How can a woman be so indoctrinated that she accepts her husband has other wives? And how can she find the courage to leave? Catherine Elsworth meets a former Mormon who, at the age of 70, has decided to speak out.
One Friday night when Irene Golda Kunz was 16, she told her aunt she was going to the cinema. Instead, she put on her best lavender gingham dress and slipped out to a waiting car, which drove her to a secluded Utah park where she secretly married her brother-in-law.
Climbing into the car, Irene felt sick with apprehension. In the front seat sat her fiance’, a dashing 23-year-old called Verlan LeBaron, and his wife, Irene’s half-sister Charlotte, who clutched their baby son. Irene was the bride, yet they presented the ‘idyllic family picture’, she recalls. ‘I felt like a fool sitting alone in the back.’
What she was doing was illegal – her father had been jailed for it – but Irene had been taught this was her duty. It was ‘God’s call’ that she enter a polygamous marriage to secure her place in heaven. And for her husband, God had chosen Verlan.
‘I was panicking,’ says Irene, now a silver-haired 70-year-old, recalling the moment after the ceremony when she was asked to kiss her husband. ‘We had been taught all our lives that polygamy was the right thing to do – Charlotte had made Verlan promise to live polygamously before she married him, so she could get into heaven. That’s how brainwashed she had been. But this was my sister. The worst thing I worried about was kissing her husband in front of her. I just did not want to hurt her.’
As it was, the kiss was brief, and Verlan immediately turned to Charlotte where, Irene recalls, ‘His lips lingered just a little longer than they had on mine.’
The stab of jealously she felt that day in 1953 soon became a permanent ache as Irene embarked on almost three decades of polygamous marriage, bearing 13 children, watching her husband marry wives young enough to be her daughter and enduring punishing poverty as the family, in flight from the authorities, decamped first to Mexico and then to Nicaragua.
Each time Verlan took a new wife (he eventually married ten ), the feeling would intensify, turning into near suicidal despair as Irene’s innate hunger for love waged a losing battle with the diktats of her fundamentalist Mormon faith.
‘Even on our honeymoon he didn’t pay any attention to me,’ Irene says. ‘I was married for a whole day and I was still a virgin. He kept saying, “You’re the key, Irene, you’re the key to my salvation.” And I did start to wonder if I was being used.’
Now monogamously married for nearly 20 years to Hector Spencer, 84, Irene has lived for the past year with Donna Goldberg, her widowed eldest daughter, in Woodbridge, a small community in California’s Central Valley. On a furiously hot August afternoon in the air-conditioned confines of Donna’s sprawling home, Irene sits at the kitchen table, erect and composed as she relates her turbulent life story. Her husband, who was raised in a monogamous Mormon family, sits nearby – the couple are inseparable, and Irene refers several times to how she relishes being Hector’s ‘only wife’ and therefore ‘the favourite’. The battle to be the favourite wife plays a large part in the polygamous dynamic and is one of the many aspects addressed in Irene’s candid memoir, Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist Wife, which she says she wrote to heal herself.
‘People in polygamy talk about how wonderful it is, how the sacrifices are going to get them glory,’ Irene says. ‘But they are all so brainwashed. You wear a fac,ade the whole time because if you complain, you might not be saved.’
As Irene talks, Donna, 51, interrupts with her own memories, becoming tearful as she recalls her mother’s ordeals, and enthuses about the love Irene extended to all of Verlan’s eventual 58 children – 29 boys and 29 girls. Donna’s two sons and two daughters – four of Irene’s 119 grandchildren – pop in to grab snacks from the fridge. Brandy, 25, Donna’s eldest daughter, helped her grandmother type up her book. The three generations of women have obviously re-lived every detail countless times, and their passion for the story is irrepressible.
Irene grew up in a fourth-generation fundamentalist Mormon family near Salt Lake City. The 13th of 31 children born to Morris Kunz, who eventually had six wives, she was brought up to believe she should welcome persecution as a sign she was one of ‘God’s chosen ones’.
In 1890 polygamy had been renounced by the mainstream Mormon Church. Those determined to remain true to the teachings of Joseph Smith, the Church’s founder, who had up to 50 wives, formed secretive breakaway groups. Irene’s family were members of one of these, the Apostolic United Brethren, a fundamentalist Mormon group formed by her uncle.
In 1944 Utah authorities raided Irene’s community and her father was jailed for two years. Nevertheless he was adamant his children were to follow the Principle, as the ‘Celestial Law’ of polygamy was known. ‘ He said, ” I went to prison so you wouldn’t be little bastards and now, you can’t let me down. You’ve got to live polygamy and carry on.”‘
Irene says her guilt and fear-fuelled ‘religious coma’ lasted nearly 40 years as she tried to adhere to the Principle, which decreed, ‘If a man had three praying wives he would not go wrong but if he had a quorum of seven wives then his salvation was pretty well secured.’ A woman would only get to heaven by becoming ‘sealed’ to a man who could ‘exalt’ her. Girls were encouraged to marry as soon as they started menstruating.
‘We were expected to have one child a year,’ says Irene, who also adopted a 14th child. ‘We had to be quiet and believe, be obedient and recruit new wives for our husbands.’ Jealousy was a sign a wife was not praying enough. ‘You’ll never make it to heaven with that attitude,’ Verlan would often tell her.
The first time Irene laid eyes on the blond, 6ft 2in blue-eyed Verlan was the day he got engaged to Charlotte. ‘He was very good-looking, very congenial, sweet, funny. To tell you the truth, I was a little infatuated with him. Also I had this premonition that God wanted me to marry him. I did it for my salvation.’
For Irene, marriage was to prove an agonising trial of crushing poverty and isolation. When in 1953, after her wedding, police raided the polygamous village of Short Creek, Arizona, where many of Irene’s relatives lived, Verlan took his family to the LeBaron family ranch in desolate northern Mexico.
Here they lived with Verlan’s six brothers and their numerous wives and children. Irene shared a hut with Charlotte, without indoor plumbing or electricity. They made their own clothes and grew what food they could. When Irene lost her first child, Leah, at birth, she returned to her family in Utah and told Verlan she was leaving him. ‘I just felt there was nothing there for me. I was living in dire poverty with another wife. I wasn’t being fulfilled emotionally, sexually, in any other way. I had nothing.’
But in a pattern she was to repeat several times, Irene returned and swiftly fell pregnant again. When Verlan took a third wife, Lucy, Irene was enraged – at one point she threw stones at the door of Lucy’s hut. ‘It’s a good thing I didn’t have a baseball bat,’ she writes of the kiss-the-bride moment. In all she attended four of her husband’s weddings – at one she was even forced to surrender her ring so Verlan could slip it on to the finger of his newest bride.
‘For me, it was devastating,’ says Donna, who was born when Irene was 19. ‘I saw Mum getting older and having more and more kids as the wives were getting younger. My dad married two of my best friends. One at the age of 15, Susan, and then Lillie (Verlan’s seventh wife), whom my mother helped buy her first bra.’ Donna shakes her head. ‘It was so weird.’
Irene says she stayed because of her children and for her ‘salvation’. ‘You learn to keep your mouth shut and deny all your feelings. The alternative is burning in a living hell. But when I finally left, I realised I was already in hell.’
After her 13th child, Irene asked her doctor to have her ‘tubes tied’. Verlan berated her – she was failing in her duty to help build his kingdom. Finally, when Verlan announced he was to marry his tenth wife, a widow called Priscilla, Irene cracked. She took her seven youngest children and ‘drove out of his life’.
‘No one will know the pain it took to pull away,’ Irene recalls. ‘It felt like being ripped to pieces. It was the only environment I had ever known. I had completely lost myself. I had never made a decision for myself. I actually left him to save myself.’
Irene fled to her sister in Las Vegas where she experienced life outside polygamy for the first time. ‘It felt like a foreign world. I’d never bought clothes or written a cheque. I was afraid of people.’
After three years Irene returned to Verlan, planning to stay for just one year. Twelve months later, in 1981, he died in a car accident. By this time, four of his wives had left.
Irene says numerous relatives living polygamously have suffered breakdowns or committed suicide, and she is convinced those who defend it do so through fear. Half of Irene’s extended family still practise plural marriage.
‘At one point, six of my children were living it,’ says Irene, who became a born-again Christian 23 years ago. ‘Thankfully, only three are now – my son, who has five wives, and two of my daughters, each of whom shares her husband with one other wife. One has eight children, the other has nine. I feel guilty because I got them into it. I think my grandfather’s generation was the last to live it for religious reasons. Now it’s more of a sexual thing. People see it as a licence, rationalised adultery.’
An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 Americans practise polygamy, mainly in Arizona and Utah, with outposts in Canada and Mexico. For almost 50 years police pursued a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. But now its darkest workings are about to be exposed with the trial of Warren Jeffs, the current ‘prophet’ and head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jeffs, who has about 80 wives, is charged with being an accomplice to rape, child sex abuse and incest for officiating at the marriages of underage girls, some to close relatives. Meanwhile, a group of Mormon women is calling for polygamy to be decriminalised. The group, Principle Voices, trumps the advantages not only for men but for women, who benefit from ‘the ultimate sisterhood’.
Irene admits, ‘You can’t help but bond when you see each other’s babies being born and care for them together.’ But she finds little to defend the lifestyle and sees her book as a response not just to Principle Voices but also to the palatable portrayal of polygamy in the American television drama series Big Love.
Sending out copies of her book to her children, Irene was afraid of how those still living polygamy would react. ‘My biggest fear is that when my son’s five wives get hold of my book they are going to so identify with all of it they are going to ask for a divorce.’
So far, however, it seems her polygamous son is most affected. ‘He read my book and called me up weeping and said he would never marry another wife,’ says Irene. ‘ He said, “Ma, I just can’t believe you suffered and endured so much.” For the first time he saw it from a woman’s point of view.’