time she thought Oh good, surgery went well and now I’ll just recover.
But Vanessa ended up with a painful complication. Her high levels of hCG hormone triggered something called theca-lutein cysts, which are a type of ovarian cyst most commonly associated with molar pregnancies.
After Vanessa’s surgery, her ovaries looked fine, but within days the cysts grew as a result of those heightened levels of hormone. Her abdomen was filled with these ovarian cysts, as shown in the below ultrasound images. She had so many and they were so large that she looked 8 months pregnant!
She literally could not lie down or hardly even recline because she couldn’t breathe. She also couldn’t eat because her stomach was so crowded. It was several weeks after her surgery before she was recovered enough from those horrendous theca-lutein cysts to start feeling normalish again, and it took almost 2 months before her hormone levels were back to healthy levels.
Now, months after Vanessa’s surgery (a high-risk D&C), her hormones levels are good and her belly is back to its proper size, but she is still constantly on the lookout to detect further problems. Any cells remaining in her uterus could begin to grow, or worse, metastasize into other parts of the body. The way to determine if that’s happening is with pregnancy tests, so she has to avoid getting pregnant but take tests every 2 weeks to be sure the hCG levels aren’t rising. If she gets a positive pregnancy test then she will have to hurry in to the doctor to determine what’s going on.
Although her experience was difficult and traumatic, Vanessa feels like it was divinely timed and directed, and she is at peace about it. She is glad the viewers of the show got to see thru real events how loving and supportive her amazing family is.
But she’s still nervous about the future. Once she’s physically and emotionally ready to get pregnant again, her odds of having another molar pregnancy are significantly greater than before: about 1 in 20.
Vanessa appreciated having supportive midwives to help her through her experience. She loves Sherri and also speaks very highly of Karla Jo. She reports: “Karla Jo was really great! I would consider her as a midwife if I was still in the area. I didn’t spend tons of time with her but she came VERY highly recommended by Sherri and I really liked her presence and personality. I felt very safe with her.”
Karla Jo Bennett serves Utah County, Salt Lake County, and surrounding areas. Her midwifery website is www.gentlebirthandwomenshealth.com. (Sherri Price is retired now, so if you were interested in hiring her, you’re out of luck.)
Note: Vanessa Alldredge’s story and medical details shared with permission.