Sunday, March 18, 2012

Desert Wives and the Human & Economic Costs of Polygamy

Thanks to Maxine of Petrona, I learned of Betty Webb's crime thriller Desert Wives and read it in a couple of days. But Desert Wives is no ordinary thriller. Although it is fiction, it is also a carefully researched expose of polygamous compounds in the deserts of southernmost Utah and northern Arizona. At the end of the book, Webb reveals her research and quotes a number of news articles from newspapers in the western US.

Somehow or other, I watched HBO's Big Love for years thinking that the depiction of polygamy, both in the city and in a polygamous compound, was pure fiction and insulting to Mormons (I still think the latter.) I told Ken this as soon as I finished Webb's novel. He turned to me and said, aghast, "You did?" He then proceeded to tell me all he'd learned (he's more of a news hound than I am) of polygamous compounds, their abuse of women and young girls, their unchecked welfare fraud, their stockpiling of weapons, and worst, to our minds, the complicity of Utah and Arizona elected officials. What I don't understand is why anti-polygamy Mormons haven't succeeded in pressuring their representatives to do more about the problem. I'm sure they've tried.

Of course, polygamy does not define Mormonism or Mormons, but it is interesting that the governor of Utah and other state officials do not crack down on the enormous public costs perpetrated by this large group of male polygamists.

In contrast, a decade ago I researched Mormonism in the 19th century for a book I was writing. At that time, many polygamous men were away from their homesteads most of the time. They were on missions, spreading the faith and establishing new colonies. Their wives stayed home, farmed, raised livestock, raised their children, and lived independently a great deal of the time.


  1. Thanks for the mention, Judith. I was shaken by the experience of reading Desert Wives. I have not heard of/seen "Big Love" but from what you write it sounds like "all one big happy family" type of approach. Hmmmm.
    What you write in your last paragraph about the historical aspect is interesting, as presumably if a man had a few wives his home was better protected, farmed, etc while he was away. The concept has become completely warped by the kinds of practice (not to mention mass abuse of the welfare system) exposed by Betty Webb. Just one final comment, I imagine that many monogomous (non Mormon) pioneers also went exploring and left their wife (singular) and children to look after the farm - as depicted in eg Laura Ingalls Wilder books which we loved so much as children. There, the small communities also joined together to help, when there were any.

    It also reminds me of WW2 when the men all went off to fight and the women all became workers, and did very well at it too (eg the movie Rosie the Riveter). Unfortunately, when the men came home they wanted their jobs back and women were re-relegated to the home. Perhaps the roots of the feminist movement in the USA?

  2. This book is on my wish list after Maxine's review. It's a very interesting subject.