Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sister Wives

I'm having polygamist dreams. Wait, that sounded weird. Especially with that picture of my sister-wife, I mean, best friend, at the heading of this post. (Just a little joke we have.)

Actually, I'm having polygamist dreams because I'm fascinated by them. These once-Mormon, fundamentalist Mormons, living what they believe to be the higher law, the true law. Amber lives near the largest concentration of polygamists anywhere, I believe, near Colorado City and Hildale. And Salt Lake isn't far away. But Colorado City earned fame a few years back when the "prophet" Warren Jeffs was on the lamb and finally caught, driving a van full of wigs and cell phones. If you ever visit St. George, you get an eye-full of polygamists. They all have the same hair style, the famous loose french braid with a wave in the front, hairsprayed to death. Not even their hair dare steps out of line for fear of eternal damnation. They have the long dresses, with high collars and long sleeves, and lest their ankles should show with a breeze, no worries--they have jeans or leggings on underneath the dresses. How they stand the sweltering temperatures is as much a mystery to me as is how they stand living in a house with seven other wives and sixty other children.

Mormons, to be clear, or members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not practice polygamy. Fundamentalist Mormons are a completely different religion, and not to be confused with the LDS church. It's probably the biggest misconception out there. For a brief time, some--not all--members of the LDS church were asked to practice polygamy, just as some--not all--ancient people in the Bible were asked to. My own pioneer ancestry contains polygamy. And it's not something I'm ashamed of. I think sometimes when we think of polygamy we think of the extremes of abusive and lustful men. I don't think in principle it has to be that way, and I'm sure it isn't always that way. I think the more dangerous thing would be men who mistreat and abuse their wives, especially in the name of God or power. I don't think that horror is reserved for polygamists. There are certainly plenty of men with one wife who are horrid and abusive.

But back to why I'm dreaming . . .

The polygamist run-ins in St. George are other-worldly to me. I want to watch them. I want to stare, though I know they hate that. And besides, it's rude. But still. I know that in every religion and every culture there are the horror stories, the extremists, but then there is also the goodness. The intentions.

Amber told me a story of how one day when she was shopping in Walmart, she found a wallet left behind in the shoe department. Upon opening it, she could clearly discern that it belonged to a polygamist woman. Her last name gave that away, as did the driver's license photo with that front wave. In her wallet, she had a photo of her prophet, Warren Jeffs, (which, just to make a point, I don't think any Mormons carry a picture of the prophet in their wallets, do they?) a reminder card about a doctor's appointment, and about $500 in cash. Amber knew that was no small sum to a woman with many children who definitely answered to her husband on all matters. She took the wallet up to Customer Service, but stopped short before reaching the counter, behind which stood a teen boy that didn't, upon first glance, look like he would care all that much about helping out a polygamist woman. Maybe that was a judgment call, but her instincts told her not to turn over the wallet to him. So she took it home.

Her only hope was the doctor's office card inside the wallet, so she called the number and left a message with the information that she had found this woman's wallet and wanted it to be returned to her. She left her own name and telephone number. Weeks went by with no call.

Finally, one day the phone rang, and on the other end of the line was this polygamist woman. She expressed over and over again her gratitude and how upset she'd been about losing that amount of money. Amber gave her directions to her house and the woman came to pick up her wallet. But not alone, of course. Polygamist women are generally not permitted to travel outside of their city alone, and certainly travel to an outsider's home is not customary. She arrived in a Surburban filled with people, but she came alone to the door. Amber received her graciously and returned her wallet to her, and the woman again thanked her profusely. She left, and that was that.

But Amber was surprised a few days later when there was a knock on her door, and again there stood this woman--alone this time--with a basket of homemade jams and breads. She wanted to give a token of her appreciation, and she had apparently taken some risk to do so. Amber invited her in, but that is strictly forbidden, so they had a short conversation at the door, and the woman left. Drove back to her city, her life, her reality, having had contact with the outside world that surely didn't jive with the things she'd been indoctrinated with.

While at Amber's house, I found a stack of books on the shelf, all memoirs of polygamist wives who had escaped, or left for various reasons. I picked one up and began to read, completely enthralled. I had seen this woman on an Oprah show interview years ago. I was fascinated to read about this world she had been born into, even compare it to mine. It's interesting to me to learn about the dividing lines between the LDS and the FLDS, and see how at one time we followed the same prophet, believed in the same scripture, hoped for the same eternal reward. How grateful I am that my life is not ruled by fear! How grateful I am for knowledge of a God who wants His children to be happy in this life, not just the next. And that His plan for His daughters is just as brilliant and glorious as that for His sons. How grateful I am to know that as His daughter, I am not secondary. In fact, I am His crowning creation, and He wants me to be loved and cherished by a husband who is working toward the same goal that I am, rather than climbing all over my self-worth to gain his.

I brought home the books that I didn't have time to read while I was at Amber's house. I've been immersed in this polygamist world, first spending the week there among them, and now reading the tales of what life is like behind those walls. Last night, before going to bed, I was reading Irene Spencer's memoir, Shattered Dreams. She recounted the story of having to move to a colony in Mexico with her new husband and his first wife, so that they could escape the governmental raids that were happening in the States, and so they could live The Principle openly. Her heart longed for the love of her husband, but though he was kind to her, what she got instead of passion and intimacy, was duty. Her heart was lonely. She finally ended up pregnant, but within minutes of the baby girl's birth, the baby died. I dreamed last night of that awful scene. Hearing a baby's cry, and then silence. Alone in a four-walled, unplastered adobe hut with no electricity, no indoor plumbing. Just dirt and dust and heat. And dire poverty.

I am moved by the hearts of women. Though we each choose our path, we are also each connected by hearts that only women understand. The desires to please our husbands, to be nurturing-- to children, animals, plants, the elderly, the infirm-- to be instruments of change in the world, to find favor with God, however we see Him. We have strong hearts, sacrificing hearts, willing hearts, deep hearts. Often, hearts filled with sorrow, longing, loneliness, betrayal, and pain. I have great respect for women who dedicate their lives to living what they believe. In that, we are not so different. In that, our hearts want the same thing. Indeed, the heart of a woman is a different kind of heart.

And I am proud to have one.


Misty said...

i love this post, Jenna...

I will admit, with a moderate amount of shame, that i am obsessed with the show Big Love. everyone in the LDS branch of my family has much judgement and horror in re: to my love of that FLDS show.

But... I'm with you. I'm fascinated. Everything you said about them, and about the roots of Christianity- I totally concur with...

Jenna said...

Misty, I don't have television, as you know, and so I've never seen the show, though I've heard much about it and know many who love it. I think the reason (LDS) Mormons disapprove of it is that from what I understand, not much differentiation is made between the LDS and the FLDS that they are truly portraying, so we feel like it perpetuates this myth that Mormons live in plural marriage. I wonder if it also hypes up the sex aspect of it, for HBO's sake-- which would make for entertaining television, sure, but from what I've studied isn't an accurate portrayal of how FLDS live. Still, it's like a peek inside this weird and forbidden world, right? And it is, it's fascinating! xoxo

Sarah said...

That is so crazy! For some reason I had a dream a few nights ago about polygamy so it's been on my mind a little bit too. I think it actually stems back to a couple weeks ago when I went to Snowflake w/my mom and sister for an overnight trip, and we stopped at a historical house which used to belong to a man by the name of Jesse Smith. He had 5 wives, each of which had several children. Each wife was given their own room and from what I gathered, all of the children stayed in that room w/the mother. The rooms were NOT very big! The whole thing was interesting to me though and I've wondered how they do it.

Anyway. It's also interesting to me that we are so far apart, but have the same topic on our minds!!
Love you!

Annette Lyon said...

Have you read The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams? It won the Whitney for best YA this year, and it's about a girl living in polygamy. Absolutely fascinating.

linda said...

"Maybe that was a judgment call, but her instincts told her not to turn over the wallet to him."

That was smart, or maybe the Lord whispering in her ear.

There are no perfect people, as far as I can tell. I don't think polygamy will ever catch on with the general populace but some will find their way into it.

Takes a strong man to be a polygamist, and strong women too.

I think one has to be truly a spiritual person to make it work.

Yet it does work, I've seen it.
Often enough to think the problems with it are self-manufactured.

I've not seen Big Love either but do confess to having a romantic vision of polygamy.

I suppose it would be all about trust with the husband AND the sister wife.

Just observed from the outside looking in.