Posted Friday, May 27, 2011, at 10:34 AM
Many of us recognize the stock images of polygamy: the child brides from isolated compounds, like the Yearning for Zion ranch, and the suburban homemakers on television, yearning for their husbands. In Secrets and Wives: The Secret World of Mormon Polygamy , British journalist Sanjiv Bhattacharya pushes past these caricatures to show what Mormon polygamists are really like. Part cultural reportage, part personal musings, the book chronicles the author’s yearlong journey into America’s fundamentalist Mormon communities, where he interviewed advocates along with opponents, the ordinary faithful plus the occasional crackpot.
Bhattacharya gained considerable access to several polygamous sects, and he shows that daily life there isn’t always what we’d expect. Yes, some groups occupy isolated compounds, but many others live in the suburbs; they’re literally the "polygamists next door," as Bhattacharya puts it. Women from some communities may opt for prairie dresses that hide their ankles and wrists, but girls from Utah’s tiny True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of Last Days flaunt low-cut shirts and high-cut skirts. While most mainstream Mormons adhere to certain dietary restrictions, staying away from caffeine and alcohol, the well-established Kingston Group amps up those constraints, going so far as to ban sugar and cereal. Residents of Arizona’s Centennial Park, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as strict; we see them enjoying Mondavi Cabernets with the author. Bhattacharya doesn’t raise these contradictions to discredit the groups-instead, he uses them to demonstrate just how diverse polygamists really are. A sensationalist smackdown this is not.
Even so, Bhattacharya does delve into the notorious abuses polygamy is associated with. When asked about the subservience of women or the sexual exploitation of children, he notes, polygamists "settle into their talking points like armchairs," talking up "free agency." They’re quick to point fingers at other polygamist groups, but most of the sects Bhattacharya encounters have something to hide. Forced marriages are the norm at Centennial Park, where wives are assigned by a governing counsel said to consult with God. The True and Living Church harbors a group of female sex offenders, convicted after teaching girls as young as nine to satisfy men sexually. And the Kingstons explicitly endorse incest, believing they are the descendents of Jesus and that by marrying close relatives-often their underage siblings-they purify their bloodline. Secrets and Wives can’t tell us how widespread these abuses really are, though, because the author wasn’t able to penetrate the two largest polygamous groups, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Apostolic United Brethren, which together represent almost half of America’s forty-thousand Mormon polygamists.
States unwittingly fuel the abuses, Bhattacharya rightly argues, by criminalizing polygamy. Abusers know that victims of rape and incest won’t call the police, because they’re afraid their entire families will go to jail on charges of polygamy. What should be done? Fundamentalist Mormons want states to decriminalize polygamy, but they’re not asking the government to recognize their marriages; in fact, as the author points out, they’d rather avoid "the state interference" altogether. Bhattacharya himself urges states to legally recognize these "spiritual" marriages as a matter of basic fairness. "The government’s in my marriage whether I like it or not," he figures. "And if I don’t get a choice, I don’t see why polygamists should." But Bhattacharya doesn’t seem to appreciate how challenging legalization would be. Legal marriage confers hundreds of government benefits. Most taxpayers are fine extending social security benefits to a worker’s spouse, but should they foot the bill for two, three, or four? Should employers have to give any number of spouses health insurance? Bhattacharya opens the door to these questions, and then leaves them unanswered.
Bhattacharya does much to improve our understanding of Mormon polygamists, what their lives are like and what challenges they face. But he still leaves those of us interested in public policy wondering what all that means for whether-and how-we police polygamy.