A can of worms

Lately the most frequently asked question sent to me in email (other than 1) what kind of dog is Chuck? SuperMutt, and 2) how do you pronounce Leta? Rhymes with pita) is: what is your take on “Big Love,” the new HBO series about a polygamist who lives in Utah? I have been reluctant to write about it here because my response to this show goes way beyond a cursory thumbs up or down. It is inextricably tied to how I feel about the Mormon church, and if I explain those feelings I am going to be crossing into some really uncomfortable territory for many members of my family who read this website.

After watching last night’s episode, however, and witnessing my own reaction unfold I think it might be time for me to be up front regardless of how certain people are going to react to what I have to say, particularly my mother and my father who are both devout Mormons. As this website has evolved I have had to take a hard look at my boundaries, at what I will and will not write about, and for at least a few years now I have stayed very far away from any serious talk of Mormonism, although I have frequently poked fun at my Mormon heritage and have on more than one occasion described the proper way to hit a Mormon with a moving vehicle.

That unwillingness to talk about Mormonism here grew out of an unspoken agreement among the members of my family, one that dictates we not ever talk about religion or politics if we are in the same room. It’s an agreement that has worked and has preserved our relationship because they don’t ever have to be confronted with how I really feel about their religion, their way of life. I have said it here before but it bears repeating: leaving Mormonism is tantamount to leaving your family. At first, that’s exactly how my family felt. They never came out and said that directly, but they didn’t have to. I had lived and breathed that religion for over 22 years and I knew exactly what they were thinking, that my rejection of Mormonism was in essence a rejection of them and all the work they had done.

Over time we learned how to navigate around those issues in our relationships with each other. They know that they should never preach to me or call me to repentance or send me a Book of Mormon in the mail. I never talk to them about why I left or why I’ll never go back. We’ve even developed a sense of humor about our political differences, and often my clumsiness or Leta’s unwillingness to cooperate in any situation is blamed on my being a Democrat. Which is fine. I blame their political party for the fact that they own furniture upholstered in acid-washed denim.

So here’s the thing about “Big Love,” a television show about a man named Bill who is married to three women. The producers of the show have made a point of saying that the members of this family are not practicing Mormons, and I am glad they did this. Mormons do not practice polygamy, haven’t since before 1900 when the United States government made it illegal. Certain fundamentalist sects of the Mormon faith practice polygamy, and they are represented in this show albeit with standard Hollywood exaggeration and dramatization. But it’s a television show and that’s what they’re supposed to do, so whatever.

I read an interview somewhere with Jeanne Tripplehorn about her role, the oldest of the three wives and the one who has been married to Bill the longest, and she said she had a really hard time deciding to take it on. In order for her to make her character seem convincing she would have to get to a place where she could see why this woman would willingly enter into a relationship with with these two other women, and for a while she didn’t think she could ever get there. I remember thinking when I read this that it didn’t make sense: she’s an actor, isn’t it her job to pretend? Couldn’t she play this character even if there wasn’t a single part of her that understood why a woman would do this?

But last night as I was watching the third episode my body started to recoil involuntarily as it had done during the first two episodes. For the entire one hour duration of the show I had to fight the urge to puke. The work that goes into maintaining a marriage to one person is hard enough, but three? THREE? When I watch the show I feel like I’m married to all three women and by the end of the night I want to divorce each one of them. I can barely watch the dynamics among all three women, how in God’s name are these actors even pretending that it’s okay?

Personally I can understand why a woman would want to marry another woman, or a man another man. That makes perfect sense to me, and if I had my way homosexuals would have the same rights as heterosexuals in this country when it comes to marriage. It’s barbaric that they don’t. At the same time, if we’re talking about civil rights, doesn’t it make sense that all consenting adults should have the right to marry whomever they want to marry including multiple people? Polygamy seems like a natural extension of civil and religious rights as long as all parties involved are adults and know what they are agreeing to.

But I do not get it. I cannot understand why a woman would consent to this arrangement, and the whole time I’m watching this show I can’t get one thought out of my head: if you have a choice, why would you do this to yourself? Why would you do this to your children?

Now we get to the part where my feelings about the Mormon church come in. Even though this show isn’t about the Mormon religion my family practices, it is indirectly about the religion in its infancy and what the religion might one day become. The founding prophet of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, started polygamy because he said it was a revelation from God. And so he and other elders in the church took dozens of wives, many of them in their early teens. That isn’t okay to me. Nor is it okay that the only reason the church stopped sanctioning polygamy was because the government told them they had to. So… God was wrong? God answers to the American government?

Mormons believe that polygamy will be practiced in the afterlife, and what I can’t help thinking is that when the civil right of marriage is ultimately extended to homosexuals and then to polygamists, why wouldn’t the Mormon Church start practicing it again? And when they do start practicing it again, how are the members of the church going to handle it? If Mormons truly believe their religion they have to believe that polygamy is their destiny, so why are they always trying to distance themselves from it? I think that many of them don’t want to ask themselves that question because they might be terrified of the answer: they aren’t okay with it.

It was this very issue that started me on my way out of the religion, this issue and that of the role of women in the church. I realized that I valued myself too much to ever be okay with sharing my partner with anyone else. I deserve all of him, and he deserves all of me, nothing less. I had a hard time reconciling the fact that my father (although he has a civil divorce from my mother) is married to both my mother and my step-mother in the Mormon temple, but my mother, unless she gets a temple divorce from my father, can never remarry another man in the temple. She doesn’t have the same rights as a man in the church. That isn’t okay to me.