Big Love Gone Bad

A former polygamist tells all

New York Post/September 2, 2007

The decision to enter plural marriage is not subtle, just as "Shattered Dreams" is not a subtle title. But then, what's a good nonfictional narrative that considers subtlety a virtue?

Irene Spencer, a fourth-generation Mormon polygamist, married her half-sister's husband at 16. Not long before, she experienced an otherworldly sort of secular love with a man in town, a man she almost ran off with. It is this recurring bind - to escape the duty and negligence imposed on her by a fundamentalist sect, or to stay for God and family - that keeps readers relating.

Don't let the acknowledgments page throw you. Spencer thanks "God - who rescued me from the years the locusts had eaten," which seems to foreshadow a book that might invoke holy texts and use them as metaphors. But it doesn't happen.

After fifty pages of establishing shots - explanations of terms like the "Celestial Law," the "Principle," and the history of the fundamentalists' banishment from the Mormon church at large - Spencer launches into a life story full of poverty, suffering and fear. The pain comes from within and without, as the small sect's communities are raided by the government and forced to flee to places like El Valle, Mexico, then overtaken by overzealous megalomaniacs within the family. Then there is internal pressure, as the women bound to oaths of plural marriage resent one another, their shared husband and their general lots in life. There's so much going against the fundamentalist faction that you wonder how it doesn't implode before the narrative is up. And then there is the ultimate relationship of mixed messages - that between Spencer and God.

Overall, it's a good read, but it takes some patience to get through the countless pregnancies and home deliveries. (Verlan LeBaron, the man who Spencer shared with nine other women, fathered 58 kids, and Spencer bore 12 of them.)

Perhaps those who will enjoy the book best are polygamy-curios fans of the HBO series "Big Love." Otherwise, it's not worth reading through all the step-by-step details about how to get water from the well.

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