Mormon wives are coming forward for the first time to defend their plural marriages and help to root out the abuse of young girls
Dressed in her sharp pinstripe suit, her dark brown hair elegantly coiffed, Vicky looks every inch the archetypal young working woman after a day at the office. But there are things she does not talk about at work.
Things such as the house she grew up in with her 39 brothers and sisters. Things such as the 21 children, six of them her own, who run around the house she lives in now. Things such as the two other “sisterwives,” one of them her blood sister, with whom she she shares her husband, taking turns to spend the night with him in strict rotation. “It’s not a thing we generally publicise,” she says shyly.
Now, however, Vicky is going public, although she declines to use her last name. As high-profile cases of child sex abuse among secretive cults unsettle and anger the larger polygamist community, women like Vicky are stepping forward to lobby in defence of a woman’s right to be a plural wife without fear of prosecution. “We live good and decent lives,” she said.
Going public on polygamy has long been a risky business in Utah, where an estimated 40,000 polygamists live below the legal radar. For the past 50 years Utah has had a strict “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards the practice, a felony punishable by up to five years in jail. The policy was prompted by a raid in 1953 on a polygamist community that ended with hundreds of children taken into care and parents jailed, causing a public relations disaster.
Some groups retreated into compounds. Those living among the wider community kept their mouths shut and their heads down. Parents avoided taking their children to the dentist or doctor, fearing the discovery of their secret. Children were warned not to bring friends home from school – if they were allowed to go.
Murmurs persisted of dark acts among some of the many splinter groups of Mormon fundamentalists, the umbrella term for those who broke away from the main Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints over the practice 100 years ago.
Then in 2003, in a direct challenge to prosecutors, Tom Green, a polygamist, began appearing on television shows to argue his right to his five wives.
“I’d never really thought about prosecuting polygamy,” said Mark Shurtleff, a mainstream Mormon who had been elected Utah attorney general the year before. “But it’s a felony and he’s out there flaunting it.” Investigators discovered worse: Mr Green’s youngest bride was only 13 and had borne him a child – proof of a sexual relationship. Mr Green was charged with child rape and polygamy.
The case opened up a Pandora’s box for Mr Shurtleff. Emboldened, escapees from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the closed cult led by Warren Jeffs, came to tell their stories. “The stories were horrendous,” he said. Carolyn Jessop, who escaped with her eight children, told him of forced child marriages, the abuse of young boys and girls and threats to slit their throats if they left.
“Here’s what I had to decide,” Mr Shurtleff explains. “We had to do something. How are we supposed to prosecute all the polygamists, 20,000 people? It can’t be done. So we decided ‘We’ll go after child rape, child sexual assault. We’ll make it about that, not religion’.”
A warrant was issued for Mr Jeffs’s arrest on charges of aiding child rape instead of polygamy. He went on the run but was recaptured in August. The shocking testimony of a former child bride at a hearing earlier this month convinced a judge to send Mr Jeffs to trial. The hearing is set to begin in April. The stories of Mr Jeffs’s church horrified many other polygamists who regarded his actions as an abuse of God’s law. To them polygamy is a religious duty that they must undertake to reach the highest level of heaven.
Anne Wilde, the widow of a high-profile polygamist, decided it was time to save the reputation of the community as a whole. She began collecting the oral histories of plural wives to publish in a book and created a website for her organisation, Principle Voices. She launched a pro-polygamy magazine, Mormon Focus, and recruited Vicky to pose with her two sisterwives and their babies for the inaugural cover, taking lessons from same-sex marriage advocates to argue their right to an “alternative lifestyle”.
“It was also easier for me because I was no longer a plural wife,” Ms Wilde explains. “For those others, it was a brave thing to do.”
Mr Shurtleff, meanwhile, was struggling to infiltrate polygamist communities to find out the extent of abuse there. “You could probably infiltrate the Taleban movement easier,” he says wryly. Then someone mentioned Anne Wilde.
“Anne has family and friends throughout the community, she knows everyone,” he said. “And they were adamantly opposed to the abuse that was going on. We couldn’t go after it without their help.”
Mr Shurtleff’s decision to co-opt polygamist representatives like Ms Wilde caused uproar in some quarters. Tapestry Against Polygamy, a pressure group formed by woman and child “refugees” who had escaped closed polygamist communities, refused to join a task force formed by the attorney general if Ms Wilde and her associates joined. It would be like “trying to create a rape crisis centre and inviting both the rapists and their victims to attend,” Rowenna Erickson, the group’s co-founder said. “Trying to come to a solution with the perpetrator or their wives is unrealistic.”
Many polygamist women argue that their plural marriage was a choice that has brought them fulfilment. Christine, a third wife, argues that her lifestyle gives her far more freedom than a conventional marriage. “Have a husband around all the time?” she jokes. “I like men but not that much! When he’s sick I can send him to someone else, when he needs his ironing done I can send him to someone else.”
Others talk of the benefits of female companionship. “My sisterwife is my best friend, she colours my hair,” says Mary, a second wife. Vicky admits the life is not always easy. “It’s impossible to see your husband love another woman without some jealousy,” she says. “But that deeply held spiritual belief gets you through.”
Their duty if they want society’s respect, they say, is to help to police their own communities to root out abuse. The religious community that Mary belongs to is one of four polygamist groups that has agreed to clamp down on the marriages of minors and has excommunicated members for child abuse. “We are as appalled as anyone by abuse,” Mary says.
PR help came from an unexpected quarter with the HBO series Big Love, a sympathetic look at a “progressive” polygamist family featuring an exhausted, Viagra-popping husband struggling to keep up with his wives’ financial, emotional and sexual needs. The stories that Ms Wilde collected formed the basis for many of the storylines. But polygamy, as the series shows, is far from problem-free. An extraordinarily high number of the polygamists I spoke to had experienced divorce in their families, even if they defended that by noting that marriage break-ups happen in monogamous families too.
Many of the divorces, though, were caused by polygamy itself. Mary married her second husband when her first ran off with his third wife. Vicky’s sister, Valerie, married her sister’s husband after her own left her. Even with the new declaration against child marriages by some groups, polygamist brides often marry young – 18, 19 or 20 – a result, critics say, of the lessons drummed into young girls that marriage equals salvation.
“I really want to get married,” Milly, a 13-year-old pupil at a fundamentalist school, says shyly. “I spent my whole time reading polygamist love stories.” Monica, 16, who has a boyfriend, is not sure that polygamy is for her. “We’ve talked about it. He’s set on it but I don’t know if I could do that,” she says.
“If he had another girlfriend, I’d shoot her. I don’t really get along with girls.”
Mr Shurtleff now counts many polygamists among his friends, to the horror of his critics. He remains unconvinced by the case for polygamy. “Some men want to sow their wild oats and this is a way for them to do so while calling it a religious duty,” he says. He tells of a family friend who suddenly announced one day that he had received a revelation from God that he should take a second wife. “Of course it was his very cute secretary,” he says wryly.
The fact remains, as he says, that “polygamists aren’t going away”. And reassuring them that they are safe from prosecution for their lifestyle will only make it easier for witnesses to the more serious crimes to come forward.
Decriminalisation, Mr Shurtleff believes, like Ms Wilde’s group, will make it easier to shine a light into the dark corners of the most secret societies. He attempted legislation a couple of years ago to reduce polygamy to a misdemeanour but dropped the clause under political pressure.
There is a fine line between working with and against the polygamists. Mr Jeffs’s group, the FLDS, refused to work with Mr Shurtleff – “they think I’m the Antichrist”. Others are also under his prosecutorial gaze. Seven brothers and members of the Kingstons, a wealthy family-based group, are being investigated.
The women, meanwhile, have vowed to keep up the fight until the felony law is struck from the books. Vicky, whose mother was taken into custody and her grandfather sent to jail after the 1953 raid, says the threat of persecution hung over her childhood and fuelled society’s prejudice. “It’s a very real fear,” she says. “We don’t just take for granted that it’s gone away.” Mary adds: “We have nothing to hide.”
The prophets and the law
Early leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints practised plural marriage with the belief that it was approved in the Bible. A doctrine of plural marriage was announced at a conference in Salt Lake City, August 28-29, 1852
Plural marriage was defined as bigamy in US federal law on July 8, 1862. Church leaders said that this was unconstitutional because it would prohibit a religious practice
They tried to challenge the law with a test case using George Reynolds, a church member who had two wives, Mary Ann Tuddenham and Amelia Schofield. Reynolds was convicted when the case reached the Supreme Court on January 6, 1879
The Edmunds Anti-polygamy Bill was passed on March 14, 1882, defining polygamous living as “unlawful cohabitation”. In 1884 polygamists were imprisoned and others fled to Canada and Mexico
The Church denounced polygamy on September 24, 1890, when its president, Wilford Woodruff, said that it would submit to US law. But the practice was still continued by breakaway fundamentalists
There are 40,000 polygamists in the US, and 10,000 people claim to be members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Polygamy is present in 78 per cent of global cultures. While most are polygynist marriages, in which a man has multiple wives, in Nepal and Tibet there are polyandrist marriages, in which a woman has multiple husbands
Source: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, news archives
King Solomon’s 700 wives and 300 concubines were his undoing. The Bible says that in his old age they “turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God”
The status of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, as a prophet enabled him to carry on marrying after his death. Recent scholarship indicates he had 33 wives, but some estimates are as high as 48
King Mswati III of Swaziland chose his 13th wife last year from 20,000 virgins
The 17th century Turkish Sultan Ibrahim I, known as “the Mad”, kept a harem of about 280 women. He is said to have had all but two drowned for infidelity
Jan Bockelszoon, a leader of the 16th century Anabaptist church, made it illegal to reject a marriage proposal. He rescinded the law after 16 wives
Sources: The Bible; FARMS Review; Royal Follies, D. Randall; University of Virginia; Times archives