Mar 24, 2017

Can polygamy ever work? Inside Utah's fundamentalist Mormon community where multiple marriages are a way of life

Abel Morrison with his three wives, and their 12 children
Abel Morrison with his three wives, and their 12 children
Jane Mulkerrins 
The Telegraph
March 23, 2017

Every third night, Marina Morrison forces herself not to go to bed until after 1am. Otherwise, she risks having to hear her husband, Abel, making love to another woman in the apartment upstairs, in a bedroom directly above her own. ‘It’s a real struggle for me,’ 23-year-old Marina freely admits. ‘But I’m trying to overcome my insecurity and move forward.’

While Marina may find the situation challenging, it is also what she has signed up for; she is Abel’s third wife, and shares him with her ‘sister wives’, Suzie, 36, who lives upstairs, and Beth, 37, who has the apartment next door.

The Morrisons – four adults and 12 children –live together at Rockland Ranch, a community of 15 fundamentalist Mormon families, almost half of whom practise polygamy, in a remote corner of Utah. The Rock, as it is known, was founded in the 1970s by Bob Foster, a teacher who had three wives and fathered 38 children.

After he was released from jail for polygamy, he chose the Rock as a refuge for fellow fundamentalists to practise their faith. Today, it is home to more than 100 people, many of them his children and grandchildren.

The colourful, cave-like houses are built into holes, blasted by dynamite, in the wave-shaped sandstone rock, and can be extended should families grow, as they tend to here. Back in Bob Foster’s days, the community was primitive, with unreliable generator power, and no flushing toilets or running water.

Nowadays, however, it could be mistaken for a hipster eco-utopia. As we approach the Rock, rising up from the red earth at the end of an unmarked cinder road far from the main highway, from a distance we see a vast bank of solar panels. The community aims to be self-sufficient, generating its own power supply and growing much of its own food – there’s an enormous greenhouse, and a farm with chickens and cows.

Not all the produce is for immediate consumption. Fundamentalist Mormons believe that the Apocalypse is coming, and it is an article of faith to be prepared – all the families at the Rock have cellars filled with food to last three and a half years, and firearms, in case the community is attacked; on top of the Rock is a watchtower.

Mormon fundamentalists believe that plural marriage, or ‘living the Principle’, helps them come closer to God by becoming more selfless, overcoming the human struggles with jealousy and insecurity, and learning to put others before themselves.

The practice wasn’t always illegal: an original tenet of mainstream Mormonism, polygamy was only outlawed in 1890, as part of the terms under which Utah – where 60 per cent of America’s Mormon population still lives – was recognised as an official American state (it had previously only been a territory). Today, claiming multiple wives is punishable by five years in prison, and most polygamists in the US therefore keep their plural marriages secret.

‘If I simply kept mistresses, the law could not touch me,’ points out Enoch Foster, 38, one of Bob’s sons and the unofficial leader of Rockland Ranch. ‘But because I want my relationships to be legitimate, I want to look after my wives, I can be prosecuted for it.

‘I’m not demanding that everyone accept me,’ he continues. ‘But I do believe plural marriage between consenting adults should be our right; we should be treated equally under the law.’ To that end, the residents of the Rock have consented to become the subjects of a four-part documentary, currently airing on Channel 4.

Most Mormon fundamentalists also believe in creating a ‘family kingdom’ on earth, and Enoch is certainly doing his bit. He has two wives, Catrina, 37, and Lillian, 30, and a total of 18 children. Lillian is currently pregnant with his 19th, and in May, he will marry his third wife, 24-year-old Lydia.

At the Foster family home, one of the largest at the Rock, Catrina and her 11 children live upstairs, while Lillian and her seven live downstairs. When Lydia arrives, she will take the guest wing. Enoch, who currently splits his nights between his two wives and their two apartments, will rotate between the three wives in order.

Most of the rock-ceilinged houses have WiFi – the password at the Foster household is the admonition ‘useitforgood’ – but some families are stricter than others about the consumption of popular culture. Cary Knecht, 43, and his wife, Anna, 45, who is Enoch’s sister, are at the more conservative end of the spectrum, and their eight children, aged four to 22, have been raised with strict limits on their access to mainstream media.

‘I don’t like rowdiness – it makes my kids have a lot of attitude,’ says Anna. Madonna is banned, as are Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones and Elton John. Disney films are also not shown in their home, as Cary believes they contain messages about witchcraft, magic and sorcery.

Inside Lillian’s apartment, where the walls are adorned with religious affirmations such as ‘Prayer is the answer’, and ‘Family – where life begins and love never ends’, 11-year-old Faith is feeding nine-month-old Adenijah.

Outside in the enormous front yard, a tribe of tiny blonde children play on a trampoline; though the wives each have separate apartments, childcare – and, in the Fosters’ case, also home-schooling – is communal. Lillian and I sit on the patio, where chickens and cats mingle. Catrina, fresh-faced, joins us, carrying her youngest, Noble, just two months old.

‘I never thought, growing up, that I would live a plural marriage,’ she says. She was not raised in a family that practised polygamy. She met Enoch when she was just 14, and he was 15. They married when she was 18, much against her parents’ wishes. ‘I fell in love with Enoch more and more. He was such a good dad, and an amazing provider; he had so much to offer, and I wanted somebody else to be able to experience that.’ It was she who suggested both Lillian and Lydia join the family.

With more than a decade of plural marriage under their belts, the Fosters appear to have a smoothly running routine. Catrina and Lillian share a postal delivery round – when one is nursing a new baby, the other works – and have a structured domestic schedule.

‘Enoch will have breakfast with the person he stayed with the previous night, and will have lunch and dinner with the person he is staying with that coming night,’ Lillian explains. Enoch doesn’t have his own bedroom. Where does he leave all his stuff, I ask? ‘Everywhere,’ Lillian deadpans.

‘That’s the toughest thing, the prospect of less time with him,’ she says of Lydia’s impending arrival. ‘Even as a wife, I sometimes feel as if I need to take a number and get in line.’ Catrina, breastfeeding Noble, seems serene about the coming changes. Do first wives, I ask, feel more secure? ‘Not always. I still struggle with the fear of being replaced,’ she admits. ‘But that is what plural marriage is about. It forces you to confront those emotional challenges that you are, by nature, prone to struggle with the very most.’

While it is an unapologetically patriarchal society – the community council at the Rock, which meets monthly, is made up entirely of men – sister-wives are not the oppressed, slave-like breeding machines in prairie skirts of popular imagination, but thoughtful women, who have made a choice to live this way. And though life here can seem chaotic to those of us used to small, nuclear families, it also seems joyful and loving.

Enoch – who manages all the housing construction at the Rock – arrives home for his lunch break, kisses both of his wives in turn, and joins us in the yard. Immediately, multiple small children clamber on to him. In contrast to his wives, he looks older and more care-worn than his 38 years.

‘I know that plural marriage gets viewed as something that is easy for the man and hard for the women,’ he says. ‘But as a man, you are faced with the question: can I emotionally, physically, practically take care of this increasing little family kingdom? It puts you face-to-face with a man’s deepest fears and insecurities: maybe I can’t do it.’

There is also the delicate matter of multiple sexual relationships, which present a level of pressure. ‘I differentiate between sex and love-making,’ says Enoch. ‘Sex is intercourse, and you can do it with anyone. Love-making is two souls bonding, cherishing each other, celebrating each other, respecting each other,’ he says. ‘I strive very hard not to have sex but to make love.’

His eldest daughter, 18-year-old Tianna, brings lunch to her parents. College isn’t on the cards for the Foster children. ‘Career isn’t our first focus. Happiness, joy, relationships are,’ says Enoch.

Indeed, Tianna and her sister Cherish, 16, are both already officially ‘courting’, the prelude to marriage in the fundamentalist Mormon community. It is an old-fashioned system, with boys asking a father for his permission to get to know his daughter. Sex before marriage is frowned upon.

There are an estimated 38,000 Mormon fundamentalists in Utah, Enoch tells me, but partly in order to ensure that the potential mating pool does not shrink too small, every summer there is a ‘rally’ at the Rock, a four-day social event attended by 300-500 fundamentalist Mormons from Arizona, Missouri, Mexico and Canada.

Even with plenty of options, the logistics of plural marriage would be enough to deter many. Abel Morrison, who splits his time between three apartments in one property, carries a man-bag at all times, containing a toothbrush, deodorant, his phone chargers and his running kit, among other essentials. ‘If I had to search every house for it every day, I would never actually run,’ he laughs.

He and his first wife, Suzie, met as teenagers. Both had grown up in polygamous families close to Salt Lake City. ‘I didn’t want to marry anyone who did not care to live plural marriage,’ says Suzie, a trainee nurse. Just 18 months into their marriage, Suzie suggested that her friend Beth – who had also grown up in a polygamous family – might join them, and then, five years ago, that Marina, then just 18, might be a suitable candidate to expand their family further.

‘The first year was hell,’ Marina says, with impressive candour. ‘I hear that the first year of any marriage is hard, but I was dealing with my husband having two other relationships, and loads of kids already. I wasn’t able to have that newly-wed time with him, and I was really young. I had all these emotions and I didn’t know how to process the stuff I was going through.

‘I would text Abel while he was on his regular date night with Beth or Suzie, and that would cause problems,’ she recalls. ‘I really regret that now, but I couldn’t grasp how he could love me equally when he was already loving two other women.’

Motherhood has helped. ‘I didn’t think I could love anyone as much as I loved my daughter,’ she recalls. Nicole is now two and a half. ‘Then, when I had my son [Ian, now nine months], I suddenly understood what Abe had been trying to get me to see: that love is not a limited amount, but that it can grow; my heart could expand.’

Can society beyond the Rock ever be similarly convinced? By Enoch’s reasoning, since the Marriage Equality Act has made same-sex marriage legal, why should monogamy remain the only family model? But, I conclude, as I head back down the road to normal, probably because most of us just aren’t ready for polygamy.

Three Wives, One Husband, Channel 4, Thursdays at 9pm

No comments: