Sister-Wives

So I’m sitting here with the windows open on a beautiful Spring day in Chicago, and indulging in one of life’s great pleasures: reading the Sunday paper. My wife is off with her boyfriends this weekend to see Golden Smog and Soul Asylum in Rochester, Minnesota; I’m just getting over a cold, so I’m playing hooky from church; and I’ve got the Chieftains playing on my iPod. Life is sweet.

My paper of choice is the Chicago Tribune. I just now read a truly remarkable essay, and I knew immediately I would have to share it with my internet friends. It is Michele Gazzolo (a freelance writer who lives in Benton Harbor, Mich.), “‘Big Love’ in a Michigan Cul-De-Sac: The more ‘wives,’ the merrier,” Chicago Tribune (June 10, 2007):Section 2: 1, 5. You can find it on the Trib’s website here. Michele writes as follows:

Like most people, I was a stranger to the term “sister-wife” until I heard it on “Big Love,” an HBO drama about a polygamous family living on the outskirts of Salt Lake City.

Now, as “Big Love” enters its second season on Monday, the sister-wife concept has taken root on my own cul-de-sac in southwest Michigan.

We sister-wives of Lynwood Drive use the term and live the life — only without the shared husband.

As with most well-written dramas concerning the private lives of marginal groups, “Big Love” had a way of creating a new normal. The premise that had first seemed outrageous — a man having up to a back yard full of wives — soon became mundane. Not that we would do it, but we could understand how the characters could.

We found ourselves confessing that plural marriage didn’t look so terrible, even in a drama filled with suffering and intrigue.

It was kind of like the Waltons, what with the big family and the red-state setting. One always had company. There was help with the children. And though the three or more women married to one man didn’t seem so great, it seemed a small point.

Within a few episodes, it dawned on my friends and me: We were envious.

We liked the way the sister-wives’ doors opened onto a common patio, how they wandered in and out of each other’s living rooms, how they dined at one giant table. Alone in her part of the house, a single wife looked lonely. In the kitchen together, even in moments of high tension, they looked cozy.

Halfway into the “Big Love” season, we discussed whether we could be sister-wives, though we did not share a husband and had no intention of making that part of the bargain.

The conversation went well. It seemed like that’s how we were living already anyway, only without a name for it. Our children roam from one house to another and are fed wherever they appear, and the space between our houses feels more like a patio than a street.

Besides, what woman couldn’t use a little more help without having to pay for it? What woman doesn’t occasionally long for a larger family without having to give birth? What woman doesn’t get bored doing the same essential chores alone at home? Who couldn’t use a little more company?

My friends and I first used the word as a joke, then as a term of affection, and finally as a salutation, as in, “Hey, sister-wife, how about dinner tonight?” It felt thrilling to speak it aloud. The word spread through the cul-de-sac.

It was a declaration, a call to solidarity. We took it into the public sphere: the playgrounds, the waiting room at the dance academy, the checkout line at Target. We were testing the market.

We knew that at the very least, this worked for us. Being a sister-wife was kind of like belonging to a women’s union. If you were there for them, they were there for you.

Over dinner we wondered aloud what made a sister-wife. Why did the term stick?

We liked the medieval ring of it, but was there more? We parsed the term. “Sister” wasn’t enough. A sister (real or figurative) could be fickle. “Wife” — with our platonic twist — suggested fidelity.

A sister-wife is one who cares about your life, children and appliances almost as much as you do. She will not drop your baby. She will make your child a sandwich he will like.

We took stock of our daily lives. Like our mothers before us, we feed, comfort and scold one another’s children. We are the baby-sitters when there is no baby-sitter. We give each other clothes. We gaze unself-consciously into each other’s refrigerators when ours no longer look interesting.

More often than not we eat together, and the more we’re at it, the more seamlessly it works. Instead of buying six ears of corn, we buy two dozen. We call up our neighbors and, voila: The corn gets shucked and the corn gets eaten. Sickness, health, richer, poorer, we’re there for all of it. The absent sexual component notwithstanding, we feel as if we are married.

I have five sister-wives now, four in my neighborhood and one married to my brother. So far, so good. When “Big Love” starts up again, we will renew our vows. And we will remind each other that as long as we each shall live in this neighborhood, we are — as our forebears put it — sealed for all eternity.

So what do you think? Are we so embarrassed by our polygamist past that it takes an outsider to perceive some of the actual virtues of plural marriage and write an essay like this?

(This post also serves as a reminder that the new season of “Big Love” is starting on Monday night.)

Comments

  1. Costanza says:

    Thanks for sharing that Kevin. I’m not sure how to answer your question. I just know that the essay felt like a breath of cool, fresh air–a little light conversation in what is usually a very heavy subject.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    That’s a good way of putting it, Costanza. It felt that way to me, too.

  3. This was very nice. It’s so hard to have a conversation in the normal world about plural marriage because people get so stuck on the basic idea that they can’t think about the nuances that come with it. For most people, it’s about sex, and only sex, and this essay points out some of the benefits that it can bring that have nothing to do with sex.

    Maybe I need to look into Big Love after all.

  4. “My wife is off with her boyfriends” ????

  5. My wife is off with her boyfriends this weekend

    Hmm — and here I thought the technical term was “brother-husbands.”

    A suggestion for your next post title, Kevin. “Polyandry: Living the Principle.”

  6. MikeInWeHo says:

    I am looking forward to the return of Big Love tomorrow evening. The L.A. Times had a raving review of the new season yesterday. A few quotes:

    “At first it seemed so fringe as to be lunatic. An hour long drama about a Mormonish polygamous family living in Utah. Yeah, that has a big built-in demographic. One season later, devoted fans can barely wait for the return…far from fringe, Big Love has become an ur drama, with dark comedy lapping at the edges…HBO needn’t worry about the death of the Sopranos. The Henricksons have got their backs.”

    The article goes on to describe the series, and quotes the creators (who happen to be a gay couple): “We’ve found strange bedfellows…We hear people talking about their conservative Christian friends liking it because it’s a family values show. It’s not cynical. It’s not glib.”

    They also report on the Mormon response:
    “There’s also less push-back this time around from the Mormon Church, which balked at the show’s premise, fearing it would reinforce the misperception that the church still endorses polygamy…But this year, they kind of let us be…I think we proved ourselves.”

    Finally this:
    “The show’s creators, who are both personal and writing partners, said the initial aversion they both felt toward polygamy has softened as they’ve worked on the show. ‘When I started the series, polygamy was beyond the pale….When we would hear women advocate polygamy and talk about how good their marriages were, I would say: Stockholm syndrome, you’re brainwashed. I don’t necessarily feel that anymore. I certainly see abuses to it. But nevertheless, in its best-case scenario, I see it being a valid lifestyle.”

    (LOS ANGELES TIMES, Calendar Section p. 1 & 16, 6/9/7)

    It’s interesting that the article describes the family as “Mormonish.” A question for those who are familiar with Utah: Do families like the Henricksons even exist? They look nothing like the FLDS people on TV, who really do seem cultish (their garb is almost Amish looking). The Henricksons of HBO are totally different: affluent, modern, etc.

    Are there really clandestine polygamous families living right among the Mormon masses of Happy Valley?

  7. #6….Yes

  8. #6 – Definitely – one of my wife’s good friends from high school

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    My allusion to boyfriends was indeed a sly tip o’ the hat to polyandry. (And it is true enough; she is in fact spending the weekend with friends who happen to be boys…er, men.)

    Kaimi, I wish I had thought to call them “brother-husbands.” Very good!

  10. Well..how ’bout “I have five sister-wives now “????

  11. We need more of this light-handednes. Thanks for sharing the link.

  12. When we moved into a new neighborhood full of newly-built homes and young families in Utah County about five years ago, many of the wives talked openly and fondly about living polygamy without “the whole sex and sharing a husband thing,” as we called it.

    Our community was very much like Gazzolo’s. We often ate together, fed children we hadn’t delivered at the hospital, and fantasized generally about what it might be like: M would do the cleaning, S the cooking, R would run a school, etc.

    We didn’t use the term sister-wives, probably because we’d never heard of it. The term polygamy often did figure in, but I think a far better term for Gazzolo’s community and mine is commune.

  13. 6:

    Are there really clandestine polygamous families living right among the Mormon masses of Happy Valley?

    Absolutely. The FLDS represent a MINORITY of the fundamentalist Mormon community. At best, only about 10,000 of at least 40,000 Mormon fundamentalists are FLDS. FLDS is only one church; there are others. And here’s the kicker: all of the others look just like you and me. They dress modernly, send their kids to public school, their women go to college and become doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.

    In otherwords, the Henricksons are a real family. They are thousands of real families. I know some. Many hold family home evenings. Many even send their children on missions for the LDS church, despite the LDS church having cut off ties with them. They are just as faithful to the Lord and they love their families just as much as do your favorite, ideal LDS role model families.

    What’s more, is that the FLDS did not become like they are until over the last dozen years or so.

    For a good example of original Mormonism lived righteously, look to the AUB of Salt Lake and suburbs, and Centennial Park, Arizona. Then tell me if you have ever seen any families more loving, more connected, or more into the gospel.

    This may not be the path we trod, but that doesn’t make it any less valid a spiritual path for those who feel they have been called to that life.

  14. Warning to Kevin and Ahna: This is how it all started in Nauvoo…New neighborhood, all fun and games, Pot Luck dinners..green Jello salads……
    Ben: maybe a hair overstated.

  15. 14 Bob: A hair overstated? Do you know the families I know? The families who do all of the things I mentioned above? How can you state that I am overstating things that I have myself observed?

    The overstating is done by those who portray all fundamentalist Mormons as backwater hillbillies who marry their first cousins. I am merely trying to set the record straight. Much of what is shown on Big Love is based on real situations that have and do happen in real life.

    Of course bad things happen in polygamist families, and some polygamists are bad people. Just like bad things happen in Mormon (LDS) families, and some LDS monogamists are bad people. The LDS church won’t even allow men to be with primary children anymore without a woman in the room with them. Do you suppose this recent change came about as a result of some very bad LDS men doing some very bad things to LDS children in LDS chapels?

    There are bad things that happen in fundy Mormon families, bad things that happen in LDS families, bad things that happen in Baptist families, and good things as well in all of the above. Some democrats beat their wives and commit child abuse, so do some republicans.

    Why is it that so many LDS people get all up in arms whenever anyone points out that there is such a breed as good, family-oriented, Christ-like polygamists?

  16. MikeInWeHo says:

    What does AUB mean?

  17. AUB is the Apostolic United Brethren, the second-largest fundamentalist Mormon church, many of whose members practice plural marriage (but not all). Their home base is Bluffdale, Utah, but they have congregations in several locations in Utah, Montana, Arizona, and Mexico.

  18. I have never longed for a larger family without giving birth.

    I fondly refer to my husband’s best friend as my sister wife.

  19. Ben: See #7 & #11. You are right, I don’t know what you have seen, or the people you know. I said maybe, because no one has stated things as strongly as you did.
    My best to all Loving families.

  20. MikeInWeHo says:

    Even mine?

  21. Levi Peterson says:

    Those quasi-sister-wives in Chicago are playing at the business. The real thing isn’t half so pleasant.

    First, the BIG factor of sexual jealousy is entirely absent because each has her own husband.

    Second, financial rivalry is entirely absent too. Most polygamists live on very limited means. Early Mormon polygamists certainly did except for the aristocrats clustered around Temple Square in Salt Lake City. My uncle Parley Savage was profoundly bitter to the end of his long life over the inequity that he had perceived in the division of labor and goods between his mother and her sister wife.

  22. Mike #20, I hoped you would pick that up!

  23. Posted a secret says:

    This is totally off topic, but I would like our family to have another baby but my spouse doesn’t want to. I’m very broken up about it, but I don’t say anything. Sorry for hijacking your thread, but I had to say it out loud.

  24. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 22

    LDS who tacitly approve of polygamous families are being inconsistent when they condemn gay families. If I expect people to accept me and my family (two guys and a daughter), I’m in no position to judge people like the fictional Henricksons. Let them marry however they want.

    re: 23 Click your way to http://www.itsaboutlove.org and contact LDS Family Services. Or call 1–800–537–2229. They can help you!

  25. Mike 24:

    This is why I do not condemn any family wherein people find love and a supportive environment. Of course there is the difference that polygamous families are directly addressed in scripture. But as for me, I see no reason to pass judgment or condemnation on you or any other similar family.

  26. #21 – What about EMOTIONAL jealousy? Of course the physical and emotional would be intertwined, but I think the hardest part for women would be feeling loved equally (esp. b/c each would want to be loved more than the other).

  27. Personally, I’m agnostic on the subject of polygamy. I dislike the way it’s being practiced within the FLDS communities right now, but I’m also open to the possibility of it being practiced in a benign fashion. I think people tend to underestimate the carrying capacity of the human heart in these matters.

    I’m also not the slightest bit embarrassed by our polygamous history.

    No more than any other American ought to be embarrassed by his nation’s monogamous history, anyway…

  28. Starfoxy says:

    I think Levi in 21 hits the nail on the head. That isn’t polygamy, and this article just serves to illustrate how all of the benefits of polygamy can be had outside of a polygamous relationship. These women have proved that a woman doesn’t have to share a husband to have a close loving relationship with other women, or to have those other women help her with her children and other duties.

  29. Regarding your tip o’ the hat to polyandry, I was thinking one could save bundles on clothing by encouraging the selection of like-sized brother husbands.

  30. Ben There says:

    28 Starfoxy:

    this article just serves to illustrate how all of the benefits of polygamy can be had outside of a polygamous relationship.

    All of the TEMPORAL benefits, quite possibly. But none of the theological and eternal benefits that attach only to celestial marriage as sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise.

    It’s as though someone outside the LDS church offers as an example some really nice non-LDS couple, whose marriage is better than anything, but they weren’t sealed in the temple. You’d have a hard time convincing LDS members that “all of the benefits of great marriage can be had outside of a temple marriage” because you’d be ignoring the eternal implications of the relationship.

  31. Ben There says:

    27 Seth,

    I also dislike the way polygyny is practiced in the FLDS, which is why I pointed readers to other groups, who are much more mainstream in their practices. The FLDS are the minority of the fundamentalist Mormon community, and their practices are almost universally detested among other fundamentalist Mormons.

  32. MikeInWeho says:

    Just remember, they’re not Mormons, Ben There. I propose we adopt the term “Mormonish.” I’m sure the LA Times won’t mind. Then the LDS Newsroom web site can say:

    There is no such thing as a “Mormon fundamentalist,” nor are there “Mormon sects.” A correct term to describe these polygamist groups is “Mormonish people.”

  33. Ben There says:

    32 Mike: You are hilarious. Yes, I forgot the LDS church — solely by virtue of being the biggest kid on the playground — has the unilateral right to define terminology for other religions. Does that mean that all the fundies will have to republish their sacred scriptures under the title “Book of Mormonish”?

  34. Ben There says:

    In other news, fundamentalist Evangelical Christians, along with their traditional enemy the non-Christian Roman Catholic Church, are said to have recently noted their objections to the LDS church claiming to be Christian. Evangelicals and Catholics agree that traditional LDS beliefs have very little in common with traditional Christian beliefs, therefore placing the LDS soundly outside Christianity.

    The LDS responded with a news release, saying in part, “But look, the very name of our church says JESUS CHRIST right in it! And look, Jesus’ name has the biggest letters in our logo!”

    In related news, God Alighty (sometimes referred to as Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, and the Lord) issued a press release noting that all man-made religions are outside the sphere of being able to connect with Him, and he asked that all religions please stop taking his namein vain by using it to clobber other religions.

  35. The whole discussion of the neighborhood friends who “identified” with the polygamous wives made me laugh. While I understand the attempt to “liken all things unto ourselves”, I was reminded of the old movie Soul Man. No White man who changes his appearance to look Black can understand fully the feelings of a Black man, simply because the White man can go back to being a White man whenever he chooses. He can learn from appearing to be Black, but he doesn’t have to deal with being Black – and his mental filter still functions in his White paradigm. I admire the attempt and wish all could walk that mile, but there are limits and selective application involved.

    Monogamists who develop a “sister-wife” ideology can pull out the “good parts version” – but they don’t have to deal with the messiness and tedium of the full historical novel. (I can reference The Princess Bride in almost any conversation, with very little effort.)

  36. Ben There says:

    What I find somewhat amusing is that non-LDS, non-Mormon women I know have frequently said they could and would be willing to live polygamy, not based on any religious imperative, but on their perceptions of the practical benefits of living polygamously.

    I once had two married female coworkers–one middle age, another in her early twenties–who, upon learning I was Mormon, the two of them launched into a discussion of how they would love it if they could live polygamously, and they both agreed that as sex is such a minor part of marriage, that in considering the issue one had to go beyond that in formulating an intelligent discussion of the issue.

    Of couse I thought it was funny that they assumed since I am LDS that I must believe in polygamy, but then again that is the stereotype.

  37. My wife would love to live polygamy: more help with the kids and housework! Another adult to talk to when I’m buried in a book or a magazine! Someone else for me to have sex with when she’s not in the mood! (OK the last one was mine)

    BTW Mike, as you probably know, the creators of Big Love are two gay men, who became interested in telling the story of a polygamous family because the legal issues involved in finding a legal ground for the free exercise of polygamy are the same or similar to those involved in finding a legal basis for gay marriage. If “Big Love ha[s] a way of creating a new normal,” then maybe the show will win converts to the idea of gay marriage as “normal” as well.

  38. MikeInWeHo says:

    Absolutely, MCQ. It’s clearly a gay plot. : )
    Actually, I kind of believe that. Those guys really know Mormon culture. I think Big Love is much more important, in PR terms, than any PBS documentary could ever be. More thoughts on this later…..

  39. I really think that those women in the article just needed close friends. You don’t have to share the same husband to have that.

  40. MEN: We are being muscled out!

  41. Ben There says:

    40 Bob: I do not think I could live polygamy, because I fear all my wives would gang up on poor little old me and conspire against me, and force me to do chores. It is not so bad dealing with one “honey-do” list, but two or more? Shoot me now!

  42. Ben: you don’t have to have more than one to be gang up on. Why not let them have their Sister Wife thing, and we men be Pirates?

  43. It’s all fun and games until it comes to sex.

  44. Ben There says:

    Bob: Ahoy me hearty! Wherefore be-eth that treasure map?

  45. #43….Pillage, a pirates due!

  46. #44…we will be using peek stones.

  47. Ben There says:

    Mormon polygamist/fundamentalist is one niche sect I can possibly understand, but Mormon Peeping Pirates? Why, I never! ;)

    Where do I sign up, though?

  48. #47..it’s encoded in the Porter Rockwell Web-Site. (sorry that’s peep stone). Note: Must supply your own sword of Laban.

  49. MikeInWeHo says:

    My peeps in WeHo have already got the pirates thing covered, guys. I’m pretty sure that’s a ship most of you don’t want to board…. :)

  50. The overstating is done by those who portray all fundamentalist Mormons as backwater hillbillies who marry their first cousins.

    Ben, thank you for that. Coming from a backwater area like
    Appalachian Kentucky, it’s slightly easier for me to connect with my *initial*LDS bretheren/sisteren now. We too, are stereotyped as being backwater hillbillies who marry our cousins. And, occasionally, don’t wear shoes.

    In response to the origional post – I do think it’s fitting that we required an outsider to shed light on the positive aspects of polygamy. The clearest view is often had from one who is not involved in the fight, and as members of the church, most of us are far too involved, I think, to be completely fair with the issue. We’re too used to people automatically pushing the bad aspects that we’ve all but forgotten that there was a REASON for polygamy in the church in the first place (Not that I’m saying it should be here now, divine revelation and all, it’s had it’s day).

    Just my two cents.

  51. I remember sitting in a movie theater a year and half ago in-between my girlfriend and her sister (who had no date that night). The theater was packed to see “Failure to Launch”, and as the previews projected themselves onto the screen I’ll never forget how I held my breath as I was introduced to “Big Love” for the first time.

    “Yeah; we’re Mormons!” my girlfriends’ sister hollered, as only a southern girl could, at the end of the preview. (Why she did it, I’ll never know.) And it was truly like a scene from a movie where everyone turns to look in one direction as all eyes focused on little ole’ me placed prominently between to beautiful LDS women…

    Those southerners scowled and scorned by throwing out a few insults before the previews ended, and I could tell that evening that Polygamy still had no cozy place in the hearts of my fellow Americans.

    Fast forward to today. Two of best friends joined the Church after falling in love with “Big Love”. “The show made polygamy seem normal,” they both told me (plural marriage had been a huge hang-up for them and accepting latter day prophets). And now we have Michiganders saluting each other with the term sister-wife.

    BEAUTIFUL!

    If Mitt wins in ’08 I’ll be one of the first to begin lobbying for some legistlation to rescind all those Anti-Polygamy Acts.

    I’m up for it, and NO, not because of the sex. But because it is an eternal principle…And well, heck, it just looks so fun on HBO…

  52. Virginia, if you’ve ever read any of the journals/biographies of women who lived polygamy it’s kind of hard to be light-hearted about polygamy. The ‘outsiders’ shedding light on the positive aspects of polygamy are not even coming close to the reality of it. Making a double batch of soup and inviting another family for dinner or watching someone’s children while they play is what good friends and neighbors do, that’s it. But the idea of people ‘playing at polygamy’ has already been brought up in this post. Watch children playing house – how close does that come to the reality and entirety of married home life?

  53. #50 My Dad was 3rd Generation Swede in Moroni, Utah. In school., almost all the kids were his 1st cousins due to polygamy and the size of the town.
    #49 no YMCA,Pro football, now not even a Pirate! Is Mountain man still open?

  54. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 52
    Sorry Bob, no. One word: Brokeback

  55. # 53; Wow! Well..my mother was a hairdresser. She handled the whole San Fernando Valley for women wanting their hair done in the Salt Lake Style. My Mission was paid for out of tips by these ladies…..never mind.

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