The bulk of this blog is about my second novel, but I hope today you’ll forgive a post on my first. It is very much on my mind these days, happily. One of today’s bits of “work” was watching the final episode of the HBO series Big Love, which followed the plural marriages of DIY mogul-turned-senator Bill Henrickson and his three wives: the long-suffering first wife, Barbara, who was not raised as a polygamist; Nikki, daughter to the prophet of notorious fundamentalist compound Juniper Creek; and Margene who, in series five, threatened to bring all the marriages down through her youth and inexperience.
I am fascinated by polygamy and by indigenous American faiths like Mormonism. There is polygamy in my first novel. It is about the first wife of fifty, and her two daughters, Amity and Sorrow. It has little to do with Big Love, I suppose, but Big Love is only one way that popular culture is currently looking at the concept of polygamy, as well as how much government anyone wants in her faith. For most handmade faiths, like Mormonism, the answer is – not a lot. The history of polygamy in the Mormon church sprang from the revelations of founder Joseph Smith. His wife was less keen on his revelations and never accepted that her husband should take other wives, but take them he did. It was polygamous Mormons who walked the Nauvoo trail to the great Salt Lake after his murder. And it was polygamous Mormons who renounced the practice when the US government gave them an ultimatum: did they want their faith to remain polygamous or did they want their Utah to become a state? The majority became monogamous while a small percentage remained true to Smith’s revelations, becoming Fundamentalist Mormons or FLDS. Mormons “proper”, the Latter Day Saints or LDS church, may not acknowledge them as Mormons but there are at least 40,000 practicing polygamous Mormons in Utah alone, roughly 2% of the population, as well as polygamists in Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Idaho, Mexico and Canada. And if polygamists have been in hiding since their 1890 criminalisation, they have been out and proud in the new Millennium. There have been a handful of novels, from The 19th Wife, a Richard & Judy book, to Betty Webb’s popular mystery series whose plots of revolve around such themes. There are also a number of nonfiction books available, from reprints circa-Joseph Smith to more recent follow ons from Carolyn Jessop’s compelling Escape, including the recent memoir published by the polygamous Darger family, Love Times Three. Is it polygamy’s time to shine or are we simply, in the words of Brady Udall, who published The Lonely Polygamist, only interested in polygamy because of, ” one word, sex”?
Big Love was not about sex, which probably proved a great disappointment to many a HBO viewer. Big Love was always more interested in how the characters interacted, pulling together, pulling apart, grappling over matters of faith and responsibility vs. the right to choose. It was always more interested in how the three wives, who would not be likely friends in the real world, found a way to be married to each other than to how any of the women spent the night with their shared husband. Big Love was also interested in faith and, in the later series, how the Mormon faith, fundamentalist or no, would serve its women, its wives. FLDS members argue that the early church afforded great rights for women; it was Utah who granted the right to vote to its women fifty years before the rest of America. Fundamentalist chapels might be choked with wives, but you do not see them on the dais; you do not see them in charge. This despite a Mormon doctrine on “the Mother in Heaven” that is perhaps only second to pagans and Wiccans for “goddess worship.” Again, this doctrine is disputed by the LDS, though feminist Mormons are quietly aware.
What fascinated me most by Big Love and what my novel is also interested in is the conflict between the duties of a family and the rights of an individual. Does having a wife (or many wives) afford a woman more individual freedom to pursue personal interests? Or does being part of a plural marriage only serve to heap on the guilt and obligation in some kind of familial perfection? Does having several mothers for your children help you to care for them better? Or is a mother incapable of treating a sister wife’s child as her own? In the final episode, husband Bill has his day in court, pursuing the reformation of polygamy and the legalisation of plural marriage. But before the issue can be resolved, there is a shocking and tragic incident (no spoilers here) and we are reminded that the series is not about political activities either. It ends, as it begins, with three women trying to be family to one another, trying to be wives to one another.
In a side note, because whenever I write about one book I find a strange parallel in the other, Nazi Germany also flirted with polygamy. Bormann and Himmler argued that there would be a surplus of women after the war, due to the loss of soldiers. Decorated soldiers should, therefore, have the right to marry and make children with these excess women. Hitler said, “The greatest fighter deserves the most beautiful woman … If the German man is to be unreservedly ready to die as a soldier, he must have the freedom to love unreservedly. For struggle and love belong together.”
Hitler aside, it seems to me that modern polygamists are only interested in big love. There are laws about the age a woman should be at marriage and they are there to halt the greed of men like the imprisoned president of the FLDS, for child sexual assault. But when the adults are of the age and mental capacity to give consent, I cannot see how it serves a government, or a church, to say who may be in love. We are all in unorthodox families these days, families often crafted from those we choose rather than those to whom we are born. Who is to say that our choices are any better than anyone else’s? Does it harm me for someone to have more than one wife – or more than one husband? No. But as my character was, ultimately, imperiled in her marriage, do I also think a plural wife has the right to leave without fear? Absolutely. But I would expect that for any woman in a monogamous marriage, too.
If you’re intrigued to learn more about the state of the polygamy debate today visit The Polygamy Blog for the Salt Lake Tribune and the now archived The Polygamy File, whose writer left to work on Love Times Three. Those blogs were not part of my research, but it didn’t stop me from being endlessly fascinated with the twists and turns of the numerous cases against Warren Jeffs, whose reality is far stranger than my fiction. And even now, working on book two, I can’t help but continue to watch and wonder.