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Suburban polygamy

Published July 3, 2007 3:07 am

Beyond Warren Jeffs and 'Big Love' is the reality of life in a polygamous household -- the joy, the challenges and the love
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Posted: 12:12 PM- It only takes Sunday brunch to see this is a different kind of family. Four waffle makers work nonstop. Three dozen eggs are whipped and scrambled. Places are set for 25 -- for "Gary," his three wives and their 21 children.

Big family? That's what it's all about for this polygamous family, which over the past five years has, with some trepidation, tried to counter negative stories about Utah's most notorious lifestyle.

They've opened their lives to media from across the country and as far away as Australia. Just weeks ago, one wife appeared on FOX TV's "The Morning Show" after the debut of the second season of HBO's hit show, "Big Love."

As she has dozens of times before, Vicki explained why she shares her husband with two other women, how they make it work and made a case for the right to live as they choose.

It's a hard sell, given the way plural marriage has been so inextricably linked in the public forum with arranged marriages, child brides and an authoritarian, abusive culture.

But that image is based on only some experiences, not all, this family says. And that's why they've stepped up to represent a way of life that has for generations been kept underground.

"I hope to gain tolerance for us and our children, and hope that doing it will show a human side to our lives," Vicki said. "If people can see that we are normal and decent people, they may not think it is as bad as all the negative things they hear and see in the media."

'Different ideas and beliefs'

Gary, a pseudonym, and his wives -- Kaye, Vicki and Valerie -- describe themselves as a "remnant" of Utah's predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The LDS Church, under federal pressure, jettisoned plural marriage 117 years ago, though it remains part of doctrine and is considered a possibility in the hereafter.

But the practice persisted and gave rise to a handful of sects that held onto plural marriage as well as other early Mormon doctrines espoused by LDS Church founder Joseph Smith.

Gary and his family do not belong to any of these sects. Instead, they are among thousands of independent fundamentalist Mormons in the Salt Lake Valley.

According to a 2005 estimate by Anne Wilde, co-founder of the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices, there are about 15,000 independent fundamentalist Mormons in the western U.S., Mexico and Canada.

Of these, "probably" less than half -- adults and children -- currently are in plural families, Wilde said.

The majority are scattered along the Wasatch Front, where they mostly blend in without attracting a second glance.

Some independents worship as a family, others gather for services. They, like the breakaway sects, primarily use the Mormon scriptural canon. Among independents, husbands have "priesthood authority" to perform spiritual ordinances such as baptism, baby blessings and healings.

Beyond that, they have as much difficulty as most people do understanding the arranged marriages, restrictive behaviors and communal practices of groups such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, led by Warren S. Jeffs.

"There are so many different feelings about how you should live this way," said Kaye, "so many different ideas and beliefs."

The path to plural marriage

Gary, 38, traces his polygamous heritage on one side in an unbroken chain back to Joseph Smith's era. All of his wives grew up in plural families -- and loved it.

"We were never alone or lonely," said Valerie, who has 40 full and half siblings. "I didn't even understand what that meant."

They attended public schools, were doted on by their multiple mothers and grew up with the freedom to decide whether to embrace plural marriage.

Gary is the only one of his 18 siblings to do so. In Kaye's family, three of 31 children entered plural marriages. About half of Vicki and Valerie's siblings are in polygamous relationships.

As teenagers, they all dated in and outside their culture. Gary was 18 when he realized "I wasn't going to be fulfilled [in monogamy]. There was more for me, not in terms of women, but what I wanted out of life."

Gary even switched his college major from history to business, a more lucrative career for someone with plans for a big family.

The women describe a similar path to plural marriage, one that came after a "bunch of fun" dating but also serious reflection and prayer.

Kaye was 17 when she decided she wanted a life structured around her fundamentalist Mormon beliefs.

"This is just one tenet [of that belief system], but it is huge because it is a lifestyle," Kaye said. "You know you believe it, but you don't know if you are going to do it until the right opportunity comes along."

Kaye found it with Gary, and Vicki.

They dated for two years, exploring their values and goals for a shared life.

"We spent a lot of time building trust with each other," Kaye said. "When we did it we had an understanding of why we were all there."

Kaye was 20 when she married Gary, who was also 20; Vicki was 19.

That was 17 years ago.

"I knew from the beginning it was going to work," said Kaye, who is the legal wife. "I went into it without a possibility of failure."

Seven years ago, Valerie, Vicki's sister, joined the family after the collapse of her first plural marriage. Gary's wives promoted the idea.

"It was a mutual decision between all of us that it was something we were ready to move forward with," said Valerie, whose religious marriage to Gary, like Vicki's, is not legally recognized.

The four use terms that could be drawn from any religion or spiritual practice -- self-actualization, personal growth, sacrifice -- to describe how their plural marriage pushes them to be more compassionate, less selfish.

The goal is to ensure "everyone is loved as much as anyone else, where you have as much as anyone else," Valerie said.

Gary adds: "To me, if I'm going to attain the highest degree of perfection, it's going to require me to sacrifice my own selfish interest to live this way."

A 'think tank'

Gary and his wives share a large home in the Salt Lake Valley's southwest corner.

"You struggle with where to live," Gary said. "We came out here where we could spread out, live in isolation a bit."

Each wife has her own bedroom, while the children, grouped by twos or fours, share rooms.

"We sat down with a map of the house and decided who works well together, who are the same ages," said Valerie, who has eight children. There is one kitchen but two refrigerators, two freezers, two pantries, two laundry rooms.

Gary is the main breadwinner. Vicki and Valerie both work part time; Vicki is able to work from home. Kaye looks after the younger children when the other mothers are working.

"Historians say [plural marriage] was great for an agricultural society, but it works in today's service society, too," Gary said.

The decision to have another child is something the whole family weighs financially and emotionally, "but we don't veto another woman's decision," said Vicki, who is expecting her seventh child.

The women have learned to draw on each other's strengths and personalties to make their family work: Kaye is the playful mom, Vicki is detail oriented and tenacious, and Valerie is easy going.

The women have melded parenting styles and learned to avoid being "too one-sided" in disputes involving the children, who, especially as they grow older, may turn to any of the mothers for help and support.

"They're all good at something different so it's like you have a supermom with all three," said Laura, 14, one of Kaye's seven children.

They have made frugality a science. Home hair cuts are the norm; they rent rather than go to movies; dinner out is a picnic in the park; there is one Playstation 2, one Xbox, one television.

The monthly food budget is $1,000. "I've got lunches down to 50 cents, 75 cents, a day," Gary said. "We don't buy brand names. We buy strictly what's on sale, and we buy bulk."

Think Costco, where Valerie recently shopped for two-week's worth of groceries from a four-page list. It took less than an hour for her to load the cart with supersize, value and jumbo packages of everything from corn dogs to peanut butter. Total: $418.87.

The family operates like a "think tank," said Kaye, when it comes to decisions and problem-solving.

"If we have one child in school failing, we all look at it," Kaye said. "Every one of us knows the underlying goal is what's best for the family."

'Your heart changes'

On Sundays, after services and brunch, Gary and his wives, day planners in hand, gather at a dining table to work through logistics of the coming week. Who needs which of their four vehicles? What is going on with the children? Plans for the weekend?

They review the "Triple Honey-do List," too.

"Holy cow," Gary said one Sunday as he looked at a sheet with eight items under yard, 10 under plumbing and 16 under miscellaneous.

There is something else that goes in the day planners, too, which they don't go over with a reporter standing by: Time with Gary.

They laugh off the "Big Love" moment they had months ago when Gary picked up Vicki and Valerie after a media interview -- about "Big Love," it so happens -- and no one could remember whose night it was. That prompted a call to Kaye, who couldn't remember either.

Yes, they've experienced moments of jealousy.

"I'm human," Valerie said, but "your heart changes. I want for her what I want for myself" she says of Gary's other wives.

Here, perhaps, lies the most difficult concept for those in the "coupled world" to understand, the women say.

Mainstream monogamists don't understand "the joy, the commitment, the social structure" that comes with plural marriage.

"And they completely miss the freedom, for sure," said Kaye. "I love the time I have with him, and I love the time that is on my own."

The women fill that time with hobbies -- guitar lessons for Vicki, interior design for Kaye, dancing for Valerie -- their children and friends.

"He's there if I really need him, but I don't have to have him," said Valerie. "I don't feel like I have less because he has these other women. I feel the more he loves, the more capacity he has to do so."

The challenge for children

After brunch, the children scatter. Two boys battle on "Guitar Hero," a video game. A few siblings watch with fascination. Little girls gather around a playhouse; other children are outside.

All but one attends public school. They are involved in football, soccer and voice lessons, hold jobs and aspire to go to college.

Some of the older children politely bow out of interviews, while others are eager to talk about their family.

"I love the whole experience," said Amanda, Valerie's 14-year-old daughter.

But it is not always easy to tell friends she has three mothers. It is a conversation Amanda has had often enough she's standardized the opener.

"I'll be like, 'We're best friends, right? I can tell you anything, right? Well, you probably already know this but . . .'" she recites.

Laura said she thought her family was "way cool" until, unaware of Laura's background, some kids began taunting a group of children from polygamous families.

"I was watching from the outside, and I thought, 'What would that be like if that was me?'" Laura said. "And then I got to find out."

She asked to be schooled at home after she was subjected to severe teasing about having a brother in the same grade.

Their parents can relate. "Anything I tried out for [in junior high school], I had to think whether it would cause a problem for my family," Kaye said.

But they believe their children experience more prejudice today because of the pervasive media coverage of the topic, which is centered on polygamous sect leader Jeffs and his group's underage marriages.

Battling those stereotypes is one reason Vicki and Valerie have agreed to so many media interviews -- which draws criticism from older fundamentalists who say it won't do any good, and praise from younger people who support their effort to educate the public about the diversity within polygamy.

"I hope so much for a better future for my kids, one that has less fear, that every opportunity is available to them that is available to everyone else," Kaye said.

That includes being able to choose whether or not to follow a fundamentalist Mormon lifestyle that includes plural marriage.

"We [tell them] it's not for everybody, and we want you guys to choose. To me, that's what Mormonism is all about," Vicki said. "If my kids grow up to have good Christian morals, values and ethics, I'd be happy."

The other motivation: A desire to see polygamy decriminalized.

"To a certain degree you're always going to feel a little outside of society," said Gary. "But to be left outside to the point you're a felon or a discriminated class, that's the travesty and the situation that allows some [wrongdoing] to flourish."

brooke@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">brooke@sltrib.com

Note to readers

The Salt Lake Tribune is using the pseudonym "Gary" and first or middle names only for his wives and children because of possible repercussions for their children and careers if fully identified.