Secrets of polygamists laid bare

The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in a Polygamous Mormon Sect
by Daphne Bramham
Randon House

The fatal flaw in polygamy is arithmetic, writes Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham. Given that a society normally produces as many boys as girls, what does a polygamous community do with all the extra men? Kick them out, of course, preferably before they present a challenge for the charms of girls their own age.

But the story of these “lost boys” is incidental to the focus of The Secret Lives Of Saints, although they are the collateral damage of the tale. The real damage is the fate of young, pubescent, nubile girls. This is one society where protection would come in the form of physical ugliness.

Bramham is unsparing in her criticism for the “religion” of fundamentalism, for the law, the legislatures concerned and, ultimately, the lies that underpin the promotion of polygamy as some sort of normal, albeit alternative, lifestyle. She is scathing in her condemnation of the notion that it is appropriate to marry off girls barely in their teens to men old enough to be, and in some cases are, their own grandfathers.

The flaw in this book is also, curiously, its greatest strength: the complicated and complex research laid out in detail to take a reader unfamiliar with Mormonism through its history and background. Without this exhaustive and exhausting outline, a reader could not grasp how a perfectly acceptable religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, could spawn a perverted fundamentalist offshoot that condones child abuse, hatred of homosexuals, racism and flouts the laws of both the U.S. and Canada under the excuse of religious freedom.

The research and Bramham’s patient laying out of the facts goes a long way to explaining how a normal society ignores the illegal — and immoral — exploitation of children practiced by a messianic cult. As Bramham writes, governments have consciously chosen the path of “let’s not talk about it.”

Just because closed communities like Bountiful, B.C., keep themselves apart from mainstream society, doesn’t mean the residents can do exactly as they please. “Religious beliefs cannot override a person’s Charter-guaranteed rights to life and security of the person,” writes a B.C. judge.

At the heart of this book is the battle for supremacy between the so-called “prophets” — Winston Blackmore and Warren Jeffs. Bramham is diligent in her portrayal of the obscenity (my word, not hers) of marrying off girls as young as 13 to old goats (again, my words) already “caring for” a harem of fertile women.

Nobody escapes Bramham’s rightful and righteous criticism: not the B.C. government or its American counterparts, politicians, the justice system and even the Canadian public for turning a blind eye. The Secret Lives of Saints is astoundingly well researched and scrupulously exact. It is an earnest, well-meaning and hard-hitting book designed to infuriate any reader.

Curiously, though, the very minutiae that makes it so also deadens the effect. True, we come to know the history of the Mormon religion, why polygamy is so insidious, the names and ages and astounding numbers of children produced at a prodigious rate by the array of “sister-wives,” but the depth of understanding and insight into why gets lost in the mix. The biggest question is why do Canadian governments put up with this blatant abuse?

We know the how — keep girls uneducated, inculcated and away from outside influence, do all this in the name of God, heaven and prophesy and give them no opportunity of salvation except through their shared husbands, subject them to unending work and never-ending pregnancy and child-rearing and, to quote the Bountiful slogan: encourage them to “keep sweet.”

What we don’t know is why we assiduously ignore it and allow our politicians to do likewise.

Catherine Ford is a retired Herald columnist.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 24, 2008.
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