My father had six wives and I have forty-seven brothers and sisters. My oldest daughter is my aunt and I am her grandmother. When I was assigned to marry my first husband, I became my own step-grandmother since my father was already married to two daughters of my new husband. According to the eternal laws of the polygamous group I grew up with, I will be a step-grandmother to many of my siblings for ‘all time and eternity'.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
- Debbie Palmer, in her book "Keep Sweet: Children of Polygamy"
Despite growing up not terribly far away from Bountiful, people never spoke about about it much. I remember being surprised to find that, unlike the infamous colonies in Utah that people joked about with ease, I had unknowingly driven by the turn-off to a small village of around 1000 people that is also known as the polygamy capital of Canada.
I started paying attention, then, to people's whispered tales of the teenaged girls dressed out of the 19th century married to men old enough to be their fathers, grandfathers, to rumours of adolescents being smuggled across the border to serve as dutiful plural wives. It seemed altogether too surreal that this was occurring, ignored, just down the road from the highway to Alberta, where thousands of motorists flew by a day.
Bountiful has been in the news a lot more lately. Warren Jeffs, the president of the Fundementalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (hugely separated from the standard Mormon Church, despite many jokes to the contrary), was rumoured to have fled there to avoid prosecution on Utah State charges of being an accomplice to rape. It also has close ties to the YFZ ranch in Texas, raided in 2008 by child protective services. In 2004, Debbie Palmer published Keep Sweet: Children of Polygamy, an autobiography of her experiences in Bountiful as a teenager, including, at 15, becoming the 6th wife of Bountiful's then 55-year old leader. Most recently, after years of speculation, the town's current bishop, Winston Blackmore, rumoured to have 19 wives and 120 children, and another Bountiful resident, have been formally charged with polygamy, a charge which, up until now, has never actually been used due to fears of infringing on people's religious freedoms.
I find the case of Bountiful to present a huge moral quandary. In and off itself, involving consenting adults, I have no problem with polygamy in principle. However, the problem is that it often does not involve multiple consenting adults. Instead, at least as described by Debbie Palmer in her book, there is manipulation, violence, sexual abuse, statutory rape, and blurring of family boundaries. While many focus on the exploitation of the girls in the community, there has also been a recent focus on the plight of the young men, as multiple women for one man means that many males get left out in the cold, and are often exiled from the community for perceived slights with few skills and education for the world outside of Bountiful. I don't know necessarily that this is inherent in polygamy per se, but it certainly appears, from an observer's point of view, that they are inherent in its manifestation in Bountiful.
With all these allegations of abuse and neglect, I find it odd that the prosecutors have chosen to go after these men on charges of polygamy, rather than more straightforward charges, like done with Warren Jeffs, such as statutory rape. This leaves open a debate on the nature of religious freedoms. In fact, Blackmore's lawyer plans to argue that the legality of gay marriage in Canada provides a precedent for the allowing of polygamy. Perhaps it is the simple fact that polygamy is technically against the law, and the citizens of Bountiful have been flouting this for decades.
Still, I find it more disconcerting that we are concerned with the will of consenting adults, rather than following up on the more upsetting claims that underaged girls are unwillingly being smuggled over the border to serve as the tenth wives of a man 40 years their senior, or that teenaged boys are being abandoned and neglected. Or are these charges of polygamy supposed to be an indirect way of stopping these abuses of power?