This is the first of a series of posts that I am calling, “For Gail“. This series will consist of my answers to a range issues brought up in comments (mostly on this post about the McGees, but also on the Dateonomics post by Taylor) and personal correspondence with a blog reader, Gail, back in April of 2019.
One of the views Gail repeats in her comments is that polygamists must have a sense of satisfaction and happiness that is stunted, malformed, or distorted in some way by their own upbringing in a polygamous family. There is something seriously wrong with them. Thus, they can completely accept the inherent unhappiness and dissatisfaction they experience while interpreting it as its opposite: actual (or full) satisfaction and happiness. Understandably, this makes Gail “sad” and “greatly troubled”. Especially since (at least at the time of her writing) it was, by her own admission, impossible for her to understand things in any other way. She says of my family’s reasons, “I cannot fathom [them] other than its how you were raised to look as marriage”. Here are some longer quotes with more context so that we can better understand the issue at hand. I have included links to the full comments as well, but please note that I will not be addressing every issue in every comment in this post – it is just too much to cover in one sitting (but I will be getting to everything eventually).
Speaking about Christine Brown (from the show, Sister Wives), Gail said:
“But she grew up in a plural family and I think her cultural upbringing formed her ability to find satisfaction and happiness in these circumstances. This intrigues me and yet saddens me at the same time. But I don’t doubt that plural families are intrigued and saddened by my perspectives regarding monogamy too. – Gail, April 4, 2019
on another occasion, Gail went on to say about my own family:
“These inequities in your marriages greatly trouble me, but I think you and your wives just accept them for reasons I cannot fathom other than its how you were raised to look as marriage — as a group endeavor.” – Gail, Apr 6, 2019
I am quite sure that Gail is not the only one out there who has difficulty with this concept, and, to be honest, I can sympathize with her and others who can only understand it thru this lens. It is undeniably true that it is difficult (if not impossible) to comprehend something that you have no experience with. In the case of polygamy, this is all the more true when the only reference point you have is what the media has to say about polygamists, which is almost all grossly imbalanced and sensationalized (but further comments on this will have to be its own post). This is the source of most people’s information, and it is almost exclusively about one group of polygamists: the FLDS.
“Then there was the horrible Warren Jeffs trial that further soured my view.” – Gail, April 4, 2019
The FLDS undoubtedly have many unique problems all their own, and their leaders have done plenty of things to muddy the public’s perception, but this will have to be its own post as well.
For many people, Gail included, the information they have also comes from reality television. While this is actually much much better than the standard media coverage, it is still only glimpses, is distorted in sometimes surprising ways, and doesn’t really paint the full picture.
To all the people in this camp I would say that the chances are very good that you don’t personally know any polygamists (altho you might be surprised). Therefore, to understand them you can only do so by analogy with your own way of thinking and feeling. I would like to point out that there is nothing wrong with this – there is no other way of understanding things!, and I am not just talking about understanding plural marriage here. No, no, my friends, this is true of all our understanding, and of every branch of knowledge.
When I pointed this out to Gail, she, to her credit, concurred.
“I agree that I cannot understand plural marriage well at all because I don’t see it lived day to day by anyone.” – Gail, April 4, 2019
So, limited understanding, due to naivety on the subject (whatever it may be), is not a hurdle to comprehension. It just calls for a little humility. Problems come when those with zero experience, begin telling those who have experienced something what that thing is all about; and furthermore, wont accept their words as valid if they go contrary to their experience-less understandings. Have you ever had this happen to you?
When my wives and I write about these things it is coming from an entirely different perspective than most of our readers. Our knowledge isn’t second, third, or fourth hand at all. We are living polygamy! and, in addition, we personally know and interact with dozens of other polygamist families as well!
Now we come to the really important thing that I wanted to communicate in this post. I want Gail, and other readers in her boat, to realize that we also know perfectly well where they are coming from, because we were there too! This is probably a difficult thing to wrap your mind around, (and understandably so because it is such a foreign concept), and doesn’t fit at all into your preconceived notions about it. Therefore, just to make this explicit, and I realize this may be a mind blowing realization to some, I want to say: In my family, we were all formerly monogamists, and we were all raised in monogamist families. This has very little to do with the way we were raised.
Anyone who is sincerely curious to know about our family can read about our former monogamy and our mainstream LDS upbringing in one of several posts that we have already written (here, here, here, here, here, here, or here – it does little good to rewrite material that has already been organized and published as a post already). So, when you tell us about the virtues of monogamy, you’re preaching to the choir. We love devoted monogamists, and think the world should have more of them!
I just want you to know that we completely understand your point of view. There is likely nothing that you can tell us about living monogamy that we don’t already know (because we were monogamists, like you), but there are things that we can tell you about polygamy (because we are polygamists, unlike you). Please also know that we fully respect and accept the sincerity of your decision to be monogamist. Please grant us the same sincerity.
Next I’m going to share an even more mind bending fact: We aren’t even close to the only ones. I do know many polygamists who were raised in polygamist families, but I actually know more who weren’t. Dozens of them (both husbands and wives), were raised in monogamist families, and were monogamists themselves for a number of years. Case in point, in the Brown family, which Gail mentioned earlier, Kody was raised in a monogamous, mainstream, LDS family. I have actually visited with Kody’s mother (who was also raised monogamous – as was his father). They converted to fundamentalism when Kody was on a mission for the LDS church! Can you imagine? When he came home his family had joined another church (and one that he had been preaching against). You should hear the things she said about LDS singles wards (haha, this will have to be another post).
It is not an uncommon occurrence within polygamist circles, for monogamists, and people who were raised in monogamy, to become part of a plural family, and I don’t think this fact is commonly known or appreciated by “outsiders”. Rather, my strong suspicion is that that the common perception is that people are born into polygamy and then later flee, leave, or escape polygamy. I’m not sure people realize that there is lots of movement the other way as well. Normal, everyday people leave monogamy to become polygamists regularly. The funny thing is that when people “escape monogamy” they usually just call it “divorce” – because no one (or nearly no one) believes that monogamy is something you need to escape. The common belief is that the specific marriage, or the specific family situation, was bad or abusive and worthy of leaving. This is in contrast to those who leave their plural marriages. They don’t simply get divorced; rather, they “escape”! Why is it so difficult to realize that there are some bad or abusive plural families just as there are some bad or abusive monogamist families? It is because polygamy is unusual in our culture, and therefore easily sensational.
Having said all this, how do you account for this movement of people from monogamy and monogamist upbringings with the axiom that polygamists have a warped “ability to find satisfaction and happiness” because they were raised in a polygamist home? No need to answer that question, because you can’t. Without modification, the axiom does not even allow the situation to exist as a possibility. Nevertheless the situation exists, and has continued to manifest and repeat itself for millennia. Keep reading these posts, and you might gain a glimpse into some of the reasons why. But beware! you may have to modify or discard this axiom.
One more thing, for those who might be interested in learning more (sorry for the short notice), on Saturday, August 3rd 2019 (that is today), session number 358 of the Sunstone Symposium will be titled:
Panel Discussion: Mainstream Mormon Women Go Plural
The brief description given on the website is as follows:
“This session features a panel of women who chose to leave mainstream Mormonism to live the polygamous lifestyle. Panelists include the stars of a popular reality show and women from a variety of polygamous sects.
This is your chance to pick their brains on how and why each came to choose plural marriage, how their family and friends have been affected, and what the various benefits and challenges of the polygamous lifestyle are.”
The session will begin at 2:00 pm in room 300-D of the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy, Utah. Charlotte and Melissa will be there, as well as several other women. It should be an interesting time.