Whenever I am asked about my family, I take a deep breath, try not to pause for too long and then launch into a short explanation. I was born into a polygamous family and am the 23rd of 46 children. We were raised in an abusive household where many of us suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse. And no, I don’t support anti-polygamy laws.
Anti-polygamy laws have been pretty secure for over one hundred years, since it was ruled that polygamy was a felony, so I was surprised to hear that a U.S. District Court Judge, effectively decriminalized polygamy in 2013. In response to a lawsuit he determined that Utah laws pertaining to polygamy were, at least in part, unconstitutional making polygamy a misdemeanor. The ruling continues to be contested in the Utah House and in the Senate.
There are many who would like to see polygamy re-criminalized. Some believe it is the only way to resolve the problems found in the polygamous culture. With tougher laws underage marriages might be deterred, welfare fraud could be more easily prosecuted. Sexual abuse and child abuse could not be condoned under the guise of religious freedom. Women, who were once in polygamous relationships themselves, have pushed anti-polygamy campaigns, hoping to create gender equality and to encourage women and children to leave the closed communities. With stricter policies and better education, polygamy itself might dwindle, especially if the laws against it were strenuous enough.
I grew up hearing the stories about the history of my Mormon Fundamentalist background where polygamy was practiced openly in Utah in the 1850’s until the 1890’s. When Utah finally achieved statehood and the Mormon Church formally stated that polygamy would no longer be practiced, plural marriages were performed in secret and polygamy went underground. The 1930’s through the 1950’s saw resurgence of anti-polygamy feeling and it was vigorously prosecuted during this time. Several massive roundups of offenders, known as raids, was conducted under the direction of the Utah executive branch along with U. S. federal marshals, FBI agents, deputy sheriffs, Salt Lake City police as well as Arizona law enforcement. Men and women, believed to be the leaders, were arrested and charged with various crimes including “unlawful cohabitation.” There were court hearings, trials conducted and many polygamist men were sentenced to prison. Women were separated from their children, many of whom were placed in foster homes.
All of this did nothing to stop the practice of polygamy and in fact, families grew larger, more devout and out of necessity, more secretive than before. The protective instincts of women prompted them to become strong advocates of polygamy, especially when the state threatened to separate mothers from children. This period of great secrecy and persecution, produced men like Warren Jeffs who, after rising to power, used the isolation and fear, to command and control thousands.
In 1973, when I was born into a polygamous family, the eleventh child of a second wife, I inherited the intensely isolated conditions and fearful attitudes that were nurtured in the previous decades. I grew up believing that breaking the law was necessary because God’s laws (plural marriage in particular) were more valid than man’s laws. I knew my family was different and I was taught to take pride in that. Other than God, my parents represented the highest form of government and authority and my entire world was constrained by the boundaries of home. Inside that home, away from the influence of an outside world was a different kind of existence. But it wasn’t all terror.
I loved my big polygamous family, every baby, a celebration that added to our ever-expanding tribe. I worshiped my older sisters and admired my big brothers. I loved sharing a room with seven other girls close to my own age, the beds lined up together so that we could jump from one to another without effort. At nights we sat on our beds and made up stories that usually began with, “Do you want to hear what I dreamed last night?” This made our stories somehow more real and valid. And then we would spin a yarn, wild and outrageous, full of danger, fantasy and romance while the others sat spellbound, in their nightgowns in the dark. Sometimes we recited the dialogue from our favorite movies or sang the theme song to Star Wars until we fell asleep to the murmuring of each others voices, the hum of a friend, only a hands width away.
We not only shared a room but we shared dresses, socks and shoes, borrowing from whatever the other had in her drawer without worry. We fought over the best spot in front of the mirror for combing our long braids and raced each other up the stairs in the mornings to get to the bathroom first. I remember fondly sitting at long, long breakfast tables and looking across from me, to the left and to the right, and seeing my brothers and sisters, their wet hair combed back and their faces eager for the food to arrive. These brothers and sisters were my whole world. We shared secrets and jokes and the mountain of daily work was made lighter knowing each one of them was there. I belonged to them. They belonged to me. I had a place in the world, however small, and I would have done almost anything to protect it.
I have seen both sides of the polygamy. I know how strong the community ties are, how bonded one can feel to an identity and a people that are misunderstood and misrepresented. I have seen both the good that comes from growing up in polygamy and its inherent weaknesses and abuses. The fear and isolation that protects polygamists from accusations and prison sentences also creates an environment without accountability.
The abuse we suffered as children was systematic and intentional. It was part of the rigorous system of corporal punishment used to train children and I have no memory of a time without abuse. Polygamy was normal and abuse was normal. I had no idea it was wrong. As I matured I realized that others, outsiders, believed that abuse of children was wrong but they also believed polygamy was wrong. What was I to believe? Even so, I began to question the abuse myself.
One day when I was fifteen I discovered a hotline for reporting child abuse in the local yellow pages. It was a free number and I could call anonymously and report the abuse happening in my family. Many times during the next few years, I would hold the phone in my hand, listening to the dial tone, my forefinger resting on that 1-800 number. Some days when the beatings were particularly brutal and I was feeling desperate to end it all, or to end my own life I went back to look at that 1-800 number.
But I never called.
It would have destroyed my world. I was afraid my father and mother would be taken to prison and worse, that my brothers and sisters would be removed from the home. I was intensely afraid of being separated from them. I didn’t want to be blamed when the walls of our world came crashing down. I didn’t want my brothers and sisters to feel betrayed. I didn’t want to be a traitor. I didn’t want to go to hell. No matter how extreme the abuse became the possible consequences of reporting it, were always worse. But if I had believed that I could have called that number and had the abuser in my home removed without destroying the rest of my family I would have called without hesitation.
Polygamy does not cause abuse. The secretive nature of the culture does make abuse more common but I have personally known polygamous families that are loving and functional. I have also known some that are dysfunctional and abusive. Just like all families. Polygamy as a marriage practice does not necessarily mean inequality between partners but it does make it more likely. I don’t condone or support underage marriages, arranged marriages, or abuse of any kind but as long as there is respect and consenting adults, to me, polygamous relationships are as valid as any marriage. So why criminalize it?
Making something a crime doesn’t necessarily prevent it from happening. As long as polygamy is a crime, polygamists will feel they must break the law and it’s a slippery slope toward disregarding other laws, in the name of God and freedom of religion. In fact, I cannot think of a single thing that would promote polygamy more, than to have members prosecuted and imprisoned for the practice. Mormon Fundamentalist polygamy is no longer a marriage issue but has become a cultural issue and their communities and traditions are only made stronger by the forces resisting them. Making polygamy a crime is not criminalizing a behavior it is criminalizing an entire culture. Polygamy is not the root of the problem, it is the shame and the secrets that have fostered dysfunction, inequality and abuse. And making polygamy a crime for which offenders can be imprisoned will send members back into hiding and secrecy in an attempt to preserve their cultural heritage and beliefs.
It is my opinion that as a direct result of relaxed attitudes toward polygamy, the polygamist culture is changing in positive ways. I have seen more equality between men and women. More polygamist women are attending college and earning degrees. Men are participating much more in the daily duties of child rearing. Underage marriages are in steep decline and in some communities are not even allowed. Welfare fraud is being exposed and prosecuted. Women are less afraid to get jobs to help support their large families. Parents are choosing to raise children using positive reinforcement and even past abuses are being addressed. As social attitudes have changed toward polygamy, polygamists are opening their doors, even if just a crack, to outsiders. As a result, organizations such as Holding Out H.E.L.P, and others, have been created to bring much needed services to polygamous communities. These programs are neutral on the subject of polygamy and are there to help those who want to stay and those who want to leave. They educate outsiders about the culture and have done much toward dispelling stereotypes. Women can reach out to marriage counselors to talk openly about their struggles in plural marriage. Young people who want to leave the culture have access to basic needs and support in finding jobs or receiving traditional schooling. Women who want to leave their husbands can get legal advice and help with childcare. Parenting programs and many mental health services have been made available to polygamous families in recent years.
With all of this progress though, there are still polygamous factions that commit abuses, who use fear of outsiders to control their members and where secrecy remains deeply embedded in their religious belief system. But as long as there is enough freedom, the generations of young people growing up in polygamy will be exposed to new beliefs and ideas and the polygamous culture will continue to evolve and change. And with these changes a child being abused will know it is wrong and will not be too frightened to ask for help.
If you are in a polygamous family and you are being hurt you can find information here for help. If you want to leave the polygamous culture but you don’t know how or where to begin; or if you want to remain in the polygamous culture or are in a plural marriage and you are seeking support or mental health services you may find help in one of the links below.
Holding Out Help http://holdingouthelp.org/
The Diversity Foundation http://www.smilesfordiversity.org/cod.php
Voices for Dignity http://voicesfordignity.com/how-to-help-survivors-of-polygamy/
The Family Support Center http://www.familysupportcenter.org/