• U.S.

I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do

14 minute read
Belinda Luscombe

Before judging Alina, Valerie and Vicki, the three wives of Joe Darger, try the experiment Joe Henrich offers his college students in his evolutionary-psychology class at the University of British Columbia. Imagine, he says, that you have to choose between two potential spouses. You feel the same about each. Each cherishes you. Lover A is a regular, middle-class individual. Lover B is a billionaire, the kind with time and money to spare. The caveat is that Lover B is already married and wants to add you as a second spouse, which for the purposes of this experiment is completely legal. Which would you choose? “Seventy percent of the women said they’d be willing to consider being the second wife of the billionaire rather than the average guy’s first wife,” says Henrich. “Only about 10% of the men would consider it if the scenario were reversed.”

It’s a completely unscientific test, but even so, the results are a little jarring. A majority of this sample of young, educated Western women would at least contemplate marrying the billionaire bigamist. Doesn’t this fly in the face of decades of laborious cultivation of women’s power? Doesn’t it run counter to the classic love story of boy meets girl and they live happily ever after? Isn’t it just weird and cultish?

Proponents of defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman have long argued that if we entertain variations on that theme, like gay marriage, the institution will soon become unrecognizable. “If you think it’s O.K. for two [men to marry], then you have to differentiate with me as to why it’s not O.K. for three,” said former presidential hopeful Rick Santorum on the campaign trail, echoing a common refrain. Even though there’s no historical precedent linking one to the other, growing public support for gay marriage has nonetheless gladdened the hearts of polygamists. “If people are open to gay marriage, it impacts on how they look at plural marriage,” says Darger, who lives with his three wives and 18 of his 23 children in Herriman, Utah, about 25 miles from Salt Lake City. “You can’t talk about gay marriage and still criminalize us for who we love and how we organize our families.”

Close observers of the marital topography are noticing a shift in attitudes toward polygamy and its sister wife, polyamory, which can roughly be defined as having multiple lovers by mutual agreement. Partly this is a result of a decades-long wholesale rethinking of the institution of marriage and who society and the courts say can engage in it. But it’s also a result of more exposure to polygamous lifestyles. Some polygamists, sensing unsteadiness in the big ship monogamy that has always blocked their passage to the oceans of normality, are trying to navigate their way to validation of their version of family.

Kody Brown, a husband of four, is at the vanguard. He’s launched a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Utah’s bigamy statute. His attorney, a professor at George Washington University Law School, has already had some success. Utah County, the Browns’ former home, announced on May 31 that it would not prosecute the Browns or any other polygamists as long as the spouses were consenting adults. But that policy change did not mollify Brown, who is still trying to get the law overturned on the grounds that it violates, among other things, his freedom of religion; the case was scheduled for a hearing on July 25.

Whatever the court decides, Brown’s legal efforts may be less effective than his entertainment-related ones. He’s the patriarch in the popular reality show Sister Wives, which just finished its third season on TLC, and a co-author of a memoir that in July hit No. 8 on the New York Times best-seller list. Studies have shown that gay characters on TV in the 2000s measurably decreased viewers’ negative feelings toward gays. If that holds true for multipartner unions as well, then Brown and his ilk have reason to feel encouraged. There are screen representations of polygamous lifestyles aplenty, including other TV shows such as Polyamory: Married and Dating and The Girls Next Door and movies like the recent Oliver Stone film Savages and Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. There are even celebrity exemplars, some of whom aren’t Hugh Hefner. Rapper Akon once boasted of having three wives but has recently kept quiet on the subject.

In 2010 the Columbia Law Review, taking into account both fundamentalist Mormons and the growing number of Muslim immigrants, estimated that 30,000 to 100,000 U.S. families practice plural marriage. Deborah Anapol, author of Polyamory in the 21st Century, puts the percentage of polyamorists at 0.5% to 3.5% of the population. That’s a guess, but there are signs the figure is growing. Polyamorous groups report upticks in the number of local chapters and attendance at their meetings, conferences and marches. In May the American Psychiatric Association included a forum on polyamory at its annual meeting. Nonmonogamists are becoming increasingly vocal in defending their lifestyle. How fringe can a cultural practice be, after all, when it’s part of the family history of both of this year’s presidential candidates?

Perhaps nobody is as dedicated to being radically nonfringe as Joe Darger. A friendly, energetic, 43-year-old building contractor, he wants to be the guy people think of when they conjure up images of a polygamist. Or at least offer a counterbalance to the current poly poster boy: Warren Jeffs, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) leader who is serving life in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting children.

At first blush, Darger would seem an unlikely carrier of the torch of normality. Two of his wives (Vicki and Valerie) are identical twins. He dated, proposed to and married two of his wives (Alina and Vicki) at the same time–by the women’s request, they say. Val was married into another polygamous family before joining the Dargers; the patriarch of that family became embroiled in a financial scandal with one of the fundamentalist Mormon churches. (The mainstream Mormon church bans polygamy.)

On paper, the Dargers’ domestic arrangements are gasp-inducing. In person, though, they look like just another very, very big family. Their kids go to public school; they do homework, have part-time jobs, play football, put videos on the Web of themselves singing achy love songs. They even grumble about their family structure. Raising 23 kids requires compromises: one son bridles at eating “polygamy cheese” (deeply discounted and a little moldy); others decline to travel in the “polyg rig” (the 15-seat family van). “Sometimes they say, ‘You’re not having any more kids, are you?'” says Val, 42.

The Darger wives wear makeup and smart casual clothes–at least when company’s coming. Two of them work outside the home, running a high-end cleaning firm, while the third, Vicki, usually looks after the toddlers. Except for the fact that it has three master bedrooms (one in each wife’s chosen style), theirs feels like a normal house–a normal house with a punishing amount of laundry.

Polygamy is still technically a crime in Utah, although Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has made it clear he isn’t going to prosecute unless other crimes are involved. But the Dargers, who belong to no organized church, do the opposite of hiding their lifestyle. They have written a book, Love Times Three, in which they detail how it works, including how Joe apportions his time among his three wives–each wife gets him every third night–and what he does with them while there, which turns out to be a lot of listening. “Trust me,” he writes. “It can’t all be about the sex.”

They regularly speak about plural marriage as they practice it to media outlets and state-run organizations like Utah Safety Net, a group set up to build bridges with polygamous families. The Dargers are on a mission, if not to legalize polygamy, then at least to decriminalize it and reduce the cringe factor. “We just feel like we have a different story to tell than the stereotype,” says Vicki, who married Joe when she and Alina were 19. “Certain things will be hot-button phrases–‘Polygamy equals abuse’ or ‘It’s all about power and control’–but these things can exist in monogamous marriage too. We became public because there are truths that needed to come out.” These truths, they say, include that Vicki and Alina suggested Joe marry Val after she and her five kids fled her first husband.

Alternatives to Marriage

Across the country, just outside Boston, the Dargers have an ally of sorts in Thomas Amoroso. An emergency physician, Amoroso has a live-in girlfriend, Katherine, who has a live-in husband, Matt. (Amoroso also has another girlfriend.) They don’t seek attention, but they’re not averse to it. “We routinely walk down the sidewalk hand in hand in hand,” says Matt, although he and Katherine would prefer that their last name not be made public.

The trio, who got together at a science-fiction convention (polyamorists are often fans of the works of Robert Heinlein), have tried to mimic marriage as much as they can. They’ve bought a house together. They are one another’s health care proxies. Matt and Katherine are trying to have a baby, and Amoroso is looking forward to co-parenting. “If we lived in a society that permitted plural marriage, it’s something I’d think about,” says Matt. “But we live together, we support each other, we spend time together, so I’ve got the stuff I want.”

Amoroso and Darger don’t know each other, and there’s not much else they’d agree on, but they’re brothers in arms in the fight against what they see as a monogamy monopoly. Amoroso served on the board of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, and he speaks at conventions about his living arrangement. “Our lives are much the same as other people’s,” he says. “It’s important to me that there’s understanding and acceptance.” The reaction he gets from most people, including his family and employers, is raised-eyebrow acceptance: “It wouldn’t work for me, but if it makes you happy …”

Why do some people want multiple life partners when most of us can barely deal with one? Both fundamentalist Mormons and polyamorists argue that having several partners requires people to be more loving and generous and to learn to overcome jealousy. There’s a term polyamorists use for enjoying their lover’s happiness with another: compersion. (The word is thought by some to have originated in the ’80s at a San Francisco commune by people using a Ouija board.) Fundamentalist Mormons believe the practice mirrors the selfless interconnectedness that will exist in heaven. They call it “living the principle.”

Compersion and living the principle sound noble. The results often aren’t. “When plural marriage works, it can be much more rewarding,” says Darger. “But I think getting it there is not three times as hard. It’s to the third power as hard.” Many books have been written by ex-polygamist wives and children that detail neglect, infighting and even sexual abuse. “My wedding day was, bar none, the saddest day of my life,” says Mary Mackert, who comes from a long line of fundamentalist Mormons and at 17 became the sixth wife of a 50-year-old man. She has an explanation for the Darger wives’ apparent contentment. “Denial was my drug of choice too,” she says. “I just quit feeling anything. I put on a beautiful smile.” Her family, she says, was blindsided when she walked out after 16 years.

Mackert was part of the same sect as Warren Jeffs, whose Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas was raided by state authorities in 2008. In March, Wendell Loy Nielsen, one of Jeffs’ lieutenants, became the 11th man convicted as a result of that raid. But unlike most of the others, he was not convicted of sexual assault of a child; his wives were older, so he got a 10-year sentence for bigamy. “Texas has had the courage to do what Utah wouldn’t,” says Mackert. In what might be considered an end run around Utah authorities, the Department of Justice recently filed a federal lawsuit against two FLDS towns, claiming, among other things, religious discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. “Independents like the Darger family can be O.K.,” says John Llewellyn, the author of several books on polygamy. “But 90% of the families are in a [closed] group.” Utah authorities say all the fundamentalist groups have agreed to wait until girls are at least 18 when they marry. Policing that is another issue.”If we found out they weren’t waiting,” says Paul Murphy, the spokesman for Utah’s attorney general, “we’d be very disappointed.”

The U.S. is not the only country wrestling with these issues. After several failed attempts at prosecuting polygamists in British Columbia, the Canadian province put its marriage laws under the gavel last year. The court heard arguments for and against legalizing polygamy. Supporters of multiparty marriage argued that outlawing polygamy is a restriction of freedom of religion and tantamount to allowing the state to regulate people’s bedroom activities. Legal recognition would bring these families into the mainstream and, in doing so, help prevent practices such as forcing young girls to marry and having nonlegal wives claim welfare as single mothers, a form of civil disobedience polygamists call “bleeding the beast.” Several plural wives, including Alina Darger, testified that they were willingly married.

But polygamy doesn’t just subjugate women and victimize girls, the law’s supporters argued; it harms men too. Younger and poorer men struggle to find partners in polygamous communities, where a large pool of single males becomes a destabilizing influence. Monogamous norms, says Henrich, who was called on as an expert witness in the British Columbia case, “lead to greater economic success, more trade and lower crime.”

Then there are the children. Polygamous parents contend that children raised with many parents benefit from having more adults invested in their well-being. But in studies comparing 19th century children of wealthy polygamous families with those of less well-off monogamous ones, more of the latter lived beyond the age of 15. Experts believe this is because monogamy shifts the father’s attention from acquiring wives to investing in children. In the Darger family, for example, Joe admits it’s a struggle to be an involved dad to 23 kids. “It’s important for me to physically touch my kids every day,” he says. “But I don’t go to all the school meetings. I rely on their mothers to be the eyes and ears.”

In the British Columbia case, Judge Robert Bauman ruled that the polygamy ban infringed on the religious rights of some citizens, but because the practice was inherently harmful, the infringement was justifiable.

This result was disappointing to Darger. But he’s a realist. “I know most people don’t want polygamy,” he says. “I just want it to be decriminalized.” It’s a tricky issue. Taking Joe and other fathers to prison, away from their children, would seem to make matters worse for all. But well-meaning and charming as the Dargers are, their choices may hurt the society they live in.

One of their daughters is married, and another is engaged. Laura, 19, already has a son. So far the Dargers’ children are monogamous, although they’ve married within their community. They’re still young, but one of his daughters recently told her sister that she couldn’t imagine sharing her husband.

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