Thursday, October 26, 2006

Big Love

Last night, Gary and I watched the first two episodes of Big Love, the HBO series about a Utah man, Bill, who has three wives. Patrick Nielsen Hayden had recommended it, and I'm happy to report that so far, we like it much better than Veronica Mars. I'm always interested in stories about misunderstood or demonized populations, and so far, Big Love's doing a good job of showing that Bill's three families truly consider themselves one family -- and try to live that way, certainly not without strain -- and that polygamous cults living in isolated compounds can be very creepy indeed. Bill grew up in such a cult, and his parents and brothers are still there; the show establishes an effective contrast between his sunny, suburban, hectic life and the very unpleasant things happening back in The Compound.

Meanwhile, since they live outside Salt Lake City, Bill's family is under a certain amount of pressure to become active LDS members. These are invitations they have to resist, since the mainstream Mormon church outlawed polygamy in 1890, and the family's understandably anxious to stay under the radar.

Patrick, whose wife Teresa grew up Mormon, tells me that the show's quite accurate and believable, specifically in its depiction of The Compound. One of these days I'll get around to reading Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, which is about exactly this kind of fundamentalist, polygamous Mormon sect.

At an academic conference a few years ago, I met a historian who was giving a paper on Mormon cemeteries. She explained that when the Mormon church outlawed polygamy, the decision was extremely painful to many polygamous families: they'd set up those arrangements believing that they were following God's will, but then the church changed its mind and told them that they weren't lawful families anymore. The problem, of course, was that in many cases, they genuinely loved each other: they felt like real families whether they were recognized as such or not. Having to sever or hide such relationships -- having to pick only one wife and set of children from three, for instance -- was very traumatic for everyone involved.

This historian said that in many cases, the polygamous relationships can be detected in the arrangement of burial plots: families no longer allowed to acknowledge their loved ones in life did so in death.

Gary and I are looking forward to watching more of the show, although I do have to say that one of our initial reactions was, "Wow, that looks complicated. We're really glad to have only one spouse!"


  1. Hi Susan. At one time I numbered among my friends a couple that was in the process of becoming a polyamorous threesome. Kids were involved from two families. One member was from Mormon background although they didn't practice. The union didn't last.

    Yes, this was a very complicated situation and lifestyle. I wasn't always sure how to react to certain social situations. I wonder what the end result of all the combining and severing was on the kids.


  2. Anonymous5:31 PM

    I apologize, but I have to weigh in on your comments - especially this one: "She explained that when the Mormon church outlawed polygamy, the decision was extremely painful to many polygamous families: they'd set up those arrangements believing that they were following God's will, but then the church changed its mind and told them that they weren't lawful families anymore."

    There are so many problems with the above comment that a response is essential. When the LDS church issued what is known as the Manifesto, it did not interfere with existing families as in claiming they were no longer lawful families. Technically, they never had been "lawful" since the government never did recognize plural families. The church, however, did consider them to be lawful in the eyes of the church, and that status did not change with the Manifesto. What did change was the status of future plural marriages and the Church's ability to help monetarily with the legal defense of men charged for unlawful cohabitation. (They weren't charged with "polygamy" because the government didn't recognize the plural marriages as legal.) Polygamist men were essentially told that they were expected to live by the constitutional law of the land and the Church could not officially condone illegal behavior. If that meant they would live with only one wife, it was their choice. Many took their wives and moved to Canada or Mexico. Others, such as later Church presidents Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant decided to take their chances with the law and continued to live with their plural wives--believing that their marriages preceded the laws against such behavior and they were honor bound to honor their wives as such --recognizing that time would ultimately resolve the issue as no new plural marriages would take place (with the sanction of the Church). The Church didn't change its mind, it simply came to an impasse: Mormon scripture states that Mormons are required to obey the constitutional law of the land. Once Mormon leaders had exhausted all appeals to the court of last resort, they had to obey the law.

    Also, Under the Banner of Heaven isn't really credible. In only one footnote, Krakhauer got 3 things wrong. 1) the name of my grandfather, 2) the name of my uncle and 3) the position of prominence my grandfather held in the LDS Church. It's interesting reading, but not necessarily valid.

  3. Alma: Thanks for the clarifications! I'm probably misremembering the comments of the historian, who was Mormon herself and I believe taught at BYU; in any case, I always appreciate being educated! But I'm not sure anything you've said changes the fact that the situation was hard on families who felt forced to move or go underground. (Have you watched the show, by the way? What do you think of it?)

    Oh, and: We have two of the same favorite movies, The Russians Are Coming, the Russions Are Coming and GalaxyQuest.

    Lee: In the show, one of the children, a teenaged daughter, works with a girl who's LDS and figures out that Sarah's from a polygamous family. She tells Sarah that she doesn't approve of polygamy, and Sarah sighs and says, "Well, to tell you the truth, neither do I." So it will be interesting to see where that subplot will go.

  4. Anonymous6:16 PM

    Yes, I have watched parts of a couple of episodes, but I was irritated by them. About 20 years ago, I interviewed Rulon Jeffs, the leader of the group portrayed as Roman Grant. He's just too creepy to be real. Jeffs was articulate, surprisingly rational and not at all creepy. The portrayal of Sarah claiming she didn't believe in polygamy isn't what I've encountered. In most cases I'm familiar with the women (or girls) are as insistent--if not more so than the men that their husbands have plural wives. However, I'm not as familiar with the circumstances of the Colorado City group as I am with others; and it's clear that there's abuse going on there.

    Glad to see another fan of The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. I can laugh just thinking about some of the lines. My wife will sometimes say "hatsoever" mimicking Alan Arkin and it cracks me up.

    Certainly it was hard on families who had to go into hiding or leave the country. Not as bad as going to prison like they did between 1867 and 1890, but still no picnic. My comments weren't intended to question those points, only those that the LDS Church changed its mind and invalidated existing plural families.

  5. Alma,

    Well, it is HBO, and it's not claiming to be anything other than fiction. If they didn't make Roman a villain, the plot would be less compelling. (As a poetry teacher of mine once commented, "Life isn't art.") I prefer my villains to be somewhat more nuanced than he appears to be so far, but I've only watched two episodes.

    My own favorite line from Russians is "E-mer-gen-cy. Everybody to get from street." My mother and sister and I can still send each other into gales of laughter by repeating that line.


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