by Daphne Bramham
Random House Canada, 2008; 480 pp; $32.95
Reviewed from an uncorrected proof.
This book may be misnamed. The lives of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) polygamists are anything but a secret. From leader Warren Jeff’s high-profile arrest and trial to last spring’s raid on his followers’ compound in Eldorado, Texas, to the popular HBO series Big Love, this breakaway Mormon sect is all over the radar. Yet, why, when polygamists are breaking the law, right in plain sight, are we so afraid to act?
That’s the central question of Vancouver Sun reporter Daphne Bramham’s book, The Secret Lives of Saints. Swinging focus from the infamous community of Bountiful, BC, near Creston, to the twin cities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, and to various other pockets of FLDS adherents in the American west, she reveals the strange cross-border flow of young girls “destined” by the prophets to be plural (or celestial) wives to men often old enough to be their fathers, or grandfathers. Even great-grandfathers—former prophet Rulon Jeffs was given two teenage brides on his ninetieth birthday to add to his nearly sixty wives.
The group’s religious beliefs dictate that each man must have at least three wives in order to enter the highest realm of heaven. Polygamy was a tenet of the original Mormon Doctrine and Covenants; the mainstream LDS church has long rejected the principle of plural marriage.
FLDS women are told from a young age to “keep sweet” and be submissive and obedient to their fathers and husbands—their “priesthood head” who is their God on earth and ticket to salvation. These ideas and the doctrine of polygamy espoused by the founders of the Saints’ church are at the core of the FLDS’s claim to their religious freedoms, and thus, immunity from prosecution. Bramham doesn’t editorialize on how wacky all this sounds or how the government should deal with the group, but rather lets the facts, and the people, speak to why the situation should not be appeased any longer.
Throughout the book, she relates stories of women who’ve grown up with polygamy—mainly the ones who have managed to leave—and takes us inside Bountiful, mainly in the context of media tours organized by FLDS leaders to demonstrate the normalcy of their big happy families. She recounts an interview with Dalmon Oler, in which the patriarch shows pictures of his many children and explains how each year they simply picked a letter and named all the children born that year starting with that letter. Bramham doesn’t miss the chance to point out that if the Creston Hospital staff found so many children being born to these young wives unusual, they didn’t report it to authorities.
Bramham is very good at pointing out these outrages, large and small. She is especially strong at contrasting how the US and Canada are going after polygamists, especially where abuse is concerned. Canada does not come off looking well here. In the latter half of the book, while the FBI tightens its net around Warren Jeffs, putting him on the ten most wanted list beside Osama bin Laden, the Canadian courts and BC government dither about constitutional challenges over religious freedoms and the likelihood of conviction if they were to prosecute prominent polygamists like Winston Blackmore, the “Bishop of Bountiful.” Blackmore is portrayed a masterful manipulator of government and media, holding press conferences extolling his group’s cultural contribution to “Canada’s diverse tapestry.”
Head shaking stuff, particularly coming from a closed, insular community Bramham describes as dotted with “No Trespassing” signs. Worse, we learn its publicly funded school curriculum includes teaching hate for that diverse tapestry—blacks, Native Americans, and homosexuals, as well as the garden-variety hell-bound non-believers. In the US, the Southern Poverty Law Center considers the FLDS a hate group, right up there with the Ku Klux Klan.
At times, the book gets bogged down in details of the interfamilial conflicts and power skirmishes within Bountiful and Hildale/Colorado City. Yet, I had to admire Bramham’s skill at untangling the complicated family ties and delineating the players, even if I often had to flip back a couple pages to remember who was related to whom.
Mostly, my fists shook with impotent rage as I read this book. Ironically, I was most angered at the apathy of my fellow Canadians and our endless tolerance for religious wing-nuts with intolerant ideas. Bramham’s evidence is simply too damning for the old “live and let live” excuse to be an acceptable justification for looking the other way, especially when abuses hide in the skirts of religion.
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From Issue #51