E Pluribus Unum

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society by Irwin Altman and Joseph Ginat
    Cambridge, 512 pp, £55.00, December 1996, ISBN 0 521 56169 8

Forget sleepy odalisques and dreams of the East. Polygamy – in the contemporary US – is hard work. And that holds true for both sexes, though the one in shorter supply may well have the more arduous time. The subjects of Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society are fundamentalist Mormons, whose marriages violate both official church doctrine and the laws of the state; but the threat of persecution, legal or otherwise, seems to be among the least of their difficulties. Simply providing for four or five adults and over two dozen children (on average) requires considerable effort, especially when few can command more than lower-middle-class incomes. Even this looks easy, however, compared to the constant managerial and emotional labour in which these families engage. As one of the wives interviewed here remarks, ‘plural family life is a mighty hard day-to-day struggle.’

What Irwin Altman and Joseph Ginat set out to write was not a cautionary tale, but a dispassionate study of ‘a different lifestyle’ that would draw on their combined skills as social psychologist and anthropologist respectively. In other words, they are not pushing monogamy but the merits of looking at close relationships from a ‘transactional perspective’: the reader is obliged to endure many banal sermons on ‘the holistic nature of interpersonal bonds’, their ‘dynamic’ character, the importance of attending to ‘social contexts’ etc. In practice, this means that the authors approached their subjects more as ethnographers than statisticians, relying primarily on informal interviews conducted over a period of several years, and that they preferred to concentrate intensively on a relatively small number of families – 26 in all, of which a dozen served as their principal informants. With a mean of 3.6 wives per family and a median of three, their sample, as they admit, is unrepresentative, since most contemporary polygynists, like the pioneers before them, limit themselves to two. Statistics are in any case not the authors’ strong point: the 26 families inexplicably become 27 in several places; a family is said to have 38 daughters on one page and 27 on another, while a son disappears between one page and the next; a man ‘now in his middle sixties’ is ‘now in his late sixties’ before the end of the chapter. A chart in the appendix gives one husband seven wives and another nine, while the text on the facing page assigns them both eight. Perhaps there is something infectious about such confusion, since the authors describe several fathers who cannot recall either the names or the number of their offspring.

These families belong to two fundamentalist churches, one ‘conservative’ and the other ‘ultraconservative’; the former located in an urban community dubbed ‘Metropolitan City’, and the latter in an isolated Rocky Mountain town here called ‘Redrock’. The parent church, under pressure from the Government, officially proscribed polygamy at the turn of the century, but despite a collective memory of persecution on the part of fellow religionists as well as the legal authorities, there have been few serious raids since the Fifties, and Ginat’s longstanding acquaintance with both communities apparently encouraged them to participate in the project. While the authors seem to have been impressed by the religious commitment of their subjects, they show no interest in the polygamists’ motives: this is a study of how people ‘cope’ with plural marriages, not why they enter into such arrangements in the first place. Nor do we learn much about the long-term consequences of these marriages: although some children took part in the interviews, Altman and Ginat never seem to have inquired (or to have felt comfortable inquiring) what they bought about their families, or how they responded to the questions other children asked them at school. It is not as obvious as the authors think that these large numbers of children help to assure the future growth of fundamentalist polygyny.

Finding shelter for so many people presents an obvious difficulty, especially since few houses were constructed with polygamists in mind. Ironically, Mormonism’s 19th-century origins exacerbate the problem: the decided patriarchalism of Joseph Smith and his followers was all too compatible with Victorian faith in woman’s ‘stewardship’ of the home. Though Altman and Ginat tell us again and again how difficult it is to generalise about the shifting living arrangements of their subjects, one of their most consistent findings concerns the strength of the women’s territorial attachments. In some cases, an individual wife must content herself with a personally decorated bedroom and perhaps a bathroom. It is not every family that can afford a separate apartment or house for each wife, a surprising number seem to try, particularly where urban and suburban housing patterns conspire in the same direction. Even in rural Redrock, where land is relatively cheap and more families can build to their own specifications, the preferred style is a sort of compound, with separate dwellings linked by a few common spaces.

The expectation that plural wives will contribute to the family income goes back to the pioneer days, and many of these women work outside the home as well as within it. But the need to keep up more than one household still produces a great financial strain, not to mention problems in logistics for the men who travel between them. Few cases are as extreme as that of the man with wives in different states, but even a husband who does no more than shuttle between apartments has to think about where to keep his clothes. Fairness usually dictates that he divide his possessions – a routine that inevitably produces its own minor crises, like that of the husband going to a business meeting who could only find running shoes to accompany his suit. Several groups of wives amused themselves by describing men who were forever losing track of requisite parts of their outfits, or haplessly bumping into unfamiliar pieces of furniture in the middle of the night. Though each wife may live independently, the authors didn’t meet a single husband who maintained a separate residence for himself: only very rarely did he even have a room of his own. As Altman and Ginat sensibly observe, space is at a premium, and a man who claimed a particular room in the dwelling of one wife would put the others at a disadvantage. Some husbands resort to the office when they want to be alone; others retreat to their cars, go for walks, or take off on camping trips. One man, whose two wives lived together, perversely acquired a third in order to increase his privacy: using the new addition as an excuse to house the three women separately, he kept his schedule vague enough to ensure that every few weeks he could check into a motel.

Historians differ as to whether the first Mormons had any use for romantic love. Though Joseph Smith’s revelations coincided with a new emphasis in American culture on the affective bonds of the married couple, the early polygynists preferred to concentrate on saving as many women as possible by spiritually ‘sealing’ them to a righteous man. There was clearly no question of intimacy between Smith and the hundreds of women – two saints and Josephine Bonaparte among them – who were sealed to him by proxy after his death. According to Brigham Young, a woman should ask only to be ‘sealed to a good man’ and not ‘torment’ herself with thinking about whether he loved her. But the men and women studied here are modern Americans as well as fundamentalist Mormons, and their adherence to plural marriage does not preclude an earnest belief in the significance of the couple. The families’ constant struggle to reconcile the communal ideals of the polygynous life with the intimate claims of each heterosexual pair is the book’s central preoccupation. The honeymoon is particularly delicate: while few can afford costly or extended holidays, most seem to take the institution seriously, with each new couple being careful not to replicate the itinerary of the others. At the same time, the feelings of those left at home require careful management: even were money not an issue, the families agree that it is best to keep these journeys brief. Having registered the after-effects of three previous honeymoons, one husband regularly telephoned each of his other wives on the fourth such excursion.

Once the honeymooners have returned, the entire family must work to sustain the uniqueness of the pair, even as the new wife is incorporated into the collective rituals of the group. Unlike traditional polygamous cultures, the authors suggest, where adjudicating among wives seems largely confined to the just distribution of resources, these modern polygamists are engaged in affective balancing acts that might better be characterised as ‘plural monogamy’. It is generally agreed, for example, that sexual intimacies are not to be shared from couple to couple. Some wives make a point of being sensitive to the needs of the other wives – reminding their husbands of birthdays or foregoing an expected visit if another wife needs him. Though everyone participates in this emotional labour, the principal burden falls on the husband. A man who tries to be fair by rigidly dividing his time among his wives is likely to satisfy no one, since the very system that appears to guarantee justice fails to take account of the fluctuating needs and emotions of each individual. Most families instead adopt a flexible rota in which the man continually adapts his routine to the exigencies of the moment. ‘A husband who is perceptive and sensitive to his own and each of his wives’ and children’s needs and desires will be in the appropriate place at the right time,’ Altman and Ginat blandly remark, inadvertently suggesting that only God-like omniscience would really suffice. One man earnestly determines to spend more ‘quality time’ with his second wife, who has been feeling neglected since the arrival of the fourth and complains that he doesn’t ‘fully understand her as a person’. (It is not clear whether these idioms are the subjects’ or the researchers’.) Other husbands work at developing multiple personalities in order to fit in with the distinctive requirements of each intimate relationship. ‘I am glad that I am not a man,’ a woman says bluntly: ‘being a different person with each wife is more than I could do.’ The attempt to be several men at once carries its own liabilities. ‘Sometimes I don’t like her husband,’ one wife half-jokingly refers to another; while a woman in a different family remarks to her co-wife: ‘Sometimes I like your husband better than I like mine.’

Jealousy among co-wives is an old story in the anthropological literature, and these modern women offer some predictable updates. Danielle has never got over the fact that she was the only one of three to be deprived of a honeymoon; Norma complains that Cynthia, the newest wife, expects their husband to close car doors for her, when he never did that for any of the others. The woman who spoke of plural family life as ‘a mighty hard ... struggle’ had been married monogamously for twenty years before she and her husband joined the fundamentalist community. But competition for the husband is by no means the only thing that binds these women to one another. Despite the patriarchal foundation of Mormon polygyny, wives marry wives with almost as much care as they do the man of the family. Even the decision to add a new wife often originates with the others, who may join their husband on dates or in their own way court the prospective addition. One courting wife, who had both children and a paying job to attend to, ended up urging the new couple to spend some time alone – her concern for their future intimacy heightened by her own flagging energy.

For some women, the companionship of co-wives is one of the great attractions of plural marriage, as is the prospect of help with the housework or caring for the children. In several cases, biological sisters have married the same man. In one family the second and third wife are also mother and daughter, their husband having originally married the older woman as a widow with a child. Of course, the intimacy between some wives can become a source of jealousy to others; and dividing up the housework or the childcare is less appealing if another woman doesn’t know how to cook or disciplines your children inappropriately. Since more than half the wives work outside the home, the others must bear a proportionately greater load of domestic tasks, and negotiation over ways of running the household and standards of child rearing is continual. Though a new wife typically lives with another wife or wives for a while, the tendency of more established families to move the women to separate quarters is partly a response to such pressures.

Trying to keep track of all the shuffling and reshuffling in which these families engage can be quite taxing for the non-polygamous reader. In one family the first two wives lived more or less communally for a few years, after which they divided the house into separate apartments, though they still shared some spaces; a new wife arrived, and the first moved to a home of her own; the third wife then did likewise; a fourth joined the family but remained in her original apartment. Now that each woman lived at some distance from the others, the husband found it too difficult to rotate among them, and they reorganised again: the two first wives returned to the original house, where they lived in separate apartments, but shopped, cooked and ate communally, while the second pair shared a one-level trailer. At the latest report, an ailing father had moved into the trailer in place of the fourth wife, who had in turn taken up residence in a new house with the second, while the first continued to live with her children in the original home. Since this is still a relatively young family, its days of adjusting are far from over.

Methods of allocating the husband’s time or the family budget are similarly subject to perpetual revision. Both physically and psychologically, these families are constantly reinventing themselves, and the absence of a collective tradition makes the task that much harder. Mormonism itself is a very young religion, after all, and its official endorsement of polygyny lasted barely half a century. Though a small and repeatedly fractured group of fundamentalists kept the practice alive, many contemporary polygamists are converts whose own monogamous upbringing is one more obstacle to overcome. On the evidence offered here, the modern polygynist does best if he can put some mountains between himself and the larger society. It also helps quite a bit if he has a charismatic personality. A lengthy chapter on ‘family structure’ translates social science into a version of pastoral, juxtaposing ‘a stable and well-established family’ in the mountain community of Redrock with ‘an “experimenting” plural family’ on the outskirts of Metropolitan City.

Their professed neutrality notwithstanding, the authors can scarcely conceal their admiration for the rural patriarch they call Harry, who figures in their account as the most obviously successful exemplar of fundamentalist polygyny. ‘Tall, handsome, self-assured, intelligent and articulate’, Harry manages his five wives, 65 children and over three hundred members of subsequent generations with a seemingly invariable mixture of sensitivity and firmness. Known to the entire family, including himself, as Father, Harry believes that patriarchy is the key to Mormon fundamentalism and has organised his domestic life accordingly. Having decided that Christmas was becoming too commercial, he determined that the family would celebrate ‘Father’s birthday’ instead, and every summer several hundred people gather for this purpose. All newborn sons receive Harry as their middle name, and are duly instructed, as they grow older, in the importance of exercising manly leadership. At monthly meetings with the sons, Father’s lectures reinforce Father’s values – Harry, the authors assure us, ‘is an eloquent and flowing speaker’ – while the wives and the daughters prepare the food, serve it and wash up afterwards. ‘Boys don’t wash dishes,’ several well-instructed sons explained: ‘only girls do.’

The representative urban male cuts a sorry figure by comparison. William, too, believes in the crucial importance of the patriarch – ‘the hub of the family wheel’, as he calls himself – but he is still searching for the right system on which to model his patriarchy: he compares the family now to a military or survivalist unit, now to a business organisation, with the wives as ‘supervisors’ and the children ‘employees’. Though he is forever trying to ‘get the family organised’, his attempts to play efficiency expert in the kitchen prompted a collective revolt, while his strategic planning sessions drove the first two wives to a sensitivity training course at a local university. At almost every meeting, the authors found the family engaged in some new scheme for rearranging their home, their schedules or their relationships with one another. Since they also profess to want a new wife in the family, they would seem to have a good deal of collective work yet in store.

Altman and Ginat attended some of Harry’s gatherings of his clan in Redrock, and their awe is all too evident: ‘Father was everywhere, greeting people, moving from group to group and person to person ... displaying his charm, charisma and interest in every member of his family with whom he came in contact.’ Though they do mention that a dinner without Harry was more relaxed and spontaneous, we hear relatively little about the women in this family, apart from their pride in their housekeeping. No doubt Harry’s managerial skills are truly impressive, but all this wide-eyed wonder prompts a good measure of scepticism, especially if we recall Altman and Ginat’s passing acknowledgment that they rarely interviewed wives apart from their husbands.