Dinner with the Polygamists
A couple weeks ago, my husband, Nate, asked if I would have dinner with some of the people he works with. One of Nate’s clients is the Colorado City Unified School District, a polygamist community that straddles the Arizona Utah border near St. George. (Yes, that’s where the infamous Warren Jeffs is from.)
Of course, I jumped at the chance. I have read lots about pioneer polygamists, but I’d never actually met any modern-day ones.
We went to dinner with C and F, who are in leadership positions in the school district. They are strong women who talked about their children, husbands, and career ambitions. I was particularly struck during our conversation about the advantage of having sister wives who can help raise each other’s children. I think that gives these women a little more freedom than us monogamists about when/how/if they will pursue a career. In fact, many of the women Nate works with have Masters and PhD’s from schools like Northern Arizona University and Southern Utah University.
As I listened to them, I was ashamed to admit that I had not wanted to see modern-day polygamists as “real people.” I was tired of the Mormon polygamy jokes, and I wanted to do everything I could to distance myself from the modern-day polygamists. I wanted to believe in the stereotypes of men forcing child brides into marriage, of women too oppressed or uneducated to realize how horrible their lives were, of polygamist families living in decrepit trailers. I wanted to see polygamy as evil and oppressive and the people who chose it as a way of life, unenlightened.
In fact, part of me still wants to see it as something to be abolished because if polygamy is a valid model, what does that say about my role as a monogamist wife? What would this say about the roles of women verses the men? And, then, of course there are the theological implications if polygamy truly is an eternal principle, but I’ll save that tirade for another blog.
Now that I’ve met these women and Nate works with them on a daily basis, I’m finding my polygamist wife stereotype falling apart. As Nate and I have gotten to know these people, I see, for the most part, women choosing this lifestyle. The women I’ve met married around the same age or even older than I was when I married (I was 22). They have as much (often more) education than I have and are pursuing successful careers while raising healthy, intelligent children and maintaining well-functioning families.
I’ve heard the stories of abuse, and octogenarians marrying teenage virgin brides on Oprah and the book displays at Barnes and Noble. But, I wonder if that’s more because the sensational stories are more interesting than the majority’s daily lives. Nate isn’t seeing the pictures the media depicts. Granted he’s seen some scandal up there, but no more than most places have to deal.
In fact as he talks with these women, he sees that the idea of an older man marrying a 14 or 15 year old girl is just as offensive to polygamist as it is to monogamist. This is one reason why many polygamists in Colorado City no longer believe Warren Jeffs is a prophet.
Warren Jeffs and others have done bad things, and unfortunately, this tiny group represents polygamy to the outside world. And, yet, many polygamists do not follow Warren Jeffs or support what he has done. When Nate talks about the people he works with, when I meet some of them, all I see are individuals trying to live their lives the best they know how. And, right now, those would be hard lives to live…
Imagine the current state of events in Colorado City. Major networks have crews permanently working in the town, and these reporters have to come up with stories that will attract viewers. This means they constantly sensationalize the hunt for Warren Jeffs and the lifestyle. These are regular people, who have news crews filming them at church, at school, at the grocery store, and even at home without their permission.
Add to this that their communal land trust has been taken over by force by the Utah Attorney General. The school district has been taken over by the Arizona Attorney General, and every police officer in town has either been arrested or de-certified by the Arizona Attorney General. There are two FBI agents permanently assigned to the community of 10,000 people, and approximately once a month dozens of state police officers from Utah and/or Arizona descend on the city to serve outstanding subpoenas or execute search warrants.
Amid all this strife, the polygamists are dividing amongst themselves with one group pursuing an isolationist strategy by moving the religion to Texas, building temples and preparing for the Second Coming. The other group is staying in Colorado City, trying to preserve their lifestyle, and open up to the outside world. I can’t help but think how really hard this whole situation would be if it was happening to me.
It is still difficult for me to know how to react to modern-day polygamists. Like Linda mentioned in her polygamist blog, on one hand polygamy seems freeing, to be able to pursue your dreams as you share childcare responsibilities, but on the other hand, I’d be sharing my husband, my children would be sharing their father with a lot of other children. If I accept their way of life, am I helping pave the way to having polygamy come back? Or, would I be supporting an aspect of the Church that I frankly think was a big mistake?
And yet, if I want people to be accepting of my way of life and not stereotype me, don’t I have the obligation to defend others when I see them being persecuted?
So, what is my obligation to these women? I know that the vast majority of them are free to leave whenever they choose. Can I condemn them for exercising their free agency? On the other hand, by supporting their lifestyle choices, am I condoning the instances of abuse? Worse yet, am I assisting the perpetuation of abuse?