What Polygamy Says About the American Family

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W. W. Norton & Company

Polygamy is a loaded word—and the source of our endless fascination. It's been illegal in the US for over a century, and only a fraction of a percentage of the population practices it. But plural marriage lives on in pop culture, where it's being used to explore the modern, mainstream American family. The HBO series Big Love and a new book by Brady Udall, The Lonely Polygamist, both center on polygamous households. Rather than highlight what makes polygamy strange, foreign, or even immoral, however, the series and the book portray families struggling with everyday domestic problems—these issues have just been amplified by the inflated size of overgrown households.

When Big Love first aired, viewers were drawn in precisely because it presents a relatable view of a world that most audience members view as unfamiliar and morally questionable. The show focuses on Bill Hendrickson, his three wives, and their children. On the surface, the Hendricksons seem to lead relatively normal, stable, even privileged lives. Bill's character is a far cry from Warren Jeffs and the creepy child-abusing polygamous leaders we see on TV news specials. He excels in business, is married to three beautiful women, and has fathered eight happy, attractive children.

A closer look shows that the family is coming apart at the seams. Bill's wives bicker out of jealousy and sexual dissatisfaction. His oldest daughter disapproves of polygamy and feels alienated from her dad. Despite being a successful, respected member in the community, Bill is plagued by a sense of restlessness.

In The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall offers us a tragic, more nuanced perspective on plural marriage. Udall, who comes from a prominent Mormon family that includes two U.S. senators, presents us with an empathetic portrait of flawed but decent people beaten down by a life of sacrifice and daily compromises. The central character, Golden Richards, is married to 4 women and has fathered 28 children. When the story opens, Golden is mourning the accidental death of one of his daughters and the stillbirth of his son. The weight of his grief causes him to shut down emotionally. Golden's children start to blend together and feel like one giant obligation. His ability to communicate with his wives is destroyed under the weight of loneliness, pressure, and disappointment. This picture of grief and the ensuing neglect of domestic responsibilities could exist in a traditional nuclear family, but the effects of Golden's withdrawal are particularly damaging to his enormous, affection-starved household.

Like Bill, Golden feels as if something is missing. But though the two men are overburdened, they attempt to stave off unhappiness by taking on more relationships and obligations, rather than scaling back. Despite being stretched too thin, Bill seeks out new business opportunities, starts an affair, and runs for public office. When finances become tight and Golden is forced to take a job in Nevada--200 miles from his home in Utah—he, too, seeks comfort in the arms of a mistress. For both men, each new relationship or endeavor feels like an opportunity to focus on something in a meaningful way. When Bill runs for office, he delegates his other responsibilities to his wives and passionately devotes himself to a single project. Golden fantasizes about leaving his family in favor or a simpler existence with his mistress—but paradoxically, towards the end of the book he decides to take on a fifth wife.

Although they describe unconventional lifestyles, Big Love and The Lonely Polygamist are quintessentially American tales. The two stories are about choice and learning to living with the consequences of one's decisions. Bill, whose relationship with his first wife, Barb, was permanently impacted by his entry into plural marriage, often seems to regret this decision. Unlike Bill, Golden was not born into polygamy. He discovered the lifestyle and entered the institution as a young man, without really considering his other options. The ease with which he adopted this new way of life later leads him to feel that none of this decisions were really his own.

Bill and Golden's respective attempts to balance freedom, responsibility, and the pursuit of happiness could apply to a host of people in today's society. In an era when we are often confronted with numerous options and the ability to start over, perhaps our sense of commitment has been impacted. We make choices knowing—or thinking that they can be reversed. While most Americans have a hard time relating to the idea of plural marriage, the ease with which we currently enter and exit relationships is an interesting parallel. We can now date, sleep with, and cohabitate with a partner to whom we aren't married, so the question of whether someone is our soul mate no longer seem as imperative. After several years together, it may no longer seem to matter. When considering Bill and Golden's situation, we are left wondering if plural marriage the cause or the symptom of their respective predicaments.

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