“They Must Have Been Raised in Polygamy”

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.

Nits make LiceOne 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.

How the teens took it…

Note from the blog owner: Melissa is my sisterwife and she is a new contributor to the blog.  This is her first post.  

 

I have been asked many times how my teens reacted to me becoming a plural wife.

I’ll tell you: Horribly. And I don’t blame them.

Let’s review the collapse (there will be other blog posts fleshing out these experiences):

All my life I was raised to be very judgmental of others: hair, weight, clothing, how people carried themselves, etc.  It was never just, people are different.  No.  There was some immeasurable standard to which all were compared, and to which all failed to measure up to.  They were mocked, made fun of, and there was an undercurrent of haughtiness embedded in my very soul.  I laugh now because my family was hardly the type who could lord anything over anyone.  Sincerely, my own grandmother was annoyed by us – she is likely the one this critical worldview was passed down from in the first place.

Naturally, I passed all of that judgmental world-view on to my children.  In the line of attack were people who lived in any manner differently from North American, mainstream, LDS, intact nuclear family.  The sad part is that my own family didn’t meet the criteria for which I judged people – I was a divorced single mother.

Believe it or not, I was the worst toward polygamists.  I didn’t know any polygamists, and I didn’t need to.  I believed they were apostate, weird, and likely inhuman.  I was mainstream LDS, born and raised in Colorado (with a 6-year stint in Seattle), and educated in Utah.  I’d been living in Utah since 2000.  My only reference points toward those living in plural families were news stories about how horrible the fundamentalists were; from not educating their children, to wearing old-fashioned garb, to their reprehensible lifestyle of sharing husbands.  I was particularly horrible during the Texas events of 2008.  I declared that all of the FLDS children should be removed by the authorities and raised by others.  I confess that I vocally cheered at their trauma.  God, I am such an ass (that was a prayer).

Five weeks before our lives were rocked by a series of events which left us homeless, (which in turn led to a series of events that created the structure, and mind/soul shift, for me to become a plural wife), upon hearing about a local plural family, I started off on a mean-spirited diatribe about how disgusting I thought their entire lifestyle was. We were in the car. All of my children were with me. And I was a monster. What a stage I set.

the teens primary colors

As all of this was going on, I did not prepare my children for my change of heart, and I don’t know that they would have understood it. When I first approached my children with the idea, they were horrified.  They thought I had lost my mind. Suddenly, their rock-solid mom was adrift and they thought she was mad, unstable, brainwashed – everything I had said about polygamist women.

As time progressed, I did other less than mindful things which were ignorant to the venom others held and created a huge backlash for myself.  I put my children in the care of my parents who were terribly misinformed and highly malignant against this lifestyle.  My father told my children that my husband was going to take my 16-year-old daughter as a wife. My parents called my ex-husband – a man known to them as an alcohol/crack/porn addict, and spouse abuser – to offer him custody (apparently, they thought he would be a better parent than I, in spite of all of his limitations, and regardless of me being the legal custodial parent since September of 2000).

My father called both the police and DCFS (Child Protective Services) to report me. At the time polygamy was not illegal. Thankfully, the authorities told my father to bring my children home, or be faced with possible kidnapping charges.  However, I still had to deal with a police officer coming to my home for a keep the peace call.

At one point I attempted to go to a counselor.  I had no idea who to reach out to.  The one place which specialized in polygamy turned out to be an agency which helped women and children flee from abusive plural situations.  The counselor told me that she had never counseled anyone entering a plural marriage and could not help us.  She did have a private session with my daughter where she told my child to flee the home entirely.  I have since found out that counselors who are LGBT(etc.) friendly are the most open to those joining a family in a plural situation.  I made one appointment for my daughter with an LGBT(etc.) friendly counselor, but the counselor moved immediately after and gave us a referral.  My daughter refused to speak with the referral.

Through all of this, my kids were confused, horrified, and had no resources to sort things out.  I truly believe that I could have made it much easier had I not been all along so horrendous about those unlike myself

TL;DR bottom line: Don’t judge.  Don’t teach others to judge.  You may be eating a feast of crow, and end up being judged by those for whom you set a terrible example of judgment.

My religious background and childhood experiences with polygamy

My parents raised my siblings and me to be faithful, active members of the LDS Church. We were all born in Utah, we attended Church as a family every Sunday, and we accepted every assignment our Church leaders were in the mood to give us.  We had Family Home Evening on Monday nights and every morning we read the scriptures as a family.  As children we all got baptized at age 8, and as youth we attended all the requisite youth classes and activities. When I was 15 years old my dad became the bishop of our ward (local congregation). All of us married in the temple, and all the brothers and brothers-in-law served missions.  Etc.  We were “good Mormons.”

I was taught to receive personal revelation, but only in the context of 1. Gaining a testimony, and 2. Making big life decisions such as whom to marry and what career path to follow.  Besides those 2 categories of revelation, knowing what to do was a matter of following the commandments and instructions as laid out by the Church leaders, both the local leadership and the General Authorities.  It wasn’t until I was married with kids that I finally figured out I had been missing personal revelation category # 3. God’s guidance in the life of the individual, if she’ll only let him lead her down the path he has for her and her alone.  (This fact was right in front of me the whole time, since General Conference and General Authorities give general guidelines, not specific directions.  Duh.  Man, am I slow sometimes.)

I remember when I was a young adult and I started to have questions about the Church and the gospel, my father would answer me by saying things such as, “Well, I’ve never heard that topic talked about in General Conference, so I don’t worry about it.”  He genuinely believed (believes) that obeying and following Church leaders defines righteousness.  This was what I was taught to believe as well, and that’s how I felt for my entire life up to my mid-20s.

My very limited experience with polygamy and polygamists

When I was a young child, my LDS aunt (my dad’s sister) became convinced that polygamy was required for exaltation (the Mormon name for the highest level of heaven), and when she couldn’t convince her LDS husband to take another wife, she left her marriage, deserted her 4 tiny children (the youngest was 6 months old), and became a plural wife. I would never recommend anyone do this. (Fortunately, my aunt’s amazing ex-husband ended up getting remarried to a wonderful woman who raised the abandoned children with love, and who has earned enough loyalty and respect from them to be called “Mom.”)  I believe watching his sister make such a life-wrecking decision was traumatic for my father.  I think it’s one of the reasons he rejected my polygamy so vehemently (I’ll share more details about his reaction in the future). He has had a difficult time seeing that in the case of his sister’s polygamy, her children lost their mother, but in the case of my polygamy, my children have essentially gained a mother.

I remember as a child seeing fundies in a grocery store and my mom hissing, “Don’t look at them — they’re polygamists!”

These few memories are all the experiences with polygamy I remember having in my childhood, aside from the confusing stories of polygamy I heard in Church itself, which I never understood but which I knew were controversial.  Even in my gospel studies as an adult, I procrastinated looking into “the whole polygamy thing” because I had a vague idea that it was troubling, and I suspected I wasn’t scholarly enough to understand it or even retain my faith if I looked too deeply into it.  As you’ll see later in my story, I never did get around to studying the issue, even though in 2013 I had clear enough personal revelation (category 3) to know God wanted me to live it and I plunged right in.