What's so wrong with having as many wives as you like — or as your god ordains? The question that made outlaws of the original polygamist Mormons has been resurrected this week by Tom Hanks, two gay Hollywood screenwriters and the people who brought you The Sopranos.
In a 12-episode television “dramedy” produced by Hanks and seized on by critics as the first big salvo in America’s next civil rights battle, the answer that emerges to this question is: not much, as long as you can afford the Viagra.
Big Love, which will reach British screens this autumn, reduces contemporary polygamy to a mixture of Desperate Housewives and The Brady Bunch. The HBO series stars Bill Paxton as a harried but essentially decent latter-day patriarch, struggling to satisfy the financial, emotional and sexual needs of three wives in suburban Utah homes.
Loosely based on a brand of polygamy practised by the Apostolic United Brethren, a breakaway Mormon group that has its headquarters half an hour’s drive south of Salt Lake City in Bluffdale, Big Love should prove “bizarre enough to get an audience”, says one former member of the group.
But it masks a far bleaker reality endured by many women trapped in fundamentalist sects across a swath of North America from British Columbia to Arizona.
Another hour’s drive into the mountains from Bluffdale, Pauline Strong and her daughter, Rachael, live as outcasts from their former congregation, the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days (TLC), in Manti, a farming town founded by Mormon pioneers in the late 19th century.
Until last year, Pauline, 60, and Rachael, 21, were both married to Jim Harmston, a former property developer and lobbyist to the Reagan Administration, and founder of the TLC.
Rachael was 11 when Pauline left her first husband to become Mr Harmston’s third wife. Later, the TLC’s self-styled prophet told Rachael he had known he would marry her from the first day he saw her.
She was 17 and already unhappily married to a much younger member of the church when Mr Harmston convened a meeting of his wives and told them that Rachael needed to be married to him to receive “ordinances” from Christ.
In 2004, she was, bringing Harmston’s number of wives to 21. Like all his marriages except his first, this was not legally binding, protecting him from prosecution for bigamy, which remains a felony throughout the US. But it made Rachael his.
“He said I had to marry him right away because the end was coming and he had to set the house in order,” Rachael says. “And then I had to sleep with him right away.” She moved in with Angie, at 16, Harmston’s youngest wife.
“He made schedules; he gave us our calendars and scheduled our nights. And he’d just come over on those nights, sleep with us and get up really early in the morning before anyone was up.
“Growing up (in Manti) he made me call him Dad. He played my stepfather, he did all the things a stepfather does. To go from that to having to sleep with him was absolutely the most horrifying thing anyone could do.”
Last summer, after summoning the courage to leave the church, Rachael went to Salt Lake City to demand that Mark Shurtleff, the state Attorney-General, charge Mr Harmston with rape, on the grounds that neither her marriage nor her sexual relationship with him was consensual.
Mr Harmston declined to be interviewed for this article except to describe Rachael and Pauline Strong as “nuts”. Mr Shurtleff has so far declined to prosecute him. Last month, he chose instead to attend a meeting of polygamists in Salt Lake City at which he assured them that he would not prosecute “consenting” adult polygamists, not least on the ground of cost.
More than a century after the Mormons outlawed polygamy to win statehood for Utah, there are thought to be between 20,000 and 100,000 polygamists in the US and Canada. A concerted campaign to decriminalise the practice could bring a test case to the US Supreme Court within two years.
Supporters of the campaign say that if gay marriage becomes legal, so should plural marriage. Opponents insist that would bring on a golden age for sexual predators — but such voices are likely to be drowned out, for the time being, by the swelling soundtrack of Big Love.