Sharing a Husband

Thursday, 21 January 2010
One of the best books to pass my hands thus far in 2010 is "Shattered Dreams" by Irene Spencer.  The book is her real-life account of living as a Polygamist's wife beginning in the 1950's.

I've read non-fiction books about child abuse, mental illness, murder and other hectic crimes but this book, by far has been the most shocking.  Not because the author has to share her husband with nine other women but because of the absolute poverty they lived in and the dogma they followed (even almost to the point of death) in the name of God.

Irene grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon family (which as you know is very different from the modern LDS Church) where plural marriage was not only the norm but expected.   She writes (p.14) "Despite the transformed doctrines of the LDS Church, these spiritual refugees considered themselves the true Mormons, the faithful followers of Joseph Smith and his initial converts.  Their mission now was urgent - to preserve the faith in a time of dark apostasy.  More than ever, they believed, the Principle must be lived and lived strictly."  (p. 15)  "We considered ourselves the chosen one, the pure in heart, the true 'Zion.'  And the LDS, having abandoned the Principle, were merely worldly.  In a way they were worse than the world, since they'd once known the light and gave it up.  We prayed for their return."

Before Irene's mother left her father who had more than 40 children, she lived in a chicken coop with her mother and siblings.  That was because the father couldn't afford to keep all of his wives and kids in a house.  Reading this you might think, how in the world can someone get into that situation?  Irene writes, (p. 3) "God commanded our people to live 'plural marriage' or be damned forever.  The revelation came directly through the prophet Joseph Smith in 1843:  'I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned."  (Doctrine and Covenants, 132:4).

Throughout the book I came to believe Irene simply wanted to please God and only had a chance to attend grade school.  She believed her life-long inner struggle was because of "God" and "evil" so when she thinks maybe plural marriage isn't right, she recites scripture to herself.  She's clearly tortured between what she thinks is right for herself and what her fundamentalist religion has taught her and her mother before her.

Irene marries Vernan LeBaron at age 16 and she is his second wife.  During the book she writes pages and pages about her desire for her husband but she says her husband believes doctrine teaches intercourse is only for reproduction (and of course women were to never challenge what their husbands believed).  As a newly wed, she wrote about what Vernan said, (p. 120) "You know we want to reach for the highest goals.  If we want godhood, we have to keep the law of purity.  We have to learn to control our passions and use them only for procreation.  We've already done it twice in the last few weeks.  Let's not overdo a sacred thing."

Vernan continues to marry more wives because after seven, he believed he could have a special recognition in heaven.  Each time he married, one of his wives had to stand at his side and take the new bride's hand in hers and pass it to him.  They all truly believed they were doing what God wanted them to do even though most of the wives cried after the weddings.

Irene started having children at 17 and kept it up until it almost killed her at age 36.  She lived in shacks, had no water, no electricity, some of her children died for lack of health care.  Eventually her doctor said her heath was so bad from having so many kids, she needed to have her reproduction organs removed.  She did so in a private surgery and Vernan found out and told her afterwards she had committed an un-forgivable sin.  Irene had a mental breakdown and asked another man in her "community" to kill her as a sacrifice to God.

How many fundamentalist religions promote dogma and specific ritualistic rules today?  I remember growing up believing that I couldn't play with fairies (like Tinker Bell) because they were spirits and inherently evil.  I was also taught women are not supposed to have a place of leadership but instead should do what their husbands say.  The consolation was that women get to run the house:  raising children, cooking and cleaning.  That's not how my childhood household ran exactly but that's what we studied from the Bible.  Men were in power, God was the ultimate authority and his rules were communicated to those who wrote them down as scripture. "Teaching" the masses seems to have nothing to do with education or world view.

After having 14 of Vernan's 58 children, Irene was able to leave him.  (He died in a car accident but she writes she was already on her way out.)  She says in the last chapter of her book, (p. 380) "The roots of effective brainwashing can extend quite deep, and my deep roots had never been fully extracted despite all my experiences.  My belief in what the Mormon fundamentalists taught about God and salvation had been so sincere, I embraced their miserable prescription for life and marriage.  One can be sincere and at the same time be sincerely wrong."

Have you ever been wrong about a strong belief?  That's such an uncomfortable thought (we're always right!) but Irene's story taught me to examine any extreme views (political, cultural, financial, religious) in my own life.


Teri's Blog said...

She's lucky, the LaBaron's are violent. There was a big shoot out by my Grandparent's house in the 80's and several people died.

Denae said...

Teri- Wow! I wonder if it was while Irene was with him. She talked about shootings with some of Vernan's brothers trying to kill him. Scary.