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!"