Escape to Babylon

Women who wish to escape polygamy have had nowhere to run. Now a group of former polygamous wives and daughters offers them safe haven.

Salt Lake City Weekly/May 28, 1998
By Andrea Moore Emmett

So what if Utah has an anti-polygamy statute? So what if the state's constitution bans polygamy "forever"? Though Utahans don't admit it publicly, we all know nothing can or ever will be done to end polygamy.

Of course, there is always potential for an occasional flair-up that actually prompts law enforcement officials to do something:

Jim Harmston's rather new, "Johnny-come-lately" group in Manti seems to have potential for trouble with their penchant for cultivating enemies. Sources say that they've been stock-piling weapons and ammunition and compiling a "hit list."

Certainly Utah has had its share of polygamy-related eruptions in the recent past. There was the LeBarons "blood atoning" (killing someone so their spilled blood can atone for their sins) murderous rampage of the 1970s. Royston Potter found out he couldn't be a policeman and be a polygamist in 1982. We also had the Lafferty blood atonement murders in 1984. Also of note was the killing of polygamist John Singer in 1978 and the Singer/Swapp retaliatory bombing of a Mormon church in 1988. In the midst of this carnage, which included the death of a police officer, we've managed to put our "us and them" spin on our local embarrassments and move on.

But mostly polygamists are to be quietly ignored, a thorn in the sides of carefully crafted images of both the state of Utah and the Mormon Church. This is especially true now, with the eyes of the world looking in Utah's direction thanks to the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The LDS Church, which brought polygamy with it to Utah during the mid-1800s, has been busy trying to induce amnesia by pretending the faithful never lived polygamy or ever defended it as a commandment from God. The newest Mormon Relief Society (women's auxiliary) manual mentions Brigham Young, second president of the church, as having only one wife. In truth, Young had 56 wives. Even when pressed, tour guides at the Beehive House in downtown Salt Lake City won't tell tourists that the historic home with its numerous bedrooms housed many of Young's wives.

The LDS Church as an institution will barely accept its own history about polygamy much less take responsibility for the legacy left by it. Orthodox Mormons within the state find themselves in a conflicted relationship with Mormon fundamentalist polygamists. Many Mormons are themselves descendants of polygamists. The Doctrine and Covenants (Mormon scripture) and church leaders uphold polygamy as a righteous principle revealed by Joseph Smith, the church's founder and prophet.

Mormons believe that polygamy will be restored and they will live it again at another time and most certainly in the after-life. Therefore, they are unable to completely repudiate polygamy while somewhat condemning their fundamentalist kissing-cousins for living it. Each side sees the other as not having the proper authority.

Most Mormon fundamentalists are seventh- or eighth-generation polygamists and arm themselves with the words of early Mormon presidents and leaders, who said Mormons would never give up polygamy or the entire church would be in apostasy. Their desire to insulate themselves against an apostate church, its people and the world at large as an evil "Babylon" has made them separatists. Add to this a good deal of paranoia left over from raids against polygamists in the 1950s and we've got a shared complicity in Utah's comfort in pretending they don't exist.

Tapestry of Polygamy

Out of this conspiracy of silence has emerged a group of six women willing to speak about polygamy and tackle its complicated issues openly and safely. Part of what they plan is the formation of a support group for women who have left polygamy or are in the process of leaving. It is something they all wish they would have been available during their own perilous journeys out.

The women offer diverse perspectives from having grown up in polygamy or as former polygamous wives. They have come together with that common thread, while still in the process of re-constructing their lives. Because they bring intricate experiences and sometimes conflicting opinions on polygamist issues, they have chosen to name their organization Tapestry Of Polygamy (TOP).

TOP is being formed with support from another women's organization, Justice and Economic Dignity and Independence For Women (JEDI). JEDI is an activist organization made up of primarily low-income women who strive to improve the lives of women and include them in public policy debate. It has been one of the most effective and successful activist organizations in the state and seems a fitting and wise springboard for TOP.

Tamara Baggett, JEDI executive director, is glad to see the formation of TOP. "This is long overdue," she says. "Many polygamous women call JEDI who are having difficulty leaving and the problems that presents."

Because of the "blood atonement" beliefs held by many of the polygamist groups, women who dare leave are forced to live in hiding for fear of death. They are without any family support and lose their community as well. They usually have little or no education, having been mostly home-schooled, and have no job skills or resources. When women leave with their children, these factors are doubly difficult.

The women forming TOP have been meeting twice monthly in order to get the organization up and running as soon as possible. There is a sense of urgency. They know women who have committed suicide just to get out of polygamy and others who have died without explanation. Recently a woman contacted them, looking for somewhere safe to hide with her four children.

Board member Vicky Prunty was in a similar situation less than three years ago. She was profiled in City Weekly (previously Private Eye Weekly, Sept. 5, 1996) just four months after escaping polygamy with her six children.

The frantic woman caller caused Prunty to reflect. "I wonder how in the hell I ever made it," she says. "Polygamist women are made to be afraid of the outside world. I remember being scared to death to even go out into Babylon to the store. I'd just shudder at the register because we were told that the bar code on products is the mark of the beast."

It wasn't until Prunty observed her husband's treatment of his second wife that she recognized his abusive behavior. She left with her five children, but instead of finding refuge from polygamy, became part of another polygamous family. In this union she was the third wife and would have another child before finally leaving polygamy for good.

She and her children stayed in the YWCA shelter for as long as allowed. When driving an old car to another shelter, it broke down. They walked the rest of the way, only to find that her oldest son couldn't stay there because of his age. Prunty made the difficult decision to return him to the custody of her first husband. Now in her own apartment, her oldest son only returns for visits.

Poverty and Depravation

Having to leave children behind in polygamy is one of the hardest aspects for women. One TOP board member, Alona West (not her real name), says that she couldn't convince her older children to leave with her. "I wish I would have spoken openly about (my doubts), especially to my children. Some of them are still in the polygamist lifestyle and suffer with poverty, anger, conflict and deprivation and believe that those conditions will help them through the 'refiners fire,' bringing them to a more God-like state," says West. "I feel powerless to make any intercessions. Having left, my viewpoints are now 'influenced to the devil.'"

Polygamous childhood may be filled with many playmates within the family and group as well as several "mothers" looking after everyone, but it's hardly idyllic.

One of the hallmarks of life in polygamy is extreme poverty. Some women live on welfare with children listed as illegitimate. Children's births are either not recorded at all or submitted to the state with false parental names or an indication that the mother is unmarried. Children are not immunized and must rely on "the laying on of hands" for most cures from illness. If children know who their father is, they are often taught to never tell for fear of government intervention although that kind of action hasn't occurred in decades. Incest is rampant and girls as young as 12 are often forced to marry.

Stacy Erickson grew up in the Mormon fundamentalist Kingston group. She left with her mother Roweena, when her mother ended her polygamous marriage. Both women are TOP members.

Stacy remembers finding out who her father was when she was in the second grade. An older friend had unraveled the mystery of her own father and in the process discovered Stacy's paternity. It was a blow to the little girl who was frightened of the bossy man she saw occasionally and to the ideal image of a father she had created in her mind. "I don't remember ever being so disappointed," she says.

Stacy feels remorse for her girlhood friends who she has kept track of over the years. One friend, Charlene, wanted to be an attorney when she grew up but the polygamist leader of her clan arranged her marriage to his son, who already had one wife. "She told me she didn't love him and was sickened by the thought of him but God had spoken," Stacy remembers. "She was told she would be allowed to continue high school and go on to college." Then in the middle of Charlene's junior year of high school she became pregnant and was so sick she was forced to quit. She never went back to school. "Today she has eight children and is only 27 years old," says Stacy.

Monique is another friend she remembers. "She wanted to be an architect and said that since she couldn't stand kids she would spend her life designing buildings," Stacy says. "She was also promised a college education and told she'd be allowed to design her own home if she'd follow God and marry into polygamy." The last time Stacy heard anything about Monique, she was living in a trailer in a mining camp, severely neglecting her eight children.

Stacy's mother was born, grew up and married into the Kingston group. Roweena's sister, who was also her sister-wife—both married to the same man—has been a mid-wife in the polygamous community for many years. Rowenna was interested in alternative medicine as well and became a hypnotherapist to serve her community. In session after session, she discovered women confronting incest they had suffered as children. "I was seeing it all around me and it was the start of a process for me to take steps to leave polygamy," she says. "I had also seen the brutalization of a woman that lasted for four days in order to humble her. I decided that if this is so right, why is it so awful?"

Rowenna saw birth defects that she suspects were due to intermarrying. "There is now macrocephalous (enlarged heads) and dwarfism in the Kingston group," she says. Still, leaving the only life she'd ever known took time. "There is so much programming to overcome," she explains. "It's like having a lobotomy or being a robot. They break you from having any spirit - like a broken-spirited horse."

Another TOP board member, Cloey (not her real name), says the indoctrination still manages to sneak up on her even though she left three years ago. "They tell you what your thoughts are going to be years in advance so you have to ask yourself, is this programming or an original thought?"

Cloey married within the group and had several children before her husband told her it was time for him to take another wife. She gave him a choice instead. "He gave me, our children and so much happiness up for polygamy," she says. "People say polygamy is good if lived right but I never saw anyone that was happy. They can say they're happy, but I saw."

In her late 20s, Cloey is one of the youngest of the TOP members and also one of the strongest voices against polygamy. "To me it's the most sick way of living ever and the guys are taught to be total pricks," she says. "Women choose it for a ticket to heaven, thinking that hell for now is worth it, then they avoid dealing with their hell until they have a breakdown."

TOP member Jayne Voight (not her real name), has housed runaway polygamous wives in her home while they worked on issues of abuse. "There's no place for them to go so they go back to their husband and back to polygamy," she says.

Voight started questioning her life in polygamy when she found herself sobbing from the anger over poverty and messages that attacked her self-esteem. "More times than I want to admit, food for meals was found in the deep green bins behind grocery stores," she remembers. "If I was upset that my kids didn't have shoes, it was because I hadn't learned to live like the pioneers."

It is extreme poverty that women and children of polygamy live in that drives Voight to improve conditions and why she is a TOP board member.

No Status One of her views on polygamy distinguishes her from other members of TOP—she wants to see polygamy legalized. Because polygamy has been with us since 1842 and shows no signs of diminishing, Voight wants laws to protect the legal rights of polygamist wives and children. "When a man dies, the homes his wives live in and his business are deeded to the group. If a man leaves an inheritance, it goes to the sons. Sons are listed, daughters are deliberately omitted."

With legal status, Voight feels that women in polygamy could have the possibility of claiming support and death benefits from their husbands. "However, many men work jobs without benefits on purpose to maintain their autonomy and independence," she explains, "If he works with benefits, he will list only his legal beneficiaries (his first wife and her children) in order to not betray his lifestyle. This leaves his other wives and children 'medically poor.'"

As one would guess, the legal system is completely foreign to most women who leave polygamy. "If plural wives are estranged from the culture and choose to seek legal counsel, they are surprised to find out that they are legally entitled to child support from the father of their children," says Voight. But that can also be problematic. "A large number of men have no steady income, or worse, report no steady income," she says.

Voight concedes that legalizing polygamy would be difficult.

At one time, Chris Nemelka was husband to three wives. He continues to be a father to seven children. Born and raised a Mormon, he served a Mormon mission and came home to work as a security guard at the Salt Lake Mormon Temple and LDS Church Office Building in downtown Salt Lake City.

As a security guard, Nemelka spent more than a few hours snooping around. He explained that because of his curiosity he had a crisis of faith. But instead of bailing on his religious roots, he became involved with a Mormon fundamentalist group. "Sometimes people leave the Mormon Church when they discover it's not what it was or was meant to become, " he confides. "The fact is, the Mormon Church still believes in polygamy, so fundamentalism is one option to becoming the best Mormon you can be."

He talks candidly about himself and the fraternity he once associated with, admitting that men in polygamy have motivations other than religion. "It's the power and ego of having several women look up to you thinking you're great. And what man doesn't want to have sex with more than one woman?" says Nemelka. "Women believe men have no lust involved and believe they'll become goddesses and eternal mothers. As a man you have to deceive and manipulate women and those women are willing to subdue their natural feelings."

Nemelka revels in his storytelling. "Men all say they got a 'feeling' from God that polygamy is right. It's a feeling all right and it's in a certain organ," he laughs. "I had one guy tell me he got his feeling from God after the soon-to-be-second wife put her leg on his. I was thinking to myself, 'Yeah, I'll bet you got a feeling.'"

TOP members say more and more polygamous women are getting some feelings of their own. Feelings that tell them there are other options. With a lot of luck TOP hopes to help them through whatever decision they eventually make for their lives.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.