It’s usually older men who get second, third and sometimes more wives, brides who are usually teenagers.
Left behind are angry, frustrated young men. Not only can they not choose their own mates, they’ve been told it’s against the church’s rules to date or even socialize with girls their age.
A few lucky young men do get wives. But it can feel like entrapment. One day they wake up and are told they’re marrying a stranger for “time and all eternity,” in the words of the faith’s marriage ceremony.
The boys are often the forgotten victims of polygamy. But three of their stories are told in a documentary by Maureen Palmer and Helen Slinger called Polygamy’s Lost Boys, which airs Saturday at 7 p.m. on Global Television.
All three stories are different. All are heart-breaking insights into the difficult transition from having no freedom to having almost too much.
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Fundamentalist Mormons broke with the mainstream church when it renounced polygamy in 1890. Because polygamy is illegal in Canada and the United States, they live in cloistered communities where members’ behaviour is strictly controlled. There are estimated 30,000 of them in North America and about 12,000 belong to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints.
Ben Blackmore, 26, and his 20-year-old cousin Ray Blackmore grew up in Bountiful, under the thumb of their uncle and former bishop, Winston Blackmore. Tom Sam Steed, 20, grew up in Bountiful’s Arizona twin, Colorado City. He was kicked out of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints five years ago by the now-jailed prophet Warren Jeffs. Steed’s crime was watching movies like Charlie’s Angels. The charges against Jeffs are for arranging marriages of under-aged girls to much older men.
Ray left Bountiful before his 18th birthday, fed up with lousy wages and frustrated about not being able to date. He now lives for the adrenaline rush of daredevil motorcycling. It’s already landed him in hospital with a broken neck.
Like most of the boys from Bountiful, Ray never finished high school and has few job options. Right now, he’s looking after horses and machinery for his girlfriend’s father not far from Bountiful. For now, it’s enough to buy beer and pay what he owes on his bike, his ’95 Cougar car and his truck.
Tom Sam also struggles with freedom. Last semester, he failed almost every class at college, distracted by music, raves and fun. He vows it won’t happen again. After a couple of years of homelessness and suicidal depression, he now lives in Boulder, Colo. near his mentor and best-selling outdoor adventure author Jon Krakauer.
But it’s Ben’s story that is the most complex and compelling. One morning six years ago, Ben was told that he was getting married the next day in Colorado City. He packed up and started driving the 1,200 kilometres south.
Ben and his 16-year-old bride, Suzann, had met. But they certainly didn’t know each other.
“The thought that was going through my mind was that I’m going to get a hottie,” Suzann says in the documentary. “Girls like me just don’t get hotties.”
Unlike many fundamentalist marriages, Suzann knew enough in advance that she had a white wedding dress — albeit in a simple, puffed sleeve style.
Ben’s uncle Winston performed the religious ceremony — Blackmore is not licensed to perform legal marriages. Right after, the newlyweds packed up and drove north so Ben could go back to work at his uncle’s company the following day.
They had three children in quick succession — birth control is banned by the church. But when the church split in 2003, so did Ben and Suzann, who moved back to Arizona at Jeffs’s command.
Unlike many other wives, Suzann was not immediately reassigned to another man and a few months later, Ben swallowed his pride and principles. He joined Suzann in Colorado City and tried for a few months to live under the increasingly bizarre diktats of the autocratic Jeffs.
But it didn’t work out and within a few months, they were back in Canada and under the velvet-gloved control of Winston Blackmore.
Ben renounced the religion entirely in March 2004. But he hasn’t been able to cut all his ties. With a wife and four children to support, he needs a job. Few people other than his uncle and his cousins are willing to hire guys with no high school education, and the wages reflect that.
Winston Blackmore is unapologetic about the low wages.
“Everybody was working and they were working for the good of each other,” he says in the film. “We compromised on wages — even I did. But why we compromised on wages was that everyone was employed.”
But Ben resents getting so little money for the punishingly long hours he works as a log hauler.
He’s never earned enough to be able to save anything or even pay off his debts. So, when he and Suzann needed $1,000 to rent a house, they had no choice but to ask Winston Blackmore for the money.
He gladly obliged. A kindness? Perhaps. More likely it was a way of regaining some control over one of the boys that he’d lost.