Is Big Love Better Love?
Is Big Love Better Love?
Imagine having eight children by the time you are thirty-five. Imagine being married at eighteen, or fourteen, or twelve. Imagine sharing your spouse with six others. Imagine life as a possession, something your spouse had complete control of. Imagine your children being abused by other “parents” or by half-siblings, and having no power to stop it. Imagine being trapped in this lifestyle.
Now imagine waking up, leaving early for work, and knowing your sweet three-year old daughter is cuddling in bed with her other mother. Imagine doing what you want all day, and coming home to children who were cared for with love. Imagine sharing a husband, yes, but knowing he loves you and your children. Imagine unbreakable friendships with other women, sisters, and wives. Imagine a household with love.
Polygamy is a heavily debated issue. Is it morally wrong? Is it okay and should it be more acceptable in today’s society? Polygamy is a relationship in which typically a man has more than one wives, though it can be the other way. Recently popularized by television shows like “Big Love” or “Sisterwives” or negative scandals like the Zion Ranch incident, polygamy is an ancient issue that is becoming more commonly discussed in the United States.
The marriage relationships in polygamy are an extensive, complex subject. Most women could not fathom handling the catty jealousy of women competing for the same man, but author and polygamist Elizabeth Joseph loves sharing her husband with nine other women. For Joseph, she loves polygamy because she can have a career but still have her children raised in a loving home, rather than a daycare. Every Tuesday she gets special time with her husband, Alex, but also gets nights off to herself. From her perspective, polygamy is not just a win for men, since they get several women; for the women, it’s a part-time job with vast benefits (Joseph). Other benefits are friendships with women, the option of marrying your soul mate, even if he is already married, and the security of being safe from divorce. For men, they have various relationships with different women they respect, love, and enjoy being with. There are no cheating scandals with polygamists, which leads to no divorces. As long as the male is financially stable enough to provide for his family, it seems to be a positive option for all partners involved.
An interesting example of polygamy is a recently deceased Kenyan man, Acentus Akuku, nicknamed “Danger” because so many women were drawn to his handsome features. In an interview, Akuku even said, “I overshadowed many men when it came to women. I was very handsome. I dressed well and I knew how to charm women with sweet talk. No woman could decline my advances. I was a magnet” (Sagalai). The polygamist man had 130 wives, though he expelled some for being unfaithful. He had 110 sons and 305 daughters, which he claimed to know all by name. The wealthy, handsome, and successful Akuku said, “I married those who I lost my heart for.” Kepher Otieno, the author who did the article over Akuku, said that Akuku was a role model for many and a well-respected member of his community. He made sure all of his children were educated, and kept up with each section of his family. He was also cautious of sexual encounters with each woman, due to the HIV and AIDS epidemic (Otieno). While Akuku’s polygamist case is extreme, it shows that it can work. He provided for many women, seemed to have a true appreciation for each family, and did more good than bad in his community.
However, a polygamous relationship is not ideal for all. Competition and jealousy between the wives is common. How can a man have equal feelings for multiple women? Just as they differ, his relationship with each differs. Thus, the competition causes issues between the women, and if the man has an obvious favorite, that woman can “control” the others. In Carolyn Jessop’s biography, Escape, she deals with this issue. Her husband, Merrill Jessop, favored his third wife Barbara. While the other wives cleaned, cooked, and tried to keep the household afloat on very little money, Barbara and Merrill would enjoy steak dinners on their travels. Barbara had control over the household. All the women were to report to her for permission on matters as minimal as cooking dinner. She had the freedom to do whatever she pleased, like brutally “disciplining” others’ children, with no repercussions. Merill’s first two wives were extremely neglected. One was even mentally insane, but just pushed aside once Merill obtained more wives (Jessop). In Jessop’s case, there were no healthy, loving family relationships.
Carolyn Jessop’s personal relationship with Merill was also twisted. There was no love; it was simply a marriage so Merill could boost his status with more wives and to create a working bond with Jessop’s father. He preferred her sexually, and would go to her room often. She could not deny him, because when she did, he would not protect her children from Barbara or other wives’ physical abuse. In her book, she tells a story of Merill forcing her to have sex with him while children were asleep in the room with her (Jessop). This polygamist relationship was unhealthy, in all aspects, and shows the not so pretty aspect. Of course, Carolyn Jessop was in an extreme polygamist sect, but cases like this are frequent here in the United States since polygamy is illegal and thus often associated with off-shoots of Mormonism, even though the church condemns them.
The next major issue to consider with polygamy is how the children raised in the environment are affected. Pro-polygamists argue that children get to grow up in a loving home. They have plenty of kids to play hide and seek, dress up, or tag with. They get to see their real mother, but if she leaves for work, they get to play with their other mother. Polygamy for children can be loving, nurturing, and fun, but typically, it is a negative experience.
Because polygamy is illegal, most groups that practice it do so in isolation. Thus, children grow up separated from common society. What they are taught is all they know and all they believe. Most are educated in the home or in special schools set up by their community, and consequently do not get a proper education (CAPWOI). Because of the numerous children, each child also gets little attention. They are often left to fend for themselves. In Escape, when Carolyn Jessop got deathly ill, she remembers worrying about what would happen to her sick two year old and other children. Who would take care of them? There was no love amongst the sisterwives for the other wives’ children; the death of a sick child would simply be one less mouth to feed. Polygamists, especially those affiliated with religious sects, often use brutal discipline, since the mothers answer to no one beside their husband. Child Protective Service is seldom involved because the children or other community members rarely report incidents, because they do not know it is wrong; it is simply the culture they were raised in. Children are cruelly beaten for the smallest misdemeanors and it seems normal for everyone. In Jessop’s book, she tells story after story of little girls coming to school with burns on their arms or bruises covering their bodies. Once, while on the school bus, the bus driver beat a girl for crying. While she never beat her own children, she recalls other wives beating them for falling asleep during midnight prayers or to get back at Carolyn (Jessop). Polygamy’s destructive attitude towards discipline is damaging towards children.
Another detrimental affect is the potential sexual abuse of children. In religious polygamous communities, it is no uncommon for girls to be married as young as twelve. Because the number of wives one has typically signifies how much power the man has, most polygamist communities marry the girls at an early age, because they are in such a high demand. Their fathers want the marriages to create ties between prominent leaders in the community, so they force their daughters to marry men much older. The picture to the right depicts the FLDS leader, Warren Jeffs, kissing his twelve-year-old child bride. When four hundred and sixty-three children were removed from the Yearning for Zion Ranch, which was associated with the FLDS, thirty-one of the fifty-three underage girls already had children or were pregnant. According to the report, two of the girls had three children already and six of the girls had two, while another girl gave birth to a boy while in custody (JWC). Carolyn Jessop’s daughter, Betty, was sexually molested by an older half-sibling and also had a “sleepover” with other girls at Jeffs’ house once (Jessop). Other issues young girls deal with are female circumcision, incest, rape, arranged marriages, and virginity exams. They often have no control over their futures, academically, sexually, or physically.
For young boys, there have been cases in which they are kicked out of the community. In David Kelly’s article, “Lost to the Only Life They Knew,” he interviews different boys who were removed from Warren Jeff’s community for offenses like listening to music or kissing girls. The real reason, the article claims, was to alleviate the competition for wives with the elders in the church. The “Lost Boys” wanted nothing more to return to their homes, families, and religion. Kelly interviewed one Lost Boy, Tom Sam Steed, who begged Warren Jeffs to be back in, but wasn’t allowed. ''He told me I wasn't welcome," Steed said. ''And on the way out he said: 'Just to let you know, when the final devastation comes, you will be destroyed.' I believed it completely. If you are told your whole life the Earth is flat, what else would you believe?" (Kelly 1). These boys are disowned by their families for the selfish gain of others in the community.
There are many different faces of polygamy. There are the quirky but valid caring relationships like those depicted in “Sisterwives.” There are the corrupt, manipulative possessive unions such as Carolyn Jessop’s experience. Akuku’s one hundred and thirty wives paint another picture, as does Elizabeth Joseph’s loving relationship with her sisterwives. Polygamy is a complex issue that varies greatly from relationship to relationship. Can we properly analysis and condemn something so misunderstood by society? After all of my research, I am still irresolute in my conclusion. There are prominent evils of polygamy, especially when associated with religion, but there are also favorable benefits. Polygamy is illegal. It can be wrong, but for some people, it can be right. If the man is able to provide for one wife or five, to feed three kids or thirty, and care for everyone involved, who are we to condemn a misunderstood love? I might not have a completed personal conclusion on polygamy, but I do know one thing. For me, big love is not better love.