Sunday, February 15, 2009

Polygamy

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'.

 - 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?

24 comments:

Arielle said...

I spent a few minutes trying to wrap my head around that opening quote. I almost made a diagram on paper but decided against it. I still don't get it. That stuff is crazy.

Dan said...

I have to agree with Arielle - drawing a family tree must be a complex journey.

The transport of minors and other such details are the real problems. I think that interplay of religion and law and personal rights leaves many police forces just as tangled as a family tree.

insomniaclolita said...

urgh those poor girls. There's some polygamy occurs here in my country but very few, and not that complex / massive, definitely not marrying own relatives / families like that.

Knowing this makes me mad. Those kids have so much to live for.

Ant said...

I think I have the same view of polygamy as you. I've kind of wondered why it is illegal - strikes me as a law that is based upon the christian notion of only one partner at a time, so an example of a specific religion influencing law.

But then the bit about the teenage males speaks volumes - it's a hark back to tribal days of empire-building by lead males, and that in itself breeds all kinds of medieval values. Maybe that's the idea behind the action: get a ruling on polygamy and set a precedent once and for all?

Caz said...

A few years ago I read "Under the Banner of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer and it was such an interesting read.

Since then I've paid attention to what's happening in Bountiful and Utah and tried to make sense of it all.

Obviously its an interesting dilemma but like you said, i think the biggest thing is the children and their welfare. Minors should always top any and all other concerns.

Yoda said...

You are totally right.

They are taking the case down the wrong path by questioning polygamy, per se. It has the possibility of setting up a dangerous precedent if they do lose the case.

Princess Extraordinaire said...

I don't understand polygamy but I I respect it - I doj't respect, however, the abuse that many times exists along with it - great post..

Jack said...

I don't think the charges are indicative of what society wants them punished for. I think the porsecution took a long hard look at what they are up against and made the compromises necessary to stopping the abuse. In the end, it's better to spare the innocents than try to bring all the guilty to justice.

In the case of the FLDS, as I understand it, the remaining members are incredibly tight knit and resist any outsiders. Even if these outsiders are trying to prove charges of statutory rape. An episode of This American Life, "The New Boss" talked a little about the church.

Matt said...

I dont really care for polygamy much. Im not sure I understand the whole reason they do it.

but I do like that show big love on HBO.

theoddduckling said...

While I hadn't heard about Bountiful yet, I do remember the media storm that were the raids on the YFZ Ranch. I remember being most concerned about the boys and girls who were caught up in this.

Deutlich said...

stuff like that just makes my stomach churn.

The Passionate Book Worm said...

Growing up in Utah, I have some of the same thoughts that you do. I've tried sorting it out in my head but it's so complex and almost seems unbelievable.

Therapeutic Ramblings said...

If they were smart about it they'd go with whatever would get the max # of years, and then add on lesser counts, so they have more leverage for a plea. Polygamy gets the headlines, which for better or worse can be motivation for the prosecution.

ps. My word verification was "dextr"...almost the name of one of my fav. shows of all time!

Crushed said...

I guess the answer is because Polygamy still has kind of outlandish connotations. It allows media interest and means that interest is retained. Kind of a cynical marketing ploy really.

By focussing on the polygamy, they emphasise that these people are not 'us', they are something evil that needs to be expunged. It's alleging that they are abusers BECAUSE they are polygaminsts.

the frog princess said...

The CoJCoLDS used to advertise on TV in my hometown when I was a kid. Creepy.

I don't see how allowing gay marriage could be a precedent for polygamy--and arguing thus would puts a serious pall on the movement to legalize it here in the US, as conservatives will obviously start saying "Look! See what happened in Canada!!"

And I'm guessing that the polygamy is seen as the cause for all the other abuses, thus they must first charge based on that main legal technicality, whereas trying to charge statutory rape gets you into a weird muddy area when the defendant then says "but according to our religion we were married, so it's not rape"... If you can invalidate the marriage, then the other charges become punishable... or something.

The whole thing makes my head hurt.

Babs said...

I totally, totally agree...

Jacqueline said...

It took me a cup of coffee and a serious diagram involving many arrows to understand that first paragraph. Whew!

When it comes to adults who make the choice to live a polygamous lifestyle, I try my best not to pass judgment, because their choices and/or the religion that dictates their choices is something I know very little about.

However, when non-consenting children become involved, I feel strongly convicted in the immorality of the polygamists' ways. I agree with you. I find it very disappointing that when we, as outsiders, hear such tails, we devote more energy to judging the adults than we do being concerned for the young children involved.

amindinmotown said...

This polygamy stuff simply baffles me. Even watching "Big Love" on HBO, I can't help but ask myself about 100 questions about what the hell these individuals are thinking...

Claire said...

I also thought about drawing a family diagram about that... and decided against it as I don't have enough brainpower right now.

p.s. (and this is hardly a pointful speculation considering the weight of your post and the inane light-heartedness of my comment)

I had a cat scratch me on the neck and it got infected. It looked like a hickey. Except it took fourteen thousand times longer to heal.
So I had a "hickey" mark on my neck for about a month.

Just thought I'd mention that since I just now read your cupid-dog post.

Tough Girl 101 said...

I know I havent commented lately, but this one is interesting to me.

You see, I think that religious freedom needs to not be used as an excuse for illegal activity. So far as I am concerned, polygamy is still not really a religion because they're so new, and they continuously use their religion as an excuse to do illegal things - the secrecy, the cover-ups, the abuse... yeah, that's not a religion. That's a cult.

Bayjb said...

Polygamy is very intriguing but disturbing to me. The entire way these girls are treated and raised makes me sick.

Daisy said...

It's amazing how writers like this woman can come out of their experiences with the perspective and strength to make sense of it.

EP said...

I'm with Arielle and Dan -- the first quote blows my mind a little bit.

I cannot imagine going through something like that or being raised to think that's the way things are and will be.

The women who have come out and written about their experiences are so strong.

Daisy said...

Thanks for putting out the clarification that the FLDS church is different than the LDS church :)

And yes they go after polygamy charges because it's sometimes easier to prove that case than to prove the others. :( I completely agree with you on the whole statutory rape thing - they should all go to jail.