When Irene Spencer became a plural wife she married for God, not love.
In 1953, at age 16, she became the second wife of her brother-in-law, Verlan LeBaron. For Spencer, the years that followed were a constant search for validation.
She suffered a nervous breakdown, contemplated suicide and planned to leave her 28-year marriage when fate intervened: LeBaron was killed in a car accident.
Spencer, 70, chronicles her experience as a plural wife in “Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist’s Wife” (Center Street, $24.99). She will speak about her life in polygamy tonight at Salt Lake City’s Main Library.
Through marriage, Spencer joined a family that would launch an infamous sect, the Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times. Based in Mexico, it is most notable for the murderous rampage set off by LeBaron’s brother Ervil in the 1970s.
But Spencer said her husband, who led the sect from 1972 until his death in 1981, was a kind man who adored his 58 children.
She does not fault him for her dissatisfaction with the polygamous life, a perspective that sets her apart from other ex-plural wives who’ve authored books about their experiences.
“Verlan was a very good man,” she said. “The publishers wanted to make him out a dog, but he was one of the kindest, nicest, understanding [men]. He was a victim in the same way I was a victim.”
The polygamous lifestyle itself was the problem, incapable of delivering the promised fulfillment, she maintains.
Books by ex-plural wives practically make up their own genre. The form began with Ann Eliza Young’s “Wife No. 19: The Story of a life in Bondage,” an expose of her short, unhappy marriage to LDS Prophet Brigham Young.
It entered the modern era with publication in 1975 of “Polygamist’s Wife” by Melissa Merrill, the pseudonym of a woman whose marriage collapsed after her husband took three other wives.
More recent additions include “The Sixth of Seventh Wives” by Mary Mackert and “Escape” by Carolyn Jessop, both former members of the sect now led by Warren S. Jeffs. Mackert is featured in the documentary, “Damned to Heaven.”
The interest in such stories appears strong; both Spencer’s and Jessop’s book appeared briefly on The New York Times’ bestsellers list.
Just one book has offered a positive take on polygamy among fundamentalist Mormons, “Voices in Harmony.” The compilation of comments from 100 plural wives was put together by proponents Anne Wilde, Mary Batchelor and Marianne Watson.
Spencer and Jessop “both have fascinating stories. They are very sad stories,” said Wilde, who has read both books. “They have their experience, they have a right to write about it and my heart goes out to them.”
But the books may leave readers with the impression that all fundamentalist Mormon women are suppressed emotionally and spiritually, Wilde said. “That is not the case across the board,” she said.
One family’s history
Spencer is the second of LeBaron’s former wives to pen a memoir. Susan Ray Schmidt, wife No. 6, published “His Favorite Wife: Trapped in Polygamy” in 2006. LeBaron also wrote briefly about his family in “The LeBaron Story,” published the year he died.
Read together, the books offer a unique look at different perspectives of a single polygamous marriage.
Spencer’s book is the best, and a better read than most in the genre, which have common themes of jealousy, emotional neglect and women overwhelmed by too many children.
Spencer spent her married years in Mexico, giving birth to 13 children while trying to make the best of a life of abject poverty.
The addition of each new wife brought heartbreak and exacerbated Spencer’s emotional, and sexual, frustration.
“I used to tell him not to get more than seven wives because I wanted to see him at least once a week,” she said.
“Living ‘the law’ was like torture to me,” Spencer writes. “It went beyond self-sacrifice to the point of totally rejecting self.”
Spencer was shocked and threatened when LeBaron took Schmidt, who was 15 at the time, as a wife.
But she participated in the ceremony anyway. By then, LeBaron was the sect’s president and Spencer felt compelled to keep up a happy facade.
“It was our survival.” LeBaron eventually had 10 wives; Spencer participated in four of those ceremonies, placing each new wife’s hand in that of their husband.
“I did it without flinching or crying because everybody was watching you,” she said. “You just smother everything you feel.
“Every woman who says they love it – I used to parrot the same things and say it was wonderful, grand, because it was expected of us and it was our survival,” Spencer said. “If you didn’t believe it and gave it up, you were damned.”
So she suffered along, her unmet emotional, physical and psychological needs deepening. Spencer said LeBaron confided he felt overwhelmed, too, but felt “he had to do it for God.”
After LeBaron’s death, Spencer became a born-again Christian; she married Hector Spencer 19 years ago, finally finding the love and devotion she craved.
Lingering guilt about her years as a plural wife is due to this: Three of her children are in polygamous marriages. “I look forward to the day when they will all be out it,” she said.
Spencer wrote a draft of the book 20 years ago, intending it to be an historical account for posterity. When a church group gave it a thumbs up, Spencer and a daughter began searching for a publisher.
She received 25 rejections before her manuscript was accepted by an agent who sold it to Center Street, which focuses on books that provide “wholesome entertainment, helpful encouragement and traditional values.”
That, Spencer hopes, is exactly what people find in her memoir.
“I want people to know how [you] can be brainwashed and made to follow someone else’s script,” she said. “I feel like you can walk away from any situation you were in and become better or bitter. I have learned a lot of valuable lessons.”
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