Although there’s too much rehash of Mormon history, Jon Krakauer’s new book makes compelling points about family concept
The Denver Post, July 13, 2003
By Sandra Dallas, Special to The Denver Post
Several years ago, I interviewed a woman in Salt Lake City who had been a polygamous wife; she and her sister were married to the same man. The woman and her many children had lived in near poverty, subsisting mostly on welfare. She had few friends, since her marriage was a secret and her husband wanted to isolate her. She wasn’t even very close to him. “I was sleeping with my sister’s husband. I was damned if I was going to fall in love with him,” said the woman, who finally “escaped” from polygamy, as she put it, a few years earlier.
As the interview ended, she told me that she’d attended East High School in Salt Lake. That was the school I’d gone to, and when she told me her age, I realized that we had been in the same graduating class, might even had known each other. While I had gone on to college and a conventional life, my classmate had slipped into an underworld of religious zealotry, physical and sexual abuse and incest. Polygamy is about the subjugation of women. One plural wife told me her husband had admonished her, “You will not express your opinion if it differs from my own.”
In “Into Thin Air,” tackles the subject of modern-day polygamy. Most Americans think of polygamy as either an unusual but relatively harmless religious practice between consenting adults or a cult-like religion whose members engage in abuse and murder. Krakauer writes about the latter, concentrating on the Lafferty family near Provo, Utah. There were no more violent polygamists anywhere than the Lafferty brothers.
Twenty years ago, Ron Lafferty, the oldest of five brothers and the one most given to communicating with God, had a revelation that he was to kill his brother Allen’s wife and baby. The sister-in-law had done him wrong by persuading his wife to leave Ron. That was after he physically abused her and took a second wife. Ron and another brother, Dan, carried out the revelation, beating, then murdering the sister-in-law and her young daughter. Both men are in prison in Utah, and neither has repented. Krakauer tells just how they began as mainstream Mormons, then veered off into their narcissistic world of religious fundamentalism.Krakauer uses the story of the Laffertys as an entree into the world of polygamy in Utah and its neighboring states. There are freelance polygamists, such as Tom Green, who recently was convicted of raping a minor because he’d married an underage girl. Another is Brian David Mitchell, the self-named Immanuel, charged with kidnapping Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake last year. Krakauer claims Elizabeth was forced to marry Immanuel in a weird ceremony performed by Immanuel and his wife soon after the girl was taken. Then Immanuel allegedly raped her.
WHAT THEY SAID
ts, however, are part of communities, such as Colorado City on the Utah-Arizona border. These enclaves are ruled over by sometimes violent, sometimes benevolent elders who say they get their orders from God. Obedience is the path to heaven.
Young girls are told whom to marry, and if they refuse, they are threatened with hell – as are their families. That’s heavy stuff for someone barely past puberty. With huge polygamous families intermarrying, women marry stepfathers and half-brothers. Some marry their own fathers. Rape is common.
Fiercely conservative, polygamists see governments as satanic forces. Many refuse to pay taxes or even to obey speed limits. But they exist on the dole. Men legally marry just one woman so that they can’t be prosecuted for polygamy. The others are “spiritual wives,” which in the eyes of the law means they’re unwed mothers, thus eligible for welfare. Utah spends millions every year taking care of these anti-government freeloaders.
The polygamists also oppose the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which once embraced polygamy and from which these fundamentalist cults spring. But in the 1890s, Utah wanted to become a state, and it wasn’t likely to be admitted to the union if polygamy was legal. So the head of the LDS church had a revelation that God wanted Mormons to discontinue plural marriage, and Utah became a state (the only one that forbids polygamy in its constitution, by the way). Any Mormon with more than one wife today is excommunicated. Fundamentalists preach that the revelation outlawing polygamy was false, and many of them, including Ron Lafferty, believe they’ve been chosen to re-establish the true church – and soon. Armageddon is coming any day now.
Polygamy – along with some of the church’s darker history, which Krakauer includes – is still such a touchy subject among Mormons that an LDS official is sending book editors a lengthy e-mail refuting “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Krakauer responded in kind.
While “Under the Banner of Heaven” is an expose of Utah polygamy, it’s a narrowly focused work, concentrating on the most egregious examples of plural marriage. So in some ways, the book is disappointing. There’s no mention of Tapestry Against Polygamy, the group that rescues women and children from polygamy, not many interviews with women talking about their everyday lives as plural wives. Readers might want more details and less sensationalism.
And while some background on Mormonism is necessary to understand contemporary polygamy, too much of the book is a rehash of Mormon doctrine and history.
Still, “Under the Banner of Heaven” is a compelling look into the abyss of polygamy. After reading it, you’ll understand why polygamy shouldn’t be protected under the concept of religious freedom.
Sandra Dallas is a Denver-based novelist who also writes a monthly regional nonfiction column for The Post. She worked for Business Week magazine for 25 years, covering the mountain states and reporting on such subjects as contemporary polygamy in Utah.
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