God’s Brothel: The Extortion of Sex for Salvation in Contemporary Mormon and Christian Fundamentalist Polygamy and the Stories of 18 Women Who Escaped
San Francisco: Pince-Nez Press, 2004. ISBN 1930074131 (paperback), 234 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Doni Whitsett, Ph.D., LCSW
School of Social Work, University of Southern California
Enter the world of polygamy! The world of plural marriages, poverty, spousal rape, childhood incest, and all forms of physical and emotional abuse! All are alive and well and thriving in fundamentalist Mormon communities, and in a few fundamentalist Christian groups, as well, according to Andrea Moore-Emmett. These current practitioners maintain that polygamy was foretold by scripture and commanded by doctrine. According to the author of God’s Brothel, the practice of polygamy still appears to be tolerated by mainstream Mormonism and ignored by the U.S. government. Despite the fact that some of their practices fly in the face of civil and human rights, these societies appear to have protection under the First Amendment. God’s Brothel is a journey into the abyss where perhaps thousands of women and children dwell, victims of a patriarchal system so oppressive as to rival the abuses of the Taliban.
God’s Brothel is a peek into the lives of eighteen women who lived polygamy and left, often at great peril to themselves. Of various ages and circumstances, the women have in common the experience of being among the plural wives of the men of various fundamentalist Mormon communities. These poignant stories speak of the unspeakable, of a society in which primitive impulses, normally relegated to fantasy life, are allowed to run rampant, unchecked by the taboos, laws, and morals of a civilized society.
Andrea Moore-Emmett begins her book with an introductory chapter on the background of the fundamentalist Mormon sects, a “complex and convoluted issue” that can be understood only by shedding light on its historical roots. The practice of polygamy comes out of the vision of Joseph Smith, founding prophet of the Mormon Church, who revealed that polygamy was the only way to achieve eternal salvation, and furthermore, that a man had to have at least three wives for this to be accomplished. In contrast, the only way a woman could enter into heaven was to be escorted by her husband. Thus, a woman was dependent upon the good will of her husband, and obedience was assured. The doctrine of polygamy became scripture and sacred to the Mormon faithful, eventually resulting in a split among believers as the practice ran up against the laws of the land.
In 1890, Wilfred Woodruff, the then-president of the Mormon Church, realized that the only way the Utah Territory would be allowed to join the union of states was to comply with the laws that prohibited polygamy. He delivered a Manifesto declaring to the U.S. government that the practice had ceased, thus paving the way for Utah statehood. However, the Manifesto created an uproar amongst the faithful, with many fearing that Woodruff had “plunged the church into apostasy.” Remaining loyal to the original scripture and their plural families, resistant Mormons broke off from the mainstream Mormon Church and continued to practice polygamy. Several families emigrated to Mexico and Canada, where communities thrive even today. However, most of these fundamentalist groups reside in Utah and the western United States, living their polygamist lifestyle behind a collusive veil of secrecy.
In Chapter 1, Moore-Emmett identifies the major fundamentalist groups currently in existence. Many of the groups are interrelated because splits occurred and various charismatic men formed their own communities. Chapter 1 also includes a summary of the “current legal maze,” providing the reader with an overview of some of the issues, lawsuits, and players involved in prosecuting cases related to polygamy, and spousal and child abuse. Each of the following eighteen chapters tells the individual story of as many women’s journeys out of polygamy and into freedom, where life is still tough but their own. These are the women of Tapestry Against Polygamy, a grass-roots endeavor whose function is to assist women in leaving their lives of oppression and beginning new lives in which they make their own choices. Because of the doctrine of “blood atonement killings” (death for one’s sins), several of these women live in hiding and fear for their lives and the lives of their children.
The plight Moore-Emmett’s book describes, of the women and children growing up in this patriarchal system, defies intelligent reasoning. Required by doctrine to have “one child per year” (without the benefit of prenatal care), the women exist in a chronic state of pregnancy, their lives devoted to child rearing and the care of their husbands. However, the men are not required to support their multiple wives and children. Families survive on welfare and food stamps, rationalizing that they are “bleeding the beast” (i.e., the U.S. government, considered the enemy). Food supplies are supplemented by “dumpster diving” in garbage cans, a task accorded to the women. If the women complain about their plight, they are told that they are ungrateful, that they have been given a wonderful opportunity to learn to be independent. In addition, poverty is considered a blessing to make them more perfect and to “refine their souls.” Despite the fact that some polygamous organizations are quite wealthy (e.g., assets of the Kingston group are estimated at around $200 million), this paradox seems to have eluded the group. Husbands and fathers come and go at will, deciding with whom they will sleep on any given night, while the other women lie awake in emotional agony listening to the sounds of their husbands making love to their “sister-wives,” sometimes in the same room.
Most of the women who become plural wives have been reared from birth to accept this practice and to think of it as their means of salvation. Boys, too, are reared to believe that having multiple wives is their obligation and birthright. In some sects, sons are expected to give their wives to the patriarch, their own father, if he so desires. Thus, fathers and sons may be married to the same woman; fathers also may marry their own daughters, and brothers may marry their own sisters. One of the most extreme examples exists in the Kingston group, a Utah-based sect, in which the practice is based upon the claim that the leaders are direct descendants of Jesus Christ. Using his dairy herd as the model for ensuring that the purity of the bloodline continues, the leader John Ortell Kingston has declared intra-family marriage to be a sacred doctrine.
Given the inbreeding of the various clans, a high proportion of children are born with birth defects, mental retardation, and physical deformities. One of Moore-Emmett’s narrators reports that, in the Kingston group, birth defects are viewed as “God’s punishment of mothers who are not sufficiently submissive to their husbands or faithful to the church” (p. 68). A narrator from a different group, however, said that mothers hope for a Downs’ syndrome baby because that means another $500 per month in government subsidy, as well as a more compliant child (p.173). Moore-Emmett states that her interviews revealed that many of the disfigured and disabled children in that group, afterward referred to as “poofers,” had disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Under the “Law of Sarah,” subsequent wives are permitted to essentially be treated as slaves by the first wife. As in the Old Testament, where Sarah, first wife of Abraham, held sway over Hagar, his concubine, the first wife is sanctioned to control relations between her husband and additional wives. The normal jealousy that would be expected in one having to give her husband to another woman is played out in often-vicious treatment among the women, assuring that alliances are never cemented.
The secrecy surrounding multiple “marriages” has several consequences. The subsequent marriages are neither legally sanctioned nor publicly recognized. At the weddings of additional wives, earlier wives are often relegated to the background as “friends of the family” to preserve the lie of monogamy. However, the new bride is often prohibited from having any wedding pictures taken because any record of the marriage would blow the polygamists’ cover. Children are often not told who their father is because they might inadvertently reveal the family secret. They believe the stories concocted by their mothers, of truck-driver fathers who will one day come home. They wait eagerly in anticipation and wonder at every truck that passes by. Brothers and sisters think they are cousins or not related at all, despite their living in the same house.
This social system is kept in place through inbreeding, indoctrination, and ignorance. The control of women begins in childhood. Under the guise of modesty, girls and women are required to wear long dresses that cover and “shame the female form.” In some groups, they remain dressed in “frilly frocks and pinafores, white socks, and long hair in curls and bows” (p. 112); in others, they wear “long-sleeved, ankle-length dresses over leggings so they are completely covered” (p. 125). Rarely are young women allowed to continue their education past the age of 14. They may be given in marriage as young as 9, and often to men twice or three times their age. Children are used as barter: If a man wants to marry the young daughter of his friend, he may give his own daughter in exchange. While women are allowed some say in the matter, the issue of choice is questionable. As Moore-Emmett states:
There can be no consent when girls are born into polygamy and, through isolation and limited education, do not know of any other choices. There can be no consent when women are recruited and go thru the conversion process without understanding how mind control takes place physically and mentally. (p. 40)
If the first wife should protest the marriage of a second wife, polygamous Mormons use the scriptures to enforce compliance. First wives are reminded about Emma, first wife of Joseph Smith, who (so the story goes) is told by God that she will be destroyed if she does not accept polygamy. Guilt and fear are powerful motivators.
The book also exposes some of the ineffectual attempts by the Department of Children’s Services and the District Attorney’s office to protect the children from physical and sexual violence. Moore-Emmett states that “The state legislature is consistently 90% Mormon …, and several polygamist men serve in local government positions, including as mayors … and councilmen” (p. 31). Asserting that “the attitude between Mormons and Mormon fundamentalist polygamists is that of kissing cousins with more similarities than differences” (p. 30), Moore-Emmett suggests that the heavily Mormon Utah government is unduly tolerant of polygamy and reluctant to acknowledge the abuses such a lifestyle seems to breed. And although the official stance of the mainstream Mormon Church is against polygamy, several of the women’s stories reveal leaders who looked the other way at the deviant sects and blamed the women who came to them for help. Whether these officials are simply misinformed, incompetent, or fear for their lives remains to be established.
Although the book does not explore the full picture of the psychological consequences of polygamy, it alludes to symptoms easily recognized as post-traumatic distress. Flashbacks, isolation, eating disorders, depression, suicidality, anxiety, and low self-esteem are a few of the indicators mentioned in passing.
In summary, this little 240-odd-page book is packed with important information for anyone interested in polygamous groups. Seen through the eyes of eighteen courageous women, the underworld of polygamy unfolds in all its dimensions. A glossary of terms is provided for the reader so that the various practices, beliefs, and jargon are made understandable. The book reads like a novel and touches the heart.
Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2005, Page