Polygamy victims share their horror

Denver Post/August 15, 2004
By Sandra Dallas

When she was 4, Lillian was sexually abused by a half-brother. As a young child, she was raped by another half-brother and fondled by a half-sister. At 12, she was courted by one of her father's friends, and when she slapped his straying hand, the enraged man screamed that she didn't have the right as a child or as a woman to reject him. Instead of chastising his friend, Lillian's father punished her.

On Lillian's 13th birthday, her sister's husband gave her a wedding cake as his way of proposing to her. She married him at 17, and four months later, Lillian's husband began looking for yet another wife. Some years later, she had flashbacks of being raped by her father and his friends and forced to eat rats. A half-sister had identical nightmares.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outlawed polygamy more than 100 years ago, but it has never been stamped out. Today, it is practiced by dozens of fundamentalist groups in Utah and elsewhere. Tapestry Against Polygamy, a Salt Lake City-based group that helps women and children escape plural marriage, estimates there are 30,000 to 100,000 polygamists in the U.S.

Groups that espouse religious freedom, including the American Civil Liberties Union, defend polygamy as an act among consenting adults and a victimless crime. But as Andrea Moore-Emmett points out in the chilling "God's Brothel," only the men consent to it. Women are programmed from infancy to believe salvation depends on obedience. Women and children are indeed victims.

Utah, where most plural marriages take place, is the only state with an anti-polygamy clause in its constitution. But many mainstream Mormons are descendants of polygamists and believe plural marriage may again be the order of the day, in this world or the next. So both the church and state are ambivalent about prosecuting polygamists; they just want the subject to go away.

That's a shame, and not only because the victims have little recourse but also because polygamists are experts at "bleeding the beast." They avoid paying taxes but are a huge drain on Utah's welfare system. Women and children live on food stamps, and because of the high degree of incest among polygamists, with men marrying their sisters, cousins and even their own daughters, birth defects are common.

Men believe they are the linear descendants of Jesus, Moses or early Mormon leaders, and they don't want to dilute the bloodline by marrying outsiders.

Moore-Emmett, who has written extensively about polygamy, includes the stories of 18 women in this jarring book. One is Vicky. When she left her first polygamous marriage, her husband, their children and the second wife prayed for her blood atonement - her death. Her husband once told Vicky, "Do not voice your opinion if it is contrary to mine." She entered into a second, equally disastrous, plural marriage before going out on her own and founding Tapestry.

Leaving can be as devastating an experience as remaining married. Not only has the woman been conditioned to believe in the absolute authority of men - Moore-Emmett says the theology of fundamentalist polygamist groups isn't so different from that of the Taliban - but she is also ill-prepared to live in the gentile world, known as Babylon. Girls are often home-schooled by a wife who is barely literate herself, and most of what they learn is religious doctrine. More than one woman calls it brainwashing.

Polygamists generally don't believe in doctors; illnesses are due to a woman's lack of faith or disobedience. A child's illnesses are blamed on the mother's sins. Any woman who complains to church authorities about rape or incest is told to obey her husband, even if he's the perpetrator.

Families live in poverty, jammed into tiny shacks. They eat food scavenged from Dumpsters and don't bathe often. Sherrie, who was raising her siblings and preparing meals by the time she entered school, gathered pig weed to supplement her family's food. Her mother let her bathe only once a week, to save the cost of water. When they work, the women turn their paychecks over to their husbands, who may dole out a few dollars for food and clothing. Or they may not. Few of the men hold jobs.

Many of the women in the book contemplated suicide; how many others have gone through with it is unknown.

By the time the women begin to question polygamy, it's often too late because they have children to think about. Women are expected to bear a child each year, and girls marry as young as 9, although most are not pressured into marriage until they pass puberty.

When Sylvia was 12, her father took Vera, 14, as his second wife. "My mom would walk past the two of them French kissing on the couch," Sylvia says. "The rest of the time, Mom had to teach Vera home skills like another child. Then Vera had a son right away." Often, jealous older wives make life hell for their sister-wives.

Is there love involved? Sometimes, but generally girls obediently marry men chosen for them. "I could never fall in love with my sister's husband, and I felt guilty for sleeping with him," says Rowenna. She shared a husband with her older sister and bore eight children, telling the kids their father was a truck driver who spent a lot of time on the road. "In my life, I've never known love with someone of the opposite sex." It wasn't easy for Rowenna's sister, either. "Her spirit had been broken. Just like a horse, they broke her."

"Not a single woman I've ever known is happy," one polygamous wife says. Reading "God's Brothel," you'll understand why.

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