Growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon community, Mary Jayne Blackmore, 38, had an army of brothers and sisters, and little knowledge of the “sinful” outside world, until she started to question everything…
The dining table was piled high with enough food to feed an army. Aged 14, I sat eating with my parents – as well as Dad’s 12 other wives and my 40 siblings. It might sound incredible, but for us, it was normal life.
Though the mainstream Mormon church banned polygamy in 1890 and it was illegal in Canada where we lived, fundamentalist Mormons like my parents refused to give it up.
My mum Jane was my dad Winston’s first wife, and they married at 18 in the small fundamentalist Mormon community of Bountiful in British Columbia.
My parents had my four older siblings – Jake, Hyrum, Peter and Susie – then, at 26, Dad was made a bishop. Like all the men in the community, he was expected to take multiple wives.
When Mum was pregnant with me in 1982, Dad married his second wife Christina, then when I was a few months old, his third wife Mary Ann. My half-brother Don was born just six months after me in 1983.
At first, the 10 of us all lived in one house on land we owned. When I was eight, Dad married his fourth and fifth wives, and a second house was built next door.
It was a childhood of noise and fun, and I attended the local private school for children of the church.
Jobs were divided by sex, with girls and mothers preparing meals, taking care of the children and doing the housework, while the men and boys did farm jobs.
The rules on modesty were strict: make-up and haircuts were banned and we had to be covered from our neck to our wrists and ankles.
Cigarettes, alcohol, tea and coffee were forbidden. Nothing “worldly” was allowed, so television, the latest music and modern novels were banned. Our free time was spent playing instruments, singing and dancing.
Though the rules were strict, my childhood was idyllic, playing outside with my siblings, cousins and friends.
The wives also had jobs in the laundrette in town or in the nearby church-owned mattress factory. My mum was unusual, as she studied to be a nurse and worked as a midwife, which meant she could deliver all my siblings. She worked long hours, but I felt loved and cared for by Dad’s other wives, especially Mary Ann.
I grew up knowing that polygamy was illegal and the police would often turn up at our home, though they tolerated our community and nobody was ever arrested. Still, this led to an undercurrent of worry, with us children told to never reveal to strangers how many wives Dad had.
But my biggest fear was that the end of the world was coming, which was one of the central beliefs of our faith.
While Dad tried to be fair, his time was divided between an ever-growing number of children, wives and church duties. There was little peace or personal space, which I found hard when I hit puberty. There were issues with the mothers, too, with sharp looks and muttered comments, and we could tell which of them didn’t get along.
At 17, my parents told me that Rulon Jeffs, our church leader, had selected a husband for me. I’d never even kissed a boy, so I was a bag of nerves, but didn’t question it for a second.
A few months later, Sam, 19, travelled from his home in Utah for our wedding in April 2000. I was relieved he was handsome and seemed kind, and the next day we were married.
Things were awkward at first as Sam and I learned to share a bed, but we figured it out. After our honeymoon, camping in Utah, we moved to a Mormon community in Alberta, where Sam was part of a logging crew. Life was happy, we fell in love and our daughter Starla was born in June 2001.
Meanwhile, Dad had continued to marry and by then I had 80 siblings, ranging from 27 to a few months old.
However, our happiness wasn’t to last. In June 2002, Warren Jeffs — Rulon’s son — excommunicated Dad from the church. He said it was God’s will, but we knew it was because he saw Dad as a threat to his power.
People had to choose whether to support Warren Jeffs or Dad, and Mum was torn. Her father’s family, siblings and two of her daughters followed Jeffs, so scared that she’d lose them, she filed for divorce.
After my son Kayden was born in February 2003, I started studying for a degree in education at College of the Rockies in British Columbia in 2004.
Sam hadn’t taken any other wives, but after everything that had happened, I started questioning my beliefs. I began asking myself if I really did have to wear long dresses and if modern music was sinful.
In 2006, aged 23, I tried my first alcoholic drink, having joined an ice-hockey team, celebrating our wins by dancing the night away. It was exciting to take these steps, although I often felt torn and was shocked by the sexualisation of women in adverts and on TV. I felt disapproval from the community, but not from Sam, who was also trying out new things.
After graduating in 2009, I came back to teach at a school in Bountiful. Sam and I had grown distant, both busy with work, and by 2010 our marriage was over. Our divorce was heartbreaking, but it spurred me on to explore the outside world.
I tried manifestation and Buddhism, and went on holiday to India and to a music festival in 2012. That represented all the big taboos — sex, drugs and rock and roll — but it was amazing, with so many friendly people just dancing to music, doing yoga and meditation. I met a man called Joe there, who I visited in New Zealand a few months later. The trip was amazing, but our lives were too different to make a relationship work.
When Starla was 16, she tried on my wedding dress, and I felt so grateful that she didn’t have to marry a stranger.
In 2017, Dad was charged with polygamy, even though he’d only legally married my mum, and the others were “spiritual marriages”. The following year, he was convicted and given six months’ house arrest. It was the first polygamy conviction in Canada for more than a century.
He remains committed to his faith, but I no longer consider myself a Mormon. I’m a feminist, who has learned so much from the women in the fundamentalist Mormon community. It’s thanks to them that I’ve now written a memoir.
I now have 150 siblings from my father’s 27 marriages, ranging in age from four-month-old Zyla to Jake, 46. I don’t have close relationships with all of them, but I can remember all their names. Half of them follow the church, but the rest are finding their own way, and two of my brothers have also practised polygamy.
My children are at university now, and I live with my sister Katie, 36, in Bountiful. At Thanksgiving and New Year, it’s nice that many of us still celebrate together. To sit with 200 or more of your relatives is something I will always treasure.
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