Thursday, December 9, 2010

Polygamy Pays in Cable TV World

by Diane Dimond

Laws are laws. You follow them and there’s no problem. You break the law and you’ll likely go to jail. Well, not so fast. Some laws are selectively enforced, even after a suspect admits felonious wrongdoings on national television. A prime example concerns the state of Utah and its law against polygamy.

Even though Utah has one of the broadest laws against plural marriage, there are more than 20,000 mostly secretive polygamist households tucked away in enclaves all over the sparsely populated state. Some are disheveled, disorganized compounds with poor sanitation, access to stores, health care and organized education. Other polygamists maintain their lifestyle in well-heeled homes with plenty of amenities. Utah’s felony law states that no man “shall marry, purport to marry or co-habitate with multiple wives.” But it’s a crime the state rarely prosecutes unless a man takes an underage bride. That, according to Paul Murphy, of the Utah Attorney General’s office, is considered child sexual abuse and “punishable under the state’s child bigamy law which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.”

Enter into this picture one Mr. Kody Brown, a fundamentalist Mormon who lives with multiple wives in Lehi, Utah. He likes to say his faith “rewards good behavior,” so why, he asks, stop with one good marriage when you could have more? Knowing that prosecution in his state would be unlikely this handsome, blond, 41-year-old salesman went public with his polygamist lifestyle. He and his three wives signed with The Learning Channel to be the stars of a reality show called “Sister Wives.” In the opening episode Kody announced that since “love should be multiplied not divided” he had decided to take another wife. His first three got together to pick out the new woman’s ring. Everyone seemed content with the arrangement. Now, between wives Meri, Janelle, Christine and his newest addition, Robyn, Mr. Brown is head of a household that includes four wives, 13 children and three step-children.

Kody Brown openly lives a lifestyle that is against the law and no one has made a move to stop it. No arrests have been made even though every Sunday night TLC offers up more juicy details (read: more evidence) of the crime. Officials in Utah insist they were watching Brown’s activities even before TLC came to town, and, now that the state’s worst-kept secret has been exposed for the whole nation to see, the Utah county prosecutor has begun an “official investigation.” Too bad it takes TV exposure to launch an inquiry.

Mostly I wonder about the Brown children and how the glare of all this national attention will affect them in the long run. And, I wonder if executives at TLC are secretly hoping for a ratings-grabbing arrest scene for their Daddy? Wow, that sure would drive eyeballs to the channel!

Earlier in the decade, another Utah resident thought it wise to go on national television--on programs like "Sally Jesse Raphael," "Judge Judy" and "Dateline"--to literally brag about his polygamist lifestyle. Tom Green was part of a breakaway fundamentalist Mormon group, and he eventually took seven wives and had more than 30 children. After numerous TV appearances during which he nearly dared state officials to try to prosecute him – they did. He was ultimately convicted on several counts of bigamy, one count of failure to pay child support and later he was tried and found guilty of one count of child rape for having sex with his 13 year old “bride.” She gave birth to their first child when she was 14. Green spent six years in prison.

As defiant of the law as Kody Brown has been it seems highly unlikely that his case will go the way of Tom Green’s. First, Brown didn’t take any underage brides. Second, there’s no hint of any child endangerment among his seemingly happy and well cared for children. And third, Utah prosecutors have declared that they simply don’t have the manpower to prosecute cases like Brown’s. Guess they only investigate if national TV shows embarrass them into it.

“Once a week or so I get a phone call asking why we don’t just round up all the polygamists,” Murphy told me. “But can you imagine? First, we’d have to build new prisons to hold them all. Then, we’d have to devise a whole foster care system to accommodate their children.” He’s got a point, I guess.

It’s been reported that the Brown family is looking to come out from the shadow of their situation and “looking for understanding.” I’m betting that the money they make from the now-renewed second season series is also part of their motivation.

Janelle Brown, the mother of six of Kody’s children, told PEOPLE magazine she wants the criticism of her family and lifestyle to stop.

“If we raise productive, contributing members of society who are moral and ethical, that’s our final goal,” she said.

Gee, I thought abiding by the laws of the land was the moral and ethical way to live a life. Maybe I got that wrong.


Kathryn Casey said...

Great post, Diane. In the Eighties, I reported on polygamy in the Short Creek area, between Utah and Arizona. Prosecution really is a problem in these remote polygamous communities. The men don't legally marry any but the first wife, and the last time authorities in both states did a combined sweep and brought the men in, back in the 1950s, the wives refused to testify against the husbands and everyone had to be let go. Since then, there's been little prosecution unless there are other charges like statutory rape, domestic violence, child endangerment, etc.

What troubles me most is that shows like "Sister Wives" don't depict the problem accurately. In many polygamous communities, uncles marry nieces, cousins are wed, etc. At times, the girls are barely past childhood. Since this has gone on for generations, no one questions the practices. These towns are isolated, remote. When I was there, I saw schools with a high enrollment of children with serious birth defects, undoubtedly from inbreeding.

There's also the problem of the discarded boys, called "the lost boys," those driven out of the communities. Boys and girls are normally born in close to a 51/49 ratio. To give one man sixteen wives, multiple boys have to be deprived of even one. Those boys are forced out by those in power. It's a horrible situation, with teenage boys literally driven out of their families, the only homes they know, left to fend for themselves.

Believe me, these towns are not the stuff of Big Love or the Brown family. In some communities, like around Sandy, Utah, wives are literally kept in basements. I met one woman who broke a window to finally escape with her children.

I wonder about women who are lured into these types of situations based on TV's unrealistic depictions of what polygamy is truly like. For the vast majority of women, it isn't Big Love or Sister Wives.

I came away with two impressions about why the women tolerate it. First: There are few social services, if any, in these towns, and those in power, including law enforcement, tied into the communities values/practices. Even when there's abuse and it's reported, little if anything is done.

Second: Many of the women grew up in polygamous households and it's all they know. One woman I met had 80 brothers and sisters, something like 16 mothers. To her, that was normal. She was given as a bride at 16, and she planned on her daughters doing the same.

This is a complex, deep-seated problem that goes back for more than 100 years. I understand that law enforcement feels there's little they can do, but the glorification of this lifestyle on national TV is truly troubling.

Diane Dimond said...

Kathryn -
Great Post! Sadly, not much has changed since you are so intensely researching the polygamist lifestyle.
What we see on TV on programs like "Big Love" and "Sister Wives" is not the real-life run of the mill polygamist household. As clean, shiny, happy and harmonious as those TV clans seem many (maybe most?) polygamist compounds are deliberately established away from law enforcement's reach, are unsanitary, lacking in education for the children and prison-like for the women involved. Yet, in America we pride ourselves at allowing adults to choose their own lifestyle. Its when so many children are involved that I get sick at heart.
Especially disturbing is what happens to the young boys in the clan. As you mentioned, once they hit puberty they become a threat to the Alfa Male and they are literally tossed out.
I know the limits for law enforcement and prosecutors but if they focused on the harm that's done to the children of polygamists that might give them the "in" to go after convictions. As is stands now cops go in only if underage brides can be proven or domestic abuse. Again, many (maybe most?) of these compounds are in such out of the way places law enforcement rarely (if ever) visit.
If WE think we're not affected - think again. Who do you think pays for the women who escape with their children - or for the tossed aside boys who show up looking for a place to live, eat and work? We taxpayers pay, that's who.
As you mentioned Kathryn, its a problem that's been around for 100 years. You'd think some solutions would be forthcoming! ~ DD

Kathryn Casey said...

Let's hope so, Diane. Again, really a good post! You brought up important issues.

Cathy Scott said...

Great post, Diane. You're absolutely right about what life is really like in a polygamist household. I go through Colorado City whenever I drive to Utah. It's a very stark living environment for the kids and wives. I don't think I've ever seen children outside playing; if they're outdoors, they're either working in the yards or the boys are driving tractors. Thanks for telling it like it is.

cheryl said...

Has anyone ever heard of a polygamous household where the woman had multiple husbands? Maybe in the Amazon a few hundred years ago...
'Big Love' my foot. More like 'Big horny man wants a Harem'. And 'Sister Wives'? That's just downright creepy.
As you have all pointed out, these shows are not the true face of polygamy.

Kathryn Casey said...

I haven't, Cheryl. You're right: it is creepy!

Anonymous said...

Just another way for a man to have his cake and eat it too.

Anonymous said...

I understand that originally, the Mormon religion encouraged polygamy (the founder, Joseph Smith, had quite a few wives himself) and that it was only in recent times that they gave in to public pressure in the desire to make the religion appeal more to the masses and disallowed it. By this time it had become entrenched and there are still many who feel it is the "right" thing to do.

FleaStiff said...

Yes. You DID indeed get it wrong.
Abiding by the law of the land is the slogan employed whenever there is some activity with which a person simply disagrees.

Going after plural marriages is hardly a sensible goal for prosecutors particularly when the people are happy, healthy and well-educated. Feminists often want to bring the law down on men who have multiple wives.

Law of the land was often heard in prosecuting peaceful hippie pot growers, now we have organized crime trafficking in pot. And in quite a few areas of the country, it is indeed the gangs that are the law of the land!

I understand that some plural marriage situations are simply cults wherein females are raised in squalor by multimillionaire husbands who instill a sense of total obedience and who raise children to be unable to survive in the real world. These few cults tend to so inflame the public that there are calls to prosecute polygamists even though the marriages involved are clearly successful marriages and in some aspects the most successful of marriages. Yet the cry of "law and order" is still heard throughout the land.

All those people out there who have spouses but also have regular contact with one or two Friends With Benefits, still consider themselves to be married and I see no reason to say that it is not a marriage simply because each spouse has a few regular lovers on the side.

I surely see no reason to prosecute polygamists simply for their beliefs and practices. I particularly see no reason to prosecute polygamists simply because we are envious that they lead lives of greater scope and daring than we do.

FleaStiff said...

Back in the days in this country when a homeowner could legally and openly fondle the breasts of his indentured servant such activity was constrained solely when the number of offspring was high and the community was motivated by the concern over financial support of the illegitimate. Yet it is always done in the name of Law and Order and high sounding principles.

California Girl said...

This family is composed of whores. They whore themselves out in the name of religion and so they can be on TV. No morals, no personal integrity. Just whores.

A Voice of Sanity said...

Gee, I thought abiding by the laws of the land was the moral and ethical way to live a life. Maybe I got that wrong.

You are wrong. If everyone is a mature adult, fully possessed of knowledge and experience, voluntarily entering into such an arrangement with no pressure, then I see no good reason to interfere. The laws you quote are driven by the attitude, "I don't like it so you can't do it" which is the motivation behind laws against gay marriage and miscegenation. Ironically these laws are often based on a Victorian view of marriage which the ignorant believe is 'biblical'. Biblical marriage was actually one man and as many wives, concubines and slaves of either sex (and often very young indeed) as he could afford.

Now the abuse of children, including depriving them of the education and experience of the world which would enable them to make a mature decision, is a different matter entirely and should be subject to the full weight of law. But that merely underlines the inadequacy of the state educational system which allows children to be 'educated' in such a narrow way.

Ann Summerville said...

Apparently blatent illegal activity is not always prosecuted. This happens over and over again when illegal immigrants are involved in traffic accidents and with no insurance, no legal documentation and no proof that they are legal owner of the vehicle they are simply given a citation (for probably a fictitious name and address) and allowed to go on their way. It happens over and over again here in Texas. It's very frustration. I'm just waiting for the next reality show "An illegal family in the U.S."

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