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Mama Deb
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Big Love, LDS, Polygamy (Very long and somewhat rambly.)

I've been watching Big Love on HBO this year. For those who aren't familiar, it's about a family in Utah that consists of a husband, his three wives and their children.

Note that I'm not calling them Mormon.

This is because only two of the adults have ever been members of the official LDS church, and aren't any more. I suspect that the oldest daughter still is, because she hasn't done anything to be removed yet, but I'm not so sure about the oldest son. None of the other children are. Then again, only two of them are actually school age, and only one has been baptized. The husband was raised in one of the polygamist compounds, until he was tossed out at the age of fifteen; his second wife is the daughter of the leader (Prophet) of this compound. She, therefore, has never been a member of official church, although she does hold the Book of Mormon as holy. The third wife (who, like the second, began as a babysitter) was not raised in any form of LDS - we don't know what, if any, religion she was - and was only baptized when the youngest child of the first wife was. We do know she went to Catholic school, but so do plenty of non-Catholics.

They abstain from alchohol, cigarettes and coffee, and this series has language cleaner than a lot of network shows - so clean that the TWoP recappers feel funny using anything stronger than PG.

So, LDS has long been fascinating to me - Orson Scott Card, homophobia and all, is a brilliant writer, although even he couldn't make a novelization of the Book of Mormon ("Homecoming") readable. This is not to be confused with "Tales of Alvin Maker", which is a fantasy retelling of the life of Joseph Smith, btw, although it's also getting rather boring. And, you know. LDS is the basis for the original "Battlestar Galactica", too.

And it's the US's first homegrown religion, which also makes it interesting.

And my interest has been rekindled by this series, so I've just read three books - Sisters and Wives by Natalie Collins, Daughters of the Saints by Dorothy Allred Solomon and His Favorite Wife by Susan Ray Schmidt. I've also read Jon Krakauer's Under the Kingdom of Heaven in the past.

The first is a very, very, VERY angry novel. It's not safe to do this, but I got a definite impression that the author, who still lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and children, was hurt very badly by Mormon men. The only good men and the only strong women in this novel are exMormons, or never were Mormon at all. The Mormon men are all abusers or complicit in abuse; the women are all either also complicit or thoroughly beaten down. There was an excerpt for a second book at the end of this one, and I think it's along the same theme. I'm really not sure what I learned from this, except that people in very closed groups can be abusive.

The other two books are interesting in that they're two sides of the same coin. The first is written by the daughter of the leader of a polygamist group. She was the favorite child, the only daughter of the third wife, and her father was NOT abusive. The living situation was NOT good - they were very poor plus they had to deal with the father in prison and with living all over the West and in Mexico, plus there was a lot of hiding. She was close to all of the mothers (whom she called "aunt" - one was actually her mother's twin sister) and her brothers and sisters. It doesn't sound idyllic and she resented that she was not on equal terms with men, and she rejected the whole "Principle", and married in the main church. The book is an indictment against polygamy, but not against the people.

Her father was killed by members of a rival polygamist group.

The other book? Her brother-in-law was the one who engineered Dr. Allred's murder. She became a plural wife (number five, I think) at the age of fifteen, married to the group's prophet's brother (not the murderous one.) By the time she was 22, she had five kids. She really did seem to love her husband, but she never had money, never could make any decisions on her own, and he kept marrying other women. (Dr. Allred stopped at seven for a long time, despite his followers' urging - they couldn't have more wives than he did.) This included his own niece. Which further reduced the available money. And she lived in appalling circumstances. She'd also been raised to be a plural wife - young men, it was thought, could go out and convert their own wives and bring them in. Girls raised in the cult were meant for men already married.

Eventually, she engineered a way out (not very hard - she convinced him to take her and the kids to visit family in Utah,and then announced that they were staying. Since it wasn't a legal marriage, there was no need for a legal divorce.) She finished high school and went to college, had another baby by another man (first husband was still willing to take her back), and then married (at the age of 25) a man "of the Christian faith." They had a seventh child together. She's still in contact with her family and her first husband's children. Her first husband? Possibly also killed by his brother.

Solomon didn't "escape" - she could and did choose to live a different life. Schmidt needed to run away.

And neither of these books resemble, much, the compound, Juniper Creek, in Big Love - boys weren't tossed out that I could see, and women weren't forced to dress as though they lived on the prairie. The LeBaron group (the second book) didn't even wear garments - or most of them didn't. She was shocked when her husband did. Some drank coffee. The Allred group is much closer to standard LDS practice, and the kids of the Apostolic United Brethren go to public school and they dress like everyone else.

There is far less anger in these stories, oddly enough.

The compound is clearly modeled on Colorado City, formerly "Short Creek", which is rather more isolationist.

And these are the polygamists that get the most attention.

But there are people like the Hendricksons - people who don't belong to an organized group, who believe they're doing the right thing, who live closeted lives - multiple homes near each other, as in the series, or sharing a multi-famiily house. They may even be members of the official church - subject to excommunication if found out.

And with all of this, I'm having the hardest time trying to understand how Margene, who was not any form of LDS, could be part of this.

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Comments

This is the only show I am even remotely fannish about. I really find it fascinating for many of the same reasons you do.

Check out Margene's blog on HBO.com. Margene loves Bill and will do anything Bill wants so that she can be with him-- to me, she seems like a younger version of Barb, who also loves Bill, and will do anything to keep bill-- including adding wives.

Margene is *very* young. She's finally discovering her own voice and mind, and I wonder what she'll be like when she does.

I see Barb sort of breaking away... I wonder if Margene would, too? Bill left with only Nicki-- ouch. I'd almost feel sorry for him.

I *like* Nikki. She's trying to exist in a very different culture than the one in which she was brought up - as she said, she traded hundreds for ten, and now her mother has disowned her and her brother - oy, her brother. Who is a gay man with multiple wives...

Barb isn't going to leave - if she were, she would have done it when he decided to marry Nicki. She's just going to try her best to make sure her daughters marry monogamously. She'd like it with Ben, too, but she's lost that battle.

I loooooooooooooooove Nikki. She's one of my fav. characters. Conversely I couldn't stand Margene in s1 but now that she's starting to try to have her own voice I'm starting to like her too.

And part of why Margene is with Bill et al. is that she lacked for family and stability before. They hinted at this in the ep when Margene's mom visits. So that's why she went for this, even though she wasn't connected to the same beliefs as Bill before.

I think I also like the way Nicki dresses - it's elegant and flattering, unlike the rather dull way Barb dresses or the little girl way they dress Margene. And I can understand her attitude. I don't have to like it to understand it.

For *Margene*, this was a decent choice, I think. Bill is a good, attentive, loving father for all his kids, and Barb and Nicki do give her stability - give her a real family. Plus I do believe she loves all of them - even Nicki. I think she really is happy with her life. She went into this with her eyes wide open and from the gentile world. No culture shock and no...broken promises.

I'm just surprised *Bill* is willing to take a third wife who isn't doing this for religious reasons - who doesn't have an LDS background. Not to mention the potential fourth.

Nicki and I dress similarly. I also have some of the "prairie" type clothes but they're a lot more flattering when they fit and they're not layered on top of each other whether or not they match.

I love Margene. I think she did it because she's open-minded.

The character I can't stand is Rhonda--I know she's been through a lot but she's also insane and cruel.

clothing

The LeBaron group (the second book) didn't even wear garments - or most of them didn't.

Okay, i'm sorry, but that sounded really shocking. It took me a few seconds to realize that you meant Garments, not just garments in general :-P ;-) .

Re: clothing

:)

I agree, it's the really dysfunctional groups that get the press. It isn't unheard of, when new housing subdivisions go up, that a group of polygamists will buy up entire blocks of homes. That way their children are surrounded with other children that understand their lives. They are thoroughly integrated with the "real" world but still live the polygamist life.

I'm a (converted) member of the LDS church although I "fell away" about 20 years ago. I have many, many issues with the religion, but I can also admit some of the kindest, loveliest people belonged to my Ward.

See, that's always the case. It's the ones who abandon the boys and marry the young teenage girls, and take away choices - those get publicity.

Also, of course, the folks living in duplexes in Provo don't *want* publicity, do they? They want to live their lives as they wish.

Yep. Just like the gay guys getting picked up in the public restrooms get the news, while the guys staying at home with their partner and children get ignored.

I don't think the government should have a say in who and how we get married to. As long as the person is a tax paying, adult the government should just step aside.

Civil marriage gives all sorts of legal benefits - automatic medical power of attorney, property protection, and that can only be from the government. However, it's patently unfair for the government to recognize some marriages and not others.

It should be between (among) consensual adults, though.

(I also believe the essence of marriage is that it's easy to get into and hard (but possible) to get out of. So people don't do it lightly, but mistakes can be rectified.)

Agree. Far too often people get married even as they talk about "if it doesn't work out we'll...". Wrong attidude.

And it's the US's first homegrown religion, which also makes it interesting.

This is deceptively phrased. While it may have been the first religion successfully incubated in the country of the United States, it's by no means the first successful religion of either the New World or created in the region that is the US. It took me four tries to say this in a way that's neither denying what you say (it's true, but a rather narrow interpretation) nor attacking you for making assumptions (you don't, but it sure sounds like it).

As to the show, I shall have to see it sometime; it does touch on a subject dear to my heart, but I simply haven't time for fiction on TV these days (which is a shame; by the time I see DW and BSG, I expect they'll be five years into syndication :-(

You do have a point. Obviously, the New World has its own religions that predate the folks from Europe (and there are others, like Santeria and Vodoun, that incorporate both Old World and New World beliefs, although I don't think either of those come from the continental US.)

But I was referring to the political unit as well as the geographic one. If I'd meant only the geographic area, I'd have said North America. LDS is very much a product of the United States of that time period.

Big Love is, actually, about alternative marriages. The producers are a long term gay couple, for example. However, only one of the wives seems to view the marriage as anything like polyamory - she regards herself as married to the other wives as well, even if nothing sexual is occurring between them. She talks about "wives." The others? "Sister-wives." Margene is really fascinating. :)

On another board I frequent, the posters say the show borders on soft porn, though, not the kind of show you'd feel comfortable watching with your mom in the room. They also say it is not reflective of polygamous life at all.... as one of your commenters stated usually polygamous families live a more isolated lifestyle because the risks of being discovered are huge. I haven't seen it, though I personally can't see the attraction that any woman has to the lifestyle.

Compared to other HBO shows...not so much.

They do have sex scenes, and one or two are embarrassing for me (the big slash writer!) to watch, but it's hardly in every episode - it's nothing like, say, Oz.

I'm wired for monogamy in general, and it's not the sort of polyamory I can see among my friends - it's very patriarchal. And I just can't *share*. :)

Card's best attempts at addressing the LDS church, IMO, are his most straightforward: _Saints_, which is about a (fictionialized) wife of Joseph Smith, and _Folk of the Fringe_. Neither one tries to put a veneer over the stories the way Homecoming or Alvin Maker do; they're about Mormons quite explicitly and so they can be more specific and detailed, which IMO works better. _Red Harvest_, I'm forgetting by whom, is also an intriguing novel about the LDS church during its polygamous period; it's about the man who was convicted of engineering the Mountain Meadows Massacre, narrated alternately by three of his wives, and after three readings I'm still not sure what the author wants you to think of the man, the church, or the practice of polygamy as it was done by that people. It's nicely nuanced.

I've long been interested in the history of the LDS church because my daughter's namesake was Mormon, and descended from some fairly important participants in that history, and I got into the subject by chatting with her when she was alive. Her grandmother was one of several wives; the church outlawed polygamy after she was married but permitted existent families to stay together.

I didn't care for Saints at all when I read it. If I'm remembering correctly, he didn't make the religious transformation feel real or compelling. Which left the rest of the story on a shaky foundation for me.

Ah. Whereas to me, the book didn't really get started till Joseph showed up, at which point it was terrific and the slow start didn't matter, nor did anything that happened within it.

The religious conversions were hard to believe. There seemed to be this assumption that all one needed to do was read the Book of Mormon and one would be convinced.

I've tried to read the Book of Mormon, and it was *dire* - turgid, faux-King James language. I didn't get far at all. I've also heard the story, and, well. Not all that convincing to me.

I enjoyed Saints and, to a lesser extent, The Folk of the Fringe.

Both were a window into what was to me an alien culture.

My mother read Under the Kingdom of Heaven recently. While she found it interesting, it was an emotionally tough book for her to read.

Can you say why that was so? Besides, you know, the content of murder and forced child marriages, I mean.

Sure, not a problem. To give a little history about my mom: she's number 4 of 13 kids, raised as a strict roman catholic, married at 23, by 30 she was a stay at home mom with three kids while her husband worked at a paper mill. We're also from the rural south and my father has an underlying disrespect for women.

This book struck home. She does not like the subjugation of women, of how a religion in today's world and in the current generation is still treating women and children like crap. She saw all this growing up. She was poor and there were a lot of kids. There was never any money and her father treated her mother with disrespect. Grandma had no freedom. She didn't have a driver's license and when you live in the middle of farm country, that means you never leave the house except for grocery shopping and church.

My sister and I are fiercely independent. She doesn't know why we turned out this way. She states that she wasn't actively teaching or molding our minds, but for me, I saw their relationship and my dad's views and wanted to be as far away from it as possible. I still think many men are rather useless and subsequently, I don't date. I realize that this opinion was originally from my mother, but I am aware of this and do not see a reason to change my beliefs. I have a brother too, but he's bit like my father.

I guess to sum it up, she witnessed many of the things in the book and identified. (I hope I was clear in my reasoning - it made sense to me. :)