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.