rowing up, Irene Spencer believed the best way to get into heaven was to marry a man who had a lot of wives.
That's what Spencer's mother had done. But her mother, tired of the poverty that forced her to rummage through garbage to feed her children, abandoned her polygamous marriage. Spencer saw her flight as a failure.
So at 16, Spencer married her sister's husband, a man she barely knew but was determined to wed. With a religious fervor, the teenager set out to "prove to my ancestors that I could do this."
And for nearly 25 years, she did. She endured poverty, physical hardships, jealousy among her husband's nine other wives and death threats from a rival polygamous group. She bore 13 children. It was a life, Spencer says, that left her lonely and exhausted.
Spencer, 70, now lives in Woodbridge, just a few minutes north of Lodi, with her daughter Donna Goldberg. Eighteen years ago, Spencer wrote -- in longhand -- her life story as a way for her 120 grandchildren to understand their complicated heritage. They don't have a family tree, she says, they have a family forest.
Her daughter persuaded herto publish the manuscript. After years of rejection by editors, "Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife," was published in August (Center Street, $24.99). The 383-page book has reached the New York Times best-seller list and received strong reviews -- "her writing is lively and full of engaging dialogue, and her life is nothing short of astonishing," said Publisher's Weekly.
All of this has taken Spencer by surprise. She just wanted to answer any questions her children may have.
"When I'm dead and gone I want them to know what their grandmother was like and how she was brainwashed," says Spencer.
Is she bitter toward her former husband, who often neglected her?
Spencer ponders the question and takes a few moments to answer. "I feel from the bottom of my heart that he was a victim of circumstance just like I was," she says, matter of factly. "I can't blame him anymore than I blame myself. I believe you come out of something bitter or better. I chose better."
Spencer is from a fourth-generation polygamous family, a Mormon splinter group, whose life was ruled by what members referred to as "The Principle." The sect believed that a man who had two wives was worthy of being a god, one with seven or more was more or less guaranteed it. They believed Jesus had two wives. A woman could not be a god on her own -- her job was to marry a man with many wives and bear him many children.
The group considered themselves fundamentalist Mormons but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not.
"Those groups which continue the practice in Utah and elsewhere have no association with the LDS faith," said church officials in a statement to The Bee. The church, which banned polygamy in 1890, has not taken a stand on Spencer's book.
With the HBO show "Big Love," and the recent trial of polygamist Warren Jeffs (who was found guilty of forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin), polygamy is once again in the news.
Today, no one knows for sure how many people are living polygamist lifestyles in the United States, but estimates range from between 30,000 to 50,000 people, according to Kathryn Daynes, associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, who has studied and written about polygamy.
"There are groups we know about, but there are also independent groups and no one knows how many of them there are," says Daynes. "Their lives are under the radar. Many of these men will work in construction, where people judge you on your work, not on your lifestyle."
Spencer spent much of her childhood hiding. By the time she was in kindergarten, she learned not to talk to outsiders and not to tell anyone about all her brothers and sisters. By the time she was a teenager, Spencer thought it would be an honor to be in a plural marriage.
Spencer married her half-sister's husband, Verlan LeBaron, against her mother's wishes. Soon, she realized how lonely and difficult her life would be.
Her husband, who later became president of the cult group The Church of the Firstborn, ignored her most of the time. The sect believed sex is only to procreate, and he spent much of his time pursuing other wives and working. Shortly after their marriage in 1953, the family fled to Mexico after a government raid on their group. There, the family lived in poverty.
"We lived for the first 12 years without electricity," says Spencer. The growing family later fled to Nicaragua after her husband's relative, Ervil LeBaron, targeted the rival group for death.
"The poverty, living in fear, that was the worst," says Spencer.
Often, there was tension among the wives. Several lived in the same house but sometimes they would go all day without saying a word to each other. Spencer cried about her situation but says she never argued with any of her husband's other wives.
"We got along, because we did it for God," says Spencer. "I felt God required me to live a good life, so I toed the line."
She was miserable. Still, she stayed. Why?
"I was afraid that I'd be damned to hell and I only had a ninth- grade education," says Spencer. She says she didn't want to go on welfare because she feared her children would be taken from her. She had no job skills, no education. She didn't get her driver's license until she was 40.
Finally, after her husband took his 10th wife (a friend of his daughter's) Spencer had enough. Her husband had 58 children by his different wives.
"I finally realized that all those years I was threatened with hell, but I was already living it," says Spencer.
Spencer escaped to her sister's home and later brought many of her children with her. Feeling guilty, she later returned to her husband for one year. During that time, LeBaron was killed in a car accident in Mexico in 1981.
"Finally, that time of my life was over," says Spencer.
In 1987, she married Hector J. Spencer and has been happily and monogamously married for nearly 20 years.
"I'm married to the kindest and most gentle, loving man you can imagine," says Spencer. She is now a born-again Christian and attends Bethel Open Bible Church in Lodi.
The Woodbridge resident may have left the polygamous lifestyle but some of her children have not. Out of her 12 living children, three of them are living in polygamy. "I tell them, 'it doesn't work,' " says Spencer. "But it's difficult to leave, I know."
Goldberg, her oldest daughter, was the first of the children to decide the polygamous lifestyle was not for her.
"I saw no end to the number of wives my father would get; he even married two of my close friends," says Goldberg. "I saw how worn out my mother was ... when I left, she said, 'Go.' "
Goldberg admires her mother, who as the second wife had no legal rights.
"Who collects Social Security? The first wife," says Goldberg. "I don't know how, but my mother survived it all and still has her sanity intact. I think she's amazing."
Spencer says there is so much more that she didn't write about in her book. So she is writing another. Six hours a day, again in longhand. This one is called "From Harem to Heaven." Her daughter has created a Web site about her mother's work, www.IreneSpencerBooks.com.
Spencer may be writing about her history but says she's not dwelling on the past.
"I live in the present moment," says Spencer. "I look at beauty around me and just enjoy it."