The polygamist's bride

Trials of teenage wife Debbie Oler suffered in various ways after marrying a British Columbia Mormon leader

Canwest News Service, Canada/March 22, 2008

The Vancouver Sun's Daphne Bramham has been writing a continuing series of columns and reports on the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C.

The following is an excerpt from Bramham's new book, The Secret Lives of the Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada's Polygamous Mormon Sect.

It wasn't just the exhortations and expectations of the priesthood leaders that made Debbie Oler anxious to marry. She also believed in the power of revelation, and that by fasting and praying she would come to know God's plan for her. And what she came to believe was that God not only had chosen her to be Ray Blackmore's wife, but that he would tell her how to cure Ray of his leukemia if she loved him enough, was obedient enough and prayed hard enough.

That fall, after her fourteenth birthday, Debbie told her father about her revelation and how she felt about Ray. Dalmon Oler approached the prophet LeRoy Johnson on his next visit to Lister, B.C. The prophet listened but said nothing. Debbie was heartbroken and, in her distress, poured out her heart to her friends, and Ray's busybody son heard almost every word.

"Oh what an uproar at school," Winston Blackmore wrote in his questionable account of the strange romance.

"The girls sobbed their hearts out. In her mind, she (Debbie) was mature, desperate and time was running out, for my father had been diagnosed with cancer and he was in the fight for this life. She seemed to be driven by the belief that if she could just marry him, then she could somehow prolong his life, and she seemed driven to get out of her own father's home. Her tears and fuss at school brought on a whole new scene of wonder among the students.

"Deb was a pretty girl and it did not go unnoticed. Among the other men who were non-students, her focus on Father sparked some debate as many, I suppose, could not understand why any girl would want to commit to a man soon to be dead. The kind of cancer that Father had was final in 95 per cent of all those who contacted (sic) it.

"I am sure that it seemed such a waste of a pretty girl's life to be locked on a man who was terminally ill, while there were others who in their minds were handsome, ready, willing and able. Father could not understand it, either, and the thought had no appeal to him. Time went by for him, and as it happened, she eventually got her wish, as father was called to come and have her become his wife."

It seems that even years later, after Winston himself had taken several 15-year-old wives, he was unwilling to believe that his father had seduced Debbie.

Some former Lister residents have speculated that Winston's intense interest wasn't just in knowing secrets. They suggest Winston and some of his older brothers had their eyes on Debbie and were upset that their father might take her, but knew that they were no competition for their powerful father or for any older men who paid special tithes or used their connections to the prophet to get the smartest and most beautiful girls.

It wasn't until 1971, when Debbie was 15, that the prophet had his own "revelation" confirming Debbie's - and perhaps Ray's - fervent wish. The only hint that Debbie got from her father of her impending marriage was a new suitcase and the $30 that he gave her a few weeks before the June priesthood meeting in Cardston, Alta., which was still fertile ground for attracting converts to polygamy. She wasn't certain if the money was for her wedding dress and trousseau, but she used it to buy material for two dresses, including a soft cornflower-blue print that would be suitable for a wedding.

Debbie wore her blue dress to the June meeting. She sat through hours of sermons preached in one of the rented meeting rooms before Uncle Roy took her hand and told her to wait for him in the hallway. Together they went into another room set aside for the secret sealing ceremonies. Ray and Anna Mae were already there, along with Joseph Musser's son Guy, one of the prophet's senior councillors. Musser took one of Anna Mae Blackmore's hands and placed Debbie's hand in hers. With their hands intertwined, their middle fingers resting on the pulsing veins of each other's wrists, Anna Mae followed the example of Sarah. In the Old Testament story of Sarah and Abraham, the childless Sarah placed the hand of her servant-girl Hagar in her husband's as a sign of her consent that he take another wife to give him children. And that's what Anna Mae did. She placed Debbie's hand in Ray's. Ray was nearly 41 years older than his bride. He was just a few months shy of his 56th birthday.

After Anna Mae had joined the hands of Debbie and Ray, one smooth and girlish, the other wrinkled and worn, she stepped aside. Musser asked "Brother Ray" to "receive her unto yourself to be your lawful and wedded wife and you to be her lawful and wedded husband for time and all eternity, with a covenant and promise, on your part, that you will fulfill all the laws, rites and ordinances pertaining to this holy bond of matrimony in the new and everlasting covenant, doing this in the presence of God, angels and these witnesses of you." Then Debbie vowed to be Ray's "lawful and wedded wife for time and all eternity." Musser invoked the authority of the "Holy Priesthood" and sealed them together with the blessings of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and "with all other blessings pertaining to the new and everlasting covenants."

When the ceremony concluded, the men went back to their priesthood meetings and the new bride, Ray's sixth wife, found herself alone outside in the shade, uncertain what to do next. It gave her time to contemplate the complex family genealogy that had just become even more complicated. She was Winston's stepmother and stepmother to her own two stepmothers which, most confusingly of all, made Debbie her own stepgrandmother.

When it was time to return to the motel, Anna Mae ceded her spot next to Ray in the front seat of the truck. But Debbie was about to learn that Anna Mae lived what is called the "Law of Sarah" - she was like Sarah in many ways. In the Old Testament story, a few years after Hagar's marriage to Abraham and the birth of their son Ishmael, Sarah became pregnant at age 88 with the son she named Isaac. After Isaac was born, Sarah demanded that Abraham cast out both Hagar and Ishmael, telling him, "The son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with ... Isaac." Like Sarah, Anna Mae never gave up believing that she was the one true wife and that her favourite son, Winston, was Ray's only true heir.

Ray didn't consummate the marriage that night. Despite Anna Mae's symbolic approval of the marriage, her weeping in the room next to the newlyweds' was so loud and went on for so long that Ray left his child bride and spent the night comforting 47-year-old Anna Mae. It was a prophetic start to Debbie's lonely, difficult and even dangerous life as a sister-wife.

Inside Ray Blackmore's home, there was no one more powerful than Anna Mae and no one more protective of him as he grew weaker, both from the cancer and from the intensive treatments that he had opted for rather than depending on faith alone. Anna Mae was the alpha wife and Mother Superior. Even though all the wives did not live in the same house, Anna Mae doled out their chores and responsibilities. She disciplined the sister-wives, and reminded them of their duty to obey their husband and her. The other wives had to make appointments through her to see their husband. Anna Mae had insisted that Ray's bedroom be in the house where she lived, and she kept the schedule of whose turn it was to sleep with him.

She charted the wives' menstrual cycles to ensure that they were having sex with Ray only when they were most fertile, because sex for pleasure without the goal of procreation is a sin. Anna Mae didn't regulate only the wives' access to Ray, she was his sleeping dragon. She spent nights on the floor outside her husband's room while one of the other wives slept with Ray.

Ray's 31 children were also scattered in several different houses, and Anna Mae acted as gatekeeper to them as well, regulating their access to their father. That, of course, meant that the door was always open for Winston to spend as much time as possible with his father. Still, arranging time alone wasn't simple. Everybody wanted a few minutes with Ray - his children, his wives and priesthood men, who were becoming increasingly dependent on Ray, not only for their salvation but also for their homes and their jobs. Plus, Ray had a ranch to run in order to pay for food and clothing for six wives and 31 children.

Debbie was as spirited, insecure and demanding as any teenage girl. She was also beautiful, and Ray was not unaware of that. His attentiveness to his child bride upset Anna Mae's rigorous schedules, and Debbie's inability to blend sweetly into the family angered the matriarch - and inflamed her son Winston.

Debbie had a miscarriage six months after the wedding. Ray - and, no doubt, Anna Mae - blamed Debbie for it. Ray and Debbie had broken the celestial covenant and had sex while she was pregnant. Ray told Debbie that she had tempted him into sinning, and Debbie believed him when he told her she was wicked. Debbie fell into a depression and had only begun to recover when she was pregnant again. Debbie's daughter was born in November 1973. Surprisingly, Debbie agreed to name the girl Memory, even though that was the name of her stepmother, who had been so hard on her.

Excerpted from The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada's Polygamous Mormon Sect. Copyright 2008 Daphne Bramham. Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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