Leap of faith ... to survival

Survivor of polygamist marriage and abuse helps others escape

Daily Record/November 18, 2002
By Peter Bothum

The story screams of one of those crazy, one-in-a-million situations that Jay Leno pokes fun at and newspapers print prominently as a bizarre item and people discuss at the water cooler.

Rodney H. Holm, a 36-year-old police officer in southern Utah, was charged with bigamy and illegal sex with a 16-year-old girl last month. He reportedly has three wives. And 21 children. His only legally recognized wife, Suzie Stubbs Holm, was charged with abetting the relationship with the 16-year-old, who is her younger sister.

To people who have never lived in Utah or have no familiarity with the culture there, this would indeed seem out of the ordinary.

But to Carmen Thompson of Manchester Township, it's just another story of polygamy and abuse and suffering in a long line of similar tales.

And it's a familiar situation to Carmen, a former Salt Lake City resident, because she lived it and now helps others escape polygamist marriages. Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states, and in some states it is a felony. These plural marriages are difficult to investigate, however, because they are not registered with the state.

Carmen, 44, was raised in the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which has about 10 million members worldwide. Locally, the church has more than 3,400 members in an area designated the "York Stake," which includes eight wards in York, Lewisberry, Hanover, Gettysburg, Chambersburg and Fairview Township.

Around the age of 16, Carmen rebelled and questioned several doctrines of her religion, which is based, in part, on the teachings and rules set forth by Joseph Smith.

The LDS church does not require its female members to enter into polygamous marriages. But one strain of fundamentalist Mormons clings to such relationships as the only way that men and women can be saved.

Carmen emerged from her rebellion on the fundamentalist side of the divide. At the age of 22, she married a fundamentalist Mormon man and became his sixth wife. By the time she was 30, she had given birth to four children in the relationship (her first child was born out of wedlock while she was in college in Ogden, Utah).

For 13 years, her life became an emotional free fall.

She was forced to engage in threesomes with her husband and other sister-wives, as the multiple wives in polygamist marriages call each other. When these or other tremendous demands were made upon her and she refused, she was physically beaten, or the electricity was turned off in the portion of the house where she and her children lived.

She stayed because, according to her religion, leaving meant no chance at eternal salvation.

These fundamentalist Mormons believe that once a man dies and goes to the next world he becomes a god. For each wife he has in this world, he receives a planet in the next world. It is the job of the wives to bear children to populate those planets.

They also believe in "blood atonement." It basically means that, in order to atone for his wife's sin of leaving him and breaking the marital bond, a husband must find and kill her.

Breaking free would require a leap of faith the size of the gap across the widest portion of the Grand Canyon.

Carmen Thompson didn't know if she could take that leap.

Rough start

Carmen is a sweet, soft, thoughtful woman who will tell you anything about her past that you want to know. And she'll tell you in the middle of a crowded coffee shop. She doesn't care who hears the story and isn't afraid of what others might say.

She will tell you about being abused as if she's telling you about a sweater she bought. She'll recount finding food for her family in a trash bin as if she's recounting finding food at Arby's. She describes the pain of sharing her husband with seven other women as if she's describing a movie she saw last week.

You get the point. Even though Carmen left the torture of polygamy a mere eight years ago, it brings up no pain. She does not tear up.

"Because that is a part of my life that is so far behind," Carmen said. "I don't have to raid Dumpsters now, so it's not here. You know, I mean, it is the past. And I feel more equipped now to deal with adversity than I was then."

Carmen stepped onto the path to polygamy after having her first child at college. She felt incredible guilt. She returned to the LDS church to ask for forgiveness. But the church was not so forthcoming.

So Carmen turned the other way. She began studying the early teachings of the Mormon church, which talked a lot about polygamy. She met a woman who was a member of a fundamentalist Mormon family.

After six months of getting to know this family, Carmen was introduced to the woman's brother.

Four days later, they were married in a secret ceremony not recognized by law.

Carmen became one of six wives. Later, her husband would add two more.

Her honeymoon consisted of a trip to California with her husband, who went there to fight for custody of his kids from another marriage. They lived on a ranch, and for a period it seemed as if they had a normal marriage.

Then Carmen learned that her husband's first wife was coming to visit in two days. The normalcy stopped. The first wife and her two children would be making one of their sporadic visits for "breeding purposes," Carmen said.

"There's nothing more primal when it comes to total devastation than being in your bed at night, listening to the man that you have children with, in the next room, having sex with another woman," she said. "(There's) a lot of praying. A lot of crying ... and just make it through the night."

In time, Carmen's marriage slipped into a timeshare. After all, her husband had eight wives and 38 children. At times, Carmen and her kids shared a home with one or more of the sister-wives and their children. Other times, she lived alone. Sometimes she had no home at all and lived out of the back of a pickup truck.

Regardless of the living arrangements, Carmen would get about one night a week - maybe - with her husband. As other wives were added, Carmen moved down on the totem pole of importance. She was no longer the hot new thing. She was just another wife.

"Isolation," Carmen said. "You're in the middle of a group but you don't really have anyone you can connect with. He doesn't have time for you, because he has so many. And the other women are in competition with you."

Carmen and her oldest son became best friends. She talked a lot to her dog, too.

"Every time I would make a connection with a neighbor, someone outside of the plan, he would move me," she said. "So we moved frequently.

About once a year, actually.

Carmen wasn't always compliant with her husband's demands, so he hit her. He hit the other wives too, Carmen said.

But she never lost her spine. She stayed because religion demanded it, but that didn't mean she had to be unhappy. She took a stand-up comedian class six years into the marriage, and began working as a stand-up in clubs throughout the Midwest. She worked with the likes of Paul Rodriguez and Sam Kinison. At first, her husband didn't show much support for her career, but when the money started coming in, he encouraged her. While Carmen was gone, the other sister-wives watched her kids.

Outside of Utah, her act contained a heavy dose of jokes about the polygamist life - it was her way of dealing with the torment and frustration. Carmen had to give most of the money from her comedy gigs to her husband, but she was able to squirrel away some cash for the day she finally decided to escape.

So she had a spine. She had some money packed away. But could Carmen Thompson ever take that big leap and leave?

Enough is enough

Everyone has a breaking point.

For Carmen, that moment arrived on a late summer day about eight years ago in Salt Lake City.

Carmen had been on the road for three weeks, working the stand-up circuit.

She returned from the tour to find her home surrounded by police cars.

The cop cars were there because Carmen's husband had threatened to kill her oldest biological son. Her husband had been abusing him. Within the first hour of her arrival, as the cops were sorting things out and preparing to take him away, he also threatened to kill Carmen.

Still in shock, Carmen went inside and picked up the ringing phone. It was one of her sister-wives, and she was complaining about having no time with their husband. About how he spent all his time with his biological sister.

"When was it that he married (her)?" Carmen jokingly asked her sister-wife.

It turned out that Carmen's joke was actually a statement of fact. Carmen's husband had actually married his biological sister.

"They had been married for almost two years, and I did not know," Carmen said. "It was a secret. And I was devastated. Everything I knew and believed and held to be true was knocked out in one statement."

She could stand the physical abuse. But she would not stand for any abuse on her children. The fact that her first husband was married to his sister turned everything upside down.

Carmen put one foot out to take the leap.

But, at that point in her life, the other foot never left the ground.

Although Carmen reached the breaking point in her first marriage and recognized that she and other women in polygamist relationships deserved rights and freedom, she couldn't make a break from the polygamist lifestyle.

She still believed that polygamy was the route to salvation.

After leaving the first marriage and returning to college, she met a man who was a Christian polygamist. The two talked via e-mail, then the phone, and, after meeting, he moved his family to Utah and married Carmen in 1996.

This time, Carmen was one of two wives.

But after only six months, she began to see that it didn't matter what religion polygamy was connected to. She was constantly being put on the back burner. Constantly being treated as a subservient.

"I started watching the same dynamics going on," Carmen said. "I said, Wait. Wait a minute, I went through this abuse before.' Mental and emotional and physical abuse like you wouldn't believe."

Carmen picked up her other foot. Her feet left the ground. She finally took that big leap.

She left polygamy behind. For good.

Same Old Story

Carmen's story - which she has told in various newspapers, books and magazines, including Good Housekeeping - is common within the fundamentalist Mormon community, said Utah journalist and author Andrea Moore Emmett. Emmett has chronicled the stories of Carmen and several other former sister-wives in "The Women of Tapestry Against Polygamy," a manuscript that has yet to be published.

"The guilt and pressure to maintain your salvation, it depends on you holding on to the faith," Emmett said. "I know that it's twice as hard in polygamy. These women ... the leap of faith that they make to leave is incredible."

Vicky Prunty, a Salt Lake City woman and former sister-wife, said religious doctrine plays a huge role in keeping women in polygamist relationships.

"It was almost as if I had become the prisoner of my own mind," Vicky said. "I had created a religious box, where there was no door and I couldn't escape."

Carmen and Vicky met in the late 1990s, and worked together in a Salt Lake City-based organization called Tapestry Against Polygamy. Tapestry works for the rights of women and children in polygamous marriages. Carmen served as the group's executive director for a short time; Vicky now handles that role.

On the other side of the battle over polygamy are the men and women who feel they deserve the right to engage in plural marriages. One organization defending that right is the Women's Religious Liberties Union, which is based in Salt Lake City. On its Web site, the WRLU says that "plural marriage is honorable and fulfilling when lived appropriately with love and kindness."

The site says the group's mission is to "secure for all women their free agency, free exercise of religion and selection of lifestyle without interference from any individual, group or governmental entity."

The state of Utah estimates that there are about 30,000 polygamists living within its borders. Based on estimates put together through her contacts, Carmen figures that there are closer to 100,000, she said.

Working out of Salt Lake City, Carmen would travel all over the West, helping women and children flee from homes, usually using the darkness of night as a shield. She helped hundreds of women escape polygamist relationships, sometimes allowing them to live in her home. Some attempted escapes have failed, and those botched attempts - where, most of the time, the women and children are returned to their husbands - burn a hole right through Carmen's heart.

These were dangerous runs. In the late 1990s, Carmen was called on to help a young woman in Manti, Utah, escape a polygamist marriage. Hours before she was to meet the woman at a Christian church, Carmen was told that two armed men would be waiting for her at both ends of the town's main street.

Carmen found a back route to the church, and the escape was successful.

A normal life in York

While still in Utah, Carmen was working the Internet and met a man from Florida who was in the merchant marine. For months, they talked via e-mail and the phone. Eventually they met.

Carmen told Michael everything about her past. He wasn't scared away. One day, out of the blue, he called her and proposed.

"You just want to meet me in Las Vegas, and let's get married?" Carmen remembers him saying. "And I'm like, I've never done a legal marriage, what have I got to lose?"

That snap-decision Vegas wedding was a bit of a gamble, but Carmen hit the jackpot. She and Michael, who now works as a truck driver, have been married for five years.

Being the only wife is actually pretty tough for someone who was once one of eight, Carmen said.

"This whole monogamy thing's not that easy, either," she said, laughing. "I'm not used to being the only wife, doing everything, and being expected to share."

While her third and current marriage was getting off to a strong start, a piece of her destructive past was dissolving. Her first husband died in 1999 of pneumonia, mostly because he refused medical care for religious reasons.

With three of her kids in tow, they moved to Manchester Township about a year ago. Her oldest son still lives near Salt Lake City with his family. Another son still lives there but has turned to a life on the streets. Carmen believes that son is self-medicating because he, too, was abused during her first marriage.

Carmen moved her family to York County for a few reasons. One was so Carmen could disconnect from Utah. Another reason was that she doubted central Pennsylvania harbored many polygamists. The Mormon religion is present here, but membership in that church is small compared to other religions.

Two of her children attend Central York High School; the other is older and works.

She now works independently to help women and children in polygamist marriages.

In addition to her public relations job at WITF-TV (Ch. 33), Carmen is constantly working this "part-time" job of helping women and children leave polygamy. Her cell phone never leaves her side.

She runs her own Web site, www.polygamyinfo.com, which features information on polygamy and polygamist trials. From her home, she fields e-mails and calls from "runners," or women who want to leave their husbands.

Even though she's not making any more midnight runs, it's still hard for Carmen to handle each case. It brings up all of her pain, and she has to stuff it down.

"I live it. Every time I deal with a refugee I go through with my demons every time," she said. "The immediate need is, right now, what does (the runner) need. You don't have time to be worrying about your own stuff if you're looking over your shoulder. So, yeah, I just shove it all until I get done with the crisis."

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