Parsing polygamy with the ‘Sister Wives’ family on one side and anti-polygamists on the other

Photo: George Lange

When you’re an American with four wives and 17 children you’re going to be vilified for your plural marriage, no matter how wholesome, healthy and loving a portrait you paint on your reality television show.

So forget for a minute that members of the Brown family from TLC’s Sister Wives swear that they are consenting adults living the life they choose. Nobody really wants to hear that. Opponents would rather see polygamy deemed patriarchal and abusive to everyone it touches. There is, after all, plenty of evidence to suggest that. Just consider Warren Jeffs and his FLDS group in Colorado City, Arizona.

But the Brown family throws a wrench into the mostly well-deserved stereotypes, challenging the intolerance that so many have sworn to based on reports of sexism and child abuse. The Browns—Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn—invited cameras into their homes to counter negative representations of polygamy. And if defending such a nontraditional lifestyle isn’t daunting enough, last Thursday they joined a UNLV panel with noted anti-polygamists whose personal experiences have led them to speak out against the lifestyle. Professor William Jankowiak urged the audience to consider each person’s story without drawing one generalization, but that didn’t go quite far enough. Generalizations shouldn’t even apply here.

While the Brown sister wives spoke of great childhoods with multiple mothers and grandmothers, along with loving fathers, Willie Steed (from the documentary Breaking Polygamy: The Reeducation of Willie Steed) talked about child labor, an abusive father, a lack of education and hiding from the feds because of his family’s ties to Jeffs. A former FLDS child, he was also instructed not to show affection toward his mother, he said. “My experience of polygamy was hell. They say this life was about free agency. This was not free agency. Children really take a beating in polygamy.”

While Christine Brown talked about growing up with her father’s sister wives and wanting that for herself and for her children, Kollene Snow (formerly of the polygamist Mormon Kingston Clan) talked about not knowing what love was and how sister wives “hate each other.”

Adding to that was Kristyn Decker, author of Fifty Years in Polygamy: Big Secrets and Little White Lies, who spoke about the heartbreak of having to share her husband and the physical abuse she saw as a child. Decker is also the aunt of Christine Brown on "Sister Wives." Also on the panel was Christine Marie Katas, who was swindled and prostituted out by a man claiming to be a prophet, then later founded the organization, Voices for Dignity, which (among other things) takes a stance against legalizing polygamy.

The discussion grew tense with both sides throwing barbs, but the Browns mostly defending their lifestyle.

"Secrecy is a Petri dish for abuse," said Kody Brown to his critics on the panel, who said polygamy is harmful to families. "We have a transparent family. Our experience isn't your experience."

When Katas referenced a United Nations stance on polygamy, Brown retorted, "You're talking about countries where most women don't have civil rights" and referred to inequality between men and women in monogamous relationships of the 1950s.

Ultimately, he accused his critics of stereotyping, suggesting that "real crimes" -- abuse and neglect-- should be prosecuted, "not polygamy."

Placing them all under the umbrella of polygamy was almost like pitting happy monogamists against unhappy monogamists, or expecting every U.S. citizen to tell the same story about life in America. The common denominators of plural marriage, secret lives and jailed relatives were all that connected the panelists. From there, everything seemed to differ.

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