Staying with polygamists

Part of me didn’t want to believe it was true, and yet I knew it was. The girls all in dresses with long hair done up in styles of a by-gone era. The young faces, not all with traces of family resemblance and yet all sharing the same last name. The remote location, far from prying eyes (and any shopping or convenience). Yep, now that I look back it’s quite clear that I should have more strongly suspected I was headed into the unknown; I was going to be a guest of a group of polygamist women.

And not just any polygamists; fundamentalist latter-day saints. In the barren, northern farmland of eastern Idaho, I found myself facing an adventure and a challenge. The occasion that brought me far from home (with a nursing toddler and temporary nanny in tow) was a midwifery skill lab for the institution that I am receiving my education in childbirth from. Over the course of the year, several skill labs are offered around the country based on interest level in a particular region. And as it happened that 7 women from this small farm town were interested in hosting a lab, this became the closest and most timely location for me to attend.

Several other women from around the country were in attendance, along with the instructor that traveled from Virginia to teach us the skills commonly associated with midwifery. We arrived late Sunday night in order to be present for the 8am start Monday morning, and to say it was a strange drive out into the wilderness is laughable. After several wrong turns on lightless back roads, we made it to the large machinery shop on the outskirts of a larger compound of buildings and houses, which we were told would be our dormitory. In the fluorescent light of a ground level door, we were met by three young girls prepared to show us to our rooms.

On the third level of the large aluminum building, rising above the shop floor, were several bedrooms, bathrooms and an open room for instruction (with old church pews lining the walls) . A kitchen on the floor below would be host to three hot, home cooked country meals a day for the three days of the event (with fresh raw dairy on hand from their complement of 100 cows, in addition to fresh eggs and produce from their multi acre garden!) We were quickly and quietly helped into a room on the end of a long hall with a hand carved mahogany king size bed. It also appeared to double as an office for whatever went on below. I thanked the young hostesses as questions began to percolate in the back of my mind.

The morning brought with it only more questions. Two older women were there for the class in addition to the three girls from the night before and there were two young mothers as well, one with a 5 month old and one in her 39th week of gestation. It was these two women that caused me the most perplexing anxiety over the course of the three days. At most they looked as though they might be 18 years old, an age for which I could understand starting a family out in the remote countryside. But by the end of the first day it was clear that this was not their first journey into motherhood. One had two other children being tended to elsewhere, and the pregnant one was on her fourth.

It was this realization, as well as a conversation with another student that had done more research before coming than I had dared, that finally pulled the wool from my eyes. I began to see what I hadn’t wanted to see. The deception in response to harmless questions about the nearby homes. The outright lying about ages from the younger girls. The nervous, lofty glances elsewhere when relationships between the older and younger women were questioned. Either they hadn’t prepared themselves well enough, or they hadn’t had time to synchronize stories, but to say they weren’t forthcoming or completely honest is grossly understated.

And then there was the “sister in law” from a nearby town that had married a brother (to whom he is a brother it is still unclear). Dressed in blue jeans like the rest of us outsiders she was clearly not part of the tribe, and yet, welcomed as family. Not that she was any more candid than the young sister-wives, but she was definitely sympathetic to how it all must have appeared to the rest of us.

So here I am, in the middle-of-no-where-Idaho, the only person aside from our hosts with any ties to Mormonism, learning about childbirth alongside women that I suspect see it more often than anyone could guess (and have more interest than the rest of us in keeping it under wraps at home), in a building that I was beginning to question the purpose of. And yet, amidst my concerns and doubts, I was strangely at ease and at home in a way that I still can’t quite explain.

Perhaps it was our common goals and the process of seeking to understand the miracle of birth and life that brought us together. Or maybe it was the genuine love and interest that these women, old and young alike showed to myself and the other visiting students. In many ways, these were some of the most Christlike and accepting women I have ever met. In fact, I found myself wishing more women I met at church were of the same demeanor and attitude. These were not sheltered women either. Well educated and informed, with interests outside of their small farming community. They even had (although obviously duplicitous I now see) Facebook accounts. And their sweet disposition did not harbor any falseness of belief. They were whole heartedly devoted to their choices and lifestyle. Though it was the very idea of “choice” that began to get under my skin by the end of the third day.

After watching and connecting with these women in a way I hadn’t expected to, I began to feel angry and sad at their situation. I didn’t want to pity them, nor did I want to think my choices fundamentally better. Who am I to tell other consenting adults what to do with their lives and bodies? But that’s just it. Were these girls consenting adults when their “choices” were made? I couldn’t shake the answer that I knew to be true. These girls were just that: girls. And yet they were mothers and wives….and sisters and friends and seemingly very happy. Who was I to feel sorry for them or judge them? I still don’t know. I can’t stop thinking about them. They were so kind and loving to me and my son. So interested in us and able to see us without judgement or filters. I want to be that way.

Did their living situation equip them with those gifts? Does tolerance and understanding and patience and love flow from the constant sacrifice of self and individuality that must be required of such a one-sided agreement as polygamy? And again, I have no answers. I just know that they weren’t what I expected. Whatever polygamy is, it isn’t something we can understand from the outside; I do know that. And I know that a part of me feels a great deal of love for these women that were like sisters to me for three strange days in northeast Idaho.

Corktree

Corktree is exploring life and spirituality in new ways and new environments while studying midwifery, reiki, yoga, homeopathy, herbology and evolutionary nutrition. She has 3 daughters and one son, which add up to what now feels like an enormous family of 6.

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27 Responses

  1. Diane says:

    Nice job,

    I was watching last week’s episode of “Sister Wives,”Kody went back to his hometown and spoke to all of his childhood friends. I found the exchange quite interesting as well as a little bit hypocritical. The one friend that I speak of is the one that Kody was on his mission with. This person actually stated,” I don’t care if Kody goes to hell because of his beliefs. Then he goes on to tell Kody, why he has a problem with fundamentalist Mormons. His friends problem is this, he stated,” I don’t care if you recruit Catholics, or any other faith, I have a problem with you going into our wards and recruiting people from the LDS faith into your lifestyle.” And the question I had which was never addressed is this, why the double standard? Why is it okay for members of the LDS faith to go into peoples homes presumably of different faiths and beliefs system with the specific intent to convert, and yet, its not okay for Fundamentalist Mormons to do the same?

  2. Fran says:

    Fascinating read! Thanks for sharing this experience.

  3. Andrea says:

    I do feel like we have the right to judge the wrongness of the situation. I wish the authorities would step in to prosecute polygamists who have sex with underage girls. I know there isn’t an easy fix and it would open a can of worms. Unfortunately, we just look the other way. It’s a shame. They are victims. A young girl in an incestuous relationship, or a captive sexual relationship may also believe all is well. This doesn’t make it acceptable.

    Do you remember when Texas tried to make all the children from the Warren Jeffs community, wards of the state? It was a nightmare, and made everything worse for the women and children. If we did want to rescue these girls, or at least tried to root out the practice of statutory rape, how would we do it?

    Although I don’t believe these women are in constant trauma, I truly believe the human soul does not like to be dominated EVER. We can’t get rid of burqas in Saudi Arabia, but maybe we could do something in this case. They’re in America for Pete’s sake! Don’t we owe it to them?

    • Corktree says:

      I agree that the human soul doesn’t really want or thrive in domination – but I think we still don’t always know what’s taking place in these places. Warren Jeffs, yes, creepy and dominating and wrong. But I didn’t meet the men (or man) of this place and I can’t say that they are evil or ill-intentioned, as much as I would like to believe that no one would intentionally impregnate such young girls with a clear conscience.

  4. Gisela says:

    What an experience.. My curiosity to ask questions would’ve been overwhelming! I’m glad that they seemed content with their lives, but I have to wonder….. how much more fulfilled and loved would they feel having one man love and adore them each individually. To even have the option to make that choice. When you don’t know any different, I think it would be easier to settle into the only life you’ve seen all the women around you accept. Maybe they do have loving adoring husbands and I’m way off base. I can’t imagine being intimate with my husband and feeling a complete connection (on every level) to him knowing he is doing that with other women as
    well. My brain just can’t wrap around that.

    • Corktree says:

      I know, I can’t wrap my mind around it for myself either, and I’m glad I don’t have to. I also found myself wishing they were more candid about the whole thing so I could just outright ask the real questions that were burning holes in my mind. Like what is it really like to share your husband? I almost asked at one point before I caught myself.

  5. Alisa says:

    If this is the same group in Idaho that I saw on 60 minutes, then they broke off from Warren Jeff’s group and are more progressive than the Hilldale/Colorado City crowd in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona.

    I think it is really important to get to know people to the point where we look past stereotypes and presumptions and see we have more in common with them than we previously believed. Isn’t that what we’d like other people to do with us as LDS? To get to know us and see we’re not that different or strange, but actually a normal, likeable bunch that has the same hopes and dreams as anyone else?

    • Corktree says:

      I don’t know for sure. I couldn’t find the information that they other student was referencing, but she claimed to know that they are somehow related to the Warren Jeffs group (they have the same last name as one of his wives I believe, and she said that the “elder” of this group testified in his hearing, but I don’t have real clear info on that) I also couldn’t find the 60 minutes bit, do you have a link? But yes, they do seem more progressive. In fact, in many ways they were like typical members. It was so interesting to hear similar forms of speech (and prayer) that I consider unique to our church culture. And I was definitely grateful for the chance to see and understand them in this way and give them the same courtesy of acceptance that I would hope to receive.

  6. nat kelly says:

    Wow, Corktree, this is an intense experience. Your questions and feelings are spot on. Thanks for taking us all through the process with you without giving us all the answers – in a situation like the one you describe, I don’t know if there are any easy answers.

  7. Rachel says:

    Decades ago I worked in child welfare and had to do interviews with some polygamists in Utah. It was a surreal experience, and I felt much the same as you. Culture is culture is culture. “These people seem happy” vs “These girls are minors” is a very upsetting head space.
    I once took a Women’s Studies class at the U of U, and it was taught by an Iranian woman. This lady was a PhD. She was educated outside the US. She did not seem oppressed at all. And she certainly believed we women in the US looked down on her culture with pity, and that we just couldn’t ‘get’ it unless we’d lived in it, and there is beauty/harmony in the way her society works. I think she’s right. But, on the other hand, it’s only when we hold a book away from our face about 12 inches we can see it clearly to understand it; not when it is a centimeter from our eyes.

  8. LovelyLauren says:

    What a fascinating experience!

    While the idea of sharing my husband with anyone is sickening, I often feel like I would love to have a group of supportive women with me all the time. I live away from my family and my sister is only 11, but I long for close female friendships and have a difficult time forming them. While I can’t look at their culture without my own as a bias, I think there is something to be said for recognizing the good that comes with cultures very different from my own.

    • Corktree says:

      I do wish we could figure this out as a society without having to resort to weird living situations. We’re poorly lacking in the tribal aspect that I think is inherently beneficial to us as a people.

  9. Deborah says:

    What an experience.

    I think the fascination with “sister wives” taps into the frequent isolation of modern-day motherhood/parenthood. I was out front gardening today for well over an hour, I saw not a soul in my large neighborhood. Just me and the kid. I think the sharing that comes with closer living can help lift the burdens that come with caring for young children.

    • Corktree says:

      Exactly. I’ve always wanted to live on land with my mom and grandmother and sisters around me, but I would even love to just be able to find that in neighbors and friends that understand the value in true community.

      • Annie B. says:

        Me too! I dreamed up the ideal setup of an estate surrounding a courtyard and garden, with separate wings in the estate for each family. I definitely think there’d be benefits and challenges to a situation like that, and I can definitely think of people I would NOT want to share an estate with just because their standard of upkeep and cleanliness is totally different from mine.

    • kmillecam says:

      I love this too! There’s something “missing” for me that I think would be found in a situation like that. So I find it other places, and I notice how much I rely on the relationships I have with sister-like friends or mother-like friends.

      I also find a similar solidarity with my local WAPF chapter, because we all have similar philosophies on food and food politics. But then it’s never quite enough, because we have religious differences, and we live all over the Phoenix valley.

      So then I’m backing to wishing for mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins and sisters again.

      • Annie B. says:

        Totally, and you just made me think of something. If we had all those close mothers, grandmothers, cousins around…we would not be as inclined to seek relationships outside of our close-knit group, and would probably learn far less about everyone else in the world. So maybe finding sisterhood relationships outside of that helps increase our understanding and love of people who are not like us.

  10. Patricia says:

    Well told, thanks for sharing. Sometimes it surprises me how kind many people genuinely are, no matter what their belief, but then I wonder why it should. (though if Mormons were the only kind people in the world, it would be easy to say that their beliefs must be right… as it is, I run into kind people in the most diverse places.)

  11. Quimby says:

    I have a different take on communal living. I actually see it as something rather oppressive. I see a strong element of control in it – it’s a way of enforcing conformity, of insisting that people live the way the group (as a whole) finds acceptable, instead of accepting individual quirks. Even within alternative, hippy-commune type places – they simply change the norms but insist these new norms are followed. I would think this element of control would be even stronger in a polygamist community situation – because not only are you feeling the pressure to conform from the community, but also from your own family. Far from being liberating, I think it would be stifling.

    Tribes have the disadvantage of stifling creativity and innovation. This is not universally true, of course; but it is more true than those who romanticise communal life might recognise. In many tribes, the methods used to enhance tribal cohesion are such that the individual must be subdued for the greater good. This means that anyone who is seen as too successful – anyone who is doing too well – is quickly brought back into line lest they put their own interests above those of the tribe.

    Mind you, I am not for rampant individualism. Indeed I see it as one of the greatest flaws in the American culture. But I do like my space; I do like being able to share my successes with my family and friends according to my own preferences (and not according to the dictates of the wider community); I do like being able to decide, for myself, how I spend my free time (instead of having it dictated to me). I like being able to develop my talents (instead of being told that there is no place for them because they do not serve the collective); I like being a bit quirky at times and being accepted for these quirks. Would I like to have a small army of housekeepers, gardeners, and babysitters on hand? Sure. But I would not like to return the favour.

    • Diane says:

      Q

      I agree with you on this. The fact of the matter is in situations like this I think the control at first is so subtle that no one even notices. Its only after a period of time that the individual may step back and say wait a minute this isn’t right , but, by then, its to late

    • spunky says:

      Brilliantly worded Quimby– made the think of those Enrichment groups that started for a period, but seem to have gone done since then… seemed like only a few organizers were putting in a lot of effort, and not many were participating, at least in my experience.

      I actually attended SUU in the early 90’s and loved it. I became friends with some of the fundamentalist women and asked them openly about thier lives. I found it very interesting, and I was grateful to get to meet those women, and more surprised when I learned that their communication with me (a gentile) was very frowned upon. One of the things I learned from them was in regard to the competition to be a “first wife.” The valedictorians of the Colorado Springs high school and SUU for a number of years were FLDS women; I was told that in being better academically rated, one faired better to be a first wife. (these women made EXCELLENT study partners. so I had no issue with getting to know them) A number of FLDS women at that time also owned businesses in Southern Utah or were managers (one was an assistant manager of the Cedar McDonald’s), which helped their personal economic status… so even within the community, there was competition for position.

  12. alex w. says:

    I also attended SUU, and there I met a student who was super smart, and just a lot of fun to have classes with, and midway through my last semester there, he read an essay written by his mother about polygamy. He had grown up in a polygamist family, and I had no idea. None of us did. It was an incredible experience to hear someone from such an ostracized group talk about how painful it is to hear others speak so hatefully about you and to have police and journalists coming into your life. He didn’t necessarily convince me of FLDS polygamy as being ok, but it was an important lesson & experience. I wish I would have had a chance to talk to him more about it.

    • I must have led a sheltered life when I attended SUU (late 90s) – I’d no idea there were any polygamists there at all. Course, even now living in Utah the last few years I wouldn’t have any idea how to even find one.

      Maybe its just a non issue enough for me that I don’t pay attention. I think it would be cool to get to know a polygamist family, or for that matter, any other family, since they’re all different from mine, even if they have the same general components.

      • alex w. says:

        He didn’t dress like a stereotypical polygamist/FLDS person, just like your average college student, so I guess that’s how I never knew until he said something. I definitely don’t blame him for keeping quiet about it. People can be so mean about polygamists.

        My mom actually sold a car in the early 90s to a FLDS woman who was going to use the car to commute to SUU. I wish I knew more about that woman because it goes against what you’d expect about someone from the FLDS community.

  13. Sarah says:

    I remember back when I went to Salt Lake City, I believe that was 2003. We travelled through Colorado city, before we stopped for a night in Kanab Utah. I remember the feeling I got as I went through that city, looking at the homes, and the girls with their long hair, and dresses from a bygone era. It was nothing like I ever felt. I felt love for these girls but at the same time remarkable sorrow. Thinking about it deeply, I feel those feelings just did not come from me. I knew that these where polygynists (this is the correct term for multiple wives), I didn’t know if these girls went to any school or university outside their home city, Or if they worked outside their home city. All I knew was the feeling I got. All I know is that this feeling did not entirely come from me.

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