A woman who spent nearly three decades in a polygamous marriage is speaking out about the practice of "plural wives" and the mindset that encourages families to keep their children in potentially abusive situations.
Irene Spencer bookWhen she was 16, Irene Spencer became the second wife of her brother-in-law, Verlan LeBaron. One of 31 children, Spencer and her family were members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church - the same group which made headlines recently when authorities raided their compound in El Dorado, Texas. The FLDS formed in 1890, when the mainline Mormon Church outlawed the practice of polygamy.
Spencer details her life in the FLDS in her book Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife. She says FLDS members are taught that man can attain God-like status based on the number of wives and children he possesses. The church, she says, is a cult that brainwashes its members.
"I myself grew up seeing girls 13, 14, 15, getting married - and [FLDS leaders] justified it by saying that the Mother of Christ, Mary, was a 14-year-old when she gave birth to Christ. So that's what they say," she explains. "They also taught that Jesus Christ was a polygamist - [that] he was married to Martha and Mary; and they say, 'Who do you think all those crying women were at the cross? They were His wives.'"
According to Spencer, women in the FLDS are taught that plural marriages are necessary for salvation. "Their husband is actually their 'savior,'" she states, "and he takes your hand and pulls you into the next life and exalts you and saves you in his kingdom where he is going to be a god - and if you don't have strict obedience, you don't even get saved."
Spencer says her obedience brought nothing but misery and uncertainty, as her husband kept his family on the move, often living in substandard conditions in California, the deserts of Mexico, and Nicaragua. In addition, she shares that during her years in the FLDS, she witnessed numerous instances of physical abuse involving children.
Irene Spencer"I've actually seen many cases where the prophet there in that group ... married a divorcee or a widow, and two weeks later the same guy would marry the 13- and 14-year-old daughters," she recalls. "So you're sleeping with the mother and the daughters, and they would say 'Oh, isn't this beautiful? We're all going to heaven together.' But you learn to just keep your mouth shut."
And living conditions in the FLDS, she says, can be primitive and chaotic. "I have lived in a house where we've had 23 [or] 24 kids with three other wives," she shares, "and believe me, you have no peace of mind. It's chaotic - you just long to have a little silence and time of your own."
In the early 1980s, Spencer's husband was killed in a car wreck, opening the door for a radical transformation in her life. She left the FLDS shortly thereafter, and in 1986 found true hope through Christ.
"I was in such a deep depression," she says. "I had absolutely nothing to live with, and I went to a Christian church and I just cried out, 'God, whoever you are, I want to know You.' And in that minute I had a miraculous conversion, and I have actually been literally changed. The old has been made new."
Spencer says since her book has been released, she has heard from many "plural wives" who tell her they now have hope that there is a way out of the FLDS cult. As for Spencer, she lives in California with her husband of 20 years.