July 4, 2010

A Trip from Bountiful

Maria and Lola were in my Canadian History 101 course at Selkirk College. They arrived each morning in a sleek Buick sedan and left right after classes in the afternoon to make the long drive back home to their fundamentalist Mormon community of Bountiful. They both wore their hair in the sect's traditional bobbypinned curlycue at each temple, with braids to their waists. Lola wore Little House on the Prairie dresses that looked as if they were made of busily patterned bedsheets - I knew you couldn't buy dress material like that. Maria dressed more modern; she wore plain skirts and collared shirts with a sweater or vest overtop. Both girls were about my age, about eighteen, and both were married already - to men that had multiple wives, but that was nothing unusual in the polygamous community of Bountiful.

Lola barely spoke and always looked ahead, but Maria was more approachable and seemed to me, quite clever with a glimmer of wit in her eyes. She sometimes sat in the upper area of the spacious glass and concrete common room of the college doing homework, and once I got the courage up to speak to her. (I have always been interested in hearing peoples stories. I'm not particularly nosy, but if I think someone might be receptive to questions about themselves, I tend to 'fire away'.) I sat down on the couch opposite Maria and asked her where she lived, even though I already knew the answer. She told me she and Lola were training to be teachers for their community school. Somehow we got on the topic of marriage and she said yes, she was married. I felt comfortable asking her by this point if her husband had more than one wife, and how did she feel about that. She said, oh, it was fine, he was a young man and had only two other wives. I knew that some of the elders of the sect, like leader Winston Blackmore had a lot more wives than that, and some of them even younger than Maria - as young as fifteen. We chatted about other things, about our classes, about the daily three hour round trip to and from the college, and then that was it. I don't think we talked much after that, but we did exchange greetings in our class and in the common room.

Since meeting Lola and Maria, I have maintained an interest in the community of Bountiful. The idea of it has always been reprehensible to me, for I know that all those young girls who are married off as babymakers and 'sister wives' to the men are individuals with dreams and desires of their own. I have also been keenly sympathetic toward the young men who are 'conscripted' out of school far too early to work for the elders' businesses. In recent years, Bountiful has come under scrutiny. The government is trying to find a way to dismantle their polygamous lifestyle, not so much for the idea of multiple wives, but more for the common practise of coersion of very young women to marry men old enough to be their grandfathers.

The communities of Bountiful, and other sister communities south of the border have, to my mind, been dealing with a slow implosion. There have long been two main 'prophets' of the fundamentalist Mormon Sect, and now they are at odds. The communities are becoming divided in their loyalties and young people are questioning the entire system. This I only know from watching documentaries on tv and reading articles in newspapers and magazines over the last couple of years. Jane Blackmore, one of Winston's highly ranked wives, has left the community completely and now works as a midwife in the nearby town of Creston. She and other ex-members of the sect help young people, especially young women to leave the community and start life in what must be an alien social landscape. They also talk to the media, which I am certain is contributing to what I predict to be the eventual downfall of Bountiful.

When I think about Bountiful, I think of Maria and Lola*. I wonder what they are doing now. I wonder if they completed their teacher training. I wonder if they have children. I wonder if they still live in Bountiful. Most of all, like many of the other students I have lost contact with over the years, I wonder if they are happy.
The above photo is from the Vancouver Sun newspaper.
*I changed their names


  1. Fascinating post Rebecca.

    I have often felt that like many religions the female adherents were definitely second class citizens and subject to repression or manipulation purely for the advantage of yet another male dominated society.

    I thought though that legislation had dealt with religious polygamy so was surprised to read that this is still around.

    Tanks again for raising this topic.


  2. I tend to be very careful about making judgement about life in little societies. I think when we have fixed 14/15 year old children being knocked up by the local drugdealer, by choice. Or give hope to populations of unemployed now in the third or forth generation in that condition. Then we can call wrong many many things.
    Remember as much as you may not like it but your girls may marry at 18. An age her grandmother would not feel all that remarkable. But she will probably marry to breed in her thirties and think you badly advised to leap off the mark in your early twenties.

  3. Al: The community of Bountiful has a population of about 1000, but the total population of Fundamentalist Mormons is estimated to be about 1 million, with most members being American. I read an interview with two very vocal ex-members who said children are taught from a very young age to have a mortal fear of outsiders. It is all very puzzling to me that this lifestyle continues. Thank you for your interest.

    Vince: I agree that autrocities against young girls occur in various guises all around the world, not just in this instance. If my girls marry at 18 it won't be at my insitence, and would hopefully be because they are genuinely in love with a person who is on equal terms with them. If they choose to marry that young, so be it. I am sorry you think I have been judgemental, and I think there is a difference between being judgemental and merely having an opinion. If that were not so, we'd all be in a heap of trouble, wouldn't we?

  4. I do not think you were being judgemental. My point was for me to comment would lead me into being just so. And because I do not know much more than anecdote about any of these enclosed societies or as you say the reports of what may well be a disgruntled minority.
    Further my point about your kid has to do with the shortness of the timeline between a very controlled decision on who, through you with a bit more leeway too what will very probably be an economic choice because of housing and educational costs. Basically, it was and is the economic conditions that dictated. And I strongly suspect that the why of the fundamental Mormons marrying off the girls so early, and not all that much to do with religion at all.
    Anyhow here's my tuppence worth, that the girls encounter a married life early is no doubt a tragedy but they do see their genes passed on, the boys in these societies do not have even this consolation.

  5. We have a similar sect in Texas that I find so strange and (call it being judgmental if you will) appalling in that the girls and boys have no choices. They are brainwashed and extremely fearful of going outside the religion/community. That said, a couple of years ago, the state took all the kids away (something like 400 of them!) and put them into state custody, claiming they were at risk for abuse, based on the fact that some girls as young as 13 or 14 were married. I didn't agree with this solution (how was a baby or 5 year old at risk?), and neither did the courts who within about 30 days returned them all to their parents while continuing to investigate the cases of the young teens. I'm not sure how to draw the line between respect for communities/religion and ensuring what I would consider basic rights. It's civil liberties vs. civil rights I guess. It's a tough call, with much at stake. Your story of talking with the girl is interesting....brings to the post the sense of the girls being real people,which is something that is often missing to the newspaper accounts. they don't seem real.

  6. Polygamy fascinates me.

    If what I know about these cloistered sects is true, they are an abomination. Young girls are forced to marry. And young boys are torn from their families and put out on the street because, let's face it, there won't be enough women to go around otherwise.

    But polygamy as a modern lifestyle choice? Why not really? If three consenting adults want to marry each other? Who am I to stop them? There is a lot of talk about dirty old men just marrying many women for the sex, but in the right situation there would be benefits to the women too. Think of the extra help around the house and with the kids. And, as a woman alone with small children all day, I can tell you I would not mind the company. It might not be horrible, if one does not mind sharing a man.

    Having said that, I personally think it is immoral, just because of my religious beliefs.

    The main stream Mormon church outlawed polygamy not because they thought it was immoral. They (the Church, though maybe not every Mormon) believe that they should not practice it now, because the world is not ready to accept it, but that it is a righteous lifestyle that will be restored. Mark my words, once homosexual marriage is legal everywhere, the push for polygamy won't be far behind.

  7. I suspect Tracey, an Au Pair is what you are really looking for.

  8. D.F.: I've seen a few reports on the Texas community you are talking about. It's quite something, all barricaded and quite scary looking. We had another sect near my hometown called the Doukhabours - a type of Russian old order Mennonite, I believe. The govt. took their children away, too, and it was an ugly scene. Taking children away from their parents is rarely the answer, I agree. Our own govt. is really struggling with what to do, as it is a case of civil liberties vs. civil rights, as you say, and once they take a line against this religion's practises, it will compromise other religions I am sure. That is why our govt, too is focussing on the breach of the age of consent for young girls.

    Tracey: You are terribly honest, but on a purely practical level, it would be nice to have more than one person to look after all there is to look after in a family/home, I agree. When I was little my parents had a large house, which they opened as a rooming house to local University students. They exchanged help with the cooking and the children for their room and board. The conservative neighbours nicknamed our house 'the hippie hot house' but it worked very well for everyone, as my mom and dad were very involved in the community. At three, my best friend was a big burly bearded guy named Hugh. He used to swing me by my ankles back and forth in a game called 'tick tock'. I was very sad to outgrow that game.

    Vince: I knew a girl who's friend went to France to become an Au Pair. Upon arrival in France she knocked on the door of the fancy country house where she was to work...and Mick Jagger opened the door!

  9. Vince: Somehow Blogger lost your first comment. It has been behaving strangely the last couple of days.

  10. I read a book on this last summer by Jon Krakauer (author of "into Thin Air" and "Into the Wild") called "Under The Banner of Heaven".

    Hearing your words brings me back tot he feelings I had when I read the book... a feeling of uneasiness.

    Oprah also interviewed a community... this also gave me that same feeling in my stomach.

    I am not going to publicly state my opinion on any religion but this one is tough to discuss. Krakauer's book is worth the read for anyone intrigued by the mormom fundamentalist topic.

  11. A point; if you had a real issue. Why did you cut off those girls. They had a real reason to be in University, nothing wishy-washy.
    If I want to Home School any kid of mine, I can give her or him everything required legally.
    You see I've the joint honours.
    The reason why those girls were in your College was to protect their community from the force of the State with its requirements that all kids within the State are educated.

    look at Tinker

  12. Chris: I didn't know he had written that book. Sounds pretty interesting. And I feel like the issue with this community goes beyond 'religion' so my post is more about women's rights, I suppose, but I agree that we should tread carefully. After all, I attend a church that many people think negatively towards. Thanks for your input, and I hope your summer is going well so far!

    Vince: I'm really not sure what you are getting at. I didn't 'cut off' those girls socially. They barely spoke to anyone (my conversation with Maria was a one-off)and then they disappeared, and I went off to University - a college here is often a stepping stone to University, not part of it like in your part of the world. And I know why those girls were in my college - they were placed there by their sect leader to get a govt approved degree so their school would qualify for partial govt. funding.
    And I haven't the foggiest idea of who Tinker is.

  13. I have seen the CBC news reports about Bountiful always with passing interest. Your post adds a real personal touch to the story. A slow implosion is a good way of describing this sect.

  14. Yes, I completely read your blog with a realization that the focus was on women's rights. I was just holding myself back from saying too much. What I would want for any person is the freedom to choose the way they live their life. Having a life in which the woman has 1 night a week with their 'husband' and then spends the rest of the week doing chores is not a life of happiness. These women live in a state of fear; fear of being exiled from their family, from the community, as well as a list of religious threats that keeps them where they are. Some are forced to marry at an age where most girls are not even dating; they are told they are the 'one' and then later forced to be one of many. Using Moroni, Joseph Smith, Leroy Johnson, Winston Blackmore, God or whoever else as a threat of punishment to stay in a life where one is not free to choose is not a way to live a life of faith.
    Ok, I'm going to stop before I say WAY too much.

  15. I sorry but you are wrong. The girls were there because there is a legal requirement that all children are educated by qualified people.
    If the sect leader did not sent some to University then the State would remove the kids under the Education Acts. Or worse from his point of view, establish a school that he could not control in the heart of his community.
    It is this that causes me to pause when discussing the marriage and attendant consummation with girls that are below the STATE age of legal consent.
    Or to put it this way, it is one thing for a girl at 14 to enter a so called marriage. But it is completely different that this marriage was consummated when that girl was above the legal age. And that is what I mean about being very careful for information we get via the media just does not jell with how the State reacts. Canada is very much not the USA on this issue.

    I will write about the Tinkers later but there are similarities with how general society reacts to the two.

  16. Chris: I agree wholeheartedly with you, and your thoughts echo my intention for this post.
    - living in a state of fear is no life at all, and my hope is that this lifestyle will not survive the scrutiny of the free world. I believe, that in general, toleration for misuse of power over others is waning in our society. Maybe that could be called wishful thinking(I know that there is still so much abuse of the vulnerable in the world), but with the nature of multi-media publicity, it is getting harder and harder to hide the 'skeletons in the closet.'

    Vince: I guess I thought I had made that clear but I suppose I hadn't. Of course that is why the girls were getting a govt approved teacher's license - so they could teach in their community's school thus keeping the 'State'at bay.

  17. Just stopped over from Eolist Petite's place and what a flurry of activity to walk into! Fascinating piece, Rebecca. Any time a community teaches its members to live in fear and suspicion of others, it is a loss for everyone. Thanks for putting this out there.

  18. Boom Boom Larew (otherwise known as Cat Lady?):
    It was great to see your comment and your picture added to my 'followers' list today. Welcome!
    And well said - it is a loss for everyone, not just the people in question. I will check out your blog soon, but my son is waiting for the computer.

  19. Interesting post and comments, Rebecca. I don't think my opinion (if I had written it immediately after you wrote it) would have generated this much feedback.
    I do care deeply about the rights of women, and all human beings, so you've all given me something further to think about regarding the subject.


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!