Meet the Dargers

About a month ago a publicist wrote in to the BCC Admin address trying to get me a copy of a new book, Love Times Three: Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage, by Joe, Alina, Vicki and Valerie Darger, with Brooke Adams (New York: HarperOne, 2011). I have to admit, I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it at first. I had never heard of the Dargers or their book, and I assumed it was sort of a self-published thing that would be poorly written. But what the heck, I thought, I’ll take a flyer on it. I wrote back and told the woman she could send me a copy.

Part I: Review of the Book

I just finished it, and somewhat to my surprise, it was really good. I suspect part of the reason was they worked with a professional writer, Brooke Adams, a reporter for 25 years (the past 12 with the Salt Lake Tribune) who has covered polygamy in the past. The writing was crisp and not the problem I assumed it might have been.

More importantly, the voices of the principals in the marriage were both intimate and authentic. This is accomplished by an interesting structure; the entire book is written in first person voice, with Joe and his wives, Alina, Vicki and Val, taking turns giving their perspectives on things. I liked the way the story was structured.

The Dargers live in a Salt Lake City suburb. Joe is an entrepenuer who has owned and run various businesses, such as catering or office cleaning. Typically two of the wives will work in the business with him and the third will care for the younger children (the wives have rotated through these roles). They live in a single house, and they have 24 children. They are Independent Mormon Fundamentalists.

Without their knowledge, they were a partial inspiration for Big Love. They never spoke with producers before the show aired, but a cover photo of the three wives on an issue of Mormon Focus–three attractive women, wearing conservative but fashionably stylish clothing–helped to shape the way the wives of Big Love would be portrayed. And do you remember the episode where Barb wins a Mother of the Year award, but is outed as a polygamist at the Governor’s ceremony and is publicly humiliated? That plot line is based on a real experience that happened to Joe’s own mother.

They all grew up in polygamist households (Vicki and Val are twin sisters, and Alina is their cousin.) Joe was popular in high school and was captain of the high school football team. Vicki and Alina were both interested in him, and spent time at the Darger house ostensibly working on a project, but trying to get Joe’s attention as well. Joe’s mom noticed this, and came to them with an unusual suggestion: why don’t they court Joe together? Even in polygamist culture simultaneous courting is rare, but they did it, and eventually Joe came around and reciprocated their interest.

Even for kids who grow up in polygamist households, navigating a fledgling plural relationship is very challenging, and they made plenty of mistakes along the way. But they were committed to making it work, and eventually they were married (with Alina as the legal wife).

Meanwhile, Val married another man, becoming as I recall his fifth wife. Things were ok at first, when they lived in a suburb of Salt Lake, but after a couple of years her first husband (whom she calls “Donald” in the book) moved his wives to an attempted United Order community on the western edge of the state. This turned out to be essentially a third world country; Val and what would become her five children with Donald lived in a bare bones trailer, didn’t have a car, and there was nothing for miles around. Donald still worked in SLC (as a fireworks salesman!) so he was gone during the week, and on the way home he would always stop at a casino to gamble on the theory that he was winning money to support his families. But you can all guess how that worked out, and the wives never had enough money to pay even basic bills. Plus he was abusive towards her. So eventually she made the decision to leave, and moved her and her kids in with a sister in Montana. (She later got a release from the AUB.)

She had hid the problems from her family and even her own children, so the kids had a tough time leaving their dad. Eventually, Alina and then Vicki came to Joe with the proposal that they explore adding Val to their family. Joe was resistant at first; taking on a new wife with five kids was a huge responsibility. But eventually he agreed to pursue the situation, and in a way they all three courted her. She married into the family, but it would naturally take time for her kids to come around. Her one daughter always referred to him as “Uncle Joe,” until her 16th birthday, when she wrote him a letter thanking him for being a father to her. When she handed it to him, she said something like “Here ya go, Dad,” and he sat down and read the letter and cried. It was the greatest birthday gift he ever got.

Part II: Random Thoughts on Polygamy in the Wake of My Reading of the Book

1. You know, I don’t wig out over polygamy the way most contemporary Mormons do. The reason to me is clear enough: I’m descended from polygamists on both sides, and this fact was not hidden or anything when I was a child. To the contrary, my parents were open about it and spoke with evident pride in their polygamist ancestors. And so I sort of adopted that point of view from my parents. Now as a church we try to sweep it under the rug and not say anything about it and just sort of hope it goes away. But who are we fooling? If the Church still exists in the year 2525, the number one thing people will associate with it is polygamy. That will always be the case, and there is really nothing we can do to change that. We’re kidding ourselves when we think otherwise. So I think we’re doing our youth a disservice by not teaching them anything at all about polygamy, so that they are completely unprepared on the subject when they are faced with questions about it from their peers.

2. My thinking is about as far from fundamentalism as it is possible to be. I happen to think the Church did the right thing by pulling the plug on polygamy. I don’t even care whether the cessation was based on a revelation or not; I’m a pragmatist, and when the federal government is on the verge of obliterating the church as an institution, there really is nothing else to do. The chances that I personally will travel to Montana and take a second wife are less than zero. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of admiration and respect for those, like the Dargers, who make the sacrifice to live the principle. I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t do it, but I respect their choice.

3. If you’re offended by my number 2, consider this. Why did Joseph start polygamy? Was it a divine command, for reasons we don’t quite grasp? As a faithful Saint, that’s my working assumption. But could it have been the institutionalization of Joseph being a horndog? Or restorationism run amuck? Sure. I get by in the church by keeping an open mind, and I suspect some will think my mind is so open on this subject that my brains fell out long ago. But once you get past Joseph, I’m convinced that the vast majority of those who practiced the principle did so in good faith, usually at tremendous personal sacrifice. And my admiration for that sacrifice doesn’t magically just stop in 1890 or even 1904.

4. We get upset when people think we still practice polygamy. Can’t they distinguish between us and fundamentalists, we complain? But then we turn around and do the same thing to the fundamentalists; most Mormons can’t distinguish between Independents like the Dargers and Warren Jeffs. They’re not the same thing.

5. As was often portrayed on Big Love, we mainstream Mormons seem to think that if we’re publicly mean to polygamists, we’ll get a PR boost and people will finally figure out that we don’t practice polygamy. There were times that the Darger children were not treated well by Mormons. And that makes me want to puke. Whatever (in my opinion very marginal) PR gain we might gain from mistreating polygamists doesn’t make it worth it for us to abandon our commitment to treating our fellow man as Jesus Christ would have us do. (The Darger kids could be friends with my kids; the last thing teenagers in polygamous families want to do is push polygamy. Like any teenagers, they just want to be accepted. I’d invite the family over for a barbecue without the slightest concern. Our people are over-defensive vis-a-vis polygamists in my view.)

6. Here’s a clip where Bill O’Reilly interviews Joe, Alina and Vicki. He tries to goad them into wanting legalization of polygamy, but they wisely don’t take the bait. All they want is decriminalization, which I’m on record as supporting. In this day and age for polygamy simpliciter to be a felony is just plain stooopid.


  1. Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) says:

    Kevin, you must not be much of a BYU basketball fan if you haven’t heard of the Dargers before. Their son Joe was often a thorn in BYU’s side when he played basketball for UNLV: :-)

  2. Ditto. I’ve always felt pride that my ancestors practiced polygamy. But I would never live in it myself.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    That Joe is surely a relative, but he has different parents.

  4. I recently spent some time speaking with the polygynist in our homeschool group to find out how their relationship (one wife and two husbands) began. It was fascinating.

    I have some polygamist ancestors I admire and others that didn’t do so well (one grandma was the one wife who didn’t live with the others-she lived down by BYU to provide housing and support for the children attending there…it didn’t work well.) It defintiely takes a unique kind of sacrifice, forgiveness, and communication.

    I don’t understand how it is still a felony.

  5. Moriah Jovan says:

    #4 @lessonNumberOne

    one wife and two husbands

    LNO, I have no other way to contact you, or else I woldn’t do this so publicly, but I was wondering if I could somehow talk to that triangle? I’m writing my post-apoc novel with government-mandated polyandry (one wife and two husbands) and how the church has to deal with that.

    I’d love to talk to them and I would totally not betray confidences or anything. Please email me? moriah at moriahjovan dot com *big puppy-dog eyes*

  6. I agree with everything you said in Part II, Kevin – everything.

    There are a ton of problems with the way polygamy is practiced in many cases, and much of what happens in those situations is illegal, but that is true of monogamy, as well. In this day and age, especially as other non-marital relationships are not prosecuted and have been decriminalized, decriminalization of polygamy is a no-brainer for me. It’s a blatant double standard, and there is absolutely no reasonable justification for it.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Moriah, what an awesome idea for a novel!

  8. Moriah Jovan says:

    Well, I had a big long comment typed out, but the stoopid iPad screwed me up.

    tl;dr: Doesn’t just involve the church. Involves eugenics after the accidental release of an incomplete chemical weapon prototype.

    Been cooking for ~3 years. About half written, but my historical (Revolutionary War swashbuckler) takes priority right now.

  9. Moriah Jovan says:

    Kevin, apologies for hijacking your thread.

    I don’t think gummint has any business in “marriage” (however anyone defines it). IMO, this is an area for contract lawyers and/or, for people who can’t afford them (h/t Lorian), handwritten contracts with notary seal. All legal, all civil. DOES NOT MATTER how many or what genders are involved. You enter into a civil contract insurers and healthcare providers must honor. THEN after you’re all notarized, you go to your ecclesiastical leader.

    Oh lookie there. My libertarianism just came out to play.

  10. Indeed. We have a duty to be kind to children.

  11. whizzbang says:

    There was a Sister Arlene Darger who was a counselor in the YW General Presidency in the late ’70s to the mid 80’s, wonder if they are relatives

  12. @11, probably from a different wife in the 1800.

  13. Kevin, this is a marvelous post, and I agree wholeheartedly with your second half- all points.

  14. “If the Church still exists in the year 2525, the number one thing people will associate with it is polygamy.”

    You gave this statement as self-evident, but I think it deserves more explanation. Maybe it’s because I’m a second-generation Mormon with no familial connection to polygamy, but I’ve always felt that the public’s association of polygamy with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has steadily (if slowly) waned since the time when public outcry was at its peak in the 1800s. When my friends learn that we don’t practice polygamy, they don’t care about it anymore because they are not particularly interested in the history of my church.

    Isn’t the current public interest in polygamy due to break-off groups that practice polygamy now? Without these groups, there would be no “Sister Wives,” “Big Love,” or Warren Jeffs to feed public interest, right? So, are you predicting that there will always be polygamists who trace their practice to Joseph Smith, and that people will always associate these groups with the Church?

    If that’s not what you’re saying, then let’s suppose these groups are not around some day (purely hypothetical; I’m not saying I wish for their demise). Do you still think the number one thing people will associate with the church will be polygamy? If so, why?

  15. Also, great post. Thanks for the review.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    7. When I was a boy, my family visited Nauvoo/Carthage every year on our way to vacation in Utah. Even as a boy I could sense the tension and sense of competition between the LDS and RLDS. But these days, I think that has been replaced by a sense of cooperation and friendship. I personally go to MHA and sometimes JWHA, and there is a very ecumenical vibe at these history conferences. When you break bread with these people and share common interests (such as the history of the tradition), you become friends. I appreciate anyone who is willing to accept Joseph as a prophet, and I think of these other groups as cousins. For fundamentalists to join that same sort of ecumenical cooperative friendship, they need to come out from the shadows and show us that, apart from having really big families, their families are otherwise normal. When we can put a face on it, we don’t fear it so much anymore. Therefore, I think both this book and Sister Wives are essential outreach activities to help people not to freak out so much over contemporary polygamy.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Raymond, you may be right that it is the contemporary practice of polygamy that keeps it in the front of people’s minds. Perhaps if no one at all entered polygamy after 1890, it would eventually have become an historical curiousity, sort of like the practices of the Anabaptists. There’s no way to know for sure, because polygamy is still practiced and very much in the news, which inevitably stirs the pot.

  18. It is an honor to have such a positive review from my open minded Mormon Friends. We give Brooke a lot of credit for the professional writing of the book, and we appreciate that you recognize the authenticity. It is sad that we have to reveal so much of our personal life to gain acceptance, but we have come to recognize that as long as we are in the shadows from fear we will continue to be misunderstood.

    It has long been my hope that this book would have three audiences. The ignorant world at large that does have confusion about polygamy, our own culture who continue to cower in fear unnecessarily, and the Mormon audience. We respect and love our Mormon friends and neighbors. It is our preference that our children associate with Mormons who share the same values, history and much of the same culture. We want our Mormon friends to no longer be ashamed of their past, or feel a need to vilify us in order to distance themselves from us.

    Kevin, this is why the more important part of your review is the second part of your post. It is this type of dialogue and understanding that benefits everyone. Some of our biggest sympathizers and friends are Mormons, and yet some of our more hurtful barbs come from those we expect to know better the most. In reality we feel the anti-Mormons try to use polygamy as an attack on the Church, and we are often double brunt of those swinging the attack hammer, and those that should be defending themselves by defending us. The laws that continue to criminalize our faith are relics of laws that were used against our joint ancestors.

    I don’t expect anyone in the Church to follow us (we don’t belong to a church and have no desire to start one). But we will testify that Plural Marriage is a true principle, whether we agree that is still to be lived in this life or simply the next. If it is a true principle, then when lived righteously it does not need to be a source of shame or derision. While we don’t expect to see the book in Deseret Book, we hope that our Mormon audience will read it and see that polygamy does not equal abuse, and as such deserves no criminal status. It is our duty in our republic to stand up for the least among us. Thank you for you post.

    For the record the Basket ball player is not by son, but a cousin. All Darger’s are related but not all practice polygamy. I have several close family members who are active in the LDS Church today.

  19. If the Church still exists in the year 2525, the number one thing people will associate with it is polygamy.

    I don’t doubt this for a second, although it seems a really strange association. Although most popular treatments of polygamy in the U.S. revolve around Mormonism, African polygamy is just as underground and probably just as (or almost as) prominent as Mormon polygamy. (I’ve seen estimates of 20,000-100,000 Mormon polygamists in the U.S., and estimates of about 50,000 African polygamists in the U.S.)

    I’m curious if the focus on Mormons is racialist in nature, or if it’s because Mormon polygamy is home-grown, while African polygamy is imported, or if there’s some other reason.

    All of that said, it sounds like an interesting book.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    Hey Joe, I’m honored that you came by to comment. Serious kudos on the book, I thought you guys did a great job. And if you ever happen to be in the Chicago area, I’m serious about that barbecue offer…

  21. I agree. Your brains fell out long ago :)

    However, I especially appreciate your point #5, there is no reason for mainstream LDS members to mistreat anyone, especially those with whom we share a common heritage. We, who have been the subject of religious persecution through so much of our history, ought NEVER to participate in the religious persecution of others. Out of curiosity, do the Dargers consider polygamy a religious principle, or just an alternate family structure?

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    Rob, it’s a religous principle for them.

  23. annegb5298 says:

    The book may be well done and I deplore the bad treatment of the children; however, I’m saddened at the appearance of poverty of many of the women and children. We see the Polygamists all the time in town and I don’t see very many happy looking people. I don’t see this way of life as a desirable choice at all based on the people I know personally or have observed.

  24. I used to think I had an open mind, but after reading all of these comments, maybe my mind’s just ajar.

    What do they teach their daughters? Your best self is not enough for a man? He needs more women. What if he wants to bring another man into the relationship? Where is the line drawn? Are all the positive commenters on here okay with their children dating/marrying into these situations? Or is it tolerance from afar?

    Speaking as a woman in a monogamous relationship, the emotional intimacy of my husband with any other woman would devalue most of what I hold sacred in my marriage. I think people focus only on the physical intimacy in polygamy but for me, 90% would be the emotional.

    Lump me in with contemporary Mormons on this one. Can’t go there…

  25. Moriah Jovan says:

    kc, for me, it’s not about what I want. It’s not about what I think other women want. It’s not about what I think other women should want. It’s about the fact that I have no right to tell other women how to conduct their lives.

  26. My father was a child in a polygamous family. He had nothing good to say about the relationship. We had family friends whose grandfather was asked to practice it and would not until his wife said that he must. He told her to pick his new wife. She picked her best friend. It was a beautiful marriage.

    My reading is that polygamy is a multiplier, a good family can be better, a disfunctional family worse. Poverty and juvenile marriages just add to the mix. Then, add, as a problem, what to do with the young men left out of marriage by the older men competing for wives. Seeing how disfuction is much more common than function combined with the need for ejection of young men from closed polygamous society, I find polygamy very distasteful as a common practice. But maybe not for some individuals in individual circumstances, like the Dargers, living in the larger society.

    (Oddly enough, I am a serial polygamist, a term which can only be understood in Mormondom. That condition even has its own problems.)

  27. ” 4. We get upset when people think we still practice polygamy. Can’t they distinguish between us and fundamentalists, we complain? But then we turn around and do the same thing to the fundamentalists; most Mormons can’t distinguish between Independents like the Dargers and Warren Jeffs. They’re not the same thing.”

    I loved the book — and loved your review as well. That paragraph especially, I have to give you a high five for “getting” that part of it.

    The common comments about emotional intimacy always fascinate me. I always wonder if people who make those comments have never had more than one emotionally intimate and connected relationship or friendship at a time? Or if they think by having more than one at a time it somehow takes away from the other?

    Interestingly enough… while you are concerned about my healthy relationship with my husband or the depth and level of emotional connection with him… if you only knew the depth and breadth of intimacy and emotional connection in relationships when they are not built on a premise of dependency..

  28. As Miss Tardy-to-the-Party, I’ll throw in my $0.02:

    I think the emotional intimacy issue comes from all the teaching about marriage being about equality, and the idea of being “equally yoked” and so forth. I might be overstepping the mark, but I think for those who would personally object to the idea of polygamy in their own married relationship, the question is, “how can I/my spouse be equally committed to and intimate with more than one other person?” It’s a bit like the issue (which I fully admit I understand only perfunctorily) in Islam: I think, as best I recall from my university professor, that there is a caveat to the Islamic practice of multiple wives in which the husband must provide *complete* equality, and once he can’t, it’s clear he’s married too many women.

    I suppose it’s easy enough to evenly split household duties and responsibility to earn money amongst more than two people – to some degree you do that anyway when you have children contribute to running a household – but I think the two questions to those who wouldn’t want to practice polygamy are:
    1) can someone really give of him/herself equally, to such an extent as functional and loving marriage requires, to more than one person?
    2) does having more than one wife (or husband) mean that a single spouse is inferior or insufficient? (Or is that not necessarily a ramification of the need for multiple partners of a given sex. If not, why not?)

    It may not always be so academically-phrased, and I’m sure that if people ask themselves these questions, they’ve already answered them, to a degree, but I think this may be where some of the emotional intimacy controversy surrounding polygamy (from those who don’t practice it) comes from. Anyone who can say it better than I can, please feel free to chime in.

  29. Fantastic review. Thanks.

  30. I had a friend involved in the San Angelo mess a couple years ago and she told us some horrific stories of abuse. Since then, I’ve read everything I can find on both the LDS and the FLDS. Most plural marriages aren’t “made for TV or print” as this one is. Most of the stories contain abuse, neglect and poverty. It’s nice to read a happy story. Seem like a nice “normal” family; as normal as a man with three wives can be. Men always seem to have less problem with polygamy than women and it’s not a S-E-X thing. I think women are more emotional and look at this from a different angle. As someone mentioned earlier, NO WAY is this for me. Mormons were taught that marriage isn’t about romance, that it’s a duty. I think you have to have this attitude to understand plural marriage. One book I read, the first wife of 15 yrs said she just had to “let go” of her husband when the second wife came along. Broke my heart! Not that the women in plural marriage don’t believe in romance, but it seems, from my readings, they believe in a bigger cause than romance. I know that the strength in my monogamous marriage is from the ups, downs, trial and errors we’ve experienced, weathered and fought through. As someone mentioned earlier, to think that could be repeated with another woman, or two, would break the heart of what we have. I believe I’ve found something “special”, not just something my husband could do again with the next wife. I feel sorry for the wives. I know they don’t want me to and they’re happy, but I think of them often, especially when my husband has done or said something nice. I’m touched. To think he’ll repeat that with two other women would cheapen the experience, to me. Before you think I’m some sappy teenager, I’m a business owner, college educated, 50 yr old woman from Texas. It took a long time before I’d read this book. I expected a glossed over version of the truth, but wasn’t the case. It was real, engaging, entertaining and truthful. I think a lot of the success is that Joe is truly respectful of all the women and tries to be fair, not always the case in plural marriage. I’d love to have this family over for dinner, a beer, bar-b-que (cause we do that well in Texas) and a margarita or two. Can’t say I wouldn’t take the ladies aside and try to explain a thing or two . . . . . .

  31. It is most often said that most polygamist marriages aren’t so good. At least it looks that way in the media. But how often does the news just talk of a perfectly normal monogamist that has a good family with healthy relationships and has no domestic violence or any other problem. Almost never. If ever. And this has not been my experience with those that I do know. I actually know many men and women in happy and healthy polygamist relationships, but like myself, wish to remain out of the spot light.

    As to the thought that anyone choosing to live in such a life style is ignorant or stupid or that we must feel sorry for them, here is another thought: Perhaps they feel sorry for anyone with less family, less motivation for better relationships and less drive for improvement in one’s life(having more then one spouse to push for improvement). It may be that they see or learn something that is difficult to comprehend. And now they chose to continue in that path over and over again. Or should I say, ” I love vanilla ice cream, and can’t see how anyone loves butter pecan. I actually feel sorry for anyone loving butter pecan because it is a poor choice in flavors. All those pecans, you actually have to chew your ice cream. Sad, sad.” Not to mention that I have never even had butter pecan ice cream. (Actually I have and I love it!)

    I have read the book and I applaud the Dargers for their book and even their life and all that it takes to make it work.
    I know them personally and it is not some strange happening. I applaud all those men and women that choose to live such lives despite the fear of persecution. I think it a great thing to see these good people stand up and shine a light into a place that almost none understand. (btw, you tend to fear what you don’t understand). I also applaud all those that are willing to read the Darger’s book, and also become educated in these things and then stand up for people like these that do have every right to the pursuit of happiness, despite weather or not we understand why it makes them happy.

    I loved the article and most of the posts. Thank you all for your insights.

  32. Steve Evans says:

    “But how often does the news just talk of a perfectly normal monogamist that has a good family with healthy relationships and has no domestic violence or any other problem. Almost never. If ever.”

    That’s because there is no news there.

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