Thursday, October 27, 2011

I am not a Polygamist

Taken the night before our wedding May 22, 2009.

I am always nonplused, perplexed, and slightly annoyed when I meet others' surprised gapes after they learn I am my husband's only wife.

And it happens, all the time, in disparate places of the world - in the Philadelphia airport by a fairly educated massage therapist (it happens) on my way out to Europe last week, and then again by eastern European graduate students at a conference in Austria in which I participated last weekend (again, I blogged more about this experience on my professional blog).

I read recently that a Pew poll showed the first word most Americans associate with Mormons is polygamy.

Yes, the restorers of my faith practiced polygamy from the 1840s (perhaps a bit earlier, depending on where you mark it) through the 1890s.

But, as my nephew says, "for crying in the mud!" It's been over 120 years, people!

The scapegoat for this misperception must be the media.  They love doing stories on the ex-communicant group FLDS, and I hear the highly but subtly inaccurate Big Love HBO series, wherein a polygamist family is portrayed as a mainstream Mormon family, is all the rage.  Makes me a bit crazy.

Culture within the church does not do much to help.  We simply takes this historical fact in stride, and often make fun of it.  Last go-round, Mitt Romney apparently was prohibited by his counselors not to tell a certain joke:

"It's funny that of all the Republican candidates for president, I'm the only one who has ever only had one wife."  

It would have been funny regardless.  The sad part of the joke--and perhaps, other than making an inappropriately personal, albeit subtle, attack on his co-candidates, the reason why he was disallowed from telling it--is that it would have only been fully understood by a very small fraction of the population.

Mitt's self-deprecating humor as applied to the faith is typical.  I've often heard at extended family reunions someone pull out the wry phrase, "so which wife do you descend from?" to snickering all 'round.  Too, a law school classmate at Penn had an LDS couple over for dinner.  The husband said it was just too bad the other wife couldn't be there, too.  When he was met with awkward stares from the guileless hostess, the LDS couple quickly explained that it was a joke and took the opportunity to explain how very far from the truth it was.

The historical fact of polygamy, however, is not always funny.  I have had my own bouts of researching, struggling on my knees, and coming to terms with it.  I admire the faith and courage of my pioneer ancestors who engaged in a practice they initially found revolting because they learned it was a commandment of God.  (I've blogged about some of this here.)

Granted its past controversy and the current practice by break-away groups who have nothing at all to do with my faith, the misperception lingers.  I believe at least some of the fault for it lies with members.  Some church member should have taken measures to encourage HBO to change or discontinue its show long, long ago.  We should not make the jokes, and we should be crystal clear about current practices and non-practices.

But then again, polygamy is so far from present LDS experience that it may just not occur to us on a regular basis that the misperception persists.  I'm sure that is why I am always nonplused when I encounter surprised stares or make jokes that belly-flop.


  1. First of all - adorable picture of you and your husband! Second - I knew about the misconception still being out there (of course, it IS part of our history just like in the days of Abraham, David, etc.), but I rarely hear anyone say anything about it. It was more prominent when the FLDS was in the media, but it's been so long since I've heard anyone reference it. I think you're right that we, as members, shouldn't joke about it. I probably have, though. ☺

  2. Hi Lorianne,

    I found your post on polygamy very interesting and would love to talk with you more about this issue.

    Polygamy is very much a part of the doctrine of the church today and to deny that may be more comfortable from a PR standpoint, but the doctrine of the church embraces polygamy in an eternal sense. The doctrine stands that men are able to be sealed to more than one wife, but women are allowed only one man. How do you reconcile this issue and not place it in the same category as ‘polygamy’ as it was practiced in the early years of the church?

    Hope your trip to Europe was great--love to see you again soon.

  3. I am sorry that you have to deal with this. However, I know you will be just fine. We will encounter many adversities in the world..people that do not understand and learn the same way we do. I believe it is our true test to be at peace with this and to simply, love one another! Enjoy your life with your husband....create goodness and happiness.

  4. I really like your blog and found this post and the other on polygamy interesting. I personally find it puzzling in a world where people want to change the definition of marriage to include gay couples how plural marriage can be so repulsive. I'm not advocating it or anything just seems a little bit hypocritical to let one group chose nontraditional marriage but not another.
    I grew up on the East Coast and would often get made fun of for my religion and polygamy was a frequent but of the jokes. Try to develop a thick skin and just know that people usually make jokes when they are uncomfortable.