The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy by Carol Lynn Pearson was released earlier this year, but as I do not have a voracious appetite for all books Mormon, I did not get around to reading it until this month. I’d like to blame Christmas for me not posting about it until now, but the fact is that I love reading books and hate writing book reviews. I like reading and writing about stuff that interests me, and polygamy interests me. (Interest being the kindest verb I could use in this context.) So maybe this post will not be so great as book reviews go, but it is a post about a book about polygamy, and maybe that will suffice for enough of you.
What you must bear in mind if or when you read The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy is that Carol Lynn Pearson is a poet, not a scholar. This is not to say that Pearson doesn’t know what she’s talking about, that she hasn’t studied the relevant issues. Obviously, she has. But she approaches this project as part memoir, part meditation on what polygamy means to contemporary Mormons and what is required to build what she calls a “partnership Zion,” rather than a patriarchal one.
Possibly Pearson’s greatest strength is her ability to convey her deep love and appreciation for Mormonism, and particularly for Joseph Smith. In the 1970s she was invited to submit a screenplay for a proposed movie about Joseph Smith’s life (a project that never came to fruition). The main criticism her script received was that it was too sympathetic toward Emma Smith and also toward the friends who turned against Joseph at the end—not surprising, given Pearson’s personal feelings about polygamy. But her sympathy toward the victims of Joseph’s revelation on marriage did not preclude her sympathy toward Joseph himself. She views Joseph as a tragic hero—a man of remarkable courage, compassion, and generosity, brought down by his own recklessness. She agrees with Richard Bushman (Rough Stone Rolling) that Joseph “did not lust for women so much as he lusted for kin” (although she believes that Joseph’s “personal desire” certainly played a part).
It’s a charitable take on D&C 132, but she spends the rest of the book showing how destructive polygamy was and continues to be, because while the church has stopped the version of polygamy it’s infamous for—allowing a man to have licit sexual relations with a multiplicity of women recognized by the church (if not the state) as “wives” without having to dissolve a contract with one before engaging another (it is so tedious to say what I mean in a genteel manner)—it has not stopped sealing men to multiple women in the temple. A man may not have more than one lawful wife at one time, but he may have more than one eternal wife. A woman, of course, may have only one eternal husband—presumably because men, as righteous priesthood holders, are not things to be collected. (That’s what I presume, anyway. Your presumption may vary.)
Pearson has also collected thousands of stories from women and men about how the doctrine and practice of polygamy has affected their personal lives and/or the lives of their loved ones. She shares several of these stories at the end of each chapter (in a section called “Other Voices,”) and these stories alone may be worth the price of admission, as they make it clear that polygamy is not just an academic consideration, something to consider from a historical or theoretical standpoint, but that it has real-life consequences for real-life people today. A woman who survives her eternally-sealed spouse may not be eternally sealed to anyone else, which means a man who marries a “temple widow” may not be sealed to her or to any children he has with her.
This obviously sucks for temple-sealed widows who find their marital prospects limited because Mormon men tend to prefer to be sealed to their wives, especially if they expect to have children with them. A Mormon man who hasn’t already been sealed to a wife in the temple may choose to be married “for time” to a temple-sealed widow (or divorcee), but find himself in a sort of spiritual limbo—belonging neither to his wife nor to the biological children he has with her—at least in theory. Such couples are usually told (if it’s too late to counsel them against such a marriage) that “everything will work out” in the eternities, but that’s a hard platitude to swallow when the church places so much emphasis on being sealed in the temple and making sure you get it all right in this life. The uncertainty causes much heartache and spiritual angst.
But it isn’t just the nightmare of navigating a celestial bureaucracy that troubles people. A lot of women just hate the idea that their eternal companions may not be theirs alone. Perhaps they have an overly romantic idea of marriage, but it’s hardly an uncommon one, and it’s certainly not one the church does anything particular to discourage. You can’t sell eternal marriage by appealing to people’s fears of being separated from their soul mates and then turn around and tell them not to take it all so seriously. For better or worse, the people in Pearson’s “Other Voices” sections take eternal marriage very seriously, which is why polygamy bothers them so much. Some of the stories I read—such as the woman who developed a sort of hypochondria because she was terrified she would die before her husband and he’d get sealed to another woman with whom she’d have to share him for eternity—made me think, “Golly. These folks could use some therapy.” But on second thought, that really didn’t seem fair. I mean, who am I to judge? Don’t we all need therapy for something? If these women are neurotic over polygamy, it’s a neurosis they’ve come by honestly and for which the church is largely responsible.
But it’s not just the prospect of sharing one’s husband for eternity that disturbs women. Indeed, that may not even be the worst part. The worst part is the host of theological implications for women—that we’re not equal to men, that we’re not valued as individuals, that we’re not valued except as possessions and accessories for men. The sealing ordinance itself has women give themselves to their husbands, but not men to their wives. A woman gives herself to one man; a man receives as many women as he can get. Temple ordinances such as the washing and anointing and the endowment are inextricably tied with polygamy and constant reminders to women of their lower status. Obviously, not all women are equally bothered by polygamy (or by temple ordinances). If they were, there probably wouldn’t be any Mormon women left. (Certainly not in the temples.) But a lot of women are, and not just the uppity feminist ones who reject the gospel. A lot of faithful, conservative Mormon women are also disturbed by both the prospect of polygamy and its eternal implications, even if they choose not to think about it most of the time.
The fact is that women can reconcile the issue of polygamy with their testimony in one of two ways: they can shut off their minds, or they can shut off their hearts.
When I say, “shut off their minds,” I mean that they choose not to think about polygamy, don’t give any consideration to implications it has for the eternal role of woman and her relationship to man and to Deity. This is easy enough for most of us to do, I think. I mean, it’s not like we don’t have a hundred other things to worry our pretty heads about. Who has time to think about polygamy, really? Well, there are some women–women quoted at length in Pearson’s book–who either can’t or won’t shut off their minds, and for them the only answer seems to be to shut off their hearts: to hold some essential part of themselves back from their husbands, to avoid a too-intimate relationship with someone they know is destined never to be theirs exclusively. They also shut themselves off from an intimate relationship with a Heavenly Father who has designed a relationship system that punishes them for not being male.
One of these strategies is significantly less healthy than the other, and it’s tempting to say that the women who spend a significant amount of time worrying about polygamy are being irrational, but actually, they’re not. They’re drawing perfectly logical conclusions. It’s the women who have shut off their minds—ostensibly to save them—who are not engaging rationally with the topic. They are relying on their feelings, their personal convictions that women aren’t inferior to men, that God is not a jerk.
The remaining option is to reject the doctrine of polygamy altogether. This is the option Pearson advocates in her book, that we need another manifesto on polygamy—this time repudiating it altogether—that will be as liberating for us as a people as the 1978 revelation on the priesthood. Not only will people stop agonizing over their celestial paperwork, but “intertwined with every benefit will be the supreme one—the shedding of an old and debilitating distrust in a God that for many faithful LDS women and men has brought untenable spiritual and theological dissonance. A God who has prepared an eternity that will break the hearts of women and render them forever subordinate will be dismissed as preposterous. We will see with more clarity and with deeper appreciation the one in the mirror, the one on the other side of the bed, and the One who thought this all up in the first place. A new buoyancy will render us a stronger people, a people more prepared to gift the Lord with our portion of Zion.”
The real question a book review should answer is whether or not The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy is worth reading. Well, it depends. Some will appreciate Pearson’s passion and poetic license more than others. Some will simply be gratified that she’s put into words what they themselves cannot, that she’s made public what we’ve been encouraged to keep secret, and that she’s dared to call for such a drastic change in Mormon imaginations. If you’re expecting a meticulous history or an academic treatise, you will be sorely disappointed. But if there’s another, better book about the impact of polygamy on contemporary Mormons, I’m unaware of it, and that’s actually an important point. More people will read Pearson’s book than a 600-page tome on the history and sociology of polygamy. (I think 600 pages would about cover it, plus endnotes.) A more scholarly book might be more appreciated among certain circles, but I think Pearson’s book is worth taking seriously for what it is–a reasonably accessible and much-needed conversation starter about what polygamy means to Mormons now and in the future.
But I’m also very interested in what the rest of you think.