Polygamy… Utah’s Open Little Secret

EAGLE MOUNTAIN, Utah — The neighborhood looks like any other in the upper-middle-class suburbs: sprawling homes with porch swings and manicured lawns strewn with discarded kids’ bikes.

But beneath the all-American veneer, much is different in this upscale subdivision 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.

“Pretty much everyone who lives here is polygamous,” said Mary–a woman who gave a recent tour of the area and is herself the second wife of a Utah man. She, like other polygamists interviewed for this story, asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of prosecution. “There may be one or two houses that aren’t, but virtually everyone else here is one of ours.”

In the weeks since the arrest of Warren Jeffs, the fundamentalist Mormon leader who made the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list for allegations that he facilitated the rape and marriage of underage girls, there have been constant questions about the real pervasiveness and peril of polygamy in Utah.

Mainstream Mormons in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with 12 million members worldwide, have asserted that all polygamous denominations–including Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–are aberrations in a state where the influential Mormon Church suspended the practice of polygamy more than a century ago. But Utah’s attorney general, pro-polygamy activists and other experts estimate there are 40,000 people living in polygamous families or communities like this one across the Western U.S.–with a large portion of them residing in suburban Utah.

Although it is rare that allegations of abuse are as systemic or egregious as those reported in the community led by Jeffs, virtually every other polygamous sect practicing in Utah today has been linked to financial, sexual or spiritual improprieties. Federal grand juries in Arizona and state investigators in Nevada are probing polygamist practices in those states, according to media reports.

Earlier this month, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), himself a Mormon, asked U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales to create a federal task force to investigate polygamy sects in the Western U.S., particularly Jeffs’ church, a group in which girls as young as 13 are being married and hundreds of boys have been excommunicated and cut off from their parents in an alleged effort to reduce the elders’ competition for wives. Still, in his letter, Reid’s comments made clear he was referring to Utah’s polygamy subculture in general as much as to Jeffs’ community along the Utah-Arizona border.

“For too long, this outrageous activity has been disguised in the mask of religious freedom,” he wrote. “But child abuse and human servitude have nothing to do with religious freedom and must not be tolerated.”

Defending their faith

In the wake of such comments, Utah polygamists have come forward in unprecedented force to defend their faith, values and lifestyle. They say plural marriage fulfills the mission of all Mormons to be fruitful and multiply and to ascend to the highest reaches of heaven. They say it breaks their hearts that the mainstream church in 1890 abandoned polygamy–or what one expert called “the process of polishing the soul”–to appease the federal government and ensure Utah would earn statehood. They point to such communities as Eagle Mountain and Rocky Ridge, where polygamous families appear to be happy and prosperous, often with multiple wives of one husband living in palatial homes with adjoining yards.

“We’re really sickeningly boring,” said Jane, another wife to the same husband as Mary. “There is no high drama. We are the people next door–it’s just that there are more of us.”

During the 2004 campaign for Utah attorney general, polygamy was called the state’s “dirty little secret,” and candidates for the top law-enforcement position debated how best to deal with it. Mark Shurtleff won and has since implemented a policy to essentially leave polygamists alone unless they are committing other crimes simultaneously. Although the act of having more than one spouse is a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison in Utah, authorities long ago stopped actively going after polygamists.

“We don’t have the resources, nor do I think that we should use our resources, to convict every polygamist in Utah, put them in jail and put 20,000 kids into foster care,” Shurtleff told a Canadian reporter recently when asked the state’s approach to cracking down on polygamy. “What we’re focusing on are crimes against women and children and tax fraud and other crimes involving misuse of public money.”

Indeed, long before Jeffs was arrested on a highway outside Las Vegas, those crimes have been evident. For example:

The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days was the subject of much criticism when a young woman fled the community and went to authorities alleging she had been coerced into marrying her stepfather after years of being told she would burn in hell otherwise, according to a book detailing the case. Utah’s attorney general chose not to prosecute the man, a charismatic preacher who has claimed to be the reincarnated Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, because the woman was 20 years old and deemed a consenting adult.

The Apostolic United Brethren, a polygamous community in Utah with 7,500 members, a beautiful suburban complex with athletic fields, an outdoor dance pavilion and a private school, was found in court to have bilked a wealthy member out of more than $1.5 million, and a judge ruled the sect and its leaders had to return it.

In the Davis County Cooperative Society, a polygamous community north of Salt Lake City, the leading family, the Kingstons, has been said by state prosecutors to have assets worth well over $150 million. Yet court testimony in a recent child-abuse and custody case revealed that one of the community’s patriarchs argued he could not pay the monthly child support ordered by a judge for the children of one of his several wives. Another of the family’s leaders was convicted in 1999 of felony incest for taking his 16-year-old niece as his 15th wife.

Yet even the most vocal critics are careful not to allege that every polygamist is guilty of such abuses.

“Listen,” said John Llewellyn, one of the leading polygamy critics in Utah today. “I’m a former law-enforcement officer, a former polygamist and now someone who’s working against polygamy. I’ve seen this from every side. And the bottom line is that there are a lot of polygamists out there who are good, honest people. There are, unfortunately, that many–or more–who are out there perpetuating every kind of horrible abuse you can’t even imagine.”

The Apostolic United Brethren community, whose members are scattered throughout Salt Lake City suburbs such as Eagle Mountain, is largely considered by authorities and even several polygamy critics like Llewellyn to be a group in which abuse is neither rampant nor tolerated.

`The highest heaven’

Charles, 41, a computer programmer with three wives and 14 children, lives in central Utah and says he simply wants to carry out God’s plan. He and his first wife joined the Apostolic United Brethren, or AUB, and later he took second and third wives, Jeni and Alorah.

“We believe the purpose of plural marriage is to bring spirits here waiting to be born into good families that will teach them the gospel,” he said. “A lot of people around here want to live plural marriage so they make it to the highest heaven. When I see what the savior has done for me, you just want to pay him back and do what he says.”

But it’s not for every fundamentalist Mormon. Charles’ third wife, Alorah, said her mother was the third of four wives and still her decision to enter into plural marriage required intense prayer.

“There’s a saying that is kind of common among the girls in this group, that if you can have 10 percent of a 100 percent man, instead of 100 percent of a 10 percent man, then what would you choose?”

Over the decades, polygamous communities have burgeoned statewide–and continue to do so because polygamists have such large families.

Mary and Jane are both married to one AUB community member, a middle-age man who is something of a real-life equivalent of Bill Henrickson, the character in HBO’s series “Big Love” who lives in the Salt Lake City suburbs with his three wives, seven kids and ever-mounting bills.

Over dinner at a suburban seafood restaurant, Jane and Mary jointly make fun of their husband while he good-naturedly laughs at their quips. The women brush off questions about jealousy between them by saying he isn’t worth fighting over, but they later expound on the Mormon principle of building large families on Earth that later can be replicated in heaven.

The family explains the mechanics of their lives: The two wives have houses next door to one another. (Jane jokingly complains that Mary has the better lawn.) The husband, who asked not to be identified, spends three nights each week with each wife and family; they rotate every other week on who gets the fourth night.

The family grows somber when they discuss allegations that abuses are inexorably linked to polygamy. They go to pains to say their community strongly discourages marrying before the age of 18. Mary is visibly proud when she tells that one of her sons discovered a man in the community was abusing an underage girl and went to police with the information.

“Bottom line,” she says, “if you wake up a 13-year-old girl in the middle of the night and marry her off to a man 20 years older than her, that’s abuse. Absolutely.”

It’s families like these that polygamy advocates hold up when they make their most frequent argument: decriminalization. They say that if the fear of prosecution is removed, polygamous groups could stop living in seclusion and secrecy, the very conditions that often enable many of the alleged abuses. Even more, they would then feel less fear about going to authorities to turn in abusers within their ranks.

“It would be all about going after the crimes, not the culture,” said Anne Wilde, a former plural wife who now is widowed and the co-director of Principle Voices, a pro-polygamy group.

Yet anti-polygamy activists are equally adamant that the culture invariably leads to problems. At minimum, they say, women are marginalized by a religious doctrine that turns them into a modern harem for their husbands. They tell of marriages in which the husband had more children than he could ever hope to support, thus leaving wives to scrape by as best they could on welfare. But worse, they say, is that the culture has a long tradition of physical abuse, rape, incest and underage marriage that endures.

“I’ve lived that life,” said Vicky Prunty, a co-director of Tapestry Against Polygamy, the state’s most vocal anti-polygamy group. “Anyone who tells you women are not being hurt there–forced into allowing their husbands to take on other wives in the name of religion, getting married too young to men much older, being hit or worse–[is] not being truthful.”

Elaine Tyler, a volunteer at The HOPE Organization, a group geared toward helping those who have left polygamous communities, has seen firsthand the effects a polygamous lifestyle has on some of its members.

Tyler has met dozens of women, many of whom were forcibly married to much older men long before their 16th birthday, the legal age for marriage in Utah. Many also said they were abused by family members in the Jeffs communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, where incest has become so widespread that the group has what are believed to be the world’s highest rates of fumarase deficiency, a rare genetic disease that causes profound mental retardation.

“The abuses are shocking,” Tyler said. “Most of the women to emerge from these communities have no idea how unacceptable what has happened to them is. If all they’ve ever seen is their sister in bed next to them getting molested, then when it starts happening to them they don’t think, `Hey, this is wrong.’ They think, `Now it’s my turn.'”

Reluctant witnesses

In fact, getting witnesses to testify to abuses is always the hardest part of polygamy prosecutions. Llewellyn, a former lieutenant in the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office who secretly took three wives himself before becoming an outspoken polygamy author and critic, said one of the key reasons he disavowed the lifestyle was seeing how polygamous communities routinely refused to testify against those within their fold who were committing crimes.

“I guess what I hope now is that I can pay back for some of the things I’ve done and been a part of,” said Llewellyn, who wrote “Polygamy’s Rape of Rachel Strong,” a book that chronicled the life of a young woman who left a heavy-handed polygamous community, but only after being pressured into marrying her middle-age stepfather. Llewellyn argues in the book that Strong’s stepfather, well-known Utah polygamist James Harmston, forced her into marriage and sex through a campaign of spiritual coercion as “effective as putting a gun to her head.” Harmston has called Strong mentally ill and denied having forced her into the marriage.

On a recent Friday evening, as the fall chill began to creep into the mountain air, teenagers from a polygamous community on the outskirts of Salt Lake City gathered for a barn dance.

Erin Thompson, 15, typified the youth of the community who were there: bright, polite, optimistic. She spoke of her plans to attend college, perhaps become a dentist. Looking further ahead, she spoke of marriage and children, and, without hesitation, said she hoped to be a plural wife. She said she felt a religious calling to do so and believed that having to share a husband would teach her about sacrifice and prevent her from making him the center of her universe.

“Bad things happen in every community, whether they are polygamous or not,” she said. “I know that. But I believe that this lifestyle can bring more blessings than you can imagine if it is lived correctly, and I understand that if it is lived wrongly it can bring that same amount of pain.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday September 27, 2006.
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