What’s to be done with the tradition of Polygamy? Polygamy is on Utah’s mind again. In the midst of a series of statewide forums and an HBO drama built around the practice – generations old questions are re-emerging. At the heart of it all are these: could plural marriage ever be accepted into the mainstream of American culture or is the very nature of polygamy coercive, abusive and corrupt?
Read about Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s plan. The law enforcement agencies in both Utah and Arizona are focusing on crimes within polygamous communities that involve child abuse, domestic violence and fraud. (Outside link)
Tapestry Against Polygamy: A non-profit organization. Their main focus is to offer support and resources for refugees and advocate for changes to make the transition more conducive for those exiting polygamy. (Outside link)
Principle Voices is an organization "committed to educating others about families (many polygamous) in the Fundamentalist Mormon culture." (Outside link)
Read more about Carolyn Jessop. Hope for the Child Brides is a St. George, Utah based non-profit organization dedicated to assisting survivors of abuse within polygamous relationships on their courageous journey to personal freedom. (Outside link)
Utah NOW is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites.
[Doug Fabrizio, Host]:
Polygamy is on Utah’s mind again. In the midst of a series of statewide forums and an HBO drama built around the practice – generations old questions are re-emerging. At the heart of it all are these: could plural marriage ever be accepted into the mainstream of American culture or is the very nature of polygamy coercive, abusive and corrupt? Tonight - what’s to be done with the tradition of polygamy?
Good evening. Glad you could join us for this – our premiere broadcast of Utah NOW…
If we do it right – this program will offer a deeper impression of the culture and discourse of this place… All issues have many layers and different places of departure so a conversation about most anything can stray into all kinds of tangents – but usually – somewhere - there’s a very basic theme – one that can be expressed in one essential question - a question that leads to others – which creates a conversation about the real meaning of a thing.
With Utah NOW – we’re hoping to find the essential questions in the matters of this state.
And along the way we’re hoping you’ll let us know whether it’s working – we have an inter-active website that’s a part of the program. We hope you’ll use it to let us know what you think.
Tonight’s program is about – polygamy.
Well – what about it...
Utahns have been puzzling over the practice for as long as there have been Utahns...
And throughout the state’s history there has been a kind of cycle to all of this – bold claims to crackdown on polygamists – followed by years of permissive indifference.
These days - we seem to be settling into a position that concedes certain realities of plural marriage – that the prospect of ending the practice – or really enforcing the law – is – if not impossible – at least very complicated.
So – the essential questions – could Utahns - or the rest of the country for that matter - ever accept plural marriage into the mainstream and even if you brought the practice into the open – could you ever really strip out the inclination for coercion and abuse.
We begin tonight with this from correspondent Ken Verdoia…
[Ken Verdoia, Correspondent]:
It’s a dimly-lit auditorium on the campus of the University of Utah. A night in early spring of this year. About one hundred people have filed in. They have a shared interest, and sharply divided opinion on that interest. It’s a town meeting called by Utah attorney general mark Shurtleff…and the subject has defied 140 years of laws aimed at its eradication. The subject is polygamy.
Plural marriage came to the American west in the wagons of pioneers of the church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints in 1847. Five years later Brigham Young publicly announced polygamy’s role in Mormon life. . .setting off forty years of determined actions by congress and a series of presidents to crush the practice. Prominent Mormons lived life on the run, rather than surrender what they felt was their religious right. But in 1879 the u-s Supreme Court ruled polygamy, in practice, was not protected by the constitution. The crackdowns eventually proved effective, and in 1890 Church President Wilford Woodruff said his men would stop taking multiple wives.
But a group of polygamists claimed they had received authority to keep alive what they called “the principle”. They called themselves Mormon Fundamentalists. . .and their existence proved to be a constant source of embarrassment for LDS church leaders.
In the 1930s and 40s the church partnered with law enforcement to aggressively prosecute polygamists in Utah. Show trials were held. . .men went to prison. When they were released, they returned to their exceptionally large families. Hailed as heroes for suffering for their faith.
[Maureen Barlow, Plural Wife of Albert Barlow]:
We admired him for taking the stand he did, because this is why we married him, at least I did, I married him because he believed the same as I did, and wanted the same things I did. And so the fact that he had to go to jail for that made him that much more superior in my eyes.
In 1954 Arizona thought it could fashion a solution by rounding up every polygamous man, woman and child in the town of short creek on the Utah Arizona border. Long lines of police cruisers swept in and arrested dozens. Women and children were photographed as evidence. Two years later, the men were back. . .reunited with their wives and children. Their community would soon be rechristened Colorado City. Arizona was out hundreds of thousands of dollars in caring for the families. . .and Arizona governor Howard Pyle was ridiculed in the press for his failed crusade. The short creek raid stood for fifty years as a powerful symbol of government’s inability to enforce anti-polygamy laws.
[Paul Van Dam, Utah Attorney General, 1989-1992]:
Every law enforcement officer and prosecutor in the state of Utah knows about it.
And yet there are no prosecutions. That makes everyone feel uneasy. If you take the problem on that you're going to generate real significant, very significant social disruption among these people and that arresting the men as it were, or parents, both parents, leave a large number of children who have to be cared for, both emotionally and otherwise.
But, in the twenty-first century, there are a number of new developments. The current leader of the Colorado City group of polygamists . . .Warren Jeffs. . .is on the FBI’s most wanted list. His flight from prosecution is viewed by followers as a return to the old days when federal authorities hunted polygamists. The group’s substantial financial holdings are in the custody of the courts. Again, followers say it is an action that echoes of persecution of the Mormon Church in the 1880s. But the always-reclusive community on the Utah-Arizona border is tense.
Domestic and child abuse laws are being used to probe plural marriage relationships.
And throughout the plural marriage culture, the “old guard” leadership that weathered prosecutions in the 40s and 50s has passed from the scene. Still. . .on any given Sunday, tens of thousands of men, women and children. . .from Montana, through Utah, to Arizona. . . gather and keep polygamy alive.
Back in the university auditorium, the town hall meeting is a study in sharp contrasts.
A portion of the audience is on hand to publicize what they believe are the abuses of plural marriage. Closed and dark societies. . .old men using religious power to prey on child brides:
[Carolyn Jessop, Former Polygamous Wife]:
I had a very, very bad experience with that. Someone else made that experience for me, and I ended up living with it for seventeen years. I became a mother of eight children, which I am now raising on my own with very little support from their father. And I feel like that was abusive for me that I was not allowed to follow my heart and marry someone of my own choosing, because I believe I would have made a better choice that the marriage that I was put into.
But another portion of the audience is on hand for a different purpose. To speak out against abuse and neglect, to be sure. . .but also to defend what they consider their faith, and their right…
[Marlene Hammond, Polygamous Wife]:
Understand polygamy is as old as the world. It is here to stay. Abuses may have happened among polygamists, in polygamous settings. That is not the finest. We feel no shame in who we are. This is our civil right. Our participation in safety net meetings is so we can hope, we can help to be a balance. We can help people to understand our culture. And help to level the playing field so that all who have need for services will be able to receive them. Thank you (applause).
Once again the lines are drawn over polygamy as religious expression. Once again, officials in Utah and Arizona are promising action. Once again, polygamy is in our headlines. It’s a pattern that has repeated itself every generation for more than one hundred years.
Joining us is Utah attorney general mark Shurtleff.
[Attorney General Mark Shurtleff]:
Do you think you could separate out of the practice of plural marriage, sexual abuse, coercion, could you get them out of the practice?
Well, as a law enforcement official, that is my interest and concern all along. I've been back and forth on this issue. People always ask my opinion, should we eradicate it all together? Does it need to be decriminalized? What we do is talk about it, which is why I appreciate Utah NOW talking about it. We can't not talk about it kind of leaving it behind closed doors, because that mentality led to substantial abuses in my opinion. If you don't have a free and open process, a free flow of information, then it allows people like Warren Jeffs to become the tyrants and commit these crimes we believe he's committed.
How do you explain the abuse then? Do you think it is just Warren Jeffs and others are just bad EGGS? Back to the question whether the very nature of polygamy creates these kinds of abuses.
I don't know. There are times when I have seen that, yes, it does. Certainly as a father myself questioned how anybody living in that type of relationship -- how any father could have the type of relationship that he should with his children and spouse or spouses. At other times I have met a lot of woman that they say they chose this as an adult and that is a good lifestyle. All I know is that by not talking about it and by having these groups close the doors and bar the gates, so to speak, that key issues aren't being addressed. That domestic violence and abuses that occur in those groups like anywhere else, were not being punished.
You're conflicted about this it seems. You're reluctant in many ways. It seems to me a difficult position. You have to choose between the law on paper and reality. That seems to put you in a difficult position.
It does. The other difficult position is I'm not a policymaker. I am to enforce the law.
I get a lot of people who say polygamy is against the law. How do I practically arrest every polygamist adult, we don't have the space. What do we do with the children? In our Foster care system? Not only that I don't have the resources in my office to do that. My job as attorney general to address the most serious types of crimes
You hear the criticism where people say there may be a role of the elected leader, but that's the law of the enforcement.
When I first met Carroll Jessop, she couldn't become a witness for me when she didn't have custody of children when she didn't know when or how she was going to feed her children.
There was no safety net for her to think later about becoming witness in a criminal procedure.
Nobody was providing those services. We felt a responsibility to do that so we started down a safety net
When you bring people together in a safety net, what do you think it is that polygamist families figure they are getting from all of this? I can't imagine they would come to the table if they didn't think it was a path to decriminalization, for example that they weren't going to be legitimized in some way
Many believe that. What I believe they are doing and the reason I want their involvement is because they're talking about it. They're coming out from behind the castle gates. If we're not going to eradicate polygamy all together, somebody is going to have to do it. The answer is this: They are there. They are going to have children. There will be abuses and the only way to get justice to those victims who choose not to come out, but who still are entitled to the protection of laws, to get that into that we have to talk to them and open those routes of communication
About out of time. Let me ask you this: Can you see the situation where legalizing plural marriage will ever be possible? If you brought this out in the open?
I don't think it will happen. The Supreme Court might rule on that. I don't think any legislature is going to do that. If they do there will be big problems. You're going to have whole new law in order to deal issues of child custody and parental responsibility and who goes where and who inherits what? It is a huge problem to tackle but communicating and talking about it is the way to go. We can never go back to the indifference you talked about in the beginning of the program.
Still ahead, Carroll Jessop, 17 years as a plural wife, Carroll fled the culture of polygamy.
BUT FIRST – VOX POPULI, THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE, ON POLYGAMY…
[Rachel Watson, Correspondent]:
The new HBO drama big love has pushed polygamy into the Hollywood spotlight. Some call polygamy an act of faith. Others call it an act of abuse. Utah NOW talked with people just like you about polygamy.
I think it creates a lot of problems in the family, but that’s my personal view. Some people might want to legalize it, but personally I don’t think it’s right.
It’s against the law, so until the law’s changed I’d say it’s not right to do.
I hate to say something’s wrong, because I don’t want to sound judgmental, but it’s not something I would do.
It’s a difficult subject because polygamy, I think is so cloaked in secrecy, so few of us know very much about it and what actually goes on in the households and in the lives of people who practice it.
I do think the women and the boys too should be able to get help from the people.
I think it’s gonna happen whether or not their prosecuted or not.
They’ve wanted to bury the issue and pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s still here and still necessary for us to give some attention to.
Carolyn Jessop is with us this evening. At 18 she was assigned to become fourth wife of a man in his 50's. She's joining us now. Welcome, thanks for being with us.
[Carolyn Jessop, Former Polygamous Wife]:
Thank you for the invitation.
Your story is compelling not just of what happened but how it happened. 2 o'clock in the morning, what happened?
I was sound asleep. My mother came down and woke me up and told me that my father wanted to speak with me and he had something to tell me. I was half asleep. I was very disoriented.
I go upstairs to her room and my father is there. He told me that he had spoken to the Prophet and he had given me permission to be a teacher and I was requesting to be a doctor. That was a huge disappointment. And then he said, "and he wants you to be married before you go to school." And that was like a hammer -- being hit with a hammer because I did not want to get married at that point in my life. I really had my heart set on going to school.
So then, he said, "and he wants you to marry Meryl Jessop." He was three times my age. He was a very powerful leader in the FLDS community at that time. It was like seeing everything good in my life ending
Did you ever think about at the time resisting or saying, no or expressing concern? Was that at all part of the culture. This isn't the plan I have for myself.
You're not allowed to have a plan for yourself. Your plan is to do the Lord's will and purpose in life. That is to be revealed to you by the Prophet of god. For you to say no is to say no to God.
We're taught we have free agency, but free agency is to do what you're told by those who are the authorities over you. The other thing by saying no, very often a woman would be put under enormous amounts of pressure until she would cave in or simply not accepted. But resisting an arranged marriage was a huge disgrace to your family and you knew if you rejected it, you were putting your family at risk to be humiliated in front of the entire community, that they raised a rebellious child.
When you were living in that lifestyle, did you ever think -- that this was normal, that this was a normal existence.
Yes. To me it was normal. For 35 years it was the only life I knew. I knew there was a bigger world far bigger than what I was involved in. But as a child it is all you see and all you know and it appears normal.
So, important question: You were abused physically once, but emotionally all the time.
Was your husband, do you think, abusive because he was a polygamist or was he just an abusive man?
He had a narcissistic personality. He was just abusive and power was very important to him and control. He was very afraid of losing control of his family and he resorted to abuse to maintain that over them.
The question is was he abusive because he existed in a lifestyle that allowed him to be abusive or we would have been abusive in any situation. It gets to this essential question of whether you can strip out the lifestyle of plural marriage coercion and abuse.
Well, you certainly can't without checks and balances. He was raised in this society with no checks and balances. He never even witnessed them. So he didn't have the concept of checks and balances. It is difficult to say if he would have been raised with the concept that there are checks and balances and there are consequences for POOR choices, what he would have done with that, if he would have been as abusive?
Let me ask you, do you think that the moment you decided to leave -- I'm wondering what the clincher was. When was that that you said, "I can't do this anymore, I've got to get out”?
There were several moments they all build to the final end, where it was no matter what would happen, whatever cost I pay was not as great as what I feared would happen. It was based around myself and my children and I was finally able to break away.
Let me ask you again about this idea of whether or not a woman you could ever make polygamist lifestyles for example legitimate, not just decriminalize them. You talked about this idea of it is kind of a cult like existence. Within that existence it is very difficult to live, I suppose, a life that doesn't have coercion, that doesn't maybe have abuse.
Well, it is impossible to have a lifestyle that is a closed society and does meet the criteria of a dangerous or destructive cult not have those elements of coercion or abuse.
That would be true of any religion that involved cult dynamics.
I think in polygamy where you had checks and balances rather than in closed doors in a closet, the people would have more -- for example, a woman like myself would have the power to leave an abusive marriage. But when its behind closed doors you and don't know where to go and get help, then you have no power to protect yourself.
Is that realistic? Will there ever be a time when that openness will exist in a culture like this?
I think some of the communities want to open up and live out in the public and they express they do not agree with the abuses. They want to live above board and live honorably. I think if there was a way where that was it offered or available it may be possible
At the meeting at the safety net meeting a couple of weeks ago you said you saw positive things come forth polygamist family, polygamy lifestyle. You had lots of brothers and sisters.
Was the good ever worth the bad?
I believe every culture has something to offer. We definitely have our subculture that we established over generations. However, I would, from my experience; the human wreckage is not enough to offset it.
We should mention, there are opportunities in these polygamist life styles.
I guess you encourage that to get help.
Yes. If polygamy was not something to be so ashamed of and afraid of it would be easier for a woman involved in abusive situation to get help than she would have more protection for yourself and her children.
Okay. Carolyn Jessop, thanks very much.
Finally tonight – at this point in the program we’re going to be brining you commentary – essays – from a range of people and perspectives – we’ll begin from the right end of the political spectrum. Paul Mero of the conservative think-tank – the Sutherland Iinstitute - says once again – popular culture has glamorized and oversimplified a dangerous lifestyle..
[Paul Mero, President, Sutherland Institute]:
No one can put lipstick on a pig like Hollywood. HBO’s new series about a polygamous family from suburban Utah, titled Big Love, proves, once again, that Hollywood can romanticize nearly anything.
After spending decades dressing up the gay lifestyle, Hollywood has turned its queer eye at bringing polygamy out of the closet. And, as it did with gay culture, Hollywood has put polygamy through an extreme makeover. It’s like the Disney version of polygamy, “The Happiest Polygamist.” You get a feeling that at any moment the cast will break out into song.
How’s this for reality? Big Love’s man of the house, a good-looking guy named Bill Henrickson, gets to have steamy relations with three beautiful women and, outside of his chain of home repair stores, he never has to worry about anything else. His wives take care of all that. All he’s expected to do is make money and have hot sex. What guy wouldn’t want that life?! His biggest problem is choosing between refilling the gas tank in his Denali or his Viagra prescription.
Hollywood really got this one wrong. First of all, polygamous people don’t look that good. If they did, polygamy would have been legalized years ago. Modern polygamy isn’t beautiful. It’s dreary and stifling. It sucks the human spirit out of people faster than you can say Warren Jeffs. Modern polygamy gives incest, indolence, ignorance, and indentured servitude bad names. It makes the old Soviet Union look like the paradise Hollywood once said that was.
Hollywood missed a great opportunity to make a bigger point: modern polygamy is a brutal lifestyle for women and children. It proves you can’t teach stupid. Rather than defending the best interests of women and children, Hollywood has opted, yet once again, to take the low road to create a weird intersection of life where Little House on the Prairie meets Heather has Two Mommies. Except in this case, Heather has three mommies.
I’m Paul Mero.
That’s Utah NOW for this evening… Thanks for joining us…. Remember you are an important part of the conversation. We invite you to respond or react to the program…
You can send us an e-mail at UtahNOW@kued.org. We may read your comments on air or even invite you to read them yourself. In the meantime - we’ll be back next Friday with another edition of Utah NOW… Until then, I’m Doug Fabrizio.
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