A Reader's Question

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A woman who had read a book about the FLDS emailed me to ask why my attitude toward polygamy seemed so different. It's not that I'm "soft on polygamy" in the sense that I'm blind to its inherent problems. As a monogamist of forty years, I obviously chose not to live that way. Besides the fact that polygamy is against the law-the biggest strike against it, in my view-plural marriage is a difficult way to live. Lots of women and children vying for the attention and affection of one man play all sorts of games with each other, replete with winners and losers and cheaters. The polygamous patriarch-even if he's a humble man-can't help but get all puffed up with his own power and importance.

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But there are compensations, too. As I watch people struggle to live monogamously, I can see the advantages of the way I was raised: In this day of escalating divorce, it's significant that people have a harder time breaking marriage vows when they've made them with more than one person. My father's sixth wife was Rulon Jeffs' sister, therefore Warren Jeffs' aunt. When she decided to leave my father and his religious group to become her brother's keeper in the FLDS, she had as much difficulty separating herself from her six sister-wives as she did in divorcing my father. Maybe the more people committed to one marriage, the greater the commitment that is forged among them. Sometimes polygamy can be an economic boon, if family members employ division of labor. In our family, one wife would work and another would keep house and raise the children. The working mother felt good about being gone all day, knowing that her children were being cared for and nurtured by someone who shared her values.

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Children who grow up in the care of many loving adults thrive. In my own case, this love counterbalanced the uncertainties of our way of life--of knowing that we could be "raided" at any moment; of fearing that in the sea of children we did not matter; of wishing that we were like our "normal" neighbors.

One key to successful plural life seems to be the willingness of the patriarch to be fair. When my father bought a vacuum cleaner for one wife, he bought one for all the others, too. According to Carolyn's account, Merrill Jessop didn't even try to be fair. He allowed himself to be manipulated by one wife while all the others suffered. And suffer they did.

Which brings me to the biggest reason I can indulge in a kind and tolerant perspective on plural marriage: I grew up in polygamy, but I have never been a plural wife. I suspect I'd make life hell for another woman-and she for me. I'd like to believe I could be as charitable and generous-spirited as my mother was, but I suspect I'd fail miserably. To live plural marriage successfully takes a refined spirit and a willingness to place the good of the family far above your own personal wants and needs. I'm not a big enough person to even think about it.

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