World

No Easy Peace

Barry Came July 26 1999
World

No Easy Peace

Barry Came July 26 1999

The perils of polygamy

An incest case in Utah highlights the controversy over ‘plural marriage’

World United States

By Vince Beiser in Salt Lake City

It’s a sunny afternoon in Manti, a bucolic little central Utah town dominated by an incongruously imposing Mormon temple. Inside a tidy yellow-brick house on a quiet street, Jim Harmston, looking like a cowboy patriarch with his combed-back grey hair and denim shirt and jeans, is leafing through back issues of National Geographic and chatting with three women ranged around him on two living-room sofas. The peaceful tableau could be set in any middle-class house in any small American town, except for one detail: all three women— and five more besides—are Harmstons wives. “Nothing on earth sanctifies the soul like the institution of plural marriage,” says wife Jeannine Harmston, a kindly looking woman in her 50s.

Remarkably, that seemingly archaic institution—better known as polygamy —has never been stronger. Despite being banned both by law and mainstream Mormon doctrine, the practice is not only thriving in heavily Mormon Utah and other parts of the U.S. West, but appears to be growing. The issue has burst into the open with the highprofile trials of two brothers, David and John Daniel Kingston. Last year, one of John Daniels daughters, then 16, told police he had forced her to marry her uncle David—who already had 14 wives. When the girl fled home after four sexual encounters with her uncle, she testified, her father beat her with a belt. Amid a blaze of media attention, John Daniel pleaded no contest to child abuse charges in April, and is now serving a 28-week sentence. On July 9, David was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for incest and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.

Such stories of intra-family mating and violence are nothing new to Carmen Thompson. Now 41, Thompson

spent 13 years as one of a Salt Lake City Mormon mans eight wives, a harem that she says included the mans sister and 14-year-old niece. She finally left him, taking their five children, after what she describes as years of beatings, poverty and emotional neglect. Last year, Thompson helped found Tapestry of Polygamy, the first-ever support group for women and children leaving

polygamous marriages. Since the beginning of the year, the group has fielded over 300 calls from people seeking help. “In polygamous families, the patriarch has all the power,” says Thompson. “When there’s that kind of imbalance, abuse comes naturally.”

But polygamy’s adherents say that as consenting adults they should have the right to live however they want. “We abhor abuse of any kind, and people like the

Kingstons should be prosecuted,” says Mary Potter, formerly one of a policeman’s three wives and recent founder of a pro-polygamy women’s group, the Women’s Religious Liberties Union. “But abuse is also rampant in monogamous marriages. Why blame our religion?” Polygamy was widely practised in the 1800s among the Mormon pioneers who settled the arid, remote territory

that would become Utah. As a condition for receiving statehood, Utah banned the practice in the 1890s. Conveniently, the Mormon religious leadership received a divine revelation around that time that plural marriages should cease. A few diehards continued the practice underground, however, and in the 1930s a resurgent Mormon fundamentalist movement spawned openly polygamous breakaway factions. Today,

there are an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 people living in polygamous families— more than when plural marriage was official Mormon doctrine.

And the population appears to be growing, due to conversions and the high birth rates in the secretive, closed-off fundamentalist clans. The largest single polygamous community comprises some 5,000 people in the small town of Hildale on the Utah-Arizona border. That group also has branches scattered across the western United States, Mexico and British Columbia. Canadian authorities brought the B.C. group to trial in 1992, but the courts concluded that laws banning plural marriages violated the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Those established groups have been joined in recent years by newer factions. Among them is Harmston’s 300-member Tme and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days. One of the more extreme fundamentalist groups, it teaches children that Saturday morning cartoons are the tool of Satan. There are also the so-called independents, people like Mary Potter who are not affiliated I with any formal group I but practise polygamy I because that is what the I original 19th-century I Mormon prophets pre§ scribed. Utah is also home to a small non-Mormon Christian polygamist movement.

For all, the bottom line is the same: God, they believe, wants his true followers to live polygamously. As a bonus, they say, the lifestyle also offers practical benefits. With multiple mothers in a family, there is no need for day care, hired help or hurried microwaved meals. “As a monogamous mother of six, I about went nuts trying to be everything to everybody,” says Flarmston’s wife Laura, a former mainstream Mormon who left her hus-

band to join the Manti group. “In a plural marriage, you have help.”

Lillian Bowles, however, was miserable growing up as one of 40 children in a cloistered polygamous community near Salt Lake City. Fier father had eight wives and she saw him only once a week, on Saturday nights when it was her mother’s “turn.” “He had very little interaction with our lives, but an incredible amount of control,” says Bowles, 26. “We couldn’t even play at a friend’s house without getting his permission. You can talk about consenting adults, but the kids have no choice.”

Even supporters concede polygamy has its downsides. “The jealousy was very hard to take,” admits Harmston’s first wife, Elaine, with whom he had been married over 30 years before taking his subsequent wives. Thompson, the antipolygamy activist, says the result is a kind of brainwashing. “It’s incredibly emotionally degrading to lie in bed and hear your husband having sex with another woman on the other side of the wall,” she says. “But you’re taught that jealousy is a sin against God that you should fight. You learn to deny your emotions.”

Finances are often a problem, too. It is hard to find, let alone afford, housing for a family that includes three or four wives and a dozen or more children. “We’d go dig food out of the dumpster behind the grocery store every week,” says Bowles. “There were lots of other families who did the same.”

Polygamy’s suddenly high profile is proving embarrassing to tolerant Utah state authorities. Only a handful of offenders have been prosecuted for the crime since the 1950s, when the state quit making occasional raids on polygamous enclaves. “There’s a large amount of tacit support for polygamy, because it’s part of our state’s history,” says Utah state Senator Ron Allen. University of Utah psychology professor Irwin Altman argues that polygamous families are taking a place alongside other non-traditional households, from same-sex couples to single-parent homes, that have become fixtures of American life. “This movement,” says Altman, who spent nearly a decade studying polygamous communities, “is here to stay.” ED