Being the Secret Wife

Oh boy, do I remember those days. A year and a half of staying hidden.

I told my family very early on. Because of the chaos and backlash it created, I still have nightmares about interacting with my father, now 5 ½ years later.  Thus, we decided to keep our marriage secret from everyone else for a time

One of the parameters of my becoming a wife was that in spite of the legal and social risks involved, I was not going to remain secret forever. However. the immediate repercussions of outing our marriage with people with whom I stood to have a lifetime continuing relationship was incredibly daunting. Also, we needed some recovery from the upheaval which was created by my family. These things were a higher priority than announcing to the world that we had entered a union we believed was heavenly but would be treated contemptuously.

Thus began the interaction with Joshua and Charlotte’s extended families which rapidly became a bane to my existence. I was part of the family and there was concern about me being left out as well as we wanted the extended family to meet me and perhaps create a relationship with me before we gave them the news. I was invited to every extended family activity by Charlotte and Joshua as well as in contact with Joshua’s brother’s family on a regular basis as they were living in the same house as Charlotte. I went as Charlotte’s friend.  This rapidly proved difficult.

Every time we interacted with family or in public, I made sure that I walked separately from Joshua and that I did not make eye contact with him. I never sat next to him and we made sure we only spoke about trivial matters in voices loud enough for others to hear.
At the time, hiding everything seemed so vital.  Now I realize that we were much more concerned about it than we probably should have been. However, it was quite a shock to others when we began to reveal ourselves.

When we thought we were ready, we started telling people one at a time; knowing that the risk of rejection was very real, as it had already happened with some people very close to us. There was new trauma with every reveal, and we felt the need to take time to regroup after each.

It’s been 4 years of living openly, and apparently, we still have people to tell.  At a recent family Christmas party, one of the great-uncles came up to me and asked how I fit in the family. I responded, “I’m Melissa.” He then asked exactly how I was related. I told him that I was Joshua’s other wife.  I watched him as he rapidly swallowed several times, blinked furiously, and then stammered “Oh!”  Thankfully another of Joshua’s uncles was standing nearby and came to the rescue.  He redirected the conversation in a very deft manner.

At our Chanukah party, we had this delightful experience.

Things are better now. I have much more confidence in sharing, and I am much more at peace with peoples’ reactions – regardless of what they are. There is nothing anyone can do that hasn’t already been done by someone closer.

I have gotten to a place where I’m kind of unfazed by responses.  Simply because those who will accept us will, and those who will not will not – regardless of former relationships or perceived expectations. That is hard won, bitterly painful knowledge.

I’m at the point of telling shopkeepers and others in my daily life randomly, and it has been extremely interesting as I have shared.  People will share that they too have polygamous backgrounds, and it almost seems conspiratorial as they do – like we are both in on some great secret.  It immediately becomes a shared reference point between us and creates a sort of bond.

Those early days were so tough, and revealing ourselves to a largely unfriendly world was incredibly painful stuff.

Last week I had a moment of realization.  I realized that because of how hard it was, and the constant stress and difficulty of that time, it is literally a miracle that I am here, married to the man of my dreams, and living happily with our plural family. Only by the grace of God could we have gotten to this place. He is so much bigger than the rejection of men.

The Winder Family Comes Out of Hiding! or Hidden Wife, Hidden Life.

The second episode of Season 2 of Seeking Sister Wife is by far my favorite episode to date!  There are so many funny moments! I just laughed out loud on more than one occasion.  One was the very awkward conversation that Bernie has with his son John.  Oh man, you just can’t make that stuff up!  The confusion on John’s face was just priceless.  Bernie, from one father to another, I think you handled it well.

Another time that got me laughing was actually in the preview for the next episode where Vanessa provocatively orders a piece of red meat on her first date with Dimitri.  This, of course, was after she learned that the Snowdens are essentially pescatarian, as a matter of family policy.  But she likes her steaks and cheeseburgers!  Such a funny situation, and very bold of Vanessa.  I know it sparked some interesting conversations in my house, and I am sure there will be more to come.

Perhaps the funniest moment, however, was the public debut of the Winder family.  The situation was just too comical for words, and probably more funny for me because I know, first hand, the courage it took to do something like that!  And yet, despite all the emotional buildup and bravery, there was no one to appreciate it but some ducks.  It’s just too funny!  It reminds me of that old saying about sounds and falling trees in the forest.  You know the one: if a polygamous family comes out in the open together, but no one is there to see it…?

winders at park

Baby steps, baby steps.

In all seriousness, I think divulging themselves to the ducks is an admirable first step!  It means they have personally, and fully, embraced the reality of their own family, and are ready to take the next step, and that can be one of the hardest things to do.  Honestly, this may have been the best way to do it.  If they could go together, as a family (and those are not the same things), to an empty park (but where the possibility of being seen is a reality – where the sense and prospect of danger are real) a dozen times before actually going out where people would be guaranteed to see them, they would already have gone a long way towards conquering their personal fears.  And of course, they have gone quite a bit farther than that now.  What with being on national TV and all.

I remember, with a twinge of PTSD, our own efforts to announce the change in our family when we became plural.  The fear and uncertainty were so intense at times!!  And the losses were bitter and painful!!  But it has all been worth it.

There was fear of the repercussions from so many angles!  And it is the same for most, if not all other polygamous families.  We faced social, familial, and religious shunning wondering what our neighbors, friends, coworkers, family, and fellow church members would say, or how they would treat us and our children.  We were especially keen to the possible social consequences for our children – the decisions were horrible!  There were also financial fears, and legal fears.  We could go to jail, I could lose my job.  Every. Single. Thing. that we had worked so hard to gain and build – our family, our home, my career, our children, our friendships, and our very reputations –  was literally at stake.  It could all so easily come tumbling down into a broken pile of smoldering garbage.  Everything could be lost, and there was literally no earthly help or community that we could fall back on for support (however, we have built or received all of that community and support structure since).  It seemed sometimes that it was us against the entire world (and us against ourselves at other times).  Prayer was almost as common to me as breathing.  I look back on those days with wonder, and almost awe, that we survived at all, and I thank God that he walked us thru that fiery furnace.  Yes, the refining was intense, and our fears were not at all misplaced; yet, we were also given peace and courage sufficient to meet our fears, face them, and overcome them.  It was an amazing roller-coaster ride!

Scariest-Roller-Coasters-in-the-world

We had letters written to us by family members accusing us of adultery and other sorts of gross wickedness.  Similar letters were sent out to other family members, warning them of our dangerous influences.  We had death threats against us, the police were called to investigate us, ecclesiastical leaders were called to discipline us, and child protective services were called (DCFS) to remove our children.  But nothing came of any of these attacks.  There was no weapon forged against us that prevailed.

Melissa’s children were even kidnapped by her parents for a short time.  They were going to send her kids up to Washington State to live with their deadbeat father who is generally unstable, has lived in dozens of locations, is a known drug addict, and has been married to 6 different women!  Can someone please explain how that is better than a man being married, and maintaining a healthy relationship with 2 women!?  It’s crazy!  Eventually, they changed their minds when they realized that they were the felons (kidnapping) and not us (polygamy was alegal in Utah at the time of the kidnapping – thank you Judge Waddoups!).

We were openly uninvited to family parties.  I had family members that I hadn’t talked to in years, go out of their way to reach out to let me know that they disapproved of my life.  We were all excommunicated from the church that we had been born and raised in.  But when we kept on attending as non-members, my daughter was abused by her Sunday School teacher, and the church gave us legal notice that we were unwelcome in the most profound way possible.  We were not even allowed to set foot on any church property anywhere in the world!  The McGee family sadly describes a similar experience with their Synagogue (I’ll have a future post on this topic).

We literally had former friends place curses (in the name of the Lord – of course) upon us and our family.  I’m not making this stuff up.  I couldn’t.  I can hardly believe it now.

I used to ride a van pool to work.  It was convenient because the van would meet at a parking lot just one block from my house.  Rain or shine I would always walk in between my house and the van pool.  After we became plural, I remember being so grateful for the change in daylight savings time – just so I could walk home in the dark and not have to see my neighbors.

I thought about the 6th lecture on faith many times during those days.  Especially verses 5-8.

For a man to lay down his all, his character and reputation, his honor and applause, his good name among men, his houses, his lands, his brothers and sisters, his wife and children, and even his own life also, counting all things but filth and dross for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ, requires more than mere belief, or supposition that he is doing the will of God, but actual knowledge: realizing, that when these sufferings are ended he will enter into eternal rest; and be a partaker of the glory of God.
– LoF 6:5

I remember having Jesus’ parable of the man building a tower brought to my mind so many times!  Those words were a steady a source of strength and inspiration for me.

At some point, everyone needs to live an authentic life – in my opinion.  The potential dangers and discomforts of the many forms of persecution are eventually outweighed by the desire to simply live rightly and face the consequences – whatever they may be.  Sophie Winder expresses this in the first episode when she talks about not having to be the hidden wife anymore, and Tami mentions it in the second episode when they are planning their outing to the park for Sadie’s Birthday party.  There comes a point when you are ready to just be done hiding.  There is no need to act rashly or foolishly, but when the time is right you’ll know it.  Hopefully, you will then have the courage to carry it out and see it thru to the end.

Despite all the hardships we endured, there have still been some good and true friends who have stuck by us while the false have fallen away.  Also, there have been plenty of new friends, a thousand times better than the old ones.  Some family members too, from the beginning, have maintained and reaffirmed their love and support of us, and that has been wonderful.  There are even some family members, originally antagonistic, who have now come around in some ways, and our relationships are healing.

Things have calmed down significantly for us since then.  The roller-coaster ride has slowed and transitioned from almost constant nausea to almost constant enjoyment.  There are still ups and downs, but we are enjoying the view and the thrill of the ride much more now, and we’ve loosened up our grip on the safety bar – now that our fear of certain and sudden death has subsided.  Even so, it has taken us years to fully come out into the public eye.  Starting this blog has been another step for us, and I’m so glad Charlotte did it.

elephant

We told our friends and family one by one.  Maybe there was a better way, but at the time it seemed like the most manageable way to handle all the upset and emotion.  Like eating an elephant one bite at a time.  And I suppose we are still not finished.  When Melissa and I were married we had no public celebration, but we are finally getting around to doing it this summer!  Let us know if you want an invitation.

 

What happened before and after my friend asked if Joshua and Charlotte are siblings

I met Sophie* more than two years ago because of our shared interest in home birth.

I never told her my marital status.

It wasn’t relevant to a relationship.

She was interested in my head covering, so it was a point of conversation which led to sharing somewhat of my beliefs. I shared what we did with Biblical feasts and what, in the context of Mormonism, I have come to believe about them. Sophie was very interested in my points of view regarding religious and spiritual matters, and we had shared child birthing, feeding, and rearing points of view.

I wanted to go over to her home often, but life is just busy, and my plan to teach her how to make challah never got off the ground.

When our Chanukah party came up, and we had a Facebook invite list, I was mentally going through who I wanted to come to it and Sophie popped into my brain.

So, not really thinking about it beyond sharing our feast with her, I sent an invitation via Facebook and she responded positively.

I wasn’t really sure how to confront the polygamy issue, so I decided to wait until she was actually there and tell her face to face on my porch. I’m kind of in a place of just telling people when they are in circumstances that will lead them to find out anyway. It’s probably not the safest but it gives absolute clarity on where they stand, and I get to do it in a take-it-to-the-front format.

However, two hours before the party began, right in the middle of preparations, I got a phone call from my son who happened to be in town. I hadn’t seen him for 9 months. He is in the Army and been deployed to Afghanistan.  I really, really want to maintain this relationship for many reasons, but it’s kind of been on sketchy, tenuous threads and definitely on his terms.  So I opted to leave the party preparations, visit him, and get back as soon as I reasonably could.

Well, I didn’t give the heads up to Joshua and Charlotte because I thought I could get back early to take care of disclosure.

That didn’t work out.

I got a text from Sophie, asking for the address and I gave it to her.

As time ran later, I began to worry about getting back on time but there wasn’t a definitive point to leave and I finally just said that I needed to leave. I got in my car and checked my messages.

Imagine my absolute relief when the last text message appeared on my screen.

IMG_20181206_150301_01

I was floored. There are literally less than a handful of people who have reacted positively upon immediate disclosure. Sophie made #5.

So, I bawled my way home and walked into a huge hug from Sophie and a bunch of laughter and just absolute happiness about how it all went down.

*Name changed

 

What happened after my sisterwife’s friend asked if Joshua and I are siblings

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.

telling someone you're a polygamist final

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.

*name changed
What do you think?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Y’all have your own castle

In the episode of Seeking Sister Wife called “Risky Business,” Ashley tells her mom Donna that she and Dimitri are starting to date again.

“When I’m doing something I know my mom won’t approve of, I just love telling her about it!” said no one ever.

Screenshot 2018-01-25 07.40.19

I think the conversation between Ashley and Donna went pretty well; here’s what Donna said [timestamp 33:23], and it is my favorite SSW moment thus far:

You a queen and he a king and y’all have your own castle, so you make your own decisions, and you do you.

– Donna (Ashley Snowden’s mom), Seeking Sister Wife, S1E2

What better response could you expect from a parent?  I absolutely love this.

Parents need to let go of having control over (or even having a say in) their adult children’s lives.  I’m happy for Ashley that her mom could be so mature and accepting of a lifestyle she wouldn’t choose for herself or her daughter.

I’ve had my share of similar dialogues.  They can be very difficult.  In our house, we’re not allowed to complain, but we’re allowed to say that something is “not my favorite.”  So I’ll just say… Conversations like that one are not my favorite.

When we tell people about our polygamy, we never know what to expect, and we have gotten a whole spectrum of responses.

Some responses were laughable, some were cringe-worthy, some were supportive, some were hurtful, and some were memorable enough that they’ve become classic stories in our family.  We’ve been cursed (literally); we’ve had people overcome with the Spirit and gain a testimony that we’re doing God’s will; we’ve had people shrug as if we just told them we like to eat spaghetti for dinner; we’ve had the cops called on us; we’ve had our Church leaders called on us; we’ve had DCFS (child protective services) called on us; we’ve had people stop talking to us; we’ve had people tell us about Dreams they’ve had about us; we’ve had people act shocked; we’ve had people nod and say, “Yeah, I figured.”  We can never be sure how a person is going to react, but we always learn something about the person by how they behave towards us after they find out we’re polygamists.

Strangers have been easier for me to tell than people whom I’ve known my whole life.  I suppose it’s because with a stranger I have nothing to lose: if they respond negatively, the relationship ends before it even begins.  But with a long-time friend or a family member, I’ve invested in the relationship and will suffer a great loss if they reject me.

And rejection has been in plenty.  Perhaps I will describe the depth of it in future posts.  For now I’ll keep it on the positive side and share one of my favorite stories of a person’s reaction to my polygamous status:

We were at a large gathering and were meeting a lot of new acquaintances.  Joshua and Melissa met this guy and got introduced as husband-and-wife, and 5 minutes later I met the same individual.  He asked who I was married to, and I pointed out Joshua.  He was confused and said, “But… I thought she was his wife…” and I just stood there nodding and smiling, and it slowly dawned on him what that meant.  He said, “So… You’re polygamists?!”  I confirmed and waited to see what his reaction would be.  Pause… pause… pause… “That’s awesome!

All these experiences, both positive and negative, help us figure out who our true friends are and who it is we want to continue having in our lives.  And maybe my sisterwife Melissa is right when she says, “We are a test for people, to see whether or not they will be kind to us.”